Atheism, Skepticism, Purple Dragons, and Me — An Old Facebook Note
What follows is a Facebook note I wrote a few years ago. I’m not sure I agree with everything I said in it now. But regardless, it lays out a good introduction for some of the issues I plan to discuss in this blog.
This isn’t an essay, or some sort of post-grad assignment where I’m trying to get a good grade. If it were, I’d fail miserably. Nor is it a consistent piece that follows the basic structure of intro, body, conclusion. Rather, it’s a collection of random observations that I’d like to share in response to a question that someone asked on Twitter, as well as something else that occurred on Facebook that bothered me way more than it should have. Granted, I’m bothered by a lot of things. People often complain that they have to walk on egg shells around me, and frankly, they’re right. But enough about me for now; on to the topic at hand.
The question that brings me to write this went something like this: Why do atheists talk so much about god?
It seems to me that the answer is obvious. Especially in the U.S., atheists are in the vast minority. In seven states (Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas), atheists are not permitted to hold office according to laws still on the books (some of those states are also the same ones that have laws against dildos — go figure).
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has held such laws to be unconstitutional on the basis of freedom of religion, the laws are still there, as is the prejudice that led to their enactment. Our currency still prominently displays the words, “In God We Trust.” Driving through the bible belt should be enough to remind anyone that prejudice against atheists still exists. No president has ever admitted to being an atheist, and it is almost impossible to achieve a high-ranking political position without admitting to some belief in a typically Abrahamic (usually Christian) god.
Theists are in the great majority. Most of the wars being fought today are rooted in religion. Mind you, I’m not blaming religion for all human conflict; that would be unfair. I’m sure that if it weren’t for religion, we’d find something else to fight about. Like property, or nationality, or race, for instance. On the other hand, religion and territorial disputes seem to go hand-in-hand. There is a saying that goes something like this — the religious can be both bad and good (just like anyone else), but it takes religion to make a good man do a bad thing. There is some truth to this. Without religion, the WTC would still be standing, and many lives, both in America and in the Middle East would have been spared.
But let’s make this a little more personal. By being an outspoken atheist (as well as a liberal, and an economic socialist), I limit my employment possibilities as an attorney significantly. By being any other way, however, I would be completely untrue to myself. For example, let’s say that someone told you that you had to believe in purple dragons in order to live a more comfortable life, would you be able to do it? Maybe, but probably not. The belief in god (at least as that concept is commonly defined) is completely foreign and unreasonable to me. In the absence of any evidence, the default position is disbelief. This is why, as a rule, we don’t believe in goblins, unicorns, dragons, monsters, or fairies. There is no evidence of these beings, so we don’t believe they exist. But despite the exact same lack of evidence, people continue to believe in god (there are many great books explaining why this is so, and it is beyond the scope of this note to go into it here). So how is the belief in god any different than a belief in purple dragons? What’s even more bizarre is that the purple dragon believers wish to fight with people who believe in yellow dragons. But why? When there is no evidence of either? (And no, ancient texts advocating incest, violence, homophobia, and misogyny are not evidence of gods, water-walkers, or zombie Jesus, sorry.)
Science has shown that evolution is a fact — the reason it’s called a theory is because it is constantly evolving as new evidence is discovered. That’s what science is about. It isn’t a doctrine; it’s a method. And through the scientific method we learn new things about the world we live in every single day. What could be more fascinating? The reality of our universe boggles the mind. From galaxies to quarks to the mysteries of the human mind, there is so much to learn. And our best tool for doing so is the scientific method — because it allows for human error, provides for peer review, and allows incorrect hypotheses to be revised to fit the evidence. So if I had to worship something or someone, I’d worship scientists (oh, and rock stars, because they’re kinda awesome).
I consider myself a strong atheist (as the new trend is to divide atheists according to levels of disbelief). What this means to me is that I am absolutely certain that neither the cruel Abrahamic god nor any other god that we can imagine exists. This doesn’t mean that I rule out the possibility of a higher intelligence or a concept of god that we cannot comprehend because of our own limited intelligence. I do not believe god is watching us, but I cannot dismiss completely the possibility that some form of higher intelligence had something to do with the beginning of life on earth. I think it’s unlikely, but because we do not yet have an adequate explanation for this phenomenon, I cannot dismiss such a possibility outright.
Aside from being an atheist, there are many philosophical concepts that I find compelling, such as material agnosticism, hard determinism, and even solipsism. But these are completely irrelevant to the prospect of living. If I perceive that a material world exists and I have free will, then I have no choice but to act according to that perception. And my philosophical musings amount to no more than mental masturbation — nothing more, nothing less.
Some will argue that atheists are smarter than theists. I do not believe this at all. I’ve met some theists who are absolutely brilliant, and I do not think that the belief in god (or in any other supernatural phenomenon, for that matter) makes a person somehow less bright. A decent discussion of this issue can be found here:http://leftword.blogdig.net/archives/articles/February2010/27/Are_Atheists_Smarter_Than_Theists__.html. And yes, it’s sometimes true that IQ tests tend to like atheists a little bit better. But the difference is so negligible as to be insignificant and within the margin of error. That is if you believe that IQ tests actually measure intelligence, which I don’t. The religious and the supersticious can be just as smart as atheists, if not smarter.
Before I finish my babbling, I’d like to mention one more thing — the significant overlap between skepticism and atheism. Skepticism is basically just another word for critical thinking; more specifically, it is the application of the scientific method to test supernatural claims — such as dowsing, psychic readings, numerolory, ghost sightings, crop circles, various forms of medical quackery, etc. Obviously, some of these practices can be more harmful than others (anti-vaccine advocacy, for instance). It is also interesting to note that if a supernatural claim were proved, it would no longer be supernatural, as it would then fall within the scope of the natural: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVFMTBcMBRs. As Tim Minchin and others have quipped, “What do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.”
I do not believe in the supernatural, so I am, by definition, a skeptic as well as an atheist. But there are atheists who are not skeptics, as well as skeptics who are not atheists. One does not necessarily imply the other. (I would also like to take this opportunity to briefly point out that skepticism has nothing to do with gender differences, nontraditional gender roles, sexuality, the effect of hormones on fetus development, transvestism, gender dysphoria, trans-sexuality, makeup artistry, creativity, or unique fashion statements. I’m sure this is patently obvious to everyone, but just in case it isn’t, it should be. I’m only mentioning it because I’ve recently seen a so-called “skeptic” attack someone for wearing makeup because he thought it was unnatural, as well as state that trans-sexuality isn’t possible — all on the grounds that he was a “skeptic.” But this isn’t skepticism; it’s ignorance.)
In conclusion, I’d like to say that I’ve met many fascinating people who hold all sorts of beliefs that may not be the same as mine. I couldn’t care less. In fact, knowing people who are different from me is part of what makes life interesting. And often, we learn things from people when we least expect to. I respect people who are kind to others regardless of race, sexual orientation, nationality, “IQ” score, or belief system. The only requirement for my respect is that people don’t intentionally hurt each other. Otherwise, people should be what they wish to be, without having some doctrine forced on them. As atheists and/or skeptics, I think it’s particularly important to set a good example — one of peace, acceptance, tolerance, secular morality, and love. I know that sounds hokey, but so be it. Cue John Lennon’s Imagine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okd3hLlvvLw.