The Atheist’s Nightmare?

There’s a now infamous video starring Ray Comfort and produced by Kirk Cameron about how the banana is supposedly an atheist’s nightmare.  Their reasoning behind this (if we can call it such) is that the banana exemplifies the result of a benevolent god, who created it specifically for human consumption.  Its ridges match the grooves on our hands, it comes in a biodegradable container and it’s delicious.  Therefore, it could only have been the work of god.

I could write about how preposterous this is and talk about how the evolutionary theory applies to fruits, but that’s been done many times already.

I want to focus on the word “nightmare” because I think that’s what I found most interesting.

What exactly is an atheist’s nightmare like?  What is it that we fear above all other things?  What would prompt us to suddenly wake up in a cold sweat, relieved beyond relief that it was all just a bad dream?  Let’s think on that for a second.

For most of us, a bad dream can involve being chased by a dangerous predator.  Equally common are dreams about falling, being unprepared for an important task, suddenly being naked in public, or being visited by someone who has passed away.  Some of these dreams may be so uncomfortable or palpably terrifying that we may wake up from them and not be able to fall back asleep for an hour.

But they’re mostly universal experiences.  What would a nightmare look like to the atheist worldview?

Since atheists are far from a homogenous group, I want to confidently assert that there isn’t an atheist nightmare.  If we were to learn tomorrow that there is a kind, benevolent god who made the world for us to enjoy, we’d probably rejoice.  There would inevitably be a moment of shock, perhaps embarrassment, but for the most part we would embrace this new knowledge.

Because atheists aren’t like believers.  We don’t clasp our hands to our ears against evidence, or its lack thereof, and simply believe what we want because it makes us feel better.  We’ve looked at the world around us, analyzed it critically and have come to realize that god isn’t a real thing.  It wouldn’t be a nightmare in the least to learn the opposite (unless god turns out to be the intractable brute from the Old Testament, in which case, maybe there will be a chilling hellscape after all).

Conversely, the religious flock does have a nightmare scenario and that is why they framed this argument in such a way.  In the unlikely (but still plausible) case that devout Christians reason to the point of accepting god’s non-existence, their entire worldview has fallen apart.  Though not irreparable, it will take a lot of soul-searching (no pun intended) to regain their balance.

More recently, with the popular Cosmos series attracting widespread praise and attention, the Creationist community has predictably fulminated against what they consider to be the takedown of their worldview.  Science has been chipping away at the Biblical creation narrative for hundreds of years now, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comforting voice is reaching a much larger audience.

Sounds to me like their nightmare scenario.

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Reluctant Acceptance

It isn’t necessarily easy being an atheist.

Sure, I don’t have to live in fear of a jealous deity who demands that I worship him (and only him) and abide by a series of completely arbitrary and historically bigoted rules.  I also don’t have to attend a weekly service that can bore me to tears while listening to excerpts from a book that might as well be Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  I have the privilege of thinking and saying whatever I want without fear of reprisal in the cosmic waiting room that awaits me after I die, nor do I have to suffer my entire life with a perennial guilt that was attributed to me simply for being.

But while I am free from the manacles of religious life, it doesn’t mean I can live a blissful, libertine life.  I am drawn to a quote by comedian and celebrity oaf, Adam Carolla:

“I am not agnostic. I am atheist. I don’t think there is no God; I know there’s no God. I know there’s no God the same way I know many other laws in our universe. I know there’s no God and I know most of the world knows that as well. They just won’t admit it because there’s another thing they know. They know they’re going to die and it freaks them out. So most people don’t have the courage to admit there’s no God and they know it. They feel it. They try to suppress it. And if you bring it up they get angry because it freaks them out.”

The truth is, the idea that absolutely nothing happens when I die freaks me out as well.  Granted, I won’t interpret it as “nothing” because I won’t be there to experience what happens after death – I won’t have any faculties of interpretation, so I won’t be able to “live” the moment.  Things don’t stop either, because that is also a subjective experience.  I will simply cease to be.

While that might sound comforting, it really isn’t.  I’ve always thought, and continue to think, that being an atheist makes life much more meaningful.  Atheists don’t live for the next life, we don’t suffer through hardship deliberately in order to “earn” a better life afterward.  The lyrics of an Abandoned Pools song fit very appropriately with this ethos:

“This is all we have, life seems so much better
Life seems so much deeper and not a chore.”
- “Lethal Killers”

I keep coming back to the idea of heaven, the afterlife, or resurrection.  I can see why they are so popular and widespread.  Sometimes life just sucks, be it because you had a bad day or were dealt a bad hand.  Our desire to hope against all reason and logic that we simply have to bite the bullet to earn a better life later is very attractive.  Death isn’t the end, but the start of another cycle.

