“Do you have anything positive to add? You don’t like god or religion or theism, we get it. Where is your proposal for fostering peace and unity? How does your belief encourage acceptance and connection with our fellow humans? Where are the inclusive ideas that make Atheism better for everyone?”
The above is me paraphrasing something I read recently, though it wasn’t new or unique and I’ve read or heard many versions over the years. It is something Anti-theists, outspoken atheists and non-theists hear a lot of. The implication that we’re cold angry people mad at the world and content to kick sand out of spite is not an uncommon viewpoint. Unfortunately there are those Atheists out there that actually do fit this view. I’d say however that by and large this depiction of atheists and especially activist atheists is an overly simplistic falsehood maintained to marginalize and dismiss an uncomfortable point of view.
It’s true, I don’t like the ideas of god, religion or theism, but as for “we get it” it doesn’t seem as though you do. I don’t take this stance to rebel or offend. It’s not because I’m an anarchist or due to my corrupted or absent morals, and it certainly isn’t because I imagine myself smarter or in any way superior to the believer. The considerations that make me an atheist are numerous and varied but the primary drive of my anti-theism is the very fact that religion, and indeed all faith, divides, deludes excludes and insulates. I am an atheist because I seek those virtues listed above, and because history demonstrates that faith and religion are the single greatest barriers to acceptance, unity and education that our species has ever faced.
I reject any idea that requires the suspension (or compartmentalization) of critical thought. I distrust any system that can look down on reason as a lesser thing than assertion or faith. I oppose any view which has the inherent ability to allow it’s adherents to pretend that there is some inferiority between the genders, or asserts that a person’s sexual preference marks them out as evil or damaged. Perhaps most importantly I recognize that to decry these acts and attitudes while supporting belief systems that promote and profess them is hypocrisy.
How does atheism promote unity and acceptance you ask? It doesn’t, not on its own anyway. Atheism is a gateway, it’s the path to the acceptance of the fact that there’s no magic secret, no ghost in the machine. At its finest, in my opinion, Atheism should lead to the twin truths of Humanism and Rationalism. It should lead a person to understand that only through the acceptance of evidence, the cultivation of knowledge and the taking of considered and rational action can anything of worth actually be accomplished.
Quite simply acceptance and inclusion are encouraged by accepting responsibility for ourselves and our world and by levelling the playing field, making the criteria for “truth” and “right” the same for everyone. Humanism shows us that we are the architects of our reality; that change, reform, and salvation must come not from some outside source but from ourselves. Rationalism requires that we open ourselves to accepting reason and science as our guides. By these methods we are more likely to take proactive steps, and come to more uniform and consistent conclusions. Thus we are more in control of our circumstances and more united ideologically. By holding to testable, verifiable truth rather than declared (and utterly subjective) divine revelation, we declare ourselves open to having our views challenged and our conclusions falsified. These ideals can only lead to a more elevated group consciousness and a more cooperative, peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans. When we base our views on reason rather than faith it helps us to see the world for what it is, it allows us to better match our solutions to the actual world.
There are those who advocate pretending beliefs don’t matter or that all opinions and ideas are equally valid and plausible. This is their answer for and guiding our species into the future, to just let anyone think whatever they like and to pretend that beliefs don’t have consequences. It seems to me however that the best way to unite, uplift and heal our species, and our world is to judge our ideas, our beliefs and our actions by the light of fact and the criteria of reason and commonsense.
There’s a term that myself and some others have recently begun using: “Fundamentalist Moderate” (or FunMod for short.) I mentioned them in my last article “Definition Swap” but I see so much of this kind of thinking that I feel they and their attitudes warrant a more thorough exploration. A FunMod can identify as either a theist or a non-theist but in practice they’re neither. Their concern is with a radicalized form of moderation that declares that all experience and truth are subjective. They believe that every viewpoint is valid, but more than that they assert that every viewpoint is equally as valid as every other.
