Friday, August 26, 2011

What is Atheism IV: Atheism is not…

There are many misconceptions of atheism. Those who are not atheist, by definition, believe in a god (or at least in the concept of theism). Most people who are not atheists, I would suggest, believe in the personal, meddling, prayer-answering God of the Bible. Atheism for them, therefore, is an evil detestable concept. There is no need to understand it for it stems from Satan and is a path that leads away from God – precisely what they are trying not to achieve in their lives. I believe that failure to even try to understand someone else’s point of view, close-mindedness, is the root of much evil in this world. The conflicts in the Middle East, the tensions between the predominantly Christian West and the predominantly Muslim East, and even conflicts within personal relationship such as a marriage, would all be eased somewhat simply by a genuine attempt to understand the other party’s point of view. There are very, very few circumstances in life where one side of a conflict is simply evil and out to destroy all that is good. Yet, that portrayal is common (necessary even?) in wars and much of our society.

So, depending on your particular beliefs, it may be of some benefit to read my personal opinion, as an atheist, of what atheism is and is not. I spend a fair bit of time engaging with both atheists and believers in a religion. Almost without fail, the religious misunderstand atheism, often deliberately so, and almost always are disinterested in learning about it and actually understanding it. It is easier to fear, hate, and reject than it is to learn, understand, and then perhaps politely disagree.

Atheists don’t believe in anything. This is a common perception among the religious. I have been told that I don’t believe in anything if I’m an atheist. There is a tragic video available on the internet in which one of the world’s more famous atheists, Richard Dawkins, interviews one of the world’s more fanatical and close-minded believers in religion, Yousef Al-Khattab. In this Yousef tells Richard Dawkins that he doesn’t believe in anything. This was actually one of the first places I encountered this attitude, but since then I have encountered it personally many times. My answer is thus: atheists do not believe in gods but that does not mean we do not believe in anything. If I did not believe in anything, then that would mean that I don’t believe in: human rights, education, the scientific method, my family, love, environmentalism, and forgiveness. However, I do very much believe in these things. The difference, perhaps one of semantics, is that I do not believe in anything for which there is no evidence. That, perhaps, is a more accurate statement about many atheists. I see no problem with not believing in things for which there is no evidence. There is evidence for all of the things I list above, and for a great many more things that have a positive influence in the world.

Atheists proselytize in just the same way that the religious do. Proselytizing is defined as the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion (Wikipedia), or as inducing someone to convert to one’s faith or to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution, or cause (Merriam-Webster). None of these definitions fit what an atheist could do in conversation about atheism with the exception, perhaps, of the final one. Atheists cannot, by definition, attempt to convert someone to their faith (atheism is not a faith) or religion (atheism is not a religion), or party, or institution. It is possible that atheists could be defined as proselytizing by attempting to convert someone to their opinion or cause, but even that would be unusual among atheists. Most true atheists that I know are interested in rational discussion in which people arrive at their own point of view or opinion so long as it is reasonable and rational. I do, of course, actually believe that if everyone was capable of thinking completely rationally, reasonably, and used evidence to support their beliefs, then everyone would logically end up as an atheist, or at least as an agnostic. But that is quite different than preaching to people that they should convert to atheism. If I meet someone of religion who has rationally and reasonably examined their religion and still manages to explain in a logical manner why they believe in it, then I respect that person’s belief and have no interest in trying to convert them to atheism. That is in direct opposition to most people of religion. I have yet to meet anyone of religion who does not, as an underlying theme, hope that eventually I will join their faith (and therefore be saved).

Atheists have no basis for morality. This seems to be a universal (though I hate using that term inappropriately to define something in human behaviour which could by definition be no more than global) assumption and position of the religious towards atheists. Since you don’t believe in a god, you have no basis to form moral decisions. You might behave morally, presumably ultimately because you are afraid of going to prison in a country in which the laws are based on Christian morality, but as an atheist you have no inherent basis for morality. [Before I continue, I simply have to address as a side note the notion of a country based on Christian or Biblical morality. There is no such country in the world, thank goodness, and I hope to never see one, let alone live in one. For Americans in particular, this is a point of significant debate. So many Christians argue that their country was founded as a Christian nation (“one nation under God”, et cetera), and the debate about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the intentions of the founding fathers can go on fruitlessly for hours. In reality, though, one need only read the Bible to recognize that even the most extremist Christian politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee don’t actually want their nation’s laws based on the Bible. Read through the Old Testament books dealing with the law and then ask yourself if you really want to live in such a country. If you think the New Testament is any better, then ask yourself how a nation would be built around the concept of neighbourly love. How would you imprison someone for not loving their neighbour? Would I get a ticket from a policeman each time I drove by someone with a flat tire without helping them out? Would the laws in a Christian nation require that you hate your mother and father? Would marriage of a divorcee be illegal? Would lust be enough for imprisonment? If you lost a lawsuit to a large corporation, would you be required to pay more than the settlement amount? If you found an old man and forced him to carry something for you for one mile, would he then be required by law to carry it for you for two miles? If you were the victim of theft, would you be required by law not to try to get it back? These are all the darker sides of a hypothetical Christian nation that no one ever considers.]

