Saturday, June 1, 2019

From Atheist to Anti-theist

Though I’ve been an atheist for a while, and have several books on the subject, they haven’t been pressing in terms of things I’ve felt compelled to read. As Richard Dawkins said in one of his TED talks, his words for me, as someone who has already rejected the fantasy of religion, is like preaching to the choir. But the other day I was watching various debates and presentations by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and I stumbled upon a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland from 2013 that included Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist and cosmologist—sort of the Canadian Neil deGrasse Tyson—and suddenly a whole lot of things that I had known of and understood in isolation suddenly came together in a way I had never considered before. The first thing that struck me in his comments was something that I have known for a long time to be true: “When you base your beliefs and actions on myths that are incorrect, you’re inevitably going to take irrational actions.” That is not only obvious but extremely bothersome for me, especially when it takes place in the kind of interconnected world we live in now. It’s also at the heart of one of my favorite essays of all time, John Erskine’s “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent” from 1914. Taking irrational actions in today’s world is not only going to have a negative effect on the people making them, but a negative effect on the rest of us as well—we only have to look at the utter disaster that the White House has become to see that—and therefore we have an obligation to the rest of mankind not to remain ignorant.

But then, the thing that hit me like a thunderbolt is when Krauss said, “I don’t define myself as an atheist. I define myself as an anti-theist.” He had taken that stance from Christopher Hitchens and so he didn’t go on to explore the distinction in quite the way I would have liked, but it nevertheless caused a bunch of things that I had heard and read in recent years come into sharper focus. The way I see things now, it’s not enough to simply say that one doesn’t believe in the fantasy of religious mythology; you also have to say, in the most vehement way possible, that others are wrong for believing it. As Krauss went on to point out, “The doctrines of religion are outdated, and that’s for good reason. They were created by Iron Age peasants who didn’t even know the earth orbited the sun. So the wisdom in those books is not wisdom at all.” And yet people everywhere on the planet are acting on that very lack of wisdom in the mistaken belief that it is somehow divine in origin—without a shred of evidence to support that claim. Going back even further than Erskine, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” And religion is the most frightful ignorance of all. One of the many proofs of the absence of wisdom that their holy book supposedly provides them, is the lack of any kind of rational argument as to why anyone should believe in an imaginary deity, and why anything that religion purports to provide can’t be obtained infinitely better through reason and intellect.

In atheist circles this is a given. There are simply no valid arguments for a belief in mythology over rationality. What is so dangerous, however, is the inability of believers to understand that their arguments not only fail to persuade, they are invalid to begin with. But rather than using their intellect to extricate themselves from a world of ignorance and blind obedience, they instead retrench and become even more convinced of their own righteousness. As Richard Dawkins explains, “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature.” One particular circular argument, that because people have believed in Christian mythology for two thousand years then it must be true, isn’t an argument at all. People no doubt believed the earth was flat, or that the sun revolved around the earth, for tens of thousands of years and yet both of those ideas have been demonstrated to be patently false—just like religious mythology. The fact that people believed in all of those things doesn’t prove the legitimacy of the ideas, but more accurately represents a flaw in human genetics and socialization, as Krauss also relates.

          Religion has pervaded all of human society throughout all of human history. There’s clearly something
          ingrained, either in an evolutionary sense or a neurophysiological sense, in the need to believe in
          something bigger than ourselves. And to deny that is to deny the evidence of reality. But just because
          we all share that doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means that we have an ingrained need to believe that.
          So I think the recognition that religious belief is universal is really important to understand if you want
          to understand human beings. Xenophobia is ingrained in biological systems, in and out systems, us
          versus you. All of these things have a sound evolutionary basis, but if we want to be a human society
          and work together, we have to understand that basis so we can move beyond it.

