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Atheism on the Rise?

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4reason
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I recently read an interesting article entitled "Atheist in the Pulpit" in the current issue of Psychology Today and was a bit surprised at some of the article's claims, one such claim being that atheism is one the rise. The only proof they seem to cite, however, is the rising book sale numbers of atheist texts, such as "The End of Faith" and "The God Delusion." It is an interesting article nonetheless and it is online as well. It goes through the biography of several former preachers who eventually lost their faith and their reasons why... some very interesting insights. I'm not sure how to post a link, but here's the address where you can find the article:

http://psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20071228-000003.xml

Shoot. I just realized the link works, but the article is only partially online. (It only shows the first page or so). Maybe it will capture enough people's interest though, and you'll be inspired to pick up the issue yourself. :P

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Although it is good to see more discussion on the follies of religion, I am obliged to argue that Atheism in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. Marxism, Nazism, Solipsism and various forms of Eastern Mysticism are all Atheistic philosophies*. In fact, describing oneself as an atheist says absolutely nothing about what you believe in. Atheism does not even indicate if you accept reason as a valid means to knowledge.

This is in particular why I do not like to primarily identify myself as an atheist. In particular, if I am asked in an online field to indicate my religious preference, I always list "not religious" as opposed to "atheist". I do not want to elevate atheism to the status of religion. Rest assured, I certainly am an atheist. I would just much rather describe myself with words that suggest what I do believe in.

I do not know too much about the major atheists in the media. Christopher Hitchens used to be a committed Marxist. I believe there was even a debate where he and a Socialist debated two Objectivists during the mid-80s (I think John Ridpath and Leonard Peikoff?) on the issue of Socialism versus Capitalism.

Andrew Bernstein told me that Sam Harris is a definite believer in Eastern Mysticism, which seems believable.

Richard Dawkins, who I would say is generally good, does not even seem to have any promising answers on alternative sources to ethics in lieu of religion. In his book, The God Delusion, he implicitly seemed to embrace an altruistic code of ethics without question and suggested Immanuel Kant as a valid source of ethics.

Anyway, I would be more overjoyed if I read in the news that Objectivism was on the rise or at the very least, that reason and rationality were rising.

* I remember being told that Hitler had some bizarre Nordic religion involving Odin worship that he tried to advance, but it never caught on. Nevertheless, even if this was true, it was not an essential part to Nazism as an ideology.

Edited by DarkWaters
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I don't know about Odin worship, but I remember reading about the idea that Aryan traits were the diluted traits left over from the god-ancestors that came down to earth.

From listening to the 'Four Horsemen' table discussion (Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens, available on google video) I didn't get the impression that Sam Harris was into mysticism of any variety. I'd be interested to see Bernstein support his assertion. The horsemen do seem to have retarded ethical systems.

For good or ill, I think Atheism is on the rise. Has anyone heard of Camp Quest? I read an article about it in the Stars and Stripes - a full-page article in a military publication.

http://www.camp-quest.org/

While I can't speak to the ethics they teach, to me this is a welcome alternative to the Christian summer camps to which my secular parents sent my siblings and me. Imagine your children learning logical fallacies before meals instead of singing the lord’s praise!

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Harris doesn't believe in what an Objectivist would call "mysticism," because he rejects the supernatural. He is interested in eastern philosophy, because he thinks that the eastern methods of meditation, contemplation, etc. can help someone gain a better understanding of his own process of consciousness. I don't know enough about eastern philosophy to know whether or not I agree with him, but I've listened to him enough to know that he doesn't buy into whatever supernatural/noumenal stuff that eastern mystics buy into. He does use words like "spiritual" and "mystical," but he's usually careful to caveat them by pointing out that he doesn't mean them in the supernatural sense, but that he can't think of a better word to use.

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Although it is good to see more discussion on the follies of religion, I am obliged to argue that Atheism in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. Marxism, Nazism, Solipsism and various forms of Eastern Mysticism are all Atheistic philosophies*. In fact, describing oneself as an atheist says absolutely nothing about what you believe in. Atheism does not even indicate if you accept reason as a valid means to knowledge.