But perhaps the first place to start with this issue of atheists having no basis for morality is to look at what morality really is and where it comes from. Morality can be defined as a set of behaviours or beliefs that differentiate right from wrong. My understanding of the religious claim of no morality amongst atheists is that, since we have no god to tell us what is right and what is wrong, then our morality is subjective rather than objective and as soon as you make morality subjective then anything is permitted or justifiable. My understanding of morality, however, is that it does not originate from a deity. (How could it when there are no deities?). Morality is a human construct. It originates from within humanity. We, as humans, have decided that things like murder and rape are immoral. Further, I would point out that morality is in fact much more subjective among the religious than it is among atheists. I have yet to find many religious people who can’t find some way of justifying killing another human being. Whether it is through capital punishment, a “just” war, retribution for a horrible act, or sanctioned by their own deity, most people of religion, at least if they accept the Bible to be true, have to accept that at some point killing other humans has been moral. So sometimes killing other people is immoral and sometimes it is moral. That, to me, is a subjective definition. My position is that killing other humans is immoral in all cases. That is pretty objective. I can’t find a scenario in which it would be moral to do so. (That is not to say I wouldn’t be tempted to do so in certain circumstances. Often in a conversation like this, someone will ask me what I would do if someone kidnapped and harmed or killed my own child. My answer is that, as a parent, of course I would feel like killing the perpetrator, especially if it increased my chances of recovering my child. But that would not make it moral). So, in my opinion, morality is actually less subjective among atheists than it is among the religious. But whether it is subjective or objective is not really the point. Morality is a human quality. We, as humans, invented it. Animals do not seem to have morality. They may have certain acceptable behaviours, but they are incapable of defining certain behaviours as right or wrong. It is likely that human morality varies a bit through cultures and has likely changed a bit over the time that humans have existed. But some basics have likely always been part of the human moral code. How could murder, within one’s own tight knit group, ever be considered moral? If it were, then people would be killing each other on a whim each time it was convenient to do so. Human society could not function. Perhaps in the distant past when humans had yet to form into clans, this may have been the case, but in order for humans to function in cooperative groups there needs to be some understanding that killing each other without reason is wrong. Somewhere along the line, people must have wondered where this feeling of “wrong” came from and, as religion evolved, ascribed it to a deity. The deity must have told us that murder is wrong, otherwise how else would we know that it is so? But the reality is that the knowledge that it was wrong was already there. If all that is not enough, then just look at behaviours of atheists and religious people. Murder rates are not higher among atheists, theft is not higher, rape is not higher, child abuse is not higher, tax fraud is not higher, none of the behaviours we might consider immoral are more common among atheists than among religious people. In fact, there are an overwhelmingly higher proportion of Christians in American jails than there are atheists. Atheists might make up somewhere around 10% of the American population (depending on your statistics source) but don’t make up anywhere near that percentage of the prison population. Some statistics cite it as low as below 1%. Maybe atheists are just better at not getting caught…

Atheists should not be allowed to teach children. Actually, most atheist teachers aren’t interested in teaching about atheism. They are interested in keeping their personal views and beliefs out of the classroom as much as possible and teaching the curriculum. I think a much stronger case can be made against having Christians teach (especially when it comes to science) than can be made against having atheists teach. What is a Christian teacher to do when they come across some curriculum that contradicts their personal beliefs? (For example: evolution, conclusions bases on evidence, etc.). An atheist teacher never has this problem because, so long as the curriculum is based in evidence and truth, then the atheist teacher is happy to teach it.

If you’ve been brought up in a religion, or find yourself believing a religion, then perhaps you’ve never given much thought to treating atheists with respect. Perhaps you’ve never thought about trying to understand atheism. Perhaps, if you are from a very fundamentalist religion, you even see atheism as evil or learning about atheism as a path to the devil. It is not. It is simply a way of looking at the world we live in. In particular, it involves looking at the world we live in and accepting it for what it is, based on the evidence that is available to us. Most atheists have managed, or at least try on a regular basis, to set aside their innate fear of death or hope for an afterlife, have set aside the stories they were told as children which are not based in evidence, and have set aside any familial or social pressures to conform to a religion that may be dominant in their culture. Consider, before you blindly reject atheism and atheists, how you would feel if someone of a different religion than your own rejected yours before they fully understood it. Suppose you are a Jew and you ran into a Christian who was horrified by your habit of drinking blood from Christian children. Suppose you are a Muslim and you run into a Christian who can’t understand why you want to strap a nuclear bomb to your back and walk into Manhattan. Suppose you are a Christian who meets a Muslim who hates your ideology of thinking that carpet bombing children in other countries is the path to world peace. All of these misperceptions would, of course, outrage anyone of those respective religions. The above listed misperceptions about atheism are no less outrageous.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Never Miss a Marketing Opportunity

