Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Paul Wallace and "The Real Problem With Atheism"

Once again we dive into the HuffPo tripe with Paul Wallace’s “The Real Problem With Atheism.” This time, however, I am not going to conduct a proper dissection; going through line by line. There really is no need. I’m going to summarize the author’s points below and encourage you to read the original if you care enough to bother. It’s HuffPo Religion section nonsense. So, you know…whatever. 
  • Paul Wallace is scared of New Atheism.
  • Atheism is too optimistic.
  • Atheism is optimistic because science is optimistic.
  • Science can’t answer all of life’s questions.
  • This scientific, and therefore atheistic, optimism is blind to suffering.
  • Life is suffering and science (therefore atheism) cannot answer suffering.
  • Therefore Jesus.

What Wallace fails to understand is this atheistic optimism doesn’t come from science, but from the realization and acceptance that life is not a cosmic “North Korea”; to steal an analogy from Christopher Hitchens. We are not locked into pre-destiny either karmically or via an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. Conversely, we also not locked into a cosmic game of “What’s Behind the Door?” where we have free will, a plethora of conflicting rules, and serious consequences for missteps. This atheistic optimism is borne from the divorce from our lives the concept of eternal punishment and reward. We are free to live our lives not at the whim of a capricious tyrant, but according to ourselves. I do not expect the religious to take comfort in that or find it acceptable. They cannot as it is antithetical to their “reality.” To live according to your own conscience is seen as arrogant, sinful, and selfish. This lie is a great mechanism to control people.

We are all free to accept and help people out of human compassion and understanding. Not due to a risk-benefit cost analysis. For Wallace to state that atheists are unconcerned with the suffering of others is to not understand atheists as people. We must be just another group that conflicts with his worldview. Yes, “atheism” is unconcerned with suffering of people. It is unconcerned with everything aside from the question of whether or not a theistic entity exists. Atheists as people, however, have more concerns than just that single issue and many are concerned with and work to ease the suffering of others. Again, Wallace either doesn’t care to know this or ignores it. It is a profoundly myopic view.

I can’t speak for every atheist, but I too am cautious about “scientism.” For me, science is not a philosophy to live one’s life by. It is a useful tool to answer questions of reality and yes it can answer a lot about the human condition. Without a proper understanding of the aspects of our lives that we can quantify, we cannot begin to answer the questions that aren’t easily quantifiable. Philosophy also has its place to ask the questions that are important to humanity. It is also useful to ask questions in a manner that science can begin to tackle.  This is not a slippery slope back into metaphysics or theology.

Wallace likes to make a big deal that he is both a Christian and physicist. I completely understand how a religious person can employ the scientific method while not being skeptical about religious claims. It’s called doublethink. What bothers me is that Wallace and others who claim to accept and practice science; fail to understand its purpose and application or they purposely misconstrue it for their own agenda. “Science” is not optimistic. That is like saying a hammer is optimistic. Science is a tool to answer questions and by attempting to elevate science to a philosophy they seek to minimize its relevance somehow. This is along the same lines of the canard that science or atheism is a religion and therefore potentially false; which I never understood as it leaves the door wide open door to ask if their religion is false (of course it’s not). Sidenote: IF (if if if) we were to conduct the thought experiment using science as a religion would it not have more evidence, predictive power, and internal consistency then any religion? Just a thought…I digress…

The purpose of Wallace’s article and the argument contained within seem not so much to call out atheists for their incorrect stance and arguments regarding theism. It is also not an attempt to return “sheep to the flock.” I think Wallace is trying to convince himself and others like him that atheism is wrong.

Wallace writes about his fascination with atheism: 
For years I read their books, lurked furtively about their blogs, and came to know a number of atheists personally. My fascination has been persistent and powerful enough to baffle me: Why should I care so much?
A scary question. As a professor of physics and former working scientist, I have told myself that I care because the New Atheists claim that science — of all things — disproves God’s existence. During my years as a seminary student I told myself that I care out of theological interest. But what really scared me was the possibility that my fascination was an index of my own unconscious unbelief. I gradually began to ask myself: Am I a closet atheist?
Of course Wallace’s answer is “no”, but his logic is based on a bad premise. Atheism isn’t optimistic because science is optimistic. It is optimistic because god probably does not exist and religions are false. This is good news indeed!


Anonymous said...

