The Atheist, the Agnostic & the Scientist (David Miller)

  (24 May 08)

The Atheist, the Agnostic and the Scientist

By David Miller in Melbourne.



Apparently, according to David Brooks, “A new group of assertive atheists is doing battle with the defenders of faith”. These “new atheists” are the revolutionaries in neuroscience who have shown that  “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings”.  Brooks goes on to say, “This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism.  Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.”


What is this ‘old’ militant atheism that the new assertive atheists are opposing?  It is the belief that scientific research unearths ‘The Truth’.  What is ‘this new wave of research’?  It is simply the discovery that currently held hypotheses are shaky:  “The brain seems less like a cold machine.  It does not operate like a computer.”  The realisation that all hypotheses and theories are ‘shaky’, that they may possibly be modified by new discoveries, is merely common or garden science.  This is the viewpoint that I label as ‘Agnosticism’.


However, David Brooks says: “The real challenge is going to come from….scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.”  But as an Agnostic I do battle with the defenders of faith.  Not only with the Theists, but also with the militant atheists who hold science as their religion.  How come my Agnosticism is being labelled as Buddhism?  He lists four reasons:


“Firstly, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.” 

Yes, I see the self as the moment by moment resultant of the conflicts and alliances of all of one’s drives and impulses, etc.


“Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common intuitions.”

 Why limit it to religions?  The term ‘cultures’ would be more inclusive.  Perhaps the common intuitions are a product of hard-wired propensities, ultimately derived from our ape ancestry.


“Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.”

Yes, I see the Sacred Realm as comprising not only our highest values, our loftiest ideals and our areas of ultimate concern, but also low values, mundane ideals, base concerns, as well as crass desires and vile impulses.  The positive and the negative.  Hence humankind’s unfortunate tendency to transcend boundaries when in the grip of an all-consuming hatred.


“Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.” 

Yes, I accept that there are some people who have the need to symbolise these experiences in the form of metaphorical personifications which they call God, gods, guardian angels, etc.  On the other hand, a negative experience can be symbolised as Demonic.  But, Hey!  I thought this guy was styling himself as a Buddhist?


Is Buddhism an Atheism?  If we define Atheism in a pedantic way, the answer can be in the affirmative.  A-Theism can be said to be the rejection of gods.  If you accept that Buddhism rejects gods, then it is an Atheism in that narrow sense.  But Atheism is usually defined in a far wider sense.  Generally speaking, Atheism is held to be the rejection of everything ‘supernatural’.


Buddhism is a full-on supernaturalism.  Let me give you, somewhat crudely, one example:  The Soul. (The Buddhists will tell you that they reject that concept).  The Soul reincarnates. (They will tell you that they also reject that concept).  In order to stop reincarnating back to this hell-hole, the soul must escape from the Wheel of Life. (They do admit to using this concept, but their artifice is to claim that ‘you have not understood it’).  Physical suicide is useless as you will only come back again.  In order to escape, one needs to commit Spiritual suicide.  Hence, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.


Does my version of Buddhism sound like an ‘assertive atheism’?  No way!  It is, however, the Agnostics who are the torch-bearers for an open-ended science.  Open, that is, to possibilities, to new discoveries, to new analysis and to new hypotheses.  If sufficient evidence arises for a particular ‘supernatural’ phenomenon, and it withstands the lengthy processes of experimentation and replicability then, say the Agnostics, the scientific community should accept its existence.  But science will not accept the unfounded assertions by the various belief systems that their sets of supernatural processes and entities have existence simply because they are believed in.  Nor, conversely, should science reject the possibility that evidence may exist for such phenomena simply because militant Atheists believe that such phenomena cannot exist.


About low values: I think emotions such as hate cause people to do extreme things, overlooking pain for instance and so this can be called transcending a boundary, but acting under the impulse of strong emotion is the opposite of self transcendence, when one is free of emotional entanglements. So I think the 'overflowing love' comes after the moment of self transcendence.

As soon as science proves there is a scientific explanation for what was thought of as supernatural, then it is no longer supernatural. One may need to have an open mind in case of future discoveries. Perhaps I am not an agnostic if I think this, and some might think this means instead I am an atheist, but I agree with Sam Harris, why base what one is on a negative thing?

Posted by helen mason

Howdy folk,
On my new Website of I present a different orientation as to what the Epistemology of Atheism covers. The focus is on Symbols and Symbolic Form (ala Cassirer) combined with Symbolic Anthropology (ala Geertz). Roughly, the orientation is that during the evolution from proto-Homo Sapiens to Homo Sapiens, commencing 3 million years ago, the physical brain size and brain mass increased three-fold, due to the use of Symbols and Tools. During this 3 Million year evolutionary process, the Symbols for Atheism and the Symbols for Theism have also evolved.

With the written word being around for no longer than 100,000 years, there is a 2.9 Million period during which we know very little about the evolution of the Symbols of Atheism and the Symbols of Theism. It is during this 2.9 Million year period that the origins of the Symbols of Atheism and the Symbols of Theism begin. Although we know little, we can apply Cassirerís orientations to Symbols and Symbolic Form to learn and Know more.

This places a totally different take on the notion of Assertive Atheism.


Posted by Bob Allen

Leave your own comment...

Security Code:

Search Site

Contact Us!

14 Richardson St
Lane Cove
NSW   2066