When I was a child, my family attended a church in which the minister, an American Baptist, never missed an opportunity for an altar call. In fact, his every sermon, no matter the topic, always rounded to a call for anyone who had not yet done so to physically come to the front of the church and accept Jesus as their personal saviour. This was perhaps one of the least intellectual and instructional churches I ever attended. The whole message revolved around a one-off opportunity to become a Christian. From then on, nothing really mattered. Perhaps it’s understandable, acceptable even, for a minister to make an altar call from the pulpit once a week on Sunday morning. After all, what else do you expect to hear when you attend church? Why should that be offensive in the least in a church service?

But, there are times when it is offensive. I witnessed one such occasion a few years ago. I attended the funeral of a young man who had been killed suddenly in an accident. The funeral service was in a community hall in the town where this man had lived. It was packed full of everyone in the community. I suspect everyone was there whether they knew the deceased or not. That fact was clearly not lost on the minister who conducted the service as he saw a golden opportunity to proselytize. The service proceeded as one might expect, with some stories and anecdotes about the young man’s life. This young man had grown up in a semi-religious family and had never really taken religion too seriously. He liked to party and have a good time and was not someone you would ever suspect of being a Christian if you met him. At the funeral this fact was initially unspoken and left alone, but sure enough the minister couldn’t pass up an opportunity to save a few souls. Eventually he rounded on the topic of where this young man had now taken up residence for eternity. At a funeral, with relatives including in this case the young man’s pregnant wife sitting crying in the front row, the last thing one needs to think about is the possibility that their husband, son, brother, father, was now in hell being tormented by Satan himself. The minister at this particular funeral decided to go the alternate route, and confidently proclaimed that this young man had confessed his faith to the minister not a year or two before his death. He was, even now, rejoicing with God in heaven, the minister confidently announced. Then he went on to deliver the meat and potatoes of his message, all about the deliverance from death to those who accepted Jesus. I was immediately back in my childhood church.

This is wrong on so many levels, one isn’t sure where to begin. Firstly, there is the obvious problem with the minister acting as eternal judge of the man’s soul. Who is he to judge? I thought Christians believed that God sat in judgment of the deceased. Clearly, though, this minister was astute enough to recognize the potential doubt about the eternal destiny of the deceased. He sensed that the family needed that worst part of Christianity: false hope. He also felt, presumably as a result of the very fact that this young man was not particularly religious, the need to publicly leave no doubt as to his fate. Secondly, why turn a funeral, where people are emotional, weakened by grief, and vulnerable, into an opportunity to enlarge your flock? I remember feeling genuinely sickened at the thought of this minister hoping to cash in on the fear of death so palpable at the funeral with an enlarged congregation. This goes to one of the main reasons I originally rejected Christianity’s claim of truth. Truth is self-evident. It does not need a salesman. In science, for example, teachers might educate students on facts and evidence, but they feel no need to convince and sell their truth to students. Yet in religion this sales pitch is an absolute requirement because the ridiculous ideas passed off as truth by the religious are as laughable as a late-night info-mertial unless they are properly marketed. And thirdly, though this didn’t really hit me until later when I had a chance to really think about it, if this minister was so confident that the young man, who had so clearly lived his life as he pleased without religion, was no in heaven, then why the need for others to make an even more public and sincere profession of faith. Once the bar for admittance is established, why waste energy over-shooting it? Without even realizing it, this minister had effectively said to his community: “Don’t worry about coming to church, don’t worry about living life as a Christian, don’t worry about any of that. Just swing by my office sometime and proclaim your faith, then go about your life as you please. That’s all you really need for admittance to heaven." Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with your own message.

I watched as this young friend of mine was lowered into the ground in a wooden box. Those around him sang about the glory, grace, and love of God. I drove home late at night and looked out into the darkness and realized that the only thing that remained of my friend was now out in that darkness under six fee of earth. That was it. He no longer existed beyond a broken body. It was very tragic and devastating. I have almost never felt such a profound sadness and sense of loss. But it was also very real. The young man's life was over. It was his turn. He had positively affected many lives and there was much to be thankful for. I appreciated having known him. And my own mortality became more focused and real. I recognized that all life is at once valuable and fragile.