Atheism does have a problem. It's not optimism, science(ism,or HuffPo wonks. It's the same for Dems/progressives/A+ ers,OWS, and so on. They bring 50 dogs to a two dog fight. Repugs and fundy whackos have no problem co-operating toward a common goal, whereas skeptics need to bring their personal agenda along and end up losing focus of the big picture. Just sayin

Steve Barry said...

I don’t disagree that skeptics, atheists, etc. lose focus on the “big picture” (whatever that is) due to personal agendas, however, this is not due to “atheism” per se. That idea conflates the definition of “atheism” as a stance and “atheists” as people. “Atheism” is not a living breathing thing and neither is Christianity or Islam for that matter. Just like Christianity or Islam isn’t actually conducting discrimination or violence, but the adherents of those religions are; “atheism” isn’t “fighting the good fight.” People are influenced by these ideas and the ideas influence people. The reason “Repugs and fundy” can cooperate is due to their political and religious ideology which unites them. Religious and political concepts have “scripts” from which to draw. Aside from the lack of belief in god; what unites atheists? Not much. Of course we are the proverbial herd of cats. For all the problems with that I think it’s for the better. It has a tendency to avoid, but not immunity from, groupthink. The numbers of atheists, and “nones” in general, are growing. That is the best defense against religious fundamentalism, discrimination, and violence. I am not sure we need too much of a centralized agenda.

The point of Wallace’s article is to dismiss atheism for some ridiculous notion that it is too optimistic and therefore ignores human suffering (unlike Christianity which is pessimistic and revels in human suffering…). That is ridiculous given atheism’s definition (and just one reason why I dislike the A+ concept).

Anonymous said...

I get that "atheist" by its definition is simply the rejection of belief in any god and therefore not a religion or organisation per se. You will admit I think, that atheists form communities specifically for the purpose of interacting with other atheists and to network on ways to thwart the religious ideology that impacts our daily lives. If others didn't continually harass and find ways to discriminate against non believers, we'd not be heard from on the subject. So, the "big picture" for me is the activism I engage in to protect my rights as a human. Simply waiting for our numbers to grow to critical mass isn't good enough. There are states as we speak where you can't hold elected office as an atheist. That's in violation of the US Constitution. There are many other examples I could cite of current active discriminations and we need to push back. Wallace is just an example of the conteptuous attitudes Cons use in their daily spin cycle. It's not that I didn't understand his point, I just reject it as being a fallacy.

Steve Barry said...

I am not suggesting sitting back and waiting for our numbers to grow. I am suggesting that is the most effective means to counter religious bullshit. Additionally, centralized agendas tend to become...well...groupthink. We all have our varied interests and talents. It's ok to operate loosely from all angles.

Yes I am aware that some states have laws on the books restricting atheists from holding public office. I live in one. However, in reality these laws are moot. The 14th Amendment negates them as they are clearly unconstitutional under Article VI, paragraph 3. Not that discrimation doesn't exist. Again, I live in such a state and my name was on an FFRF lawsuit against the Commonwealth.

Steve Barry said...

And thanks for commenting! I appreciate the discussion.

@blamer said...

Wallace's story comes across as typical "anything goes" christianity.

Firstly, Wallace reveals his personal appetite for closure (wrt atheism) reduces his openness to revising his model of our universe: "I never felt the familiar click and closure of discovery, of having come across something true". So? New Atheists have listed the facts discovered about our world that felt uncomfortable to its inhabitants.

Next, his christendom divides the world into insiders Vs outsiders: "two psychological types, the healthy-minded and the sick soul ...New Atheists: pessimism". Wallace insists infidels are inferior. Monotheism 101.

Enter the holyman's good vs evil paradigm. Of course the modern good vs better approach to ethics is fully overlooked.

Hence the "supernatural remedy" as per the holyman's dodgy diagnoses that all humanity is ill. Justifying their ethically murky business of treating via ancient placebos.

Wallace pushes all-in: "evil and weakness are not only problems to be solved, but are also reliable clues to the secret of the world".

Bluffs: "science... refuses to acknowledge whole classes of questions that are important to people everywhere, questions of good and evil, and of human weakness, and of meaning". Back circa 1650 maybe.

Placebo: "hope of a loving God keeping them alive".

Finally, appealing to cultural identity: "as a Christian, I'm not supposed to buy it".

Reconsider you jesus fans for gods' sake; love thy godless goddamned permanently mistaken well-meaning antichrist neighbour.