|The Big Fella.|
Watching the game. Snacking on cherubs.
I am an atheist. I have always been an atheist. I was not raised in a particularly religious home and I did not go to church. I have never been baptized.
I was welcome to go to church. I would have been taken to any church I wanted to attend if it was important to me. I was never a fan of mornings and wasn't sure there was any force in existence that would be powerful enough to make me want to leave the house on a Sunday morning. My sister, however, did go to church. She went with friends. She did not get grief from anyone in the family about doing this. I say this to dispel any belief that I was actually raised in some sort of atheist cult. My home was neither a God-fearing home nor a God hating home. My mother went to church when she was growing up and she was not and is not an atheist. It was an open minded home. Now, no one -- no matter how smart or sophisticated -- can be perfectly open minded at all times, but the general values I was raised with were love and respect and open mindedness (and politeness, which is an important and often undervalued form of respect).
As a child, I didn't have God taught to me. At least not unless I asked questions. And the answers I received when I did ask were always bewildering. Even as a six year old, God made no sense.
Note the similarity...
And God felt pretty much the same way. To be in the minds of every single person at every single moment for all of history seemed like a task no one had ever really thought through. I could imagine a God that was sort of a telephone operator, switching from call to call. But then you would just have the rooftop problem all over again. If I was waiting for God to be on my line, I'd be waiting a long time. Even as a child I appreciated big numbers and although I had no idea how many people were on the planet, I knew it was more than the number of rooftops Santa would have to visit.
The notion that God was everywhere might have taken some time to work through. And I possibly could have done it, except each new piece of evidence I received about God and his works made less and less sense.
|While most of the animals are lining up to |
board the Ark, that lion in the lower
left has to think this looks more like
*Please note this is not a refutation of the Biblical account of Noah. It is merely what I was thinking about when I was seven. (Of course the ants and worms and spiders were not on the ark. That would be silly!)
As I grew older I felt my initial suspicions were confirmed. As convenient as the male-female pairing is for a fable about animal husbandry, it would not be practical for many animals which are prone to living in larger groups. Wolves are pack animals. Some animals are solitary except for brief periods of mating. No, the more I learned about it, the more the story of the ark sounded like a parable. And some Christians do believe that the Bible is a book of stories, but I lived in the Northern edge of the Bible belt, and I was told by my classmates what they had been told by their parents and pastors -- that the Bible was literally true.
Perhaps if I had been exposed to a more sensible treatment of the Bible -- such as the ones I have heard quite often as an adult from people who consider themselves Christian -- I would have had a different impression of God and religion. But faced with the choice of either accepting the dubious tales as true or rejecting them as false, I could choose no other path. By the second grade I was telling my classmates I was an atheist. That I did not believe in God.
I was told that I was wrong and that God did exist and I was going to Hell. I specifically remember engaging my 7 and 8 year old friends in theological debates (though I did not know to call them that of course). "You say God made all of us. Well then he must have made me. And if he made me to be who I am, then he must have made me an Atheist."
|Dear ole Dad|
Ponder that for a moment. Telling your child that he attends Bennet Elementary School in Manassas Virginia with the spawn of Satan. I wonder how that person is doing now, forty years later.
It is worth making clear that I did not often wear my atheism as a badge of honor. I was certainly not ashamed of it, but I also knew it created problems for me socially. There were surely times it was not appropriate to bring it up. I don't remember ever challenging a religious adult until I was much older. This was not because I was afraid that they would convince me I was wrong, but quite the opposite. It would be rude. I would not have wanted to embarrass them by making them defend their beliefs. People challenged me to defend my beliefs all the time. And they didn't shake my beliefs, but they did teach me something about impolite behavior. Remember that respect was a core belief of mine. It had been instilled in me not out of a fear of God but simply because it was the decent thing to do. The Golden Rule -- treating others as you would wish to be treated -- was something I could endorse. But I lived by it because it made sense, not because it had any relation to reward or punishment. (To be clear, I can be a prick as much as anyone else. I'm certainly not claiming to have cornered the market on tolerance and politeness. But when I am a jerk, I am usually not proud of it. I am simply the kind of person who would rather be stilted and polite than natural and laid back at the risk of offending someone. I'm comfortable in my own skin, but I don't think the rest of the world needs to know what I think of them all the time.)
