We live in an amazing time. A time when we can increase our understanding of the cosmos by studying still-visible distant stars in the night sky. A time when we carry miniature computers in our pockets that are vastly more powerful than the ones which aided the 1969 lunar landing. We are presently able to understand bacteria and employ medicine to prevent the spread of horrific diseases. Yet, despite our scientific achievements, many people still refute the evidence and claim to know better than the scientists. Science and religion are increasingly at odds with one another – with science providing factual, peer-reviewed evidence, and religion offering nothing more than “faith” to support its claims, stubbornly persisting in its bronze age philosophy. The only time scientific advancement is controversial is when it contradicts the bible, and there is no valid reason that discoveries which benefit all of humankind should be met with such resistance.
As science continues to make new discoveries and bring us greater understanding of our world, it takes credibility away from the bible. It reveals the bible stories to be just that – stories: simple explanations for previously unexplainable phenomena. However, once an event has an explanation that is testable and found to be unfalsifiable, it is then a scientific theory and does not require a story to try and make sense of it. Science is not maliciously attacking the bible or its adherents; it is only showing that we have a better understanding of our environment than our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago.
In recent news of Hurricane Isaac, I have observed that there are still some commonplace superstitions today. I came across an article quoting a Katrina survivor named Margaret Thomas, “Isaac is the son of Abraham, it’s a special name that means ‘God will protect us’.” As if God had anything to do with naming the hurricane. The WMO (staffed by humans, for the record) maintains a set of six recurring lists of Atlantic tropical storm names, each containing 21 names alternating between masculine and feminine. In the event that a tropical storm reaches hurricane status it will keep the name (e.g. Tropical storm Isaac becomes Hurricane Isaac), and if that hurricane leaves extensive damage and/or deaths in its wake, then the name is retired and replaced with another beginning with the same letter. However, in the mindset of a believer isn’t God the one who is responsible for creating the hurricane? This contradicts Mrs. Thomas’s logic, meaning “God will protect us from God.”
Nature is indifferent to us, and does not care what we perceive as property damage or loss. Nature is nature, and will do what it does whether we are in its path or not.
NBC news shows a woman named Lisa Haywood leaving New Orleans because she doesn’t trust the $14.5-billion levee and drainage pump system built by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from another flood: “I have faith in God, I don’t have faith in those walls.” (Video Clip, beginning at 1:55) Once again, in the believer’s mindset, isn’t God the one responsible for the hurricane in the first place? I personally find it a little rude that she would say she has faith in the one who could be said to have created the storm in the first place, but doesn’t have confidence in the system put in place to protect her and the rest of the city from said entity.
Through the science of meteorology we have gained an understanding of how weather works, and what we can do to prepare for it. Wind and cloud formations are monitored by satellite, and once a hurricane has been confirmed the data is used to create a computer model and predict the course it shall take. If we can place confidence in the science that warns us of an approaching storm, shouldn’t we also believe that same science when it explains how the storm began and what we can do to prepare for it? If the storm were indeed caused by this alleged ‘God’ fellow, it seems to me that such an all-powerful being ought to be able to target sinful individuals in need of a good smiting rather than groups, or at least protect the innocent from the punishment which is intended for their neighbors… and why is it that his punishments are only able to come in the form of natural weather patterns? Why not a hurricane in Alaska, or a hail storm in Ecuador? Maybe we could forgo the weather bit entirely and He could make a personal appearance to express his disapproval of humankind like a grown-up?
Denial of scientific evidence has been troubling many of our big thinkers these days, including Bill Nye who has attracted quite a bit of attention from a recent Big Think video, entitled “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children”. At the time of this writing, the video has 4.4-million views and has attracted 155k comments, mostly from “experts” (i.e. common people who do not have a degree in science) claiming that he is stupid and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is common; people of this ilk tend to proclaim indisputable knowledge to all of life’s mysteries based on an ancient document, despite scientific research and mounds of evidence to the contrary. For the record, a degree in Theology does not make a scientifically literate individual, and for a layman to contradict what an actual scientist is saying seems a bit like a first grader confidently arguing with his teacher that Q comes after S in the English alphabet, or like a junkie giving sound financial advice to Warren Buffett.
