Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No, Atheism is Not Literally a Delusion

So this guy named Bruce G. Charlton -- I won't stress the ironic similarity of his surname to the word "charlatan" -- wrote this article claiming that atheism is a delusion. P Zed linked to it today, but he left his readers to determine for themselves how it was fallacious. Because I'd like to exercise my rhetorical and logical chops, I'm going to do a paragraph-by-paragraph refutation.

Is Atheism literally a delusion? – A pragmatic proof of Monotheism

Bruce G Charlton

In the press, Church Times

It is a commonplace among Atheists to treat belief in a God as if it were a delusion – sometimes merely a silly delusion, at others a dangerous delusion. My argument is that if a sentient Martian came to earth and observed humankind objectively, and made a pragmatic comparison of devout Monotheists with convinced Atheists, the Martian would be in no doubt it was Atheists that were deluded.

In psychiatry a delusion is a false but powerful belief held with strong conviction. More than this, a delusional belief is one having harmful consequences to the individual. Some delusions are bizarre and are seen only in people with irrational thought patterns – for instance (and this is not invented), I once interviewed a man who believed that the universe was controlled by a budgie. (Yes, I mean the small parrot-like bird!) But some delusions occur in people with ‘normal’, rational thinking processes.

Examples of ‘rational delusions’ include people who falsely believe they are being persecuted by gangs, or some men who falsely believe that their wives are being unfaithful, or some women that falsely believe that their nose has a peculiar shape and is making them hideously ugly. Such beliefs may be held with delusional intensity in people who are otherwise normal. The false belief is in fact a logical conclusion of false premises – for example, if a man accepts the premise that this wife is having an affair, then he can usually find sufficient ‘evidence’ to support this premise.

My modest proposal is that Atheism should be classed as one of these rational delusions.

To say that a delusion is a false belief means that there must be practical criteria for evaluating the truth of a belief – and (since most psychiatrists are not philosophers) ‘truth’ is usually evaluated indirectly by establishing the harmfulness of a belief to the individual. In psychiatric practice, false beliefs are operationally identified by their being maladaptive – in other words by evaluating the consequences of that belief, and deciding whether the consequences are beneficial or damaging.

Yeah, I know I said "paragraph-by-paragraph", but he didn't say anything strictly objectionable before this point. Anyway. Here he introduces the fallacy on which his argument rests: the good old argumentum ad consequentiam, argument from consequences. That's the assertion that something is true because it has better implications than the alternative. Essentially, wishful thinking. He couches it in psychiatric terminology, as if that justified it somehow. It doesn't stop there, though. He's about to go on to claim maladaptivity for the atheist position; I'll be there to rebut his particular points in future paragraphs.

The word ‘maladaptive’ has a strict biological sense, and also a more diffuse social meaning. In strict biological terms a maladaptive trait or behaviour is one that reduces relative reproductive success. Basically, something is maladaptive if it reduced the number of viable offspring. By this strict definition Atheism is a highly maladaptive trait, since Atheistic beliefs are associated with choosing to have reduced numbers of children: less than the 2.1 children minimum needed to replace the parents and cover premature deaths.

The demographic research of Eric Kauffman of Birkbeck College, London has shown that in the Monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) increasing devoutness is associated with larger numbers of children; and religious people have more children than the secular. This rule applies even when educational level is taken into account; and this is necessary because in modern societies Atheism is positively associated with general intelligence. In other words, most Atheists are of higher intelligence than Monotheists.

However, even when compared with equally-intelligent devout Monotheists, Atheists still have lower fertility. So, Atheism is a reproductively-damaging belief system, and this is enough to classify it – objectively - as maladaptive, hence a delusion.