But the point I want to make here is that by growing up an atheist I was not being trendy or cool or trying to get attention or defying the world to prove something to me. I was simply responding with my appraisal of what felt true. As a child my confidence in my own ability to learn the truth was outweighed only by my naiveté in thinking that all people shared the same goal. I really thought that all anyone wanted was to get it right no matter what the truth turned out to be. This belief was slow to erode. But over time I have met plenty of people -- even "deep thinkers" -- who have a vested interest in what they have decided is the truth, and they have no interest in pursuing the matter further, thank you very much.
|The power of the mind...|
(for illustration purposes only)
I know some things are unknowable. (This is something not all rationalists realize.) But I don't fear the limits of the mind any more than I fear what it can discover when focused on a task with a clear and open mind. Maybe this is folly. But it has always been part of my genetic makeup to trust in the power of thought. I enjoy discovery even when it means my previous ideas (and ideals) are wrong or at least less right than I had thought.
My trust in the mind is so deep that if I were to discover God on my path of introspection and philosophy, I would not reject the idea. I do not disbelieve God because I am afraid of the possibility of God, nor do I have such a vested interest in a universe that lacks a God that I would be willing to delude myself into rejecting that important discovery if and when the time came.
This all sounds very self centered and egotistical, as biographic ramblings often do, but the point is an important one to me. My disbelief in God comes from not believing in "Him" (or "it" or whatever), not from any desire not to find God. I do not cast God aside. I do not reject him. I simply do not buy the concept. That is a critical distinction which many atheists will appreciate, since we are used to being accused of having some kind of anti-God chip on our shoulder or an inability to look at religion with an open mind (as if that is all it would take to buy in).
Some folks truly do harbor hostility toward the notion of God. I am not one of them. But for whatever reason, and there are many, some folks can't stand that others believe in God. Some of these folks have suffered at the hands of others who claimed a belief in God, who preached kindness and tolerance while practicing cruelty and exclusion. And others may have different reasons to feel hostile.
|The original Doubting Thomas,|
Saint Thomas the Apostle,
making sure it wasn't done with mirrors.
Again, I should try to make clear, the reason I talk about different kinds of atheists and how some are merely temporary, is because I do not care much about the cause of atheism per se. I only care about the quest for truth. And only a bigot thinks that all others must share his truth. That is both the source of many atheists' anger -- being told by others that they must fall in line -- and the cause of the mistreatment some atheists visit upon religious folks. (Religious folks are frequently hostile to atheists as well, but that really should be expected given the nature of their worldview. I've always thought proponents of reason and open mindedness should exhibit behavior which is, well, more reasonable and open minded. It should be no surprise that the proponents of dogma and unquestioning obedience do not display civility. That should not be an excuse for reasonable people to behave unreasonably.)
I usually have no need to call anyone an idiot. (Though late night on the internet it can be very hard to restrain oneself. And let's face it, if there are some people who are amazingly bright it is a statistical fact that others must be colossally stupid.) As someone who simply has never believed in God, I have had a life's worth of practice being surrounded by those who do not see the world the way I do. I am no more interested in converting anyone to atheism than I am in being converted by them to whatever silliness allows them to sleep each night.
The Silliness that Allows Us to Sleep
But here is the thing that I think some more militant atheists and certainly many anti-theists fail to fully appreciate. We all need to sleep. Whatever our worldview, we all need to find enough peace and order in the world that we can close our eyes and know that we will likely awake in the morning in a world that is very much like the one we went to sleep in. I am talking, of course, about "meaning". That should be Meaning with a capital M. Each of us -- atheist or lamb of god -- is programmed (whether by design or evolution) to seek out a sense of our place in the universe. It is an unavoidable side effect of self-awareness. Again, it goes back to the basic questions of our life. Who am I, where am I, and what am I doing here?
I could go off at length about all the ways that religious fundamentalists have gotten it wrong, and all the injustices they visit upon the world, but frankly, I don't have the time or the interest. I grade on a curve and the fundamentalists are in the remedial class of rational thought. I am not interested in their test scores. Instead, I'd like to focus on what I think are some of the errors of the smarty-pants crowd. Those who frankly should know better.
