Thursday, June 10, 2010

Common Misconceptions Part Two - Atheism = Arrogance

As many of you know, over the last few years I have shed the skin of religious dogmatism and embraced my new coat of physical evidence and reasoned logic (pearlism). I've always had a passionate and sometimes intense way of expressing myself. Whether I was lauding the Beatles, defending the merits of all seventies KISS albums, or even espousing the teachings of Christ, chances are I was doing it in a way that polarized my readers. I still have a lot to learn about being an effective communicator, especially as I dive increasingly into anti-religious material.

People tell me that I'm angry a lot. It's funny. They don't ask me. They tell me. It seems to be a comfortable category descriptor for some people as they interpret my writing in general and my thoughts on religion in particular. I think in a lot of ways I am angry. What astonishes me though is how unremarkable that really is. In reality, I am not necessarily more angry than anyone I know. Perhaps I'm angry about different things, but most people are harboring their own anger as well. People are angry about the political climate, the economy, their shitty jobs, their parents, their spouses, their kids, their neighbors, their health, and their futures. You're smart. You get this. And so you see that simply labeling me angry really gets us no closer to understanding one another. Other than the fact, of course, that it is one of the things that we share. A commonality.

Okay, so we're both angry. But why does religion make you so angry? What's the big deal, broseph?

I think we can all agree that the human species is universally angered by being ripped off. A scam artist steals your money. A boss denies you a deserved bonus. A lover cheats. A seven year series that I won't name (on ABC) delivers a lame season finale. Friend, try and understand that this is what it feels like to leave religion*. After all, we're not talking about changing favorite sports teams (although I realize that many people are more emotionally affected by sports than religion), we're talking about leaving a worldview that promised all of the answers and the One Great Truth. We're talking about belief systems that ask for your time, money, and energy. Belief systems that warp moral intuition into a corrupted ladder of rewards and punishment. Theologies and theocracies that encourage exclusion, hate and bigotry. I am now confronted with family, friends and enemies who believe that I will spend all of eternity burning in hell and that I am somehow a lacking and incomplete person. This is a big deal and I think it warrants a reasonable amount of anger. I'm still learning how to express this anger in a healthy way and I am hopeful that I will someday do it well.

So there, we've dealt a little bit with anger. But there is this notion of arrogance that I want us all to think about. Scientists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, pearlists, and freethinkers are often astoundingly accused of being arrogant for criticizing religion. For an atheist or scientist to reserve judgment due to insufficient evidence remarkably makes them elitist and arrogant to believers. Not only is this absolutely false, it is quite to the contrary.

Consider science. The scientific endeavor is entirely predicated on the admission of ignorance. The very first thing a scientist must do before bravely tackling a natural mystery is humbly inquire. Once a particular theory has been bolstered by incontrovertible evidence a scientist may rightly say, "This true. This is a fact." Was Issac Newton arrogant to boldly assert the laws of thermodynamics? Was Einstein arrogant to derive joy from having his theory of relativity validated by a 1922 solar eclipse? Of course not. To confuse this with arrogance is obtuse. In addition to being based on the humility of admitting ignorance, science profoundly humbles those who pay attention to it. Science has taught us that we aren't very special. We used to fancy ourselves the center of the universe. Now we know that we're not the center of our own solar system or even our own swirling galaxy, let alone the mindbogglingly expansive universe. Consider the above picture of the Earth, taken from the orbit of Neptune by the Voyager in the early nineties. As the wonderful Carl Sagan put it, "we are but a mote of dust suspended in a sun beam." So you see, there is literally NO ROOM for arrogance in science. If someone claims to know something without evidence, that is not science. No, that is something else.

Consider atheism. Atheism is simply a rejection of any god hypothesis. That is not arrogance. Now, if a supposed atheist claims to know for sure that there is no god then they are indeed being arrogant. But that kind of assertion would not be justified and it's unlikely you'll find an atheist who will explicitly make that claim. Some may correctly call this agnosticism. I am an atheist because I do not believe in gods, not because I know for sure there is not one. It is a subtle, but highly important difference.

Now consider religion. For our purposes (since I don't have many Muslim readers) let's focus on Christianity. Christianity is the very antithesis of humility and not knowing. The Christian not only claims to know for sure that there is a god, but claims to know for sure that it is Jesus. The Christian claims to know what happens when people die. The Christian claims to know what the will of god is for the human race, not just their own selves. The Christian believes that only their version of reality is true and that anyone who believes differently will suffer for it. The Christian believes that the entire Cosmos, with it's countless galaxies and stars and planets and nebulae and it's 13.8 billion year tenure, were all created solely for human beings. The Christian believes that the god that created the most distant sun at the far reaches of the universe personally listens to their thoughts and is concerned with their every move.

I don't believe any Christian would dispute these things. Now let me seriously ask you: which one of these groups is more arrogant?

Yours in reason,

Clint Wells

*This is a really helpful essay on anger and atheism. Please take the time to read it.


Brian T. Murphy said...

I miss you clint wells.

isbelle said...

What is more arrogant than someone who thinks they are going to heaven and others are going to hell?

Jen said...

I like

shawn avery said...

excellent essay clint. your writing keeps getting more refined. this entry was particularly eloquent & humorous at the same time.

Anonymous said...

This is very well reasoned and heart-felt piece. I'm about to turn 50 and have spent most of my adult life in various flavors of "fundamental" Christianity, save a 5-year "renaissance" after a divorce that occurred about 20 years ago. At this point in life I can almost sing along with Nellie and say "I'm like a bird, and I don't know where home is, I don't know where my soul is". Maybe this will pass, I don't know. I'm not ready to give up on Jesus and a (converted 4 years ago) now Catholic I have a few "options" for pursing spirituality that don't have to be intellectually stifling or emotionally rending.

... back to your post: My first inclination is to say that your "blessed" (pun intended) to be contemplating these things at your "young" age. Whatever direction you go, you probably won't feel the regret that I've felt over spending 1000's of hours (most of it SINCE I was your age) of my life imbibing on phony, shallow fundy religion that resulted in a very large transfer of my hard-earned $$$ along with the loss of opportunity to be what you already are - a VERY competent musical artist and a freethinker.

Yours in the struggle!


Reverend Evolution said...

I sometimes wonder if Christians say we're arrogant out of some sort of "knee jerking" defense mechanism. The best defence they can come up with on short notice, turns out to be calling us the very thing they fear THEY ARE!