I have two points here. 1. The reproductive difference between atheists and religious people is a result of specific doctrines within religions. Religions, generally across the board, try very hard to adjudicate sex, forbidding forms of it that do not result in childbirth, such as masturbation, oral sex, homosexual sex, and sex with contraceptives in place. Why? Because people who can't do those things will be forced into reproductive acts by their sex drives, and will therefore have more children; if the meme of that religion includes a recommendation to proselytize to your kids, then, blammo, we have a successful meme. The meme is good at replicating itself, which says absolutely nothing of the benefit to people. 2. Overpopulation is a problem. More people means more demand for resources. Not only on the large scale, but on the scale of the individual family as well. A family that has only one child will be able to provide more support to him or her than a family with four, and that one child will have a far better chance of going to college and becoming a successful professional. The time has passed for our society to need more people. The way forward is through quality, and not quantity. I would argue therefore that it is the position that insists on more procreation that it is maladaptive, because down the line it results in more suffering.

Some may say that, in an overcrowded world, it should be counted in favour of Atheism that it reduces average fertility. But that is a different issue altogether – we are here concerned with the effects of a trait on the individual person’s biological adaptation. However, it should be noted that psychological traits such as intelligence and personality are significantly inherited. Insofar as the adoption of Atheism is influenced by innate psychology; by inducing people to chose to have fewer children than needed for replacement, Atheism will tend to eliminate itself from the human gene pool. And causing genetic self-extinction is the defining property of a maladaptive trait.

Self-extinction, Bruce? Are you not aware that our demographics are rather steadily increasing? Certainly, it could be said that some lines have died out because an individual never had a chance or never chose to have children. Many of those lines probably ended in atheists. But the rational force of our position is so strong that our numbers are increasing anyway. Unlike some people, we don't need to get to converts before they develop reason in order to propogate our schema of the world.

‘Maladaptive’ may also have a looser and more social meaning that is roughly equivalent to the effects of a trait on happiness and fulfilment. Research into the effects of Atheism on happiness and fulfilment are somewhat difficult to unravel, especially since Atheists tend to be more educated, richer, and have better health than theists. Nonetheless, my overall impression is that if intelligence is controlled-for then devout Monotheists are very likely to more motivated and positive in their attitude to life.

Have you considered, Bruce, that atheists may be better educated, richer, and healthier because of their atheism? Think about it. People who don't think they already have all the answers (e.g. are certain that their holy book is the one true way) are more likely to go looking for them -- hence better education. People who aren't satisfied with a sub-par economic lot (e.g. they don't think this life is just a warmup for something grander) are more likely to work hard to improve their situation, hence better socioeconomic status. People who realize that death means the end are more likely to take steps to prevent it, hence better health. Anyway, I'd like to know where this "overall impression" is coming from that theists are happier. I would argue that anybody who takes the doctrine of original sin seriously would be more likely to have serious self-esteem issues.

One reason for this could be that Atheism entails discarding many or all of the ideas that sustain a belief in one’s own personal significance in the world. While Monotheistic religions have a basis for motivation in the necessity for individual salvation and the importance of duty; each Atheist must either accept their life as an utterly insignificant dot in the vast context of time and space, or else embark on an heroic journal aimed at the self-creation of personal meaning from nothing. And – perhaps aside from a few geniuses – most people cannot lift-themselves using only their own bootstraps.

Atheists discard the belief that God did a poor job of crafting a universe specifically for us, but Humanists (a substantial subset of atheists) replace it with the extremely empowering belief that we are masters of our own destiny and therefore can and should do something good, fulfilling, and memorable with our only lives. It's not that hard to have a positive influence in the world. Volunteer somewhere. Have a kid or two, and raise them well. Become a teacher, like I'm doing. You don't have to be a famous author or a life-saving doctor or a revolutionary politician to change the world. As long as you leave the world having given more to it than you took, then your life was great and worthwhile. Bad form, Bruce, telling folks we can't live meaningful lives without your Jebus. You need to believe in people more. You're obviously no Humanist.

