Sunday, June 24, 2007

Choosing beliefs

In common with more prominent atheists I'm often asked why I "choose not to believe in God"; I must confess the question makes very little sense to me as expressed.

I didn't choose not to believe in God, any more than I chose not to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. I'm not being flippant in the comparison; in all of those cases I once believed but no longer do. In each case what caused me to abandon my belief was the lack of real evidence for, and the abundance of logical evidence against, what was in the end a ridiculous proposition. The only distinguishing factor between them is that a majority of putative adults profess still to believe in God, and at that some of them still profess a belief in Santa Claus as well.

That is also, incidentally, the reason why I maintain my small campaign against belief in God, but not against Santa, the Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. My son is in little danger of retaining his belief in the latter three, because they are conspiracies amongst the Illuminati; the spurious 'evidence' of money beneath the pillow, of baskets full of fertility-themed candy, and of presents beneath the tree (and the occasional radio report of flying reindeer sightings) are all set up by adults who know full well that it is just a lark, a bit of fun we allow ourselves to perpetuate on the kids.

Not so the equally ridiculous tales of religion. These are perpetuated by adults who really, genuinely believe in them, even though they describe events like virgin births and dead people getting up and strolling about, events every bit as ridiculous as a rabbit laying pastel-coloured eggs. Kids are necessarily ignorant of how the world really is, but they are not stupid, and they are very very good indeed at detecting adult sincerity, and they give great credence to any
stories which their adult teachers sincerely believe. My son respects my sincere and hard-won beliefs, but his respect for my beliefs butts up against his respect for the contradictory beliefs most of the other adults in his life express.

The only reason I'm okay with that is that my strongest belief is that the best thing for a human being to learn is not a fact but a robust process of evaluating facts, and most of the other adults in Speed's life agree with that, even though they often don't apply it to their religious beliefs. I have faith (based on evidence) that my kid can think for himself, given half a chance.

Which returns me to he beginning of this essay; why, even in the face of overwhelming social disapproval, do I "choose" to disbelieve in God?

It's because it isn't a choice. I don't choose what to believe; I believe what seems to me to be true. I suspect that's true of us all, but all too many of us accept as true what we are told as a child is true, right up to the point where our parents admit to putting the money under the pillow. If we never learn to think for ourselves, then we simply look around us and gather a gestalt of what our neighbors believe to be true. If the majority of them believe that a six-armed goddess controls our lives then we do too; if the majority believe a Jewish carpenter born of a virgin rose from the dead and is therefore our only chance of salvation, we do too.

I am so constituted that the opinions of my neighbors, even of my family, is secondary; by the grace of sheer luck in my genetics and environment, I ended up with a mind incapable of believing anything which is internally inconsistent or which contradicts the world around
me. It's actually difficult for me to see things from the point of view of someone who can; I have friends and coworkers who freely acknowledge that the tale of Noah's Ark is literally impossible, but who "choose to believe" it anyway, in the face of the inherent contradictions and impossibilities. This is literally incomprehensible to me; I acknowledge that it is true they do, but I cannot comprehend it. HOW can someone believe a tale which their own understanding denies the possibility of? It is utterly beyond me.

Many a theist takes the position that this is a deficiency in me rather than them; that 'faith' is an absolute good, that to believe in things for which there is no evidence is a true ability, and not a disability of the normal functioning of a rational mind. In the short term that may
even be true, I think; a society which can produce suicide bombers has a tactical advantage against one which cannot, and a society which enforces a uniformity of viewpoint on any given ethical dilemma will be able to react more quickly than one which does not.

Nevertheless, the history of science shows that the society which is able to abandon bad ideas in favor of new and better will outstrip the society which insists it already has all the right answers; at one time that was the Islamic world outstripping the Judeo-Christians because they were more open to new ideas, later in the Enlightenment it was the Judeo-Christian outstripping the Islamic sciences for the same reason. Today it is the secular world which outstrips both, bogged down as they are in Iron Age texts bound up in outdated cosmogonies.

Why do I reject the idea of God, a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being who is nevertheless concerned with my personal well-being? Come on, why would I *not* reject it? Do you take me for a fool?

Ah, yes, perhaps you do. "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God." Well, it's easy to call names, of course, but does the evidence back it up? Who is truly the fool, the one who accepts childhood teachings and sticks by them despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, or the one who admits that ideas can be wrong, even when they are traditional, or popular, or comforting? Who is the fool, the one who changes his or her views in the face of the evidence, or the one who puts on blinders to avoid seeing an inconvenient truth?

I have often heard, in the course of debates on atheism, the idea that it takes more 'faith' not to believe than to believe. That is simply a lie, but I see its root; it does take more *courage* to tell your neighbors and family that they are being fools than to simply go along with the conventional wisdom. I have absolutely no doubt that my son has and will have the ability to see through the illogicalities and irrationalities of all the silly stories he is told, from the Easter
Bunny to the Tooth Fairy to Santa Claus to Jesus; my hope in so publicly opposing Christianity and all other religions is that he will learn from me, by example, the courage to be honest about disbelieving even the most popular nonsense.

Blasphemy is a victimless crime!

1 comment:

Ben Cox said...

You have said so many things in this little post that I've been dying to say for years, but could *never* have done as succinctly, powerfully, or artfully. My hat is off to you.