Consider what that outlook really means, ask yourself this: are the hollow earth theory and the theory of gravity equally valid propositions? Should evolution and faith healing be given equal weight? Are crystal therapy and conventional medicine on the same level of veracity? A position based on evidence, logic, and probability is not the equal of one based solely on subjective wishes or fanciful interpretations of a handful of old books, or on anyone’s personal relationship with the universe. Truth is only true if you can verify it, if you can point to some objective reason why it’s true.
These people defend all religious belief and cultural attitudes as harmless, and declare that it is actions, not beliefs that should be condemned. As an example, they would say that the suicide bomber who detonates himself in the name of Allah is solely to blame for the destruction he causes, that he has perverted the spirit of the religion. Of course you would have to ignore the specific injunctions to do violence and the prescribed rewards for doing so in the religion’s text to take that position, but these Fundamentalist Moderates don’t seem to have any problem with that.
They’ve constructed an artificial boundary between belief and action as though our thoughts do not inform our behaviours. The fact of the matter is that what we think effects what we do. If you believed that your actions were justified, and even mandated by what you consider the ultimate authority what actions wouldn’t you take? Isn’t it clear that the belief, if it is genuine, must result in action, or at least (albeit often tacit) support of that action? How can anyone pretend that that isn’t a consideration?
The FunMods will chorus “Blame the person not the belief” but which person do you blame? Do you blame just the bomber, or the bomber and his imam? Do you blame the culture that produces them, or the religion that dictates the form of that culture? Would that suicide bomber have detonated himself if he hadn’t been indoctrinated for years with stories of paradise and sacrifice, of god and his demands for complete faith and global conquest? Maybe he would have. I don’t think so, but regardless we can agree on the fact that the largest group of suicide bombers are religious can’t we? Religion not only is the motivation it demands to be recognized as the motivation and purpose for everything. To pretend otherwise is to close your eyes to an unpleasant truth because you don’t like it.
To me this way of thinking is at least as dangerous as fundamentalist theism. Why dangerous you ask? The answer is: because superficially this kind of relativistic thinking sounds inclusive, high minded, and politically correct. It comes across as open-minded, peaceful, and it removes all need for conflict. In short it’s the kind of doctrine that people will be quick to adopt without thinking through all of its consequences. The simple fact is if you declare all truth subjective you remove any mechanism for debate or reform and destroy any incentive to study or learn. What’s more, you make study and learning all but impossible, just as you make all science, engineering and construction impossible. After all under this type of thinking who is to say that a foot is really twelve inches? Or that 2+2 isn’t 5?
The fact that these people don’t or won’t see the dangers inherent in religious thinking is a matter of serious concern in my opinion, yet it’s not the only one. Another concern is that thought processes matter. Why we think things is important, the “how”s of arriving at truth are important. If you can accept that every proposition is valid you lack the ability to make substantive judgements. If you can claim that evolution and creationism, for instance, are equally valid you lack the ability to reason logically. A growth in this kind of thinking bodes poorly for the future regardless of which myth system is dominant.
The fundamentalist theist declares that their faith is the one and only truth, that their holy doctrine are the blueprint for right living and that deviating from that truth is sin and blasphemy punishable in various ways. They declare that their truth is absolutely the only truth. In their own way the FunMod is worse, they declare that there IS no truth, that truth is illusion and only opinion has any meaning.
It is vital for people to recognize that there are objective truths and it can be dangerous to pretend there are not. Objective truths are the real, meaningful, satisfying truths which let us grow, invent and expand ourselves. They’re the truths that lead to knowledge, understanding, and true wisdom. That’s not to say that subjective truth doesn’t have its role to play. In fact, Subjective truth may be the seat of individuality and perhaps even creativity I suppose but Objective truth is the throne of reason, the domain of science, it safeguards us from baseless assertion and provides a touchstone which unites us all.
Be wary of any viewpoint that tries so hard to be inclusive that it includes even the most inane of concepts. Do not become so enamoured of tolerance that you tolerate willful blindness and purposeful obfuscation. Don’t pretend to believe that atrocity and hatred is just a misunderstood cultural expression or that it’s you who’s in the wrong when you judge it evil to oppress your own people because of their sex. Don’t pretend you don’t know there’s a truth just because some people are offended by it. Have the courage to recognize that your feelings don’t define existence, and humbly approach reality on its terms and you’ll begin to learn how and why things really work.
