Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bad Atheism

Even though I’ve found no reason to believe in God, I don’t claim to have any definitive knowledge on the matter. We are pretty sure that evolution happens, and that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, but questions about “God” — starting with how one even goes about defining that term — are far subtler. That hasn’t stopped many atheists from rejecting the idea of God so fiercely, I kind of get what people mean when they say that atheism is a religion. They’re talking about bad atheism, a rigid view of the world that’s impoverished of deep curiosity. Bad atheists present current scientific theory as absolute truth, even though some scientific facts considered true now will almost certainly be revised by future theories. I think that atheism should be about humility regarding what we know (which is less than bad atheists think), and a desire to seek out what we don’t know. Unfortunately for some, atheism is just about being right.

It’s great to identify with our fellow atheists and exchange ideas. But when this identification turns into a battle and a desire to win, it becomes bad. The bad atheist seeks out believers with the goal of defeating them. (“I will destroy you!”) Bad atheists would say they are skeptics, but actually, they are pseudoskeptical. Truly skeptical persons keep their minds open but are unswayed by unconvincing arguments. Pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, fancy themselves to be open-minded, when actually they have long since settled their opinion and now their heels are dug in. More than being merely unconvinced, the pseudoskeptic spends effort disproving his chosen foes’ beliefs rather than listening to them. Complicating matters, the more unbiased a person views himself to be, the less likely he is to notice himself dismissing new ideas in a prejudiced manner.

The bad atheist has no problem exchanging one untestable proposition for another. While a Christian would say that the universe is fine-tuned for life because God created it to be that way, the bad atheist addresses this point matter-of-factly by invoking a multiverse and/or eternal inflation. (That is, if he doesn’t reject fine-tuning altogether, perhaps because he can’t disentangle the notion of physical fine-tuning and a supernatural fine-tuner.) The multiverse and inflation are legitimate scientific ideas, but they are merely hypothetical models, a “best guess to date.” For the bad atheist, though, who perhaps has watched too many science shows on the History Channel, they simply are the explanation. Of course, unobservable universes beyond our cosmic horizon are at present no more testable or predictive than saying “God did it.” To declare that fine-tuning is a consequence of an eternally inflating multiverse — not God — you might as well declare that leprechauns don’t steal pots of gold under rainbows, gnomes do.

To the bad atheist, philosophy and metaphysics are useless at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. The irony of this position is that it is inescapably a metaphysical one. But this truth is lost even on some of the world’s top thinkers. “The philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” Richard Feynman famously said — but as philosophers have since pointed out, such knowledge would be useful to birds, if they could possess it! The fact is, physicists answer questions about how the world works, but that’s only because the natural philosophers of the preceding centuries (and some more recent ones) have taught us what questions we should be asking.

For bad atheists, there is no mystery in the world. There are unknowns, such as details on the Higgs boson or quantum gravity, but these will be learned through current lines of research using familiar methodologies. “We’ve got it all under control; nothing to see here” is a common attitude toward the deeper questions. The graduate student head-down studying pi-mesons may have no interest in the measurement problem, the fascinating question of what’s really going on when we measure a particle. He might brush it off, say that there is no problem. The world in its totality consists of particles, fields, and forces, and eventually we’ll figure out everything on those hard terms and those terms alone. So deal with it.

Now, when I say “mystery,” I am not implying anything supernatural. All signs point to the world as operating under thoroughly self-consistent laws, with no external intervention whatsoever. But, in trying to understand the emergence of reality, time, and space at the deepest levels, we’re missing some key insight — most likely, because we are embedded inside of the very same world we’re trying to explain. It’s all terribly fascinating; we are truly at a “blind men and the elephant” moment in history. And we need to put the pieces together and get, at last, a coherent picture of an elephant. What we don’t need are bad atheists holding the trunk and saying, “It’s obviously a fire hose, dumbass. Go home now.”