If only.

Without concrete proof of what happens, there’s no reason to assume that there’s anything past the last breath.  If you believe this, nay, if you simply don’t buy every single contrived fable, then your life is over when it’s over.  That’s it.

For me, it’d be amazing to believe otherwise, that I’ll be treated to a fancy party with all my friends and dead pets, and that I’ll be able to do anything forever, basking in an effulgent paradise.  But I can’t.  My faculties for reason and logic prevent me from simply buying that.  It’s like when I hear someone deny that global climate change is anthropogenic.  I would love it if that were true, and would breathe a room-clearing sigh of relief upon hearing that it’s all going to be okay.

But I can’t.  As fuzzy as it might make me feel inside, I can’t just abandon everything I’ve learned about the world around me and simply believe in it.

I can’t call belief in heaven “willful ignorance” because it’s not a deliberate lack of knowledge, but rather the total confidence of fabricated knowledge – knowing fully something that you really don’t know and can’t possibly know.  I’m inclined to call my position “reluctant acceptance.”  Given what we know and what we can know, the most likely scenario is simply that it’s over at the end.

There is such thing as believing for personal assurance that something happens, in order to avoid a panic attack as your 80s approach.  After all, when the lights go out, your consciousness won’t be around to be disappointed when heaven or god fail to materialize with that party you’ve always wanted.  Why not spend the last days, hours and minutes of your life planning your fashionable entrance?  Maybe our brains will slow down time, slower and slower until microseconds feel like eternity.  The world will freeze to a catatonic state while we dance in our minds for what will feel like decades.

Maybe.

But there’s no reason to think that will happen.

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Inherit the Earth, at the Price of Hell

A few years ago, a close member of my family died.  The details aren’t important, but we can say she passed away due to complications stemming from old age.  The mass held in her memory was in a local church, and before the actual ceremony began, everyone in her family had arrived in black clothing, mourning yet content to be with family.  It wouldn’t be until the actual services began that the true solemn pall would overtake everyone’s countenance.

I sat in the back row, paying my respects to her family.  I was there for them, and my wife, as the deceased was her grandmother.  I grew to like the family’s matriarch and all her geriatric charms.  She was goofy, sharp and very inviting.  She was the kind of woman who made you feel like a cherished member of the family just minutes into your first conversation.  But she was gone.  Any ideas of “what she would have wanted” didn’t cross my mind.  I was attending the services out of solidarity for her children and grandchildren.  I didn’t sing, kneel or pray, but I attended and behaved appropriately.

After the ceremony, a close friend came to me and asked, “You must have hated that part where everyone shakes hands.”

“Actually,” I replied, “that’s my favorite part of all of this.  Everyone smiles at each other, strangers become brief friends, well wishes are exchanged and the process repeats itself two or three more times with completely new people.  It’s actually a nice gesture, so I can’t complain.”

What I didn’t like at all was when the priest began talking about the recently deceased’s new life in heaven, which led to a sermon on how “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  This passage, from the Gospel of Matthew, I told my friend, was vile.

The very word “meek” suggests someone who is calm and docile.  But it also has connotations of submission and genuflection.  Merriam-Webster adds that it characterizes someone who does not “want to fight or argue with other people.”  A meek people simply live their lives to themselves and strive to avoid conflict.  Iconoclasts and rebels aren’t meek, they take action and fight to improve themselves or their families and peer groups.  So why is it that the meek will inherit the earth?

While I will entertain the notion that somewhere along the millennia, the game of Telephone called “The Bible” may have strayed from whatever original meaning “meek” was supposed to have, let’s assume it hasn’t changed dramatically.  So let’s imagine that you are a rich, kingly ruler whose denizens are largely poor and unhappy with living in squalor.  You could tell them to work hard and that their efforts will pay off.  But what if they don’t?  What if you’re wrong?  What if the monarchy in which you were privileged to be born is so entrenched and protected by strict social norms that the citizenry’s quality of life never improves?

What if more than one person among the thousands decide to change the status quo?  They could decide to question the system, which benefits the few at the expense of the many, stir the emotions of their peers and lead a revolution of both arms and ideas against the establishment.

How do you stop something like that?  I can’t imagine that simply telling everyone that indigence will somehow pay off for them eventually if they do nothing will work.  Hunger requires food, disease requires treatment, moral abasement requires purpose and fulfillment.  How can you make everyone forget about these necessities?

