Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Atheists, Naturalists, and Fundamentalists

This last week, I received a number of angry emails from religious fundamentalists. The writers of these notes were responding to some comments that I made on a conservation listserv. In my opinion, my comments were neither incendiary nor dismissive; in fact, alongside some of what I've written about religious literalists and the Christian right on this blog, the listserv remarks were tame. Happily, I also received a thoughtful letter from a devout Christian woman. The first selection below is taken from my response her email.
“Though I do label myself an atheist, my belief requires as much faith as that of a devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew. After all, what ‘proof’ do we have that there is NOT a God? I can think of nothing definitive. Agnosticism is the more honest choice, perhaps, as it resides in the question, more comfortable with uncertainty and contradiction. I considered myself agnostic for many years and my transition from agnosticism to atheism was in part the result of external pressures. The more ‘religious’ our country became, the more I felt the need to reside at the furthest pole in order to maintain balance. Is this irrational? Perhaps. More importantly, though, I believe there is no “higher power,” at least in the sovereign, interventionist sense – we are but a piece of the weave of universal energy, of the Over-soul – and, no matter how much I prefer questions to answers, this meant I could no longer consider myself agnostic.

I respect all three of the "sibling" religions for the core values and ethics each espouses; the overlaps and base similarities are obvious and numerous: Judaism spawned Christianity spawned Islam. Fundamentalism of any stripe, though, is untenable and given our contemporary global connectivity, that much more volatile. I do not mean to tread on Christianity at large when I rant about the growing influence of the far-right, evangelical community on US policy, but their words make the hairs of any sensible citizen stand at attention.

The text below is drawn from the National Association of Evangelicals' recent document, ‘For the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.’
’We make up fully one quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history...Disengagement is not an option...To restrict our stewardship to the private sphere would be to deny an important part of His dominion and to functionally abandon it to the Evil One. To restrict our political concerns to matters that touch only on the private and the domestic spheres is to deny the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus.’
Little surprise then that this group, 30 million+ strong, vehemently supports Bush, Cheney, Delay and company. The agenda of the Rapturists has landed in the White House. Whereas once many powerful figures in the Republican party were vocal proponents of the conservation cause, now we see a partisan push for environmental action coming only from the Left (with a few notable exceptions, such as John McCain, US Senator, Arizona). I find this distressing and unfortunate.

I believe our greatest hope for environmental sustainability comes from a move toward social democracy, but I remain unsure whether such a system can work in a country as sprawling and asphalt-addicted as our own. Regardless, wildlife corridors, refuges, and reserves stand little chance when the powerful lobbyists emerging from Colorado Springs, the ‘training ground’ for God's ‘warriors,’ ‘harness the forces of free-market capitalism.’ As the celebrity evangelical Pastor Ted states,
‘I teach a strong ideology of the use of power of military might, as a public service...the Bible's bloody. There's a lot about Blood. Globalization is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity.’
Or, as one attendee of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs describes the recent tsunami in Indonesia, ‘[I'm] psyched about what God is doing with his ocean.’ (Psyched? Give me ten minutes in a parking lot and I'll show you how psyched I am about what God is doing with my fists.)

I also wish that the ‘Taliban wannabes’ would mind their own business, but their ranks are steadily growing. Whereas two years ago, I dismissed the articles and essays that warned of a coming ‘Christian conflict,’ I now am increasingly convinced that this country faces very difficult times. The twin burdens of racism and fundamentalism will prove substantial hurdles in the early 21st century, distracting us from more pressing matters of economy and environment. I just turned 27 and I feel as though I should still be idealistic and optimistic; instead, I am increasingly anxious. I have to hope that a minority of the evangelicals will interpret the scripture correctly, realizing that God called on us all to be good stewards; some evangelicals are, in fact, arguing for thoughtful environmental policy. Let us hope they are able to influence their leaders and let us hope that their leaders may find some use for sound science. After all, science gave them the radio and where would the contemporary evangelical be without the airwaves?”
My response was shared on the listserv. Afterwards, I received a more friendly response. Interestingly, I learned that the term “fundamentalist” is considered a positive label by many contemporary Christians. "Evangelicals” are the new “fundamentalists,” evidently, although some of the angry folks who emailed me are bad news no matter what they call themselves! Still, I'm bothered by the relativism of some American Christians. If an Islamic fundamentalist is thought of as a baddie, why then should a Christian fundamentalist be deemed a goodie? Oh, wait, I forgot…our nation's leaders are trying to start a Holy War.

I also received a short note from a biologist working in the southwest United States. I’ve had several exchanges with this gentleman and I have come to respect his opinions on a range of conservation issues. I very much like what he has to say about faith, and I include his note below.
“I understand your statement on positioning yourself towards the atheistic pole. I do the same.

For a while I preferred to call myself a ‘provisional atheist’ in the same sense that I'm a ‘provisional Darwinian’ ... unless and until new evidence comes along to make me change my philosophy, this is what I accept.

However, I decided that the term ‘atheist’, although not as evil a word as some theists would like to paint it, just didn't cut it for me. ‘Atheist’ says what one DOESN'T believe, but it doesn't say much about what one DOES believe. It's a negative response to another's position, not an affirmative statement of one's own position ... like calling myself a ‘non-conservative’ when I am unapologetically a liberal.

