Friday, February 10, 2012

What Nonbelievers Believe

By David Niose

Created Feb 8 2012 - 5:53am

So strong is the concept of God-belief in our culture that the words "believer" and "nonbeliever" are understood as referring to only one thing: belief in a divinity. This can lead to some distorted thinking, such as the idea that "atheists don't believe in anything," a notion echoed even by high-profile politicians who should know better, such as Senator John Kerry. If this is conventional wisdom, it's little wonder that disbelief is often associated, incorrectly, with nihilism and moral breakdown.

This is one reason why the modern secular movement has become increasingly assertive in emphasizing what ordinary nonbelievers do believe. Typical secular views are rooted not in complex philosophy but common sense, and when they are fairly considered - without misguided prejudices - we find that they are neither extreme nor dangerous.

As I've interacted with secular individuals from all over the country in recent years - not just the scientists and professors, but the non-academics who are less likely to over-intellectualize - I've found that they disagree on more than they agree. This is a huge demographic with wide-ranging opinions on politics, economics, and other issues. Still, overall, they tend to be well informed, and they generally agree on certain basic facts beyond their disbelief in divinities. Here are some of the views most commonly shared across the nonbeliever spectrum:

Everything since the Big Bang can be explained naturally

Typical nonbelievers know that scientists are pretty sure that the universe began almost 14 billion years ago with what has come to be called the Big Bang. They know that knowledge gained through science gives us a general understanding of how the galaxies, stars, and planets subsequently formed, and how life evolved on Earth from microscopic replicators to more complex organisms, all the way to the wide variety of species that we see today. Every gap in knowledge has not been explained by science but, as noted by Jodi Foster among many others, enough gaps have been sufficiently filled that we can reasonably infer that the entire chronology - from the Big Bang to the rise of humanity on this obscure planet - can be explained without resorting to supernatural phenomena. If so, this means that there is no need for a God to explain anything that has happened since the Big Bang.

We can only speculate about what "caused" the Big Bang

Maybe that's true, your Sunday school teacher might argue, but surely the Big Bang itself (or whatever else "caused" the universe to come into existence) must have necessitated a God, right? This speculation, however, is based on not even a shred of evidence, and reflects very human biases about causation. (That is, since we are thinking beings that can create things, we assume that the universe itself must have been created by a thinking being.)

The believer, awestruck by the grandiosity of the universe and the puzzle of origins, will insist that "there must be something." To this, the nonbeliever will agree - yes, there must be something. But to nonbelievers, that something equates to explanations that have not yet been discovered. The difference between believers and nonbelievers is that the former insist that the "something" must be defined as a being with intent, or at least a mysterious "higher power." The nonbeliever, on the other hand, takes a more humble position, simply conceding that these questions cannot be answered based on current limits on knowledge.

Ethics do not require a God

The idea that religious belief is synonymous with morality, or at least that it correlates to a more ethical worldview, is still promoted by religious leaders, but is demonstrably untrue. As Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College notes in this article, studies consistently show that more secular societies have lower violent crime rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, and higher rates of education. This is true internationally, when we compare the more secular nations of Europe to more religious societies like the United States, as well as within this country, when we compare the more religious states to the more secular. In any analysis, the more secular democracies produce the most socially desirable outcomes. To conclude that people are good because they fear eternal punishment or seek eternal rewards is to overlook the mountains of data that show that what we call "ethical" behavior - traits like empathy and compassion, for example - is innate in many animals.

Religion is man-made

If we sit back and consider religion objectively, we can understand how and why it came into being. Those interested in this area might find Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which delves into great detail on the subject, a worthwhile read. The trait of assuming agency for natural phenomena is found in many animals, for example, and the development of myths can be seen as a useful tool for an extremely intelligent social animal. As humans organized into more complex societies, it is not at all surprising that religion became institutionalized as part of the power structure of those societies. None of this, of course, validates the truth claims asserted by any religion, but it explains why theology has been part of the human chronology for millennia.

The God of the Bible is especially implausible

Even if we accept, for the sake of discussion, the unsupported assumption that the world was set in motion by a thinking being of some kind, nonbelievers find the idea that this Supreme Being would judge us based on our believing in "Him" implausible. Having given usintelligence and sufficient reasons to justify religious skepticism, this divinity would have to be sickeningly cruel to thereby punish us for reaching doubtful conclusions about "His" existence. Even most believers would agree that, based on the evidence, a position of disbelief is not unreasonable. Yet we are to conclude that the Grand Deity would condemn us to eternal punishment merely for skepticism? Most enlightened societies today encourage attitudes that see real-world ethics as being more important than mere belief. Although this approach would seem sensible even to most believers, it nevertheless runs contrary to the biblical concept that salvation is impossible without faith.

The idea of prophecy is even less plausible than a God

Indeed, holy texts in general are troubling to nonbelievers. Most holy books - the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. - exist because religious leaders insist that the authors of those texts are legitimate prophets who received direct communications from God. If a modern person claims to hear voices from God, we immediately conclude that mental illness must be involved, yet the idea that ancient men were communicating with God is perfectly acceptable to the major religions. Revelation-based religion - whether the revelations were directed to the prophets of the Old Testament, Paul of Tarsus, Muhammad, or Joseph Smith - is simply unacceptable to nonbelievers. We may be uncertain about what, if anything, caused the Big Bang, but the illegitimacy of so-called prophets seems clear, a matter of common sense.

Only humans can solve human challenges

            And unfortunately, this is often a radical idea in modern America.

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