Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective

In the first part of this series I described the current situation in New Zealand. In particularly how current attitudes towards religious diversity ignore the non-religious. The problems with this attitude are evident in the National Statement on Religious Diversity. This second part prevents a personal perspective on atheism and argues that there is no reason to consider atheists different to people with other beliefs when we consider human rights.

Aatheist beliefs personal perspective

The words atheism and theism are limited descriptions of beliefs as they only define one small aspect – non-belief or belief in a god. Personal beliefs are of course much more extensive than that – they include this but are not defined by it. So, we cannot characterise or understand the beliefs of all “atheists” by that word alone. I can only give my own perspective, although I believe that many non-theists hold similar beliefs.

My beliefs have a strong philosophical alignment with the scientific motivation and method. Emotionally and spiritually there is a powerful sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the natural world and our process of understanding it. This stretches from subatomic particles to the cosmos itself. They include an appreciation also of the beauty of humanity’s cultural and artistic achievements and a strong appreciation of personal and social values and morals. I discuss these further below.

The Nature of Belief

Our beliefs about our world vary widely – they can’t all be right. Of course, science uses methods to ensure that its theories correspond well to reality and so there is a high degree of agreement about scientific theories. But in practice most of us get by with less exact procedures.

The scientific method involves interacting with the world to collect data and using these to build a hypothesis – a model describing the aspect under investigation. From this model we can develop experiments, or search for more data, which will test predictions resulting from the model (to be scientific the hypothesis must be testable). We then accept the model, reject it or change it to agree with the new data. The resulting scientific theory is dynamic, continually being changed or replaced as we collect new data. It is self-correcting. Some people might find this unsatisfactory; preferring to have the comfort of a belief which they feel is “absolutely true”. But while our scientific knowledge gives only an imperfect picture of reality, with time, with more data and experiment, this picture does become more accurate. So we can become so confident of a theory that we may express it as a “law” – for example the thermodynamic laws or evolution. The scientific method is a powerful way of understanding the world as shown by the progress in knowledge and technology it has driven.

drunkWe can contrast this with a method which involves starting with a preconceived (or “revealed”) model. We then try to interpret the world according to this model. Any “testing” of the model usually involves selection of data or evidence which accords with our preconceived ideas and ignoring, or reinterpreting, evidence which doesn’t accord. This is the way a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. These beliefs may be comforting to the holder as they appear absolute and permanent. However, they are hardly likely to agree with reality, being in essence insulated from reality.

It is tempting to identify the later method with religion and to contrast religious and scientific approaches to knowledge but this would be unkind to most religious believers. In practice we usually acquire our personal beliefs by a mixture of these two methods. In fact, recent investigations suggest the human brain is more comfortable with the later method of interpreting the world. The human brain appears to use preconceived ideas, or maps, to interpret incoming information – we often see more with our brain than with our eyes.[1] This may have evolved as an efficient (if sometimes misleading) way of dealing with our perceptions.

Scientists are human and are not immune to, unconsciously, selecting or interpreting data to support, rather than test, their favourite theory. Fortunately, the scientific method (including statistical analysis of data) and publication procedure help to overcome this and prevent promulgation of discredited theories, at least for long. Also, while many religions have “revealed truths”, in practice most modern adherents have adjusted their beliefs to accommodate scientific discovery and select which parts of historical dogma to keep or reject. However, the willingness to accept scientific knowledge over “revealed” knowledge varies. Attitudes towards evolution are a current example. The conflict between science and religion usually results from these two different ways of gaining knowledge, the scientific method and the “revealed” method.

Part III will discuss conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we discuss the relationship between atheism and theism.

1: Michael Shermer gives a very convincing demonstration of the power of pre-conceived ideas in his video “Why People Believe Strange Things”

Related Articles:
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Common values, common action?
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity

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