Unfortunately, religion tends to solidify the “us versus you” mentality to a frightening degree. Rather than moving beyond it, the idea is actually the very foundation of all three Judeo-Christian religions that dominate the world today. And this is the area of thought where Krauss’s science based observations sort of end and Sam Harris’s slightly more philosophical arguments begin. For Harris, this intractability on the part of religion is what proves it to be a menace to human society. “While all faiths have been touched, here and there,” he states in his book, The End of Faith, “by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed . . . We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man.” One of the many ironies associated with religious belief, is the apparent sacredness of life when it is in the womb, and yet the complete denigration of that life when it begins thinking for itself—especially when it thinks something different. The certainty of a life beyond this one leads religious followers of all kinds to perform utterly barbaric acts in the name of their god. But that only makes sense, as Harris relates: “Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.” This is the primary argument that Christopher Hitchens had with the Muslim world, and one that is still valid. Richard Dawkins went on record in 2015 as saying “Islam is one of the great evils of the world today.”

This assertion is demonstrably true, and without going anywhere near something as definitive as the 9/11 attacks. Their treatment of women, children, homosexuals, other ethnicities and other religions is positively medieval—because it is. The Islamic religion hasn’t changed its core system of beliefs since its beginning over a thousand years ago. It would be the same thing as if Christians and Jews today still practiced stoning and slavery and ritual sacrifice. And yet Dawkins also understands the consequences of attempting to expose believers to the ignorance of religious dogma and their blind adherence to it, as he related in a 2016 discussion with Krauss in Vancouver. “I don’t think we want to go around telling people they’re idiots, not in so many words. But so many people will think you’re saying that if you criticize what they believe, because it’s as if their beliefs are part of them.” A similar idea came up at another discussion Krauss had with Noam Chomsky in 2015, he brought up Chomsky’s argument that intellectuals in society have an obligation to that society to expose lies and tell the truth. In the context of Chomsky’s career as a political activist, this imperative is usually confined to that sphere of life. So Krauss went ahead and asked him the natural question. “If you go back to your argument about the responsibility of intellectuals—which is to expose lies—is it not, therefore, our responsibility to expose religious lies?” Chomsky took the pragmatic view, one that relies solely on a person’s actions: if a person’s religion causes them to do bad things, then the lie of their religion must be exposed. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, this kind of tolerance no longer works, and in fact, is actually one of the most insidious aspects of our society today. This is the point of both Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith, as well as Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Harris makes the necessary distinction between religious moderates and extremists, but where the danger from extremists is obvious the concurrent danger of toleration has been completely ignored. “Religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of another. [But] the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” The main problem is that the very idea of religion is antithetical to religious pluralism. “As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly ‘respect’ the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now.” Christopher Hitchens, in his book, enumerated the various ways in which religious toleration has turned back on its proponents, none more absurd than the following:

          Empty-headed multiculturalism . . . ensur[ed] the distribution of cheap and mass-produced Saudi
          editions of the Koran, for use in America’s prison system. These Wahhabi texts went even further
          than the original in recommending holy war against all Christians and Jews and secularists. To ob-
          serve all this was to witness a kind of cultural suicide: an ‘assisted suicide’ at which believers and
          unbelievers were both prepared to officiate.

Even Christian apologist Chris Hedges, in a 2010 lecture in Toronto promoting his book Death of the Liberal Class, was prophetic in the way that he articulated the idea that, beyond the obvious reality that the Muslim religion is a danger to society from without, toleration for Christianity no matter what form it takes is the biggest danger from within.

          One of the great failings of the church is that, with the rise of the Christian right—which I look at
          as a mass movement, not a religious movement, a group of Christian heretics, people who have
          acculturated the worst aspects of capitalism, imperialism, greed, chauvinism, and racism into the
          Christian religion-—the liberal church remained silent and said nothing . . . In the process they
          have surrendered their moral authority. They have nothing left to say to us.

