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The issue is not whether we can have morality without religion, but rather, can we have morality with religion!
To deal rigorously with that question, one must begin by defining ‘religion’ and ‘morality’ : many religionists sidestep that requirement by defining religion in terms of morality, morality in terms of religion, and base religion on supernatural authority. A humanist approach is to define both morality and religion in human terms, discarding supernaturalism and all of the baggage it carries. Morality: a set of principles by which we treat others and ourselves; religion: submission to a supernatural power, which may involve ritual observations and practices. (For those who follow the Christian religion, morality is usually intertwined with repression of human sexuality.)
From HuffPost: ” Best known as an outspoken atheist and the author of The End of Faith, writer-turned-neuroscientist Sam Harris has echoed the assertion, normally associated with religious thinkers, that humans need a universal system of morality. At the 2010 TED conference held last month in Long Beach, California, Harris claimed that there are definite right and wrong answers to moral questions. “Values are a certain kind of fact,” he argued.
However, Harris quickly rejected the notion that religion would offer the answers to moral questions. Instead, he argued for a scientific approach to achieving a universal morality, one that conceptualizes human well-being as something that can be quantified and maximized in any number of equally successful ways — much like health and nutrition.
He criticized the tendency to regard moral questions as matters of opinion rather than as questions that have scientifically verifiable right and wrong answers. “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise, or moral talent, or moral genius, even?” he asked. “How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?”
“Just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish will change the way we talk about morality,” he said.”
Last week I sent out an electronic epistle on the similarity of the anti-scientific stance of global warming deniers and Evolution deniers. While I have not yet researched if there is any data on the overlap of the deniers, I maintain it is very important because our space program succeeded in part because both science and science education became respected and trusted: today, that is no longer true, and we are paying the price in pollution, cost, inefficiency, and vulnerability, as well as the premature extinction of our and many other species.
N.B.: I Capitalize ‘Evolution’ and ‘Climate Change’ not only for emphasis, but because they are more important than many things that are capitalized, e.g. St.Patrick’s Day.
N.B.: We are not going to succeed in the 21st century with a generation home schooled in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
The Mar 3 edition of the NY Times addressed this linking of anti-Evolution, and Climate Change denial :
“Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.
In Kentucky, a bill recently introduced in the Legislature would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”
The bill, which has yet to be voted on, is patterned on even more aggressive efforts in other states to fuse such issues. In Louisiana, a law passed in 2008 says the state board of education may assist teachers in promoting “critical thinking” on all of those subjects.
Last year, the Texas Board of Education adopted language requiring that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming.
Oklahoma introduced a bill with similar goals in 2009, although it was not enacted.
The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.
Yet they are also capitalizing on rising public resistance in some quarters to accepting the science of global warming, particularly among political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.
In South Dakota, a resolution calling for the “balanced teaching of global warming in public schools” passed the Legislature this week.
“Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant,” the resolution said, “but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.”
The measure made no mention of evolution, but opponents of efforts to dilute the teaching of evolution noted that the language was similar to that of bills in other states that had included both. The vote split almost entirely along partisan lines in both houses, with Republican voting for it and Democrats voting against.
For mainstream scientists, there is no credible challenge to evolutionary theory. They oppose the teaching of alternative views like intelligent design, the proposition that life is so complex that it must be the design of an intelligent being. And there is wide agreement among scientists that global warming is occurring and that human activities are probably driving it. Yet many conservative evangelical Christians assert that both are examples of scientists’ overstepping their bounds.
John G. West, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a group that advocates intelligent design and has led the campaign for teaching critiques of evolution in the schools, said that the institute was not specifically promoting opposition to accepted science on climate change. Still, Mr. West said, he is sympathetic to that cause.
“There is a lot of similar dogmatism on this issue,” he said, “with scientists being persecuted for findings that are not in keeping with the orthodoxy. We think analyzing and evaluating scientific evidence is a good thing, whether that is about global warming or evolution.”
Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist who directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and has spoken against efforts to water down the teaching of evolution to school boards in Texas and Ohio, described the move toward climate-change skepticism as a predictable offshoot of creationism.
“Wherever there is a battle over evolution now,” he said, “there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science — to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism.”
Not all evangelical Christians reject the notion of climate change, of course. There is a budding green evangelical movement in the country driven partly by a belief that because God created the earth, humans are obligated to care for it.
