Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Superior Rationality: Atheism

Does thinking logically, clearly, and objectively mean one is more rational than someone who is delusional, muddled, and purely subjective? Not necessarily, as there are certainly rational thinkers on both sides of the religious debate, but when it comes to proving an argument correct, it has been my experience that the clearly stated, strictly objective, and highly logical arguments are the ones which tend to fare better than those which lack these necessary tools for applying critical thinking to the subjects which concern us. In this short essay I intend to prove that although religious believers and atheists both use rational thought, that they use different forms of rationality, and that one form is superior in getting closer to the truth than the other.

Strong Rationality Defined
Strands of philosophy combined with the scientific method and enhanced by evidence and hard won proof along with critical analysis and good objectivity often culminates in the total sum to form a strong rationality. Strong rationality, then, is the combined traits and skills each of these independent disciplines allow for. From the scientific method to critical thinking and beyond, anyone who incorporates the full gamut of these things will be able to form better, well rounded, and keener arguments than a person who uses one, or merely a few, of these traits. 

Atheism, a rationally cogent position of nonbelief in the supernatural based off of logical inferences provided by the plethora of evidence and the deduction, using strong rationality, that the lack of support leads one to make the summation that the supernatural is not rationally sustainable. This doesn’t mean, however, that a religious believer is incapable of thinking logically or rationally. It simply means, there is more going on behind religious thought than meets the eye. 

Arriving at a position of atheism is relatively easy when relying upon strong rationality. It is sustainable by the very arguments themselves, which work to enhance each other, and work in tandem to reveal a naturalistic state of existence (confirmed by the scientific method), but seems to discredit the idea of the supernatural (an unfounded hypothesis lacking in adequate support) typically believed in by religious cohorts. In other words, the atheist’s position is enhanced by science, in turn the implications of science is better revealed through philosophy, and philosophy is more accurate when it incorporates and utilizes critical thinking and objectivity, and so on. If one element should fall short jeopardizing the balance between the various strands of thought and disciplines, fret not, for in whole the process of strong rationality will balance itself out as more data becomes available and as more evidence comes in. Therefore the more knowledge one can attain, the better chances one has for either constructing a powerful theory with minor flaws that will work themselves out in due time, or else, by inference via an understanding of the reality depicted thereby gain a deeper knowledge of the bigger picture, so to speak.

This is what rationalists, including the recent advocates for new atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, and Victor Stenger all have going for them—they are exceedingly rational in their thinking processes. They utilize strong rationality, in its fullest sense of the term, just as the greats before them, such as Plato, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Thomas Paine, Einstein and many other free thinkers along that vein. Their combined teachings and theorizing seek to raise our consciousness to a higher level, whereby strong rationalism becomes the truest form of mindful contemplation and crystal clear thinking. 

One might compare this version of strong rationality with the cosmological concept of a unified theory of physics. A unified theory is the collection of multiple, often mutual theories, which although are incomplete in themselves, all point to the same truth. Logically, it follows, the more correct theories you have the more likely you will be in discovering the correct answers about that which you seek to know more fully. Like any decent scientist, an atheist will be forced to discard inadequate theories in favor of the theories which best explain, or describe, the events observed as it makes heads or tails of the evidence. The closer one can get to an all encompassing theory which explains just about everything with utmost efficiency, the closer to the real truth one gets. I am arguing that much like a unified theory of everything looked for in modern physics, the new atheists (and rationalists in general) are using a similar practice of taking each new bit of evidence which come to light, disregarding the weak and throwing out the failed theories, thus progressively move toward a higher truth. At least, a truth which is more acceptable given what we know and after all is considered, because this strong rationality I speak of has multi-faceted capabilities in dealing with the dissemination of information, it is highly adaptive and much better suited to reveal actual truths about reality as we know it, at least more so than the oft wayward, vague, nebulous, frequently incomprehensible variety of religious modes of thinking.

