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Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Los Angeles Times had a great article on atheism at the link. "10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism". You have to register, but it is free. After about 2 weeks, the link will probably disappear, even if you register.

The article is by Sam Harris, author of a pair of books with titles sounding like defenses of atheism.

It's a good article, providing short rebuttals to many (most?) of the silly claims made about and against atheism and atheists.

Several points rang true for me. "Atheists are dogmatic." And "Atheists are arrogant." Hah. This is a case of projection. As a scientist, it is important to say "I don't know" when I do not know something. Believing in some created story about how the world came in to being, one that contradicts the commonly observed laws of nature is dogmatic. Saying that one does not know is hardly dogmatic. Insisting that you have the one true belief is arrogant.

"Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society." I don't know about the 'extremely' part.

As someone who got beat up by the catholic neighbor kids on occasion during grade school, I never quite fathomed the idea of religion as automatically being beneficial. Religion, while used to bring a small group of people closer, tends to separate larger groups. The conservative and dogmatic religious people of this world, whether found in the United States, the middle east or elsewhere are responsible for quite a bit of misery in this world. In the US, most of the home grown terrorism of the late 20th and early 21st century comes from right wing religious (and some non-religious) people as well. Not many atheists are currently going around setting off bombs, though that might have been different in the 1960's or so.

"Atheism provides no basis for morality." I find the golden rule "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" a useful adage for behavior. As a simple example, if you hit someone, they may hit you back, or worse, steal your toy from you. And not only is that someone's life a little more miserable, so is yours. For me to enjoy life, it is important to treat others well. I enjoy the relative safety and freedom of modern society. I imagine society, with some ups and downs, may eventually become even better, but right now is pretty good. But if I and everyone else went about damaging property, hurting people, stealing, things, this society would collapse. My kids would be hurt. If they were not directly hurt, society would be much poorer, and my kids would be poorer, with concomitant less chances of enjoying life, of reproducing, and so on.

The basis of morality in religion seems to be a kind of "be nice or else" threat. The threat is that "god'll get you" if you're not. Or, if your particular god of the moment is a nice beneficent god, then "god won't give you any nice toys when you die".

A cute point that Harris made is a quote "As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." " Here here. In the past, I've turned this around to ask why you don't believe in gods like Zeus, Hera, Odin, Thor, Atlas, Hercules, Isis, Yahweh, Allah, Shang Ti, Shen, Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Ekam, Akal Purakh, Ek Onkar, Aten, Ahura Mazda, Mithras, Xwede, Cao Dai, Jeebo, Jengu, Frige, Anshu. Ok, I'll stop.

Jared Diamond in his books has described how every little village and valley in the interior of Papua New Guinea (I think, pardon if in error), had a different culture, religion and language. Why aren't any of these religions the "right" religion? Or some of the other top ten most popular belief systems "correct"?

In a related vein, why do we use "mythology" to refer to the belief systems of other religions, particularly dead religions. This should be used to refer to the belief systems of currently popular religions. And the associated implication that these belief systems are not actually true, but are just stories should be carried along as well.

Thanks to Wikipedia article "Names of Gods" for the names here. See also this article for the last few and a bazillion more.

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