Thursday, May 28, 2009

P.Z. Myers for the Win

Every now and again I find a an aritcle or essay that captures the way I think almost perfectly but expresses the ideas so much better than I ever could. P.Z. Myers, biologist and one of my new-found heroes, has eloquently summed up my current position on religion.

In this piece, Myers responds to an earlier article by someone named Charlotte Allen. This woman sought to score points by bashing the atheists. I suppose she thought it would be fashionable, one of those "let's get the intellectuals" pieces.

Myers shuts her down nicely. Now I'll get out of the way and let Dr. Myers make the case.
Why Is Charlotte Allen So Mad At Atheists?
She says it's because we're boring. More likely, it's because we speak out against the intellectually bankrupt beliefs of religion.

Charlotte Allen is very, very angry with us atheists -- that's the only conclusion that can be drawn from her furious broadside in The Times on May 17. She can't stand us; we're unpopular; we're a problem. What, exactly, is the greatest crime of modern atheists?

We're boring.

I can't actually argue with that. It's true. We're all just ordinary people -- your neighbors, your friends, your relatives. I know atheists who are accountants, real estate agents, schoolteachers, lawyers, soldiers, journalists, even ministers (but don't tell their congregations!). Our leading lights are college professors, scientists, philosophers, theologians and other such pedantic, scholarly riffraff. For entertainment, they read books, and if they want to do something ambitious and dramatic, they write books. I'm one of them, so trust me, I know -- we don't exactly live the James Bond lifestyle. Calling us boring is a fair cop.

But still -- why would anyone get angry about that? I find myself bored witless by games of chance, but I don't write irate letters condemning all card players and demanding the immediate shuttering of all casinos. I'm afraid I don't believe Allen. There are other motivations behind her denunciations, and they aren't as simple as that she finds us boring.

She should drop the pretense that the objectionable part of our character is our lack of excitement. What really annoys Allen is that in our books, blogs and media appearances, we challenge religious preconceptions. That's all we do. It's admittedly not exactly a roller-coaster ride of thrills, but it does annoy the superstitious and the fervent true believers in things unseen and unevidenced. We are also, admittedly, often abrasive in being outspoken critics of religious dogma, but it's also very hard to restrain our laughter and contempt when we see the spectacle of god-belief in full flower.

We witness many people who proudly declare that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, roughly 9,000 years after the domestication of dogs, 5,000 years after the founding of Jericho and contemporaneous with the invention of the plow. They cling to these beliefs despite contradictions with history, let alone physics, geology and biology, because they believe the Bible is a literal history and science text. We find much to ridicule in these peculiarly unreal ideas.

We live in a world where the majority of the population are quite convinced that they have a direct pipeline to an omnipotent, omniscient being who has told them exactly how to live and what is right and wrong, and has spelled out his divine will in holy books. Unfortunately, there are many holy books, and they all disagree with each other, and of all these multitudes claiming possession of such a potent source of information, we similarly see widespread disagreement. This god seems to be an exceptionally unreliable oracle -- most of what he has supposedly said is wrong. We atheists do take glee in pointing out God's lack of consistency, which I'm sure Allen finds irritating.

Contrary to Allen's claim that we aren't interested in criticizing the important elements of religious belief, we are: We go right to the central issue of whether there is a god or not. We're pretty certain that if there were an all-powerful being pulling the strings and shaping history for the benefit of human beings, the universe would look rather different than it does. It wouldn't be a place almost entirely inimical to our existence, with a history that reveals our existence was a fortunate result of a long chain of accidents tuned by natural selection. Most of the arguments we've heard that try to reconcile god and science seem to make God a subtle, invisible, undetectable ghost who at best tickles the occasional subatomic particle when no one is looking. It seems rather obvious to us that if his works are undetectable, you have no grounds for telling us what he's been up to.

Allen requests that we atheists take religious belief seriously. We do; it's hard not to take seriously a bizarre collection of antiquated superstitions that are furiously waved in our faces in our schools, on television, in our politics and even on newspaper editorial pages. That we take the intellectually bankrupt beliefs of religion seriously is precisely why we do question it, and will continue to question it, in our boring way: by simply speaking out.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Happy Odd Day

Today is Odd Day.

Three consecutive odd numbers make up the date only six times in a century. This day marks the half-way point in this parade of Odd Days which began with 1/3/5. The previous stretch of six dates like this started with 1/3/1905 - 13 months after the Wright Brothers' flight.

From Odd Day.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Strange Living and the Burden of Potential

"The strangeness of this life cannot be measured," says Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.

I have not mentioned that my author friend contacted me after the new year to see if I was interested in a new book, a book on Jesus and how he was a good orthodox Jew. He also had another book for me, a book on why Jews shouldn't leave Judaism and convert to Christianity. I recently finished the Jewish Jesus manuscript. All I had to do was edit and re-format. I think I did a decent job on the first few sections, but I think the text is a bit uneven. The chapters are of widely varying lengths. The book ends quite abruptly.

I've also initiated an inquiry to see about finishing my doctorate. Things look good. I should hear in a few days. I can't express how overjoyed I would be to have the chance again to finish the degree. It certainly wouldn't be easy, but I'd make it work. I have suffered thinking about that lost degree. It's pained me more than I care to admit even here. I think about it all the time. I have no idea what I might do with a doctorate, if anything. I don't really know what I should do with it. But I know that it was once mine, and I want it back. It won't solve my problems or make me a better person, but it will give me peace of mind and some real closure on my already-gone youth. I don't know whether I was meant to be successful or a failure, but I think I was meant to be a Ph.D.