Saturday, 10 October 2009

Atheism Is NOT My Worldview

I am an atheist, I'm not ashamed to admit this and I'm more than happy to use the label when people ask me about my religious beliefs. Yet atheism is not my religion, it is not my worldview. When The Atheists aired on Australian TV a number of months ago, the host asked what do atheists believe in? Part of the problem with the world is that it is a negative - it's not-theism. You might as well say non-astrologer, it won't tell you anything other than what it's not!

Constructing a positive reality
Many times I've gotten into discussions with theists online and at one stage I've complained that they aren't actually interested in what I believe in. Rather it seems that time and time again, they are happy to use assumptions based on others who use the label. And given I'm science-oriented, if one would base their assumptions on what it means to be an atheist on the likes of Dawkins, they wouldn't be too far off the mark. But my point stands, I've been stuck time and time again arguing what my position is not rather than what it is.

Because atheism is simply the not-belief (or belief in not) of gods, what does that say about morality? What does that say about meaning? What does that say about life? About the human condition? About our place in the universe? It doesn't say anything about those. Yet I'm still human. I seek and find meaning, I act in a moral sense, I have my own thoughts about what it means to be human.

I'm in no way special. What I mean by this is that there's nothing particularly distinct in what I believe and why. My moral sense is not derived from any particular worldview, rather it is an accumulation of teachings, experience, and an expression of my genes. I have a sense of what is right and wrong, but that isn't derived from any metaphysical worldview.

My point being in all this is who I am and what I stand for is personal. It can be influenced by others, similar to many (it would be absurd if it wasn't), but ultimately it does not (nor can it) come down to any particular label. How I find meaning, how I determine what is right and wrong, what value I put in others and myself - these are personal and I do exactly the same as everybody else. While it might be easy to dismiss Christians or Muslims on a Christian worldview or a Muslim worldview, I don't think this is helpful or even accurate.

Not to presuppose
People aren't born with beliefs, rather beliefs are shaped through experience, culture, interaction with others, and mimicry, all filtered through a brain that works in a largely pre-defined way. Take language for example. No-one is born with the any particular programmed into their brain, yet there is the capacity to learn language. And while English and Chinese are both vastly different languages, the brain handles it in both cases. I grew up in an English-speaking country and thus I learnt to speak English. I couldn't have spontaneously started speaking Chinese even though if I were born into a different country that would have been my language.

The very notion of a presupposition belies the process of ascertaining ideas. It is proof by definitions and in my view gets in the way of actually discussing beliefs. I don't remain an atheist because I presuppose atheism, rather in the 25 years or so that I've lived and experienced the world what I've learnt tells me that deities are not a good answer. This might change in the future, I don't know. I may or may not have believed in ghosts as a child, maybe at one stage I thought that homoeopathic remedies actually did something beyond placebos. I can't remember now. I used to be way more libertarian than I am now, that changed.

Worldviews are tentative, they change as people change. A testimony of miracles as historical events may have meant more to me as a child than they would now. These days I'm not convinced that miracles can happen. I don't presuppose them out of existence, rather I've become more sceptical the more I've investigated the matter. I'm not born with a staunch monoist perspective, in fact research suggests the opposite. Yet I'm a monoist now despite what feel strong dualistic tendencies.

At one stage, people believed the sun orbited the earth. These days we know better, yet it's amazing to think that the only reason we know better is because someone bothered to make predictions about what kinds of observations to expect given the different circumstances. From out point of view, we see the sun rise in the east and set in the west. We're stationary. Why is it now that the sun is a big nuclear reactor sitting 150,000,000km away which we orbit by the force of gravity every 365 days or so? Why can't it be Helios being pulled by a chariot across the firmament? If I was born into ancient Greece, chances are I'd be believing the latter story.

My point is that beliefs are tentative, dependent on time and place. This holds true for me as well, I'm a product of my place and time in history. What is important is not what to think, but how to think. The brain is an evolved organ, that while great for some tasks is hopeless at others. What's related to survival and reproduction, yes the brain is good enough. But moving away from such tasks towards unfamiliar realities, the brain needs training.

Perhaps a child could do simple mathematics, but you can't expect a child to do multivariate calculus without a significant amount of training. Likewise learning how to understand understand the universe or using reason don't just come innately, they take work. The computer in front of me tells me that the scientific method is a legitimate means of inquiry. I don't presuppose that science works, the evidence is clear!

My philosophy
This place is kelosophy - my philosophy, a place where I can sound out arguments and put out the thoughts that have been going on in my head. On some issues I've written long posts only to delete the whole thing because I felt I was stuck, while almost every post has me during the writing process deleting at least one paragraph. The arguments presented here are expressions of myself, of the way I view the world. I could be wrong, I probably am wrong on a lot of things. And in the course of my life I'll no doubt change my mind, hopefully in a wise manner. Probably not, but it sounds good.

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