I am finding a common theme among the fundamentalists in online discussion groups and it involves a argumentation style known as reductio ad absurdum. This argumentation is aimed at atheists in projections, epithets, insults, and used as justification for the poor treatment of atheists in general. Here is what I see:
Atheists are able to make sense of their lives using observations of the natural world. I am sure most atheists would agree. This is not to say that all of our observations are the same, but being as we atheists do not invoke magic to find answers about our world and ourselves, we must stick to what is observable using our senses. Using empiricism. The scientific method is the most well-developed product of empiricism. The scientific method does not permit a priori knowledge, intuition, or revelation. And so in this sense, science is immune to the effects of faith-based knowledge including supernatural claims. Science works whether we accept or reject the notion of there being a God, for example.
Because atheists generally accept the fruits of science to help them to understand our world, it follows that most atheists would reject explanations which require those things which science excludes such as a priori knowledge, intuition, and revelation. And especially that which is outside the realm of the natural world – the supernatural. For none of these things can be observed. That is to say, none of these things can be tested. Because most atheists reject the supernatural, people who accept the supernatural have a hard time understanding what it is atheists do think. And those people who accept the supernatural and concern themselves with atheists the most are theists.
Many theists, about 53% according to the most recent polls in the U.S., agree with the scientific explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. The other 47% either have no position on evolutionary biology or believe special creation is to credit for the diversity of life on our planet. Special creation means that the different species of life were created in their present form quite recently with only small variation appearing since the creation event. Evolutionary biology is a scientific explanation and special creation is a supernatural explanation. Because these ideas differ so much, there is quite a fuss over which idea is correct. Those who strongly adhere to creationism are fundamentalists.
On the science side, we have many fruits of our understanding of evolutionary biology which give rise to great promise for medicine, energy, food, and even the potential of growing very specialized raw materials. We are only limited by our imaginations. For example, through genetic engineering, we may be able to engineer life in such a way as to grow human habitats, fully formed, with unprecedented durability and natural insulation. Just move in your appliances and furniture and surfaces. Currently, scientists are working on genetically engineered bacteria that produce high octane fuel. The potential for genetic engineering is nearly unlimited.
On the creationist side, we see an explanation but no predictions which are not also supernatural. With special creation, life on this planet is divided between the ruler of the world, “mankind,” and the plants and animals placed here for his use (the other “kinds”). We are to take this world as-is and use the resources during a temporary stay that will be marked by a series of terrible human disasters which ultimately destroys the world so that the creator can create it again anew. And only those who believe these supernatural explanations are allowed to be a part of the newly rebuilt world. All the others will be excluded.
I can see why those on the side of supernatural explanations might be very afraid of those on the side of scientific explanations. On the science side, we see a very interesting future full of solutions and cures and prosperity using science. On the supernatural side, we see destruction and division of the human race. To the point of excluding one group entirely. If I were a creationist, I would be very concerned about the scientists making life better and undermining the final destruction required for the supernatural renewal. I would not want the world to be a happy place with people finding peace and prosperity. This goes against everything my beliefs predict. Also, I want all of this to happen in my own lifetime. Destruction needs to happen very soon.
But why would anyone want to choose destruction over prosperity? Well, if you were afraid to die and so therefore created an image of an afterlife, what would this afterlife be if there was no way to do something with it. So what they plan to do with this afterlife is to be reborn again on a new cleansed and perfect world with all their friends. It would not be paradise, after all, with their enemies there too. And so all the enemies must be killed and their afterlife essence sent somewhere else. Who are these enemies? The enemies are people who think differently. People like me.
So what to do? Well, if I were on the side of superstition, one way to ensure that my superstitions come to fruition is to create conflict. Conflict gives rise to war, war gives rise to destruction. Destruction gives rise to the end times that ultimately result in the best times – the New Perfect World. To do this, I must find ways to discredit science. And I must discredit those people who most closely adhere to science: atheists. All of these things are being done in the media, in congregations, and online in groups like this. There is an active campaign to vilify atheists and to put science into question.
So how do they put science into question?
Science is an easy target. Science doesn’t claim to have all the answers. And the process of scientific progress is… well… making PROGRESS. In other words, science has to start with what we know and we start with very little. And so our early conclusions are inevitably replaced with better ideas as we learn more. What this leaves behind is a history of some fairly ridiculous early conclusions. And this gives the fundamentalists fodder for their smear campaigns. For example, things like fake bones planted by scientists who wanted sensationalism and which were discovered to be fake by other scientists are used by fundamentalists to smear all scientists. They falsely teach their followers that there is this thing called “science” which is a single entity that makes all decisions and wants to trick the public. It is essentially a conspiracy theory. They also use the word “scientism” to give the impression that science is like a religion for scientists and people who appreciate science.
