Welcome To Atheism: A Beginner’s Guide to Compassionate Disbelief

atheism

Congratulations on becoming an atheist! You are now in possession of what is, to the extent that the concept is meaningful at all, the only ‘correct’ theological position: none.

You will have noticed that a great many people take different positions, ones which are more or less fantastical, brutal, humourless, ill-defined, bigoted, intolerant, antiquated, misogynistic and flat-out idiotic.

All these people take issue with the fact that there is no god. But many of them also take issue with homosexuality, evolution, the scientific method, sex for fun, other people taking different positions, women doing anything other than what they’re told, girls not having their genitals mutilated, predatory priests being subject to the law of the land, contraception, divorce, and drawing pictures of illiterate medieval nomads.

Make of that what you like.

But don’t worry, we’re not here to talk about them. Today is all about you, the newly minted infidel. We humbly present six simple steps which will help you to make the most of the wonderful gift of godlessness.

1. Decide what kind of atheist you are.

Many nonbelievers fetch up in the company of other nonbelievers, for obvious reasons. If your peer group does not consist exclusively of god-deniers, it’s probably a mélange of agnostics, humanists, vegans and thoughtful liberals with vestiges of familial obligation which only surface at Christmas, Eid, Diwali, Pesach, weddings or funerals.

This homogeneity will make your life more pleasant in many ways. You will have many superficially satisfying conversations, in real life and online, in which your views are confirmed by those who share them.

We’re not denying that it’s fun to lambaste Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus for the silliness or toxicity of their beliefs. And it’s always comforting to have your own opinions validated. We do, however, suggest that you ask yourself the following important question:

Are you content to be the type of atheist who spends her limited time agreeing with other atheists about how dumb religion is, or do you genuinely believe that atheism is a benevolent force which can mitigate the spectacular horrors humans visit on other humans?

This is the most fundamental decision you’ll ever make about your faithlessness.

2. Consider the importance of tone.

Let’s go ahead and assume that you want more from your atheism than warm fuzzies.

You may be required to talk to people of faith. This is always going to be tricky; the axiomatic overlap on which you and the believer can agree prior to discussion is so slim that you may as well be speaking different languages (see 3a. below). Nonetheless, the following truism holds:

Nobody likes being told what to do. Ever.

"I'm loud. You're wrong. Case closed."

“Hey you! Do a thing!”

Remember when you were a teenager and your parents told you to tidy up your room, and you totally stopped whatever you were doing and ran straight to your room and tidied the shit out of it? No? We don’t either. People react so badly to the imperative tense that even if it’s in their best interest to do whatever they’re being commanded to, they may instinctively favour the opposite course, as well as nurturing a simmering resentment against the commander.

About the worst thing you can do in the service of atheism is to tell believers that they should join you, to enumerate all the ways they’re wrong or stupid or ignorant, to establish a value gradient with you at the top and them at the bottom.

When talking to devotees, we suggest that you try to be friendly, warm, inclusive, non-judgemental. No matter how limpid and elegant and logically unassailable your argument is, if you bellow it from the mountaintop it will fall on deaf, angry ears. Speaking of which:

3. Avoid the R. Dawkins trap.

If you haven’t already, you will soon encounter one R. Dawkins, former evolutionary biologist and now full-time scorn trumpet. This Kenyan-born Oxford academic once wrote excellent, awe-inspiring popular science books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and made radical contributions to evolutionary genetics in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The Dawkins Delusion: clever, but not big.

The Dawkins Delusion: clever, but not big.

Since then he has foregone his academic career and dedicated himself to making fellow atheists look bad. He has had considerable success in this endeavour.

His book The God Delusion introduced a generation of indignant Christians and embarrassed humanists to a new kind of self-serving, fatuous, vainglorious literary format in which the alleged target audience of religious believers is abused and then entirely abandoned during the introduction, with the rest of the text addressed redundantly to fellow atheists, like a stand-up comedian doggedly performing to an empty house after offending the entire audience into walking out.

