The Atheist Spy
I am writing a book. When it is finished and published, I will use this website to help market it. This website will include reviews of the book, videos of me (and other people, if any) talking about the book, free downloads of some of the book (in text and/or audio form), forums to discuss the book's ideas (and other related ideas), and links to any press the book gets.
Until then, I'll just try and describe the book here. What is the book about?
Let's see if I can summarize two hundred pages into a few paragraphs.
The book is about why the culture wars we see in the US over religion are unnecessary. These culture wars are driven almost entirely by false dichotomies and by exaggerated straw-man characterizations of the "other side".
It seems that no one takes the time to give the other side a chance. Almost no one appears to see that different reasonable people can have different preferences for how they want to understand the nature of the universe, the meaning of good and bad, the role of humans in the world, and the nature of things like the mind and the self and consciousness.
The most vocal atheists say that there is no evidence - and thus no justification - for a belief in God or any other supernatural thing. But the most vocal believers say that the evidence is abundant and could not reasonably be explained any other way. Neither of them see that they are both making a priori assumptions to their liking (be it naturalism or some form of theism), and then interpreting the same observations in different ways so as to support those different a-priori assumptions. Neither of them see that "you don't have to be wrong in order for me to be right", that different people have different personalities and feel more at home in different kinds of universes.
Some people prefer to live in a universe where a strict God has specified what we must do and eternally punishes the people who fail to act appropriately. Some people prefer to live in a universe where a merciful God wants us to "be good" but largely leaves it up to us to figure out what that means. And some people prefer to live in a predictable and understandable universe guided only by the uncaring laws of physics.
Our knowledge of the universe is such that it is impossible for us to determine which of those is the case, which kind of universe we live in. In other words, no religious world-view can be disproven. So each person just believes what they prefer.
But are all religious worldviews equally reasonable, equally plausible? Does the evidence not clearly favor, say... Evangelical Christianity? Atheism/Naturalism? Liberal Christianity? Fundamentalist Islam?
When the holder of each worldview is able to interpret all observations in a way that makes them consistent with his worldview, then there is no such thing as "evidence". We think that "evidence" makes one hypothesis more or less probable. However, the truth is: When different initial axiomatic assumptions are made (i.e. when different people start out wanting to believe different things about the fundamental nature of the universe to begin with), the same "evidence" can have wildly different implications, and thus is worthless as far as persuading someone who makes different assumptions from yours. A person with a different worldview will be able to explain your observations in terms of their worldview. The other explanation might sound convoluted to you, but to the other person it will sound less convoluted than the alternative you offer.
The atheist says that the God hypothesis is not necessary to explain the universe. He/she fails to appreciate that for a theist, it IS necessary, since any godless answer does not address some questions that are important to the theist, the "Why" kinds of questions.
The theist says that "God did it" is a simpler and more satisfying explanation than the convolutions offered by scientists. He/she fails to appreciate that for a naturalist, "God did it" is NOT a satisfactory explanation, since it sweeps under the rug the questions that to a naturalist are most interesting, the "How" kinds of questions.
Different people have different requirements, different feelings, about how it seems to them that the universe ought to operate. Some people want to see purpose and "God's will" as most fundamental, and feel lost without it. Other people feel no reason to believe in messy unverifiable spiritual forces, when more mechanical models are more precise and specific and experimentally verifiable and allow for predictability.
Theists and atheists will continue to talk past each other until they understand that they are asking different questions and that they have different meanings for the word "explain", different criteria for what is or is not a "good explanation".
My book aims to bridge this rift by explaining the atheist/naturalist mindset in a way that a religious person can appreciate, and by explaining the religious mindset in a way that an atheist/naturalist can appreciate.
The book aims to answer questions such as...
The structure of systems of belief: What is the value of religion? What do people get out of prayer, worship, and faith? How can religion make people better and happier? How can religion make people worse and more miserable? What is "good faith" and what is "bad faith"? Do atheists and naturalists have a "faith"? To what extent does a naturalistic worldview require "faith"? How do naturalists and humanists think about issues typically associated with spirituality, such as morality, love, beauty, and the nature of the self? What are the assumptions made by people who adopt different worldviews, and why do their "leaps of faith" seem (to them) so much smaller and more reasonable than the "leaps of faith" taken by people who have different worldviews?
