Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Should atheists now support humanism?

In reading through the arguments put by Pastor Douglas Wilson to Christopher Hitchens in their conversation "Is Christianity Good for the World?*" I was struck at how atheism is discussed there. Atheism these days is far more visible than it has been before, which is a very good thing - but I wonder if simply declaring oneself an atheist is enough to combat religious argument, or should we also say we are humanists?

'New Atheism' arose largely as a response to 9/11, with books such as Sam Harris' 'The End of Faith' becoming best sellers and provoking a huge influx of similar titles as well as an even larger number of books in reply from religious writers. The 'New Atheism' tag was not chosen by the atheists writers but instead was given to them and many have pointed out that there really isn't anything 'new' about it - many of the (successful in my opinion) arguments they employ are centuries old at least. However today there does appear to be a drive from certain areas to redefine atheism to mean more than the simple dictionary definition of "the rejection of belief in god or gods". I think that promoting humanism could be a better tactic.

Hitchens begins the debate with Wilson by quoting William F.Buckley, who said:

"I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world."

I would agree it's certainly one of them, but atheism isn't a philosophy as such and it doesn't commit you to any other view of the world - you can be an atheist and still be irrational, immoral and evil (for want of a better term). Perhaps that's why now people are using the term in a different sense, using it to cover not only non-belief but things like rationality, skepticism and equality. Atheism + would appear to be the prime example of this (not that I have explored it that much).

Hitchens himself said (in a debate with another theologian, William Lane Craig) that "atheism is not a moral or political position of any kind" but then goes on to say "but there is a humanism within atheism". I think this is almost certainly correct as most if not all atheists I know have beliefs and attitudes to the world that are very recognisably humanist (whether they know it or not or choose to use the term or not).

Wilson's main line of argument against Hitchens is that, given atheism, there is no objective morality to call upon to make moral judgements, or as he puts it, no "overarching common standard for all atheists", and so challenges Hitchens to account for the moral judgements he makes. Wilson is right - there is no objective morality built into atheism (in its narrowest possible sense of simple non-belief in the supernatural) or even that follows on directly from it. But so what? Hitchens admits as much himself in the quote I used earlier. Wilson is not denying that atheists can be as moral as any religious person, what he is denying is that any objective morality can exist without a supernatural authority to hand it down to us. Hitchens simple states that morality is "derived from innate human solidarity".

I think at this point Hitchens could just as well have introduced humanism into the debate to show that there does exist a philosophy that rejects the supernatural but very much includes strong moral precepts. I think the evidence that our moral sense has evolved over time in very much the same way as other human traits is pretty clear; the fact that other species show what we would call moral behaviour just proves that it isn't solely a human concern. Hitchens quotes Darwin, who of course puts it perfectly:

"Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well- developed, or nearly as well-developed, as in man."

It also seems perfectly clear that there is no objective morality, as Wilson comments "evolution means nothing if not change", and so if morality evolved it has clearly changed over time and will continue to do so. Wilson likes to frame this fact as the possibility than anything we consider deeply moral (or immoral) today may simply not be the case tomorrow. Personally I like to think of the development of morality as very much the same as the development of scientific understanding. Very rarely does a new scientific theory totally refute or replace an old one - for example, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity went beyond Newton's theory of gravity, but Newton's theories still work perfectly well in most everyday situations. Both are simply models of reality, Einstein's being a better and more accurate model than Newton's. Relativity breaks down when faced with a black hole or the very first micro-moments of the universe - the theory that one day will be touted as proving Einstein wrong will simply be a more accurate model that extends our understanding.

I think morality progresses in a similar way, as a cumulative process (perhaps not surprisingly considering it's evolutionary nature) rather than a rule book that randomly gets re-written on a whim. It's trivially easy to look back in history and pick things that at the time were normal but now would be considered unconscionable. I personally think that people living in a 50-100 years time will look back at the way we currently treat other species as utterly barbaric.

The authoritative aspect is a core issue for Wilson. In reply to Hitchens human solidarity comment, he says: "Innate is not a synonym for authoritative." True, but again - so what? He then says: "Why does anyone have to obey any particular prompting from within?" This is where his arguments start sound a bit... well, fundamental - like someone saying if there was no God what's to stop you killing and raping all you want? Penn Jillette's answer is spot on:

"And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine."

It baffles me how this isn't obvious to people like Wilson. I could, right now, if I wanted to, go and get in my car and run down the first dozen people I see. He would say that given atheism, what's to stop me? The universe doesn't care! The answer is why on earth would I? I don't want to kill, maim or even mildly injure anyone, because I can empathise with how that would feel and I don't want anyone doing it to me. I don't need an authority figure to tell me not to. Wilson's argument that Hitchens has no authority-bestowed objective standards to refer to in making moral judgements just isn't relevant and in fact says a great deal more about how he views humanity himself I think.