That said, you will find yourself agreeing with the content of most of R. Dawkins’ statements. He is, for better or worse, an eloquent and intelligent man with keen critical faculties. You will also find yourself burying your head in your hands when he says things like:

“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” (Tweeted on August 8, 2013)

This is a near-perfect storm of avoidable atheist snares. The inflammatory glibness. The supercilious tone. The failed attempt at humour. Most of all, the dangerously reductive and simplistic central argument, which wilfully ignores millennia of divergent geopolitical development in the Christian and Islamic empires (much of which involved the former violently colonising the latter), the dozens of avowedly Christian Nobel winners, the numerous  Muslim academics in Cambridge, and the Nobel Prize itself being a Western institution built on Christian foundations. (Let’s not even mention the awkward detail that Trinity College is named after the central bullshit-mystery of Christianity.)

If you’re seeking an example of how not to further the cause of non-belief, look no further than R. Dawkins. He is the weird second cousin who comes to visit for a drunken weekend, covers the family name in shame, and necessitates you apologising to friends and co-workers for months afterwards.

3a. A caveat.

Let’s face it. In many cases, even the most polite and measured and mutually respectful conversation between an atheist and a religionist is a waste of time for both sides. The atheist will argue from logic and empirical evidence or lack thereof. Revealed religion operates through unquestioned articles of faith, so the believer will argue from tradition, authority, and that most impregnable of fortresses, nothing at all. The whole point of mystical faith is that you believe despite the illogic, the lack of evidence, the endemic inconsistencies in what is believed.

Because shut up, that's why.

Because shut up. That’s why.

Be pragmatic. It’s unrealistic to expect you will convince a devotee to drop half a lifetime of indoctrination the moment he hears your awesome argument. If human nature were that amenable to reason, nuclear weapons would be the stuff of grimmest science-fiction.

But try anyway. You never know which well-timed little logic bomb might sow a tiny seed of doubt in your opponent’s brutalised mind. It may take years or decades to bear fruit, and you probably won’t be there for that anti-Hallmark moment when he sees the error of his ways and turns ecstatically apostate, taking his wife and kids with him to godless pastures new.

Unsung heroes are the best heroes.

4. There but for the grace of (no) god, go you.

From the lavish fastness of a Western middle-class life, tap-tapping on your iPad as you sip chai latte in your heated, ventilated, plumbed and electrified crib, luxuriating in the consequences of tertiary education and state-of-the-art healthcare, it is easy to the point of effortlessness to dismiss religion. Life, the catalogue of first-world problems you bemoan and are consoled about online notwithstanding, is preposterously good.

Why would anyone in her right mind buy the whole Abrahamic shell-game of a paranoid, sex-obsessed, egomaniacal God looking down on His contemptible flock (which He created in his own image) with alternating fury and indifference? Why fixate on a notional afterlife for which there is no evidence at all, when actual life is so replete with scientific wonder, sensual delight and artistic diversion?

Please consider this: in many many places on Earth, actual life is unutterably horrible. Humans there are born into relentless misery, and in misery they die. They’re not stupid, but they’re sure as hell uneducated: they spend every waking moment trying not to die of starvation or disease or the latest raping-and-pillaging militia. Good luck finding time to learn to read, let alone open a book. (See 6. below.)

Imagine yourself growing up in a flyblown village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The well is dry, as always. The last two consignments of anti-typhoid drugs were blown up by the LRA, so if your numerous children don’t die of malnutrition or dehydration, they’ll bid fair to die of internal bleeding.

Lord's Resistance Army. Specialists In making earthly life as hellish possible for countless innocents. True servants of God.

Lord’s Resistance Army. Specialists in making earthly life as hellish as possible. True servants of God.

Can you be sure – absolutely sure – that in such conditions of unremitting hardship, where billions of others failed, you would succeed in resisting the allure of the delicious dangled carrot of spiritual salvation?

Are you really that psychologically bulletproof?

