December 6, 2005

Can't we all just...embrace a philosophically diverse society?

[I had the following Op-ED published in the Orange County Register (CA) on December 2nd, 2005 under the editor's title "Atheists can't prove it, either - Trying to convince religious people that they're wrong is itself wrong." There are a few non-substantive differences from the newspaper piece. This article belongs to the O.C. Register and should not be republished without permission. More on the talk mentioned in the first paragraph here.]

I recently attended a lecture on “intelligent design” (ID) creationism. The talk started off well enough, the speaker appeared to know the material facts as well as the history of the idea. But his critique went skidding into a rhetorical guardrail as the discussion moved from the weaknesses of ID as a concept to the impotence of religion in general.

It is not unusual, in fact it’s nigh inescapable, for conversations about creationism to veer into dispute as to the relative merits of theism and atheism. But it’s usually the creationists who mistakenly think this philosophical dichotomy encapsulates the issue. Here, however, was a defender of biological evolution struggling in the same quicksand that gobbles up so many on the other side.

Why was he determined to cast these scientific and pedagogical issues as a battle between reason and religion? Because it suited his personal agenda. Despite his ostensibly sensible beginning, he was really there to talk about “rational” atheism and “irrational” religion.

Now, I’m an atheist. I’m as intellectually opposed to supernatural ideas as the next poor bound-for-Hell-in-a-handbasket slob. And when the impenetrably blissful come by twos to my front door I usually smile and respond to their introduction with something like – “of course I’d be willing to listen to your message, as long as you’re willing to listen to mine.” But my message is never about personal philosophy. It’s about personal responsibility in a society which requires so much interaction. It’s about how the respectful acceptance of others who believe differently can improve all of our lives.

I certainly never try to convince a true believer that they’re dead wrong. Consider the logic, or lack thereof, in attempting to persuade an individual who believes with all of his heart that he cannot act ethically without his religion, that this is exactly what he should do. I see atheists take this tack quite often and all I can think is “whoa, dudes, what are you doing?” The last thing we need is a bunch of people who believe they have no internal moral compass running around without their external one.

The word “atheist” has become a pejorative, it no longer simply means someone who sees no evidence for God, and is therefore not theistic. There is a sense of zeal and evangelism attached to the word now. This is unfair, and probably largely due to the curious misperception of prejudice that develops in the heads of those who possess absolute truth (“you discriminate against me by not letting me force my religion upon you”). Anyone familiar with creationist arguments has felt the frustration of this kind of illogic.

But there are atheists who market their product as a cure for the theism that ails, and they also miss the boat. One does “reason” a disservice by making it the enemy of so many people who are just trying to get through the day feeling there is a purpose to their existence. “Reason” will out as a result of gradual dissemination and persuasion, not by way of a moment’s applause for a simplistic demolition of “irrational” religion. If theism is truly not reasonable then eventually it will wither and fail because, well…that’s the reasonable outcome.

What about fundamentalist terrorism, you say. Well, what about it? Fundamentalism, whether it’s bombing abortion clinics or Israeli busses, is no more equivalent with theism than eugenics is with genetics. There’s always someone willing to take some idea to the edge of a precipice and leap off. Why? Because they’re nutsos that’s why. They don’t come to their nutsery intellectually, they are an inevitable facet of a diverse society and will pop up anywhere at anytime supporting any ol’ “ism.”

Any atheist worth his salt understands the value of being able to say “I don’t know.” And anyone who accepts that there are things he doesn’t know can recognize the value of a philosophically diverse society. Can’t we all just get along? Heck, I think they’re wrong too, but there is no, nor can there be, proof of it.

Remember, it’s just a vocal minority that rings the doorbell and jerks your chain. Just ignore it. Turn the other cheek (yeah, you’re right - now I’m just sucking up).


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