Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Atheist Thirteen

Tagged by Shuggy with this one. Three of the questions have gone AWOL somewhere along the line though.

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

Well, I’m an agnostic, not an atheist. I’d say that pronounced atheists are religiously certain that there is no god of any kind, and are probably a bit tone-deaf (using
Terry’s phrase) to anything that sounds like it has a religious root. I’ve gone through phases myself of discounting things out of hand because of the kind of fallacies that religion is full of, and I think we all sometimes reject our own previous positions a bit too strongly, so I’m probably being a bit unfair to atheists here.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Yes – Catholic. We went to Mass every Sunday and sat behind a large family of Italian girls. I found this very inspiring and it caused me to dwell upon just how well those six days of creation were spent. My parents are still quite Catholic. They sent me (briefly) to a ‘Junior Seminary’ instead of the usual state school. I was
‘asked to leave’ after a short while for a combination of chippiness and truancy, and I went to a Catholic comprehensive school instead. I’ve argued before (in the comments on Shuggy’s site, agreeing with him) that schools with wide catchments have some positive unintended benefits, so I have no regrets about having been brought up a Catholic.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

I think the crab-wise way that we are edging towards an understanding of lots of aspects of human behaviour is exciting - the patient persistent march of reason. When I hear religious people talk about the wonders of creation, I agree with them about how huge, spectacular and fascinating it all is. I just get really impressed by the way that we are learning to conceptualise and document it all.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

Well, we always think of those who hold the anti-god view extremely and loudly as ‘the atheist community’, don’t we? Most non-religious people I know hold the view lightly, with a modicum of wit and a twinkle of charm. I should add that – though I’m an agnostic - I’m pretty certain that almost every religious explanation for anything that I’ve heard so far is nonsense. So I’d not change anything.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I’m joining the clergy", what would be your first response?

My kids wouldn’t stick at it for long, I don’t think, so I’d be fine about it. Organised religion has a real crisis on its hands here –
‘the vocations’ (as we Papists used to call it) have a similar problem to political parties. People are less willing to paint themselves into corners in the way they used to.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

I’ve always been very influenced by a lot of Catholic custom. I like the concept of ‘examination of conscience’ and ‘a good confession’. I like the idea of preparing yourself for death so that – in a crisis – you will know how to react. “Between the stirrup and the ground, he mercy sought and mercy found.”

It is a useful moral exercise and it discourages lazy equivocation and buck-passing (or ‘negativism’ as I’d call it). The message that “if you die in a minute, would you want a very perceptive judge to measure your worth by your most recent actions?” is a good one to think about.

I think religious people are very good at reflecting on their faith and rehearsing their arguments. Catholics have the Nicean Creed – a simple statement of the components of their belief – I like the constant return to the fundamentals for the purpose of examination (this blog does this at tedious length).

The difference between me and a Catholic is (apart from the fact that the beliefs themselves are very different) that if the facts change, my creed does too.

Q8. What’s your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Shuggy’s own answer to this is really very good, as I don’t have much to add to it. I suspect that most of my other answers here would be ‘controversial’ with lots of other atheists.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

Hitchens is a really good writer and the most ruthlessly compelling debater of these points. I liked Richard Dawkins’ famous article (about fifteen years ago now, I think?) about how religion behaves like a computer virus, and I think that the whole ‘meme’ idea is a very instructive (if slightly ungrounded) notion. But I’m really not interested enough in the subject to read much further. I’ve barely read anything by Dennett and I’m not even 100% sure which Harris we’re talking about here.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

If my mum were to have some sort of agnostic epiphany, then maybe she’ll stop trying to de-lapse me. The idea of giving some religious nutcase an epiphany by waving a magic wand is quite a funny one. Imagine Osama Bin Laden – half way through one of his videos – saying “... er ... hang on a minute...”

Who to tag? Well, Phil - in Shuggy's comments has something that I'd like to see him expand on. The above-menched Terry also, and I've never tagged Rosie Bell with anything yet, so here you go Rosie.


James said...

Why did you leave the Church?

(I was raised Catholic and still am)

Paulie said...

Because I never really believed in god with any conviction - even when I was in my early teens James.

I just drifted off and never went back, and I don't have any rational reason to do so. If I did (and I really won't) it would be a coincidence that I drifted back to where I started.

Steve Platt said...

Does it matter if people believe in fairies? Or should we just leave them to it?

I used to have a cast-iron rule:

Never try to talk anyone out of their faith. You'll only make them unhappy.

Now I'm not so sure.