This is a matter that has been on my mind for a while. Mainly because the issue seems be gaining attention, the debate inspiring more active participation in an increasingly public forum in the past few years.
I’m talking about the expressed beliefs of hard-line atheists. Atheists who not just exercise a disbelief in an all-encompassing deity, but who are moved to activism related to these disbeliefs. I classify them as “hard-line” because they extend themselves beyond personal belief, and have a motivated interest in presenting their beliefs in antagonistic discourse.
For the sake of disclosure – I am a former Catholic. I was raised in a Catholic family from birth, and was a member of the church until I made the decision to disavow the religion at the age of 15. I had attended bible classes and bible camp through parts of my childhood, and was enrolled in Catholic school bitterly until the age of 18. I have my own contentious memories of that time, but I will leave them aside for the sake of the following points I’d like to make.
While in 9th grade at a Catholic high school, I was given a religion class assignment related to any matter in the bible. Because of my own growing skepticism, I decided to poll my class on the matter of evolution vs. creationism. I had heard about Adam and Eve my whole life, yet had also been taught the concept of evolution in Catholic school. Believe it. There was no attempt to reconcile the two, both were simply presented as part of our history, in different classrooms. I polled my religion class to find that the majority of students believed in evolution over creationism, and that even my religion class teacher reluctantly admitted to believing the same. So even in a Catholic school, the majority of people around me in religion class had a willingness to believe in the scientific proof over the spiritual literature. I was fascinated.
The reason I left the religion was largely due to the fact that I found the church to be a politicization of a person’s relationship with God. I hadn’t made my mind up whether or not I actually believed in a god, but I knew that a lot of the nonsense going on in church and in school had very little to do with it. But why does God want me to wear brown pants and a champagne-colored shirt to school EVERY day?
I’ve moved on in my life. I’ve encountered religious people and non-religious people in the years since, and most of the time, no one actually cares what anyone’s beliefs are. It’s not often a point of conversation because it’s a personal matter, and usually it doesn’t matter. There are times that Jehovah’s Witnesses might come to the door or try to start a seemingly innocent conversation on a street corner, and I politely tell them I’m not interested because I made the mistake of inviting them in once. (I was just curious what they would actually say, given the chance.)
No one likes preachy people. It doesn’t even have to be specific to religion. If you fail a test in school and I say to you “well you know you should have studied more,” you’re still going to want to punch me in the face because preachy people are annoying. Perhaps a lot of resentment is directed toward the religious because of those who do preach in public forums. Everything from that guy holding up the bible on the street corner to news network hosts who wave their moral superiority over guests or matters of questionable faith. It’s true, those people are annoying.
So, why then must atheists take to public forums to make known their disbelief in God? It seems lately that in media, on buses, on the internet, there is a growing, proud movement of people who want you to know that they don’t believe in God. Why do they do this? To quote renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson “It’s odd that the word ‘atheist’ even exists. I don’t play golf, is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word, and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski?”
If the atheist movement is growing to counter the preachy-ness of religiosity, don’t they realize that they are aspiring to become exactly what they dislike?
Religious extremists have been responsible for some of the ugliest events in our recent history, from 9/11 to Fox News. What’s important to note about that is the term extremism. Extremism being defined as any ideology or political act far outside the perceived political center of a society; or otherwise claimed to violate common moral standards.
Common moral standards are codes of behavior to which all people can relate. One does not have to be religious to understand and practice this, and it is a uniting factor between most people of faith, and most people without faith. Extremism can then be defined as anything outside of a collective moral standard.
Some of the atheists I have spoken with have expressed sincere concerns about the rise of religious extremism. Their concerns are valid; religious extremism is a concern for everyone sharing this planet. One friend said to me (and I apologize to him for not remembering his exact words) “taking religion out of the picture is like taking away the car keys from a drunk.” That might be true in the case of an extremist, but then you’re excluding millions of people who drive cars every day, most of whom are not drunk. Why would we assume that extremism is representative of all religious behavior when it’s simply not? Religion, for many, is their approach to that common moral code. Their faith empowers them, and provides the fortitude to deal with everything from everyday life to personal tragedy. Billions of people use religion as a means to be better people. Who could fault someone for that? As demonstrated in my school where both creationism and evolution were taught, religious systems don’t have to be extreme, and can often approach both religion and science with reason.
The problem is not religion, but extremism itself – especially where it results in oppression. Extremism does not have to be religious. Adolf Hitler’s extremism was exclusive to any religious belief (his long term plan was to root out and destroy the influence of the Christian churches, though he publicly identified as a Christian to appeal to the large Christian German population. His private beliefs held Christianity to be meek and flabby.) People often cite religion as the cause for wars and a history of human strife, when in fact, humans seem to have a genetic disposition for violent behavior. Our closest genetic cousin, chimpanzees, are free of religion and share the same behavioral trait. Perhaps if humanity had never developed a concept of “God,” our genetics would still find a way to fight with each other, as illustrated hilariously in the South Park episode “Go God Go.” Crazy people are going to be crazy.
One could argue that humans don’t always go to war for simple matters of territory as chimpanzees do. We fight more intellectual wars over matters like rights and freedom. It is said today that the Iraq War was never about religion, but about bringing freedom to the Iraqi people (and ridding Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction that were never found.) We fight to share our values, and to spread and defend democracy across the globe.
