Thursday, April 5, 2007

Myths about atheism

I feel the need to respond to Ryan's comments because one of the purposes of this site is to de-mystify atheism or at least my own personal brand of atheism which is pretty far removed from Dawkin's. So let’s take them in order

Myth #1. Atheists “know" there is no God.

This is the most common mistake people make about atheists. Because they seemingly claim to know the unknowable, atheists are easily characterized as arrogant and condescending. The problem is that assumes a premise (knowledge of a negative) and a burden (proving a negative) atheist don’t have. People confuse the positive belief in a negative claim (I know that there isn't something) with the lack of belief in a positive claim (I do not believe something). This may seem like splitting hairs but the difference is very important. For example, say I buy a lottery ticket. I don’t know that I won’t win the lottery. But at the same time, it’s perfectly rational not to believe that I will win the lottery. Being an atheist doesn't mean I know that God doesn't exist. It's a big universe and I'd have to be God himself to know that he's not hiding around there somewhere. It just means to me there is a lack of evidence to prove the claim "there is a God".

Myth #2. If you can’t know God doesn’t exist, doesn’t that make you an agnostic not an atheist?

It's often claimed that agnosticism is the only rational position because the existence of God cannot be known one way or another, and therefore one has no choice but to suspend a decision. I'm going to have to call bullshit on that one. If that's true you'd have to be an agnostic about far more than God. After all, no one can "know" for certain that Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Atlantis don't exist. It is impossible to prove that there isn't a 1978 Dodge Dart orbiting Saturn. No matter how wildly implausible a proposition was, you'd have to give it equal weight as long as it couldn't be disproved. If you were truly agnostic you would lead a pretty interesting life.

Atheism really isn't that complex a philosophy: If you claim something exists, let's see your proof; if your proof isn't very convincing, than I probably won't believe your claim. Sounds nutty I know, but it's worked pretty well for me so far. The mistake that people continually make is to assume it is the burden of the skeptic to prove a negative claim, and if they fail to meet that burden then they have “lost” the augment and we are justified in believing the claim or at least in suspending judgment. This is actually a very dangerous way of thinking.

Let us take the example of the missing WMDs. Bush’s defenders claim he didn't lie when said he stated Iraq had WMDs because he didn’t know that there weren't any WMDs. But of course he did lie because he said there were WMDs when in actuality he didn't know whether there were WMDs one way or the other. In their never ending quest not to appear “biased” the U.S. media got trapped into being agnostic about the WMDs (we don't know he doesn't have them) and fell for the administration's line that it was therefore the burden of Saddam Hussein to prove he did not have WMDs. It was a beautifully ridiculous argument that helped make war inevitable. After all, Saddam could have turned his whole country inside out and that still wouldn't prove he had no WMDs. He could always be accused of hiding them in some new unknown location. In fact, it was the Bush Administration that was making a positive claim (Iraq has WMDs), one that they had the burden to prove, and the proof they had was easily exposed as utter bullshit by anyone willing to do a little digging. If the U.S. media had been "atheist" (show me your proof) rather than "agnostic" (who can know?) this world would be a lot better off

Myth # 3: Atheists reject spirituality.

Far from eliminating mystery and uncertainty from life, atheism treats mysteries with the respect they deserve. Life is full of the unknowable and unexplainable. But rather than try to force fit a solution that doesn’t make sense to me, I simply acknowledge them for what they are; things that I don’t know and can’t explain. Rather than giving you all the answers, atheism enlightens you to exactly how much you don’t know. The hardest part of atheism is embracing a level of ignorance that at times can be terrifyingly overwhelming. However, in the words of Socrates at least you know that you don’t know much of anything, and that is a very valuable form of knowledge.

Myth #4: All atheists are materialists

People often assume that if you are an atheist, then you must also be materialist (you are nothing other than the biological functions of your brain). Certainly there are plenty of atheists who do believe exactly that, but not all. I don’t believe in a literal soul, but I absolutely believe that human consciousness transcends biology and physics. I believe in the inexplicability of love, joy, passion, grief, and heartbreak. While they may be biological in origin they are also far more than simply the sum of their physical causes: they are the most existentially real experiences we have, and are what make human beings the weird little evolutionary quirk that we are. However my belief in that transcendence maybe not completely justified from a logical or scientific perspective. In fact it might even be characterized as an act of faith. This leads directly into my next point.

Myth #5: Atheists think everyone else should be an atheist.

Remember all I claimed was that to me there is a lack of evidence to prove the positive claim "there is a God." Some people may have experiences vastly different than mine. Maybe prayer, or meditation, or personal experience leads them to conclude there is a God when they examine all the evidence. I’m fine with that. My two favorite thinkers in the world, people far smarter me and whose influence on me is enormous, were both passionate believers. Atheism is my answer to that question. It’s not the answer for everyone and I personally have no desire to convince anyone else that their belief system is wrong. I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words and as long as you’re a good person I could care less what your personal beliefs are.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Manifesto of a radically boring atheist

I'm going to let you in on a secret: most people are boring. I do not mean this as an insult. In fact, it is a complement. Our boringness is something that we all share, something to unite us, and something to make us proud. Still, who wants to celebrate boringness even it does bring us together? Isn't discussing tedium itself tedious? God, you people are impatient. Our boringness is important. It is the key to transformative social change. Seriously. Let me explain.

