Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Atheism Is Not a Faith

Seeing an acerbic comment on Twitter the other day on the "atheist faith" having religious features in the shape of apostolic figureheads and a persecution complex, part of me thinks I can appreciate a skepticism as regards some hardline proselytisers who scorn all doubt of their position being the only legitimate position. Part of me, on the other hand, is well aware that I am myself a fairly hardline proselytiser of atheism, on the whole sympathetic to the positions of Dawkins, Hitchens and suchlike and yet reject wholesale the notion that my brand of atheism constitutes anything one can legitimately deem faith. So I figured a little post on the how so of that superficial contradiction might be in order.

Simple answer: as I'd reckon it, there are three different brands of atheism, three different types of foundation for a disbelief in God, only one of which just might be deemed to have the characteristics of faith. And even in that case, I'm not convinced the term "atheist faith" is really applicable.

So, what are these brands?

OK, first is what one might call the Probability Atheist. The probability atheist holds that the supposition of God may not be amenable to disproof, but finds it too implausible to sustain credulity. Basically, we have Bertrand Russell's Celestial Teapot here. As far as the probability atheist is concerned, the believer's claim is on the same level as a claim that there's a teapot in orbit around Jupiter. The atheist lacks the technical capacity to disprove this empirically, epistemically, but where the agnostic shrugs and implicitly treats the two possible states as equal possibilities, the atheist factors in the extravagance of the claim and deems it unjustifiable.

This is not a position of faith. To call it such is to shred the meaning of the term by conflating confidence and conviction. The probability atheist is not operating on a conviction apropos of nothing that there is no teapot in orbit around Jupiter. It's just that when the question arises they have zero confidence in such a random conceit. This is not a 50/50 likelihood any more than a notion that there's a golf cart in orbit around Saturn, or a leper colony circling Alpha Centauri, or whatever random whim one might come up with.

A probability atheist might well feel that it's bizarre characterising their position as "atheist" let alone as "atheist faith." One doesn't have a special word for people who don't believe in Santa. Start down that road and we end up all members of an infinite number of "faiths" defined wholly by the absence of belief in every potentially articulable supposition. You don't believe carrots would explode on contact with formaldehyde when the moon is in Gemini if enough people were picking their noses at the exact same instant? Let's not pretend your confidence in the implausibility of that conceit is some sort of active faith, that it would be more balanced and reasonable of you to withhold judgement in the absence of evidence for or against.

Next is what one might call the Logic Atheist. The logic atheist holds that the supposition of God may not be amenable to disproof, but finds it too incoherent to sustain credulity. Here the atheist goes further, unpacking the complex idea of God to basic features, two or more of which are deemed incompatible -- as if one were to note that the claim specifies the teapot as the work of Josiah Wedgwood but also asserts it to have been formed in orbit around Jupiter along with the planet's other satellites. A logic atheist might argue, for example, that volition is decision is selection of state is limitation of being -- i.e. that an agency is inherently finite, that thinking X, doing Y, being Z means thinking, doing, being those specific possibilities as opposed to all others. This, they might argue, is incompatible with the characterisation of God as infinite. The supposition can be dismissed, they hold, because the specifications are simply invalid.

This is not a position of faith either. To call it such is to conflate validity and soundness, casting a decision that one model is invalid as a decision that another opposing model is sound. There is a position of conviction here, but it is simply that the supposition is oxymoronic. Probability isn't even a question if your supposition amounts to a "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" style claim that just doesn't make sense.

Here the atheist might more happily own the label "atheist." It's not just a matter of a default position of skepticism as regards all random conceits, not just that a wholly arbitrary whim isn't automatically considered to be on an equal basis with its negation. Here the theist position has been given the time of day, serious consideration afforded it as a serious notion. It's just that on scrutiny, for the logic atheist, it doesn't hold together. An infinite spirit characterised as thinking is not something that can be believed in by them any more than they can believe in an idea characterised as sleeping. You don't believe that colourless green ideas sleep furiously? Again, let's not pretend that your inability to sustain the contradictory notion is some sort of active faith.