Yet there is little doubt that the skepticism about global warming resonates more strongly among conservatives, and Christian conservatives in particular. A survey published in October by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that white evangelical Protestants were among those least likely to believe that there was “solid evidence” that the Earth was warming because of human activity.
Only 23 percent of those surveyed accepted that idea, compared with 36 percent of the American population as a whole….”
Yet another surprise for those who think America is a “Christian Nation”: ” WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court today let stand a federal appellate ruling that that a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument placed on a county courthouse lawn is unconstitutional and must be removed. By rejecting an appeal by the commissioners of Haskell County, Oklahoma, and declining to review the case, the Supreme Court left undisturbed a unanimous June 2009 decision by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that the county commissioners advanced their personal religious beliefs by erecting the monument. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma on behalf of a local resident.
“The Tenth Circuit’s decision was an important victory for religious freedom and we are pleased that the Supreme Court left that ruling undisturbed,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The Ten Commandments undoubtedly have religious significance for many, and we would vigorously defend the right of individuals, churches, or businesses to display this monument publicly on their own property. But the government should not be in the business of promoting religious viewpoints.”
In its June 2009 decision, the federal court of appeals ruled that the monument violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because a “reasonable observer would view the monument as having the impermissible principal or primary effect of endorsing religion.” The monument is unconstitutional, the court held, because the proposal to erect the monument, its approval by the Haskell County Board of Commissioners and the commissioners’ expressly religious defense of the monument “strongly reflect a government endorsement of religion.”
N.B.: I might note that one cannot simultaneously support the First Amendment and the First Commandment.
The Texas Bd. of Education chooses textbook content, and as it has a large market, it has influence on all textbooks. The board is conservative, and one issue now under debate is “Christian Nation”.
From the above: ” The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders. The Christian “truth” about America’s founding has long been taught in Christian schools, but not beyond. Recently, however — perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists — some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society. As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”
Member Don McLeroy – a dentist who makes no bones about the fact that his professional qualifications have nothing to do with education – states”
The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.”
For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. “There are two basic facts about man,” he said. “He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this is a huge thing.”
As one reads this long article, they can note: whatever influence religion had on the founders,:
- The laws that they created are based on the Enlightenment, not any religion.
- That religion was meaningful to many of the colonists during the Revolutionary period does not translate into our only source of Law: the Constitution.
Not a menu item in the canteen, but rather a lecture by Professor Philip Hamburger, Columbia University School of Law: “The KKK and the First Amendment.”
Prof. Hamburger is the Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law and an expert on religious liberty, individual rights, judicial review and censorship. He has published extensively on constitutional law and history. His publications include SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE (Harvard, 2002) and LAW AND JUDICIAL DUTY (Harvard, 2008).”
Wilder 101 was filled to near capacity, not only by undergraduate students whose attendance was undoubtedly “encouraged”, but by a few faculty and interested post twenty-something adults as well.
What did we hear? Prof. Hamburger had a warm, open, easy to listen to approach, and the event was (for me) a pleasant experience. After listening to him, speaking with him afterwards, and seeing a review of his publications, I came to one conclusion: he does not support Separation of Church and State.
He began by giving a brief history of the second period of the Ku Klux Klan – from the end of the 19th century through the 1920′s – chronicling the KKK as one of the nativist organizations in the US in this period of large immigration from eastern and southern Europe, and giving specific examples of how strongly they supported Separation. (I might note that my hypothesis is that the KKK’s emphasis on Separation was primarily motivated by animosity toward the Roman Catholic religion practised by many of these immigrants.) Moving on, he emphasised what he felt are the differences between ‘establishment’ and ‘separation’, observing that the former is a horizontal concept, the latter vertical, and stated that in his opinion Separation was not in the Constitution. (Full disclosure: as a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I am not in agreement with this conclusion). More interaction of government and religion would be a good idea, he asserted. (Disagree strongly, again). He also raised the issue of politicizing from the pulpit, and to disallow this is – in his opinion – a free speech issue. It is the money, not the principle of the thing, I reply. Clergy can – like any tax exempt organization – support specific issues, but not specific candidates.
I spoke to him post event, and suggested that since the phrase “established church” had a specific meaning in the 18th century which is not familiar today, we use “separation of church and state” instead: he did not agree.
Why so much on the connection of the KKK and Separation” I propose this is an attempt to discredit the latter – shall we say poisoning the well?
He also told me he would sent me some documents which would cause me to remove my ACLU lapel pin: I expect not, but I shall remain open.
