What Does Atheism Offer That Belief In God Can’t?

in-person_questionIt seems that atheism is puzzling to believers. Demian Farnworth recently interviewed Hemant Mehta and in the following comments asked him,

What does atheism offer that belief in God can’t?

I certainly admire the approach of asking non-believers what they think, rather than guessing. Many of us lose track of the number of times we’ve been accused of only being atheists so we can act immorally or “do what we like“.

So what is so great about atheism?

Certainly there are genuine benefits to being an atheist. They’re not just obvious things like being able to cut your hair when you want, or getting a lie in on Sundays. Plenty of writers have already listed some more important advantages. Here’s a selection that I particularly liked.

From Adam Lee:

Being an atheist means you’re free to form your own opinions, rather than having your outlook colored by a belief system that tells you what you should think.

Being an atheist means you don’t have to think of yourself as a sinful wretch who can never do anything right.

From Dave Hitt:

Atheism, by itself, frees up a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in worship… It provides great freedom and at the same time great responsibility – while I can now do things without worrying if they’ll annoy some nasty sky-daddy, I also know that the results of my actions are my responsibility – I can’t blame it on “sin.”

The wrong kind of question

The benefits of atheism – what it offers – seem rather irrelevant. Likewise if it causes inconveniences to non-believers, that shouldn’t affect a person’s willingness to call themselves an atheist. The important thing is whether or not it is correct. Again, other people have already said some great things about the advantages of atheism.

On atheism.about.com Austin Cline says,

This is rather an odd question — shouldn’t the primary concern be with whether or not any gods really do exist? Shouldn’t the truth of this question be the focus of our attention, and not any personal advantage or disadvantage which we might get by taking one position or the other?

On asktheatheists.com, logicel asks,

Christians are atheistic towards all gods except theirs; atheists just go one god further. Why not also pose the question of what are the advantages of Christians not believing in other god(s)?

While Erik_PK’s answer I could not have put better myself.

I think this is a strange question, as it implies that religious belief is a bit like buying a new car – you look at the available accessories, compare gas mileage, and then figure out which one works best for you. Each person has their own idea of what’s important to them, so there are lots of opinions on what’s best.

But matters of existence are questions of fact rather than questions of opinion. They are not decided by what we would like to be true, but rather by what is true…

clogsDemian’s question makes me wonder how he and other believers think. Did they choose their belief based on what it offers? Did they “shop around” for a belief-system with the most benefits – a nice bunch of people, a reasonable moral code, plenty of religious holidays and a pleasant-sounding afterlife?

None of those things should matter. To be honest if I found a religion that provided sufficient evidence that it was true, I’d believe it. I wouldn’t care if it required me to wear wooden shoes, eat only vegetables and walk on all fours every Tuesday. Conversely, if a set of beliefs are false, then it doesn’t matter how many virgins believers could spend eternity with.

I’ve generally given believers the benefit of the doubt and assumed that they genuinely think their belief-system is correct. Certain questions from believers however, make me wonder if I’ve been right about that. For example, when a believer tried to convince me to join their religion by seriously suggesting Pascal’s Wager, I do wonder if it was the evidence or the fear of going to hell that convinced them. When asked for their reasons for believing, several believers have told me, “I find it comforting”. I’ve no doubt many believers genuinely think they’ve got it right, but suggesting “comfort” as a reason to believe suggests that veracity is a secondary concern.

Apart from the quotes above I’m speaking for myself here. Simply put, all atheism “offers” me is that it’s true. No doubt many believers feel the same about their beliefs. Atheism seems to me to be the only reasonable position. I don’t need it to offer me anything else, I have the rest of my life for that – my family, friends, sports, nature, humanism, sometimes even my job – offer me things to make life interesting. I see atheism more as a simple fact of life, like the sky being blue or the Earth being round.

I’d love to hear what others think about this, believers and non-believers. How important are the benefits your beliefs bring or claim to bring? How much does it matter to you whether what you believe is true?

Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure […] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at apologetics.com considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

Truth vs Comfort

While considering the beliefs of eccentrics like Garvan in his post “Right Not To Think“, yunshui recently questioned whether it would be morally right in every case to change the minds of those who believe falsehoods.

Most, like Garvan, have entwined religion so inextricably into their psyche that no amount of evidence or argument will ever convince them of their fallacy, but if one could unravel and break the faith-wire wrapped around their minds, would that be a kind thing to do?

To my mind, whether helping to de-convert someone is moral or not depends on the consequences of de-conversion for him and others. I think we can only guess at what they might be. If it was guaranteed to make him a happier and more tolerant person (as it does many people), then I’d say yes, of course.

But what extreme measures would be required to convert a devout and apparently deranged believer? Thoroughly educating them about the irrationality of their beliefs? Surrounding them by a community of non-believers? Isolating them from any religious influence? I suspect that in many cases a person’s beliefs are so deeply ingrained that the methods required to change their minds would be so extreme as to be immoral in themselves, never mind what the outcome might be.

