I realise I commit the blogging suicide of abandoning posting completely in infrequent spurts and then returning to also infrequent spurts of posting but writing is a craft of pleasure for me and if at least one other person enjoys it, it will have been worth it.
So in the spirit of recapping the ethos of the Gospel of Reason, I’d like to take a couple of words to address an all too frequent complaint about atheism.
How can you believe in nothing?
I’ve heard more than once that I have a god-shaped hole in my heart. My physician begs to differ, he seemed to be quite happy with a routine check-up and I don’t seem to have any sort of abnormal cavities in my heart which I should otherwise need filling, presumably at the religious equivalent of a dentist.
Do atheists really believe in nothing? I find it hard to answer for all atheists and this is because it’s a position which shouldn’t really exist at all. Atheism is the default metaphysical position. When someone says “The Universe was created by turtles” or “Yahweh made everything in 6 days” or other such nonsense, the default position is one of scepticism, and rightly so. Although, as human animals, evolution has ingrained in us a predisposition to obey authority at an early age (in order to breeze past the learning process which would otherwise take far too long to be practical for survival), a sign of intellectual maturity is the ability to process outlandish claims and decide on merit whether they are worth believing in. Some people’s standards for evidence are clearly lower than others’, and some people only have the semblance of a standard for evidence to stand in front of an intellectual absolutism that wouldn’t budge if an asteroid hit it.
It’s quite patently obvious that religion is a man-made construct. I don’t think any religious person would deny this – it was up to humans to develop the doctrines and ideas of all the major religions, with no exception. Whether Moses was divinely inspired or not, someone had to put it into paper and decide what a ‘burning bush’ meant.
Religion is quite clearly a post-script in the development of the human mind. Although I agree that humans are predisposed by nature to the kind of social organisation and existential absolutism that religion provides, it doesn’t make religion any less man-made than, say, buildings. Lest we get too comfortable with religion being ingrained in humans, it bears clarifying that humans are predisposed to belonging to a tribe, to receiving absolute truth at an early age and, with the mixed blessing of Consciousness, with existentialism, an awareness of self and of the short duration of life. These roles are fulfilled (inadequately) by religion but fulfilled they are nonetheless for believers. Such abstract guidelines could just as easily be fulfilled with xenophobic tribalism (perhaps religion is just that?).
So for any person to be involved in a religion, for the most part it seems that said person has to be born in it. Conversions and migrations obviously change the conditions but in a wide brush stroke, people are generally born into the religion they later accept. For all the notion that abstract concepts of religious behaviour are ingrained in humans, this is not the case with revealed knowledge.
Revealed Knowledge is by definition unique to only one person. Only Moses knew what he saw (or imagined to see) and everyone else had to take his word for it.
Such Knowledge is what forms the cornerstone of every major religion. Sophisticated theologians will go on about higher intelligences and nonsense about the constants of Physics but to the everyday congregation, the fire and brimstone of hell is as real as the ground beneath the pulpit.
Where does atheism come in?
Like I said before, atheism is merely a default position. To speak of my own case, my worldview is purely natural. The world around us, a product of immense natural forces, the magnitude of which our puny minds have difficulty to scale with. Life, a product of the elegant and ruthless forces of evolution through natural selection, the only possible explanation for the gradual sophistication of complex life-forms on Earth. If there are no gods it’s because there’s no space left. Atheism is as useless a term as A-Zeusism or A-Odinism. This is, of course, is my own personal case, because the most basic requirement for the label ‘atheism’ is the simple lack of a supernatural intelligence higher than human beings, not the denial of one (although lack implies denial if a question is asked).
But it exists nonetheless because, throughout history, the struggle of religion has been one of controlling and acquiring minds. People who saw through the transparently false and unprovable assertions were not necessarily people rejecting one religion more than any other, but people who did not see a natural world with the supernatural stapled on the side. Atheism is a useless label but it’s necessary. It’s the default state of the metaphysical.
You may not agree with this but it’s quite obvious too:
Babies are born atheists.
A blank slate, a fresh mind, ready to absorb knowledge and eager to explore the world around it. I don’t wish to offend any parents, but the mind of a 2 year old is very limited indeed, at least compared to the extent of its full adult potential. It can barely walk and might not even have the capacity for producing language – how could you possibly expect a baby to know about something as complicated as a deity when it can’t even spell out the alphabet from A to Zed?
This example illustrates my point most dramatically, I think. This is not to say that atheists have baby-like minds, which is a trap just waiting to be sprung by sadistic butchers of the English language. It means that atheism is a position which exists by default.
A baby only acquires a religion through education. If you didn’t speak a word to them about the Bible and gave them one at the age of 18, the college-age adult would in all probability wonder what the authors were smoking (and perhaps where they might procure some). The ravaging genocides of the Mosaic period, the party tricks of the Messiah and the spectacular hallucinations of Revelations are all so patently man-made, the young adult would have to have a very low self-esteem to believe any of it.
This means that religions are only acquired through education. Since, as stated before, our minds are primed for accepting truths from a position of authority, anything a parent or religious figure says that the child is told to obey, will sink in harder and deeper than later in life. Not in vain do Jesuits ask you to “give us your child so that we may give you a man”.
Atheists don’t have a god-shaped hole in their hearts any more than fresh minds do.
Religion is the one impaling a god-shaped thorn in infants’ hearts instead.