The beauty of these comments is that they are supporting the points that the Science Guy is making in his video.
The creationist’s alleged proof of evolution being falsified is insubstantial, and is merely denial passed on from their pastors and preachers. However, everything that we know about biology today hinges on, and supports the theory of evolution. There are only two reasons to deny this theory: 1) You don’t understand what evolution is or how it works, and 2) It contradicts an idea that you are emotionally attached to.
The way I see it, science and religion are at odds because science has removed the foundation that the House of God was built upon. We all know, and can agree that a house cannot levitate off the ground…so if the foundation suddenly disappears it will fall. Science’s impact on this foundation is like the old tablecloth trick being performed by an untrained showboat – the tablecloth will surely be removed, but it’s going to be a little messy. You don’t want to be in this house when it comes crashing down in the absence of its foundation, so my advice is to pack up your things and move into something a little more stable that will protect you for many more years to come. Oh, and get hurricane insurance if that new place happens to be on the coast.
I consider myself fortunate, despite the numerous churches polluting our beautiful landscape, to be living in a largely secular part of the United States. Here in the greater Seattle area, it’s largely normal (and acceptable) to be an atheist. We often hear horror stories from atheists in the bible belt, where our kind are discriminated against simply because we don’t believe that fairy tales are true. Taking a step back and looking at the situation from a distance, I begin to see where the problem truly lies: it’s a simple misunderstanding of what an atheist is.
There are many labels we non-believers wear: heathen, heretic, infidel, apostate; all of which have a negative connotation. Religion, as a general rule of thumb, teaches its adherents to shun the non-believers. The scriptures even suggest such people should be killed, which doesn’t leave much room for the question of personal trustworthiness. The end-penalty for non-belief (among other sins) is eternal damnation in hell, where one will forever suffer at the hands of Lucifer, to be tortured and roasted in everlasting hellfire. The only thing this ideology really accomplishes is fanning the flames of ignorance, as is revealed in a recent study by Will M. Gervais which shows that our society as a whole trusts atheists even less than rapists. Many people are brought up with the misconception that there isn’t a basis for morality without God, so it stands to ‘reason’ that those who reject God must also refute morals and ethics. Or perhaps the dislike/distrust is coming from something much simpler, as many religious beliefs do prompt low self-esteem, and those afflicted with this ailment do often feel anger towards those ideas which contradict their own.
I was recently going through my Twitter timeline and stumbled upon a tweet proclaiming, “Atheists make me so angry!” I decided to ask this individual why and was told, “I don’t know, I guess because they don’t believe in anything. Not even science!” As an atheist, I have a deep passion for science and technology, so I had to correct her misguided viewpoint. I explained that we are people, just like everyone else: we have families, jobs and responsibilities. We are a part of our communities; we simply do not hold a belief in God. Her concept of atheism was a mislabeled definition of nihilism. She now has a better understanding – courtesy of a kind atheist who took the time to understand where she was coming from and debunk her misconception, rather than firing back with both barrels as is usually the case in the online world. She thanked me for clearing it up, and I hope this will stick with her in the future.
It is helpful to understand the definition of a word before forming an opinion on it, especially when the word is used to define other human beings and their worldview. Let’s look at a few definitions (taken from Dictionary.com):
1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe,without rejection of revelation ( distinguished from deism).
2. belief in the existence of a god or gods.
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
ni·hil·ism [nahy-uh-liz-uhm, nee-]
a. an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.
b. nothingness or nonexistence.
To simplify, a theist believes in God (or gods), an atheist does not believe in any gods, and a nihilist just doesn’t believe in anything at all. Nihilism sounds pretty crazy, I know; but they’re not out to destroy everything or ruin anyone’s day. It’s usually more or less just an attitude of, “If nothing matters, then why should we bother?” Typically since an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, a nihilist is also an atheist in the same sense that a vegan is also a vegetarian, just taken a step further. The word ‘atheist’ doesn’t mean devil-worshipper, hoodlum, ruffian, psychopath, lunatic, etc.; it just represents one distinct idea that we do not espouse.
