Veiled Issues – Ignorance: The Real Enemy
In an absurd tirade ludicrously titled “Atheism — The Real Enemy,” Donald Tyson misrepresents atheism and atheists in general, portraying us as fiendish creatures out to dispel the glamours of religion and spiritual belief from the credulous but duped masses.
Tyson appeals for Christian and Pagans to unite in their common belief in god(s) (of some kind or another) against the rising atheist threat. This simply isn’t necessary. If Christians and Pagans want to be friends, let them be friends for the right reasons, and not simply to become united in hatred against a common enemy, fabricated though it may be, as in Tyson’s vicious portrayal of The Atheist.
Defining Our Terms
We can begin by correcting the definition of atheism Tyson presents in his essay:
The new enemy is atheism. It is the belief — the unfaith — that there are no gods, no spirits, no angels or devils, no paranormal abilities, and no magic of any kind.
Leaving aside the aggressive tone (for now), let’s break down the word and see if we can come to some sort of reasonable understanding of what is meant. The word atheist comes from the Greek; the prefix a- meaning “without” and theos meaning “god.” While at its simplest, theism can be defined as the belief in the existence of at least one god; atheism can be described as the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. To assume that this excludes other “energies” or entities is misleading.
In response to similar misrepresentations, and as atheists become more vocal about their (non)beliefs, a growing movement have began calling themselves “brights.” This of course follows in the tradition of homosexuals coming out of the closet embracing the term “gay.” As non-gays are not (necessarily) glum, non-brights are not (necessarily) dim. Even so, Daniel C. Dennett (Dennett, 2006, p. 21) has proposed a lively new term for theists who might otherwise feel left out. He’s suggested they can call themselves “supers,” because they believe in the supernatural. Now everyone can have a peppy new name: gay, straight, bright, super.
Personally, I have difficulty embracing the term “brights.” It feels overly self-conscious to me, but I like the spirit that inspired it. In the meantime, I’ll continue writing essays dispelling the Evil Atheist myths that people such as Donald Tyson love to threaten theists with. (We’re really quite friendly.)
While we’re defining our terms, there is often a lack of understanding about the philosophical stance of agnosticism, and I’d like to clear up the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for readers who may have the two ideas confused.
The word agnostic comes from the Greek agnostos, meaning “unknown, unknowable”; the prefix a- again meaning “without,” and gnosis meaning “knowledge.” Therefore, literally, agnostic means “without knowledge,” but tends to refer specifically to one who is “without knowledge of god(s).” The term was coined by Thomas Huxley, a British scientist in the nineteenth century who believed only material things could be known with any precision.
To be clearer, atheism is the absence of belief in gods, and an agnostic believes one cannot be certain about the (non)existence of gods. It is possible to not believe in gods (the atheist position), but allow for the possibility of being wrong (the agnostic position). Indeed, most atheists could technically be considered agnostics, but this would be splitting hairs that really need not be split.
For instance, in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins identifies a seven point scale of belief with absolute belief in (at least one) god at 1 and complete rejection of any possibility of any gods at 7. Position 4 is the perfect agnostic, completely impartial, believing that the existence of gods is exactly as likely as not (Dawkins, 2006, 73-74).
Most people would fall in positions 2 or 3 (fairly sure that there are gods), or 5 or 6 (fairly sure that there aren’t any gods), and therefore could technically be classified as agnostics, but most religious people with moments of doubt would be unlikely to classify themselves as agnostics. Likewise, most atheists who allow it’s possible there might be a god, but astonishingly unlikely, would not identify themselves this way.
What does “astonishingly unlikely” look like? Consider Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. (Russell, 1952)
The existence of the Celestial Teapot is sufficiently absurd that one cannot be expected to believe in it. With this example, Russell intended to demonstrate that the burden of proof lies with those who would posit and promote such absurdities, rather than those who elect not to believe things which cannot be proved. It’s simply not good enough to suggest that because one person believes in the Celestial Teapot in the absence of any evidence, its existence must be allowed as a reasonable possibility. It’s not reasonable, and I’ve no qualms about calling myself an a-Celestial Teapotist.
The Gods Are Made of Phlogiston
We are constantly learning more about what it means to be human, redefining ourselves through our ever expanding understanding of the planet around us, and reinventing our place in it. Rather than rejecting what we don’t (yet) understand, we would do better to learn what we can of our world and ourselves.
In the seventeenth century a chemist named Georg Ernst Stahl “discovered” a new element he called phlogiston, after the Greek phlogistos, “to set on fire.” Stahl’s phlogiston theory was proposed to explain combustion. When a substance burns, it was thought to release both “vapours” and phlogiston into the air. The flames and smoke from a burning log suggest the wood is releasing some substance into the air, this, of course, was phlogiston.
Yet the phlogiston theory wasn’t entirely satisfactory. Metals heated in the air do not lose, but gain weight. Therefore it was reasoned that phlogiston must have a negative weight. There were other complications, but, in the absence of a better explanation, this theory won support for much of the eighteenth century.
In the 1780s Antoine Lavoisier recognized and named a new element, oxygen. This “new” element better explained what came to be known as oxidization. As Philip Ball writes in The Elements:
The discovery of oxygen did not just make phlogiston redundant; the two were fundamentally incompatible. Oxygen is the very opposite of phlogiston. It is consumed during burning, not expelled.
Though early in its discovery, some scientists were reluctant to abandon the phlogiston theory entirely, and attempted to work elaborate proofs to try and demonstrate phlogiston could still somehow be involved. Eventually, of course, these were rejected as oxygen and its properties were better understood, and found to better explain what was really happening.