What fundamentalists don’t want people to know is that science is a group of people all working to disprove each other’s ideas. Punching holes in ideas is precisely how science works. Scientists don’t all hate each other. They do respect each other’s efforts. But they cannot allow bad information through or it could impede scientific progress. One bad idea can taint many different scientific disciplines at once. And this is very time-consuming and very expensive to clean up. Scientists work with limited budgets. They cannot afford for bad info to burn those budgets up. The scientific process of submitting scientific papers for peer review is essential to scientific progress for this reason. This way, other scientists who might also be doing the same or similar research can chime in with their approval or disapproval.
But the fundamentalists want it both ways. They want to disprove science while simultaneously claiming to DO SCIENCE! The Discovery Institute is a political think tank that came up with the Wedge Strategy which proposed to use the legal system to push creationism into schools as a competing “theory” to evolutionary biology. The sharp part of the wedge is the legal side. The wide part of the wedge is the “science.” So in order for the wedge to work, they need to create an illusion of doing science. And so the Discovery Institute publishes paper after paper to their website to help give other fundamentalists the illusion of doing science while not publishing one single paper to a scientific journal for peer review. They are giving an illusion of doing science while remaining comfortably outside of the scrutiny of the scientific community at large. They send out scientific sounding newsletters and have put up scientific sounding websites like EvolutionNews.org. As the title implies, they are giving “news” about evolution. Although this news is about how evolution is false. Nice trick. And this is what we get from this camp: lots of tricks. Including the magic trick of creation itself.
So how do they discredit atheists?
Well, first of all, you have to find some way to lump atheists all into one group. Atheism is not a religion or a club or even a shared world view. It’s just a position. What fundamentalists are doing is to try and establish that atheists all think the same way and that “atheism” is responsible for all the bad things in the world. When this fails – because it’s not true – they attempt to establish that a lack in a belief of God inevitable leads to certain undesirable world views – like nihilism. Nihilism is the view that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilism is the view that morals do not exist. In extreme cases, nihilism claims that reality does not exist.
The atheist-to-nihilism myth is where we get the the reductio ad absurdum argumentation. Reductio ad absurdum in the case of atheism-to-nihilism is the attempt demonstrate that the statement “God is not real” is false because rejecting God inevitably leads to an undesirable outcome which the fundamentalists claim is an adherence to nihilistic world views. To get there, fundamentalists attempt to use the atheist’s adherence to science and rejection of the supernatural to establish an adherence to naturalism. And they attempt to use the atheist’s rejection of the supernatural to claim a rejection of the metaphysical to establish an adherence to “materialism.” Note that fundamentalists are referring to methodological materialism. Methodological Materialism is a view that excludes the immaterial and questions the value of thought and emotion which are immaterial things. Naturalism is the view that only the natural world exists. The fact is that there are atheists who are indeed naturalists and/or materialists. But very few are methodological materialists. They are mostly metaphysical materialists. The fundamentalists just use the word “materialist” so they can sneak in the methodological brand, thereby ignoring the fact that metaphysical materialism does take into account thought and emotion. And there are also atheists who are neither naturalists or materialists. So the first problem is the problem of category error. The fundamentalists cannot put atheists into a category other than those who don’t believe in deities. Not all atheists think the same things. The second problem is that an adherence to naturalism and/or both forms of materialism does not necessarily result in adherence to nihilism.
I am a naturalist, a metaphysical materialist (light) and a humanist. I agree with much of metaphysical materialism as I am aware of the metaphysical element of thought and emotion which I see as a manifestation of the material. This does not lead to nihilism. I see my body and my mind as parts of the same being. One does not exist without the other. Because I seek the impetus of life and thought and have found it to be rooted in matter, does not make life or thought any less significant. We are made of matter and that matter at its molecular level does not have emotion although clearly matter can be assembled is such a way as to facilitate emotion. We are all proof of that. I find this notion of “all we are is molecules” to be insulting. Do we say “all this diamond is is molecules” and reduce its value to nothing? Do we say “all this money is is paper” and reduce its value to nothing? No. We do not. We also don’t say that all we are is matter and devalue human or other life. At least the vast majority of us don’t. I think and therefore I am holds true for me. Although I also think about WHAT I am and not just WHO I am. I can recognize the fact that I am a collection of material things that produces immaterial things and not lose sight of my mind and my emotions just by knowing this. In fact, the thought of being the universe contemplating itself brings me great emotional satisfaction. Possibly no different than a theist contemplating their God.
In your quest to ruin another group of people for the sake of preserving a fictional utopia, you fundamentalists are being exposed time after time for your acts of aggression. Instead of agreeing to work together to make the world a better place, you would rather see those who expose your myths silenced so you can live a lie and eventually destroy all life on our planet if your dogma is to ever come to fruition. No matter if you are wrong and there is no new utopia afterwards, you are willing to take this chance with the lives of everyone and everything. And for this reason, you are more than likely the number one threat to life on this planet. Of all the forces which caused mass extinctions in our planet’s history, we now face the grim reality that the next one may be caused by life itself. But before you get your chance, there are people like me and many others who will risk everything to stop you. We are the people who care about other people and all life on this beautiful blue dot we call home. Yes… the very people you say are so evil are the best hope for true salvation from the dangerous superstitions which continue to plague human thought and ultimately threatens our very existence.