Friday, May 30, 2008

What is an atheist?

For those of you who haven't been following the culture wars too closely, I'm going to show you a little snippet from that paragon of fundie morality, Monique Davis. Monique Davis is a Democratic Member of the Illlinois House of Representatives and worked as a teacher and an educational admin for Chicago public schools. It was while atheist activist Rob Sherman was testifying before the House State Government Administration Committee that she unleashed the following:

"I don't know what you have against God, but some of us don't have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings... I'm trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois... This is the land of Lincoln where people believe in God... What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous... It's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists... Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon."

This charming diatribe earned her a place as Keith Olbermann's Worst Person in the World. Anyway, let's not waste anymore time pondering the ravings of one delusional psychotic; I'd like to address the question stated in the title.

It seems to me that many fundies and even some moderates pretty much share the same view as Davis regarding atheists, lumping us in the same category as angsty teens with a head full of Neitzsche. For the benefit of moderates who visit this blog, and atheists looking for snappy answers to moderates, I'd like to try and clear up the confusion.

Atheism is exactly what the word looks like it means: No-god-ism. We acknowledge the limitations of human knowledge and, faced with the mysteries of the universe which are beyond present human understanding, we choose not to fill this gap in our knowledge with supernatural beings. Simple as that.

We do not hate God. We don't even believe He exists, so what's there to hate? Does a Christian, Jew or Muslim hate Zeus, Odin or Vishnu? In any case, any secular humanist can tell you that hatred is counterproductive and has no place in polite society. That having been said, God's followers can be pretty damn annoying, worst of all in the case of the fundie, who appears to be a product of hatred, fear and more than anything else, ignorance.

The thing to bear in mind when speaking of atheists is that there are many, many flavours of atheist. Just as theists have Catholics, Protestants, Free Presbyterians, Locked-up Presbyterians, Shi'ites, Sunnis, Sufis and what-have-you, atheists will have secular humanists (like me!), nihilists (nutters) and so on and so forth.

Most atheists turn to atheism as the logical response to the inadequacies and inconsistencies of organised religion, e.g. Moses' Exodus vs total lack of archaeological evidence*, Genesis vs evolution + big bang + radiocarbon dating + common sense. It is part and parcel of good science to always be aware that there may always be a better explanation. As such, even knowing as much as we know, we acknowledge that maybe, just maybe there might be room for a supernatural being, say, sparking off the Big Bang. But that's hell of a maybe, and as yet, wherever science has turned it's gaze, God seems to have buggered off. BUT, we keep our minds open. Hence many scientists will consider themselves 99.9% atheist, i.e. we're open to the possibility that He exists, if and only if there is strong evidence for His existence. However, what current evidence suggests is that either: a) There's no God(s); or b) He/They doesn't give a shit.

Of course, one could argue that these days, believers aren't meant to follow selected parts of the scriptures. For instance, one shouldn't pay attention to the bits which advocate corporal punishment (Proverbs 20:30), nihilism (Ecclesiastes 3:19), genocide (Numbers 31:17), child murder (Psalms 137:9) and sexism (Corinthians 11:8-9, Deuteronomy 22:5 & 25:11-12). And certainly not those bits forbidding Christmas trees (Jeremiah 10:2-4) and Harry Potter (Leviticus 20:27). And with all these exceptions in mind, and note that this is most certainly NOT an exhaustive list, any reasonable person has to ask: Is the damn book** even RELEVANT anymore? Or are you just cherrypicking and shoehorning the words to mean what you want them to mean? How different is it from picking out "the good bits" from, say, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye or even The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? I for one would definitely favour Cyrano de Bergerac as a role model over that poor sucker, Job...

And so the only sensible thing to do is to consider another hypothesis which better fits reality and is more relevant to the zeitgeist of human cultural evolution, i.e. maybe, just maybe the scripture is plain WRONG. Which seems to work, because if it was right, we'd still be chucking spears and rocks at each other.

So that, more or less, is why atheism is. In stating the above, I do believe I speak for the great bulk of those who would call themselves atheist. If not, please leave a comment and feel free to correct me.

* You'd really think they'd take better care of the tablets with the 10 Commandments on them.
** Yes, I know I've only picked out the Biblical silliness. I'm quite aware that there are other scriptures from equally, if not more barbaric religions, but pointing out their inadequacies might be more trouble than it's worth.

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