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Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything

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Why Atheists Are Not Trusted

January 4th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 13 Comments

Polls have shown that atheists are the “least trusted minority”, and that people would likely not vote for an atheist. The God Delusion cites (in the preface) a 1999 Gallup poll:

A Gallup poll taken in 1999 asked Americans whether they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified person who was a woman (95 per cent would), a Roman Catholic (94 per cent would), Jew (92 per cent), black (92 per cent), Mormon (79 per cent), homosexual (79 per cent), or atheist (49 per cent).

Now here’s the thing, irrespective of whether I’m a theist or an atheist, I would have serious reservations about voting for someone that does not understand the language that the majority of his countrymen speak. I don’t care about his personal views. If he doesn’t understand his countrymen and cannot communicate well, how could I vote for him in good faith?

Until now, I suspect that publicly donning the “atheist” label served as a decent indicator to identify people that lack an understanding of theistic language. From an old post of mine:

South Africa long had the policy of not accepting blood donations from non-whites, purely because statistically, “white blood” was more likely to be AIDS-free. How is that for a can of worms? Statistics, dangerous stuff. Naturally, this policy was forced to change. I don’t know what statistics they now use to determine what blood is “safer” and what is “less safe”.

People do not distrust the label “atheist”, they distrust the things that “atheist” is currently an indicator for. The Out Campaign is then merely trying to dilute the word to the point where it no longer serves as that indicator. Why do you care so much about the label? I also believe comparing it to the Gay Pride movement is a logical fallacy. That movement was about fighting the marginalisation of people with a particular physiology. (Physiology? There must be a better word?) The Out Campaign is, in my opinion, merely destigmatising a label, nothing more. Yay. A label that many say shouldn’t even exist. (I suspect one might even be able to find a Richard Dawkins quote that includes him in that “many”.) OK, yes, I understand. You would like to be “united”. You want your voice heard. I have another idea to complement the “Out Campaign”. It’s on its way.

Now on to a statement Richard Dawkins made at AAI. He mentioned he would have been a bad choice of witness at the Dover trial. He said if confronted with the question “does evolution lead to atheism?”, he would have to answer “yes”. I’m convinced he thereby illustrates his lack of understanding of theistic language. What is the question really? The question is this: “Does evolution lead to an absolutely meaningless existence? Does evolution lead to a lack of hope? Does evolution lead to nothing to base your morality on?” This is what Richard Dawkins would have answered “yes” to. You must understand that people cannot trust politicians that go around saying “Your existence is meaningless! There is no point in behaving morally! Life is hopeless! Hopeless, I tell you!”

When communicating, what the recipient hears is much more important than what the speaker is trying to say. What would be the more valuable way of answering that question? Sidestep the word, if you are unable to communicate in theistic language. Use better words. “Well, evolution does not lead to a lack of hope, morality or meaning in life. If that is what you mean by ‘God’, then clearly evolution cannot lead to a rejection of God…”

Yes, one potential snag: “Please answer the question Mr Dawkins: Yes or No?”. Now the problem with the legal system and society as a whole: it assumes we are all talking the same language. And so we build a Tower of Babel, and we kill each other because we do not even realise we’re not speaking the same language. How about this: “I’m sorry, I do not understand what you mean by the question, as there are so many different definitions of ‘God’. Can you define ‘God’ for me?” (Hehe… nasty, that. God is beyond definition, not so?)

The language of angels, the language of men, and apparently no-one that is able to translate? Fools!


I need to get some more pro-science posts out, in preparation for the launching of the P-campaign. That pig better start running soon, else I’ll go mad. Again. A bacon-related deadline passes on Monday so hopefully I will have time to work on getting the pig flying next week. I’m hoping it will succeed at its first flight before the next full moon.

Categories: Religion and Science
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13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tim Mills // Jan 4, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Hugo,

    Can you accept that two people can actually have different beliefs about matters of fact? Or will you insist that, whenever two people appear to disagree, they are simply “speaking different languages”?

    It is arrogantly condescending for you to suggest that people who call themselves atheists are just failing to understand what everyone else means when they talk about “God”. Worse than that – it’s simply wrong.

