Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Anti-theism and ideology driven metaphysics

By Mathew Goldstein

In his recent Huffington Post article, Berlinerblau applied the anti-theist label to both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Berlinerblau didn't define the label other than to characterize it as radical and to encourage the reader to consider it to be bad. Was he correct to label them this way?

One definition of anti-theism is: Opposition to the existence of God. Another definition is: The opinion that it would be bad/immoral for such a being to exist. The second anti-theism definition tends to be context sensitive, it is dependent on how the hypothetical god is defined. By contrast, the first anti-theism sounds doctrinaire because it implies an emotional opposition to a particular fixed fact, which is a rather odd way of dealing with such facts. So that definition suggests a somewhat derogatory negative caricature, similar to Berlinerblau's negative caricature of anti-atheism as being synonymous with anti-secularism, and should be rejected accordingly. A third definition is the opinion that theism has a negative influence overall on societies and we would all be better off without such beliefs. Atheism is implicit to this third definition of anti-theism because discarding theism only becomes a logical option after it is deemed false.

Christopher Hitchens represented the second definition of anti-theism. He would argue that a god with particular attributes would be bad/immoral. As for Sam Harris, he is more focused on practical concerns about the negative effect of religious belief on the believers, and less on the hypothetical question of whether it would be bad/immoral if such a being existed. So he arguably fits the anti-theist label under the third definition.

For me the primary issue is not whether or not it would be good or bad and moral or immoral if a god exists. Instead, the primary issue is whether we have better reasons to believe that god(s) exist or do not exist. I dislike ideology driven perspectives. What do I mean by ideology driven perspective and how is it mistaken?

Questions about what is good or bad and what is moral or immoral are separate questions from questions about what exists in the sense that the former questions don't direct or instruct us regarding the proper answer to the latter question. We can answer the important questions regarding what is good or bad and moral or immoral in the context of our understanding of what exists. But we cannot properly address the important question of what exists if we a-priori insist that what exists depends on what is good or bad and what is moral or immoral.

Theists tend to be more ideology driven. They tend to first decide what would be good and moral and then they determine that god exists because god existing would be good and moral. By doing this they assume the role of designer of the universe, interjecting themselves and their own preferences or biases into their description of our universe. They don't give equal consideration to alternative perspectives, such as atheism, that may be better supported by the evidence and thus are more likely to be true, because they prefer to design our universe with a god. Of course, this approach to determining what is true is mistaken. We participate in the universe, but otherwise our universe exists independently of us and our actual role is that of observers.

Some non-religious people are fond of saying that they wished they could be more religious. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and various other "New Atheists" disagree, and they want people to understand why they disagree. So who is right? If religion were removed from human history, would that history look better or worse?

I don't think we know enough to reliably answer questions like this. We can't rewind the clock and run experiments on alternative histories. Comparing religious societies with non-religious societies requires controlling for lots of other variables that could be impacting the results, and there are many different measures of good and bad results. It may be that religion is more a symptom of other problems than a producer of the problems, and it can be difficult to determine the cause and effect direction. It may be that religion contributes both to making things better and worse. It may be that religion's contributions for better or worse differ based on the religion and other contexts such as time and place. It is an interesting question, and people should pursue collecting information to see if they can shed more light on the answer.

But ultimately this isn't so much about whether it is better or worse for humanity to be religious, or whether it would be good or bad for god to be real. This is more about what is true or false, and how we distinguish between what is true and false. The horse pulls the cart, the cart doesn't push the horse. The conviction that god exists is the horse while the impacts of the theism is the cart.

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