It is often of value to clarify one’s mental inventory by hearing a contrarian view, and therefore this was a valuable experience.
N.B.: I wonder if those “social conservatives” who who oppose Separation but insist that “the government” never does anything well, are concerned that “government” might negatively impact their religion(s), if the two became entangled?
In conclusion we might ask WWJD? (What Would Jefferson Do?)
On his publications:
Separation of Church and State
- In a powerful challenge to conventional wisdom, Philip Hamburger argues that the separation of church and state has no historical foundation in the First Amendment. The detailed evidence assembled here shows that eighteenth-century Americans almost never invoked this principle. Although Thomas Jefferson and others retrospectively claimed that the First Amendment separated church and state, separation became part of American constitutional law only much later.
Hamburger shows that separation became a constitutional freedom largely through fear and prejudice. Jefferson supported separation out of hostility to the Federalist clergy of New England. Nativist Protestants (ranging from nineteenth-century Know Nothings to twentieth-century members of the K.K.K.) adopted the principle of separation to restrict the role of Catholics in public life. Gradually, these Protestants were joined by theologically liberal, anti-Christian secularists, who hoped that separation would limit Christianity and all other distinct religions. Eventually, a wide range of men and women called for separation. Almost all of these Americans feared ecclesiastical authority, particularly that of the Catholic Church, and, in response to their fears, they increasingly perceived religious liberty to require a separation of church from state. American religious liberty was thus redefined and even transformed. In the process, the First Amendment was often used as an instrument of intolerance and discrimination.
Atheists are just as ethical and have as strong a moral compass as churchgoers, new research shows.
Published: 7:30AM GMT 09 Feb 2010
People who have no religion know right from wrong just as well as regular worshippers, according to the study.
The team behind the research found that most religions were similar and had a moral code which helped to organise society.
But people who did not have a religious background still appeared to have intuitive judgements of right and wrong in common with believers, according to the findings, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Dr Marc Hauser, from Harvard University, one of the co-authors of the research, said that he and his colleagues were interested in the roots of religion and morality.
“For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions,” he said.
The team looked at several psychological studies which were designed to test an individual’s morality.
Dr Hauser added: “The research suggests that intuitive judgements of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments.
“However, although it appears as if co-operation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilising co-operation between groups.”
He added that the findings could help to explain the complex relationship between morality and religion.
“It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualising moral intuitions,” he said.
“Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.”
Global warming is like evolution in that to understand it, one must look at an extended time scale.
N.B.: ‘Climate’ and ‘weather’ are not synonyms.
From Alternet: “ Climate change conspiracies are hardly new, but the so-called Snowpocalypse in Washington D.C. has returned them front-and-center to every single right-wing media outlet.
A Fox News anchor smugly claimed that the record snow had not only buried people’s cars — it was also “burying” global warming theories. In a World Net Daily radio segment, someone joked that liberals would soon be claiming the snowfall — and global warming — was the Tea Party movement’s fault. And the family of Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, built a six-foot-tall igloo on Capitol Hill and topped it off with a sign that read, “Al Gore’s New Home,” before posting it on Facebook to the delight of climate change non-believers across the country. (From a commenter: “What if the D.C. tent cities became IGLOO cities?? The irony!” Bashing global warming and the homeless in one fell swoop — classy.)
For years since climate change has been accepted fact among the bulk of the international scientific and environmental community, many people have contended that global warming is a farce brought on by a New World Order (often embodied by the relatively powerless United Nations) to construct a world government that will undermine American sovereignty and make us all slaves to Al Gore and his green business cronies, who will be swimming in our green — our hard-earned cash. Certainly not all global warming deniers fall into this particular conspiracy camp, but it’s among the more popular story-lines. …freezing temperatures has only further cemented deniers’ belief that global warming is simply impossible. Indeed, one segment even points to news of people freezing to death in ordinarily balmy parts of India, record snowfall in China and Korea, and confirmation that last December was much wetter and colder than is average for the United States, as proof that the world isn’t warming at all — instead, it’s cooling.