On the other hand, Atheists probably get more short-termist pleasures since they have fewer restrictions on their behaviours. Indeed I would expect that license to access forbidden pleasures, and liberation from guilt in so doing, are likely to be strong immediate incentives for Atheism.

It is to laugh, Bruce. You really think that there are many theists who can't bear to sin, and therefore must discard their theism before they indulge? Christians would have to be the worst for that, because whatever they do, they can be absolved of any spiritual guilt by visiting a confessional and rubbing out a few Hail Marys. "Hm. I'd really like to attend this bacon, mixed fabric, and gay sex orgy, but my religion is chafing pretty hard. I'd better take it off first." Seriously, Bruce?! Anybody who thought anything only a fraction as absurd as that hadn't been a true believer in a long time.

Nonetheless, the greater long-term fulfilment of devout Monotheists is pretty much accepted by many Atheists, who scornfully regard theism as a ‘happy’ delusion based on weak-minded wishful-thinking. Some regard Monotheism as a useful delusion – in other words as a false belief that happens to have a valuable role in generating a sense of personal significance and/ or social cohesion.

Pretty much accepted by many atheists? 1. Based on what? 2. Define "pretty much". 3. How many? The basic premise of the "happy delusion" idea is that the expectation of an afterlife anesthetizes people to the misery of their mortal one. I'll grant that religion makes theists with a bad lot happier than atheists with a bad lot, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The more satisfied lower-class theists are with their life, the less incentive they have to do something about it. A lower-class atheist is therefore more likely to effect positive change in his or her status. I'll also grant that religion was probably useful in keeping society from imploding during its early development, but only as a scaffold to get us to true rational thinking, which is buoyant enough to rise higher when it finally manages to disengage from religion.

However, this ‘useful delusion’ argument is grossly lacking in plausibility. Pragmatically, there cannot be any such thing as a useful delusion, because delusions are defined as being harmful. Over the long-term and from a biological perspective, if a belief is useful then it is not a delusion; if a belief is a delusion then it is not useful.

Playing at semantics, are you, Bruce? Turning up the contrast on your monitor so you can't see shades of gray, are you, Bruce? Guns exist, Bruce. Guns are both useful (when you need somebody at distance to be severely wounded) and harmful (when someone with a gun needs you to be severely wounded). So if you apply a quantum of imagination, you can see that something can be both useful and harmful. Otherwise you're denying every metaphorical description ever made of something as a "double-edged sword". So can we accept that "useful" and "harmful" are not mutually exclusive? Okay, maybe you were thinking that, as two aspects of a thing, they act against each other: something can have a little of both, but the balance is what's important. If that's so, you'll have to prove that the harm done by theism (deaths from AIDS due to lies by the Vatican about condoms, fanatics killing people on all sides, hampering the economic advancement of untold millions as explained in my last paragraph, in general being a nuisance to scientific advancement, and the list goes on) is of less worth than the happiness it provides.

It is therefore extremely implausible that a false belief would lead to greater long-term happiness than a true belief. Indeed, the main real-life way that we differentiate true from false beliefs is in terms of their long-term consequences. This method of distinguishing truth is (roughly) philosophical Pragmatism, as pioneered by William James (1842-1910): the ‘truth’ is that which leads to the best overall outcome.

Wait, "therefore"? You think there was a logical connection between that last paragraph and that sentence? I'll pretend that word wasn't there and address these points as if you had only just now asserted them -- which you in fact did. [At some point I think I transitioned from Bruce being the third person to being the second. Just roll with it.] It's immaterial how plausible it is for a false belief to lead to greater happiness than a true one. In any case you were using the usefulness of a belief to gauge its truth value earlier (did I say argumentum ad consequentiam? I did? Okay), so according to your fallacious schema, which I'm unwillingly forced to adopt temporarily in order to get within range, the happiness factor of a belief does indeed inform its truth value. Unfortuantely, you haven't successfully established that theism is more useful. Then you go on to claim that this is the primary way we discern truth in real life. Is it, Bruce? Do we think the sky is blue because we'd be called crazy for thinking it's yellow, or because we look up and see that the bloody sky is blue?! You'd have to be pretty damn paranoid if the plurality of your decisions on truth were decided on the basis of whether people would think you're crazy. In any case, it is irrelevant. This is all back to the argumentum ad consequentiam.

