Monday, March 14, 2011

Is Atheism Synonymous with Arrogance?

The conflict between the religious and the non-religious, or more correctly the anti-religious, is one of the factors that eventually led to my de-conversion from Christianity. Observations of various people’s debate and their attempts at logic in support of an argument is always a powerful way to examine one’s own position. When I repeatedly observed Christians failing to be logical, rational, or even sensible in support of their beliefs it gradually became that much harder for me to support my own position of belief as I recognized the logical fallacies and inconsistent nature of my beliefs.

A common theme amongst Christians that I have observed as they relate to atheists in particular is the prevailing attitude that atheists are arrogant for thinking that they have all the answers or that they claim to know the truth with certainty. This is a very ironic point of view because it is exactly the attitude I would ascribe to many of the religious themselves (of course as an atheist I have my own biases, but I’ll explain why I believe this to be true). Most of the atheists I know believe there is insufficient evidence to support the notion that a god exists. As Richard Dawkins has carefully explained, from a scientific point of view it is technically impossible to prove the non-existence of a deity and so at most we can be agnostic. However, for all intents and purposes it is very possible to be atheist. Everyone in the world accepts that there are things they don’t believe in and operate in their lives as if they are proven not to exist: the bogey man under the bed, flying saucers (OK, well most of us anyway), unicorns, and fairies. The point of view that atheists are arrogant, however, does not really focus on this technicality. Rather, many of the religious think that atheists are arrogant not for claiming knowledge of something that can’t technically be scientifically proven, but for the general concept of the belief that god doesn’t exist (or even might not exist) as a sort of claim to have superior knowledge than others.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The lack of evidence for gods is freely available for all to examine. The only thing atheists do is examine the evidence and find the only logical conclusion. Indeed, it is the religious who are extremely arrogant, for their claims are not based in evidence but rather in personal experience: “I have had an experience that you haven’t had, therefore I know that god exists. You just haven’t happened to have such an experience.” What an extremely arrogant claim. The preposterous, illogical, and irrational nature of the claim by the religious that the atheist point of view is arrogant dissolves if you examine something that no one believes in. Think of something that we all take for granted doesn’t really exist: Santa Claus for example. Every sane adult in the world accepts that there is no man in a red velvet suit living at the north pole who flies around with reindeer on Christmas Eve to give presents to (Christian) children all over the world. If you met an adult who believed this, and claimed you were arrogant for not only not believing it, but for stating that Santa couldn’t possibly exist, how would you feel? Presumably, you would lose a bit of respect for that person’s intellectual abilities and you’d think them odd not only for their beliefs but also for telling you how arrogant you are to claim with confidence that Santa doesn’t exist. Yes this is exactly the position atheists are in with respect to the religious. They do nothing more than state that god does not exist (within the technical certainty that scientific statistics allows on non-testable hypotheses of course) and that there is no evidence to support the belief in gods. No more arrogant of a claim than stating that fairies, gnomes, tooth fairies, and unicorns don’t exist.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, a common perception about atheists is that they think they have all the answers. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Most atheists in fact accept that there is much we don’t know about the nature of the universe. Most atheists I have met are pretty open to the scientific method and recognize that we are gradually expanding knowledge but that there is much we don’t know. By contrast, many religious people seem to think that God is the answer to any difficult question. How did the universe come into existence? God. Why does gravity work? God. Why do we exist? God. Indeed, I would argue that it is the religious who claim to have all the answers.

I have a relative who suffers from what I would describe as a form of delusional mental illness. This person tends to accuse other people of exactly the behaviour they engage in themselves. They are obsessed with pointing out others’ dishonesty and yet they are one of the most dishonest people I know. They consistently accuse others of their own most anti-social behaviours. This is a similar position that many religious people seem to take: accusing others of precisely the position and dogmatic belief that they themselves hold. Discussion and organized argument is not possible with this relative of mine because they are not capable of rational thought. When one attempts to build an argument on a connected and sequential series of logical and rational statements, they simply ignore your prior statements and accuse you of being illogical. When you go back and point out what you have said to build your case, it is either ignored or you are accused of being irrational. Sadly, this is the same experience I have had in conversation with the religious and it lends credence to the statement that you cannot reason someone out of a belief that they haven’t reasoned themselves into in the first place.

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