Granted, this is a big accusation, so let me explain why I think religious thinking is less capable and less rational than secular modes of thinking. Consider Christian apologetics, something which I feel lacks the same prowess in dealing with the dissemination of information, as its approach is not quite as adequately suited for the task as the atheist approach is. That is to say, that even though some apologist thinkers and theologians may use some of the above processes which can lead to higher rationality, they don’t, or more likely can’t due do several reasons I will discuss.

Why can’t theists and religious adherents reach the lofty status of strong rationality? For starters, because the dogma of faith makes pious followers uncritical of its inherent weaknesses, and if one is not allowed to be critical of her own set of beliefs, or faith, then she is not likely to take the time to explore the myriad of possibilities that her faith is incorrect or in some way deficient. This means, faith which is maintained by dogma does not allow for the full investigation into each little fault or failing of its premises specifically because to do so may put the entire faith into jeopardy. It will allow for exploration into certain nooks and crannies which comprise the religiously held convictions, but if critical analyses should yield skepticism, then dogma steps in and the creeds and diktats of the institution supplant the methodology and processes which yields higher rationality. 

Basically, if one begins to doubt too much there is a string of self buttressing techniques, often the fall back arguments apologists like to overstate when pressed into a corner, which fit hand in hand, conveniently enough, with the overall consensus of the over arching religious scheme. Therefore, it stems to reason, faith is restricted by dogma, which in turn is necessary to sustain faith and protect it from too much skepticism, and moreover, is needed to advance the agenda of the institution where too much critical thinking may detract, or otherwise, hinder the goals and aspirations of the religious mind. This way of thought might be defined as weak rationality.

The Consequences of Weak Rationality
What this means then, is religionists, religious apologists, fundamentalists, middle ground moderates, most theologians, and believers in general are confined to thinking only within the confines of the bubble of what is allowed by their particular faith or belief system as kosher. Anything which is not kosher is rejected, even if it happens to be the truth! Take the denial of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a prime example of such a sad expression of a dwindling faith. Atheism, on the other hand, is without a belief system and so has nothing to protect, except for perhaps one’s own intellectual honesty. Atheism is not codependent on any one particular article or belief, or collection of beliefs (what I call appreciations), and so any bit of information or philosophy may be adjusted freely according to the new evidence. Or, if necessary, such may be altogether abandoned without jeopardizing the position of the atheist. The same cannot be said of the convictions of the religious person, as devotion is a key part of being devout, and so dogma is innately tucked under the layers of belief as a bedrock, a foundation, for faith to rest upon.

The pious dare not risk infidelity to their faith by thinking too clearly or too much about their faith. As such, the religious person of faith is only left with a limited capacity to work with the prescribed tools required to make sense of the wealth of disseminated information. Of course, the nonreligious are free to bask in the unbound and unlimited freedom of flirting with and intermingling with an endless sea of ideas, which they can draw on and gain from in such great capacity as if to exploit everything for all it’s worth. 

This allows the scientific minded atheist and skeptic to be genuinely heuristic in their quest for answers. Meanwhile, the religious devotee is stuck in the muddled up mess of faith’s politics, where the creed trumps any skeptical inquiry, and where the theories or factual evidence must be readily thrown out completely lest they become too much like their rival atheists. Sadly, it is too often the case that the dogmatist will throw out the baby with the bathwater without so much as an afterthought about the consequences of such a hasty ill-informed action. Why? Because their faith demands it of them. In every religious establishment there has been a tenet, creed, or doctrine expressly forbidding too much free thinking, always reminding believers that to walk away from the faith would have disastrous consequences. Predictably, devout followers love nothing more than to re-affirm their faith, restrict questioning to a minimum lest it breed skepticism, and thinking scientifically is only allowed insofar as one does not learn to disregard failed hypothesis in favor of better explanatory theories.