Then again perhaps yunshui is thinking more along the lines of a thought-experiment. What if Garvan had grown up in a friendly, supportive and non-religious environment. What if he’d never heard of Jesus? What kind of person would he be? Again, I think we can only speculate.

It seems intuitively true that the world would be a better place if everyone believed only what was true. False beliefs lead people to bad decisions. That is why we should care about what people believe. But perhaps there are cases where delusions are helpful or at least have some beneficial effects. The superstitious rituals carried out by people in risky situations, such as gathering honey while dangling from a cliff, can make them feel safe when they’re not. That can have advantages and disadvantages.

One argument is to let people believe whatever makes them happy and not to challenge it. For instance, if they really need to go deep sea fishing in a small wooden boat or hunt wilderbeast so that their family can eat, then they might as well be made to feel comfortable while taking such huge risks. On the other hand, someone who has performed a meaningless ritual may be recklessly emboldened by the thought that they’ve done something useful to protect themselves. Far better that they are cautious and forced to look for practical ways to minimise the risk. For a start they could look at the weather before setting off.

But getting back to religious beliefs, in the majority of cases I see no reason not to question and challenge apparently false beliefs. Indeed, I think we all have a responsibility to work out what is true and to educate others as best we can.

However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental. As yunshui points out, psychologists have considered this question already.

Many delusional patients actually need their strange beliefs in order to function, so removing the framework of their worldview can be unproductive and even dangerous.

So was Colonel Jessep right when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”?  Those who’ve changed their minds in favour of atheism often report feelings of freedom and happiness as a result. However, de-conversion can be a traumatic process, even for those on a fairly even keel.

For those with a delusion related to mental illness the answer is more complicated and as a layperson I’d defer to the opinions of the psychologists involved.

Wild honey

Recently I caught a BBC documentary about pig farmer Jimmy Doherty’s visit to Nepal to gather honey with the local people using traditional methods in a highly risky situation.

As a ‘honey hunter’ Jimmy must scale a massive cliff to reach the home of more than two million bees and dangle 200 feet up to get their honey. If successful, the reward is not only to learn more about these amazing bees, but also to taste one of nature’s finest bounties, beautiful wild honey.

To make matters trickier, Jimmy doesn’t speak Nepali, and his hosts controlling the rope ladder from which he dangled didn’t speak any English. What’s more, these aren’t your friendly, common or garden honey bees. Due to the high altitudes in which they live, these bees are much larger. Jimmy’s medical advisers estimated that while he could get away with being stung a couple of times, more than seven stings would probably be fatal. The Nepalese protect themselves with simple smocks which leave the hands and feet exposed; Jimmy covered everything. Nevertheless, he somehow got stung three times.

The people who’ve gathered honey in this way for generations have built up a number of customs and superstitions around the practice. Some of these are quite sensible, like the rule that they always leave at least half the hives untouched, which ensures that plenty of colonies survive for the next year. Other pre-gathering rituals make less sense. They apparently take some time deciding when to make the climb and the decision hinges on such factors as the phase of the moon, the types of clouds observed and the condition of a newly-slaughtered sheep’s entrails.

Superstitions seem to arise most readily when there are many factors at least partly out of human control – although this video-clip shows at least one peril that could easily have been avoided. It’s not just the Nepalese honey hunters – most hunting cultures have pre-hunt good luck rituals. Historically sailors have also been quite superstitious, again perhaps due to the many risks of extended periods at sea and the capricious nature of the weather.

HMS BeagleIf you’re just rounding Cape Horn and the mother of all storms blows up, then even if you are incredibly rational and do everything right, it still might not save you. Hunting for food is vital to the survival of the group, but also a risky and unpredictable business. The prey might have moved on to more remote pastures or be in a particularly aggressive mood and injure members of the hunting party. Back in Nepal, I imagine that even today’s experts would still have trouble divining the moods of the bees or the stability the of the cliffs on which they nest. In all cases, there’s a factor that is out of human control.

To confuse things further, many superstitious beliefs mix readily with more useful ones. There are some pretty good reasons for not walking under a ladder that have nothing to do with the Holy Trinity or triangles and pyramids. In another example, there is a mariners’ rhyme which reads:

Trace in the sky a painters brush,
Then winds around you soon will rush

Long wispy cirrus clouds which can resemble a brush are indicative of a warm front approaching, bringing rain and wind. So there can be some truth to such folklore. Maybe the Nepalese honey hunters’ superstitions relating to clouds were also somewhat informative. However, it’s hard to imagine what genuine insights they could glean from a sheep’s intestine.

So in the face of situations beyond their control why do people resort to superstition?

It seems to me, with my armchair psychologist hat on, that us humans are especially uncomfortable when we don’t feel in control of our destiny. When in risky situations, with large elements of luck involved, we seem more likely to come up with superstitious rituals intended to protect us or predict the outcome. It might not help, but it makes us feel like we’re doing something when really nothing can be done. Put like that, it seems like a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and I guess it’s somewhat understandable that people in risky situations would get anxious.

So the answer seems to be “comfort”. Superstitious rituals that provide comfort are often harmless, unless they distract people from genuinely useful actions or make it harder for them to make the right decisions about the risks they’re taking.