“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.
The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.
Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.
Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:
“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter
Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.
Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:
“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”
Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.
Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.
Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.
Atheism is impolite. We’ve all heard some variation on this idea whether it’s “Atheists are rude” or “Atheists are overly aggressive.” Or “Atheists have something to prove.” Most often you’ll get this from theists who are threatened by the conversation or from some non-theists; those who have no particular faith but disapprove of discussion and debate on the subject. What I find most difficult and frustrating about this position is that it’s not actually wrong. That they aren’t wrong isn’t especially frustrating, the frustrating part is that it’s only so because the religious have somehow managed to change the rules of discourse. They’ve managed construct a social bulwark around their beliefs that is entirely unique and completely unavailable to beliefs or assertions made in any other category of human experience. It has actually become impossible to challenge the beliefs of the religious within the bounds of civil discussion.
First things first, a slight correction is necessary in order to proceed. When I say Atheism is impolite I should be more specific, Atheist activism is impolite. It is not inherently impolite to be an atheist, the problem only arises when one chooses to speak about the subject, or dares to question anyone else’s beliefs. There are a great many atheists out there who would be regarded as perfect pillars of good behaviour. They don’t question anyone’s beliefs, don’t challenge irrational statements, or demands for special treatment, and will in fact castigate those of their fellows who are too “militant” about their lack of belief.
I say that the theists and “polite” non-theists aren’t wrong because it actually is impossible to politely point out to someone that their core beliefs are false. You cannot, within the bounds of good manners, tell someone that they have devoted their lives to a sham. No matter how soft your language, or how gentle your manner it is impossible to broach the subject without being rude. This is because it has somehow become the height of high-mindedness to assert that “people should be able to believe whatever they choose.” But should they? Really consider that.
Should people honestly be able to believe whatever they want to believe simply because they want to? What if I want to believe 2+2=5 for instance? Should I be free to assert this as truth? In spite of the mountainous pile of evidence to the contrary should I be free to teach it to my children? What if I can convince others that 2+2=5? Should we then be free to demand that “fiveism” receive equal teaching time in math class? Does basic mathematics then become a matter of opinion, and does my right to hold this nonsensical opinion trump your right not to have to put up with said nonsense?
In every other area of human endeavor you have to have reasons to think the things you do. Your beliefs have to be grounded in some kind of verifiable demonstrable truth. If an engineer decided to forgo measuring and instead provided his builders with figures that came to him in a dream the project they were building would fail and the engineer would be censured. If a history student declared that he felt deep inside himself that Napoleon was in fact an Asian woman rather than a French Caucasian man he would be told quite plainly that regardless of his feelings the evidence did not support such an insane claim. We spend a great deal of time teaching our children to defend their opinions with evidence. Any statement that begins with “I think” is often met with the response “Why?”
How many of us heard as children or have said to our own children “‘because’ is not an answer”? Yet it seems that it is a perfectly acceptable answer when discussing theology. “How can you possibly believe in spite of piles of evidence that the earth is only six thousand years old?” is met with “Because.” “How do you know that this book you esteem so highly has divine origins?” “Because.” And yet asking the obvious next question “Because WHY?” is the height of impropriety. “How dare you challenge my right to believe that the universe was created just for me and those like me!” the theists shriek. “Why do you have to be so unpleasantly forceful?” the politically correct hand-wringers whine. Why? Because theism claims answers they don’t and can’t have. They claim privileges and exemptions from rationality that no area of human interest should have, and they claim that reason and rationality is somehow inferior to blind belief or “faith”.
It is that last point that makes Atheist activism so necessary, regardless of how impolite it may be. More of us need to put aside the politically correct idea of respecting someone else’s opinion and question the value and virtue of “faith”. More of us should be asking loudly why it is better to believe in spite of evidence. Why is it better to ignore or bury evidence in favor of tradition? Why isn’t it ok to question this one particular area of human experience or to measure it against the rest of reality as we understand it when it is not only ok but absolutely essential that we do so in all other areas?
