Monday, April 16, 2007

Atheism is Just One Aspect, is Christianity?

For all that I talk about and identify with atheism, it is just one aspect of a larger set of my beliefs and ethics. The same can be said for most, if not all, of the atheists that I've met or read their blogs/articles/books. However the larger set is labeled it must, by definition, come before atheism in our personal taxonomy of beliefs. For instance, atheism does not describe the fact that I don't believe in fairies, mummy's curses, or The Secret. Yet my disbelief of these things, as with my disbelief in any divine being, are all aspects of the same set of beliefs/disbeliefs.

The label that I prefer for this larger set is Bright. As defined on the Bright's website:

What is a bright?

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview
What I like about the term Bright in particular is that it is also a movement, so it is also speaks about a desire and a goal. You can read more about the Brights' reason and purpose on their webpage. With this definition, atheism is clearly a subset of beliefs, stemming from a worldview that is free of the supernatural.

vjack has recently examined the topic, declaring Secular Humanist First, Atheist Second in a well thought out post. I had just one quibble:
If you ask me why I am an atheist, the core of any response I will give you is that my application of reason and science gives me no reason whatsoever to accept the theistic belief claim (i.e., that any sort of god or gods exist). But why do I believe that reason and science are valid ways of acquiring knowledge while blind faith is not? This takes us to secular humanism.
I don't think you can compare faith and reason as methods of acquiring knowledge on even ground, regardless of anyone's beliefs. The difference is that faith cannot acquire knowledge from new data, while reason and science can. Faith can gain new insights from analysis of existing information, or can gain tangential historical information from archaeological discoveries, but they can't create circumstances that can generate new data -- what science does with experimentation. There are new discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that are clearly not tangential, but these are still pre-recorded information. They have simply been rediscovered.

Science also gains information from continued analysis of old data, and from archaeological discoveries (as well as paleontological, geological, and astronomical glimpses into the past). But it also creates new knowledge and new data that can lead to whole new fields of study -- think of all of the new science like nanotechnology and quantum chromodynamics that weren't around 100 years ago.

This leads me back to the concept of atheism being just one aspect of a larger set of beliefs. Can the same be said of Christianity? No, for the most part I don't think it can. (I will limit my discussion here to Christianity because I am not familiar with enough religions to categorically make this claim.) For all of the fuss that Christian fundamentalists make over how their moral guidelines are taken straight from the bible, this should be obvious. This is also revealed in the points I just made about the acquirement of new knowledge.

Because Christianity is limitated to existing material, and can not acquire new data, modern Christianity is a closed system. (I specify 'modern' Christianity because early Christianity was rife with religious imports, and it borrowed material from other religions during its period of establishment.) Therefore, it must, according to its own tenets, have generated its ethics and the structure of its beliefs internally. Anything else, and they are on the slipperly slope of admitting that their religion was created by man.

But what about ethics and beliefs outside of Christianity, like dragons, leprechauns, and Sylvia Brown? Obviously the bible has nothing specific to say about Sylvia Brown, although the fact that she's a Christian seems to be enough to convince people that she falls within the realm of Christian beliefs. The bible does mention dragons, although it's more a subject of translation. That doesn't stop some people from saying that when the bible mentions dragons it is referring to dinosaurs, that St. George's Dragon was a dinosaur, etc.

What about leprechauns, fairies, the loch ness monster, and other myths and fables? Doesn't belief in a supernatural deity automatically license the possibility of other supernatural claims? I don't think that believing in God means that you automatically believe in zombies (except for Jesus and all of those other prophets that rose out of the grave when Jesus did), but believing in one supernatural thing makes it easy to believe in others. In this aspect the specifics do come down to personal belief -- which is backed up, post hoc style, by the established existence of the supernatural. In this way, Christianity does not declare these to be truths, but allows them.

1 comment:

vjack said...

I think we're in agreement here. Faith is not a valid way of acquiring knowledge. In fact, it has nothing to do with knowledge. To serve as an effective basis for knowledge, a method must have a way of distinguish truth from falsehood. Faith cannot do this. It is acceptance of something as true without the requisite evidence to support veracity.

Careful about concluding that Christianity is a closed system. I agree that it appears such at first glance, but we can find evidence of evolution in church doctrine. Throughout the ages, the church has updated their biblical interpretations (and continues to do so) in a futile effort to remain relevant. Thus, there is a degree of movement which can happen even if it happens within certain boundaries.