So atheism, as both Wilson and Hitchens say (but for different reasons) has nothing to say on morality. But atheists are clearly as capable of contributing to the further evolution of our moral ideas as anyone else (more so than the religious authorities who tend to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world we live in) - which is why I suggest that it is important that atheists support and even stand up and be counted as humanists. The British Humanist Association has many campaigns ongoing, commonly set directly against outdated religious attitudes that still have far more traction with those in power than they have any right to. I'm sure this is true of humanist organisations all over the world. So by supporting these campaigns and spreading the word about humanism, we can both actively take part in these important issues, help reduce the influence of religion and show people who think like Douglas Wilson that not only do we have a (non-superstition based) morality but we are always looking to improve upon it.

*Also available as a book: "Is Christianity Good for the World?", and also there is a fantastic documentary film "Collision" which follows them on a debate tour - well worth a watch to see them both debating face to face.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Debating creationists

A couple of days ago I stupidly got into an online debate with a creationist. I have a general rule not to do this, as it's a futile waste of energy - but, probably once a year or so my willpower fails and I get dragged in!

After a bit of back-and-forth about the usual stuff the creationist - I'll call him "John", because that was his name - made the claim that evolution violated the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This immediately took me back about a decade in time to when I first had a debate online about these things and someone brought up the same argument. Even then, with no real scientific knowledge beyond what I didn't remember from school I felt that the argument was unlikely to be true. It's what got me interested in learning science again and I've spent some time since then reading and studying science with the Open University and generally taking an interest in religion, scepticism and atheism.

So I made my responses to "John" and of course they were dismissed as I fully expected they would be and I ended the conversation when he accused me of redefining the 2nd law to fit my purposes, when, whether he knew it or not, that was exactly what he had done. Now I'm back to thinking about this argument again, hence this post.

The definition that "John" had clearly been taught to trot out was that "natural systems break down over time, not improve" which, if you wanted to explain the concept to a six year old is probably ok (but even then a smart six year old would pretty quickly realise that it couldn't be that simple). As evolution increases complexity over time, it must violate the 2nd law. This simplified creationist definition missed out one very crucial element of the law which is present in the definition I then used: "in a closed system entropy always increases". Entropy very simply put is a measure of disorder, so the main difference between the two definitions is the part about a closed system. If a system is closed, i.e. no energy can enter it from outside, the energy inside it will eventually become evenly distributed throughout the system, or to put it another way, without energy input from outside, the system will inevitably become more and more disordered until it reaches a maximum point of disorder.

As a universal law, there are many ways of stating the 2nd law - in my studies with the OU I came across at least five or six that relate it to various physical processes. It was independently formulated nearly 200 years ago by Sadi Carnot and Rudolf Clausius, and has been restated in other ways by such scientific giants as Lord Kelvin and Ludwig Boltzmann. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is now over 150 years old. The fact these two cornerstones of science have lasted side by side for so long might make you doubt claims that they are mutually exclusive, but this doesn't seem to worry creationists.

For evolution to violate the 2nd law, it would have to be taking place in a closed system, and that is the part the creationists leave out - for pretty obvious reasons. The system within which life on Earth has evolved is, of course, the Earth. Now I think it's safe to say that the Earth as a system does receive a not inconsiderable amount of energy from an outside source - and I know now I sound like I'm making statements of the bleeding obvious here - that source is of course the Sun.

You would think that having explained that, the creationist would say "well, stone the crows, of course you're right on that one - I'll never use that argument again". Yeah, that doesn't happen. But as it is so clearly and obviously wrong, I still think it's one of the few chances of getting a creationist at least to ponder it for a moment. But, I thought, maybe I could come up with an analogy that would make it even simpler to get. So here goes.

Saying evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics is equivalent in many ways to saying a rocket launching a satellite into orbit violates the law of gravity - if that sounds ridiculous, well that's the point. Here's why. I could loosely define the law of gravity (in the same way creationists loosely define the 2nd law of thermodynamics) as something like this: "all unsupported things will fall towards the earth". Using this definition I could claim a rocket launching a satellite violates this law, hence all orbiting satellites were put there in situ by God. As before, the vague definition misses out the obvious addition of a vast supply of energy, in this case let's say it's the fuel inside a stonking great Saturn V rocket. The rocket simply uses this supply of energy to overcome the downward force of gravity. At no point does it violate the law, it simply uses energy to overcome it. The same happens with evolution - it has a vast supply of usable energy from the Sun which it uses to overcome the tendency to disorder described by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

To push the analogy perhaps beyond useful simplicity, you could also say the creationists insistence on ignoring all the scientific evidence that supports evolution is akin to them claiming God must have put all the satellites in orbit because rockets violate the law of gravity, all the while ignoring not only rocket science itself but also the discarded "fossils" left behind by a three-stage rocket such as the Saturn V. ("Where are the transitional stages??" I hear them cry in my head).

I'd like to think that even a completely brainwashed creationist like "John" might feel a little tickle of scepticism about what they have been told if it could be explained like that - maybe put a dent in the wall of wilfull blindess or the barrage of bible verses - but I'm probably being wildly optimistic. However, next time I'm presented with the argument I'll simply say "claiming evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics is just like claiming a rocket violates the law of gravity" and leave it at that. Maybe that'll get 'em thinking. It would certainly save me some time ;)