Don’t be afraid to be thought rude or impolite. Question, challenge, and seek. That is the most important freedom you have. It may be rude to challenge someone’s most personal beliefs but that’s only because we, the secular minority in society have allowed our opponent to weight the dice in their own favor. As Sam Harris says:“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”
I contend that there is no “other standard” there is what is demonstrably true, what is verifiably untrue and that which we do not know. Nothing else, and no area of our experience should ever be beyond discussion.
I spend a lot of time talking about the hateful, baffling, and often false things Theists say and believe on this blog. Today I’m going to mix it up a bit and discuss another group and an incomprehensible position I just can’t get my head around. The group I’m going to be talking about are atheists, a very specific kind of atheist which some of you may recognize. Some of you may even be this kind of atheist. If you are maybe you can help me understand…
There is a group of atheists out there in the world who have taken the time to think about the issue, they’ve pondered, considered and (hopefully) studied and become comfortable enough with their position to openly call themselves atheists. This particular kind of Atheist has determined, just as the rest of us have, that religion and religious claims are false, baseless, utterly man-made, and often times harmful however this sub-set of atheists regularly and actively call down anyone who challenges a theist’s religious assertions, or points out the falsehoods and inconsistencies in their doctrine. These people ostensibly reject the idea of a god, reject all forms of religion but see no problem with the practice, and are actually affronted by the more aggressive species of atheist who choose to debate and discuss the issue. I really don’t understand this type of atheism. I suppose one could chalk it up to some of them just being “live and let live” types not interested in pushing their own views or “agenda” on anyone but if that’s the case why are they involved in the discussion in the first place?
I write and debate on the topic for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m an AntiTheist. I honestly believe that religion and religious thinking are divisive, detrimental and dangerous, not just to those individuals snared by it but to all of humankind. 2) I know that there are more plausible, more demonstrable, more awe-inspiring truths out there that explain our origins, and indeed all origins far more correctly and satisfyingly than any faith system ever has. I value knowledge, study, learning, and honest inquiry. I myself have learned the vast majority of what I know because someone took the time to put their thoughts to paper, to debate and discuss, and I am eternally grateful for that. If I can make just one person actually consider and question what they profess to believe and that leads them to go out with new questions and seek actual answers I’m a success. I can’t imagine a better pay off for an hour or two of typing. I consider any amount of “yelling into the wind” to be well worth that payoff.
I understand those atheists who want no part in the debate, they’ve come to their personal truth, it works for them and they have no interest in convincing others. I understand agnostics who are satisfied to say “I simply don’t know” and leave it at that. What I can’t understand are those Atheists who actively take part in the debate but only to say that they don’t think there should be a debate at all and deride those who foster it. The position against discussion doesn’t make any sense to me. I like talking to thoughtful theists, to be honest I like talking to less than thoughtful theists too. I enjoy the discussion. I like when people make me think, and I like when I can tell I’ve made someone else think. This is how we improve ourselves. I don’t get how anyone can be opposed to that, and it seems especially strange to me to adopt the label “atheist” and then attack those advocating atheism…
If you see encouraging debate, or even taking part in one as “proselytizing” and you’re honestly opposed I can respect that. I disagree, but I can respect it, but to proselytize against proselytizing?? I don’t understand that… It seems to me like an effort to be seen as a superior, more open-minded, less offensive brand of atheist and it comes off, at least to me, as hypocrisy. It seems we’ve developed the secular equivalent of the religious moderate, that species of theist who professes to believe that all outlooks are not only equally worthy of respect but equally valid as truth.
If you want no part in the debate that’s your call and I respect that. If you want to take part in the debate and have a different outlook than I do I welcome your contribution to the discussion. I really do, but if you spend your days advocating against advocacy, if you actively label yourself an atheist but oppose discussion of the “whys” of atheism then as I’ve said several times: I don’t understand you. What is it that drives such an atheist, and how did you come to be an atheist? Did your lack of belief happen in a bubble? You read nothing, discussed nothing, and debated nothing? Really? I doubt it, so why would you deny others the tools that you yourself more than likely took advantage of in forming your opinions?