    The fact is, most people have in mind a supernatural being of some sort when they talk about “God”. Atheists either (a) lack belief in such beings – they don’t know one way or the other, and so choose to base their lives on something more reliable – or (b) positively believe that such beings do not exist.

    It is a meaningful label. When Dawkins, through the OUT campaing, encourages people to whom the label applies to declare their position publicly, it does not dilute the meaning in any way – it simply reinforces the social power of people identified by that label.

    You say that Dawkins would have agreed that “…evolution lead[s] to an absolutely meaningless existence … evolution lead[s] to a lack of hope … evolution lead[s] to nothing to base your morality on.” Nonsense. Read the first paragraphs of “Unweaving the Rainbow”. Check out “The Ancestor’s Tale”. Dawkins sees great beauty, hope, and meaning in the world. He lives a deeply moral life – why else would he so passionately defend what he sees as the truth against those who would demean and reject it? If you accept atheists’ claims about out beliefs, however, you can begin to see that lack of belief in any god does not lead to meaningless, hopeless, amoral lives. You can see that, from at least as long ago as the ancient Greeks, human morality separate from supernatural revelation has a long and noble history.

    Based on this post, I fear that postmodern hyper-subjectivity has damaged your capacity to navigate language in a rational and intelligent way. Please prove me wrong.

    - Tim -

  • 2 Hugo // Jan 4, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Nice reply, thanks Tim.

    Can you accept that two people can actually have different beliefs about matters of fact? Or will you insist that, whenever two people appear to disagree, they are simply “speaking different languages”?

    People do have different beliefs. Some things get lost in translation. Some ideas are expressed better in some languages than in others. The thing that irks me is that we are focusing on the differences, the skin colour, instead of the similarities. Personally I feel once we get past our memetic-racism, we can start making progress.

    The rest of your post is hard to respond to directly, for I do think I was unable to communicate the idea I’m trying to communicate. Let me try to illustrate.

    This looks like a quote mine, from my perspective, where I understand what I’m trying to say:

    You say that Dawkins would have agreed that “…evolution lead[s] to an absolutely meaningless existence … evolution lead[s] to a lack of hope … evolution lead[s] to nothing to base your morality on.” Nonsense.

    Yes, that is nonsense, which is why that is not what I was trying to say. Dawkins would not say that explicitly. He would simply have answered “Yes”. My next statements are how the theists and fundamentalists I’ve talked to about this, would interpret that simple “Yes”. I.e. they would misunderstand what Dawkins was trying to say. I verified this with yet another friend shortly before making this post. “What did you mean when you said I’m a good Christian?” He believes in evolution, he accepts science. It sounds like he has some trouble swallowing the Jesus-story whole, but he has belief in God.

    “So what do you mean by that? Why don’t you like Stephen Hawking? What do you have against atheists?” I asked. The answer? No meaning in life. Purposeless existence. I believe they’re looking for God in the wrong place, but I understand the gripes they have against what they call atheists. The atheists they run into. Not necessarily “real atheists” (like “real Christians”), but their understanding of the label.

    The point I’m making is that while Richard Dawkins would speak truth with his understanding of the words he uses, “the masses” would misinterpret, and hear “no meaning, no purpose.

    Do you understand my post better now? I can try to explain it in more depth, but I’m hoping the reader will come half-way. I personally feel if someone is unable to understand what I’m trying to communicate in this post, they will have a really, really tough time understanding theism.

    You can understand theism without having to agree with every piece. But once you understand the language, you can start to disagree with finer details with more fruitfulness.

    Again, my blog’s primary target audience is South Africans. I don’t know how the context differs internationally, and that is the danger of the internet, of culture clashes. Maybe I should do my next blog post about what happens to religious people from my country that go and spend a year in London?

    Please let me know what part of my post you still do not understand. If you discover there’s a twist that you missed, re-read the whole thing, looking from the new perspective. See if you can find the truth I intended to communicate in every statement. Once you have found it, we can see where we disagree.

    Am I making any sense?