And that’s the genius of appealing to “the meek.”  Instead of actually helping them out, the powers that be would simply offer that their miserable lives here on earth will reap dividends “later,” in another world that no one can possibly prove exists.  Just wait until you die, and then you’ll be housed in a beautiful marble palace, draped in the finest silks, surrounded by your loving family, all healthy and practically stuffed with boundless nourishment.

But not now, that comes later.  Just be a nice person, don’t ruffle any feathers, and wait it out.  You’ll see.

It’s been suggested by many studies that poorer countries have more religious populations.  It shouldn’t be surprising that someone born into misery will have no recourse to deal with everyday suffering than to assume a scheming god has put them on the earth to somehow prove their worth.  With such passages holding them in place, they might feel like it’s their purpose to simply do nothing and depart this earth as soon as possible.  What better way to control people than to convince them that they shouldn’t lift a finger to solve their problems?

It should read: “Blessed are the ignorant and sycophantic, for they will suffer happily in hopes of a big party that no one has ever attended.”

It’s despicable.

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Ham on Nye, Part 2: Beyond Survival

“Apex Predator” is the term given to an animal who has risen to the top of the food chain in its habitat.  Lions and sharks have earned the right, over millions of years, to no longer worry about being eaten.  Instead, their main concern is simply eating.  Because of this, they are not invincible.  A wounded lion will find it hard to kill a gazelle, much like a finned shark would soon starve.

However, we humans are different.  Not only are we the undisputed apex predator of every habitat that we colonize, the vast majority of us don’t have to worry about finding food.  Whereas the strongest tiger has an advantage over a smaller one, our social order and grasp of technology has made it so we don’t need to worry about out-running predators or gathering berries for our next meal.

In other words, the average person has outgrown the survival instinct.  Our daily lives are filled with less dire concerns: whether to buy the cereal high in fiber, should we use money to pay off the mortgage or improve the house, should we take a cab when a bus would be cheaper?

But for millions of years, we most definitely were preoccupied with simply surviving.  No meal was guaranteed and we were most assuredly competing with various other animals for kills.  This brings me to my second problem with the debate between Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, and Bill Nye, popular science advocate and personality.  While substantial, it didn’t venture into the sticky concept of describing man as an animal, albeit a highly intelligent and advanced one.

Creationists (and to a significant degree, religious people in general) see man as completely apart from nature.  For god, man was his magnum opus, the best possible creation, higher in order than all other beasts on the planet.  However, science says differently.  While humanity is certainly extraordinary in its grasp of the universe, in its wielding of tools to create unbelievably impressive machines, we are still mammals.  Despite our sophistication, we are drawn by base instincts, such as survival, consumption and procreation.

However, for many of us, we no longer have to contend with being eaten by wild beasts.  How does this affect the debate?

One of Ham’s slides showed a grim picture with words like “death” and “disease” written in intimidating, red font.  He had created it to suggest that if science were correct and man had indeed evolved over millions of years to his current state, then we would have to accept that during that time, millions of people died because of diseases, conflict, famine and other such staples of the natural world.  In another revelatory moment of obstinacy, Ham simply refused to believe that could be the case.  Because why would god allow so much rampant death?

Because that’s simply the natural order of things.  Anyone who watches the acclaimed Planet Earth series would soon learn that predators usually target the young, the wounded or the old.  They’re easier targets that require less effort to take down.  It’s simple bio-mechanics and efficiency.  They may look adorable to us, and the idea of murdering children is horrifying in almost any culture, but that’s simply the real world.  We have evolved to a point where we no longer have to worry about avoiding death at the hands of other creatures.  But for every other species out there below the apex, that’s a daily struggle.

From the top of the food pyramid, all suffering seems cruel and meaningless.  But unfortunately, that’s just the way the universe works and we have been fortunate enough to rise above it.

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Ham on Nye, Part 1: The Veracity of the Past

A few days ago, I watched the already-famous, spirited debate between Bill “The Science Guy” Nye and Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Kentucky (click here to watch).  As the debate was hosted by the Creation Museum of which Ham is the main proprietor, I would have guessed that the deck was stacked against Mr. Nye.  In fact, several journalists had argued that Nye had lost the debate simply by showing up.

The debate lasted over two hours, which was very much appreciated.  A topic, which asks if creationism is a viable model for the explanation of the world and its origins, has so many angles and themes that it requires a long time to discuss.  The fact that each presenter was given thirty uninterrupted minutes to map out his central thesis and supporting claims was fascinating.  We live in a society where media outlets give potential candidates vying for the most powerful seat on the planet only two to five minutes to state their case, with a measly thirty seconds for rebuttals.

