Apr 03 2015

There is No Problem with Atheism

CNN published an opinion piece yesterday: Deepak Chopra: The problem with atheism. I could not help but to read it, just as you have to slow down to look at the results of a serious car crash. Go ahead, Dr. Chopra, inform me about my own belief system, which you have demonstrated over the years you clearly do not understand.

He starts off reasonable enough. In fact, if I didn’t know the article was written by Chopra it could be confused for a reasonable position:

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of belief and unbelief. Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me, this is a positive development. If belief in God can’t stand up to proof, it won’t sustain a person through difficult times.

It’s always good to recognize a false dichotomy. Endorsing a demand for truth – also good. I take issue with his conclusion, however. I think supernatural beliefs can serve their emotional purpose whether or not they stand up to skeptical scrutiny. “Proof” is, by definition, irrelevant to faith, which is belief without proof.

The statement gets to the core of what I think is (at least one of) the problem with Chopra. He wants to be able to prove, or at least logically demonstrate, that his particular faith is truth. This is a common state, but ultimately it is folly. Either you follow logic, reason, and evidence to whatever conclusion it reaches, or you don’t. Faith begins with the conclusion. This is not a false dichotomy but a genuine stark difference in approach.

In other words, if you are starting with a faith-based conclusion, don’t bother with logic and evidence. It will almost certainly not lead you where you want, and you will just end up distorting logic and evidence for your own ends. Chopra is evidence of this. Likewise, if you follow logic and evidence, then you have to let go of any preconceived conclusion. The only other option is to compartmentalize the two – exempt your faith from logic and evidence, but also do not let it interfere with conclusions based upon logic and evidence.

But what does Chopra have to say about atheism, which he continues to conflate with “skepticism?”

I consider skepticism a way station on the way to a higher, more fulfilling kind of spirituality.

But what if you are skeptical of spirituality? Skepticism cannot be a method of arriving at a desired faith-based conclusion (in Chopra’s case, his particular brand of spirituality). Because our minds are so often chock full of culture, superstition, error, bias, and false beliefs what is overwhelmingly likely to happen is that true skepticism will be a method of systematically destroying all of your current beliefs, or at least significantly modifying them. Skepticism takes courage. You have to let go of anything you find comforting and leap into the darkness. You don’t know what you will find there, except that it will be the closest you will get to reality.

As an aside, that is what I loved about the movie, The Truman Show. By the end he realizes he has been living in an elaborate fiction. In this fiction he is the star, the most important person in the universe, and the world is constructed just for him. In this world he is protected and his life is literally scripted. But at the end he is given a choice. He could step out into unknown reality, or persist in his comforting fiction – and he takes that courageous leap.

Chopra goes on:

What’s not rewarding is to base your belief or unbelief on secondhand opinion. Being a knee-jerk skeptic is as limiting as being a knee-jerk fundamentalist. In both cases, the mind is being conditioned by others.

This is true but the implication is a straw man. Sure, basing a belief on a reaction to others or to society is not a good idea. It is letting others dictate your beliefs. But why does he think that atheists are doing this as a general rule? Who are these knee-jerk skeptics of which he speaks?

Whenever I read Chopra talking about atheists/skeptics I get the feeling that he is writing about this foreign thing he has never experienced. He should try engaging with some actual atheists/skeptics if he wants to pontificate on what our problem is.

After some typical Chopra woo, he gets back to being reasonable again (it’s quite a roller coaster ride):

Unfortunately, the goal of many faiths is to obey dogma and accept a cultural mythology. Atheism can do good by casting a skeptical light on cultural mythologies, but believing in nothing but the material world is cold comfort.

He doesn’t have to equivocate with “many” faiths. I think the statement applies to faith in general, again almost by definition. It is common for believers, however, to entertain such thoughts about all other faiths other than their own.

His conclusion is complex. Having a materialistic world view does eliminate things such as an afterlife, the notion that an all-powerful father figure is watching over us, or a ready-made purpose in life. I would not agree, however, that atheism is without comfort. I think it just takes a lot more maturity and intellectual courage to forge our own purpose, to live in a universe that doesn’t care about us, and to accept our mortality. But I will acknowledge that many people seek some form of spirituality for the easy comfort it may bring.

Chopra’s flirtation with reasonable-sounding statements reveal them to be the setup I suspected they were at the end of his article when he predictably goes off the rails.

Strong-minded, vocal atheists claim that God isn’t science and science isn’t God. But the implication that faith is irrational and only science knows the truth has no basis in fact.

Actually, perfectly reasonable and thoughtful philosophers would also say that God it outside the proper realm of science, and that faith is inherently irrational. Even the Jesuit Catholics acknowledge that faith is irrational.

Further, stating that scientists believe that “only science knows the truth” is misleading. Such a statement is meaningless without some definition of “know” and “truth.” Science does not pretend to have absolute knowledge of capital “T” Truth. Science is a method of accumulating objective knowledge about the universe. It is ¬†imperfect and incomplete, but it’s the best we have. Skepticism, while respecting the power of science, does not present it as absolute knowledge. Skepticism is more about challenging other alleged methods of knowing (revelation, intuition, authority) that have a dubious basis.

Rationality is a specialized aspect of the higher brain, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of life as anyone can tell you who has experienced love, music, art, compassion, self-sacrifice, altruism, inspiration, intuition — indeed, most of the things that make life worth living. Some studies indicate that scientists actually go to church more than the general population. They have found a way to be scientific in their work without turning it into a moral dogma.

This is another straw man. No one says that rationality is everything, or denies the power and value of love, music, art, and the rest. It is simply important for everything to be in its proper place. Love is an extremely important part of my life, and I understand it as a subjective feeling. I embrace the human condition, because I am a human, and there are some fantastic subjective experiences that come with being human. It’s all good. Chopra would have you believe that skepticism is a “moral dogma” that denies love. It’s pure nonsense.

I also think Chopra is misinterpreting the data regarding atheist scientists and church attendance. They don’t attend more than the general population, just more than non-scientist atheists.¬†Their reasons, according to the survey, are also more complex. They generally do it for their spouse and children, and feel there are benefits to be part of a community, even if you don’t accept the belief.

He concludes:

I feel for people who get stuck in any belief system, including rigid skepticism. They are signing up for the suppression of curiosity. As painful as it may be to question the faith you were brought up in, it’s worse to be stuck. The human story is about growth and evolution. That will remain true no matter who shouts loudest about God or the absence of God.

It seems that Chopra thinks all skepticism is “rigid skepticism,” which is his straw man. “Rigid skepticism” is an oxymoron. Skepticism is about being flexible, being able to change one’s belief in the face of evidence. It is not the suppression of curiosity. As Carl Sagan said in his series, Cosmos:

We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.

Curiosity and skepticism are not opposites, they go hand-in-hand.

I also find it ironic that Chopra is talking about the courage to deny the faith into which we are born. That is a far better description of most atheists than of Chopra himself, who endorses a version of the spirituality of the culture into which he was born.

The human story is about growth and evolution. Chopra would do well to evolve his own understanding of atheism and skepticism, rather than continuing to use it as a foil to push his own beliefs.

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