Sunday, October 23, 2011


Recently I had an email conversation with a reader about religion, in which I explained why my view of the world, of morality, of spirituality, doesn't require the idea of gods. As it happens, over on Pharyngula, there has begun a series of postings from readers about why they are atheists. I just read one that expresses a lot of what I said (and some things I'd not say) more eloquently than I did. Here's the essence:

The world as explained by science is so beautiful it makes me weep. Literally. When I think about these tiny jiggling particles that constitute everything, when I gaze into the sky and see the vastness of the Cosmos, when I sit in my chair, smoke a pipe and consider life on Earth and try to wrap my head around the unimaginably complex processes that allowed me to form as a human being and now ponder life itself, when I try to imagine and appreciate how much we have accomplished, when I see the shrouded realm of what we do not yet know my eyes brim with tears of emotion, my heart leaps with expectation and wonder. ... It is marvellous. It is profound.


There are also moral reasons for my disbelief. I have a firm conviction that only the morality that emerges from a deep intrinsic need to do good is worthwhile. The opposed, religious morality of punishment and reward I find unwholesome, dishonest and infantile. I do not consider people who behave acceptably because they fear eternal punishment moral...

(The paragraph I deleted above is not one I'd have written. And I don't smoke a pipe.)

Here's a confession: I find myself resisting describing myself as an atheist, and I wonder why that is. Since I can't claim certainty, I suppose I could use the rubbery rubric of agnosticism. But right or wrong, I can't believe there are gods (and there have been times when I'd have liked to). So why the reticence? Maybe it's fear of reprisal; it is, after all, an untidy time for people like me, whose offense is only looking at the world with clear eyes, neither willing nor able to go beyond reality and the observable; the constitutional inability to make a leap of faith, even as our country seems unstoppably heading toward theocracy. But I think it's something different.

As I've thought about it, it seems that atheism ought to be the default assumption, for anyone. Certain things ought to go without saying. One should not have to describe oneself, for example, as a mathist. Or a gravitist. (Yes, I realize the analogy is sort of a semantic contradiction, but you get the picture.) I believe the grass grows; I believe in chlorophyll. I (sort of) understand radioactive decay, and I understand (to a degree) its relation to measuring the age of the earth. I know (mostly) why planes fly and I don't need to claim an angel holds them up; I don't think the earth rides on the back of a turtle, and it seems reasonable that anyone would assume that about me. Nor does the fact that I don't know everything lead me to fill in the blanks with imaginary answers. I can wait. Belief in the demonstrable ought to be the default baseline for anyone, and it shouldn't need a particular label.

Okay, maybe "realist."

Or "normal."

It's when you begin to come up with magical explanations (ones, I must point out, that other believers in other magic will decry ferociously and consider false magic, capital blasphemy, compared to their version of it, with no sense of irony whatever), that it seems labels should be applied. I think of those judges who sentence people to wearing a sign after they stole something. People who didn't steal anything don't need a sign saying so. Not believing in gods oughtn't need particularizing any more than breathing does. I do breathe; I admit it. But it'd be strange to identify me as a breather, wouldn't it?

A world-view ought to start with reality. Reality is enough. Reality is, for one thing, real. Realists shouldn't need to explain it, or to have (loaded) labels applied. Nor, for that matter, should they feel the need to brag about it, or get in the faces of others. Why should the world need a movement that announces its commitment to reality?

Except for the fact that any realist can't help being shocked, worried, and appalled at the direction we're headed in the US, as magical thinking has become the basis for a major political party; as intelligence, the quest for knowledge, are considered elitist and abhorrent, actively and proudly mocked and scorned. In that party, belief in god seems to have become synonymous with rejection of science, with denialism, with economic amnesia. It needn't be thus; it wasn't always so. But those who wonder why there are suddenly a few highly outspoken and, as some have called them, "militant" atheists out there need only look at today's Republican party, its teabaggers, its "values voters" for the answer. Scary, hateful, regressive, aggressively and proudly ill-informed people.

There's where labels belong, seems to me.


Calm Center of Tranquility said...

Sid, you've probably already seen this but if not...

Sid Schwab said...

I hadn't seen it, and I enjoyed watching. I think, however, that he begins with a false premise; namely, that science tends to think it knows everything, or has the tools to figure it out. And I've heard "new atheists" like Dawkins say that if there's proof of god, he'll accept it. Which any scientist would, I'd argue.

There's an extent to which Eagleman is mischaracterizing both science and some atheists.

Eagleman is arguing that we don't know everything and we should keep our minds open to possibilities, and explore them; which is .... science.

In fact, as I scanned through the comments following the video, I learned Sam Harris had posted a response, which says pretty much what I just did. Here it is.

In a sense, it's quibbling. We agree on all of it, really, other than the idea that some atheists have closed their minds entirely.

Lopez Sounds said...

Hi Sid, I just read this page from The Redeemer (detective series by Jo Nesbo). "Harry" makes a good case.
"'Are you a Christian?'
'No I'm a detective. I believe in proof.' {} 'I have problems with a religion which says that faith in itself is enough for a ticket to heaven. In other words, that the ideal is your ability to manipulate your own common sense to accept something your intellect rejects. It's the same model of intellectual submission that dictatorships have used throughout time, the concept of a higher reasoning without any obligation to discharge the burden of proof.'
The commander nodded. 'A considered objection, Inspector. And of course you are not the first to have made it. Nevertheless, there are a great many far more intelligent people than you or I who believe. Is that not a paradox to you?'
'No', Harry said. 'I meet a lot of people who are more intelligent than me. Some of them kill for reasons neither you nor I can fathom.'"
I thought you might be interested in this way of putting it too...

Sid Schwab said...

Well put. And you sent it from paradise on earth.

Timmyson said...

Congrats, you came up on Pharyngula today. It's a good essay.

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