A lot was discussed.  Ken Ham posited that all of science is misleading because scientists conflate observational or experimental science with historical science.  The latter is meant to describe all inferences that scientists make about what happened thousands, millions and billions of years ago based on models created in the last few centuries.  While Nye noted that this distinction exists nowhere except in Ham’s head, it’s worth remembering that this is the singular crux of Ham’s argument (besides, of course, the infallibility of the Bible as many things, including being a “scientific” text).

Bill Nye was his adorable self as usual, gushing with enthusiasm.  His passion for science was embodied by a metaphor that he repeated: if you’re in love, you want to tell the world.  His signature bow-tie was present along with his often wacky gesticulations, silly anecdotes and even a joke or two.  But these idiosyncrasies didn’t get in the way of his unrelenting push for science education, which is certainly jeopardized by creationism muscling its way into public school classrooms.

But my main issue with the debate was that Bill Nye, for all his vast knowledge of the scientific process and its discoveries, was just too nice.  Of course, he had to be.  He was in the lion’s den with what I can only assume was his faithful pride giving him a shot at possibly changing their minds.  I’d compare the act to attempting to knock down a salt pillar with a fly swatter – you might do it eventually, but each swat does nothing and you’ll just tire yourself out in the end.  But you have give him credit (and love him) for trying.

I’m not saying Nye should have been mean, condescending or disparaging.  That wouldn’t be in his nature, it would set back the cause and only further antagonize scientists in the eyes of the creationist flock.  But so often, Ham would resort to the Bible as his only explanation, citing an ancient text not written by scientists for an explanation of the infinitely complex world that surrounds us.  Not only does it contradict his assertion that we cannot explain or describe what we did not witness (as he was not present when the Bible was written or when the Flood happened).  But we do have hieroglyphs that pre-date the Flood, if it had happened when Ham claims – do those not count?

This is where someone else, perhaps a Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens, might have played a risky card.  Nye was simply too polite and cordial every time Ham brought up an apocryphal explanation for a natural phenomenon or spoke down to Nye with patronizing pity while offering that there actually is an explanation for atoms and the cosmos, and it’s written in a book (maybe you’ve heard of it?).

Harris or Hitchens would have taken the bait, probably to their detriment.  They might have asked Ham why he disregards such methods as carbon dating or radioactive decay when something as ancient as the Bible is beyond scrutiny.  They might have asked why he doesn’t bother entertaining the rich histories of ancient cultures that would have gotten swept away in Noah’s flood.

The issue is, Nye did start to ask some of these questions but the hesitance in his voice toward the end of each question suggests that he dialed back the skepticism.  Precisely because he’s such a good steward of education, he kept all of his questions and comments civil.  But the real question he was probably asking to himself was, how can you base all of your knowledge of the world on something that can’t be proven?  No one can prove god is real, or that the Bible was channeled divinely from heaven to a mortal interlocutor.  Ham simply insists that it is.  It’s extremely likely that his entire worldview is based on the whims of radicals who died thousands of years ago.

However, some might argue that delving into the existence of god would have been outside the scope of the debate.  Even though the question posed at the start asked about creationism, which is inseparable from belief in the Judeo-Christian god, I can see why Nye kept the discussion from tumbling down that deep, dark rabbit hole.

But if that weren’t frustrating enough, equally infuriating was a question sourced from the audience.  It asked both presenters whether there was anything that would get them to change their minds.  Nye was frank, asserting that if credible evidence surfaced for something long thought to be an established scientific fact, he’d change his thinking in a heartbeat.  I said the same thing in a previous post about the sudden appearance of a deity.  Ham, however, was not as open-minded.  He revealed the true problem with creationism and its followers: complete and total intransigence.  He literally said that nothing would get him to think otherwise.  In fact, his exact words were:

“I’m a Christian, and as a Christian, I can’t prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word, and he has shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that the bible s the word of God.  I admit that that is where I start from … no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of god is not true.”  (There was a lot more fluff in between, largely imploring people to read the Bible and to see for themselves).

No one, nothing, ever.

A more vocal and aggressive debater would have pounced on this.  It exposed Ham’s hypocrisy for claiming that schools do not teach students to think critically, instead indoctrinating them with the “religion” of secularism by teaching evolution as a fact.  Critical thinking involves taking new information and examining it from multiple angles, possibly allowing for a re-evaluation of your position on a theme.  But if you are completely rooted in the infallibility of a religious tome and plan to use it to explain everything from the origins of the universe to why Japanese salamanders no longer have eyes, then how can you possibly claim that you are thinking critically?  

