I don’t want to get into an argument about religion versus atheism, but a conversation on Radio 2 this morning about Shirley MacLaine and the “Mayan faith” pushed a few buttons.
Now, I don’t know much about Shirley MacLaine, but a quick Google search brings up a whole host of hits guaranteed to make me dig my fingernails into my palms and roll my eyes up into the back of my head. And not in a good way.
Here are a few examples: “The Life Force of Sacred Sites”; “Encounter Board: For those interested in Mayan prophecies”; “Faith and Reason: Apologetic Methods”; and a link to her new book “Sage-ing While Age-ing”.
Let’s ignore the nasty title of that – doubtless – weighty tome, and focus on the fact that she has “firmly established herself as a fearless, iconoclastic thinker and seeker of truth”. A quick scan of her books’ summaries suggests that she wouldn’t know truth if it slapped her in the face. And the use of the word “iconoclastic” in the blurb is, at the very least, ill advised.
I don’t mean to pick on the poor woman, she clearly has issues and a large hole in her life that she’s attempting to fill with “spirituality” and possibly the mysterious cities of gold; it simply happens that her name was mentioned on Chris Evans’s breakfast show today and triggered a few thoughts.
The first of these thoughts was irritation at the strangely persistent idea that the world will end in December of this year (2012) because it was foreseen by the Mayan people. And the second was that there is no “Mayan faith” any more, and what we do know of that people’s faith is sketchy at best. This led me to ponder the nature of faith and religion as a whole.
Taking the first thought: a quick Google, again, flipped this site at me like a pancake in a frying pan. It’ll do for a start. But here’s something I stole from the internet that probably sums it up much more succinctly. Plus, there are lolz.
All this set me to thinking about religion and belief systems.
I am an atheist, and proud of being so. I am standing up and declaring my beliefs. I do not believe in a god, or gods, or in fact any kind of supernatural being.
Other people’s beliefs bother me not a jot, as long as they are not forced upon others or used to justify a raft of bad and/or unpleasant behaviour. It baffles me at times; but then I suspect that feeling is mutual.
However, what does bother me is the endless list of daft arguments, accusations and insults levelled by the religious at atheists; there are so many misconceptions, and we non-believers find it very difficult to have a sensible discussion about religion without being accused of being “disrespectful”. You see, it’s often okay to disagree with me and my non-belief in a supernatural being, but as soon as the tables are turned, we are “disrespecting” the believers. Ennit.
But here, in my domain of science and reason (or, you know, mostly science and reason) I would like to address some of the erroneous (and sometimes insulting) arguments levelled at we atheists.
No moral compass
The first point, and one that really grates my carrot, is the idea that as atheists we have no moral compass and no reason to behave well towards fellow human beings. There seems to be some idea that we need a god to tell us how to behave.
This idea actually frightens me. Am I really to accept that, without some kind of a divine being, humans would just rampage around the world destroying everything and everyone in their path? That without a fictitious entity handing down a code of laws from on high, believers would be unable to exercise any restraint over their behaviour? That does the religious no credit at all, and cheapens faith in the eyes of everyone.
Our behavioural codes have evolved throughout history. We’ve moved on from hitting women over the head with clubs and dragging them back to caves (well, most of us have). We no longer simply take what we want at the expense of others (again, most of us don’t). As humans began to live more closely together and develop societies, it became obvious that without a code of behaviour, the whole group would suffer.
There will always be bad apples. But I put forward the hypothesis that it matters not a jot whether they believe in a god or believe in nothing at all. There will, simply, always be bad apples.
The second point, and this is next on my list of “things that annoy me”, is that as an atheist, I cannot prove the non-existence of a god or gods. No, I cannot. And there is a very good reason for this. It has nothing to do with not being able to prove a negative (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), and everything to do with not putting forward a sensible hypothesis.
It is impossible to search “everywhere”, so if someone asserts that something exists somewhere, but doesn’t specify where, proving its existence or otherwise is going to be a little bit tricky. See Bertrand Russell’s silver teapot.
It is possible that there is a god-like entity somewhere in the Universe, but as we cannot search the entire Universe, it’s never going to be proven. But theists don’t mean that; they believe in a deity that is right here, right now. And so, the burden of proof lies there. Show me the evidence for your deity, the one that is right here, right now, all around you all the time.
It’s just a theory
Atheism is only a theory, too. Well, yes. I refer you to point number two. Evolution is only a theory (and that opens up a whole other can of nonsense with the creationists, so we’ll only touch on this briefly) but has behind it such a weight of evidence that it groans in the face of those who deny it.
Evidence to support the existence of an immortal, all-knowing and all-seeing supernatural being would need to be quite extraordinary, and I haven’t seen any yet. I’m not narrow minded: show me the evidence, and I will adjust my thinking accordingly.
“You might change your mind!”
Yes, I might. Atheists become believers all the time. And believers lose their faith all the time, too. A “miracle” might make me change my mind; so might bereavement. I can understand why wrenching loss could induce people to believe in some kind of an afterlife in which they are reunited with their loved ones, and if that brings comfort, then that could be a good thing – as long as it doesn’t replace the grieving and healing process.
I’m not set in stone. John Maynard Keynes said it best: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
There are many more similar arguments, some of which are tiringly circular, and I have not the time or inclination to tackle them. Likewise, I’m sure my answers to the above are a veritable pair of fishnet stockings in terms of clarity and completeness, but hey! This is just a blog, not a submission to a scientific journal.
And I shouldn’t have to, but I will, clarify that this is not an attack on religion, or people of faith.
I just prefer to put my faith in human beings. Some of them are quite extraordinary, and deserve the credit of being responsible for their own actions. And some of them are close to evil (whatever that is), and should not be allowed to devolve responsibility for their behaviour.
Human beings, red shoes and new knickers. They are tangible, (mostly) reliable, and capable of putting a smile on my face.