I have been for my whole life, and by the time I was around 12, I had started consciously solidifying philosophical reasons why. This post isn't precisely about that, however... It's about how to deal with spiritualism in other people.
Part of the problem is that - unlike most other atheists - I recognize that atheism is actually a philosophical choice, in some ways no different from believing in a god. In reality, proof of god certainly doesn't exist, but it's also impossible to prove a negative. Just because I have never seen or experienced anything "god-like" and just because there is no measurable sign of a supernatural being of any kind ever credibly observed doesn't actually mean that such a being doesn't exist.
He/she/it might be beyond our perception, or might have existed millions of years ago and has long since left our solar system.
I can't know... I recognize that reality. In the absence of that knowledge, I've chosen to take my beliefs one step beyond agnosticism. As far as I'm concerned, there is a wealth of evidence for why & how the world has come to be the way it is and 100% of that evidence has been attained not by positing some supernatural force, but by the exact opposite. So I feel pretty confident in saying that we don't actually need a god of any kind to explain the world or the people in it.
Science essentially relies on the metaphysical assumption that reality is real and operates on consistent principles, and the epistemological assumption that human beings are capable of objectively experiencing nature and discovering what those consistent principles are through observation, testing and most important - logical reasoning.
I believe this very strongly... Thus the name of this very blog.
Without necessarily going into the whole thing, it's also true that the fundamental philosophies you accept - especially the root of your philosophy like metaphysics and epistemology profoundly effect the way you view and interact with the world. For example, if you believe that reality isn't "real" - that is to say, that the "real world" as we all experience it is nothing but a construct of individual people's independent imaginations - then there is no way you can hold the epistemological view that anything is truly knowable. If you believe that, then every person in the world is either a construct of your own imagination, or we're all sharing one strange common delusion...
In that world, then science would be irrelevant, because there would be no consistency in the universe. Every person in the world would exist with a completely different set of physical laws. Everyone would have a different reality.
So different core beliefs in terms of what constitutes reality and how to obtain knowledge on that reality can result in some wildly different outcomes in terms of morality & ethics, political & religious views, and beliefs on art & aesthetics.
Now, fortunately the vast majority of people operate under the assumption that in fact, reality is real and consistent, and that we can observe patterns and use reasoning to learn about reality. People all grow up learning the same lessons... Fire is hot, ice is cold, trees can be climbed, water is liquid and it's not possible to walk through walls - at least, not without considerable pain.
This is great cause it means that we all tend to be able to fairly easily communicate with each other and have an immense amount of common experiences on which to base interaction.
But... This doesn't mean people are devoid of superstition and belief in the supernatural.
In spite of most people believing - and acting on - provable observations and experiences in 99% of their dealings with the world, many people are brought up to believe or develop beliefs in the supernatural - that is:
Date: 15th century
1 : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2 a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit)
The problem with a lot of this is that it goes directly against reason as the basis for epistemology. So even though people will rely heavily on reason & critical thinking in every aspect of their daily lives, sometimes they abandon when it comes to their deeply-rooted religious beliefs or in cases where they've allowed cognitive biases and the shortcuts human brains make to play tricks on them.
Here's where I think the whole thing gets interesting though...
Until a believer in the spiritual or supernatural makes a specific, testable claim, there is simply no way to reject their beliefs out of hand on logical or scientific grounds. A lot of atheists never grasp this and wind up over-simplifying the situation and turning into condescending jerks in the process.
Richard Dawkins sometimes seems like a prime example of this...
A particularly hilarious South Park two-part story arc lampoons Dawkins for essentially asserting that evolution and science disproves the idea of god. I like the episode because it's actually true... Provided that we recognize that the definition of the word "god" is really pretty nebulous and varies from person to person.
That's the important part though... Depending on how you define god, and depending on the claims you establish with regard to the supernatural, the ideas can easily remain in the realm of unfalsifiable philosophical choice. And that, in general, I think is just fine.
The philosophical issues in play are still limited by what is actually possible in reality...
This isn't true just because I don't "believe" in astrology or it's goals, but because there are actively reasons why astrology is an invalid means of attaining knowledge. And there are plenty of studies to show that it consistently fails at achieving it's stated purpose time & time again... Here's one reported by the UK Telegraph back in 2003:
"The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London in 1958 into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. More than 2,000 babies born in early March that year were registered and their development monitored at regular intervals.The claims have been tested. They didn't pass.
Researchers looked at more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, mathematics and reading - all of which astrologers claim can be gauged from birth charts.
The scientists failed to find any evidence of similarities between the "time twins", however. They reported in the current issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: "The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success . . . but the results are uniformly negative."
No matter what you believe, there are valid and invalid means of obtaining information. So even if you strongly believe that the fate exists, the future is predictable and that the stars and the planets have some effect on people's personalities... Even if you're actually right about all that (in spite of extraordinary evidence to the contrary) - astrology is still the wrong way to find out the answers to those questions.
Just like even if you believe that there are spiritual ways of healing yourself from illness, homeopathy still doesn't work.
This puts me into an awkward position as someone who wants to be respectful & tolerant of other people's beliefs and as someone who cares deeply about truth and rational thought. There are plenty of things that on an intellectual and philosophical level I simply cannot prove or disprove. If you tell me your conception of god is a spiritual being that fills you with hope in times of struggle, or - like Deists used to believe - god is an entity that created the Earth and everything in it at the beginning of time but is uninvolved in anything now, I have no way to know if you are correct.
So based on the fact that I have limited knowledge and cannot actually prove those particular beliefs wrong, I think I owe you some base-level respect. As such, I don't usually get too worked up about people's private religious views.
The problem is, a lot of things - like astrology and homeopathy, and even the very paradoxical idea that there could be such a thing as an "all-powerful" god - are simply.... well... wrong.
They are either demolished via overwhelming evidence through testing and scientific observation, or they are demolished by logic. The very statement "all-powerful" is fraught with logical paradox. A common demonstration of this is the phrase;
"Can god make a rock so big he cannot lift it?"Note that no matter how you answer the question, god is incapable of doing something - either in the creation, or in the lifting. That statement itself disproves the very notion of an all-powerful god...
Point being; logic disproves the contradictory & impossible concepts and evidence can be used to demonstrate the extreme unlikelihood of anything else.
What I'm really trying to say here is that I think a distinction should be made with regard to making comments or "respecting" different beliefs.
I opened this blog by talking about metaphysics & epistemology... I did so for a reason. I believe - as does most of the rest of the world, whether they say so or not - that reality is real and consistent. And I believe that there are effective & ineffective ways of understanding reality. These beliefs have rewarded me constantly throughout my life... Just as they've rewarded pretty much everyone else in the world who's been able to cross the street without getting hit by a bus, boil water at 100°C or fly across the country in an airplane.
But it does mean that some ideas and beliefs aren't just a matter of opinion - but are actually right or wrong.
When people are wrong, I actually think we all have somewhat of a duty to attempt to correct them. There is no benefit to anyone to holding an incorrect view of the world. Being wrong only causes people to misjudge their surroundings and misallocate their resources. For me personally, I want people to let me know when I'm doing something that isn't going to work or if I'm wasting my time pursuing ideas that simply aren't correct.
It's also important to note that being wrong isn't a crime! We're all wrong about all kinds of things all the time, and that by itself is perfectly ok... No one is born with any knowledge of anything.
But choosing to continue to believe things which are wrong in spite of knowledge and availability of evidence and logic just seems to be a tremendously bad choice to me. I'm not sure why I should be asked to respect that choice.
What do you think?