Monday, June 30, 2014

What Do We Have in Common?

Awhile back, one of my friends who reads this blog asked if I could do an article on what atheists and theists might have in common. It’s been a bit – I hope she doesn’t think I’d forgotten or chosen to ignore the suggestion. It’s just one of those posts that I get started on, then hit a bit of a wall, and in the meantime a topic on which I’m able to get a complete thought written out will kind of bump it to the back burner for a bit. But I have still been working on it from time to time.

The problem I run into is that there’s almost no position or outlook I can think of that I would share with every possible religious perspective. And even if I were to try to come up with a list of such commonalities, it would most likely involve having to speculate on the thoughts and beliefs of people about whom I might be entirely ignorant (or just ignorant enough to get something offensively wrong). For that matter, I can’t even claim to know every possible atheist position.

So maybe I need to look at things on a more basic level than that. Perhaps I need to not look at positions and outlooks at all.

So, at the base level, I can say with some certainty that we share at least the following thing in common: we’re human.

Now, that’s pretty darn basic. To the point that it might seem like that doesn’t give us much in common at all. But if you think about, just being human encompasses quite a lot. It means we share more than 99% of our DNA, just for starters. The genetic difference between myself (a middle class white guy living in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States) and any other person on the planet is almost negligible. The difference between you and me is just a blip. At some level, you and I are related. We are family, you and I.

That’s actually quite a lot to have in common. That’s quite a lot for me to think about, in terms of ho we relate to one another.

So we’re all human, and all related. We share similar perceptions, similar emotions, and our outlooks are rooted in a certain commonality as a result. I think it would be hard to deny that there’s a certain bond of emotional kinship we are able to feel for our fellow human beings as a result. As an atheist I may attribute this to evolutionary reasons based on community as a survival mechanism, whereas a religious person might believe it’s because God put that feeling in our hearts. But the feeling, for most of us, is there on an instinctual level. We all have the ability to love each other, and conversely to hate each other. I think most of us would rather do more of the former than the latter.

I believe, as well, that we share a desire to do good for each other. I think that the disagreement between an atheist like myself and a religious person is largely a disagreement about what actually is best for people. Our different outlooks lead us to different conclusions, but they’re rooted in the same basic desire to do good for ourselves and for others.

I don’t know… maybe I’m being overly simplistic, or overly optimistic in this appraisal. Odds are pretty good that I am; I don’t claim that I have any special insight into human nature. But I do think it’s sometimes good to cast an eye on the basics, even if they might be too basic to represent an entire worldview. It can be a good thing to look at the simplest terms and start reasoning again towards the bigger complexities of real life.

So let’s not forget that, at the most basic, we’re all human beings together, trying to find our way through our lives as best we can. That reality binds us. And it gives me hope that we can find ways to understand each other a little better.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Does it Require Faith to Be an Atheist?

There’s a phrase that sometimes comes up among religious people when discussing the reasonability of believing in God or not: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” This is usually supported by the claim that atheism requires you to believe that all the incredible complexity and vastness of the universe just happened by random accident. Further, they assert that it takes tremendous faith to believe that, because of the spectacular odds against us even being here to talk about it are so mind-bogglingly huge as to be virtual impossibilities.

It probably won’t come as much of a shock to you that I don’t think this position holds much water. But it’s just another example of the kind of thing that wraps so many misconceptions into one package that it takes far more effort to refute than it takes to state, and it sounds profound enough that someone who doesn’t really want to think about our viewpoint can easily believe it and move on.

But oh… where to begin? I guess first of all, atheism really isn’t a statement about what you do believe, but what you don’t. It’s a response to the claim “God exists,” and the response is “I don’t believe that.” Full stop. Atheism really doesn’t require anything other than that, and it takes no faith at all to not believe a claim.

But what about the odds of everything coming into existence without a God? Surely those are too astronomical to be discounted?

Well, here’s the thing. We really do know nothing of what those odds are. Being unable at present to look beyond our universe, we know nothing of the conditions that might prevail outside of it, how often those conditions may produce universes, and how much variation between different instances of universe creation they actually permit. It could very well be that it’s not possible for any other kind of universe to exist at all. Or it could be that the odds are astronomical, but so many universes pop into existence all the time that this exact one would be statistically inevitable. We just don’t know. But one of the interesting things about being an atheist is that, among us, “I don’t know,” isn’t a sentence to be feared. If anything, it’s an opportunity to learn.

But let’s say that the odds against the existence of this exact universe, where you and I exist and are able to have this conversation, really are as mind-bogglingly huge as stated. So what? It still requires no faith to believe that it came about anyway. The belief that it’s some miraculous occurrence that we’re here is kind of predicated on the assumption that our existence is important in some fundamental way, and that’s something we really have no reason to believe.

Let me give you an illustration of what I mean.

Say you have twenty standard six-sided dice. And let’s say you roll them and get the following result:

6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6

You would be amazed! Do you know what the odds are of getting that roll? I’ll tell you: 1 in 3,656,158,440,062,976. Approximately one in 3.6 quadrillion! Surely getting that result in a single roll would have to be a miracle!

But let’s say you roll the dice again. This time you get:

3 5 1 6 3 4 2 3 3 5 6 5 6 2 2 3 4 1 4 6

Well, shucks. That’s just random noise. Nothing special about that roll at all. But you want to know a little secret? The odds of getting that exact result in one roll of the dice is 1 in 3,656,158,440,062,976. Approximately one in 3.6 quadrillion. Exactly the same as that result of all sixes. You’d roll that and think nothing of it, despite the fact that it is exactly as likely as the result you would have called miraculous.

Any time you roll the dice, there has to be some result. And any configuration you can think of is exactly as likely (or unlikely) as any of the others. The only difference between the two results I gave is that we assign a meaning to a result of all sixes, and assign no meaning to a random collection of numbers. In other words, the one result only seems miraculous because we care about it.

It’s exactly the same with our existence in the universe, I’m afraid. Given a universe, it has to exist in some state. The only thing that makes the state in which we do exist seem miraculous, compared to the many possible states in which we don’t, is that we care about it.

It’s kind of like winning the lottery. To the person who wins, the odds must seem astronomical, and their winning might appear miraculous. But, of course, we know that someone must win. Well, in the great cosmic lottery of existence, we happen to be the winners.

But why does anything at all exist? I’m pretty comfortable with “I don’t know,” for the time being. It could be that existence is just fundamental. It might be necessary. It just may not be possible for there to be nothing. Maybe the laws of physics are such that our current state of being is far more likely that it appears at first blush. I don’t know. Maybe there are universe-building pixies. I don’t believe that either, but who knows? But what I’m getting at is the idea that there are so many possibilities other than “God,” or “random unfathomable chance,” that it makes no sense to believe in any of them that aren’t pointed to by actual evidence. And it takes no faith at all to not believe in them.

But even if it did, I don’t see any reason to believe that “a process we do not (yet) understand resulted in the universe as we know it existing,” somehow requires more faith than “a process we do not (try to) understand resulted in a fully formed self-aware entity infinitely greater than the universe existing, and it decided to make the universe as we know it.” That’s something we atheists regard as solving a mystery by appealing to a bigger mystery.