Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Are Atheists so Arrogant?

There is a frequently leveled accusation that atheists are arrogant because we don’t believe there is anything “greater than ourselves.” The mindset apparently takes the position that, in the absence of belief in gods, we must be setting ourselves up as gods. This kind of misses the fact that an atheistic view of the universe is fundamentally different from a theistic view in many ways.

Have you ever gone outside and looked at the sky on a really clear night away from any big cities? You’d see a lot of stars up there. So many that people have been in awe of the sheer number of them since time immemorial, and they have been used as a metaphor for “too many to count,” for as long as humans have been using metaphors. But one of the things we’ve learned from astronomy is that there are more galaxies out there than there are stars visible to the naked eye. And each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Each of those stars is, in fact, a sun with a solar system pretty much like our own. Now consider the fact that just our one solar system alone is so mind-bogglingly huge that the number of cubic miles it encompasses is impossible to assign intuitive meaning.

You just can’t look at that honestly and conclude that we’re anything but insignificant. Where is the arrogance in accepting that view of the universe?

Or, let’s look at it from another perspective.

What, exactly, do we mean by something “greater,” than ourselves? It’s not as though we’re all that great, really. Sure, we (meaning humans) are the cleverest beings on the planet (that we know of). But so what? Can we really claim that makes us “great?” We choose to see intelligence as a measure of greatness, and gee whiz it just happens to be the trait we’re better at than every other animal. Of course, many animals are faster, stronger, more durable, have better senses… heck, pick any trait you like other than intelligence, and I guarantee you we know of at least one living thing that beats us at it so badly that we might as well not claim to have the ability at all. Heck, some creatures can survive unharmed in the hard vacuum of space! Why can’t we say they’re “greater” than us?

In that sense, we’re not even “greater” than bacteria.

Now, in another sense, it’s pretty easy to see how one might look at the universe and see lots of things that are greater than ourselves. Is not the sum of humanity greater than any one person? Is not the sum of all life on our planet greater than any one species (humans included)? Is not the entire history of that life greater than just what is alive today? Isn’t the entirety of the earth greater than just the life that’s on it? And so on and so on; there are so many things that can be seen as greater than us that the mind boggles just at trying to list them.

The beautiful thing about evolution, by the way, is that it tells us that we are part of these things that are arguably greater than all of us. We may just be one among many, and perhaps even not all that significant a part, but that connection part of the beauty of it all.

I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the arrogance in that. The universe is not a hierarchy of lesser and greater things. A fact-based view of the universe tells us that we’re really an insignificant part of a whole that is so much greater than ourselves that we can’t possibly comprehend it. At least… not yet.

Or are we arrogant if we claim responsibility for our own successes? I don’t see that either. After all, if I accomplish something it is demonstrably evident that I accomplished it. There would be no evidence of some invisible being doing it for me. So my taking credit (or blame) for what I’ve done isn’t arrogance, it’s simply acknowledging what is quite evident to any observer.

But let’s compare that to the worldview of the most frequent levelers of this accusation of atheistic arrogance: Christians. In that world view, we are made in the very image of the all-powerful creator of the universe. He gave us the right to rule the entire world, and we are the most important thing in it. We are so significant that a single decision by a single man and woman fundamentally altered the very nature of the universe. Every natural disaster, for all that it may kill millions of living things and forever alter the landscape of the planet, is intended as a lesson solely for our benefit. God speaks directly to humans, and takes a personal interest in advancing their lives and goals. The omnipotent creator desires our love so badly that he volunteered to suffer and die in the hopes of winning it, and his greatest enemy bends all of his efforts solely to depriving him of our love because it’s the thing that would harm him most.

You’re going to tell me that that’s not arrogant? Humans, in this view, are the most important thing in the entire physical universe. Sure, they’re also evil, hateful, and vile and really ought to despise themselves, but they’re literally the most significant thing in all of God’s creation (with God himself being outside creation, and therefore the only thing that can occupy a higher rung of importance).