I, too, prefer to identify myself as non-religious rather than an Atheist, and I do not necessarily contend that "atheism" is a good thing. I try to avoid making generalized statements like that, especially in religious matters, because it's such a hot topic that people have so many different definitions of. Saying I am an atheist may mean one thing when I say it to another person, and something entirely different to the next.

What was particularly interesting about the article, though, was that it went through the stories of people who abandoned their faith; people who were not only highly religious, they were religious leaders. Several of the tales about the "indifference" they encountered when they confessed their failing faith to their religious superiors reminded me a lot of Leonard Peikoff's account of how he got turned away from religion by an honest rabbi (I think it was a rabbi). The religious superiors, in several cases, treated the loss of faith as no big deal. as if to say "That's okay, just keep giving a good sermon every Sunday." It revealed the dirty side of religious leadership, and gave further credence to the notion that religion, at its root, is really about power. It's a way to influence others; to get them to do things that benefit you (tithing in Catholicism, for example).

That's what I enjoyed about the article; I don't necessarily contend that the "rise of atheism" is a good thing (esp considering that the article never really clearly outlined what the author's definition of atheism was...) but I am definitely optimistic about its premise that people are beginning to question faith and the institutions of religion in all the right ways.

Edited by DavidOdden
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I, too, prefer to identify myself as non-religious rather than an Atheist, and I do not necessarily contend that "atheism" is a good thing. I try to avoid making generalized statements like that, especially in religious matters, because it's such a hot topic that people have so many different definitions of. Saying I am an atheist may mean one thing when I say it to another person, and something entirely different to the next.

Just for completeness, I did not think that you viewed Atheism as a good thing in itself! :) I just wanted to reiterate that Atheism, as such, is devoid of philosophic content.

What was particularly interesting about the article, though, was that it went through the stories of people who abandoned their faith; people who were not only highly religious, they were religious leaders. Several of the tales about the "indifference" they encountered when they confessed their failing faith to their religious superiors reminded me a lot of Leonard Peikoff's account of how he got turned away from religion by an honest rabbi (I think it was a rabbi). The religious superiors, in several cases, treated the loss of faith as no big deal. as if to say "That's okay, just keep giving a good sermon every Sunday." It revealed the dirty side of religious leadership, and gave further credence to the notion that religion, at its root, is really about power. It's a way to influence others; to get them to do things that benefit you (tithing in Catholicism, for example).

This also illustrates the blatant intellectual dishonesty that many religious leaders have. This often explains why some of the seemingly most pious people can be very miserable and insecure.

Edited by DarkWaters
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Atheism, properly understood, is indeed a vacuum, it's a "negative" label of what the people it refers to are not.

I think a lot of people have trouble understanding this. Perhaps that is why people try to tar atheism as itself a religion. (Or maybe they are outright dishonest rather than befuddled.)

And then there is the stereotypical atheist: the squishy marxist "humanist" who can be relied on to be left wing as can be. One disadvantage of the label is you will probably be lumped in with these people.

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I didn't get the impression that Sam Harris was into mysticism of any variety. I'd be interested to see Bernstein support his assertion.

After watching Harris debate Rabbi Wolfe, I may not have to wait for Bernstein. Harris refuses to distance himself from the belief in reincarnation or other forms of life after death.

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[sam Harris] said that [reincarnation and the existence of an afterlife] are scientific claims and can be investigated scientifically, a position with which I agree.

How could either the occurrence of reincarnation or the existence of an afterlife be investigated scientifically? Both seem to presuppose something unknowable, such as a soul or an alternate spiritual dimension? There does not seem to be anything empirical that we can observe to confirm or deny such claims. Did you just mean that we could explore these claims philosophically, and decide if we have any reason to believe in them?