Over the past few days, I have been discussing this with a colleague who happens to be a Christian. Where he comes from (Chennai) they do not call us atheists; instead they refer to us as rationalists. As such, he doesn’t have any preconceived ideas that we are evil people, but rather he recognizes that we rely on our own rational thought processes as opposed to accepting things on blind faith. He has suggested that we should look for another word to describe ourselves, something that focuses on what we do believe (the positive) rather than what we don’t (the negative). I gave his suggestion some consideration, but then came to the conclusion that this is only masking our atheism. We can call ourselves Humanists, Secularists, Rationalists… but it doesn’t change that we still reject the belief of God. Whatever we call ourselves, we are still atheists in the same way a Christian or a Muslim is a theist. Masking the problem is only sweeping it under the rug. We can shift the spotlight off of our godlessness and hope people will just dismiss it as a personal quirk; or we can embrace the word and help people overcome their fear of it.
We have people today who are working to prohibit scientific advances and theories because they do not understand them, or because it opposes their own personal beliefs. There are people who reject important facts such as global warming, with the idea that Earth is only a temporary proving ground for us humans (never mind the abundant animal species – Noah already saved them once!), and fossil fuels were put here by God for us to use without any worry of the consequences. This is why education is crucial; it removes blatant and morbid ignorance, the fear of the unknown, and is an important instrument in faith-reduction. As we make new scientific discoveries, we are able to explain things that remove the need for God: we now know that this planet we call home is revolving around the sun and that the moon is orbiting the Earth – these celestial bodies were not hung in the firmament by a creator like some sort of cosmological mobile above an infant’s crib. We know that lightning is an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, and not God striking down those who hath displeased Him. We know that bacteria are behind infections, and disease is not a punishment for our misdeeds (at least not every time). As we remove the need for God, we are threatening the lifestyles – and industries – of the deeply religious, and this invokes a desperation to try putting a stop to the advancement which is so clearly the mischief of devils… We must come out of the Dark Ages!
Each new discovery that science makes will take the last remaining concept of God from a believer whose faith is shaky and will continue to weaken the belief in the more devout (if they do not continue to reject scientific theory). As we continue to explain that which was previously unexplainable, atheism will continue to expand. This is why we must not be silent. We need people to have a realistic understanding of what it means to be an atheist, as there’s a very good chance they too will one day find themselves among our ranks. We need people to understand and accept scientific theories which are fortified with insurmountable evidence, rather than dismiss them as rubbish & poppycock simply because they clash with a beloved bedtime story. We need people to understand that the roots of their faith are grounded in our early ancestors seeking answers for things which were (at the time) lacking an explanation: why does the sun set in the western sky, why does the lightning flash before the thunder roars, why does the wind blow, and why do the ocean waves keep wrecking the coastal cities when the winds blow really hard? That’s a hurricane or a tsunami; it wasn’t the divine temper tantrum of a God who got pouty over two men who were intimate with each other in the privacy of their own home. These are silly superstitions that adults should be ashamed to carry, not proudly wear like a badge of honor.
In summary, we need to take the time to inform people of what it means to be an atheist. We can offer them a guiding hand in understanding that all humans are born with a basic compassion for other sentient beings, with an innate sense of morality that is cultivated and sculpted by our parents and our communities – we are not born cruel by nature; cruelty is fostered in a negative environment, or as an unfortunate side effect of mental illness. When everyone can accept that we are good without God, mankind can overcome these fears and take the human race to new and exciting places.
Yesterday, my wife and I went to our first Atheist meet-up with the North of Seattle Atheists/Agnostics, had a great time, and met some good people. We are settling into our new role as newly realized Atheists quite well, and are eager to get to know many more like-minded individuals.
After so many years of politely keeping my ‘heretical’ thoughts to myself, it is refreshing to converse with others of a similar thought process, and to have come to the realization that I’m far from being alone- there are many more sane and rational people out there! Although I probably do work with a few as well, for the sake of continued employment in these troubled times, I will continue to avoid religious discussions in the office, and keep my work and my heresy separate.
Tomorrow evening, we will be spending some quality time with the Eastside Atheist/Agnostics, and are positive that we will have a great time with more fascinating freethinkers. We look forward to new friends and and a brighter future.