And this is part of why I think Christians call us arrogant. Because if you view the world as a hierarchy with God at the top, humans second, and everything else beneath, and think that all that atheists have done is take this view and chop God off the top, then that must leave humans as the most important thing ever. But this fails to understand that this just isn’t how an atheist sees the world. We see ourselves as part of the world, not above it. We didn’t make the universe, and it wasn’t made for our benefit – we’re just struggling to understand it. From an atheist perspective that top-down hierarchy, in which humans could potentially elevate themselves to the status of “most important thing” if we just get rid of the only being above us, does not exist!

At this point I feel compelled to state the standard disclaimer that I am not, and cannot be, speaking for all atheists. After all, the only thing the label “atheist” entails is not believing in gods, and a vast variety of world views can still be found within that broad category. I’m sure there are atheists who are quite arrogant (as such people can be found in pretty much any population of humans you care to name), and atheists who espouse philosophies in which humans really are the most important things in the universe. But I think that I’m not too far off from the mainstream of scientifically literate atheist thought in this matter.

But I do hope that this helps give some perspective on how it can be that atheism is not an inherently arrogant position.

Monday, March 17, 2014

What About that Death Thing?

Here’s an uncomfortable fact: I’m going to die.

Don’t worry (or celebrate, depending); I haven’t just come into some knowledge that my death is imminent, like that I have cancer or a heart condition or something. It’s just a fact that someday, probably far sooner than I would like, I am going to cease to be a going concern among the living.

And so are you. Along with everyone you know and love, and everyone you don’t know or don’t love. With the possible exception of the immortal jellyfish, every living thing comes to its inevitable conclusion eventually. And I suppose even the immortal jellyfish is going to bite the bullet when the sun eventually engulfs the earth, so scratch that exception. Death comes to us all.

So, being an atheist as I am, what do I think will happen then?

For me? Nothing. I (and in this case I’m using “I” to represent my personality, thoughts, ideas, and memories – the sort of stuff people generally consider to be a person) will cease to exist. And that will be kind of a bummer, I suppose, since I’m still rather fond of existing. On the other hand, since I won’t exist, I won’t be bummed at all. In fact, I simply won’t be. Which is kind of a hard concept to fully grasp.

The body I leave behind (which is odd phrasing, since it implies I’ll be going somewhere), I think I would like to have donated to medical science. Just because I won’t be using it anymore doesn’t mean nobody should, and I think it would give me some comfort in my last moments to think that it could still be used to do some good for other people. I’m an organ donor.

Some people (probably fewer than I think) will be genuinely sad when I’m gone, and probably even mourn me for a bit. I have few requests for them; mourning is for the living, not for the dead, and so I ask only that they do so in whatever way is healthiest for them. If that involves solemn ritual or dressing my corpse up in a clown costume for a night on the town, I really don’t care so long as it helps them.

Others will make appropriately sad noises and gestures of support, without really feeling all that much for my passing. And that’s ok, too. Nobody, really, owes it to me to be torn up over my death, and I wouldn’t want anyone trying to make themselves sad on my behalf out of some sense of obligation.

Of course, the vast majority of people in the world won’t know or care that I’ve died, just as they don’t know or care that I’ve lived. And within a single brief generation, that number will include everyone alive, because everyone who knew and loved me will also be dead.

Does that sound sad? It may surprise you to learn that I don’t think it does. Getting into the why’s and wherefores of that could be its own blog post altogether.

What will it mean for you? Well, for one thing it pretty much guarantees this blog will be over with (assuming it hasn’t ended long before I reach that point). And if you knew me, here’s an implication about my death that you should grasp: you will never see me again. Never. We won’t be hanging out in some “better place” for all eternity, nor will you have the opportunity to watch me tortured by demons for that timeframe either (you know, just in case you’re thinking that’s where I’m headed). We won’t even be trading jokes on the rack in between tightenings of the screws (just in case you happen to think you’re going there too). This time, now, while I’m alive and you’re alive, is the only time we will ever get to spend together.