However, there must be a deeper psychological reason than short-termist hedonism why so many intelligent people have chosen the maladaptive trait of Atheism. I have recently published a theory trying to explain the phenomenon of ‘Clever Sillies’. Clever Sillies are people whose professional and expert attainments may be at the highest level, while their psychological and social beliefs and behaviours are just silly – I was thinking in particular of the prevalent lunacies of Political Correctness among the ruling elites. In essence, I argue that the root of the problem is that high intelligence often brings with it a tendency to overuse intelligence – even when ‘instinct’ is a better guide to reality.

1. You have not established atheism to be maladaptive. If you've been reading my side of this commentary, you already know this. 2. I have no idea what your point is with political correctness, but it's apparently the subject of another one of your essays, which I will not pursue. 3. You suppose that instict is a better guide to reality than intelligence. Well, in the kind of contexts we evolved in, usually. Our brains evolved to intuit the reality of what Dr. Richard Dawkins calls "Middle World". We can intuit Newtonian physics, because it relates to things we see in our lives. We cannot intuit Einsteinian physics, because it applies to things that happen at extremely high speeds and scales that are very large or very small. But nonetheless we find that our science holds up, makes correct predictions, and leads to working technology even when we've passed beyond the limits of our intuition. In some cases intelligence is a better guide to reality than instinct.

By this account, Atheism is a ‘clever’ but maladaptive explanation for reality; which is preferred by many smart people exactly because it is goes against natural instinct, and therefore both requires and signals greater cleverness among its advocates. Pride in one’s own cleverness thereby overwhelms the fundamental adaptation to reality; indeed willed-nihilism and desired ideological self-extinction are, to a remarkable extent, precisely the hallmarks of an intelligent and Politically Correct Atheist.

The false maladaptation aside, this is only a hypothesis and therefore bears some rigorous testing. Conclusions in science that defy human intuition were reached not because scientists rolled some dice and added whatever coefficients they needed to make the math come out right. They were not made unintuitive just because Einstein really really hated Newton. They represent the best explanation for the data collected by our most precise instruments. Bruce's hypothesis suggests that atheists created their philosophy to be deliberately obstructive in its complexity. In fact, the core notion of atheism -- that there's no cause to believe in any gods -- is remarkably simple. The complexity comes when religious apologists counter this simple atheism with tortured logic that requires unwinding and subsequent destruction by thinking atheists. The notion of gods had rhetorical force before we had science to explain weather, disease, and the motions of heavenly bodies. In this age of science, it's the theists whose position is obstructively complex. Anyhow. Nihilism is only one end of the spectrum of atheism, opposed to Humanism at the other end. And as I explained earlier, the low birth rates of atheists do not in fact amount to self-extinction.

Of course, there is a ‘grey area’ between Monotheism and Atheism, namely ‘Atheist converts’: people who were brought-up as Monotheists in a religious society but have stopped believing or practicing as adults. However, these people are transitional-cases and should not be taken to represent pure Atheism, since childhood culture often has a lasting effect on adult behaviour. The situation of a cradle-Atheist brought up in a secular society is the proper comparison, and such ‘pure Atheists’ have over recent decades been becoming much commoner and the assumptions of this perspective more socially dominant.

