Mysterious rituals of the atheists

**Those declaring themselves godless provide a fascinating study for sociologists.
UNBELIEVERS from across the world met in Melbourne at the weekend for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. They were undoubtedly in a jubilant mood, and they have every right to be. Atheism, as you’ve probably noticed, is in vogue.

From the 2004 publication of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith onwards, impassioned polemics against religious belief have rarely been out of the bestseller lists. The God Delusion (2006) by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins - who spoke yesterday - sold more than 2 million copies in its first two years.

But book sales alone weren’t responsible for the atmosphere of celebration - even, perhaps, self-congratulation. For many, high spirits would have come from the thought that, simply by being there, participants were demonstrating their affiliation with a group that is more intelligent, better educated and more open to ‘‘the evidence’’ than the general population - not to mention those whom Dawkins calls ‘‘dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads’’, otherwise known as ‘‘religious believers’’.

Of course, styling oneself as most intelligent, informed or rational-minded is a political manoeuvre as old as politics itself. It is the most straightforward way of proving that one is in the right.

Everyone does it - Catholics, Marxists, Keynesian economists, Bob Dylan fans - as a way of justifying their views to others and to themselves. Yet non-believers have made it their speciality: hence their preferred labels ‘‘rationalist’’ and ‘‘freethinker’’ and, more recently, ‘‘reasonist’’ and ‘‘bright’’.

And until recently, in fact, they seemed to have unusually good grounds for doing so. Various sociological and psychological studies have shown a correlation between atheism and higher education levels in particular, with a handful of studies correlating it with intelligence levels more explicitly. One Australian example is the 1983 study of the NSW Humanist Society, which recorded a significantly higher level of education among its members when compared with the general population.

What is more, from the 18th century until well into the 20th, the level to which a society had secularised seemed to correlate with industrial, technological and other scientific advancement.

That is, rational scientific knowledge looked, incontrovertibly, to have a central role in the decline of religion.

In recent years, the picture has begun to look rather less clear. For a start, the connection between technological-scientific advancement and secularisation has become increasingly muddied.

The resilience of religion in the US over a century of enormous technological and scientific innovation was one of the first indicators, but this combination is now seen in other countries, such as India and South Korea. Furthermore, in recent years, those correlations between education and atheism levels have become less and less significant.

In some instances, the relationship has even reversed. Among young men in thoroughly secularised Britain, for example, those claiming ‘‘no religion’’ are slightly less likely to have a degree-level education than those who would self-describe with a religious label.

But does this mean that atheism is any more or less likely to be true, or that God is any more or less likely to a be a paranoid delusion? By no means.

Counting up how many intelligent or educated people subscribe to a particular view is a lazy way of avoiding engaging with the ideas themselves. And yet so much of the so-called ‘‘God debate’’ - a great opportunity for serious philosophical reflection - is wasted on scrapping over whether, and what, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton or (insert cliched genius here) believed.

The social sciences can make no comment on the existence or otherwise of God or any other supernatural phenomena. All they can do is demonstrate how humans perceive and relate themselves to such (real, imagined, or socially constructed) phenomena. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t eminently interesting or worthwhile.

Irrespective of its truth or falsity, contemporary unbelief is a fascinating social phenomenon - or phenomena, we would be better to say, in recognition of the variety of ideas and experiences of unbelievers.

While undoubtedly important, it is not merely ideas that drew about 2500 people to Melbourne for the weekend’s godless jamboree. For many, the event was perhaps their first experience of being in an auditorium full of people who think as they do.

You can, as Dawkins contends, ‘‘be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled’’. Of course you can - but the fact that he felt it needed saying just goes to show that this isn’t always the impression that unbelievers get from their families, friends, or society at large.

A 2006 study in the US, for example, revealed atheists to be the nation’s most distrusted minority - well ahead of, say, Muslims, homosexuals and recent immigrants.

The recent ‘‘rise of atheism’’, which was the convention’s subtitle, poses a great many questions for social scientists such as ourselves. Chief among them, perhaps, is: why now? Atheism is not exactly a new idea, and it’s as plausible - or implausible - now as it was 10, 50 or 100 years ago.

So, while a couple of thousand assorted unbelievers crowded around South Wharf, basking in the approval of their new-found and like-minded friends, we few sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists will continue our work trying to make sense of it all. And we will not need to turn to the philosophical question of who is right or wrong to do it.

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Interesting article, but I don’t like how it simply relates atheism to a degree. Pretty much anyone can earn one these days. I think it would have been more accurate if it related atheism to the number of provable beliefs the individual had, rather than unprovable ones, since that is what atheism is all about. Not sure if that made sense :stuck_out_tongue:

So…exactly what rituals were performed? I read the article, and it doesn’t sound like there were any.