Today another gunman climbed out of wherever it is these people come from and shredded the ever tenuous peace of the United States. This time it happened in Connecticut, once again a heavily armed citizen of that country took up those arms and vented his rage, frustration, anger, inferiority, madness, or some combination of those things on his fellow citizens. Reports are saying that the body count of today’s insanity is at twenty six people, eighteen of those being children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. How does a person walk into a grade school with weapons and start shooting at anything in sight you ask? I honestly have no idea. If you’re wondering what could possibly be wrong enough with a person to make such an action possible my guess would be: quite a lot.
I’m a new parent, my son is just over six months old and seeing this today I can imagine all too clearly the horror, anguish, rage, and helplessness experienced by every parent of every child at that school or in that community. It’s too easy for me to imagine my boy huddled in a corner with a bunch of other young kids, all of them panicked, confused, terrified, and at the mercy of some angry, broken, crazed individual who has decided to avenge themselves on the world. I can imagine the horrors, the nightmares and the traumas that he’d have to deal with for long years following that ordeal, and I can imagine the even darker possibilities and it makes me sick to my stomach. My deepest regrets and sympathies go out to those who have lived what I have just been imagining.
In the days and weeks that are coming there will be calls for tighter restrictions on weapons. There will be renewed calls for stronger gun violence laws. There will also be those people who will argue that these measures are unneeded unnecessary and ultimately will do little to prevent horrendous acts like those we’ve seen today and so many other times in the recent history of the United States. There will be those people who will trot out the Second Amendment to the U.S Constitution. They’ll state that the law protects their ” right to keep and bear arms” and there will be those who will say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Both of these positions are technically correct but deeply flawed interpretations.
The Second Amendment of the U.S Constitution actually contains the words ” a well regulated militia” the amendment’s purpose was to ensure that the citizens of the new country would have the ability to defend themselves from tyranny by the new government. It was not designed to ensure every citizen’s right to keep an m-16 in the hall closet, or to collect enough firepower to turn a US street into downtown Beirut. It also has to be pointed out that the amendment was written when the height of firearm technology was the musket. The framers of the constitution never envisioned a world where one man could devastate an entire building in minutes, they couldn’t have. Should we perhaps look at this “right” through the lens of it’s modern effects? Should we not ask ourselves if the cost of this “right” is too high?
Am I saying ban all firearms? No, I’m not. What I’m asking is why does any civilian need more than a handgun? Or at most a hunting rifle? Why does anyone need more than say two guns maximum? Why is it easier to buy ammunition than it is to board an airplane? Why doesn’t a firearms licensing require at the least an annual mandatory psychological examination? Why, if you’re going to be granted the ability to carry a weapon, shouldn’t you have to demonstrate regularly that you’re capable, knowledgeable responsible, and sane enough to be trusted with that privilege?
As for the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument, absolutely true. I agree. If every gun on the planet disappeared tomorrow there would still be stabbings, bludgeonings, poisonings, and any number of other forms of one human killing another. However, does anyone honestly think that if we limited the number of guns, or more realistically the number of bullets in the world, that the number of violent deaths wouldn’t drastically decrease? Does anyone think the death toll today would have been near as high if a twenty four year old man with a cavalry saber had burst into a grade school? Of course people kill people, but it’s a bunch easier to do when you’ve just got to reach out for your semi-automatic, squeeze the trigger and spray a room.
It should be harder to get a weapons license, harder to keep that license, harder to get a gun, and easier to track a bullet. The simple fact of the matter is that most citizens have absolutely no need to be armed. The war is over, the red coats aren’t coming, and while I understand defending your rights I also understand that the “right” to bear arms shouldn’t be a right. “Rights” are for everyone and clearly not everyone should have a gun. Gun ownership should be a privilege, a privilege that has to be constantly earned by those who would have it. How many times are we going to wake up to the news that a lone lunatic has decimated a structure full of people before we come to the conclusion that this power needs to be regulated and controlled much more tightly than it is?
