10 Questions About Atheism – A Lecture By George H. Smith

A post by Methodskeptic.


I recently attended a lecture by George H. Smith, best known as the author of Atheism: The Case Against God, entitled “10 Questions about atheism in Bloomington, IL. He made a point later on during the Q & A that I want to expand on.

Smith described how, if you go to a professor of academic philosophy and tell him about a significant conclusion you’ve reached, he may ask you “oh really, how did you figure that out?” You go over your process, and he says “well, that’s interesting, but you’ve based it on unsound reasoning here, you’re working on a couple of fallacies at this point and this other point, and I think you probably want to fix these problems.” Philosophy professors, he said, are not so much concerned with your conclusion as they are with the process by which you got there. If you have fundamental problems, they’ll send you back to square one.

Now, contrast that with a Christian philosopher.  Smith pointed out how, if you go to one of them and say you’ve accepted Christianity, they won’t question your reasons one bit. There’s no wrong answer you can give, Smith said, you might as well say you saw the face of the Virgin Mary on a potato chip. (I’ve seen others talk about songs they heard at apropos moments, religious bumper stickers that crossed their path, and other such coincidental agency-detection.) Smith asked the audience: can you think of any reason, any motivation, any process or evidence you could give that would cause a religious philosopher or apologist to say, “sorry, that’s no good, you need to go back to the drawing board?” Of course not. The baptismal font is right this way, we’re so glad to have you.

Even though Smith moved on to the next question at this point, I’ve been chewing on this a bit more since then.  I’ve read other accounts which indicate the same holds true if you go to an imam to say you have accepted Islam. They’ll teach you the words in Arabic you need to proclaim, point which direction is East and Babar’s your uncle. I don’t know about Hinduism, Judaism, or other religions with strong demographic affinities, but Christianity and Islam are certainly the big two when it comes to active recruitment. Buddhism seemingly takes anybody, but I really wonder if the monks get sick of American dilettantes who come to the temple for six months, pick and choose whatever they fancy and eventually are never seen again.*

The reason I bring up Islam and Christianity in the same breath is to point out the obvious answer–the only way you can go wrong when you get religion is to get the wrong kind of religion. Don’t go to a Christian philosopher and tell him there is no god but god, and Mohammed is his prophet. Don’t go to a Catholic and tell him about Calvinism. Don’t go to a Baptist and tell him you got a free copy of the Book of Mormon, oh no.

The any-answer-is-right and the all-other-answers-are-wrong syndromes are two sides of the same coin for me, and it all comes back around to the first point: there is no objective standard for either correctness or error when it comes to religious ideas. Insufferable apologists will construct impregnable castles in the air about how their particular belief is the only “objective” standard of truth, or knowledge, or morality, but when it comes down to real world application, the only thing that matters is whether you agree with their personal spin, the bible verses they personally have concluded are probative.

Give me science, where your research will stand or fall on its own merits. Give me neurology and psychology, which beat the mental bushes until cognitive biases and irrational behaviors are flushed out into the open where they can be pinned to the ground with spears. Give me a solid foundation in philosophy and critical thinking, even though raising your consciousness to ubiquitous logical fallacies and unsound reasoning will spoil everything worse than a solid week spent reading TVTropes. They’re everywhere, and you can’t not see them; it’s maddening at times, but wouldn’t have it any other way. I can and have told people that their process of belief is cracked and they need to stay off my side until they figure out where they went wrong.

*I know American Indians get heartily disgusted with the “Wannabe” tribe, the Pinkskin Nation. We’ve stolen their territory, killed off 98% of them, destroyed their languages and now they have to put up with patchouli-scented hippies asking for peyote before they can say “you know you’re on Lakota land, right?”

”10 Questions About Atheism” was a presentation courtesy of Bloomington-Normal Freethinkers and was held Monday, May 2, 2011 in the Community Room of the Bloomington Public Library.  For more information, go to www.meetup.com/bnfree.

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