October 19, 2012

Fairytales and Misconceptions

Time for another long rant...

It should come as little surprise that this blogger self-identifies as atheist… or more precisely as non-theistic. Although always open to new data, there has so far has been no credible evidence offered to even hint of the existence of any supernatural power or being. The supernatural has always been a product of a fearful mind... an invention to explain the as yet unexplained. As humankind's knowledge base has grown, the myths have receded. We laugh at many of those myths these days.

So I am godless. Unlike many others with similar lack of belief my atheism does not seem to be the result of a de-conversion or some sudden epiphany. Being exposed to evangelical Christianity while still in grade school, I have no memory of ever actually believing. Even at that early age I felt it was all hogwash.

This was not a fact that in those days was often shared with friends... and not until relatively  recently with family. Although just a child it was apparent to me that making any statement of disbelief would very likely result in poor reaction... so lack of faith was hidden and I just went along with the mumbo jumbo for the sake of getting along.

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My folks may have had some beliefs but they never showed it. We didn't pray at home or over meals... unless of course we had religious visitors, and we almost never got dressed up and went to church. The extended family was another matter. Many of them were Christian to the point of fanaticism. So it was for fear of consequence that I kept quiet. It was a lonely time for a kid who was “different.”

My father was an avid reader and taught me to be the same. Thus it was that my first realization that I was not the only person sans belief on this pale, blue dot came in my young teens, possibly as young as 12-years old, with the discovery of Science Fiction... more specifically the discovery of Isaac Asimov.

With this brilliant scientist and author I had found kindred spirit, and from that point forward... the times they were a-changin’ (apologies to Bob Dylan). In the half-century since that discovery, this blogger has witnessed increasing numbers of skeptics emerging from closets and becoming less afraid to be known as atheist.

The studies are validating this observation. The Pew Research Center’s Center on Religion & Public Life on October 9th released the results of their annual survey on religion in America. The title of the report offers a pretty good hint about what has happened over a very brief span of time…

In just five years, according to the report, we have witnessed the number of Americans willing to describe themselves as “unaffiliated” rise from about 47 million (15%) just five years ago to just  over 64 million, or almost 20% of all U.S. adults today.

The ranks of self-described atheists and agnostics now number somewhere somewhere north of 13 million (almost 6%) of all Americans. To round out the remainder of the Pew numbers we can add that nearly 33 million people say they have no particular religious affiliation. Over 40.5 million of this number (88% of the "nones") express no interest in faith or of adopting any religion.

Additionally there is a very large and obviously growing number of U.S. citizens displaying less religious behavior than their religious neighbors. They may not be willing to profess atheism and may claim to believe some of the clap trap, but they don't often go around preaching to others and they don't attend formal religious ceremonies.

This is also demonstrated in a parallel survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the PBS Religion & Ethics News Weekly television show, we find a goodly number of our “nones” still hold some sort of religious or spiritual beliefs.

In that survey about 68% of the "nones" expressed belief in some kind of intelligent creator or god. Half expressed “a deep connection with nature and the earth.” Just over a third described themselves as “spiritual but not religions.” 21% claimed to pray every day. A majority of our “nones” expressed the opinion that religious institutions provide benefit to society.

Curiously though, almost none of these “spiritual” but unaffiliated individuals expressed any desire to find a religion or become identified with any formal religious institution. They overwhelmingly expressed the opinion that modern religious institutions are too controlling, overly concerned with money, too focused on controlling the lives of others and too involved in politics. This is good news for the non-believers, but in spite of our growing number (or perhaps because of it) atheists are increasingly viewed as antagonistic.

Odd how the times do change. When I was a child I feared the bible-thumpers would learn of my heresy and I would be burned  like a witch at the stake. These days it seems it is the religionists who fear the atheist... and they are expressing this fear in many ways. With the rise of the new atheist and atheism plus, that burr under the religionists saddle grows more irritating. It shouldn't... but it does.

While we generally agree with the direction being taken, many of us who identify with the organized atheist movements don’t really care for the title. At least in general use we find the very word tends to cause barriers to be erected. As a purely scientific term it is fine, but my preference is simply “skeptic” or "humanist." These seem to convey my doubt while not so drastically upsetting the applecart.