I apologize, I know this is not my usual subject matter but it feels connected to me. For me it’s all about looking at what’s in front of you rationally, and trying to understand not just what happened but why that is what happened. It’s about looking at reality as it is, not as we would have it be and perhaps most importantly it’s about discarding outdated ideas, traditions, and even “rights” when they don’t fit the realities of life any more. As I see it today twenty six people died because we haven’t adapted to the changing realities of the world fast enough. It hurts me that it’s so, and it breaks my heart that this time it had to be our children that suffered the consequences of our failure to evolve. My heart felt regrets to the victims of today’s insanity. I’m sorry.
The Facebook page “The Atheist People” has published an article I wrote today. It’s no three book deal with Random House but it is the first time I’ve submitted my own work for someone else’s consideration and the response has been great!! It’s always so nice to see that your perspective resonates with others, and it’s always interesting to spark debate. I hope those of you who read me here will check it out. Unfortunately the best I can do for a link is to the page it’self. My article is the one that was posted today. Enjoy and thank you to those of you who comment, like, share, and everyone who takes the time to read what I write.
“…And when I sleep I dream of a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty and when I wake I think “I can sell that”… ”
The quote is from Jed Bartlet the imaginary President played by Martin Sheen on the TV show “The West Wing.” I think of it every so often because I’ve had the same dream, and because of the way Sheen says the line. There’s an excitement, a longing in the character as he discusses it that I can relate to. The problem is it’s a much harder dream to sell than one would think. It constantly astounds me how many people have no interest in the discussion our fictitious president from above outlines. Ignorance doesn’t astound me, not the run of the mill kind that is simply a lack of knowledge, but the conscious willful type? The kind of intellectual complacency that runs so deep as to not only retard the natural human urge to seek and question but actually deride and dismiss it? I will admit that particular strain of the disease boggles me to no end.
Now I won’t go as far as saying that I feel the debate between atheists and theists is the most important debate we face as a species, after all we have a great many urgent problems and conflicts that all need to be discussed and worked through just as expeditiously . How to minimize our negative effects on the environment, how to build the just city, how to ensure an honest shot at the promise of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for one group or one country but for every person everywhere. These are just examples of some of the stunningly important and vital conversations that need exploration.
I think of the debate between theists and non-theists as “The Conversation” though, and when I say it in my head I can hear the capital letters. For me, The Conversation is the longest running and best example of why the other issues mentioned above go unresolved. Only look at how hard some people will work to maintain their ignorance of evolution in favor of creationism, how they’ll stoutly cling to a religious belief even when faced with empirical evidence that points to the strong probability of its being entirely nonsensical. That single example illustrates why we’ve made no significant changes in the way we interact with our environment, even in the face of overwhelming data showing the harm we continue to do.
As a species we’re both incredibly stubborn and incredibly prone to habit. These two things when combined can be mortally detrimental to progress and growth. When you add to that the fact that most people just do what they’ve always done for no other reason than “because that’s just what you do” and the fact that in both religion and other forms of big business there are bodies of people who control immense fortunes and wield huge amounts of power who actively work to ensure that people won’t evolve in their thinking, it’s astounding that we’ve managed to gain the small progresses forward that we have. That goes for both The Conversation, and our thinking toward the other issues I mentioned.
In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his famous speech about his dream that America would live up to the promise that all men are created equal. Dr King inspired a nation and as a result his dream has come a long way toward being realized. Of course I’m no Dr. King, and I don’t think I’m likely to inspire a social revolution of my own, but like Dr. King I have a dream.
