Coming out of the atheism closet

A few weeks ago, Newsweek ran an article titled The New Naysayers. It was about a trio of newly-published books on atheism. The books are Breaking the Spell (by Daniel Dennett), A Letter to a Christian Nation (by Sam Harris) and The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins). What these books, especially the latter two, have in common is aptly summarized in this quote from the article:

“Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition…These authors have no geopolitical strategy to advance; they’re interested in the metaphysics of belief, not the politics of the First Amendment. It’s the idea of putting trust in God they object to, not the motto on the nickel.”

This is a much more aggressive and offensive (in both senses of the word) posture than atheists have taken in the past. And, overall, for this I am glad.

Atheists have for too long been far too polite in their criticism of theistic positions. I suppose it comes from being such a small minority, or at least feeling like one. It can be difficult to be assertive when you know that the result will be the virtual casting of stones upon you by almost everyone else in the community. But if ever there was a time for atheists to be willing to take this risk, the time is now, where we have a war being waged by religious fanatics in our own country against religious fanatics in other countries, with ordinary people on both sides caught in the crosshairs.

Happily, the number of atheists may be larger than is generally assumed, even here in the U.S. As Dawkins notes in the Preface to his book: “The reason so many people don’t notice atheists is that many of us are reluctant to come out. Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them.”

Okay, Richard. You’ve convinced me (which was not that hard to do!). I am coming out. Let me start here with two personal thoughts on the subject:

The black box. One of the most insidious aspects of religion is how it manages to defend itself against attack. I don’t mean attacks from non-believers against religious individuals. I mean intellectual attacks that might otherwise get a thoughtful religious person to question their own beliefs. In this way, religious beliefs have something in common with a successful virus.

As others have also noted, religious beliefs carry their own immunity protection, making it difficult for a successful attack to be mounted against them. How else to explain the fact that Hurricane Katrina could kill thousands of people, yet a survivor may still thank God for sparing his or her life? Logically, for survivors to believe that God directly intervened to save their lives, they must also believe that God could have intervened to save everyone who died but chose not to do so. In other words, those who died were not equally deserving of God’s mercy. Even worse, there is an implication that God, being omnipotent, caused the hurricane in the first place — or at least permitted its destruction.

Every time there is a disaster, I have trouble wrapping my mind around this. A raging fire burns an entire neighborhood of houses to the ground, killing several people. Yet, interviewed on television, there will always be a surviving resident thanking God for allowing them to get out of their house alive. Why is it not equally valid to curse God for allowing the fire in the first place? Or at least for the people who died?

I am sure that most people don’t give this any thought at all — in the same way they don’t think about why the sky is blue or how their brain works. It’s just accepted. If some thought is given, it will likely lead to a reply such as “God works in mysterious ways and we cannot always understand his purpose.” But that just doesn’t cut it. By explaining everything, such statements explain nothing.

To put the matter in metaphorical terms: Suppose I had a black box and I told you that inside it was a genie who could grant your every wish. However, to get a wish granted you had to talk to the Genie directly. And to talk to the Genie, you first had to open the box. The problem is that no one has ever been able to open the box. Further, according to a scroll that is attached to the box, if someone ever does find a way to open the box, the Genie will instantly fly away, before you can even see him and certainly before you can ask him anything.

If you were to accept all this as true, based on faith, it becomes an elegant self-sustaining impenetrable belief. There is no way that anyone could ever prove you wrong. Whether or not the box is ever opened, the predicted result is the same: you never get to see the Genie and you never get to ask your wish. So the faith that the Genie exists safely survives.

If this black box faith appears to work in the same way as many religious beliefs, if it appears to mimic how a person’s belief in God is not shaken by events no matter how good nor how bad they may be, no matter what evidence and logic might otherwise dictate, this is not a coincidence.

The need for proof. When I say I do not believe in God, some people of faith ask how I can be sure that God does not exist? And why is my certain lack of belief any more defensible than their certainty that God does exist?

First of all, while I consider myself to be an atheist rather than an agnostic, I admit that I cannot prove that God does not exist. So I am not certain that God does not exist. As any scientist worth his salt knows, you can never prove the negative. I cannot prove God does not exist any more than I can prove that flying saucers from Mars are not circling the Earth at this very moment, using cloaking devices to keep us from detecting them.

But this is exactly why the burden of proof is on those who make extraordinary claims. No one (well almost no one) truly believes there are flying saucers in earth’s orbit right now. This is because there is no evidence to support such a belief. When we ask why we can find no evidence, the most reasonable explanation is that there are no flying saucers.

Just because some explanation has some very remote possibility of being true doesn’t mean that it deserves equal consideration to other explanations that are far more likely to be true. This is so whether talking about flying saucers or a God that answers our prayers.

It is especially so when you consider all the different religious belief systems in the world. Almost by definition, all but one of them must be wrong. Yet most people cling to the correctness of just one of these systems, simply based on the happenstance of what they were taught as a child. This is not the best way to evaluate truth vs. falsehood.

I often hear that religious beliefs are a matter of faith, as if this somehow absolves people from having to have defend the reasonableness of their beliefs, whether to atheists, to those of different faiths, or even to themselves. I don’t see why religion should get this free pass. It is just another way that religion works to prevent a believer from ever having to consider that they might be wrong.

Note: I wrote the above posting after finishing Harris’s book but only reading as far as Chapter 1 in Dawkins’ book. After completing the remainder of the book, I discovered that a good part of what I wrote echoes points made by Dawkins. See especially the discussion of Betrand Russell’s celestial teapot, on pages 52-54. I was not surprised. It would have been presumptuous of me to assume that I was the first person to think of these arguments. At first, this made me hesitate about publishing this item. Should I post something that is so obviously “unoriginal”? Obviously, I ultimately decided that I should. For a subject where most people have not heard these arguments even once, it can only help to have them repeated. This is a subject I will explore in more detail in my next posting.

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