But that question was not asked during the debate … except by me, yelling loudly at my monitor.

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The unbending staunchness of belief

One of the most frustrating parts about being an atheist (of which there are thankfully very few) is the futility in discussing your points of view with those whose minds you’d most like to change.  Belief and faith are so pervasive that if a believer exhibits the slightest move towards skepticism, his or her brain will spark feelings of guilt or treason.  The idea that god is ever-watchful keeps the vast majority of religious adherents from challenging their beliefs.

However, as an atheist, I am not bound by my worldview to think in such a restricted fashion.  If the clouds were to part and a large, celestial superbeing were to emerge, defy the laws of physics and perform wondrous feats as to defy imagination, then I would have to reevaluate how I view and perceive the world (but first, I’d obviously have to prove that I’m not dreaming and in a sober state of mind).

But such a cosmic encounter has never happened.  If it ever did, and I determined that I was in a fit state of mind and we had ruled out that these towering astral beings were not extra-terrestrials with their own biology and evolution but in fact, supernatural gods, then what choice do I have left?  I can’t simply put my head in the sand, close my ears and spit out “no, this isn’t happening, gods don’t exist” to the plain, unmistakable evidence before me.  With all other explanations rendered unreliable or false, especially in the wake of such convincing evidence, I would have to stubbornly genuflect to my new deities.

The converse doesn’t happen because we can’t prove non-existence.  The argument by burden of proof has been sung ad nauseum, but it still doesn’t stick in the minds of acolytes.  Adherents believe that the onus is on atheists as non-believers to disprove god or somehow prove his non-existence.  That is the fundamental obstacle that any atheist faces when attempting to communicate the lifestyle absent from belief and religion.  It’s a primer for atheism but it’s a very simple argument that bears repeating in two different ways:

One popular comparison is the idea of a tea kettle orbiting the planet Saturn.  I could tell you that buried within the planet’s iconic rings is a tea kettle, orbiting amongst the rocks.  Prior to learning this from me, you had no idea that somehow, despite its implausibility, a manmade kettle had made its way into Saturn’s orbit.  At this point, it’s up to me to prove to you that I’m correct, or at least provide you with enough compelling evidence to convince you of this wondrous kitchenware’s existence.  I would hope that you would call my bluff or simply hold off your decision to believe me after I simply insist that it exists.  In other words, the responsibility is on me to prove it instead of demanding that you disprove it.

The second comparison involves Santa Claus.  Up until we turned 11 (or sooner for those of us with older, craftier friends), we believed that there was a fat, bearded man dressed in red robes who would squeeze down our chimneys and munificently bring us all sorts of gifts and surprises.  Some of us actually saw him, though he’d usually enter and leave through the front door.  But the gifts (and sometimes even the belly and beard) were real.  True, we never saw the sleigh or the gravity-defying woodland creatures that he employed, but we saw just enough to believe in the entire myth.

But there did come a time when the story was dispelled by someone, either our friends, movies or in some sadistic cases, our own parents.  Belief in Santa Claus only goes so far.  Once we were old enough, we laughed at how preposterous it was.  Popular movies have given creative explanations for how one person might be able to distribute toys to every single child-filled household in the world, but ultimately it’s all fantasy.  We know that because it’s almost a rite of passage for children in the western world, tantamount to losing a significant piece of one’s innocence.  But losing belief in Santa happens to almost everyone because at some point we all realize the truth: mall Santas are everyday people with white beards and an hourly wage, the guy who paid a surprise visit to your home on Christmas Eve was your fun-loving uncle and all the presents were bought ahead of time by your parents.

So why is it that when someone tells us that god isn’t real, we are so reluctant to entertain the idea?

It’s because the idea of god has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s near impossible for many people to abandon it.  The most popular films regularly invoke god, chart-topping singles routinely invoke a spiritual power and even our daily colloquialisms are peppered with references to the almighty (even I say “Oh god” or “Jesus Christ” with regularity).  Even if you were brought up by atheist parents, the language of god is everywhere, allowing for few exit options in the minds of the religious.

All of this leaves the question open: what would cause a believer to change his or her mind?  I’m open to ideas.

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The Hatred of Belief

You won’t often hear about atheists who want to kill believers for the sake of their beliefs alone.  But ask for the opposite situation and you will find yourself with an unbearably heavy stack of cases.  This recently published document shows the vast spectrum of discrimination, hate and outright state-sanctioned execution that non-believers face throughout the world.  It’s a hideous zeitgeist and I would hope that a more advanced alien race would find it sickening upon arrival.

The report, which includes a breakdown by region and country, can be read here.

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