How living as an atheist is totally, completely different than living as a theist

Alright, I know I said I was gonna take the weekend off, but I had some downtime at work today and I drafted this post. The rest was finished as I enjoyed a delicious cheeseburger. But seriously now, I'm out the rest of the weekend. Have a safe and fun Memorial Day!

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It seems like I've given Jack Hudson of Christian blog Wide as the Waters some material lately, and it looks like he's returned the favor (thanks, Jack!). He recently wrote about the same study on evolution that I wrote about last week and, in discussing the researchers' conclusions, makes a rather sweeping statement:
It is a progression I have seen a number of times before – there is a beginning to unbelief which is claimed to be merely the product of scientific rationality and lack of an evidence for the immaterial or divine, then when it is apparent this isn’t sufficient for rational thought they adopt ontological naturalism or materialism – a framework on which he or she can construct metaphysical beliefs. Then ideas about existence and meaning and morality are built on this metaphysical framework. Eventually the ‘unbeliever’ has come full circle and is no less driven by a dogmatic faith than the most fundamentalist religionist.
It should go without saying that there's an obvious difference between a dogmatic worldview and an evidence-based worldview rooted in epistemic naturalism: that the latter is amenable to evidence, while the former is not. Dogma, by definition, claims absolute truth – fixed and unchanging. A naturalistic worldview, on the other hand, is contingent on our best understanding of reality – an understanding which may change as new evidence comes to light.

As an example, take the theistic idea that God created the universe. You simply cannot be a theist of any kind (Muslim, Christian, Jew, whatever) and reject this belief. But science has already given us numerous mathematical models in which no deity of any kind is required to bring the universe into existence. While they may be speculative to an extent, they are plausible, and many of these models may be tested empirically in my lifetime. It's of no particular concern to me, whatever the outcome – my ideology does not require that the universe be uncreated. It does not even require that God does not exist. It requires only that our claims to knowledge rest on sound epistemology.


But I digress...

But that's not what I found most interesting about Jack's comment. Note that he says, "ideas about existence and meaning and morality are built on this metaphysical framework." In other words, when we reject the idea that God exists, we have to make some philosophical adjustments. On this point, Jack's right, but not for the reasons he thinks he is.

Essentially what the nonbeliever is rejecting is the notion that like only comes from like. To the believer, the mind is not the product of the brain; there is a mind force that acts on the brain. "Love", similarly, is not a conceptual abstraction we use to describe a range of biologically rooted emotions; there's a supernatural love force that runs on the brain like a software program. Jack's post was on a study about the acceptance of evolution, and that's a fine example too: the creationist says that complex things have to be magically popped into existence by a designer; evolution shows that complex things can emerge from simpler things as a result of blind, physical processes. The believer says that God put us all here on purpose; evolution demonstrates that we are a "happy accident", one of a staggering multitude of possible outcomes of the blind algorithms that drive natural selection. And morality, to the believer, comes from a divine being – even though no one agrees on what this divine being is, does or wants; the unbeliever derives their morality from an understanding of our innate human solidarity – our shared needs, interests, and values.

The list goes on as science supersedes a superstitious basis for understanding things like the origin and nature of the universe, the origin of complex things, the basis for human behavior and social norms, the nature of consciousness, etc. etc. But here's the interesting part: despite all the philosophical nuances, the day-to-day life of the non-believer is really not that different than that of a believer. That's because believers are not really basing their lives on the things they think they are.


You say po-tat-o, I say po-tah-to...

Let's take the idea of "purpose" as an example. The theist might make a philosophical argument that if we weren't created by God, we're left with a kind of nihilistic outlook: we're just cosmic accidents, fortunate but not fated to be here*. But here's the catch: no believer has direct, objective access to God. No believer has access to an unbiased, fully objective view of their holy scriptures that is not subject to a range of arbitrary interpretive variations. What the believer actually has is whatever they think God's purpose for them is. In other words, they're finding their own subjective sense of purpose – which is exactly what non-believers do.

Morality takes a similar route. Believers claim that without God, there's no absolute standard to moral behavior. But there's a huge problem, even if it were true: no believer has direct, objective access to what this absolute standard is. Nobody actually knows what God wants, nor does anyone actually know what the correct interpretation of scriptures is. Instead, believers simply act according to what they think God wants them to do. In the meantime, they're forced to live by the same social contract that everyone else lives by, exactly as non-believers.

From the way some believers talk, you'd think that atheism goes hand in hand with nihilistic hedonism. Less marriage! More orgies! Drugs drugs drugs!  Let's nuke endangered whales and have abortions! They seem to forget that we're still, y'know, human beings. We have the same needs and desires, and nothing magically changes when you reject superstitious dogma. I'm reminded of Richard Dawkins' description of atheists, on a 20/20 segment he did a while back:
“They believe in life, they believe in science and art and poetry and love and marriage and family — they believe in all those things. They just don’t believe in supernatural magic.”
In other words, life is pretty much the same. Personally speaking, there are lots of things that give my life meaning – spending time with my family and friends, making a living by helping others, listening to music, watching a sunset, playing guitar, scratching my cat's belly, falling in love...  y'know, pretty much the exact same kinds of things that make life meaningful when you're a believer. The only difference is that I don't believe that when I die, I'll be whisked away to some blissful paradise or fiery inferno; I don't believe there's some capricious deity that controls who lives, who dies, who suffers and who lives happily; I believe we make our own meaning and purpose, rather than having it dictated to us from on high; and I don't live in fear of science clashing with my beliefs, because the beauty of scientific inquiry is an integral part of my beliefs.

Deconversion is a scary process. You wonder if you'll want to get out of bed in the morning. But when you accept your more rational self, everything you live for and love takes on a greater sense of meaning and wonder than you ever could have imagined.

*To which the non-believer replies, "Yup. Deal with it!"

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