Doubt is a crippling force for religious believers, as it is a powerful tool for opening one’s mind, by forcing us to examine in detail what it is we profess to believe. Doubt is followed by curiosity, for not knowing is just too much to bare for us inquisitive humans, and so we set about searching for the answers promptly. But as the adage goes, curiosity killed the cat, and nowhere is that more true than under the banner of religious faith. Dare not go this far, dear believers, for you will turn away from faith and so it is no surprise that religious texts like the Christian Bible and Muslim Koran have safeguards in place protecting the institution of faith with scripture which condemns all kinds of heretical strands of thinking, namely different way of thinking, but most of all, condemns apostasy—a crime which is often deemed punishable as one of the greatest offenses in the realm of faith. Although, it is a curious thing, for how on earth can changing one’s mind be deemed a crime? Let alone a crime punishable by death, torture, banishment, or at the least ridicule and distrust? It seems to me tthat the punishment is disproportionate to the crime.

And if the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and clearly this is the case where apostasy is concerned, then clearly we can be sure that religious theocrats are deliberately seeking to bolster a weakening faith, and this overcompensation has been going on for thousands of years. For why else would the ardent faith in what religious proffers to be the truth need to be safeguarded from critical thinking and inquiry, unless it wasn’t true to begin with? 

It seems to me, that the logical deduction is this: because of the self inflicted weakness of religious rationality, or weak rationality, the religious proponent simply can’t go toe to toe with the stronger rationalists, whether they are atheists, free thinkers, humanists, or something other. Quite truthfully, because the rationalist is allowed access to all human knowledge accumulated up till now, as well as all which is still forthcoming, they are in a better position to argue from a standpoint of knowing. The religious person of faith, however, is in a sad state of affairs, for his shoelaces are tied, and more often than not he is not allowed unbridled access to the same bulwark of human knowledge. Furthermore, the believer is specifically instructed to reject potentially dangerous theories and facts in favor of maintaining the institution of faith, even if this should breed ignorance rather than bring enlightenment. The sacrifice of intellectual honesty, if you ask me, is far too great to bear.

Thus, whenever a believer and a nonbeliever debate about the implications of religious faith, we can be sure that the religious proponent is instantly inflicted with a self-imposed handicap, one which they cannot overcome, otherwise they would turn into the very doubting Thomas heretics they detest.

An Example 
An example of weak rationality would be as such: William Lane Craig, a popular Christian apologist famous for the Kalam cosmological argument [the Kalam cosmological argument being a variation of the cosmological argument that argues for the existence of a Sufficient Reason or First Cause for the universe. Its origins can be traded to both medieval Christian and Muslim thinkers] might be able to concede that his cosmological theories are not well enough informed and have grown outdated, but he will never concede that the big bang “singularity” never actually occurred as he thinks it did, not even if science can reveal that Craig’s theory is altogether predicated on incorrect, if not wholly inaccurate, information. 

Admittedly, this would make Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument, a favorite among apologists, completely a false premise. Therefore, believer’s like Craig allow their dogmatic convictions to force them into holding on to antiquated and outmoded theories precisely because they appear to enhance his faith, and without them his faith would be that much more difficult to sustain (as if it was sustainable to begin with). Regardless of whether or not such a conviction is “sufficient” reason to maintain a devotional allegiance to any single belief, oddly it seems, the cosmological argument Craig developed in the late 70’s, which may have been sound back then with the limited knowledge available to cosmologists at the time, but now has the opposite effect as the wealth of newly discovered cosmological knowledge today detracts from his faith, in spite of what Craig and others might think. The Kalam cosmological argument is now void expressly because modern cosmology has proven that the big bang was not a once off event, and this proves the theological conjecture of a first cause entirely wrong.

Luckily for us atheists, however, there is more than enough evidence which, as a matter of fact, with great precision shows that the big bang was a real event which happened 13.7 billion years ago, and more than this, cosmologists have discovered that the big bang is one of many, perhaps an infinite cycle, of universe catalysts and inflationary incidents. Craig’s idea of a one off “singularity” that corresponds with the account in Genesis of his faith’s holy book, low and behold, has been completely falsified. That is, his theological premise is untenable. How does William Lane Craig account for this startling evidence which negates his first cause assertion? He doesn’t. Why? Because Craig’s holy book has no account of it, nor can it adequately explain what we now know. 