Finally is what one might call the Principles Atheist. The principles atheist holds that the supposition of God is incompatible with established principles of how reality works and dismisses it as wholly unreasonable on that basis. Confidence of the unjustifiable status of the supposition is bolstered to conviction by reference to principles taken as self-evident -- as if one were to note that teapots are man-made, we cannot yet put things in orbit round Jupiter, and so a teapot cannot currently be in orbit around Jupiter. Rather than focusing on inherent self-contradiction, the principles atheist points to the features of the idea that cannot be reconciled with inviolable assumptions as to how reality works.

This is a position of faith in so far as the specific principles in play are not as inviolable as assumed, however it is not a faith of atheism but rather a faith in those principles. As an analogy, we can contrast the probability skeptic who dismisses ESP as an unjustifiably extravagant claim to the principles skeptic who dismisses ESP as physically impossible; where the latter is operating on a conviction that all perception works by established physical principles, the former could sustain the conceit of perception working by unknown physical properties but sees no justification in doing so given the repeated exposure of purported evidence of ESP as fraudulent. The point is that with the latter, the faith is not in an idea that ESP does not exist but in a specific model of How Things Are which the supposition of ESP cannot be integrated with.

This is where I can appreciate skepticism as regards hardline proselytisers who do sometimes come across as dismissing the notion of God largely because it has no place in their grand narrative. But if we're talking hardliners for whom the notion of God is at odds with a fundamental article of faith, a sort of Grand Order of the cosmos which has no place for agency, we're talking a form of realism in its Platonic sense as the faith, not atheism. The faith is that certain principles are eternal and essential realities, that they cohere as a Grand Order underlying all things, with all things being generated non-volitionally from that order; hence any crude demiurgic creator figure is rejected because it clashes with this belief. To call this "atheist faith" is like doing the same with some strands of Buddhism which are no less atheist and for the same reason -- there's an active faith in something else. It's hardly fair to either a Hindu or a non-Christian to conflate the two. Being a non-Christian doesn't make me a Hindu. Being an atheist doesn't make me a cosmorealist, to coin a term.

This is where the characterisation of atheism as a faith becomes a cheap tactic, in fact, and profoundly wrong-headed, as there may even be a form of faith in play that has nothing to do with the epistemological stance as regards God's existence. Many of those most actively proselytising atheists who tend to provoke the "atheist faith" judgement are actually probability atheists and logic atheists driven to advocate that position more passionately by principles that are entirely tangential. The ethical principles of empathy and universal fraternity at the heart of humanism are irrelevant to an epistemological judgement on God's existence, and where this is the driving justification for vehemence in promoting atheism -- a pragmatic/ethical judgement on the danger of religion -- it's pure knavery to cast anti-religious ethics as pro-science epistemology. Principles are in play, but it's probability/logic atheism plus principles, not principles atheism. That "atheist faith" is actually a deep belief in the principle of integrity.

Do I hold to a faith in empathetic integrity? Hell yeah. Do I have an unshakeable conviction in the efficacy and necessity of honesty and sympathy? What the fuck do you think? Of course I do. But this is not a matter of being an atheist but of being a humanist. Such a humanist "faith," after all, can take religious forms -- I'd say the Quakers are a good example -- as easily as it can take secular forms. Hardly surprising. I mean, as ethics go it's something of a no-brainer it seems to me. And one should have little problem with an accusation of zeal in that respect, I'd think, if it was articulated honestly: "But humanism is also a faith -- in the efficacy and necessity of empathetic integrity!" I doubt most hardline atheists would object to that.

"You have a profound emotional commitment to integrity that excludes consideration of certain beliefs!"

"Well, duh."

The dishonest spin put on that accusation to make it a matter of epistemology rather than ethics is another story though. When people describe atheism as a faith, they're not acknowledging the ethical humanist principles that make a bolshy motherfucker like me carp on about God being dangerous bollocks because of the fricking dangerous part. No, what they mean is "You have a profound emotional commitment to the idea of God not existing that excludes consideration of certain beliefs!" To which I say, nope, you're not fucking getting it.

That wholly misses the point of atheism founded on epistemological principles in which principles atheism is anathema, something I'd argue as firmly as I would my own logic atheism. If I were simply a probability atheist -- who's fundamentally no more than an agnostic ultimately come down on one side of the fence -- I'd argue just as strenuously that you're not fucking getting it. Yes, I'm quick to dismiss an unjustifiable or invalid supposition that God exists, but I do so for the same reason I'm not a Buddhist or cosmorealist -- I'm a skeptic. A cynic after the manner of Diogenes. It's about doubt, not belief. Where I might argue my epistemological position with little compromise, it's because I reckon that pussyfooting around faith-based morality's propensity for justifying murderous fucking atrocity would be spineless fucking cowardice on my part.

But rather than tackle the rejection of articles of faith in favour of suppositional logic, the "atheism is a faith too" snipe refuses to recognise this stance is even being taken, conflating probability and logic atheism with principles atheism, erasing the difference in order to erase skepticism. It's a bullshit pretence that the doubt of skepticism is simply the fuzzy uncertainty of equivocation, that it cannot be actively interrogating, challenging, rejecting the unjustifiable and the invalid. In trying to recast skepticism as agnostic fence-sitting by recasting negative judgements that one model is unjust or invalid as positive judgements that a negative of the model is sound, it is an attempt to limit doubt to the zero impact of withheld judgement. Sorry, but no. Calling skepticism a type of faith is just self-serving sophistic wank.

If the pretence that the only legitimate doubt-based stance is equivocation is self-serving to a believer, so too is glossing over what real belief there is -- in integrity. The "atheism is a faith too" snipe is also expediently refusing to recognise the humanist faith in which probability and logic atheism generally arise -- may well do so despite explicit statements by the probability and logic atheist that their advocacy is ethical, not epistemological, that while they judge the notion of God unsustainable, it is the corrosive effects of that notion that lead them to oppose it. They might well argue a position born of skepticism on purely epistemological grounds in a philosophical discussion. But their committed advocacy in general is a matter of humanist ethics. Disregarding such straightforwardly professed imperatives, the believer positing atheism as a faith is now not simply saying, "You're not really skeptical if your doubt isn't equivocation" but is saying, "You're not really ethically committed to integrity; your passion is a product of epistemological faith."

There's more sneakiness here too arguably. A probability or logic atheist, if asked straightly, will most likely deem their judgement of God's non-existence an outcome of their ethical commitment to integrity. As a skeptic, they might well say, they would profess agnosticism, allow the possibility of God, precisely because to be a skeptic is to eschew unfounded faith, were it not that they simply can't in all honesty sustain a conceit they consider either unjustifiable or invalid. Ethics precedes epistemology. The humanist ethical principle is fundamental, with honesty written into integrity, and it's playing out that ethical principle in the interrogative, doubting philosophy of skepticism that has led to the epistemological position. The "atheism is a faith too" snipe fundamentally reverses this, casts epistemological position as fundamental base, the ethical commitment to action as an outcome of that belief. For the humanist skeptic in the shape of the probability/logic atheist, that's simply an underhanded denial that the sort of philosophy they're advocating even exists.

Your average probability/logic atheist is, I mean, someone who faced up to the discourse of religion with all its historical weight behind it, a discourse in which ethical judgement essentially depends on faith in received wisdom as absolute truth, a discourse in which epistemology precedes ethics, in which the belief in How Things Are plays out in moral dicta taken as facts within that system of thought. Humanist skepticism is the application of doubt on the very basis that faith is unsustainable. Morals conflict. Unless one develops strategies of diverting attention from the conflicts, the only moral thing to do is to critique the received wisdom, the faith. Honesty and empathy come into play as the simple principles by which one does just that, developing ethical judgement. Integrity becomes the base principle that drives the epistemological enquiry necessary to informed ethical judgement. And so, operating on that core principle, taking doubt as the all-purpose tool to apply across the board, one ends up questioning the whole underpinnings of religion, the ultimate supposition at the heart of faith. The probability/logic atheist finds that supposition unjustifiable/invalid and along the way has very likely ended up applying their ethical nous to the socio-political mechanisms of the religions rooted on that supposition. Thus they end up proselytising for the very thing that began their journey -- the application of doubt to faith.

