In my previous post, I noted that in conversions between Christianity and atheism, the stories people typically tell about their own conversion experience are starkly different. The convert to religion is often driven by emotion, while de-conversion is often rational in nature. This may have led some readers to think that my opinion of emotional experiences in general is negative, and that I treat those religious conversions derisively. I certainly didn't mean to convey that impression. Nevertheless, as an empiricist, it is my opinion that a belief that derives from a rational thought process based on objective evidence is likely to have better epistemic justification than a belief that stems from emotional experience.
In the comments, I was asked by Mortal to respond to a post made a year ago by Ilíon that raises some common stereotypes of the atheistic mindset. In that post, Ilíon quotes my old friend Bob Prokop on the idea that critical thinking leads to atheism:
It's not gonna happen, because there is simply no conceivable way that honest, critical thinking will ever lead to atheism.I would like to address each of the issues raised by Bob, which I will refer to by number. (Ilíon himself adds little of value to the discussion.)
(1) Atheism demands that one close one's mind to the illogic of something coming from nothing (or else one has to redefine "nothing" to the point where it is actually "something").
(2) Atheism demands that one overlook the fact that atheism necessarily means there is no objective morality, that good and evil are nothing more than subjective judgements of a mind that one can't actually trust to make such judgements.
(3) Atheism demands that one ignore the fact that 99.9 percent of humanity since the Dawn of Time have believed in, worshiped, and prayed to God (or to gods). Atheists are required to think their tiny minority are "right" and the overwhelming majority of people are "wrong" about the most important of all imaginable questions.
(4) Atheists must insist that all questions can be reduced to matters of empirical evidence and "science" - that art, literature, history, music, architecture, personal experience, all are somehow defective or fundamentally lacking, not quite worthy of trust, ultimately to be (negatively) evaluated against the one-and-only objective standard given the atheist seal of approval.
(5) Atheists must never, ever allow themselves to realize that atheism means that everything is meaningless, that in the end of ends it does not matter what kind of life one leads, or even whether one is or is not an atheist - because a single microsecond after one's death, it is all as though it never happened, so who cares?
(6) Atheists must never face up to the inevitable implication of materialism that individual identity does not really exist - that we are simply complex bundles of matter and energy, which, if its configuration is somehow altered or destroyed, becomes something else.
(7) Atheists must believe that our noblest traits, our highest aspirations, our sublimest thoughts, are nothing more than electrical impulses and chemical reactions in a soulless meat machine, of no greater significance than combustion or sublimation. The love I feel for my family is simply a Darwinian survival mechanism.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Atheism is the very negtion of critical thinking. To the contrary, a case can be made for its being perilously close to insanity - Bob Prokop (quoted by Ilíon, with numbering added by me)
(1) It always struck me as odd that the religionist dismisses the idea of something coming from nothing. Where does he think the universe sprang from? If God created it, didn't it still come from nothing? Or if there was some substrate already present that God made the universe from, what is that something, and where did it come from? Perhaps that substrate has always existed. Then why couldn't it be equivalent to the thing that the universe naturally arose from? The real question here is how do we define 'nothing'? To me, it's just what you have when you remove all matter and energy, but your idea might be different from that. Whose conception of 'nothing' corresponds better to natural reality?
(2) I have no problem with the idea that there is no objective or absolute morality. Morality is expressed in terms of values, and values (like beauty) are something that have meaning to the beholder. Our moral values are based on our culture and learning, as well as our desires and needs. They are demonstrably NOT universal. What's morally acceptable in one time and place may not be in another time and place. What's good for me may not be good for you. If God is the source of absolute, objective morality, then why does he keep changing his mind? Why can't we all agree on these absolute moral values? Every religionist makes the mistake of thinking that God's morality agrees completely with his own. How absurd is that?
(3) I don't ignore the fact that the majority can be, and often are, wrong about some particular question. Until the rise of science in recent history, the vast majority of humanity was wrong about practically everything. This is nothing but argumentum ad populum.
(4) This issue is at the heart of the present discussion. It is the trope of 'scientism', and it is pure bullshit. This is something I have adderssed numerous times before. Please see this and this, for example. The key point is that empiricism claims that knowledge is based on empirical evidence, but that doesn't imply that our lives are sterile and emotionless. I agree completely that our lives would be joyless and empty in the absence of any love and beauty and all the things that add richness to our experience. Emotion is very much part of our lives, and no honest atheist would deny that. But we understand the difference between knowledge and feeling. We don't claim that subjective experience is a source of objective knowledge.
(5) This, too is bullshit. What the religionist does here is to conflate two different ideas. One is the notion that there is no ultimate meaning, and the other is that there is no meaning for us. As I discussed in item (2), there can be no meaning without some mind that perceives it. When two different people think about some particular proposition P, it may have different meanings to them, based on their learning and experience. That implies that meaning is subjective. Is there an absolute objective meaning for P? No. If there are no people to think about it, there is no meaning. But the fact remains that as long as there are people, there is meaning. To claim that everything is meaningless for atheists is just another religionist trope that bears no resemblance to the reality.
(6) I don't deny my own identity. But as in the previous issue, there are different levels at which we can understand things, and it is not reasonable to conflate them. At one level, there are particles and forces, and everything behaves in accordance with physical laws. Materialists understand that we are composed of these things and nothing more. But we also understand that there are emergent realities, such as mind, that can't easily be described in terms of basic physics. We don't need to ascribe these realities to God simply because their explanation is difficult to grasp. That's god-of-the-gaps reasoning. But to claim that atheists must deny these realities altogether is just another religionist trope that bears no resemblance to the the truth.
(7) This is closely related to issue (4). Just because we have a more scientific understanding of mind and psychology, there is no implication that we must deny the realities of human experience. Try to follow the logic here. Sure, we understand love is something that developed from our evolutionary history. So what? Does that mean we don't feel love? Religionists think it comes from God or some non-existent source. Does that imply that Christian love doesn't exist? No. It simply means that we disagree about where it comes from.
The sad thing about the religionist world-view is that they are so utterly dependent on their belief in God that they can't stand on their own feet and take responsibility for themselves and their lives, and make something meaningful of their own existence. Without God dictating their moral opinions to them, they'd have no morality at all. Without God dictating meaning to them, they'd have no understanding at all. That's pathetic. The stereotypes of atheism that they purvey are nothing more than a religionist's conception of what is entailed by a godless world, in accordance with his own pathetic misunderstanding of reality. But don't make the mistake of thinking that we atheists agree with any of that. It isn't a reflection of what we actually think.