Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Of Atheism And Antitheism

Being an atheist doesn't necessarily mean being opposed to religion. Even if someone doesn't believe in God, they could have nothing but glowing praise for what people do with that God belief. Likewise, being antitheist doesn't necessarily involve being an atheist, and there are things done in the name of God that could (and really should) draw ire from even the most fervent of believers.

I bring this up because the distinction matters, even if positions are often tightly coupled. It might seem obvious to point out, but it's something that should be said often. For example, take the wrongness of homosexuality. If someone claims that "God hates fags" and seeks to persecute gays, their position isn't justified if they can make a reasonable case for God.

To break this down:
  1. If God exists, then God hates fags.
  2. God exists.

  3. Therefore, God hates fags.

Yet how do we know that God hates fags? The claim may be justified in the bible:
  1. The bible is the inerrant word of God
  2. The bible claims that God hates fags

  3. Therefore, God hates fags

But what about the inerrant word of God? Perhaps a justification of the divine knowledge:
  1. If the bible contains a proof of divine truth, it must be the inerrant word of God
  2. The bible has moral teachings that are testament to the divine

  3. Therefore, the bible is the inerrant word of God

And so on... It doesn't matter for the purpose of illustration if this is how "God hates fags" is justified; the point of the exercise is to show that the argument doesn't hinge on the truth of theism. The same regression could be taken with God and perhaps show a contradiction between the kind of God that can be shown to exist and the statement against homosexuality (that an all-loving God is incompatible with hate, for example), but again the exercise shifts away from atheism and into theology.

The intelligent design public controversy highlighted this. While intelligent design can be opposed on several angles (conceptual grounds, scientific grounds, church/state separation, etc.), the cell biologist Ken Miller additionally opposed it on religious grounds - that intelligent design painted the picture of an incompetent designer. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made a similar condemnation of theistic evolution, claiming that would imply God didn't do a good job in setting up the universe.

These are criticisms that, as an atheist, even if I could think of them I couldn't use. Yet they are important criticisms, whether or not the claims made are internally consistent or are able to be justified don't necessarily depend on whether or not the atheistic claim is true. As far as I'm concerned, Intelligent Design is not science, just a political tool masquerading as science. But as far as whether or not believers in God should accept it, voices like Ken Miller offer an interesting perspective. Is intelligent design justified if God is taken into account?

I'm glad that there are the Ken Millers of the world, it means I don't have to waste my time being learned on such trivial (to me) questions. During the Dover trial, opponents of the plan to try to push Intelligent Design into schools were branded as "atheists" including the Catholic Ken Miller and local church members. But who was really being the bad theists in this matter? Perhaps neither had justification, perhaps both had some. But it's not my fight, again the argument is going into theology.

Antitheism has a hostile ring to it, that it sounds like it suggests that religion is the great evil of the world from which no good can come, and religion's very existence is an affront to everything we consider human. But to be less sensational, antitheism is for the majority centred on specific issues. It would be hard to deny the religious incursion in the evolution debate, or the debate about rights for homosexuals, but neither of these issues rest on whether God exists.

I think at times the theologial issues can be a distraction. When the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports an old earth and the evolution of life, what does it matter how people interpret Genesis? For questions of morality, it needs the prior belief in a God-given morality for the theology to be meaningful. Yet these aren't meaningless questions for many people, even if they are to atheists.

I can understand why people would wish atheists to stay out of these discussions, or if they do enter that they would respect the discipline of theology. But as much as one can understand that theology may be an integral part of someone's reasoning, that might not be the relevant part. Take a chain of reasoning about homosexuality:
IF God exists AND God is the Christian God AND morality is found in God's commands AND The Bible is the ultimate source of God's dictation on moralty AND The bible condemns homosexuality THEN Homosexuality is wrong
Even with this simplified chain, there's a range of claims that could be contested at various levels. For an atheist, beyond the first few claims listed it doesn't matter. But for theists of various stripes, there are other conversations to be had - each part of the reasoning has its potential to be wrong even when they are not the concern of atheists.

I was trying to built to some sort of point - that religious criticism doesn't have to hinge around atheism, and the temptation to attack religious arguments with God's existence as the weak point may not always be the best or most appropriate response. Because even if the God that people espouse exists, that's no guarantee their position is defensible.

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