The Sometimes-Uncomfortable Relationship between Freethought and Atheism
Atheism is a hot potato for free thought. Most freethinkers are atheists or agnostics, but sometimes atheists are not freethinkers, and their message comes across harsh and dogmatic. (Though atheist defensive vitriol may be understandable.)
I don’t claim to be the Pope of free thought or anything, but I think I can formulate a freethinker position on atheism. I want to address the freethinker reasoning that leads to atheism first, then the practice of freethinker atheism second. On reasoning atheism, I will discuss why atheism is just one of several philosophical positions that one can arrive at by reasoning freely, but it is the clearest for me. On practicing atheism, I will address avoiding speaking from authority, stressing the meaning of atheism, and encouraging reasoning freely without crassly “selling” atheism.
Freethought rejects claims made without clear logic, or in defiance of evidence. The claims of most religions typically come from authority. They make great claims involving unnatural infinites — infinite suffering, infinite power, total knowledge, infinite reward, live forever, etc. The evidence for these claims does not exist or is shaky at best. For instance, the claim of resurrection in Christianity is based on two thousand year old copies of copies of copies of propaganda from the leaders of a Jewish cult. The only guy they claim was resurrected disappeared soon after, and since then, nobody else has been resurrected. Consequently, claims of resurrection and infinite life are unsupported. It is natural that a freethinker would not believe these claims. But that doesn’t mean a freethinker needs to be an atheist.
Freethinkers don’t like dogma, and saying freethinkers have to be atheists sounds a lot like dogma. There are other beliefs that don’t defy evidence and don’t come from authority. People often feel like there is “something beyond them”. Some of us see that as family, America, or the progress of humanity. Others interpret that feeling as destiny, luck, or fate. And still others believe in a divine being. But a person who is reasoning freely would not (notice I say “would” not “must”) believe that their divine being was responsible for worldly miracles. This indicates a deist approach, or perhaps a belief in a God that has nothing to do with the human religions. Some logical philosophical arguments that are consistent with free reason lead, albeit circuitously (e.g. Immanuel Kant), to this conclusion, while many do not. So atheism, agnosticism, Kantian theism, and deism are all consistent with free reason.
To say that people are not allowed to have a certain opinion would be to force your authority on them. Most world religions require an act of faith in a prophet’s words or the words of exalted witnesses to the supernatural — which is to say, an argument from authority. Believe this because I said so. This is the key to salvation in even liberal Christianity, for instance, and thus is not consistent with freethinker values. On the other hand, New Atheism seems to be taking a hard line against theism. I’ll have more to say on this after I digest more Dawkins, but Hitchens, for instance, seems to say that you should not believe in God. Though I am tempted by the simplicity of his message, I am bound to disagree: You should not believe in God without making that decision based entirely on evidence or logic and uncoerced by authority (promises of salvation with no proof, for instance), tradition (family tradition, for one), or appeal to emotion (fear of death).
Atheists Reasoning Freely
“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” – Clifford’s Creedo
OK. But... That’s pretty harsh. I advocate a softer style. A sort of jujitsu of reason.
Freethinkers believe reasoning freely is a more powerful persuasive tool than proselytization. People are always more convinced of something when they come to the conclusion themselves. This goes for convincing people not to believe something as well. Instead of telling people why god is not Great, perhaps we should be gently encouraging our friends and family to re-examine where their belief in the supernatural came from, and what criteria they use to decide what to believe. After all, the principle behind free thought is agreeable to most theists. They just give special exceptions here and there. But telling them they can’t believe in the Christian God, for instance, is wrong. It is just as wrong as religious indoctrination.
I love philosophical discussions, though. And philosophical discussions often turn to religious discussions. The tactic I take is to ask theists what they believe, avoiding labels. That is, if someone says they are a Catholic, I ask them if they believe in the earthly intercession of the miracles of saints, the transubstantiation of the eucharist, the existence of hell, and the resurrection. Among educated Catholics, I get a lot of, “well, sort of” followed by some deep discussion. They feel comfortable talking about it because I have not said “you’re wrong” but instead “what do you believe?” It is usually good to learn more about your friends and family, especially concerning beliefs with such strong emotional meaning for them. By asking them to explain what they believe, they have to explain it, and doing so, they must give reasons, which naturally involve reasoning. This often reveals the places where their belief is based on faith rather than evidence. I stay non-judgmental; though I don’t shy away from asking my friend to clarify which beliefs are faith-based and which are evidence-based.
The next question I ask is “where does your faith come from?” Catholicism, for instance, is complicated enough that you can’t come up with it spontaneously. You learn it in special classes they teach to children (authority) and from your family (tradition). Sometimes people have the most interesting stories of their indoctrination, and it tends to improve your relationship with them if you listen to the history of such an important belief in their life. Explaining where their faith came from invokes causal reasoning.
The people I respect most have already thought about the origins of their faith, and they usually point to things like family and emotion (usually stressful events) as the causes for their faith. They have engaged in critical reflection and understand it is possible that they believe because of these irrational influences, and admit that doubt is an accepted part of their religious experience. They also differentiate carefully between the supernatural beliefs they hold based on faith and the ethical beliefs they hold for humanistic reasons. But I digress.
Eventually, as much as I try to focus on them, the discussion will turn to my own beliefs. It turns out, most theists I’ve met don’t understand atheism. For one, they characterize it as a belief. Atheism is the opposite of a belief: It is the lack of belief. I have a favorite rhetorical trick to help people understand atheism: Accuse your accuser of atheism himself: “Do you believe in Thor? Osiris? Vishnu? Cthulhu? Paladine?” The natural answer is no. Two of them are ancient, dead religions; one is a Hindu God who most Westerners don’t believe in; and the other two are fictional. The last one is a fictional god from fantasy novels and D&D! Not believing in Paladine is the same as not believing in Osiris, Vishnu or Jehovah. As Dawkins said to Colbert, “We’re both atheists. I’m just one god more atheist than you.” The reason this may be necessary is that faith, to the faithful, implies ignoring doubt — e.g. believing in something without looking for (or caring about) evidence of their belief. Accusing atheists of having just as much faith as any religious zealot or saying that atheism is a religion allows them to pretend that the argument moot: Evidence is irrelevant if both sides are willing to take their position on faith.
So trying to “convert” people to atheism is difficult, can cast doubt on the freedom your own reasoning, often involves arguing from authority, and can cause tension in your relationship. I much prefer to bring people around to free thought (which is a much easier sell), and, if they still believe, then that’s OK. If their belief is contrary to free reason, I usually understand how their belief was influenced, and that can tell me a lot about a person. Because family is such a strong influence on the theists I know, the influence of family tradition on their reason is usually a positive mark on their character.