I believe

A social commentator I follow on twitter recently wrote that whilst he had love for atheists he couldn't accept they have no belief. Many atheists immediately declared him wrong and professed that they possessed no belief. The atheists were not exactly telling the truth. Belief is defined as:

1/ An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
2/ Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.

It is thus highly unlikely any person could exist without belief at some level. I mean when was the last time you measured the charge on an electron or measured the speed of light in vacuum? Yet I bet you have faith that the results quoted by google or in a textbook are correct. Ah but these are all testable some might retort. That is true but you can not test everything at all times. At some level you have to believe others or believe that these values do not change with time. Plus of course there is the strong case put forward by philosophers such as Popper that falsifiability is what separates belief from knowledge or non-science from science. As important a distinction as this is, it is not enough to cover everything. Even the most "extreme" atheist will not be relying only on falsifiable knowledge at every moment.

The average atheist is more left-wing leaning than the average member of the public but there is certainly nothing in the definition of atheist enforcing this. For example the awful1 right-wing "shock historian" David Starkey is an atheist. Ah but this evidence [insert evidence] supports left leaning you answer. Well fine but do not you think a right winger could supply his own evidence? Any viewpoint can have cherry picked scientific evidence to support it. Atheists as a group might lean to the left but whether the scientific evidence alone supports left-wing ideology more is certainly not obvious. I think it is fairer to say that there is no clear scientific consensus on evidence based political leaning2. So how do your political ideals arise? Well for most people it is the combination of childhood indoctrination, relative wealth and education that sets their political ideology. As such I would suggest that most atheists political leaning is more belief than evidence based.

Let us move on to something a bit more tangible, why atheists eat meat3. It is hard not to notice that almost everything that was listed to me as a teenager as the defining difference between animals and man has been scientifically disproven by now. This of course is not unique to my generation, it has been going on for an awful long time. If you know even some of the literature4 of recent animal behavioural/imaging studies you can see just how fast these differences are falling. Even just Googling something like "list of differences between man and animals" will rarely provide a list without several items now disproven. As the evidence against a substantial difference stacks, people desperate to justify their culinary preference give more and more weighting to specific anatomical differences and more and more abstract constructs(the gaps in the science). Some of the abstract constructs are so subtle that it is almost impossible to think how one would make a strong test of them and rarely is it certain that all humans would pass them. Many are basically unfalsifiable notions in every way equal to some of the notions that atheists like to mock such as "humans having a soul" or "humans having religion to guide them6".

Would you eat humans genetically or surgically modified not to have those anatomical brain differences whom do not display those cultural traits? They would of course still cry in pain when hurt or defend their young as you pulled them away or mourn the dead or [insert all the things we know various animals do]. If you think you could do this your either sociopathic or lying to yourself (don't be so attention-seeking it is the last one). Religious folk in religions that allow meat eating have an easy escape as they can justify their diet will mere quotes from their deity, holy-book or local leader. Atheists who eat meat have to form their own beliefs to justify their eating of meat. This belief basically has to explain why humans are special despite all the scientific evidence continually suggesting that humans are not special in any real way. Here is a challenge for anyone who wants it:

Explain to a technologically advanced alien (sent to judge humanity) why us eating less advanced lifeforms is reasonable but him eating humans is entirely wrong.


It is no mean feat and from the answers I have heard over the years if I was the alien the fate of humanity would be sealed.

Most educated people in the developed world now have the privilege of knowing more about the world than even the smartest geniuses in history. As such a great many things are so explained so completely that absolutely no belief is needed to explain them. Most of the older simpler belief based ideas, that everyone understood, have been demonstrated as wrong. Gaps in science will of course always exist but the extent of the beliefs needed to fill them decreases every day. Long ago belief was absolutely needed to explain how the Sun rose in the morning or where your tribe came from. These days you "need" belief to justify how your model of government will help society progress or how what you eat matches your expressed ethical framework. It is not exactly in the same league. It is probably true to say that the required belief is almost negligible to many people these days. 

Nevertheless science is not complete and the commentator was right we all have some belief. Currently science alone is not quite sufficient to guide you through all decisions you make in everyday life. Religion can provide that guidance but so can many other ideals such as humanism. For me the crucial point is actually not what ideology you use to fill in the gaps but how flexible they are. If everyone's ideals can adapt and change as science and technology marches on really we all should have no problemsbut rather continually converge without issue. 


Footnotes:

  1. I am giving away my own leanings here.
  2. Thou there are many current right-wing UK government policies which the evidence does absolutely prove wrong. 
  3. I do although it is rare and normally only that of low trophic level sustainable fish.
  4. Keeping up with the literature in this field is a bloody nightmare for a few reasons including obfuscated language and common search tools being swapmed by quackery from anti-evolution discussion forums.
  5. A similar set of desperation to find differences arose in the slave owners of America as mocked in a scene in Django Unchained.
  6. Incidentally we are not sure belief in a higher power is limited to humans. (One for you to google thou note point 4.)
  7. If you can take your ideals being debated, mocked and possibly updated I for one will always defend your right to hold them and promote them.