Friday, 16 October 2015

Is "Rabid Atheism" As Bad As Rabid Religiosity?

I posted on Facebook in response to a news item that Sylvester Stallone had sent his family to Haridwar in India to perform a "shradh" (Hindu funeral rites) for his son Sage, in the hope that his son's soul would attain peace.

I posted that in order to comment on the human need for comfort in times of grieving, which a purely rational way of thinking (which is what atheism is) cannot provide, even though it is probably the truth.

I said,

Atheism is too bracing a truth to offer needed comfort to grieving people. That explains why religion continues to have such a hold on humanity. The Hindu ceremony is no more valid than a Christian funeral service, because there really is nothing after death. But I do understand why Stallone would seek out ways to find comfort.

In response, I received the following comment:

How do you know there's nothing after death? Have you been there and back? Rabid atheism is as stupid as rabid religiosity. I would leave individual souls to seek out their own truth, whatever that turns out to be.

Let me answer this in two parts.

First, atheism is not a belief. It is the refusal to believe in ideas that have no evidence to back them up. Perhaps the term "atheism" is too emotive for many people. Let's just call it rationalism then, with no loss of accuracy.

Do you believe that after you shut down your computer, Windows (or whatever your operating system is) continues to run somewhere "up there"? You surely know that an operating system, although an intangible thing ("software"), only runs when electricity flows through the hardware circuits of your computer. When the computer is down, the operating system simply cannot be running.

This isn't a far-fetched analogy for human consciousness. Functional MRI has mapped the exact regions of the brain that are responsible for our thoughts and feelings. One area of the brain "lights up" when we are trying to solve a mathematical problem, another part lights up when we are trying to remember the words to a song, yet another lights up when we are being creative. Similarly, different parts of the brain are active when we have different feelings, such as happiness, sorrow, and anger.

Research has also shown that the brain consumes energy when experiencing thoughts and feelings. It is very like a computer that requires energy to process information. In fact, it's an exact analogue.

Now, if all thoughts and feelings are, as proven by scientific investigation, the result of activity in brain cells, doesn't it logically follow that when brain cells decompose and die, they will no longer be capable of sustaining thoughts and feelings?

Isn't it therefore highly unlikely that there is no such thing as a thinking, feeling, disembodied soul? Just because the belief in a soul is widespread, it does not mean it is true. On the contrary, it simply means the majority of humanity is not thinking logically. This may be a hard idea to accept, but as the saying goes, truth is sometimes bitter.

Second, here's why rationalists can't simply "leave individual souls to seek out their own truth".

Implicit in the question is the argument that beliefs, however irrational, are benign personal affairs that should be no one else's business.

Indeed, personal beliefs are every individual's own business, except when they manifest themselves as impositions on other people.

This is exactly what religious beliefs do. They don't remain benign, personal beliefs for long.

"My religion tells me that women should cover themselves from head to toe. So I will force women to cover themselves from head to toe even if they don't want to."

"My religion says apostasy is a crime punishable by death. So if someone from my faith says they no longer believe,  they must be killed."

"My religion says this path is the only way for your soul to be saved. So because I love you and want your soul to be saved, I will disparage your faith and try to convert you to mine."

"My religion says the cow is holy and eating its meat is a sin. So I am justified in lynching you because I think you may have eaten a cow's meat."

This is why rationalists cannot sit back and let people maintain their irrational beliefs. Because sooner or later, those "personal" beliefs start to affect the lives of other people who do not share them, and who have a right not to share them.

So no, there is no such thing as "rabid atheism". Uncompromising adherence to logic is not rabidity.

And no, atheism is nowhere near as bad as religiosity.
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