Edited by DarkWaters
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How could either the occurrence of reincarnation or the existence of an afterlife be investigated scientifically? Both seem to presuppose something unknowable, such as a soul or an alternate spiritual dimension? There does not seem to be anything empirical that we can observe to confirm or deny such claims. Did you just mean that we could explore these claims philosophically, and decide if we have any reason to believe in them?

I can think of some theoretical ways that reincarnation could be empirically investigated, though the idea of an afterlife is more difficult. If you could identify a genuine, irrefutable case of xenoglossia, I think that would qualify as evidence for reincarnation. Now don't go thinking I'm a kook...I'm aware that it's total bullshit. This is purely hypothetical.

I think that Harris views any claim about the nature of reality to be a scientific claim...any claim you make about the universe can be investigated scientifically, in his view. Someone (maybe Daniel Dennett, but I don't know that for sure) recently wrote a book called God: The Failed Hypothesis, which treats God as a scientific proposition and proceeds to investigate it scientifically. Needless to say, the author scientifically rejects the hypothesis that posits a divine creator.

Maybe "investigate philosophically" is a better phrase, but that isn't what Harris calls it. Whether or not you agree with his claim that these things can be investigated scientifically, I think it's clear that his view does not posit anything supernatural or paranormal.

Edited by Moose
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How could either the occurrence of reincarnation or the existence of an afterlife be investigated scientifically? Both seem to presuppose something unknowable, such as a soul or an alternate spiritual dimension? There does not seem to be anything empirical that we can observe to confirm or deny such claims.

I can think of a way to research both. I'm not sure how rigorous either is. here's how:

Afterlife. Choose a subject whose manner, place and time of death is known to only a few people. For example, a murder victim, someone who died accidentally, someone who commited suicide, of whom the details of their deaths are known only to the police, the ME, and the killer (if any).

Next summon the subject from the afterlife, assuming this is possible, using all safeguards against fraud (ask james Randi, or any half-competent stage magician for details). question the subject regarding the details fo his death. Do not offer him choices, merely ask him to describe when, where and how he died.

Finally compare such details to those you obtain from the authorities. If they match reasonably well, you may just have proved something.

Reincarnation. This is a bit different. For once you need at least two subjects for each experiment: 1) the dead person and 2) the person he reincarnated into. So you pick subjects whose life is documented but the details of which are very obscure. I suppose you'd start with people from the second group, then try to match them with whom they claim to have been.

The rest is pretty much the same. You queston the reincarnee and see whether the details match reasonably well.

Now, if you want to see whether a dead man can choose whom to reincarnate into, you could set up an experiment using volunteers before they die. Have them write down something, or tell them something, then see if, years alter, the reincarnee remembers those bits of information well enough.

Of course, this assumes there is an observed phenomenon that warrants further investigation. I do not think there is.

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I can think of a way to research both. I'm not sure how rigorous either is. here's how:

The former experiment presupposes not only an afterlife but an ability to communicate with souls in the afterlife. The latter presupposes recollection from a previous life. A mystic can easily claim that either of these are untrue while still clinging to the claim that there is an afterlife or that reincarnation is true.

Nice try though!

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The former experiment presupposes not only an afterlife but an ability to communicate with souls in the afterlife.

Both mystics and regular religious people make such claims. Let them provide evidence through experiments, then.

The latter presupposes recollection from a previous life.

that's about the whole point of reincarnation, isn't it? The mystics claiming it say they can awaken memories of past lives through hypnosis. Well, then, let's test that too. If we start with living volunteers, we could get irrefutable evidence in five or ten years. Surely some hardcore believers in reincarnation are close to dying.

A mystic can easily claim that either of these are untrue while still clinging to the claim that there is an afterlife or that reincarnation is true.

Well, for that matter a mystic can claim the mere idea of testing or experimenting will haunt away the ghosts, or destroy the past life memories, or make them inaccessible. And he'd say he can prove it through the uncertainty principle.

Nice try though!

Thanks. But really I stole the idea from H. Beam Piper's "Paratime Police" stories. A very good read, BTW, even if one story does prove reincarnation; at least his characters do it to refute the socialists in their world, sort of.

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