Richard Dawkins recently tweeted:
And this, to me, is a complete miss. It is a demonstration of ignorance by someone who would like us to believe he is intelligent and a "deep thinker".
The explanation for why someone is religious is a simple one. Even a natural one. If we're so proud of reason, maybe we should accept that religion evolved as part of our human culture in order to explain that which we had no way of explaining. It is a kind of cultural appendix: once more necessary than today but in every way a very natural phenomenon which arose through the simple process of (in this case cultural) evolution.
An Aside About the Appendix
Our lack of need for wisdom teeth would be another example. Our mouths are shrinking and can often no longer accommodate so many huge teeth which are hardly needed for today's diet. While many of us have to get ours pulled at the dentist, some of us can still fit them in our mouths, and still others -- a lucky forwardly evolved bunch -- do not grow wisdom teeth at all.
Back to Religion
A cultural evolutionist who believes that ideas and customs function somewhat analogously to genes, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" back in the 1970's. Despite my misgivings about the word itself, and some of how it has been bastardized (one could say the meaning of the word meme was itself a victim of cultural evolution), I think it is clear that Dawkins is a man who understands the progress of ideas. But as such, shouldn't he be the first to admit that if religion came into being in the first place and has been with us so long in the second place, that religion must be a collection of memes that is subject to the same evolutionary forces as any other ideas? So it would not be a stretch to say that the mutation of religion arose and served a purpose relevant to the survival of the species.
Basic evolutionary science requires that we accept that ideas and customs which serve no purpose or which are in fact harmful to our ability to reproduce and prosper will die out. The Shakers were strict believers in celibacy. They went from a peak of 6000 members down to just three today. Evolution takes care of some ideas more quickly than others. Is Dawkins forgetting that religion is just a part of the cultural evolution he espouses? Does he think he can nudge cultural evolution along through ridicule?
Religion is a broad concept serving many purposes. If some or all of these purposes are outmoded they will inevitably be replaced by concepts which better promote human survival. But this process will take time. Telling someone, in essence, they have no defense for being religious is over simplifying the matter in a way unbecoming to a scientist. Richard Dawkins' tweet has all the intellectual sophistication of a dentist yelling at his patient for still sprouting wisdom teeth.
What is truly problematic is that it belies a hostility that I think is not necessary and certainly not helpful to the progress of cultural evolution. When I stated earlier that I do not care about converting others to my beliefs, this is partially why. I see religion as a natural response of a primitive culture to the vagaries of the environment. And as a "big picture" kind of person, I readily accept that we are still a very primitive people. We are barely (if at all) qualified to call ourselves intelligent in any real sense of that word. Again, this is from having spent a life listening to others talk about how they believe the world works. The refrain, "How can you be so stupid?" may ring out from time to time in my inner mind, but it is rarely productive or becoming to allow it to pass one's lips. I don't know of any times the sentiment actually convinced the listener to re-examine his assumptions.
There is no doubt that proponents of religion promote things which are anathema to reason. But the target of the debate should be about the harmful products of religion, not religious people themselves. In 1990's parlance, "Don't hate the playa, hate the game."
Can You Choose What To Believe?
There is another question that is brought up by Mr. Dawkins inelegant tweet as well. Can we really choose what we believe? What if I told you the President of the United States was really an alien lizard man who was using his shapeshifting technology to appear human? Would you believe it? Could you choose to believe it if you wanted to? Or would you be stuck holding your current belief unless I convinced you?
But here is the thing. Could I convince you? If I asked you to have an open mind about the possibility that the President was an alien lizard man, would you honestly be open to evidence? How indisputable would my evidence have to be before you were convinced? Indeed given the inability of most of us to accept all the changes in our world views that would be required for such a thing to be true, could you even believe it if you saw it with your own eyes?
Now on the other hand, what if I told you that the President was actually born a day earlier than he claimed to be? I could explain that there was some confusion in the hospital and his delivery was actually several hours earlier than had been recorded. Would you believe that? Could you "choose to" believe it, or would it take some evidence?