  1. Great post Eddie! That's mind fine tuning ;)

  2. Who are some recognizable "bad atheists"? Did you have any sense of proportion (good to bad) when writing this?

    1. Although I am a fan, Lawrence Krauss has taken to trying to disprove the existence of God through physics, which I think is a bad idea. I am sure it is helping him to sell books, though (see this review). The scientists who came out of the woodwork to criticize Paul Davies for juxtaposing the words "science" and "faith" -- Krauss among them -- exhibited some bad atheism (Davies responds at the bottom of the page). But there aren't many prominent bad atheists, fortunately. I was speaking mostly about the many faceless dilettantes who troll YouTube videos and other online forums to smack down anyone who contradicts their limited view of a machine-like world of particles, fields, and forces, who think we have it all figured out. We don't.

  3. I find it extremely easy to reject stories of things that imply something that is completely extrasensory as anything more than entertainment. That's how I view the supernatural. It's not that anything must be untrue just because I don't understand it, but it's not normally difficult to tell the difference between not understanding and various degrees of unlikelihood.

    I can't argue with a god whose bounds lie strictly within the realms of nature, but when you present a god who dabbles in the supernatural, I'll be the first to tell you it's crap.

    I'm still not sure how I stack up as a bad atheist. It seems impossible to have definitive knowledge of anything infringing on nature, so that pretty much leaves mathematics as the only thing where there is absolute certainty. However, there are many things I feel pretty damned sure about, and supernatural gods fit that category very well. Any comments?

    (I would like to identify myself, but blogspot still refuses to let me.)

  4. Philosophy of science is one of my favorite branches of philosophy. I don't know what the hell Feynman is going on about here; it addresses questions such as the methodology and justification of science, which have been very useful to me as a scientist-in-training.

  5. Hi Eddie, good article, but not sure you can split it into 'good' and 'bad' atheists, I would perhaps suggest that there are atheists with good and bad arguments but in general thinking atheists tend to have high standards when it come to their evidence, and if we make a point or argument, scientific or otherwise, that has been pointed out to be without evidence, flawed or incorrect we try to investigate and be honest rather than knowingly disseminate incorrect information, and I am quite happy to say 'I don't know' and I don't claim absolute truth.

    I have myself invoked a 'multiverse' before in a discussion on universal origins, but only as a purely speculative idea, amongst other similarly un-evidenced hypothesis. The difference between invoking a multiverse rather than a god, for me at least, is justifiable in that we already KNOW and have evidence that a universe CAN exist, so the step to 'could there be others?' is not quite the 'quantum leap' (excuse the pun) you suggest, compared to the 'god hypothesis' for which we have absolutely no evidence and no good reason to accept that even such a thing can exist at all, we don't even know what it is, what evidence for it would be, so how can we even know if we find it?

    There are several ideas floating around at the moment, and I don't claim to understand any of them in any detail, just as really basic concepts, I am not a scientist, just a curious amateur joe blogs with a fascination and interest in science and origins.

    Eddie you are correct that we atheists need to keep our houses tidy as best we can, and after reading your article, I will make sure I try to vacuum, dust and spring clean my arguments as much as possible.

  6. One thing that bothers me a lot is the assumption that being an atheist means you reject religion because you are very keen on "science." I am an atheist, and have a relatively superficial knowledge of science - practically all my opinions on science are grounded on my trust of "mainstream scientists", rather than on a deep understanding of science, and I am not particularly interested in learning more. There are many religious people with a better grasp of science than myself. My lack of faith is mostly grounded on life experience and some degree of reflection about human behavior. The fact that many religious claims are at odds with mainstream science is only the icing of the cake for me.

    Many of the "bad atheists" I've met seem to be trying very hard to have a reason to look down on the majority of the population, and label them as "sheeple" - whenever I hear that word, I know there's a bunch of malarkey that will follow. It says a lot about their character. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but most of them seem to have other unpopular convictions, like Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, anarchism, marxism, various conspiracy theories (e.g. 9/11 truthers, Area 52, Illuminati, New World Order), etc.

    In other words, I think "bad atheism" is just another instance of people trying to be special and interesting, and if they couldn't be arrogant about it then the whole purpose of their atheism would be lost.