Of course, this completely ignores evidence that the last decade was the warmest ever on the meteorological record, and that while in the long-run we can expect winter squalls like the one that just ravaged the Beltway to be far more uncommon, in the meantime, all this snow may very well be the result of warmer air supercharged with moisture that will result in snowstorms rather than in torrential winter rains, as long as the temperature remains below freezing. In fact, precipitation of all kinds is up — way up. A recent study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that levels of very high precipitation from Maine to D.C. rose by 67 percent from 1958 to 2007; the Midwest has seen a 30 percent increase. Global warming holds that weather of all sorts — warm and cold — will be extreme, as we trend to an overall hotter planet. But this logic doesn’t sit well with Matt Patterson, a blogger at Pajamas Media, who accuses the Environmental Protection Agency of fear-mongering by classifying carbon-dioxide — “literally our very breath” — as an atmospheric pollutant, and scoffs at “any possible downsides” to the global warming conspiracy: “[O]h my God, I might have to walk over a few feet to keep from drowning.” Clearly he hasn’t seen a photographic projection of Manhattan submerged under water in the not-too-distant future; nor has he heard of the plight of island nations like the Maldives, which is expected to be underwater sometime within the century.
While Patterson suggests we are more likely entering an ice age than experiencing global warming, Patrick J. Michaels at the National Review Online, thinks the snowstorms in D.C. were much ado about nothing. “[T]here are those who insist that it snowed more than when they were little,” writes Michaels, a former state climatologist for Virginia. “That’s partially a matter of physical perspective, as 20 inches of snow on the ground looks a lot bigger to a three-foot child than to a six-foot adult.” Cute.
Most right-wingers are in Michaels’ camp — they really do believe nothing is happening. Emblematic of this is a Washington Times editorial titled “Snowmageddon is nigh,” which reads: “Those who value freedom should thank Mother Nature for her sense of humor, undermining the case for global warming one flake at a time. So although we’re quite tired of shoveling, we say, ‘Bring on the blizzard.’” (Did you catch the “flake” pun?)
Ah yes, freedom. That’s what it all comes down to, for many of these folks. Over at Vocal Minority, a blog dedicated to “exposing liberal ignorance,” a climate change believer is considered analogous to “Islamic radicals [that] will put you to death for apostasy.” Similarly, the “global warming alarmist punishes her non-believers first with smears, lies, and verbal attacks; then moves on to taxes and surcharges, and ultimately imprisonment.”
While Focus on the Family’s Tim Tebow Super Bowl anti-abortion plug might have been the ad we were all talking about for weeks in advance, the commercial from this year’s game that may most live in infamy is likely Audi’s “Green Police” ad. An environmental police state is not satire, says the right; that’s what evil environmental activists are planning and, in many ways, already doing.”
Americans spread the blame when it comes to the lack of cooperation in Washington, and, in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, most want the two sides to keep working to pass comprehensive health-care reform.
Nearly six in 10 in the new poll say the Republicans aren’t doing enough to forge compromise with President Obama on important issues; more than four in 10 see Obama as doing too little to get GOP support. Among independents, 56 percent see the Republicans in Congress as too unbending and 50 percent say so of the president; 28 percent of independents say both sides are doing too little to find agreement.
Look at that graph–63 percent want comprehensive reform to pass, and more Independents want to see it pass than Republicans want to see it fail. But a note of caution, while the blame is primarily falling on Republicans now, ultimately the blame will be shared if it fails, and the bulk of it would fall on Obama and the Dems, since they are in charge.”
An article well worth reading by Susie J: no matter hard hard they try, religionists wouldn’t be able to create a schism in the ranks of FreeThinkers!
“I was somewhat taken aback recently when I found myself on a list of “kinder, gentler atheists”–most of them women–compiled by a religious historian attempting to distinguish between socially acceptable atheism and the presumably mean, hard-line atheism expounded by such demonic figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. This nasty versus nice dichotomy is wholly an invention of believers who are under the mistaken impression that atheism is a religion in need of a good schism.
The list of “kinder” atheists was compiled for USA Today by Stephen Prothero, an On Faith panelist and professor of religion at Boston University and author of “Religious Literacy” (2007), a lively and incisive account of Americans’ ignorance about religion in general and their own religious history. Pleased as I was to find myself on a list in the company of such other spirited atheists as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the witty, recently published “36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction,” and Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of “Doubt: A History” (2003), it is nevertheless slightly insulting to find your name used not only to place female atheists in a special category but as a foil for a mythical enemy known as the New Atheists. The latter consist, in Prothero’s view, mainly of Angry White Men who believe that all religious people are stupid and that “the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison.”
I don’t mean to pick on Prothero, whom I greatly respect as a scholar of religion (this must be the sort of observation that he considers kinder and gentler), but his piece is a perfect example of all of the distortions of atheism cherished by anti-atheists.
