Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Why atheism is a belief system at present

Jayanth Kannan tweeted thusly: " shows how ignorant you are. Atheism is not a belief system, its just acceptance of facts, based on verifiable data not bullshit." 

Since I do not have the time or space or inclination to put together all the capital needed to make this argument, I'll pose my reply as a "What if..." - that is, suppose what I say below is true, would my conclusion, that atheism is a belief system, follow.

1. Atheists generally accept the validity of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. The modern conception of human rights, however, arises from a specific theological, not scientific, view of man and his relation to other people and to the world (for the argument in more detail, see here) Many of the conflicts we have arises from people who recognize that this view is in opposition to their own theology.

3.  One may argue that the validity of an idea is not contingent on its origin.  That is true.  But the atheist community has not given us a justification of human rights based on scientific grounds.

4. The atheist may reply, it is not just the idea of human rights, but the specific theological conception of the nature of man that is valid.  Again, the atheist has yet to demonstrate this scientifically.

5. The atheist may reply that empirically, what we have today is better than all those other cultures had, that had a different understanding of the nature of man, and that is sufficient.   That is a matter of opinion, not of facts based on verifiable data.  Incidentally, the very values by which one judges "better/worse than" come from the dominant theological discourse.

6. The reason we have the illusion of universality is because of the historical fact that the world is politically, economically and militarily dominated by one civilization.  Its religious manifestation may have faded to the point of invisibility, but its theological preconceptions are still buried deep in our social "sciences".

The atheist is thus in the position of accepting all the infrastructure provided by a particular theological view, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  but of rejecting their theological basis, without having built up any other foundations.  If some Asian culture stood on equal grounds with the cultures of the West, never having been vanquished by it, it would likely squarely place the atheist as a variant of the Christian, because today's atheism simply reproduces its own values from that religion.

What about the rest of us, from cultures that have been subordinated to the West?  Yes, we are, like it or not, secularized Christians too, until we find the foundations for the ideas that we live by today in our own cultures.  Otherwise over time our cultures will wither away and we will be simply variants of the West.

-- As an almost trivial example of what I mean that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on theology, let us look at the statement of Article 18:
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
As Professor Arvind Sharma pointed out, in this, one has the right to just one religion at a time.  However he has census data of the form e.g., that in Japan the Shintoists and Buddhists add up to more than 100% of the population (this previous is just an illustration, the specific facts must be found in his paper.)   The empirical reality both in present and historically is that in many cultures in Asia, people have simultaneously belonged to several of what in Christian theology would constitute religions.   The very idea that "a person either adheres to exactly one religion or else is an atheist" is not a scientific idea, it is a theological idea.  

A truly Universal Declaration of Human Rights must take this fact into account, but you can imagine the amount of upset the Vatican and the Ayatollahs would have if a person was allowed to adhere to both Islam and Christianity at the same time.