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Bugs, Features, and Atheism

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  • Bugs, Features, and Atheism

    James Anderson

    “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”

    I heard this one-liner from fellow programmers many times when I worked in computer research. I probably used it myself on a few occasions. At the risk of killing a joke by explaining it, the idea behind the quip is to spin a vice as a virtue: to reinterpret a mistake as an unintended or undocumented benefit. A positive spin is placed on an error, suggesting that what might be seen as a fault is really a feature—even if an unintended one.

    Three Common Beliefs

    What does any of this have to do with atheism? I want to suggest that the distinction between bugs and features can help us see an inconsistency in the beliefs of many of our atheist friends. Consider the following three views commonly held by atheists today:
    • Common human traits have a naturalistic evolutionary explanation.
    • Religion—especially theistic religion—is a bad thing.
    • Homosexuality is not a bad thing.


    The first of these points follows from the widespread acceptance among atheists of the Darwinian theory of evolution. Evolution is taken for granted as the default explanation for where we came from and why we exhibit certain characteristics and behavior patterns. Why do we have binocular vision and opposable thumbs? Evolution. Why do we have five senses that enable us to perceive the world around us? Evolution. Why do we possess a moral instinct? Evolution. Why do we find babies cute? Evolution once again. The guiding thesis is that the general characteristics of humans are either products or byproducts of evolution; they developed either directly or indirectly via natural selection acting upon random genetic variations among our human or pre-human ancestors.

    A second common view among atheists today is that religion, particularly religion centered on a personal creator God, is a bad thing. It’s not merely that atheists don’t personally care for religion. Rather, they’re inclined to make negative value judgments about religion and those who practice it. As the late Christopher Hitchens provocatively put it, “Religion poisons everything.” While few atheists would state matters in so unqualified a fashion, it’s certainly rare to find an atheist who thinks the world would benefit from more theistic religion.

    As for the third of the three beliefs, it’s safe to say that only a minority of atheists in the West today take a negative view of homosexuality. It appears that most thoroughly support the LGBTQ movement, and they take a dim view of religious folk who aren’t willing to affirm the moral parity of homosexual relationships. The reasons for affirming homosexual relationships may vary among atheists, but the affirmation itself is widespread.

    ‘This Is a Feature, But That’s a Bug’

    So where is the inconsistency in these three views? Both religion and homosexuality are common traits in human society (although the first is vastly more common than the second, and, it must be said, the prevalence of homosexuality is often overstated). Yet atheists typically view religion as a bad thing and homosexuality as a good thing—or, at least, as not a bad thing. To deploy the computing analogy: with respect to the human system, atheists treat religion as a “bug” but homosexuality as a “feature.” But the oddity is this: for the atheist both traits are understood to be products, or at least byproducts, of evolution. If the two traits are equally the result of undirected natural evolutionary processes, why treat one as a bad result and the other as a good result? What objective basis is there for treating one as a “bug” and the other as a “feature”? The implicit value judgment seems wholly arbitrary on the assumption that the two traits have common evolutionary origins.

    The problem is exacerbated when we consider the practical consequences of these two traits. Evolution, according to the standard theory, is driven primarily by natural selection. Evolution thus favors traits that promote reproduction and survival. On the one hand, the positive correlation between religiosity and birth rates is well documented. Non-religious people tend to have fewer children. Homosexuality, on the other hand, hardly favors reproduction. From a strictly Darwinian perspective, wouldn’t it make more sense to say that religion is the “feature” and homosexuality is the “bug”?

    Deeper Problem

    Yet there’s a much deeper problem here for the modern atheist: the evolutionary naturalist worldview undermines any objective value judgments about human beliefs and behaviors. If everything in this universe is ultimately the product of undirected, purposeless, impersonal natural processes, there is no rational basis for saying that some features of the universe are objectively “good” while others are “bad.” They simply are what they are: end of story. Any value judgments must reduce to either personal or cultural preferences. (What objective foundation, then, for the notion of “gay rights”?)

    When I tweeted the basic idea behind this article earlier this year, one atheist replied: “Actually if you are honest evolution has neither bugs nor features.” From an atheistic perspective, he’s exactly right, and I salute his consistency. For the serious atheist nothing in the universe—and therefore nothing in human society—can be literally “good” or “bad.” There are neither bugs nor features in an evolutionary naturalist universe, since both concepts presuppose an underlying design or intention behind the universe.

    Fallen Features

    A biblical worldview offers a different and far more consistent perspective on religion and homosexuality. Since we were created by a personal God in his own image, we are naturally religious. Religion, we might say, is a core feature of our operating system. But what about homosexuality? Should it be viewed as a “bug”? No, for that would imply error on God’s part. Sexuality is undoubtedly a “feature” of human beings, but like all genuine features it has a specific design behind it: a male-female complementary, to which both Scripture and nature attest. So perhaps it would be better to view the homosexual lifestyle as something like this: the user-induced misconfiguration and misapplication of an original feature set.

    Of course the same must be said of every other expression of human fallenness. None of us is functioning to spec. Yet mercifully the Bible is more than a diagnostic tool; it proclaims the good news that the Master Coder offers not merely a “restore” but an “upgrade.” We look forward with great anticipation to Creation 2.0 (Isa. 65:17–25; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1–4)! Indeed, for believers in Jesus the reconfiguration process has already begun: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
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