Monday, October 19, 2009

Plato, Linnaeus, Darwin, and Atheism

Barbara Bradley Hagerty's NPR piece, "A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists", put two thoughts in my head. The briefer first: Taking a look at religious sectarian violence the world over, isn't BBH impressed at how atheists handle alleged disagreements?

The second will take some time. You might want to pour yourself a drink first.

Plato’s view of reality proposed that there were ideal forms (platonic ideals) which we mere humans could not perceive—our abilities limited to seeing only imperfect copies of these ideals. We did, however, recognize kinds, as approximations to those ideals. We saw and recognized triangles because of their similarity to the ideal triangle, cats because of their similarity to the ideal cat, and so forth.

Linnaeus, in categorizing species, followed the platonic tradition. A species was defined by a representative of that species, a prototype, and by limited variation from that ideal. There was an ideal cat, but of course some are larger or smaller, striped or solid or tortoise-shell mottled or calico, with longer or shorter tails, faster or slower, more or fewer toes. This view of life made it very difficult to conceive of one species becoming another, or splitting into two.

Darwin rocked the world when, in his “Origin of Species”, he essentially rendered the word “species” obsolete, at least as it had previously been known. The average or ideal cat was no longer of any great interest; rather, the population of cats, individuals varying from one another, was what was important. There is, if I may abuse a metaphor, a spectrum of cats, a spectrum of pigeons, a spectrum of finches on each island of the Galapagos. The spectra vary for each species, but we could no more treat one individual as “the ideal” than we could suggest that any one wavelength represents sunlight, or fluorescent light, or incandescent.

Religions, arguably, may be described platonically. Using Linnaeus as our guide, we could arrive at Homo catholicus, “catholic man”; H. orthojudaicus, “orthodox jewish man”; H. australobapticus, southern baptist man, and so forth. We may do this because there does exist a set of beliefs that defines each religion (whether or not its followers adhere to those beliefs). There is no requirement for H. orthojudaicus to believe in the divinity of Christ, nor of H. australobapticus to follow the ex cathedra pronouncements of the pope. Each species religion has its own defining dogma, so a positive definition is quite appropriate. Many individuals fall short of that defining dogma, so variation (or “error”) is also expected.

Note, though, that these positive definitions are quite limited. To know that someone is H. catholicus tells us a few things to expect about this person. Knowing only that someone is not a member of this species tells us very nearly nothing at all. The non-catholic may be Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pantheist, Wiccan, Polytheist, Deist, any of thousands of other belief systems… or may be atheist. The non-Sunni may be Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu… or atheist. The non Orthodox Jew may be Jew, Christian, Muslim… or atheist. A negative definition (non-X) tells us almost nothing at all about someone.

Atheism is, and must be, negatively defined. It is the “none of the above” alternative to the list of thousands of religions and sects. There is no creed to which all atheists must cling, even in theory. There is no defining characteristic shared by all atheists—even “they don’t believe in god” is incomplete, as the majority of religious believers also do not believe in the other religions’ god(s). (Recall that the first people to be called “atheist” were early Christians, because they did not believe in the Greek pantheon!)

As a privative category (defined by what it is not), there is no ideal atheism from which to have schisms. There is, instead, a spectrum of beliefs. To the extent that we take this spectrum and attempt to split it into black and white (or any segments, even ROY G. BIV) , we are artificially imposing boundaries where there are none naturally. The “hard atheism” and “soft atheism” dichotomy is not about atheism, but rather about the presence or absence of a completely different and orthogonal set of beliefs—after all, the people most likely to positively affirm the statement “there is no Zeus” are people who also positively affirm that there is a Yahweh. “Hard” atheism can only be defined one deity at a time, which makes it something other than “none of the above”. It is an attempt to use the vocabulary of religion to describe the absence of same.

A Darwinian, population-centered approach, is more accurate. Atheists are bigger or smaller, smarter or stupider, louder or quieter… pretty much like the rest of H. sapiens is. And, in truth, H. catholicus varies pretty widely from its alleged ideal form, so much so that the term “cafeteria catholic” is commonplace. The entire Order Religiosa will, in fact, contain tremendous variability, both within and between species. We should not expect all catholics to behave alike, nor all jews, nor all muslims, nor all protestants (let alone all denominations within these broader groups).

The truth is, no matter where we look, we see spectra. We see variability. It is not unexpected; it is not diagnostic; it is not evidence of schism. It is nature.

Writingly, Bitingly,
B. Bradley Hagerty
Writes about Atheists,
Finding a schism;

Godlessness, organized
All of humanity
Seen through her prism.



Mommet said...


Margaret said...

I'll second that: Brilliant.

ivo said...

Very nicely said.

Just a little nit to pick: I thought early Christians brought trouble on them, as well as accusations of atheism and lions, because they refused to accept the Roman emperor's divinity.

Cuttlefish said...

ivo, I admit my ignorance of your nit--I would be happy to see any sources (not just links; I do have access to libraries) if you can support this. I don't doubt that you can (or assert that you can), because it is not something I know a damned thing about! As such, I would be very glad to see what you have!

It makes sense, now that you mention it... but as I tell my students each year, skepticism is sometimes most valuable when you apply it to the stuff you think makes sense!

octopod said...

Lovely. Your double dactyls are among the most consistent small delights of the Intertubes.