I have done my best to avoid reading Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, despite being an Atheist. Or, more accurately, because I am one.
My “come away from Jesus” moment was not a single moment but a series of them over the years. But the final rejection was the rejection of a final, incontestable authority.
So although I may undoubtedly agree with some of what the godless trinity of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris have to say, I will not take them as an authority over my Atheism, which is a personal journey about interpreting the observable universe.
The Rules of Atheism?
The thing is that Atheism is indeed freeform. When I say I am an Atheist, one may assume a certain set of thoughts: the universe is not deterministic and contains no God(s); the belief that there is no such thing as a personal deity of any sort, much less a specific one with a specific name; the thought that spirituality – specifically religion – is poisonous; the thought that people who are religious are idiots. Those are a few examples.
Some of those examples are wrong and don’t indicate what I think
There is no authority to tell me that I must believe these things. There is no one book that I can look at and use as the shield and sword against my religious foes. If I wished to, I could throw out names to bolster my side. I could appeal to Sagan, Russell, Spinoza, Hume, Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc. etc. If I wanted to get into apologetics, I could use Bart Ehrman or Bishop Sprong. I could muster historians, archaeologists, physicists, biologists, philosophers, geologists, cosmologists, astrophysicists, and it would not make a lick of difference.
Because you cannot fight an authority with another authority and claim that you are a “free thinker.”
Is Atheism a Religion?
Atheism is not just another church. There isn’t a catechism, and there are no moral constraints. The way an Atheist behaves depends on the Atheist, but because our nation (and indeed our world) is so soaked in religion, many people cannot help but see EVERY belief as a religion. Which is why some people insist that Atheism is another faith. It is because those people cannot see anything as NOT being a faith.
I would describe Atheism more as an ethos, but I have nothing to back that up aside from Webster’s dictionary.
If I were pressed to say what Atheists believe in, I would say that Atheists in general claim to believe in “Science.”
Which is good in and of itself. I do indeed feel that the scientific method is the greatest thought system ever invented by man. It has contributed to the highest quality of life we have ever seen in all of human history. It too is a system that is supposed to reject authority in favor of evidence.
That it often doesn’t only means that Science is done by humans.
Human beings have forty-eight chromosomes in their cells. Go back to any authoritative book written up to the mid-nineteen fifties. Everyone knew that human cells have forty-eight chromosomes. It was a fact that was tested time and time again. Students would count the chromosomes while studying biology and there it was. Every picture ever collected showed forty-eight chromosomes per cell.
Suddenly, in 1953, humans had forty-six chromosomes in their cells.
What happened? Did we shed two chromosomes per cell? Go humanity! Efficiency for the win!
No, what happened was some researchers carefully counted the number of chromosomes in a cell and came up two chromosomes short. They checked their work again and again. Every single time, they came up with forty-six chromosomes.
Being good scientists, they doubted their results. After all, everyone knew that human chromosomes have forty-eight cells. So they pulled up older photographs and counted carefully.
The old slides all showed forty-six chromosomes.
Early on, some authority counted forty-eight chromosomes and declared that to be the total. From then on, there was pressure to bend observation to agree with the authority figure. When people counted wrong, they assumed that their senses were wrong. Future recounts gave them the result they wanted when they arrived. Humans have forty-eight chromosomes. The truth was distorted by a belief in an authoritative result.
Humans actually have forty-six chromosomes in their cells.
What is the difference between science and religion? Science is self-correcting. There are no holy books in science. There are books that provoke awe – for instance, Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But this book is not the “be all, end all” of physics. Far from it.
Nor did any subsequent discoveries make the physics in the Principia “wrong.” Theories became more refined. Einstein’s equations were far more accurate and far more difficult. Newton’s equations and laws of physics are still useful for everything from predicting the motion of objects to getting humanity to the moon. New theories became better at describing our observations. And these new theories will continue to do so until replaced by an even more elegant theory.
But these new theories “proved Newton wrong.” They filled out our knowledge. They broadened it. So if you see any article claiming that something proves Einstein “wrong,” please be assured that the writer is an idiot. Relativity doesn’t give us a fool-proof picture of reality. It is a great approximation until something better comes along.
In the case of the chromosomes, the mistake was corrected. The evidence was there and once people rejected an authority in favor of their own results, the truth arrived.
Some took this to mean that scientists are blind. This is not the case. People are blind. But science corrects itself in a way that religion doesn’t.
There is no room for self-correction in the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any other “book-based” religion. One is stuck with text that they either have to apologize for, ignore, or to justify using the most impressive semantic gymnastics you have ever seen.
Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al. have never written a holy book. None of them are beyond reproach or are incontestable authorities. And I am sure they would agree with this assessment. I as an Atheist don’t even need to read them, much less believe in or agree with what they say.
For the record, I don’t agree with many of their stances.
Do I Hate Religion?
I have many good personal reasons to hate religion, but I don’t. I am not going to lapse into the lazy “some of my best friends are Theists,” even though that is true. It doesn’t really matter. I refuse to hate religion because that is my choice.
Atheists are not forced to hate religion, although some insist all Atheists should.
I think that religions are thought systems – ways of organizing our perceptions. This organization comes with its own compartments, and perceptions are supposed to fit into those compartments. Sometimes, they are forced.
But these are thought systems that were invented by people.
But in the end, it is too easy to think of religion the same way that one thinks of government – as if it is a large creature all its own. They are systems made of breakable, fallible, frightened people. These are all people trying to make their way in this world, which makes them no better or worse than me.
I personally cannot go back to religion because I cannot be satisfied with it. I cannot unring that bell. For instance, knowing what I know about cosmology, how could I possibly be satisfied with the Genesis account of creation? Or believe in a personal savior in a Universe like this? How could I go back to a divine puppet show?
But at the same time, I cannot hate other people for trying to make sense of the universe as well, even if they think they have the answer. I can choose to dislike people on an individual basis. I can also see if their religion has poisoned them. But usually, the person was poisoned before they came to religion and religion didn’t fix it. They just discovered a way to use a metaphor to abuse others.
What Has Atheism Done For Me?
I cannot say that Atheism has made me a happier person. For a long while, it disturbed me. There was still the scent of “heaven” on me – the upset that the promised eternal afterlife was lie. It is hard to give up a beautiful dream for an ugly fact.
Nor do I think I am a better person than others for having done so. I harbor no feelings of superiority over Theists. Some are far more intelligent than I am. Some less so. Again, these are all systems comprised of people.
What it has done is vastly increase my sense of wonder and desire to learn more. “God done it” was a fine, pat answer for the existence of universe, but the truth is far more interesting and strange.
It has made me far more interested in listening to people as well. I dislike debate and feel no need to assert my own perception. I’ve sometimes said to friends, “I didn’t flee one fundamentalism to replace it with another.” Instead of debate, or asserting my Atheism, I would sooner listen to other people. This is not to say I won’t defend my point of view when pressed. It is a character flaw of mine how much I enjoy smashing people when they pull out “Pascal’s Wager.”
In the end, this is not because I am a “good” person or a “weak” person or anything else like this. I will listen because I have chosen to like people. I have chosen to like people because I am a socialized ape. I have no claws, no camouflage, no poison, no stinger, no armor, and I am susceptible to damage from the elements. What I have are brains and society to keep me safe.
Because I evolved this way, I associate company with happiness. I associate accord with safety. Because it is the base desire of everyone to survive, this is my survival strategy.
Atheism doesn’t make me right. It makes me curious. And I think it makes me a better person than I was.
I promise I will come up with the “funny” next time.