Myth No. 1: The “new atheism” is a phenomenon that differs radically not only from atheism as it has existed since antiquity but from the views held by forerunners of modern atheism, including deists and Enlightenment rationalists, like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who played such a critical role in the founding of this nation. Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. It is this lack of deference, more than anything else, that has outraged religious believers–particularly those on the right–in America. Most have confused their constitutional right to believe whatever they want with the idea that the beliefs themselves must be inherently worthy of respect.
Myth No. 2: Atheists think all religious believers are stupid. It is true that Dennett coined the unfortunate term “Brights” to describe atheists–which does imply that he considers believers dimwitted. But I disagree with Dennett on this point, and so do a good many atheists I know (some of whom didn’t even make the “kinder, gentler” list). I am quite prepared to concede that there are a fair number of intellectually challenged atheists, and I have no interest in arguing about whether the proportion of dunces is higher among the religious. As for the intelligence of religious believers, I doubt that many educated atheists would consider Aquinas, Abelard, or, for that matter, Prothero stupid. What we do think is that their ideas are wrong and irreconcilable with the laws of nature.
One point, however, is indisputable: there is a strong correlation between simplistic fundamentalist beliefs, relying on a literal interpretation of sacred texts, and lack of education. As the level of education rises, the number of people who believe in materially impossible tales such as the creation of the universe in six days; the literal resurrection of the dead; and the Virgin Birth diminishes. That is why fundamentalists have been tireless in their efforts to inject religious teaching into public schools. So it is generally true (although there are of course many exceptions) that the less people have learned about science, history, and different belief systems, the more likely they are to cling to a rigid form of faith.
Nevertheless, education and intelligence are hardly identical. Holders of doctoral degrees, whether in philosophy or biology, are less likely than high school dropouts to believe in the supernatural, but plenty of people with more than 16 years of formal education are quite susceptible to a wide variety of non-supernatural but equally muttonish notions dressed as lamb. One need only consider the number of grownup atheists who are still as entranced as 15-year-olds with the sophomoric Ayn Rand, whose basic philosophy, as expressed in her turgid novels, is that the only proper relation of one human being toward another is “hands off.” History is filled with atheists who have embraced every crackpot notion from eugenics to the desirability of eternal life facilitated not by God but by science. Of course, there have also been a great many religious believers who find that their godly philosophy include racial superiority and the inferiority of the poor. (Let’s not forget the most recent example of a stupid Christian politician, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who thinks that free school lunches encourage the poor and stupid to reproduce.)
What ultimately distinguishes atheists from religious believers, however, is that no intelligent atheist can ever claim that his or her ideas constitute absolute truth.
Myth No. 3: This brings us to the most common false stereotype about atheism–that it is a religion and, furthermore, that “atheist fundamentalism” is as intolerant as conventional religious fundamentalism. Prothero uses the revealing word “genuflection” to describe the supposed attitude of atheists toward the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Other critics of atheism have described these writings as “sacred texts” for atheists. I hate to break it to the anti-atheists, but another crucial distinction between us and them is that we have no sacred, authoritative texts. Dawkins gave me a very generous quote for the jacket of the British edition of “The Age of American Unreason,” in spite of the fact that I have often written (and wrote in this particular book) that I do not agree with him or with Harris about the dangers of “moderate” religion to the body politic. Dawkins is not the Pope, science is not God, and all of these purportedly gentler women in the ranks of atheists are not handmaidens of the Lord. (I should add that Prothero did provide a separate list of “kinder, gentler” male atheists, whose chief qualification seemed to be that they had all struggled to free themselves from unquestioning faith. As someone who, as far back as I can remember–certainly from around age 12–never accepted what I was taught in Catholic school and suffered no pangs of conscience when I realized that I did not believe in God or in any religion, I probably qualify as a “hard” rather than a “soft” atheist.)
Integral to the myth of atheism as a religion is the false proposition that atheists claim to “know” there is no God. Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th-century orator dubbed the “Great Agnostic,” put it succinctly in 1885 when asked a question by a Philadelphia reporter who was trying to get him to denounce atheists. “Don’t you think the belief of the Agnostic is more satisfactory to the believer than that of the Atheist?” the reporter asked. Ingersoll replied, “There is no difference. The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: “I do not know, but I do not believe that there is any god. The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a god: but we know that he does not know. He simply believes. He cannot know. The Atheist cannot know that God does not exist.”