Religion and the brain: Why are people religious? What aspects of our brain lead us to be receptive of religious memes and to want to understand the universe through a religious worldview? What makes some people "need" God? What psychological influences during our childhood, what hormonal shifts during our adolescence, and what intellectual factors during our adulthood, lead us to gravitate towards one worldview or another? Can the neurological mechanisms that drive most of us towards religion be seen as evidence for God? As evidence against God? Does it matter?
Science and religion: What is science? When do science and religion make contradictory claims? Is it necessary to choose one or the other? Why is naturalism important to science? How can science and religion be reconciled? What do the words "evidence", "prove", "disprove", and "possible" mean?
Morals: Why are we good? To a theist, "being good" has certain meanings, and certain motivations behind it. To a secularist, "being good" has certain meanings, and certain motivations behind it. How are these meanings and motivations similar, and how are they different? Can we honestly say WHY we are good? Can neuroscience and evolutionary psychology shed further light on our true motivations? And, more importantly, how do we build a society where different citizens have such different fundamental understandings of duty, progress, morality, rights, justice, and authority?
Souls and free will: How can thoughts and consciousness arise out of the same kinds of materials and chemical structures that form rocks and trees? What is counciousness? What is "I"? What is free will? What is the relationship between free will and determinism? What does it mean to say that we have a soul? And if you have a favorite answer to any of these questions, how could you possibly know that it is true?
Politics: To what extent should religion be intertwined with politics? To what extent should a majority have the authority to require a minority to support the majority's spiritual beliefs? What do the founding fathers REALLY have to say, and to what extent is that still relevant today? Can we have "rights" in any meaningful way other than "inalienably endowed by a creator"? Should a government officially declare that one unverifiably spiritual worldview is more valid than another? What is society, what is it for? What is justice? What is progress? How do we settle disagreements over this?
I think this does a pretty good job of getting across what the book is about.
Two things that motivated me to write the book are the following:
1) My sister got to that point in her adolescence where she wanted to explore different spiritual paths. I wanted to give her a book that explains why the atheist/naturalist/humanist spiritual path is a legitimate, valid, rewarding, reasonable one, followed by many loving and caring people. I wanted her to know this because, during her investigations, I knew that many religious people would give her a distorted view of humanism, naturalism, and atheism. I started out trying to give her a good atheism book. Unfortunately, all the atheism books I found seemed to rely on exaggerated characterizations of religion in order to make their points. I wanted a book that explains the atheist worldview without pretending that religious people are all crazy idiots. I wanted an atheism book that acknowledges that most religious people are perfectly smart and reasonable; that does not deny how they have built well-thought-out systems of belief around their faiths. Most religious people are honest about the nature of those beliefs, about how they can't know these things for sure but life and the world always seem to make more sense when looked at through the religious worldview. It's silly to pretend that most religious people have lost sight of what "faith" means, and it's downright irresponsible to say "Atheism is true because some religious people are fanatics", since that undermines honest atheism.
2) Both atheists and religious people are now seen as closed-minded. Rapidly-increasing numbers of young people want to dissociate themselves from specific systems of belief. Saying "I am a Christian" or "I am an atheist" these days seems to imply "... and therefore I think everyone else is deluded, crazy, ignorant, and/or a danger to the progress of society". Because of this divisiveness we see in our modern culture - and because young people realize that "you don't have to be wrong in order for me to be right" - young people tend to call themselves "agnostic" or "spiritual but not religious" since any other label is seen as closed-minded. This is a real shame. The truth is, many Christians and many atheists and many Muslims and (especially) many Jews and Buddhists (and people of other spiritual labels) understand that they do not have a monopoly on truth, that there are different spiritual paths that work for different people. Just because you're a [insert label here], does not mean you are closed-minded, and certainly does not mean that you and I can't have a conversation where we learn something new and useful about what it means to lead a good life, to be happy, and to want to be a better person. Heck, if we apply DIFFERENT labels to ourselves, I say we are MORE likely to learn from trying to appreciate the different ways we look at the world. I want to try and get this message out to people, to unlock these barriers of hesitation and fear of closed-mindedness, to say "We can all learn from each other! Let's talk!"
Soon this website will be a place where these conversations can happen.
- Bernardo "AtheistSpy" Malfitano