But that’s kind of what makes this time special. We have only this all-to-brief a time to laugh and to cry, to hold each other or to hold each other at bay, to figure out what’s important to us or not, and to do it or not. We have only this brief time to make the world better, or to make it worse (or to make no impact at all). We have only this brief time in which to live.

It’s so easy to let that time slip by. I’m pretty great at it, myself. Partly because the idea that we’re going to end someday really is hard to fully accept. But I’m trying to get better. Trying to figure out what’s really important to me, and how I can make the world a little better for my having been here. I hope I have the time, and that I can use it wisely.

But if I don’t… if I end without having figured it out… don’t be sad for me. Because even my mistakes will be something you can learn from, and maybe you can leave the world a little better on my behalf.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Why Isn’t Criticizing Your Religious Beliefs Persecution?

You can hardly go a week these days without some sort of dustup over religious issues making the news. Whether it’s that duck guy making homophobic comments, or some high school coach getting reprimanded for making his players pray, or some public official putting up a Ten Commandments monument at the county courthouse, or state legislatures going out of their way to give legal encouragement to discrimination against homosexuals, these issues come up in a steady drumbeat. And whenever society, or the law, moves away from what evangelical fundamentalists want, or criticizes the fundamentalist position, religious leaders seem to love to scream “persecution!”

But that’s not what it is.

You see, on a certain level religions are collections of ideas. They tend to be collections gathered together under a single label and assigned a supernatural source, but basically they’re just ideas. Some of the ideas are good, and some of them are bad. And when someone evaluates one of the ideas contained in your religion, and decides it’s a bad idea and ought to be prevented from being put into general practice among people who don’t share the belief, that doesn’t mean they’re persecuting you. It just means that they don’t consider some ideas to have some special claim to immunity from evaluation simply because they’re religious.

If I think, for example, that persecuting homosexuals is a bad idea, I don’t particularly care if the reason you do it is because gay makes you feel icky, or because you have the ignorant notion that everybody will otherwise turn gay and doom the species, or because your religion tells you to. Going out of your way to make other people miserable when they’re not doing anything that actually hurts anyone is just a bad idea. I will oppose it; not because I’m opposed to religious people, but because I’m opposed to persecuting people.

Likewise, I regard treating other people with kindness and respect as a good idea. If your religion tells you to do that, you won’t find me opposing you in the exercise of that idea. Because whether you believe your god of choice wants you to do it, or because you just happen to share empathy with your fellow human beings, treating others well is kind of a good idea.

There are many examples I could give. I think demonizing sex and sex education, opposing science education, putting the government in the bedrooms of consenting adults, slavery, using government authority to pressure people into accepting a particular religion, and teaching people that they are inherently vile are all bad ideas. I think generosity, kindness, promoting education, and promoting community are all good ideas. All of those have been put forward by some religious denomination or another in recent memory, and I really don’t care: each idea is good or it’s bad based on its own merits, not whether it came out of a religion.

I see real problems with the practice of packaging vast swaths of ideas together and treating them like a monolithic whole. It creates a situation where two people can agree on 99% of their values, but become wholly incapable of discussing the 1% where they disagree without each feeling like the other is attacking their entire world view. There’s no logical connection between “love thy neighbor,” and “evolution doesn’t happen.” But because both those ideas got packaged into the same religion, you have people honestly making the argument that people who don’t believe the former somehow can’t follow the latter either because they’re immoral. The religion creates an artificial and divisive link between the ideas.

I understand, really, that if you accept a religion then it’s hard to see criticism of a particular idea that it espouses as not being an attack on the religion itself. Most religions seem to encourage that view. But those of us on the outside, we really don’t see it that way. We see the individual ideas, and believe they ought to stand or fall on their own. Many antireligious arguments are aimed at getting people to see past the artificial linking of those ideas, so that the ones we see as harmful can cease to be propped up by the ones we see as beneficial.

This isn’t done to persecute religious believers. It’s done because in a society based on religious freedom, an idea that is propped up only by a particular religion cannot be forced on those in society who do not share that religion.