Theism, Atheism and Everything in Between

As foretold, I have been on a bit of a hiatus due to school and, more importantly, our impending House Music - which we're going to flop, but at least Part Song will be fun.

Anyway, we had a chapel service as per usual. In the chapel service two drama students performed a "play" (read: thinly veiled piece of religious propaganda). Now, I've performed thinly veiled pieces of religious propaganda before. It's strangely fun if you throw yourself into the part and ham it up. However, my piece was actually well-written (poor drama students, you are lovely people and you're only doing the best you could with such an awfully written script), and, more to the point, it didn't make my blood boil with its assertion of Christian misconception about what atheism actually means.

I realise I've probably pissed off a lot of theists with my misconceptions about what theism actually means. I'm not proud of that. I do genuinely want to just gets a bit problematic when I believe the exact opposite of what you believe in. Still, I want to give everyone a fair platform to speak on - which is why I get annoyed when people misinterpret atheism.

Here is a quick list I came up with.

We don't reject the idea of life after death based on dogma - we reject it based on lack of accurate evidence.
I think I pretty much summed it all up there. Atheists (particularly scientific realists and secular humanists) don't believe in an afterlife because we've never actually seen one. Near-death experiences, by the way, are caused by the hallucinations of a dying brain. Just to put that out there. Said experiences also tend to be anecdotal and therefore aren't really reliable.

It's really easy to convince atheists of the existence of heaven or hell. Just show us accurate, reliable evidence that fits in with the rest of what we know about the universe (or at least doesn't flatly contradict it).

It's genuinely debatable what, if anything, separates humans from animals.
I probably can't speak for all atheists here, but one of the things said by the "religious" character in the propaganda-play was that something must separate humans from animals. The more we learn about animal psychology and what goes on in animal minds, the more that statement turns out to be wrong - just humans trying to be special. Most animals (particularly mammals) communicate; some have a language. Mammals, like us, have a default mode network and a prefrontal cortex. In humans, activity in those areas is associated with doing nothing, since the activity stops when humans are given a task to do. This suggests the networks are involved in introspection. Am I saying mammals introspect? No. I am saying that they share networks which may be involved in human introspection - which still counts for something. All this suggests that human exceptionalism is a lie.

The universe may not be guided by anything, but it's not strictly accurate to call it "random".
This one is difficult. Technically, the processes involved are random, but the word "random" implies "by chance", "chaotic" and "without rhyme or reason". That's partially true - but also partially false. For example, genetic mutations are by and large random. Natural selection isn't.

If you reject ideas which fly in the face of all evidence, you're not closed-minded.
There isn't really much I can say about this one, except that it's true. A decent hypothesis must fit the observations or make predictions about what should be observed. If it does that, it's fair game. If it doesn't, it's hogwash. There is nothing closed-minded about rejecting something which is almost certainly false given that it doesn't fit with anything observed.

We do not claim to have all the answers.
This is probably one of the ones which annoys me the most. Atheists don't have all the answers - scientists definitely don't. If we did, we'd be lounging around right now eating caviar and congratulating ourselves on being such smart cookies, instead of filling the world's labs trying to work out what the hell is going on with the universe. Neither do we claim that anything is definitive - we think that such-and-such is going on based on our observations, we have a lot of support for it, and we think it's very, very, very, very, very, very, very probable. Maths is probably the only place where you can claim something with absolute certainty, and even then you can't do so all the time. We do, however, claim that A is going to be more likely than B based on C, that D is improbable, and that based on lack of evidence E proposal F should be chucked. We look at many proposals, but we weight them on their likelihood and ignore those which could be "very unlikely" to "almost certainly impossible". Keep in mind that "almost certainly impossible" means "we need to throw out everything we already know about the universe and replace it with something far more complex and unwieldy, which also posits the existence of infinitely complicated entities that have never been observed". As a corollary, religion doesn't have all the questions either - and it has a worse track record on science, by the way.

To be honest, I don't actually think you need religion for spirituality or philosophy. I'm not going to try to stamp it out: I'm just saying it's not necessarily vital. I don't think that "spirituality" means "inventing infinitely complex entities". Nor do I think that it means disregarding scientific principles. Rather, in my perfect world (so this is unlikely to happen), scientific discoveries would fuel philosophical discussions, which would in turn impact the science being done. Science and atheism aren't about trying to shut down debate - the one over the existence of God has been raging for at least two thousand years now and we still haven't found the answer. We just weight points of view according to how likely they are instead of chasing rainbows.