  • 3 Hugo // Jan 4, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    With regards to communication, I learned a lot via couples and a psychologist that specialises in relationship counselling. You have no idea how often fights within marriages are due to nothing more than misunderstandings. Using mirroring and placing-yourself-in-another’s-shoes (and a few other techniques, which they teach), these fights often evaporate into thin air. Astonishing… Truly astonishing.

    So your comment was mirroring mine, in the sense that you were telling me what you heard me say. That kind of thing helps figure out where the misunderstanding is.

  • 4 Hugo // Jan 5, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Another old friend of mine that I’m trying to re-establish contact with, has labelled his religious views in Facebook as “anti-atheist”. The very existence of that label should have you realise that what he understands by “atheist” is much, much more than just “lacking a belief in a particular metaphysical entity”. That is the point.

    So what do you think he means by that? I’m trying to get an explanation from him. See if you can predict his answer in your mind. Do remember this is not England, this is South Africa. South African in-your-eye “atheists” are typically a different sort to those found in, say, London or some other largely secular country.

  • 5 Ben // Jan 5, 2008 at 6:38 am

    This again. The irony:

    If he doesn’t understand his countrymen and cannot communicate well, how could I vote for him in good faith?

    The fact that so many theists cannot communicate and speak plainly (your claim) does not mean I will join them.

    Why do you care so much about the label?

    Because it cannot be escaped. If I were to call myself something else without changing my opinions, I would still be labeled an atheist by religionists. New labels get similar connotations – look at humanist.

    He said if confronted with the question “does evolution lead to atheism?”, he would have to answer “yes”. I’m convinced he thereby illustrates his lack of understanding of theistic language. What is the question really? The question is this: “Does evolution lead to an absolutely meaningless existence? Does evolution lead to a lack of hope? Does evolution lead to nothing to base your morality on?”

    I think it is you who lacks the understanding of theistic language. Damn you, I paid attention in Church and Sunday School.

    The question is straightforward. It is NOT what you list. Those things are seen as inevitable consequences of atheism, not atheism itself. The biggest thing that will change those perceptions is atheists outing themselves. If your friends Bob and Jim are atheists who live meaningful, hopeful, and moral lives, the perceptions die.

  • 6 Hugo // Jan 5, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Thanks Ben. I hear ya.

    I must say, watching them demonise secular humanism at a creationism seminar was quite an eye opener.

  • 7 Tim Mills // Jan 5, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Hugo,

    Thanks. I failed to meet you halfway on this one. I know better, but it’s an easy trap to fall into.

    I still think you put too much on “different languages”. But maybe that’s more a matter of taste than of substance.

    - Tim -

  • 8 Hugo // Jan 5, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Could be. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve not seen anyone else do this yet. I know it works for me. It could be that the South African context is rather different than what’s left of religion in Europe?

    There is much I can blog about it, in much detail. Maybe some of the future posts will provide more context.

    In other news, some metaphysical thoughts/theories on the origins of the universe brings you to the conclusion that it does make sense to call the origins of morality as well as the origins of the universe, “God”. However, this is not the right place for me to explain that, or to share my “meeting with God” in the beginning of December. So why this paragraph? Maybe this paragraph will serve to reduce the number of frustrating misunderstandings in the future, by chasing away the people that don’t want to hear it. Hehehe…

  • 9 Hugo // Jan 5, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Another bit of Biblical info:

    The language of angels, the language of men, and apparently no-one that is able to translate?

    That is a reference to some of Paul’s writings in the New Testament. In particular, it aims to get the theists more aware of language differences and the silliness of using a language when no-one is able to translate it.

  • 10 Zach // Jan 6, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    I was astounded when I read you post Hugo. I was formulating a reply, but then I saw that Tim had already written one. My understanding of your words was exactly the same as his, as was the rebuttal I was about to post. Except he expressed it probably a bit more concisely and with less circumlocution than I would.
    Also, I can take a stab at answering the original question (why Atheists are not trusted). Surely it’s because atheists are the ‘other’, and they’re demonised by religious institutions. It’s simple memetics! A religion which denounces non-adherents will grow at faster rate than one which accepts them.