In my dream I see an endless audience, reaching back to the horizon in every direction. People of all races, and creeds, all colours, and social backgrounds, of all levels of material wealth and intellectual ability mingle without distinction or division. There is a buzz of excitement and constructive energy in the air. The world’s greatest minds, thoughtful and educated experts from any number of disciplines, gather before this great host to present and discuss, to share theories and ideas, and outline policies and plans. I see a grand discussion by informed and rational participants based on solid well thought out and well-organized evidences. In the great noise of discovery and exploration the petty self-interested bickering of special interests is washed away. People grow together, united not by fear or ignorance or a need for comforting mythology, but by curiosity and the search for honest to goodness answers. In my dream “right” promotes the best possible good for everyone and “bad” is that which detracts from that best possible good. The careful study of those experts leads to real world action by those in power, and as a result lives are bettered and positive change is realized. In my dream eyes are opened and blinders cast off. Ancient prejudices, superstitions and artificial boundaries between people melt away in the face of education, understanding, and cooperation. In my dream the thoughtful intelligent work of those first experts spawns exponential cascades of thought study and new research, the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back, the frontiers of understanding are opened up and humankind begins to answer its long-held promise at last. Each new experiment, idea, and discovery ignites a pinprick light; soon those little lights grow to fill and illuminate what was once a vast and daunting darkness. I see a people lifted up, not by the hand of some external god, or on the backs of winged angels. I see a people elevated by its own long ignored ability to band together, to discuss rationally and reach a reasonable accord together, and to overcome the baser, more primitive aspects of our nature.
Unfortunately unlike our imagined president I don’t wake up and think “I can sell that.” I wake and think of the people who are called “Doctor” who believe that the world is only 6000 years old, the parents who refuse treatment for a sick child in favor of prayer, or the college student who straps on a bomb vest in the name of jihad and I despair for the future of the species…
How we think is, I believe, much more important than what we actually think. The most important aspect of the change in thinking that needs to occur in our society is how we arrive at truth. The importance of critical thinking, of reasoned study, and of rationality cannot be overstated. Superstition, mysticism, and religious thinking are not really the disease; they are merely a symptom of a more serious problem. The human condition seems to consist, at least in part, of an all-consuming desire for easy answers, a need to simplify the complex and deny the unpleasant aspects of our reality at all costs. It is these aspects of the human personality that are the real enemy of progress and true understanding. If these problems are not addressed even the complete abolition of all existing theological systems wouldn’t be a solution. We’d simply find new myths to replace the old.
Imagine a distant future where humanity has forgotten us and our civilization. Where our great cities exist only as ruins and our history is only vaguely and partially recalled. Without an evolution in our thinking it’s all too easy for me to imagine the effects.
Consider what would happen if future archaeologists unearthed ancient documents that depicted an account of a being who descended from the heavens, was raised by human parents, displayed superhuman powers and abilities, used those abilities to combat evil and protect the innocent, died to protect his people and returned from the dead to continue his struggle.
Would this story be likely to become the basis of a religion? Would people be likely to believe these documents even if no other historical source gave them any validity or even mentioned the events in question? I think it is quite likely. What if other digs around the globe turned up more accounts of this being and artifacts related to these tales? Would apologists claim that the sheer amount of things that mention this being serves as proof of its reality regardless of the fact that science and history show no evidence for such a thing?
Is it likely that people would devote their lives to the idea of this savior and his exploits building massive monuments and congregations in his honor? Could a concept with no objective basis in reality really become so important to people, so pervasive that it would become the basis of entire communities?
Could other finds from history lead the followers of this new religion to have their beliefs tested by others with a different belief system? Would these various groups of followers feel strongly enough about their beliefs to argue and even fight over them?
What would be the result of all of this struggling between groups of people who each hold beliefs that have no basis in anything but the interpretation of partial accounts of events that science and reason tell us never actually occurred?
How do we avoid such a fate? We teach critical thinking, and live according to the principles of logic and reason. Require a rational basis for the things you believe. Find out about the realities of existence, find out why things are the way they are rather than just accepting someone else’s interpretation of fragmentary source material. Judge your beliefs not according to whether they’re comforting but according to their validity in the face of the reality around you. In a nutshell, question, study, explore and always challenge your conclusions.
The following a a piece of a Facebook conversation I had recently with a theist arguing for the historicity of the bible. I got caught up in other things at the time and didn’t respond to it but some of the things in it have been gnawing at my brain for a couple of days now so I’ve decided to respond to it here.