The easiest way to understand the virtues of boringness is to first examine the pitfalls of non-boringness. The most powerful example of the dangers of over stimulation is that most sinister of ridiculous bugaboos: "The Gay Lifestyle". The religious right is so fond of this phrase, you almost wonder if they are part of a secret viral marketing campaign for "".

As silly as the phrase is, its manipulation and purpose are quite serious. The message of “the gay lifestyle" is that it is first and foremost, not your lifestyle and the further from yours the better. The James Dobsons of the world use "the gay lifestyle" to create the impression that the average day in the life of a homosexual consists of nothing other than constant cocaine fueled sex orgies aboard Elton John's yacht, filmed by a leather clad Hillary Clinton, stopping only when everyone gets tired of performing abortions and commits suicide.

Of course the purpose of such language is to portray homosexuality as perverse, foreign, and "other". But another purpose is to portray it as exciting, glamorous, and interesting, especially as compared to James Dobson. The message is not only that these people are morally wrong, but that their lives are more stimulating than yours is, and that discrimination against them is a good way to even the score.
This combination of fear and envy is most potent weapon in the gay baiting arsenal, which is why they are constantly hammering away with it.

The terrible secret that Pat Robertson is desperate to keep from his flock is that most gay people are in fact, pretty boring. Many have never even met Elton John. For most gay people, their “lifestyle” consists of working hard, paying the bills, trying to find or maintain loving relations, and attempting to find meaning and community where they can. The same shit the rest of us struggle with every day.

My theory is that the strides in acceptance of homosexuality have happened in large part because the boring gay masses have increasingly begun to live their lives openly and proudly. Of course living openly and honestly is not easy. In addition to facing discrimination and violence, gays often risk being disowned by their entire families after coming out. It often requires courage and very real sacrifice to live boringly, and this is why I want to introduce the concept of “Radical Boringness.” “Radical Boringness” means living the hum drum every life in a way that's open, honest, and dignified. It means being willing to fight for your right to simply be treated the same as any other schmoe.

As controversial as it has been, the fight for gay marriage is perfectly in tune with radical boringness. In fact the biggest problem is that those fighting for equality haven’t realized they are sitting on an absolute gold mine of dull. This is marriage we’re talking about people, how exciting can it possibly be? My advice to gay marriage advocates? Turn up the tedious. Emphasize the drab. Explain that you are fighting for the joy that is filing a joint tax return, the thrill of arguing over whose turn it is do the dishes, the non-stop party that is legally enshrined monogamy. Not to mention the most gloriously mind numbing aspect of gay marriage: gay divorce! What could be more tiresome that having to hire a lawyer if your relationship goes sour? Once people realize how profoundly uninteresting your demands really are, how can they help but be swayed to your side?

Still, one does wonder if gay rights are a uniquely boring phenomena or can “Radical Boringness” be successfully applied to other minorities? Well, I'm not gay, but I am an atheist and I think atheists could learn a lot from the boring aspects of the gay rights movement. Atheists are kind of a weird minority. We don't stand out from the crowd in any way. We don't have any real leaders or spokesmen. We haven't suffered any real oppression. I’m pretty sure we’re allowed to marry and nobody really believes atheism is a disorder anymore. Yet we still have still haven’t managed to get a single unbeliever elected to Congress (we thought we may have had one last week but he turned out to be a Unitarian). Polls show we are by far the most distrusted group in the nation and atheists are one of the few remaining minorities that it is still acceptable in polite society to openly mock and dismiss.

Atheism has been in the news lately mostly due to the recent books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Consequentially, atheism is gaining a notoriety that is far from boring. Dawkins in particular has been getting attention mostly because of his antagonistic and condescending attitude toward people who are not atheists. He has been enough of an arrogant prick, that he raised the ire of the boys over at "South Park" and was the recipient of their trademark scathing satire, involving ass fucking and murderous sea otters. This was extremely concerning to me. To see my own belief system suffer the same hilarious take down as Scientology, Mormonism, etc., was hard to take. But Dawkins had it coming for committing the only two sins that Matt Stone and Trey Parker refuse to tolerate: thinking that your beliefs make you superior to everyone else, and attempting to convince everyone that your way of thinking is the only way.

What people like Dawkins fail to grasp is that most people don't really warm up to you when you are constantly belittling the things they hold most dear, no matter how logical and compelling your argument maybe. I've argued with far too many believers in my life to conclude attempting conversion is anything other than spectacularly pointless. Dawkins' attempt to seize the mantle of atheist leadership has hopefully failed (Once your cartoon alias has slept with Mr./Ms. Garrison your credibility is pretty much shot). Atheists need to ask themselves “What now?” We've got some attention so what should we do with it? My answer: we should be boring, Radically Boring.

I’m not advocating atheists give up any traditional causes but we need to do a much better job of explaining what we’re fighting for and why. When atheist battle to fight prayer in school, it’s not because we want to eliminate God from public life or exterminate religion; it’s because we want to be treated like any other religious group. Would Christians accept a public school that required their children to pray toward Mecca five times a day? Would Jews tolerate pledging allegiance to a nation "under Jesus"? Of course not, no self respecting religious group would allow the state force them to participate in the rituals of another religion. All atheists should want is that exact same consideration. It's not religion were fighting, it's discrimination. It's not power we want, its equality, nothing more, nothing less. And that is a radically boring idea.