When immanent life is literally unbearable, the act of grabbing at any available hope of something better is not a choice; it’s a reflex. The idea of a numinous sequel, in which wrongs are righted and the grimy slog of subsistence on the material plane made retroactively worthwhile, is too seductive to decline. Moreover, it’s logical. Given the reasonable assumption that the motivation behind all human activity is to maximise personal pleasure and minimise pain, having in mind the prospect of a hereafter, however fictional or absurd or dumb it may seem from your lush remove, makes the subjective difference between a life worth living and one as pointless and tragic as an unheard scream.

5. Observe that not all atheists are created equal.

We might be wrong, but we’re pretty sure you grew up in a place with decent libraries, decent schools and the rudiments of freedom of expression. You may not have been born into an atheist family, but it’s a fair bet that whatever religion your parents professed, it wasn’t rammed down your throat under pain of beating or disownment or death.

So you arrived at your atheism at your leisure, so to speak. There might have been some unpleasantness when you first ‘came out’ to your folks or conservative older relatives, but for the sake of an easy life, all parties have since agreed to bury the hatchet.

We intend no offence, but what that means is this: there are more interesting atheists than you.

We’re referring to the ones who were fully indoctrinated into a seriously proscriptive and prescriptive and lunatic sect like the Westboro Baptist Church or a branch of militant Islam, did some bad shit, and then late in life, at great personal cost, publicly renounced their faith.

These people are fascinating. They are the saints of atheism. We can learn more from one such person than from a hundred privileged WASAs (white Anglo-Saxon atheists) who cultivated their incredulity jeopardy-free over the pages of Huxley or Vonnegut or Russell.

You see why, right? Somewhere in them lies the key to our salvation, the humanist Rosetta Stone that turns believers into atheists. We haven’t identified or isolated it yet, because we don’t spend enough time celebrating, rewarding or studying these heroic heretics. If you are lucky enough ever to meet one, buy him a beer, tell him he’s marvellous and try to figure out what makes him different from his former coreligionists.

6. Conclusion: adopt an oblique strategy.

You now know that the direct approach to swelling atheist ranks is unlikely to work. People balk at being barked at, and the very nature of religious belief makes it all but impervious to logical argument. But there’s more than one way to skewer a calumny.

Multiple studies have shown a strong correlation between standards of education and prevalence of atheism. It seems that the more people know, the less they believe. The Catholic Church was once more powerful than all nation states in Europe. Now it’s a laughing stock where it’s not a disgraced cultural pariah.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Schrödinger didn’t make their discoveries just to thumb their noses at the almighty. They followed their constitutional yen for truth, found some astonishing stuff, and along the way happened to blast gaping holes in the walls of heliocentric/anthropocentric theology.

Atheism advances subtly, hitching itself to the wagon of knowledge. It grows, slowly but surely, in soil fertilised by tolerance, education and compassion.

You can’t make a seedling sprout by shouting at it. If you truly want to stop the madness, teach it new things quietly.

Good luck.

Science & Secular Morals – A Pathway to Truth

snowballearth

 

A couple of things have come to my attention recently which coalesce to powerfully express why the Scientific method and secular morality trump magical thinking when it comes to evaluating the physical universe. The first of those was the discovery of yet more evidence to bolster the Snowball Earth hypothesis. Nothing particularly fantastic, on the face of it – this sort of evidence is bound to come up in a case that is nigh-on proven anyway.

The part that I found interesting concerned the author of the new study, Huiming Bao, who entered the field with the intention of falsifying the very same hypothesis. The minutiae of the study itself are somewhat irrelevant – suffice to say, corroborating evidence in the form of depleted Oxygen-17 level and ultra-high atmospheric CO2 have provided an explanation of how the Earth recovered from its snowball status.

Bao’s interest in snowball Earth began with the revival of the theory in 1998 and in his own words,

“I was a casual ‘non-believer’ of this hypothesis because of the mere improbability of such an Earth state,” Bao said. “There was nothing rational or logic in that belief for me, of course. I remember I even told my job interviewers back in 2000 that one of my future research plans was to prove that the Snowball Earth hypothesis was wrong.”