In all likelihood the degree of evidence I would need to present would be a great deal less to prove that the President was a day older than he claimed than it would be to prove he was a lizard man alien. And you'd examine the evidence I did provide much less skeptically. In fact, you would probably view my documentation with an open mind that readily accepted such a thing was possible. Are you choosing which thing you believe to be more likely, or is it just a product of all your experiences and what you already believe about the way the world works?
Richard Dawkins again:
But that is exactly the point. Truth is not belief. And belief is not truth. None of us knows the whole truth of the universe, and we do not have the luxury of waiting until we do before we form our beliefs. So all of us must build our beliefs around incomplete evidence. This evidence enters our mind through our existing perceptual screens and is influenced by well known processing errors such as confirmation bias (where evidence that confirms our beliefs is given more weight than evidence which might challenge them). This is why it would be hard to convince anyone without the mental discipline of a Vulcan that the President is a lizard man alien. The evidence would have to be overwhelming to get us to change all our assumptions. Yet we'd like to believe we are open minded and rational.
And the very reason I chose such a ridiculous example is that it does sound ridiculous to us. There is no evidence we have ever encountered in our daily lives that would make this situation sound even remotely possible. Yet our duty as rational people requires us to keep an open mind. But evolution is not on our side here. There is an actual survival benefit to discounting the mental effort required to allow for extremely unlikely events. So no matter how open minded we wish to be, and no matter how much we focus on the skill, pre-conception is programmed into our brains for its time saving, possibly life saving, benefits. The number of times that the ability to grasp most of the situation in an instant outweighs the survival benefit of making a more complete and painstaking analysis guarantees that we have been evolved to "jump to conclusions". Even when we strive to "believe only evidence" there is no guarantee the beliefs we form from the evidence have the intellectual rigor we might expect.
It is all well and good to suggest that all humans should be highly polished reasoning machines, but that is not the case. In fact, if we are really interested in evidence painting our picture of truth, we must admit that the examples I give above of irrational human behavior (like praying when you don't think you really believe in prayer) are actual evidence of human behavior. So while we may wish human behavior was more rational or pure, the evidence suggests otherwise. That may make Richard Dawkins unhappy, but I know his happiness is not his concern. He only wants the truth. And the truth is that human beings form their beliefs using irrational components alongside of reason. We may not think the situation ideal, we may wish it were not true, but evidence does not care about what we wish were true.
So the point is that if the actual truth is something very distant from our own working truth, our ability to make all the necessary mental accommodations to allow the new evidence to take up residence is compromised.
Our Adaptable Minds
We have established that we do not get to choose what we believe, but even this is not the whole truth. In some contexts, we do seem to have some control. Or at least we seem to have a great deal of input into how we frame the context that we place information into. This is how a prisoner serving a long sentence in a dank cell can come to look forward to Fridays because it is "chicken fried steak day". It is how we can happily accept a $1 tip for some good deed, or a $5 bill slipped into a greeting card when such sums of money may make no difference to us in other contexts -- such as when we are doing our taxes. Finding that I have $1 more in my bank account than I thought I did is not as interesting to me as finding a $1 bill on the ground. They both indicate that I was $1 richer than I thought I was (or $1 less poor if you prefer), but only one has the real thrill of found money. But I could "choose" to look at the bank account error as found money if I wanted to. I can decide to remind myself that it is really the same as finding a dollar on the ground.
|Make anything you want.|
But if you're a girl that
better mean a cake.
Or harken back to the experiments with "intent". The subjects, having been given post-hypnotic suggestions, had no idea why they were leaving the room but unknowingly invented reasons all the same. This strongly suggests we do not even know the precise reason for our own behavior. We know what our mind has decided is the reason for our actions, but this explanation does not have any iron clad connection to the truth.
This is easier to see in others' behavior than it is our own. We have all seen someone do something that they claim was for a reason entirely unrelated to why they did it. A good friend may tell you the story about how he went back to his ex-girlfriend's apartment to retrieve a copy of a movie he wanted to watch, and that is how he discovered who his ex-girlfriend was now sleeping with. But as more impartial observers, we can often see the motivation was a pretense. The movie may have been his excuse for paying a visit -- he may have even convinced himself or believed that he really wanted to see it -- but the real reason for going back to his ex-girlfriend's house was to see what she was up to.