Today, as in the past, atheists can say only that on the basis of the available evidence, we don’t think an omnipotent deity has anything to do with either the ultimate origins of the universe or the ethical dilemmas that human beings confront every day. Indeed, we do not “know” how the first particle of matter came into being any more than believers “know” how God came into being. We admit this. They don’t.
Myth No. 4: Atheists believe that science explains everything. No. We believe that science offers the best possibilities for explaining what we do not yet understand. Science–in contrast to religion–is a method of thought and exploration, not a set of conclusions based on unchallengeable assumptions. Science is always open to the possibility that its conclusions may be proved wrong by new evidence based on new experimentation and observation. Monotheistic religion’s bedrock assumption is the existence of a god who always was and always will be. Atheists (at least those with a scintilla of scientific knowledge) would never claim that the universe always was and always will be.
Myth No. 5: Atheists deny the possibility of “transcendent” experience. They can’t see beyond the material world. This stereotype is partially true, but it all depends on what you mean by transcendent. If the concept is understood, as it is by many religious believers, as an experience that goes beyond and defies the usual limits of nature–including time, space, and the flesh-and-blood essence of human beings, then atheists do not accept the transcendent. But if the word is understood as something that pushes us beyond our everyday experience–that enables us to scale previously unknown heights of love, creativity, or wonder at what other members of our species have created, how could any man or woman of reason deny the possibility? We simply believe that such experience lie within, not outside of, nature.
As an atheist, I highly doubt that my subjective experience differs qualitatively from that of a religious believer who thrills to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Michaelangelo’s David, Leonardo’s Adoration of The Magi, or, for that matter, the immensity of a night sky. I do not have to believe in God, or any supernatural entity larger than myself, to feel overwhelming awe upon holding a newborn baby or upon experiencing the reciprocal, passionate love that comes rarely–the kind of love, as Nietzsche observed, that “compels me to speak as though I were Two.” But I do interpret these experiences differently from a believer, because I do not ascribe any mystical or supernatural character to them. Such transcendent experiences do not make us greater than ourselves; they help us realize our best selves–the best of which our species is capable.
I see very little difference between the religious believer’s insistence on the existence of an immortal soul and the insistence of some secular philosophers and psychologists on the existence of a consciousness or a mind that is, in some inexplicable way, independent of our physical corpus. I do not consider the fruits of our love and labor–which will outlast our finite existence–less valuable because they depend on functioning neurons and because the neurons that produced them will eventually die. This insistence on an independent consciousness, mind, soul, or spirit is a product of human limitation and human arrogance. Because we are the most intelligent animals on the planet, we can imagine our own extinction. We hate that knowledge–atheists and religious believers alike–so we invent a variety of non-material concepts to explain away the inevitable end of a consciousness that depends entirely on our physical being.
Speaking only for myself, I find that awareness of my inevitable extinction enhances rather than diminishes my life. This awareness makes me want to leave something behind, if only a piece of scholarship that will be useful to some seeker of knowledge in a library of the future. I will admit that I am deeply disturbed by the possibility that libraries may become extinct, although the digital world offers a kind of eternal life that neither an atheist nor a religious believer could have predicted when I was a child. The novelist Milan Kundera has written about a number of developments the Creator never imagined–among them surgery and humans’ relationship with their dogs. To that I would add the internet. The digital world, because it is a product of human intelligence, is a part of the nature (for better and for worse) of which men and women also comprise a finite part. To fill our portion of the universe with the best achievements possible, through our love and our work, is purpose enough for a lifetime and requires no transcendence of nature and no afterlife.
While spending on science research is not currently popular, we might remember that the United States benefited greatly from the “space race”, not from “Tang”, but from the impetus it gave our electronics and computer industries, in which we became world leaders from the early 1960′s on. To be usefully projected into space, an object needed to be small, durable and light, creating the need for solid state electronics, which are the basis for all modern electronic devices. (A cell phone based on vacuum tubes would be rather unwieldy!) Another area in which government spending (cold war) had a major impact is the Internet, which grew out of ARPA, and which has become one of the most trans-formative technologies in human history.
The space race was triggered by the USSR launch of an artificial earth satellite – Sputnik. We had the opportunity for another Sputnik moment in 1973, when we first felt the impact of being dependent on imported oil. Such a moment did not occur, and two generations later, we are even more vulnerable, and still hesitant to properly use the tools of science and engineering to achieve energy independence.