We can see parallels between the story of phlogiston and oxygen and the fantastic creation myths of various cultures and evolution. We no longer need creation myths to explain how the world came to be, or how we came to be on it. Science has provided solid, verifiable answers to these former mysteries, and it continues to regularly improve our understanding.
In 1859 a British naturalist named Charles Darwin “first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 1). On the Origin of Species revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our origins: invisible sky gods were no longer required to explain how we came to be.
Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance. A full understanding of natural selection encourages us to move bodily into other fields. It arouses our suspicion, in those other fields, of the kind of false alternatives that once, in pre-Darwinian days, beguiled biology. Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes? (Dawkins, 2008, p. 141)
Tyson warns that “with every day that passes there seems to be more evidence that atheism is a growing movement.” While it’s not as organized as Tyson might fear, certainly more people are open to discussing atheism, and finally the stigma is beginning to lift. Indeed, part of the reason atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have become vocal about their atheism recently is to help raise consciousness, so people realize they have a choice. Too often children are unthinkingly indoctrinated into the beliefs of their parents and left in ignorance of alternative ways of thinking, or worse, actively discouraged from questioning what they’ve been taught.
Yet, in his paranoid essay, Tyson froths:
Atheists don’t regard their opinions as beliefs, of course, but rather look upon them as reality. That this same opinion has been maintained by every fanatical and exclusionary religious cult that has ever existed down through the centuries seems to escape them. All fanatical movements proclaim themselves possessors of the only truth, and are aggressively intolerant toward other beliefs – so it is with atheism, which is really a kind of fanatical cult of science that worships godlessness.
On the contrary, as Jordan Peterson so succinctly puts it in Maps of Meaning, “Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from imperial “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated before the notion of objective reality emerged” (Peterson, 1999, p. 1).
Indeed, this is perhaps the biggest difference between religious conviction and scientific theory. Certainly, scientific theories are constantly being revised, but religions aggressively resist critical thinking with appeals to “mystery” and “faith”. These smokescreens should no longer be assumed sufficient. Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, gets it right when he says:
Who is right? I don’t know. Neither do the billions of people with their passionate religious convictions. Neither do those atheists who are sure the world would be a much better place if all religion went extinct. There is an asymmetry: atheists in general welcome the extensive and objective examination of their views, practices, and reasons. (In fact, their incessant demand for self-examination can become quite tedious.) The religious, in contrast, often bristle at the impertinence, lack of respect, the sacrilege, implied by anybody who wants to investigate their views. (Dennett, 2006, p. 16-17)
Appeals to “mystery” rather than reason effectively remove these arguments from the table and cannot be entertained in debate.
Raising consciousness about better, verifiable explanations regarding our place in the universe hardly seems “militant” to me, nor are (most) atheists any more (or less) intolerant than theists, many of whom actively seek to recruit new followers (consider “witnessing” and “missionaries,” for example). Atheists, like vegetarians, are often content to let the other side do as they will, however foolish or unappealing it may seem.
A Place for the Numinous
We may no longer need origin myths to explain why and how we got here, but this does not invalidate their meaning. As Peterson writes:
Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or share affective valence, their value, their motivational significance. (Peterson, 1999, p. 9)
Religion may be outmoded, but mythology certainly isn’t. Many atheists understand the importance of mythology as a part of literary culture. It helps us define who we are and its stories can provide structure to our lives. Richard Dawkins, for example, believes religious education is fundamental to understanding modern culture. He even goes as far as to state that “we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage” (Dawkins, 2008, p. 387).
Even while we may retain sentimental attachment to tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s true many atheists will reject the possibility of disincarnate entitles, the paranormal, and magick. Many theists also reject these possibilities (with the exception of their personal god[s]).
There are those of us, however, who do not reject the spiritual out of hand. We recognize the importance of numinous experiences in identity and self development. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, (somewhat surprisingly) allows that “there seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena,” which he feels “has been ignored by mainstream science” (Harris, 2004, p. 41).
So how can an atheist practice magick? It turns out there are many ways of looking at what magick is and how it works — without abstracting ourselves away from its core. Atheism and the numinous can — and often do — peacefully co-exist.
- Ball, Philip. The Elements: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. New Jersey: Castle Books, 1859, 2004.
- Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, 2008.
- ______. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976, 2006.
- Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006.
- Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
- Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 1999.
- Psyche. “Agnosticism: The Basics“, on SpiralNature.com, 2004.
- ______. “Atheism: The Basics“, on SpiralNature.com, 2004.
- ______. “On Evolution“, on Plutonica.net, 2008.
- Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God?“, on cfpf.org.uk, 1952.
- Tyson, Donald. “Atheism – The Real Enemy“, on RendingtheVeil.com, 2009. Last updated 19 July 2009.
Further Resources & Reading
- For more information on brights, see http://the-brights.net.
- For more on atheism see Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Daniel C. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and Breaking the Spell outline more about the history of religious belief, and how and why we’ve adopted these models.
- Also, a two-hour round-table discussion titled The Four Horsemen, filmed by Josh Timonen, features Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris. It has been provided by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is available free for download here: http://richarddawkins.net/article,2025,THE-FOUR-HORSEMEN,Discussions-With-Richard-Dawkins-Episode-1-RDFRS. It’s excellent.
©2009 by Psyche
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Psyche is the curator for the occult resource SpiralNature.com, blogs esoteric at Plutonica.net, and runs a tarot consultation business at PsycheTarot.com. She has been published in The Cauldron, Konton, newWitch, Blessed Be, Tarot World Magazine, and her essay “Strategic Magick” appeared in Manifesting Prosperity: A Wealth Magic Anthology, published by Megalithica Books in February 2008.