With Christmas just a couple of weeks away, it's time to start thinking about what to get your atheist friend who, of course, doesn't believe in Christ (but still enjoys giving and receiving presents).
Here's a book idea: Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century, by Lex Bayer and John Figdor.
Yeah, it's a bit spendy, even in the Kindle version.
That didn't stop me from getting a copy, though, because I was fortunate to get a free one from a publicist who thought churchless me would enjoy the book and write a review of it.
I am indeed liking the book. A lot. Here's a down payment on a full review.
I've read about half of it -- the introduction and Part 1: A Framework for Facts. Part II: A Framework for Ethics awaits my next morning pre-meditation reading sessions. Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart is one of the best-written explanations for why atheism makes sense I've ever come across.
And believe me, my bookshelves are filled with a lot of other books in this genre.
The notion of writing some "ten commandments" for atheists is genius. Bayer and Figdor correctly say that while atheists are notorious for not believing in something most people do believe in, God, many people think that atheists are amoral, with an anything-goes who-gives-a-shit view of ethics.
This isn't true, of course. As the book's title says, an atheist mind usually goes along with a humanist heart. Which brings to mind an anecdote from my college days.
In 1968 I spent the second semester of my sophomore year at San Jose State College with a small group of students and professors in Zadar, Yugoslavia. I was a long-haired existentialist hippie at the time (well, I still am, just a old one now).
I remember being invited to talk to some local students with a good grasp of English. They asked me some questions about how I looked upon the world, and indeed the cosmos. After I'd held forth for a while, the group's leader said, "So it sounds like you are a humanist, yes?"
Rather embarassingly, I didn't really know what a humanist was. But I recall saying "yes," since humanist sounded like something I certainly could be. After all, I didn't believe in God, but I did believe in humanity.
Most people have about as good a grasp of what "humanism" means as I did back then.
So this book fills a void by systematically laying out an approach for deciding what is important to those for whom religion isn't. These folks are called atheists and agnostics. I agree with the authors that these terms essentially are synonymous.
Atheists do not believe in a God or gods. Agnostics say they don't know whether a God or gods exist, and many go further to say that the existence of a deity or deities is unknowable. On first glance, it may seem as if these are two distinct categories, but it is actually possible for one person to be both an atheist and an agnostic. In fact, it's extremely common.
The reason relates to an oft-repeated adage on this blog: nothing is 100% certain (basic message of my blog post, "Keep open a crack in your belief system"). The authors go on to say that even about something so seemingly certain as your age, how old you are:
...you would probably have to admit that, yes, there was a tiny chance that you were wrong, a chance that's so small that it wasn't worth mentioning.
That is how most atheists feel about God.
Most agnostics have views that are impossible to distinguish from most atheists, but they choose to emphasize the doubt, while the atheists choose to emphasize their confidence. That is why it is possible and common for an atheist to also be an agnostic and an agnostic to also be an atheist. Each has simply chosen to emphasize a different aspect of his or her belief.
The commonality between the beliefs of atheists and agnostics is much greater than the differences. Both groups recognize that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and both agree that there isn't extraordinary evidence for the existence of God.
The difference is that the atheist moves from the recognition that extraordinary evidence for the existence of God hasn't been presented to the confident (but not certain) belief that God probably doesn't exist.
How, though, can the atheist be so confident in his or her belief that God likely doesn't exist? There's considerable truth in the religious retort, "Science and religion are both belief systems," which God-believers assume puts both on the same rung of the epistemological ladder.
Bayer and Figdor spend the first part of their book showing why this assumption is wrong.
Yet, they say, we do need assumptions. Not source beliefs that are taken as givens ("God exists"), but provisional, alterable, evaluatable assumptions.
The approach of treating starting beliefs as assumptions removes the predicament of not knowing how to pick and choose between unjustifiable beliefs. If these beliefs are going to be rudimentary enough to form the basis of any belief system, no other system can be used to pick them because such a system would then become a core belief itself.
By adopting the notion of starting assumptions, there's no need to be forced to choose source beliefs. Rather, different combinations of these beliefs can be evaluated in light of the results they yield.
As you will see, the heuristic of this book is that we need to be willing to reassess our lives with empirical checks. We need to continually test our assumptions rather than presuppose them. We must look at everything with fresh eyes and not adopt the biases of others.
There's a lot to unpack in that passage. The authors are Stanford guys. They don't talk down to the reader. In line with their theory of knowledge, they keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler than is necessary to cover all of the factual bases.
One reason for the principle of simplicity (a.k.a. Ockham's Razor) is that when probabilities are multiplied, the resulting "certainty number" gets smaller. For example, if the probability of the next person coming through a door being a female is 50%, the probability of her being a black female is lower.
Likewise, they say, if the probability of God existing is low, then the probability of the Christian God (or any other specific God) existing is lower. As is the probability of God having certain specific attributes such as omnipotence, omnipresence, or omnibenevolence.
So Bayer and Figdor build up their assumptions -- Ten Non-commandments -- in a simple yet rigorous fashion.
Here's the first six, which comprise the part of their book that I've read. I'll share the other four in another post after I've finished Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart.
1. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.
2. We can perceive the world only through our human senses.
3. We use rational thought and language as tools for understanding the world.
4. All truth is proportional to the evidence.
5. There is no God.
6. We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not.
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