But on discovery of some strange isotope ratios in barite minerals dating from the glaciation event 635 million years ago, Bao had a change of heart;

“Now, it seems that our LSU group is the one offering the strongest supporting evidence for a ‘Snowball Earth’ back 635 million years ago. I certainly did not see this coming. The finding we published in 2008 demonstrates, again, that new scientific breakthroughs are often brought in by outsiders.”

What this demonstrates is one of the defining features of the scientific method – that is, it is by nature sceptical. On the evaluation of relevant evidence, one can reach a conclusion about the nature of things. When that conclusion (or hypothesis) is tested and challenged against the available evidence, one has the opportunity to dis-prove it. In this case, that is exactly what happened.

On discovery that your initial conclusions are incorrect, the community is able to revise their ideas and update them – in Bao’s case this entailed a 180-degree about-face in his ideas about Snowball Earth. This has happened an innumerable times in the history of science – from Kepler and his elliptical orbits to Einstein to Heisenberg and Quantum mechanics – and highlights a fundamental difference in reasoned thinking and religious faith. What reaction do the zealots and evangelists have to the discovery of contrary evidence? Attack it with assertions and straw man arguments until it hopefully goes away, this is the way the cognitive dissonance caused by incompatible beliefs is dealt with.

Talking of cognitive dissonance brings me to the second item. On a phone in to American Public Access TV show The Atheist Experience, a caller from Austin, Texas phones in (one of a series of calls) and after much debate with expert logician-in-chief Matt Dillahunty and Jen Peeples, is confronted with the reality of his religions inherent moral failings. As Matt has said many times, secular morality is the process of determining the correct course of action based on a rational interpretation of the consequences of ones actions. Contrast with the morality of the Bible – genocide, rape, war murder, incest, slavery; these are all assertions from authority, and necessarily require that one gives up his moral faculties to an unsubstantiated God. In this sense Christianity is the opposite of moral.

Enjoy Matt and his cohorts on The Atheist Experience

Reason or Unreason, You Decide

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All of us, at one time or another, have had it impressed upon us that there are certain things one does not speak of in polite company. Here at politicoid, it is fair to say that we are quite opinionated. Naturally, we consider the aforementioned opinions to be almost 100% correct. It is therefore advisable that under no circumstances are we ever let loose on polite society. To inappropriately paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, there are some things of which I am proud to be impolite.

In the interests of clarifying our position on various political and philosophical issues, it would seem that a series of comment pieces on some enduring controversies would be expeditious. These questions have defied humanity’s talent for solving problems, despite the answers’ being blindingly apparent to the rational mind. Continue reading

This Book is not Great…. but it’s not bad either

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God Is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens
ISBN 978-1-84354-586-6

Score: 7.5/10

For those of you who have never heard of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens (probably those in the UK), he was a journalist and commentator with a long career and publications in a number of left-wing periodicals. He is also pissed off. He followed in a line of professional atheists which include Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennet. Where Dennet is, to an extent, conciliatory and pragmatic and Dawkins smart but red-faced, Hitchens is haughtily fuming.
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Ancient Aliens (History Channel 2008) – Review!

Ancient AliensLet’s have some fun, Ok? First of all, I’m a documentary fan. It’s a particular kind of laziness that you can justify because it’s kind of like learning. I am also a skeptic. So, I come at this History Channel series with an open, though cautious, mind (seems quite likely to be batshit crazy, no?). Now, I’m not going to waste a huge amount of time researching the topic – there’s not much there that needs much effort. But I have to admit, it contained enough  interesting information to keep me mildly stimulated.

Basically, the concept is this: Ancient aliens came to earth thousands of years ago, and interfered in human society, even genetically engineering us (possibly breeding with us; Alright, now we’re talking to each other ;-)). Ultimately, practically everything in any religious texts is evidence of this.
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