To say that this is a form of faith in and of itself is to miss the point by a mile. In the way it misrepresents the position it seems wilfully obtuse, in fact, a sophistic twisting of the doubt-based strategy in order to refuse its very possibility, insist that ethical judgement is and can only be a matter of submission to epistemological faith. It's a short step from this to the oft-articulated prejudicial assumption that without some sort of unshakeable conviction in absolute authority, atheism must be amoral in its nihilism, a sort of baseless ethical anarchy -- the presupposition that an irreligious epistemology of doubt is by definition morally unprincipled. This is the sort of thinking that makes atheists bizarrely more distrusted in the US than gays, on par with rapists, because if atheism is not a faith how could its adherents possibly be kept in thrall to a faith's moral dicta?

There is no doubt, in this mentality, that is not mere wooly-minded equivocation. There is no capacity to even be a humanist skeptic, basing one's judgements on honesty and empathy, in a constant process of interrogation. If you think that sort of ferocious doubt is "faith too," you don't have the understanding of the faculty necessary to apply it. There is no fucking conception of integrity if you cannot imagine epistemology subject to it. And without an idea of integrity, this is the sort of thinking that makes reactionaries cling to patently unjust moral dicta (e.g. regarding miscegenation or gay marriage) because the autonomous ethical thought -- the doubt -- that challenges these dicta is seen as corroding absolute authority, eroding the certainties of faith. Such challenges to the moral order are "threats to the fabric of society." Integrity itself is fucking forbidden fruit.

And yet I'm not convinced that a believer playing the "atheism is a faith too" card is actually as wholly oblivious to the possibility they're denying as they seem. I might even go so far as to say they're seldom that oblivious. Where the humanist skeptic in the shape of the probability/logic atheist hears in this a twofold assertion that 1) "You're not really skeptical if your doubt isn't equivocation," and 2) "You're not really ethically committed to integrity; your passion is a product of epistemological faith," this is essentially a button-pushing snipe that impugns that skeptic's intellectual honour. It's a claim that advocates of this philosophy do not meet their own standards, do not meet their own principles -- which rather implies a recognition of what those standards are.

What I mean is I hear in this an accusation of failure which doesn't so much deny the problem of faith -- the potential for wrongness which warrants the doubt which underpins a philosophy of humanist skepticism, which leads in turn to a position of probability/logic atheism -- doesn't so much deny that as tacitly accept the problem, tacitly accept that it is a problem one might tackle with a suppositional logic based on doubt and suspicion, tacitly accept that the atheist is, in principle, aiming to do just that; and the accusation rather seems to do so in order to simply say, "but you fail." In "atheism is a faith too," I hear "but you're just as bad, so there." Like one of those homophobic, racist, misogynist fucks you find on the interwebs, sniping that "the PC brigade" fail their own principles by being "intolerant" of his homophobic, racist, misogynist bullshit, the believer sniping about the "atheist faith" rather seems to me to be employing a cheap deflection strategy guaranteed to irk.

From an agnostic it might have some legitimacy -- though I think there it's largely a lazy dismissal of tiresome demagogues from one who's perfectly entitled to their neutrality but who ought to know better than to collapse all forms of disbelief into dunno and never! -- but from a believer it just seems dishonest. Don't bother to deny the problem -- the epistemological and ethical vacuity -- of your faith, just accuse the very philosophy which confronts it on principle of being exactly what it is opposed to. Paralleling the "reverse racism" accusation designed to simply derail the discourse, this is an accusation of "reverse faithism."

Somebody calls faith out in no uncertain terms on being an utter and complete travesty of reasonable belief where it seeks to eradicate doubt as to whether one should be stoned to death for putting one's cock up another man's arse? Somebody passionately, uncompromisingly, says your faith is a fucking unconscionable lie, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster at the heart of it not just an absurdity but a criminally fucking reckless one, so pardon me but I'm going to do everything in my power to wipe that bullshit from the arse of reality and flush it to oblivion where it belongs?

Quick! Throw some more bullshit at them! Call their atheism faith! They can't help but take that as an accusation of everything they're condemning, and with any luck they'll be so incensed we can throw the tone argument at them and flounce away, wanking ourselves off over how thoroughly we've delegitimised their case.

So, yeah... while I'm no great fan of principles atheism by any means, and can appreciate how tiresome many find the ideologues who've made it their mission in life to rid us all of the scourge of God, that's pretty much my opinion of the whole "atheism is faith too" notion.

It ain't high.



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