It’s clear that this way of thinking comes from the very American idea that in limiting someone else’s freedom, we can inadvertently wind up limiting our own. But the problem in using this idea to support religious toleration is that the result winds up being exactly the opposite. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris makes the attempt to convey this idea directly to the bulk of the religiously deceived in this country. “It is my hope . . . that [the Christian right] will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths.” Harris also points out that religious tolerance leads quite naturally to the dangerous belief that all religions are equal, when they’re clearly not. In a lecture about The End of Faith from 2005, Harris goes on to say that, “Religious moderation prevents us from even noticing the differences among our religions. Under cover of this respect, we are now powerless to say the very harsh and necessary things about religious extremism that we need to say because it is taboo, [because] you have to respect faith. [And yet] by no stretch of the imagination can you argue that the core principal of Islam is non-violence.” The reality is, even though you can argue that the core principal of Christianity is non-violence, the history of Christianity is filled with senseless bloodshed. And as we in the United States know from personal experience, the violence propagated by Islam is just as great. “We are at war,” says Harris, “with Islamic fundamentalism.”

Noam Chomsky, at least, seems to understand that you can’t separate a person’s beliefs from the person themselves. But that is not the case for moderate Christians who plead for religious toleration in the mistaken belief that religion itself is good while only individuals are to blame for their bad actions. Nothing is more emblematic of this faulty logic than Ben Affleck’s pathetic appearance on Bill Maher. Affleck was nearly apoplectic at the suggestion that Islam is a bad religion, for the simple fact that there are “good Muslims.” What he completely failed to understand, however, is that the very phrase “bad religion” is itself redundant. Nothing good can come from people shutting down their minds and refusing to think, and then acting on that ignorance. One of the best rhetorical devices for exposing erroneous thinking is to take a person’s belief—in this case that only the actions of individuals should be considered, not the belief system behind it that causes their actions—and apply it to another situation. Take a family who has a sick child, suffering in torment. But instead of taking the child to the doctor or a hospital, they pray over the child until it finally succumbs to something that could have been cured with modern medicine. Would Affleck think that’s a good thing? I doubt it. Further, would he really believe that it is only those isolated parents who are to blame, or is the real culprit the Christian Science indoctrination that led them to falsely believe that prayer alone could cure their child? Just last year Matt Dillahunty had a terrific take on the death of Billy Graham that demonstrates this very point. “When Billy Graham died the other day I wasn’t glad that he was dead because he was an enemy, I was happy that he was no longer alive to poison minds, because what he believes is the enemy.”

The problem isn’t with people in the first place, and never has been, which seems to be a major sticking point for Affleck and others like him that they can’t seem to get past. The real problem lies in a belief system based on magical thinking and supernatural superstition that forces people to suspend intelligent thought. The people themselves aren’t bad, but their beliefs are no matter how they behave, and Affleck was unable to make that distinction. This is another point that Lawrence Krauss made at the economic forum. “I agree with you completely, that you can’t condemn a whole population because of some individual. But the difference is, there are no rule makers in science.” At this point Krauss heads in another direction, but in his book The Greatest Story Every Told—So Far, he completes the thought in a more succinct way. “In science the very word sacred is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass.” But this is not the case in religion, in which words and ideas are said to be above reproach, above questioning, and to be taken on faith as absolutely true. And the only reason this seems to work is because for so many people their indoctrination begins well before the age of reason. How ironic in our society that children are not assumed to be intellectually capable of consenting to sex until they are eighteen, and yet from the time they are born they are brainwashed into believing in the fantasy of religion. As Dawkins says in The God Delusion, “I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear the phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child’ . . . children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.”

And this leads, quite naturally, to the inability of people who have been indoctrinated as children to think as adults, Christians who think and believe in things that are for the most part indistinguishable from their Islamic brethren. Again, Sam Harris weighs in:

          Another problem with religious moderation is that it is intellectually bankrupt. It really represents a
          fundamentally unprincipled use of reason. I’ve got news for you. I’ve read the books, and God is
          not a moderate. These books really are engines of fundamentalism; they are engines of intolerance;
          [they] laid the foundations for the Inquisition. This is not an accident. We have this idea that the fact
          that we were burning heretics alive for five centuries in Europe represented some kind of departure,
          a civilizational departure into psychopathology. It didn’t. It is perfectly reasonable to do this, if you
          believe the books.