“The point is that people are evil by nature, mixing whatever they want to believe about the world good or bad. We all need to push on purpose (and I would argue divine intervention) to be decent people or by default we end up justifying our own selfishness. Next…the criteria for historicity. 1- Supporting docs. 2-Conflicting docs. 3- time after event info is recorded. The bible not only meets this standard but is the best example of the ancient world. Go look it up, I’m not writing as much as you guys. Homer, Alexander the great’s biography, Julius Caesar and so on…all considered rock solid with anywhere from 10 to 643 supporting docs and written 400 to 1000 years later. The new testament alone has over 24000 supporting docs and were written 15 to 40 years after the fact and some by eye witnesses. I’ll even give you 70 – 100 years if you want because that’s a common claim but the writings clearly talk about life in Jerusalem before the destruction in 70 AD. Either way, to doubt the historicity of the bible is to do so based on an irrational bias and not on scientific historicity (partially quoting EM Blaiklock). Historians around the world don’t seem to have the problems you’re having with the bible. In fact, it has been said by many that if the bible was considered a secular writing, this discussion would never come up. As far as extra biblical sources there are plenty. Some you have named (good job) but there are many others talking about the life, death and even the Resurrection and the expansion of Christianity as if it is common knowledge. Some were considered enemies of Christianity You know what we don’t find are writings disputing these events though. “
First off the major problem with the opening of this comment would seem to be obvious, if people are evil by nature, as this comment’s author states, and we are the creation of a god who created us in it’s image then it follows that an evil god created us as evil beings on purpose. While I’m sure this isn’t the position the author would take, it would explain quite a lot about the measurable effects of Christian Theism on the history and sociology of the world. If you assert that god is real, and god is perfect the idea that god is evil does fill in quite a lot of the logical holes that pop up when you propose that god is real, benevolent and perfect.
That wasn’t my major problem with the comment though, that was just an interesting aside. The major problem is with the argument for historicity. The author’s criteria for historicity are correct. He’s also correct when he says there is a huge amount of extra-biblical writing regarding Jesus, the New Testament, and the spread of Christianity. Where the problem is is that he’s making this an argument for the veracity of the biblical account based on these things. The problems with these assertions are huge. First, there are no first hand accounts of the events laid out in the bible. They were all written at at least second hand years after the events in question. Second, the extra-biblical accounts of Christ are all at least a century after the fact. Most of them are simply reporting rumors and talk, and most importantly just because a non-biblical source mentions that there was talk of a person called Jesus who’d built a following and was credited with miracles doesn’t mean that that author is saying that the talk is true. Third, corruption by the christian church of extra-biblical accounts specifically to create the image of historicity. Almost every extra-biblical account of Christianity from Josephus on has had allegations of interpolation by later Christians. When combined with the fact that Christians spent hundreds of years and millions of man hours hunting down and destroying “heretical” documents is it any surprise that there are no period documents “disputing these events”?
Finally, comparing the historicity of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to that of the bible is just madness. Both Alexander and Julius Caesar were well documented humans who (and this is the important part) are credited with completely human and probable (if extraordinary) accomplishments. Comparing the terrestrial accomplishments of exceptional human beings with the catalogue of magic myth and superstition laid out in the bible is insanity. If there were an account of Julius Caesar taking a spear in the chest, pulling it free and then summoning lightning to destroy his enemies I would require a great deal more evidence than I do to accept the history as it is laid out. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The amount and quality of evidence needed to be convincing is directly related to the extraordinary nature of the claim. If I read a single account of Queen Elizabeth travelling from London to Cairo in an airplane I’d be willing to accept it. If I read the same account but the airplane was replaced by a flying horse I’d be less likely to accept the story, regardless of how many authors mentioned the fact that the original account existed or talked about the growing masses of people who’d accepted the account.
This comment embodies, to me, the very worst aspects of Christian Apologetics. It combines a touch of factual statement and understanding of reality with the usual religious supposition, distortion and faith to create an argument that on it’s surface seems rational, well considered and probable.
I appreciate the fact that this isn’t my best post to date, I apologize to the reader but I just had to get this out of my head. Thank you so much for your patience. I promise better in the future.