Tribal Atheism

Seth AndrewsOver the weekend, I heard a talk by Seth Andrews. He’s a prominent atheist who runs The Thinking Atheist podcast. He is very good, which is not surprising. He had worked in Christian broadcasting before becoming an atheist. And he has a gorgeous radio voice and he’s pretty smart and knowledgeable. But I made the mistake of listening to more of his work. None of it is bad. It is just that he presents an extremely common and troubling outlook on life.

Again and again, he talks about atheism in terms of science and what we can prove. Most annoyingly, he claims to base his life on rational thought. It is such an arrogant view. And untrue! We humans are very strange and how we make decisions is only very slowly coming into any kind of focus. But what we do know is that we aren’t nearly as rational as we think we are.

Belief in God, at least today, is more silly than irrational. Most people believe in God for the same reason they vote Republican or root for the Raiders — it’s a cultural thing and they really don’t think much about it. The houses built by fundamentalist Christians are generally as sound as those built by atheists. So theists may be misguided in their belief in specific myths, but they aren’t irrational in a general sense.

I never believed in God. From a fairly young age — from about the time I understood what death was — I wanted to believe in God. But it always seemed too stupid to believe in. Even at the age of ten, I could not see any more reason to believe in Jesus than to believe in the Greek myths I read about in school or the Norse gods I saw in comic books. So perhaps I have a different approach to atheism. I didn’t start off in one culture and move to another. So it isn’t necessary for me to make religious belief or non-belief into a tribal issue. And I believe this is what Andrews has done.

Hemant MehtaThat doesn’t mean that Andrews is bad. He’s actually charmingly inclusive. One thing I really like is that when I listen to him, I feel like I am an atheist. Too many in the atheist community make me feel like I’m a heretic. But a big part of why Andrews includes the great range of non-believers is just that he is so focused on his former Christianity. And I’m glad he clawed his way out of that tribal association. But let’s not go too far in claiming the intellectual high ground.

Much better than Andrews is Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist. Of course I would think that: he is a former math teacher. But as much as I like him, he exhibits some of the same issues. For example, I came upon the following video, “Atheists, where did the universe come from?” I was very exited to see that title, because too few atheists will even engage with the question. But I was really unhappy with his answer:

I don’t have a problem with the answer, “We just don’t know!” That’s a perfectly fine, if incredibly boring, answer. But he makes a critical mistake in framing the question as he does. He says, “Scientists can come up with theories of what may have been there [before the big bang], but the truth is, right now — and maybe forever — we won’t be able to answer that question definitively.” This makes the same mistake that theists make when they claim that God created the universe: it just pushes the question back a step. What if scientists proved that our universe is just part of a multiverse? That would be no more final an answer than the Big Bang is.

When it comes to this ultimate ontological question, I find science and theology equally useless. But theologians understand that the existence of “God” is a real problem — that it must exist in a form that we cannot comprehend because of our being locked into this universe. Scientists largely don’t see the real problem. They are like mechanical engineers thinking that they might figure out the structure of the periodic table by building better bridges. They won’t, because they aren’t even approaching the question.

I understand that we ask the kind of questions that we have tools to answer, and we really don’t have the tools to answer this question. But what a great opportunity this provides! There ought to be common ground here among scientists and theists. The scientists ought to look out at the universe as the theists look out at “God.” Because it is the same thing: the great unknown. I understand that theists are, in general, annoying in their dogma and fear of anything that might counter it. But they aren’t any more irrational than anyone else. What’s irrational is the universe.

I think that people who claim to be science-based and rational are generally people who don’t understand science all that well. Science is a fantastic tool for learning things about the universe. But it is, thus far, limited to the universe. And math has shown us that logic itself is not necessarily consistent if you push it far enough. Thus I see no contradiction between science, atheism, mysticism, and macro-scale rationality. Who wants to join my tribe?

5 thoughts on “Tribal Atheism

  1. I want to join your tribe! I really enjoyed this post and have a lot thoughts about it, but there is no way I can articulate them at the moment; as I’ve been up since 5:00 a.m., had a very long day, and am trying to wind down to go to sleep soon. Will think on all this and get back to you.

    • Welcome! Of course, I usually think what I have to say on this issue would be widely accepted at most Unitarian churches. Of course, they are all just a bunch of liberal “do your own thing, man” kind of folk. It would seem that my biggest problem with the atheist community is a matter of focus. I agree that Christianity is pretty silly and in most forms down right evil. And they agree that existence itself is amazing. But they find the first observation endlessly fascinating and I don’t. I find the second observation endlessly fascinating and they don’t. The irony (maybe) is that this is my biggest problem with theists too. Very few are interested (Or even aware of!) this observation. But both atheists and theists have a tendency to accept stupid answers like “God!” and “Nothing is unstable!” Of course, if there were simple answers, I wouldn’t find it interesting! And in their defense, it is highly likely that I’ve read way too much Schopenhauer!

      But welcome to the tribe! I’m sure they will be coming for us with pitchforks and torches very soon. Maybe we are all the atheist and theist communities need to bind together!

  2. @Kristen — Please, join in! Love to hear from fellow readers!

    @Frank — Well, what is science? Science is largely the work of showing what things aren’t true. Our model of the universe isn’t complete, far from it, but we know the sun doesn’t orbit the earth.

    Did God or something create the universe? We don’t know. We can say with some pretty high certainty that the creation stories and behavioral proscriptions of the major religions are not divinely inspired. (Unless we credit them for the expression of certain longings in human nature, in which case they are divinely inspired, should there be such a thing as divinity, as much as music or any other powerful art form. Not more so!)

    Sometimes I do wonder if our universe isn’t run, not by The Source Of All That Is, but by A Local Thug. The way kids run ant farms. It seems too magnificent for that, but ant farms probably seem pretty magnificent to ants.

    • The problem with the evil God theory is that ice cream is delicious. If we posit a God, it really must be more like an alcoholic parent who is all over the board. When I discussed this somewhere, someone said, “So God is chaotic neutral?” I thought that was the most brilliant nerd comment ever. And it is about right. The only way that Christians get to say that God is good is by defining everything that God does as being good.

      There is a really important issue, however. It is very possible that in the future, we will be able to create our own universes in the lab. They would expand into different dimensions, so they wouldn’t really affect us, and we would have no idea what was going on inside of them so we wouldn’t be able to “inspire” anyone. But the point is that if we did that, we would not be the God of those universes, even though we created them. This is why I’ve always thought about the universe in terms of a mathematical paradox. Although increasingly, I find the argument that the universe must exist more and more credible. There is a paradox even about this. If the universe doesn’t exist, it must exist because it has the attribute of not existing. I know: it makes my brain hurt too. But it is a hell of a lot better than talking about a bunch of old folklore.

    • Also: Kristen isn’t just a reader. She is the probably the best writer I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some amazing writers. Check out her website!

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