This way of thinking, of course, is in direct opposition to scientific inquiry. “The problem with faith,” Harris continues, “is that it’s conversation stopper. You hear religious people say things like, ‘There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.’ Just imagine that said in medicine. Only a willingness to take on and consider new evidence and new argument guarantees that this human collaboration is open ended,” rather than ending in war and death. In a 2012 discussion with Richard Dawkins in Australia, Lawrence Krauss had this to say about the vast difference between the kind of close-minded lack of thinking exhibited by religious adherents, and the scientific experience. “Science changes what we mean by words, and it changes what we mean because we actually learn about the Universe. We actually make progress in science, unlike theology. That’s because we can be wrong, and we can learn.” A year later in Switzerland Krauss gave a more specific example of what it really means to learn. “What scientists hope for, and what science does for us, and what I hope every student and every person experiences once in their life, is to have something they deeply believe in, that’s at the heart of their being, and without it they wouldn’t feel they’re human, proved to be wrong. It happens to me every day as a scientist and that opens your mind.” As author Aron Ra says in his book Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism, “I would rather spend my life learning than pretending to be learned.”

This actually happened to me the other day, and Lawrence Krauss was absolutely right: it has been one of the most exhilarating things I have ever experienced in my life. It wasn’t even something that I was particularly attached to, and yet it was still intellectually overwhelming. Science historian James Burke called one of his programs The Day The Universe Changed because of the way scientific discovery completely rearranges the way we see and understand the universe. And that’s just about the way I felt after listening to Richard Carrier discuss the historical reasons for making the claim that Jesus Christ never really existed. This was a bombshell for me. Despite the crazy claims and fictional stories rife in the New Testament, I never doubted for a moment that Jesus was a real man who lived in the first century and after his death was the center of a religious mythology that was gradually built up around him. And Carrier apparently felt the same way. “For a long time I thought this was a crackpot theory, that Jesus didn’t exist. The whole Jesus myth idea was nonsense and I thought I could easily refute it.” It turns out that upon closer examination Carrier became convinced—as I have—that the supposedly historical Jesus was actually a myth, one of dozens of mystery cults that operated in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time. This particular one mixed Judaic elements with a mythical Hellenic sky god who was killed and resurrected, then Euhemerized later and subsequently written about as if he were an actual man.

Of course Carrier’s research doesn’t “prove” anything, but that’s not the point. Just like the hard sciences, the goal isn’t to prove what’s true but to disprove what is false and then study the remainder. And Carrier’s latest book, On the Historicity of Jesus, spends seven hundred pages doing exactly that. What is left, then, is historical research that is convincing on its face. More compelling even than the lack of an obvious historical Jesus, is the abundance of similar mystery cults at the time as well as resurrection myths that predate Christianity and seem to explain quite convincingly the origins of the modern Jesus cult. Though Carrier is scrupulous in refusing to make a definitive statement that the historical Jesus never existed, it’s clear what his research demonstrates. He had previously debunked the Gospels and most of the New Testament, and add to that the fact that the title of his forthcoming book is Jesus from Outer Space, and it seems fairly clear where he stands on the subject. It was such an astounding revelation for me, especially in the way that it tends to put Christianity on a more even basis with other religious mythology. The Christian Jesus as a sky god who does battle with Satan in outer space, now seems every bit as crazy as Mormonism or Scientology . . . because it is. It has only been a massively successful PR campaign over the last two thousand years that has made it seem even slightly more rational . . . but it’s not.