So the question remains, is your buddy lying? Did he knowingly invent an excuse to drop in on his ex at that particular time? Maybe. Or maybe he is simply in denial. He may actually believe he was motivated by innocent feelings and was subsequently exposed to that horrible new information about what his ex was up to.
Assuming it was the latter, should we be held personally responsible for our own denial? How can we be, when our conscious mind is picking and choosing among many personal identities and agendas to report to us what we really want and why we are really behaving as we are? Just because a good friend can easily spot our own deception, should we be blamed for not thinking more clearly? Out right lying is one thing. Storming over to her house and pounding on the door and inventing an excuse only after he sees the DVD sitting next to the television is a clear case of failing to take responsibility for his actions. But does he bare the same responsibility if he had been trying to get through a painful period of his life and his mind was having its own internal dialogue about all the ways he could find himself back over at her house? A part of him wanted to go over and for them to reconcile. A part of him knew who she was seeing and knew that this particular night was the most likely time to "catch" him over there. (I put "catch" in quotes because if they were broken up, there was nothing to get "caught" about. It was only the ex-boyfriend's lingering jealously that would prompt a word like "catch"). A part of him simply wanted to know if she was as lonely and miserable as he was.
All of these feelings are obvious to the outside observer. But when you are going through them these feelings are overwhelming, and it is hard to be objective. This young man may have been using all of his emotional energy to simply get out of bed every morning and keep his job. Can we fault him for not having the insight to avoid going over to his ex-girlfriend's house when one piece of his mind had offered him a perfectly innocent reason for wanting to do so?
Intention, as we are repeatedly concluding, is a very tricky concept. We can't even be sure we know why we do what we do, yet for some reason it seems easier to determine what motivates others. I always think of this as the Monday Morning Quarterback problem. It is easy, from the outside, with nothing to gain or lose, and usually after the fact, to see how the choices made by others were destined to play out. This is true whether the action in question is throwing the ball on fourth down or going over to an ex-girlfriend's house without calling first. But when we are in the midst of the game, when the competition is real and the outcome means the difference between our own success and failure, these choices are much less cut and dried. Thousands of possible scenarios and hundreds of competing motivations play into the choices we make repeatedly throughout the day.
|A 20th century ritual hammer.|
For the sake of social order, we may accept that we can insist on people taking responsibility for their actions. Yet even there we have to carve out an exception for those who have no ability to control themselves or comprehend the results of their actions (the people we call insane). But if we are to be reasonable people -- and those committed to rational thought are supposed to be the epitome of reason -- then we must recognize that beliefs are not always a choice. If we expect others to respect us, we must act respectfully. There are some zealots and bigots and crazies who will never respect reason and rationality. But that does not give us license to adopt their brutal and primitive behavior. If anything it should shine a very clear light on why it is we do not act that way. Hateful bigots and spiteful losers are no more deserving of our hatred and spite than anyone else. They are the walking poster children for the error of their ways. Validating their behavior by responding in kind makes no rational sense. Hate and spite are the enemies. Giving these people "a taste of their own medicine" is no more logical than using nuclear missiles to blow up the world's nuclear weapons.
The following quote is attributed to Gandhi. Though this exact usage has not been found in any of his writings, the sentiment is clearly consistent with his beliefs, and Martin Luther King Jr. would also later borrow the concept if not the quote:
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.To me this appeal for restraint and respect (and peace) is compelling not for its compassionate tone but for its eminent logic. Reasonable thinkers can't help but accept the logic that if bad behavior is met with more bad behavior, the cycle of violence and aggression will never end. To me, the answer to hate speech is not more hate speech. Nor is it silence. It is the persistent and rational insistence that clear thinking human beings will not sit idly by while others manifest their hate in destructive ways.
So while I certainly understand the frustration that leads to the kind of tweet Dawkins sent about another person's religious beliefs, I think the better (more effective and more rational) response would be to say that the person has every right to their beliefs but that we rational people are organizing to put an end to the harm those beliefs are causing others. The adults in the room are speaking now.