Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Atheism

Hitchens less than dangerous idea

In case you missed it, here is the speech by Christopher Hitchens at the recent Sydney ‘Dangerous Idea’s Festival. He speaks for about 40 minutes, with an hour or so of questions from a (slightly disappointing) Tony Jones. Jones claims to play devil’s advocate, but ends up with a lame ‘but the faithful do good works’ line of questioning. If he wanted to really be contrarian in Hitchens style, he’d ask if the idea ‘religion poison’s everything’ is even a dangerous idea as the festival name implies. Hitchen’s extended ovation was guaranteed before he spoke a word. Though in other parts of the world he would still be shot or run out of town for it. Likewise the most interesting stuff in the interview is right at the end when discussing the difference between agnostics and atheists (where I think Hitchen’s claims far more wiggle room than he is entitled to). Either way, what he has to say is still well worth saying, and none do it better. Enjoy:

The Joy of Uncertainty

Interesting fact of the day (h/t Secular Right)

When we distinguished strong varieties of nonbelief, such as atheism, from weaker nonbelief, a curvilinear relationship emerged (see Shaver, Lenauer, and Sadd). Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

Taken from here.
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There is an old and prevalent idea that religion makes people happy, the opiate of the masses if you will and therefore ought to be encouraged by government as a social good. If nothing else, this research helps disprove that justification, allowing for a clearer debate about the real social benefit of religion (as opposed to individual benefit, a topic outside the realm of politics).

But I also regard this fact with some sadness, for it suggests that uncertainty is tied to unhappiness. Of course when one does not know what is happening to their job, family, or social identity of course worries seep in and discolour the other moments of joy in life. But why should the question of gods existence induce similar anxiety?

I have long wavered between atheism and agnosticism, eventually coming down as an agnostic. But I do so precisely because I enjoy the debate and uncertainty and arguments that are viable for both sides. I know I am a moral, but (like all others) flawed individual and so I have little doubt that should there indeed be a god I would be judged my merits not adherence to scripture. That is, my day to day ethics. As such contrary to Pascal’s wager, the ‘cost’ for me of agnosticism is very low. Of course I may be wrong and god is a vengeful and spiteful entity (an impression one could certainly get from the Bible) but in that case I see morality demanding I do not worship or endorse such a force within this world, and I defy any to justify otherwise.

Thus for me, the debate about god’s existence brings happiness precisely because it is uncertain. Precisely because it involves, indeed demands engagement with the greatest minds of human existence (almost all of whom have turned their attention to this question in some form) and so therefore standing either in their shadow or on their shoulders (depending on how you value your own contribution) you have a topic of boundless entertainment and importance. I must admit to always being slightly surprised at those agnostics (and many atheists) who assert that the question of if there is a god or not is not important to them. My own belief is that nothing could be more important. Its existence would shape the entire purpose and order of this world towards its orientation. Its non-existence would demand the fundamental reshaping of human values and institutions away from the church and believers and a re-invigorated quest to find principles and ideals upon which we can guide and educate future generations.

A man of course has to eat, and religious scholarship, particularly from the point of view of non-believers is not a high paying job. And so I have turned my attention and study to matters of domestic and international politics, seeking improvements in the wider human condition and living standards of my fellow citizens and international brothers. But on the occasional quiet evening, or when I feel I am ahead in my own work, I often turn to those books in my library on religion and like to delve into these great subjects. Some of the most interesting moments of personal development and reflection for me have precisely involved wresteling over these great questions of the existence of god, and my resulting agnosticism is not a disavowal of the importance of the question, but rather the encouragement of it. A starting point from which I may freely seek evidence, reasoning and insight into the question. The joy is in the uncertainty of it all.

But perhaps I am different in that way. The uncertainty of the abstract for me is of great appeal. I admit to having no idea of how one would build a bridge, or identify a cancer cell and indeed little actual desire to. Far more practical and useful than debates over god, but sciences desire for certainty, often restricting its endeavors to the mundane cataloging of life are largely uninteresting for me. It is the questions of the most uncertainty I desire, and as we witness humanity begin to slowly escape religions fundamentalist grasp, to see people equally flinging themselves into certain non-belief is a poor and disheartening replacement.

So here’s an interesting one to encourage the questioning: What does the existence of tarantula wasps say about god? Responses Here, and on the wider question of ‘natural evil’ see CS Lewis and Stephen J Gould.

Image used under a Creative Commons Licence by user Radiant Guy

The Modern Indulgences

Running a church is an expensive business. And in the time before marketing consultants and TV call in programs made it lucrative, one practice the Christian Church used to engage in was the selling of Indulgences. Essentially, for a reasonable sum of money one could absolve oneself of any past sins. The worse the sin, the higher the cost.

It’s hard not to think this is the modern, atheist equivalent:

More than 100,000 Britons have recently downloaded “certificates of de-baptism” from the Internet to renounce their Christian faith.

The initiative launched by a group called the National Secular Society (NSS) follows atheist campaigns here and elsewhere, including a London bus poster which triggered protests by proclaiming “There’s probably no God.”

“We now produce a certificate on parchment and we have sold 1,500 units at three pounds (4.35 US dollars, 3.20 euros) a pop,” said NSS president Terry Sanderson, 58.

John Hunt, a 58-year-old from London and one of the first to try to be “de-baptised,” held that he was too young to make any decision when he was christened at five months old.

The male nurse said he approached the Church of England to ask it to remove his name. “They said they had sought legal advice and that I should place an announcement in the London Gazette,” said Hunt, referring to one of the official journals of record of the British government.

But here’s the rub. If you don’t believe in god, then baptism was nothing more than the splashing of some water on your newborn head. The church can’t claim you as a member under the law, or demand of you any involvement. If you choose to stay away you are not associated with the church. But by ‘de-baptising’ you’re essentially granting the legitimacy of the original practice, of which buying an online certificate would hardly disqualify the bound between you and god.

Indulgences were eventually discouraged, and formed the base of Martin Luthers 95 Theses. It was a scam then, and a scam now. Whether you are coming or going in church life, no amount of money can shift your final resting place.