Nowadays, I prefer the term ‘naturalist’ (in the philosophical sense, although as a biologist I'm also a naturalist in the conventional sense). Naturalist simply says I accept the worldview of naturalism, that everything in the universe can be (or potentially can be) understood and explained by natural laws and processes.”
I may have to start calling myself a Naturalist!


Mikhail Capone said...

I don't think atheism requires any particular amount of willpower. I think that what this guy is missing is that all of us atheists are "atheists until any evidence that would make us believe otherwise".

As with all science, the burden of proof is on whoever claims that something exists, not on the person claiming that something doesn't (very hard to prove a negative anyway).

The problem with agnosticism as I see it is if you try to apply the logic to other things. Well, yeah, maybe magic exists. Maybe unicorns and dragons and fairies. Who can prove that they don't? Etc.

Atheism is an honest choice.

Devo said...

I agree with your naturalist friend. I think it's far more constructive to frame your beliefs in terms of what you DO believe rather than in terms of what you DON'T believe. Psychologically I think this practice just opens you up to more variety in life experience than if you define yourself otherwise. I also believe it promotes a healthier willingness to explore and test ideas that may otherwise be "off limits" to your sensibilities.

While I probably share many more charactersitics and beliefs with an athiest than a fundamentalist of any shade, I would posit that defining oneself as either puts one on a very similar footing as one's sworn enemy. It's a similar credo to "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"... and that type of positioning is what got the US into the hot water we're dealing with (or have just dealt with) regarding good ol' Saddam and his anti-Communist, Baathist buddies. They WERE our friends once upon a time simply because they hated the Commies, just like us!!!

But I digress. Anyway, proceed...

Hungry Hyaena said...

While I agree that claims of existence (of any variety) warrant proof more than claims that something doesn't exist, I see no reason not to hold myself to the same standards I hold religious fundamentalists to. The truth is, I can not provide any evidence that there is no God, however absurd a notion it may seem to me.

I don't have a problem with agnosticism because I don't think it necessarily has to shrug and take the "maybe" position. If someone asks me a particularly hard word problem, I wouldn't want to give up and hear the answer until I had worked it out myself. In some respects, agnostics are those that are still chewing on the problem, unwilling to give up or choose choices A or B.

I am in complete agreement. Unfortunately, I am something of a fundamentalist myself. I beat myself up (intellectually) in the same way a fundamentalist would and I restrict everything from my diet to my energy use in ways that can only be described as sacramental.

You're rigt, atheism is merely the flip-side of the same coin. Yet, if I believe in no God or Gods, I am by definition an atheist. I don't find that my atheism rules out an open mind and I still find much about various religions that is valuable and essential. The only things that are "off limits" in my world have more to do with personal rules regarding environment, ethics and lifestyle.

Mikhail Capone said...

re: agnosticism

Yes but chewing on the problem between two convincing theories is one thing, but is it more honest to call yourself on evolution vs creationism because you can't prove that creationism isn't true? Same with my magic and dragons example.

I agree, though, that if you want to be 100% safe, agnosticism is the key. But then, if you really go in that direction, you also need to be agnostic on all the things that you can't prove and haven't experienced first hand; is the earth really round? ghosts? magic? tectonic plates? atoms? It's a very slippery slope.

To function, we need to make a bunch of reasonable assumptions, and to me, atheism (just like not believing in magic) is one of those.

As for saying what you believe in instead of what you don't believe in, I'd call myself a secular humanist. Here are some info on it:


Mikhail Capone said...

In short what I mean is:

You can't prove that something doesn't exist (you've probably heard Carl Sagan's "You can't prove that I don't have a magical invisible dragon in my garage"); so if we had to be agnostic about all things that we can't prove don't exist, we'd have to be agnostic about everything.

Maybe from a pure logical standpoint that's the way to go, but in real life, we use our reason to throw out many things until there's some credible evidence of their existence; otherwise we'd have people in their everyday lives being incredibly conflicted: "Okay, should I do this this way but -- wait, if god exists I should do it this way, and if he doesn't, that way.. and if ghosts exist maybe I shouldn't do that, but if they do, but are that kind of ghost, maybe it's okay.. Oh, and maybe if magic exists I'll be able to fly instead of falling to my death, but ..etc"

People aren't like that; even people who claim to be agnostic know in their private mind that they act their everyday lives as if there was or wasn't a god. Not both at the same time.

I think that what most people who call themselves agnostic really mean is that they are not dogmatic atheists, as in: "if there was a god that came down tomorrow and did things and could convincingly prove that it exists, they'd change their minds".

Which is normal and falls within atheism, just like - I hope - believers in the supernatural would change their position if it was possible somehow to prove that it didn't exist (something that I doubt would happen in many cases).

the Mantis said...

Hey Hungry, just wanted to give you props for the blog. Even the big blogs I read every day suffer from a certain sense of self-importance, and I find it refreshing that your blog is not only consistently informative about issues I'm not normally keyed into, but also that you strive so overtly to be even-handed and deferential, almost self-deprecating in your approach. It conveys a fundamental respect for the subject matter you speak about and also allows for a more open and honest dialogue than you find from many of the echo-chamber partisan sites I frequent from time to time. As a Northeastern liberal with a serious libertarian streak, I think a little less vitriol and a little more honest self-examination would do a lot of people and organizations some good, and I have to give you props for doing it right down the middle. Way to go, man, great stuff.