In a previous post I wrote “If history has shown us anything, it is that the problems of today are ones that cannot be solved by religion, Christian or otherwise, and anyone who believes differently has bought into an even bigger fairy tale than the Bible.” While “faith” and a belief in magic and supernatural deities may have sustained man and served some kind of purpose centuries ago, it has clearly become a hindrance to modern society and needs to be stopped. Comedian Jim Jefferies has a terrific analogy to illustrate the problem—and from which I removed the profanity.

          If you’re religious, I’m sure some of you might be very nice, but you are slowing us down. We’re
          trying to move forward and you’re in the way, I’m sorry. Now, imagine that the world is a train track
          and society’s a train going forward. Now in this train we have the people in the engine room, running
          the show, and they’re the scientists. These are people inventing medicines for you to live longer and
          finding alternative fuel sources, and engineers making machines run more efficiently. Whether you
          like it or not, scientists are primarily atheists and they’re all in the front carriage dragging us along.
          Now in the second carriage we have the wishy-washy agnostics. They’re all standing around going,
          “Who knows?” Then there’s this last carriage that’s fifty times bigger than the first two carriages
          combined, with the rest of the human race dancing and going, “Man on a cloud, man on a cloud.”
          And there are so many of them that the train is hardly moving. And the people in the engine room
          are like this [looking down at the coupling], “If I just pull this peg here . . . Do you know how fast we’d
          be moving?”

Back in the World Economic Forum in 2013, Lawrence Krauss came up with a more pointed analogy when another panelist attempted to argue about the “importance” of religion: "The question isn’t, 'Is religion important?' because that’s an obvious thing. Religion is obviously important. So are nuclear weapons. The question is, 'Is religion outmoded, and are nuclear weapons outmoded, and would the world be a better place without them?' And the answer to both those is, yes. Neither of them, in the modern world, serve a productive purpose." Krauss inadvertently connects two things here that are much more serious than simply the lack of a productive purpose, because when religious people act on their ignorance with righteous indignation bad things result, especially if they involve nuclear weapons. The greatest physical threat to our society today is the possibility of a religious terrorist—of any stripe—who manages to obtain and set off a nuclear device. And it doesn’t even have to be a terrorist. Stephen King presented another scenario back in 1978 in his novel The Dead Zone when a psychotic Christian politician—redundant, I know—makes his way to the White House and starts World War Three. Ultimately it is the contempt for life on Earth—the only life that we can be sure we have—by those who believe in a divine afterlife, that is the most corrosive force in the world today. As Christopher Hitchens explains, “Something I find repulsive about monotheistic messianic religion is that a large part of it clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end . . . we will be with Jesus, and the rest of you can go straight to hell.” Finally, Hitchens expresses the real goal of anti-theism. “This belief in a supreme and unalterable tyranny is the oldest enemy of our species, the oldest enemy of our intellectual freedom and our moral autonomy, and must be met and must be challenged and must be overthrown.”

That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because atheism is not enough, as religious toleration has allowed religious extremism to grow and threaten our very way of life. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because religion is defined by its hatred and intolerance for the other, and has completely undermined and sabotaged the efforts toward peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the world. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because those who believe in the fantasy of an afterlife don’t care if they kill us all, and are actively working to achieve that end. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because in our modern world there is too much at stake to allow those who believe in myth and lies to control the lives of the rest of us. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because allowing irrationality to flourish unchecked is not conducive to a healthy society. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because a book written by people who had almost no scientific knowledge has absolutely no relevance to our lives today. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because totalistic belief systems shut down the willingness and ability of people to learn and grow. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because the uncritical belief and acceptance of lies like creationism threaten the very existence of life on this planet. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because the future of our world is going to depend on children who are being lied to and indoctrinated into an anti-intellectual belief system that will render them incapable of solving problems by discovering solutions that will be essential to their survival. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because people who believe in the fantasy of religious mythology deserve a better life and need to be awakened from their intellectual stupor. That is why I’m an anti-theist.

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