I think they meant the convention? Though I’m not sure this is any different then a religious one. I don’t see speakers, conventions or dialogues as a mysterious ritual. Please don’t see this as me taking a side, I’m just trying to understand the article. :smiley:

I suppose the article’s author intends it as a joke, but obviously a convention isn’t a “ritual.”

The problem with it is that there are fools who try to argue that “atheism is a religion!” not realizing that it’s simply a position on a single question (and a lack of a belief, at that), not a religion.

The issue might be conceived like this: theism isn’t a religion; it’s a position on the question of whether there are gods. A theist might subscribe to a particular religion, but theism is not, in and of itself, a religion.

Similarly, atheism isn’t a religion; it’s a position on the question of whether there are gods. An atheist might subscribe to a particular religion (Buddhism and Taoism are popular among some atheists), but atheism is not, in and of itself, a religion.

Atheism is a belief - the belief that there are no gods. It has a “religious” aspect to it, in that the belief ultimately is a matter of faith. There is no way to logically prove a negative, so the atheist must make a leap of faith to accept their conclusion. It is not a “religion,” however, because there is not any doctrine or organization associated with it.

It’s actually not. Atheism – the way most atheists actually use the word – is the lack of belief in gods.

It’s not a positive belief that requires faith.

Let me give you an example: I don’t believe in the Hindu god Shiva. My lack of belief in Shiva is not a “belief” – it’s based on the fact that I think that those making the claim that Shiva exists have not met their burden of proof. Those claiming that something exists have to provide evidence; rejecting something for which I think there is insufficient evidence isn’t a “belief” or a “faith” – it’s the rational position to take.

You could describe me as an A-Shiva-ist, but that wouldn’t indicate that I have a “belief” or “faith.” An atheist is the same way: an atheist doesn’t have a belief in any god for the exact same reason: there’s no evidence. In other words, it isn’t a belief, but a position that any rational person would take towards anything for which there is no evidence.

Now some atheists go further and actually assert a belief that there are no gods, but this is extra. The thing that makes them atheists is not having a belief in gods.

That’s fair. Atheists are intellectually lazy and don’t feel the need to investigate far enough to come to a conclusion. I’ll accept that.

Actually, you got it backwards.

The illogical and unreasonable burden is placed on the atheist to prove a negative … that is - to prove there is no god. The burden of proof is on the believers. They’re the ones making such claims. People like myself simply don’t believe in such claims. There’s nothing more to it.

So, you think it is possible to prove a negative? :stuck_out_tongue:

[quote=Mr Skeptic]The illogical and unreasonable burden is placed on the atheist to prove a negative … that is - to prove there is no god. The burden of proof is on the believers. They’re the ones making such claims. People like myself simply don’t believe in such claims. There’s nothing more to it.

Yes. I agree. It is very easy to be a skeptic and come to no conclusions yourself.

In some cases it might be an intellectual laziness – some of these dumb teenagers who become atheists because “there’s so much evil in the world, man” are extremely lazy and dumb, and I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them and their ridiculous arguments. [just as, I’m sure, a thoughtful theist wouldn’t want anything to do with the fools who believe in god because "Look at the birds and the trees – how else could it have happened?!]

In many other cases, however, you will find that atheists have given a lot of study and thought to the question and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to justify belief in gods.

Whether they’re right or not is a separate question – but you really can’t deny the fact that many atheists are sincere, intellectually curious, and rationally convinced that there is currently insufficient evidence.

Indeed. They’ve made the leap of faith and come to a conclusion that they don’t know if there is a god or not. It’s okay with me. I know that Our Lord will give them the ability to come to know him.

That’s a twist on what I said.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Thor doesn’t exist. That’s not belief. It’s a rational conclusion based on evidence, (or, lack thereof).

"Mysterious rituals of the atheists"

Huh? :ehh:

Indeed. You made a conclusion based on lack of evidence. Good work! :stuck_out_tongue:

Do you have evidence for the existence of Leprechauns? Do you conclude they don’t exist, or, do you have faith that they don’t exist?

I can’t prove that they don’t exist, but I do believe that they don’t exist. Therefore, through a leap of faith, I conclude that they don’t exist.

It’s pretty simple really…or are your conclusions incontrovertible?

WHAT??? Leprechauns do exist!

Silly non-domers…

So, for you, it takes a leap of faith to conclude that there are no Leprechauns? I am reminded of Russell’s Celestial Teapot.

are your conclusions incontrovertible?

Not at all. My conclusions are tentative, and subject to modification and change. How about you? Are your conclusions about the existence of God incontrovertible?

Only because the evidence is too great. After too many “coincidences,” it is difficult to keep lying to oneself about God’s existence. I was an atheist, so I have faith that you won’t be one forever…even though there is not sufficient evidence of that right now. :wink:

God bless you in your journey Mr Skeptic.

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