Terminology notwithstanding, the religionists fail to understand and thus they fear. One of my biggest pet peeves is that religion seems to lump whole segments of the population into overly broad categories, and then to promote that as a reason to be afraid of anyone not the same as them. Atheists are not all the same any more than all religionists are the same, but for some reason this is very misunderstood.

In a 2011 study by the University of British Columbia and reported in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that “…religious believer's distrust -- rather than dislike or disgust -- was the central motivator of prejudice against atheists, adding that these studies offer important clues on how to combat this prejudice.” The research involved six studies conducted with 350 American adults and nearly 420 university students in Canada, and found that “religious people distrust atheists more than they do persons from other religious groups, gays and feminists.”

The study posed a number of hypothetical questions and scenarios. In one, when presented with description of an untrustworthy person, study participants found it to be more representative of an atheist than of a Muslim, a Jew, gays or feminists. One of the researchers said that the only group the participants distrusted as much as atheists was rapists, adding "With more than half a billion atheists worldwide, this prejudice has the potential to affect a substantial number of people."

Atheists in general find this distrust and/or hatred confounding. We generally don’t hate religion even though we often ridicule the behavior of religionists. We readily admit that there have been atheists who have done really horrible things. Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot killed millions. This is history and we understand it.

Examples such as there are often pointed at as evidence that atheists are immoral or evil, but there are religionists who have displayed equivalently unspeakable evil in the name of some god or another. Adolph Hitler and Jim Jones come to mind, as do the crusades of days past and the some Muslims today. In the atheism = evil argument these facts are often dismissed or denied. 

Where society gets off the track is by failing to understand that it is seldom the belief system or lack of belief that is the proximate cause of either good or of evil behavior. With the atheist the only inherent value is a lack of belief in the supernatural. Good or evil, we have nothing to blame except the individual. Religionists who perform evil acts often do so in the name of some deity, and when some good thing happens the praise goes to a deity rather than to the human performing the good act. 

Evil, it seems, is independent of faith. There are many fine and good religionists in this world. These individuals may attribute their actions to the goodness of a deity, but it is my belief that the goodness is internal, not external. Behavior is learned, and good behavior is necessary for the tribe of man to survive. Atheists know this. Religionists are confused.

The moral atheist (which is most of us) exemplifies this internal well of good behavior, because it is necessary for good order in society, and we understand that we have no external supernatural being we can either praise, blame, or from whom we can seek forgiveness. If we screw up the burden is all on our shoulders. We accept that. 

In the recent past a 14-year-old girl was shot in the head by the Muslim extremist group called the Taliban. This evil was done, so they say, because the girl wrote messages on a blog promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan. For this, according to a violen religious minority, she must die. Young Malala Yousufzai is “not out of the woods” but is recovering... and all the while the Taliban promises to finish the job. Malala's father is now a target because he was foolish enough to support his daughter's quest for education.

Can there be any doubt that this evil is directly rooted in an aberrant interpretation of "the word of god"?

Were the 11th, 12th and 13th century Christian Crusades not rooted in exactly the same malinterpretation of religious writings? How about the terrorism by the Irish Orange Volunteers? The NLFT and the NSCN forcibly "converting" Hindus to Christianity in India? What do we say about Norway’s Anders Breivik, Uganda’s Joseph Kony or our own home grown Eric Robert Rudolph?

Show me the damn difference between "them" and "us"!

Some people are evil, and some use religion as motivation... or perhaps as an excuse. Religion often promotes hatred by drawing these division between "them" and "us." I don’t hate religion… I hate what some people do with it. I understand that not all Christians think it is okay to kidnap children and force them to be soldiers for Christ… or to kill innocent humans as a means to shut down abortion clinics... or because they are black or homosexual or wear a turban. Not all Muslims believe that uppity child-women should be killed as punishment for going to school. I understand this.

But some people will do these things, and therein we find the problem with religion. In the final analysis the fact that a person does or does not subscribe to religionistic philosophy is no measure of individual character. The real evil of religion is that it is a cloak far too easy to worn as justification for evil acts. It is in this dishonesty where I find irony.

A misbehaving atheist is simply evil. He has no cloak of invisibility with which to shield himself. So even when the problem of evil is considered, the atheist is the more honest.

So tell me again why we are so distrusted?



JEG43 said...

Very well said, sir.

Old NFO said...

Well said, and the takeaway is " the fact that a person does or does not subscribe to religionistic philosophy is no measure of individual character."

More on BOTH sides need to realize that!