1. As a matter of fact, converts to atheism make up the majority of the atheist population. That's why we're growing so rapidly. I don't see why we should discount their relevance. 2. This is piddling and semantic, but we're all technically cradle atheists. Children don't start believing in gods until they're out of the cradle. This is just a question of terminology, so I won't ignore the point on that ground alone. 3. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins were raised Christians. I'd bet that Douglas Adams, Sam Harris, P Zed Myers, Hemant Mehta, James Randi, and lots of other influential atheists were also born in religious families. Sam may have said something in one of his books, but I haven't got around to them yet. I can't say for the others. Does this make their viewpoints less valid to the discussion?

I believe that this can be seen in the greater average levels of achievement of those adult Atheist artists and scientists in past generations who were raised as Jews or Christians (I do not know enough about Islam to comment), when compared with the thoroughly-secularized creative people of today.

Again, it's a simple matter of statistics to sort this out, even if it is true, which you haven't established. The majority of atheists were born to religious parents. Therefore, statistically, the majority of famous and successful atheists would have been born to religious parents. That's like saying that since more famous North American English-speaking people are from the US than from Canada, there's something about being from the States that makes you more successful. No, it's because there are more people in the States than in Canada, so naturally more of the successful North American English-speakers will be from here.

For example, Einstein continued to believe in the reality of Truth after he abandoned his childhood Judaic belief in a personal God; James Joyce believed in objective Beauty even when rejecting Roman Catholicism; Nietzsche believed that there was such as thing as Virtue (albeit a rather idiosyncratic notion of virtue) although he violently thrust-away the Pietist Protestanism of his youth. By contrast modern Atheist artists and scientists believe in the ultimate reality of nothing deeper or more fundamental than their own state of mind (all-too-soon to be extinguished leaving no residue); hence most lack the motivation or courage even to attempt scaling the heights of previous generations.

See my last paragraph.

In a nutshell my argument is that if it is accepted that devout Monotheism objectively leads to a more adaptive overall outcome than convinced Atheism (and this is the consensus of modern research), then Monotheism should be regarded are true-er than Atheism. I personally find this argument so convincing that it led me from cradle-Atheism to a personal belief in Monotheism followed later by conversion to Christianity.

That's too bad, because it's not accepted that theism leads to a more adaptive outcome than atheism. I want to see support for this supposed consensus of modern research. Because if it's just the things you talked about above, I'm not buying it. Even if it were, that would still be *gasp* argumentum ad consequentiam! And so you decided to start believing that God existed because you assumed it would make you happier? I really don't think many atheists are capable of just up and deciding to believe in God. It seems like a very peculiar form of lying to one's self.

Of course the empirical argument I present here works merely for Monotheism (and does not in this form imply any specific type of Monotheism); and is merely a pragmatic argument, based on normal secular and scientific criteria for determining the operational and relative truth of propositions. It is not an argument about the ultimate nature of reality, but only about which belief has the most damaging consequences for the individual in modern societies.

And it took all that babbling to finally get here, to the essay's confession that the whole thing is a big argumentum ad consequentiam. What's more, it doesn't even establish the truth of the consequences, either!

However, the argument might perhaps be enough to convince an Agnostic Martian scientist who was trying to compare the consequences of Monotheism and Atheism. And it suggests that - if any group on the planet earth is vulnerable to the accusation of suffering from a maladaptive belief or ‘delusion’ – then it is the Atheists.

Yes, the Martians -- and would it have killed you to use a kind of alien that are actually likely to exist? -- would look at one group who believes that there is one entity that is three persons, one of which is the son of the other, with the son having had to be tortured by humans before the father was willing to let anybody into heaven, and that this tripartite entity is the omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent creator of a universe that obviously has no qualms about brutally murdering its inhabitants, and who murder each other for slight doctrinal nitpicks, and who mutilate their children because obviously omniscient and omnipotent God made them wrong; and then they'd look at the folks who step back, ask questions about the doctrines, and conclude that they were probably invented by iron-age desert tribes: this will lead them to conclude that obviously the atheists are deluded. And if you couldn't tell that that last bit was dripping with sarcasm, you're obviously from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and you're not concentrating hard enough.

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