Doctor Science Knows

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Atheism, Religion, Statistics

Left at Slacktivist under The Guinness Book, about the writings & advocacy of Os Guinness, an evangelical who is ticked at the political machinations of the Religious Right. Anyway, we wandered off to discuss "The New Atheists", among other topics.

Froborr [who asked about statistics and a marble-picking game]:

The flaw is in trusting the person who told them there's a white marble in there.

Here's another example. Introductory statistics courses always have a Chapter One quiz where they ask, "if you toss a fair coin 99 times and get heads each time, what are the chances that the next toss will be heads?" And you're supposed to answer, "one-half."

But in life outside the classroom, the chances are that *the person who told you it was a fair coin is lying*, and you should keep one hand on your wallet as you back away.

In both the coin case and the marble case, the premise-behind-the-premise is, who do you trust to tell you the parameters of the situation?

As far as I'm concerned, Christopher Hitchens is a successful one-man demonstration that atheists can be perfect jerks, too. So far, the score-card looks to me like:

Atheists: can be kind decent people or total douchebags.

Theists: can be kind decent people or total douchebags.

Society-level atheism: can be associated with war, genocide, oppression, etc.

Society-level theism: can be associated with war, genocide, oppression, etc.

hmm. Not very helpful, is it?

The only difference there *might* be in the "but do you get a better society?" sweepstakes is that the evil of rationalistic atheist regimes may have a shorter half-life than theistic evil. So for instance, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were just as high on the atroc-o-meter as a particularly horrible religious war, but they didn't keep going for generations. Atheist atrocities are easier to *stop* -- it's easier to get over a bad idea than a bad faith.


I should have said, "atheist atrocities run out of steam more easily." The Stalinist, Maoist, and Khmer Rouge atrocities were not stopped by external forces -- but they were all dependent on a particular individual, and when he was gone they withered away. As you say, the problem is authoritarianism and fanaticism, and atheism doesn't provide the structure that will keep it going into the next generation.

I consider both Kosovo and Rwanda atrocities of religious societies, not atheist ones. Yes, the Rwandan genocide was not along religious lines -- but religion did no good, either. Indeed, for me Rwanda was what pretty much destroyed any inclination to believe that Christianity might be good for a society, because Rwanda is not only Christian, but pretty freshly-Christian, without centuries of cultural bad habits intertwined with its Christianity.

And yet, when push came most directly to shove, Christianity did Rwanda as a society no *good*. If something that justifies an enormous investment of human energy, time & caring by saying "it's a moral system" is not able to get most people to act morally in the most blatant sort of moral crisis, how can it truly be a moral system?

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  • Samuel Skinner
    Why do I keep on hearing this? Atheism is not an ideology. Communism was the ideology involved in these cases. So the contrast is between communism and religion being bad, not atheism. All the communist happened to be atheists (well, probably), but that isn't saying much. None of them were vegetarians, libertarians, industrial workers, lower class or a bunch of other things. We don't judge them on that- we judge them on what they DID believe.

    For an example of an atheist country... you won't find one. Being the absence of a God belief, it sort of lacks an ideology. Secularism is th closest you get- it is "practical atheism"- people may believe, but act similarly to if they were atheists. That is the hope at least.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:21 AM  

  • Yes, communism is (was) an ideology, but anti-theism (not just atheism) was part of their basic policies. Communist regimes were ostensibly secularist & rationalist, even though they later took on many of the trappings of religion -- e.g. the preserved bodies of Lenin & Mao.

    What is striking to me is that, in spite of the way Communism seemed to converge on religion, it was fundamentally different in that it just made a noise like a hoop and went away. Communism was, in the end, more like a scientific theory than a religion, because it was falsifiable.

    There are certainly countries where most people don't believe in God or gods. In addition to Western Europe (which is, as you say, "practically atheist"), I don't think China has been theist for several generations at least -- and it's not clear to me how important gods have been in China historically, as opposed to the spirits of one's personal ancestors.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    By Blogger Doctor Science, at 5:20 PM  

  • Samuel Skinner
    And the Catholic Church claims to be rationalist. They actually believe this too- they intentionally started the modernist movement to show that the the Bible had no inconsistancies. Opps. They had to declare the movement heresy.

    Come to think of it most people believe their beliefs are rational. If they aren't they attempt to come up with a "rational" explanation.

    Antitheism was an integral part of revolutionary leftist movements. Of course conservatives tend to be extremely pro "traditional faith". Probably the two do it to spite on another.

    In China religion is increasing- the government is releasing the restrictions on certain religions. They are doing this to promote "social harmony". I can just imagine the decision making process for that.

    "Hmm.... it says here religion is the opiate of the masses."
    "Well, we can either legalizite or drug the water supplies."
    "Which is cheaper?"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:26 AM  

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