  • 11 Hugo // Jan 6, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Astounded? Hehe, I feel honoured! Did further conversation help clarify what it was that I was trying to say?

    Religions which denounce non-adherents and is exclusivistic in nature do grow more easily, yes. Which is what was so remarkable about the “people of the way”, the pre-”Christian label” Christian cult from the middle east. Inclusive beyond imagination. I’ve heard it grew at around 40% per year… hmm… I’d love to verify this. I have an idea which book it came from, I’ll share that in a blog post soon. That was until around 300AD, at which point it slowly started turning ugly again. It got a label, it eventually had its living scripture bound by a cover that killed it, and it became a state religion. The Matrix all over again.

    We will see what the future holds. Also thanks for the heads up about how the “Jesus” label has been screwed over for the Europeans. (You never read the Borg book, eh? Don’t sweat it, just curious. Other options I’ve heard recommended is John Shelby Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious”, but I’ve not read that myself yet.) McLaren’s suggested one of the best presents we could give “Jesus”, is that no-one uses his name for 25 years and instead just focus on living the teachings. Maybe after that we could start talking about the idea again, without invoking the terror he has been turned into.

    *sigh*. What’s the chance of that ever happening.

  • 12 Negate // Jan 6, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Its a real shame that allot of atheist use a racist approach towards religion. The path of reason leads to atheism, reality doesn’t bend to our wishes, but it can be extremely difficult to come to terms with when the wish is so strong. The truth hurts. It hurt when i realized that religion is a manifestation of our fear of the unknown and death, but the human being that emerged after i realized “Your existence is meaningless!” as hugo puts it gave me a sense of life appreciation that i never had before.

    god is given credit for every good thing that happens in the world, while every evil is blamed on humanity. God will not make the cut for morality because he is not human. I dont think morals should be build upon a god but rather on humanity where we all share a real universal bond.

    We need humanity more than religion
    The potential of humanity, in the power of reason, in the comfort of love, and in the value of truth is huge.

    Respect for different opinions, beliefs and lifestyles — is the only way to understand another person viewpoint of life. It has nothing to do with language differences but everything to do with what makes a person feel worthwhile with his diverging opinions.

  • 13 Hugo // Jan 7, 2008 at 12:33 am

    While I understand what you mean by this:

    The path of reason leads to atheism

    I have to disagree. Possibly because I have a different idea of “God” than you do. Your “atheism” is defined by the God that you do not believe in. In my worldview, there aren’t any atheists, because every human has a “God”, in the (somewhat) redefined sense. (I say somewhat, because finding the path around the traditional definition to discover the new definition, while possible, requires too deep a philosophical discussion. So let’s call it new.) Oh, and the other thing is you include empiricism in your reasoning.

    So this is my counter proposal, if you said this, I would agree… and I would be agreeing from my personal experience:

    The path of reason and reason alone (without empiricism), leads to one of the following things: nihilism, humanism or existentialism. Although, it can really end anywhere, because I see a loop. These are “sensible” places to break the loop though, just “nihilism” is not worthwhile. So include empiricism, to get a scientific worldview. Humanism to get a moral one. Or if you want, you can ground your morality in selfishness as it seems the likes of Ayn Rand does. Sorry, “selfishness” is too negative a term, I hope you realise what I mean. (And even if it were factually true, it isn’t the kind of morality that the majority of humanity can subscribe to, it just doesn’t resonate well with them.)

    But yes, quite cute eh, how you can find meaning in existence through a realisation of what death means. In that sense one can question whether the Lord of the Rings’ elves truly have “life”, if they don’t die. Or if their lives carry any meaning.

    Now while there are other things I could argue with you (Negate) about, I don’t have the energy. I just had a good three-hour session of intense philosophical sparring. Good for you guys… ;-)

    Just know I don’t agree with everything Negate says. In particular, depending on how you understand Negate’s last paragraph, I find myself a counter example to his claims there. I don’t think my way is going to be particularly useful to anyone else here though. Blog post coming up.

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