So what are our democratic values? What is it that makes up this freedom that we in the West so vehemently value, and bring us to wave flags every July 1st in Canada and July 4th in the United States? The answer would be different for many, but as a collective whole, we can refer to the documentation that at least partly defines our democratic history.
In the United States they have the First Amendment of the Constitution, stating that – “The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion.” It states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Matters regarding the freedom of religion are listed as Article 2 in Canada, and the First Amendment in the United States, giving the sense that in both countries this is a matter of some priority and importance in our democratic ideals. How is it then that we can call ourselves democratic without respecting these rights? Even if you don’t subscribe to a religion, it can be understood that the freedom to practice faith is what makes up part of our own democracy. It doesn’t give religion rights or priorities over anyone else living in a democratic society, but this Article and Amendment exist so that our freedom to believe (or our freedom to not believe, as it may be) is reserved as basic pillar of liberty.
There are some who take the bible at its absolute literal meaning, whether in the case of the extremely religious or the extremely atheist. Science and the need for evidence calls so much of the bible into question, from the Old Testament to the New*. For extremists on either side of the faith fence who feel the need to reconcile this matter with an absolute, it could mean a rejection of science, or a rejection of the bible. I do not believe though, that science and “God” are mutually exclusive.
Sometimes I will hear the atheist claim that they do not believe in God because they believe in science. It’s an interesting point. Science is a term that we have created, a single-word description of all that we can prove of our universe with evidence. The concept of ‘science’, however, is limited by our human ability to comprehend the universe around us. Our ability to understand and map a wall that we constantly climb in the need to understand the cosmos, our origins, and our future. It’s the best explanation we have of our existence until we can find a better explanation. This “belief in science” puts an incredible amount of trust (or faith, as it may be) in humanity’s capability and limitations.
Atheists sometimes wave the word science as though it stamps out the concept of God. But science does not disprove God. Atheists argue that there’s no God because science has not proven it. Some say it that there’s likely no God, based on the same reason or probability. This is at fundamental odds with the religious, because their belief is rooted in faith. Atheists believe there is no God because God has not been proven. The religious believe there is a God though science has not proven it. How can we ultimately prove who is, or will be right? In the scientific argument, the onus has been placed on those who believe in God to provide proof, since they are certain of God’s existence. Yet religion is a system of faith. The proof that is required by atheists is not a proof that is needed by the faithful, and so the argument becomes a dog chasing its own tail. One side easily dismisses the other because both play by different rules. One then claims to have rules that are more valid than the other. How divisive. Maybe the chimps would find humor in our ability to fight over these completely irresolvable ‘intellectual’ arguments.
Can skeptics unreservedly say there is no God because of our understanding of science? No, they can’t. God’s existence hasn’t yet been proven, just as much of what we know today had once not been proven. Science is our understanding of our universe, and we can barely grasp that science. We still can’t fully understand mass, though we are making incremental steps. It’s possible that one day we will, but until then we have to accept that science really is our best attempt at understanding something we cannot wholly comprehend. If we struggle with understanding the universe, how could we understand (or even comprehend) the concept of God, its supposed creator? And how can we unreservedly praise our understanding of science when it is limited by our own flawed human capability? In this sense, the worship of science becomes a kind of self-worship. A worship of the human intellect and its ability understand the universe around us.
Finally, what is God, anyway? Is it a burly elder sitting atop a cloud? A burning bush handing off stone tablets to ancient prophets? The father of a nomadic pacifist who insisted everyone love each other? If, as in the beliefs of the native peoples of North America, “God” is “The Creator,” perhaps we can step back from limiting God to the notion of a deity outlined by earlier, less-scientific civilizations. God, as acknowledged by all religions, is the Creator of all life, of the universe itself. It is every cosmic force we cannot understand, and it is the hand that nourishes our earth with sun and rain. God is our natural world, and everything that makes it. You can take the scientific approach, or you can be satisfied with a spiritual acceptance, but ultimately the idea of God is all that makes us. Our scientific endeavor is our desire to get closer to that awesome origin of our nature, to understand what it is we are and where we came from. God does not have to be the judgmental, restrictive politicization of past cultures. God is the answers we all seek in understanding ourselves through the universe. It is the balance of faith and knowledge, and our ability to make peace with them both. It’s not just the story of Adam and Eve, but an understanding of the human condition since we first started telling stories to teach and keep us from making the mistakes of the past.
Arguing about the existence of God or the non-existence of God isn’t going to help us progress. Neither will posturing as the spiritual or intellectual superior. Just as religious wars will never serve a purpose other than to ideologically, politically, or territorially dominate another group of people, an intellectual war about something completely improvable is not a fight we should be undertaking. It is divisive and devolutionary. Accept the beauty of faith, embrace the wonder of science, and we can progress and grow to learn more about the answers many of us seek.
I leave you with a clip of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking to atheist activist Richard Dawkins about Dawkins’ own style of activist atheism.
*The bible was a collection of stories and accounts written down after generations of re-telling. Can we really believe absolutely every word in the text in a literal sense for what is essentially the written result of a game of broken telephone?