Thursday, April 19, 2012

15 Seconds

A valued reader let me know that an essay I wrote on this blog several months ago made its way to one of the most widely-read blogs there is, and a favorite of mine, namely Pharyngula. It was edited some, eliminating a reference I'd made to Pharyngula itself. Anyhow, since I sort of like it in the re-reading, and since, as usual, it didn't get much notice here, I'm printing the referred-to version below. By way of bragging, I guess:

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 ill-informed people.

There’s where labels belong, seems to me.

When I posted it here, it was called "Labels." It was a good title, too.

Sometimes I wish I had more readership -- I had a lot more on Surgeonsblog -- but this one is mostly a way toward personal depressurization after I read another day's worth of what's going on out there. Few minds, including mine, I'm sure, are changeable anymore, so the writing is just because I seem to need to.

I will say, though, with respect to changing minds, since mine is among those that believe in chlorophyll and carbon-dating and provable stuff like the failure of Reaganomics, it's not the one that needs changing.


Margy said...

Here's a little hope for you: I teach writing at a university. We focus on research, evaluating sources and developing critical thinking skills. Once in a while one of my students will say something like, "I realized I probably shouldn't base my whole opinion of health care reform on what Glenn Beck says." One of my favorites was a student writing against gun control shortly after Obama was inaugurated, who ended up with a thesis that involved the idea of gun-rights supporters educating themselves so they stop freaking out about things that aren't actually happening. I'm also really glad when one of my students writes something that makes me think about something differently. It can happen!

Sid Schwab said...

Thanks, Margy. Maybe not all hope is lost.

Anonymous said...

More hope:

Similar anecdata to Margy's:

This was in the early nineties when I was teaching at a small school in CT. I learned, to my infinite astonishment and delight, that students taught to evaluate sources and taught criteria for identification of logical fallacies tend to adopt more fact-based positions (vs revelatory or logically ill-informed positions).

Interestingly, much of the demographic I was teaching was one or two generations out of shuttered mills and manufacturing plants, and were the first in their families to attend university. They were a tough, pugnacious bunch, quick to anger if they felt they were being shortchanged. At least one of them complained about their grade when their work was demonstrably not up to par.

Almost universally, first-year students tended to be reactive, deeply suspicious of the world around them, susceptible to demogoguery, and driven by the beliefs of their upbringing. By the third year, those who remained - admittedly not as high a percentage as I'd have liked to see - tended to have become much more thoughtful, and had learned to think before opening their mouths to speak. The transformation was dramatic - kids who had been deeply skeptical of the value of school versus getting a job, a place of their own, and some folding money had started down the road of becoming thoughful, humane, articulate, decent humans.

At the timeI noted that children of educated parents - that is, those children from homes where one or both parent had at least a B.A. - were vastly better prepared for an academic environment.

And they were intellectually far tougher and ready to debate, to think on their feet, to adapt and hone their positions on the fly if they needed to.

The working-class kids, for all the bluff and bluster they brought to the classroom, were far readier to abandon rational argument in favor of poorly-constructed logical fallacies (and, it should be noted, into class-clowning and, once, a fistfight when a fellow student failed to grasp a point of the intricate logic of Mr. Limbaugh espoused by the aggressor). The kids raised by more thoughtful and well-educated parents tended to try to construct some modicum of rational argument to support their position, and were more willing to adapt their thinking in light of evidence.

Intellectual rigor and holding kids to standards will result in a more thoughtful, evidence-based world. And if that way leads atheism, so be it - like you, I find it normal to require an evidentiary basis for assertions.

Keep writing - your work is wonderful.


Sid Schwab said...

Thanks, matt. I think you just explained -- as I've tried to do here too -- why the right-wing feels the need to cast education as elitism, to degrade it, and to steer people away from it.

Larry said...

Way to go, Sid! A fine testimonial essay (of course, this means I agree with all of your points).

I have fond memories of the Surgeon blog, but this is my first visit to your new digs. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Sid, thank you very much. I believe that you're correct insofar as the right wing's dismissal and denigration of education is concerned; the smart ones in that crowd recognize that an ill-educated populace is easily manipulated by unsound reasoning and rhetoric. Such a demographic is a blunt but effective weapon - think of the hordes marshaled around the [wrong side of the] Terri Sciavo case, or Casey Anthony, or Trayvon Martin.

I find it ironic that the people who manipulate people with unsound rhetoric are often themselves very well educated indeed. I tend to equate the sort of manipulation they engage in with proxy bullying, such a popular sport in junior high schools everywhere - if they can make someone feel insecure about their position, they can target that insecure person's rage at an easily identified third party, and hence exercise power without direct action. Scary.


Popular posts