Venturing a guess, though, I predict that someone as well versed in rhetoric as Craig is will one day try and back peddle furiously, as many apologists are want to do when pressed into a corner (and after the fact), and state parsimoniously that the Bible doesn’t mention whether or not God might have created numerous prior big bangs or not, appealing to what we already know, that if God is anything like believers like Craig believe him to be then God is unknowable, and he'll likely add that we just can’t know for certain what God's plan could possibly be, that it’s just impossible to tell for sure. And from his faith based perspective that may even be true, but that’s filling a gap in our current understanding with the idea of God. 

The bottom line is, it’s insufficient precisely because it is a God of the gaps type argument. It explains nothing, but instead, brings up more questions than it can possibly answer while attempting desperately to safeguard the faith with diversionary tactics which always lead back to a currently (but not necessarily indefinite) unexplainable event. This is a defensive position, and ultimately, perhaps the only position for one who ignores the merits of strong rationality in favor of weak rationality simply because weak rationality is less provoking and doesn’t put their faith into conflict like strong rationality does.

Although, I don’t think I need to point out that an atheistic thinker has no such qualms; and if the big bang should one day in the future be proved to be entirely different from what we know now, or else prove to be altogether false, it has no direct impact on what the atheist is allowed to accept as the truth or how deeply they can continue inquiring about the truth of the matter. 

Christians, however, have to stop investigating the truth when the truth becomes apparently in favor of the atheistic outlook—that is to say, when the evidence begins to show favoritism toward a Godless universe, then the Christian has no alternative but to reroute the conversation, taking many detours, before finally settling for a God of the gaps defensive. 

Or to put it another way, if science or philosophy or any other way of thinking should lead toward unbelief, perchance initiate a sustainable nonbelief, the Christian must abandon the search for truth totally. Especially if the evidence compounds to show 1) religious belief is inadequate in light of better understanding, 2) and skepticism is bred via hard won proof and scientific advancement which, 3) contradicts the holy text or otherwise makes it more incomprehensible or unfeasible as a consequence, and 5) shows that God may altogether be nonexistent, or, that God is provably imaginary and that the idea of God is not easily sustainable given what we do know. 

I would like to remind the reader that the atheist is free to carry on carrying on in her search for answers without having to worry about such complications. In fact, atheist rationalists gladly welcome such complications, because it is a good sign that a theory or idea is lacking or is insufficient, and it challenges free thinking atheists to think more deeply about what it is they believe by examining their beliefs more carefully and fully. 

In conclusion, the atheist and rationalist are traversing the high road towards strong rationality and better understanding all the time. Regrettably, however, the religious person of faith is stuck combating their restrictions as well as dodging the bullet of raison d'etre, which would shoot down their beliefs and stop them dead in their tracks, and so they are forced to do the only thing a pious person of faith can do in such a situation, retreat, count their losses while refusing to admit defeat, and then boast to their comrades about how victorious they were as they spread the propaganda about how their enemy fled in awful terror—thus riling up the troops and getting the zealots worked up into a frenzy for one last hurrah against the superior adversary. The truth being, the opposition’s arms and stockpiles are growing vaster by the day—so much so that it’s not so much going to be a battle between David and Goliath as it is going to be a fight between David and Godzilla.

Strong rationalism, as defined earlier, offers the atheist a more satisfactory means of explanation of how things work, lends a better understanding of the natural world and all it entails, and yields real world results which enhance and sustain our secular convictions such as humanism and naturalism, just to name a couple. Religious apologetics, however, is not up to the task of combating or even dealing with the never ending onslaught of new data, and must work vigorously to avoid, or else denies every scientific discovery which seeks to dethrone faith from its pedestal of exaltation, thus take it down, bringing the supernatural into the realm of the natural where it stand no chance against the mighty forces of reason and intellect honed for generations by rationalists, skeptics, and atheists. Unless God makes himself known to us today in a surprising comeback, I think it’s safe to say who the future champion in this no holds barred, knock down drag out, fight between religion and atheism will be. Clearly, atheism has the upper hand—and a weary and beaten down religious faith can only win by a miraculous KO, and only if God steps in to do it for them. And I ask you friends… what are the chances of that happening?

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist