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against the world
Tuesday, 17 August 2010
we are all born atheists

The following is actually a mix of an early version of my atheism speech, which got me to finals twice, and a differently structured version that I hoped would get me an actual award (though, as it turned out, I never ended up performing the newer version in competition). There is a little problem with the flow in this mixed version, and I’m pretty sure the same set of quotes appears in two different places, but I left the various sections as they were.


A metaphysical metaphor

A hypothetical semaphore

Smoke signals out your pipe

You stand there spewing that tripe

You tell me about your god

And I find it a bit odd

The contradictions all about

In that book you dare not doubt

And the point at which you weep

For the lamb who made you sheep

That’s a poem I wrote, a response to thoughts about my upbringing in the Worldwide Church of God. It’s deliberately antagonistic, but I’d like to be a little kinder to the likely Christians here today.

Bertrand Russell, in an article entitled “Is There a God?” wrote of a teapot, orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. If nobody could disprove his assertion that this teapot was there, then it would be, quote, “an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it.” If “the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity…”

In 2006, a gallup poll (gallup,com, last accessed 17 January 2009)  found that 73% of American adults are convinced that God exists, and Rasmussen (last accessed 17 January 2009) found that 54% of American adults believe the Bible to be literally true. But, for those who do not get their religious beliefs from a strict interpretation of the Bible, where do they come from? Have they been told all their lives, like I was, that God exists? That he set in stone rules to live by? That there’s a point to all this? That the ills of the world will not matter once Jesus is here to save us all…

Albert Einstein once said “the idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.” Today, I will tell you how atheism is not naïve, by looking at what religion gets wrong, then at some of the damage religion has wrought, then how to put it behind you. But, first a little background.

First, I will tell you about Atheism. In What Is Atheism?” Douglas Krueger defines Atheism as coming from “the Greek atheos. The prefix ‘a’ means ‘without,’ and theos means ‘god.’ Atheism means simply ‘being without god.’ There are generally considered to be three types of atheism:

First: Agnosticism is a concept “introduced by T. H. Huxley at a party in London to found the Metaphysical Society” according to Scottish philosopher J.C.C. Smart in her essay “Atheism and Agnosticism.” The basic tenet of agnosticism is that we cannot empirically know if there is or is not a god. My wife is an agnostic, at least until we’re in the car and I’m driving. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says “one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” In the face of advances in science and truly extraordinary understanding of our world, it is not just religion but also agnosticism that misses the mark in my opinion in accepting and being satisfied with not understanding.

St. Augustine is quoted by Dawkins, about “the disease of curiosity… which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature,” he says. “Secrets which are beyond our understanding… which man should not wish to learn.” Religion cannot like advancing science, for if we explain all of God’s doings, we will not need God any longer to explain them for us.

The second, Weak Atheism takes this a little further in assuming there are no gods. The distinction between weak atheism and the third, strong atheism might be defined as… the distinction between not believing there is a god and believing there is not a god. Strong Atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist.

But, there is also a fourth one that could be used for outspoken atheists like Richard  Dawkins, or myself for that matter, those sometimes accused of being as rabidly fundamentalist as the Christians—nevermind that the heart of fundamentalism is you cannot change your opinion in the face of evidence to the contrary—it’s called antitheism, and, strangely enough, after thinking I had coined the term a few years back, I found that others had coined the term as well. A bit of synchronicity, it would seem, different atheists coming to the same conclusion and trying to find terminology for it. Antitheism is, by the way, when an atheist not only sees religion as being incorrect but sees it as damaging to humanity.

But, that question of terminology brings up a difficult point for atheists.

If we have our “ism” then we are not understood as having knowledge about there being no god but having belief, having faith. The term itself, atheism, is defined by the lack of god, when the default setting for anything should be the most basic, the least contrived… in this case, some new word that is the opposite of theism without theos as its root. After all, as humorist Don Hirschberg is oft quoted by atheists, “calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.”

And, now I will tell you why I am an atheist, or at least tell you about some signposts I saw along the way to realizing I was an atheist long before I called myself one.

I was raised in the Worldwide Church of God, led by Herbert W. Armstrong. According to (last accessed 17 January 2009), he was born a Quaker and became a preacher almost inadvertently, as he was a well spoken reporter who others in his congregation called upon to explain things. A self-proclaimed prophet and apostle of God, he would predict the apocalypse to come in 1936, then 1943, then 1972, then he would put it off indefinitely. His followers would go by a quite literal interpretation of the Bible, following for example Holy Days quite similar to Jewish ones, as described in Leviticus.

I attended a private school owned and operated by the Church and had Bible class every year. In the 9th grade, my teacher assigned a paper: Why I believe in God? My honest response to this question, that I believed in God because I had been told to my whole life, earned me an F on the assignment, while one of my best friends got an A for claiming he had proven God’s existence in his heart, no follow-up, no evidence, just his heart.

Near the end of my high school years, a book was published, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Quinn draws connections between the agricultural revolution and the spread of Christianity, connections that reinforced ideas I was already having (more of that synchronicity) about the origins of our modern world. Agriculture did not spread because it was better, but because by its very nature it allowed for populations to grow rapidly. And, Abrahamic religion would spread with those agricultural populations. As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi explains in Linked, Paul’s spreading of Christ’s message depended not on the strength of that message but on the physical geography of Paul’s journey and the nexus-like cultural centers where he spoke.

A major breakup of the Worldwide Church of God happened to come when I was legally old enough to step away from attending.

Evolutionarily speaking, it is advantageous for children to believe what adults tell them. It is easier to know that touching something hot is painful or running near a ledge is dangerous without trying it out for yourself. As Paul Henri Thiry said in Good Sense in 1772, “the brain of man, especially in infancy, is like soft wax, fit to receive every impression that is made upon it.”

Culturally speaking, it is advantageous for the old to promote the idea of an afterlife, as they will be treated better as they grow old.

It is also advantageous for those in charge to promote religion in that religion promotes hierarchy. Napoleon is said to have called religion “excellent stuff to keep common people quiet.” And, “most theists see in god and devils, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, a whip to lash the people into obedience, meekness and contentment,” according to Emma Goldman in “The Philosophy of Atheism.” And, those without power are given hope by religion, are given comfort in the face of loss, in the face of hardship, in the face of the state of the world, with wars and rumours of wars, disease and moral decay.

Besides, to use a quote unfairly, “general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air,” right? You need religion to know what is right and what is wrong… But, Immanuel Kant, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals promotes a basic moral law akin to the Golden Rule, an almost instinctual understanding of what is right and wrong, based on a simple thesis: Take stealing for example. It is only right for you to steal if it is right for everyone else to steal. If you would not like your things stolen, then you cannot believe it is morally right to steal. “That all [this] knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt,” Kant says. But, I ask you, must this experience be told to you by your minister? Do you have to read it in Exodus or Leviticus to know it is wrong? Must it be a sin to be something you know you should not do, at least not without consequences? After all, as Ishmael points out in Daniel Quinn’s My Ishmael, “tribal law didn’t outlaw mischief, it spelled out ways to undo” it. Right or wrong does not even matter as long as we are prepared to face the consequences of our actions.

And, while some might argue that religious people tend to be good people, that religion makes people happy… and, while that may all be true, as playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” Of course, having the notion of a purpose to all this makes people happier. The promise of a happy ending…

That unfair quote before, about moral instruction needing a religious foundation—that was Adolf Hitler, speaking 26 April 1933 about secular schools.

And, Adolf Hitler brings us to the next step in today’s exploration, a look at some of the damage religion has wrought. And, I say “some” because to list all the wars and atrocities would take more time than any of us have. Whether you look at the holocaust or the troubles of Northern Ireland, while you can call some conflicts ethnic in origin, those same ethnic lines all too often are drawn with a religious pen. And, as long ago as 64 AD, by order of Nero, the Romans were killing Christians, simply for being Christian. In the Crusades, Christian and Muslim were brought again and again to war over the Holy Land, a dispute which persists to this day. Pope Innocent IV in 1252, explicitly authorized the use of torture by the Inquisition for eliciting confessions from heretics, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia online (last accessed 1 February 2009). And, according to (last accessed 1 February 2009), the current Pope, Benedikt XVI, was previously the head of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” a leftover remnant of the Inquisition. And, we could come forward to Israel and Palestine or our own involvement in Iraq, or look at the burning times, the Salem Witch Trials—Pope Innocent VIII put out a papal bull against witches in 1464, responsible for numerous persecutions and tortures of purported witches, according to Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. But, let’s briefly go backward instead, to the time of Moses. Numbers 31. “They warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males… burnt all their cities… and… took all the spoil, and… Moses said unto them… now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” If the Lord commands war, and Moses can order his men to keep the young girls for themselves, what hope do any of us have against religion that has lasted another 3000 years since?

What can we do instead of siding with that religion (or any other)? In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says “one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” In the face of advances in science and truly extraordinary understanding of our world, it is not just religion but also agnosticism that misses the mark in my opinion in being satisfied with not understanding. St. Augustine called curiosity a “disease… which drives us to… discover the secrets of nature… secrets… which man should not wish to learn.” Religion cannot like advancing science, for if we explain all of God’s doings, we will not need God any longer to explain them for us.

So, the key is to look to science, to look for provable fact to understand the nature of the world. Here are the basics to understand two major points of contention with religion: the big bang and evolution, and I’ll keep it simple. All of the proof you need for the big bang version of the universe is covered by Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. Energy and matter are infinite and interchangeable. That matter exists is obvious, and that is all we need to know it always has. And, as for evolution, look around. Is each and every person identical to every other? No? That is evolution at its most basic. One generation is not the exact copy of its predecessor. Trends over time in these differences lead to speciation, but it is this simple genetic change with each and every birth that is the building block of all evolution.

As Richard Dawkins is often quoted, from his article “Snake Oil and Holy Water,” Forbes ASAP, 4 October 1999, “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

My focus here, of course has been on Christianity, but every religion has its enemies. We are “enacting a story that casts mankind as the enemy of the world” itself, in the words of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. Religion puts us on the top of the biological ladder, a position that we prove all too often we do not deserve…

And, in conclusion, I would like to promote the idea that the default is not to side with God, even if Pascal’s Wager says you should, just in case. Religious teaching should not simply be accepted without question. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, calls, “religious opinion… the one kind of parental opinion that—by almost universal consent—can be fastened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is. There is no such thing as a Christian child. Only a child of Christian parents.” As Paul Henri Thiry said in Good Sense, “all children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.” We are born with no knowledge of… no love for… and no faith in God.

Even if you must hold to your personal belief in a creator, perhaps you can accept that the default position should be a lack of belief, awaiting evidence. We should not assume that Russell’s teapot is out there, orbiting the sun, simply because we cannot disprove it. We need hard evidence of its presence. We need proof.

I’ll leave you with this, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel:” “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 2:37 PM PDT
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