Atheist v. theistic arrogance

arroganceOne of the charges leveled against the so-called “new atheists” is that of arrogance.  This comes in more than one form, however.  The first can be exemplified by the recent book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, which makes the attempt to argue not only to the strength of the Christian message but that it actually requires faith to be an atheist.  Similarly, some apologists have tried to argue that to say that there is no god would require knowledge of everything in the universe; without absolute knowledge such a claim would be absurd and arrogant.  This seeks to pin the burden of proof on the atheist for their claim that god does not exist rather than on the theist for the opposite claim.

Except this is not the atheist position; atheism is the lack of belief in any gods.  Period.  The subtle distinction between lacking belief in any gods and claiming that no gods exist–lacking belief rather than believing lack–is essential to understand here.  I do not claim that no gods exist.  I claim that I don’t see sufficient reason to believe that one does.

But this is not the only way that our arrogance is pointed out by critics of atheism.  In other cases, our arrogance is in the criticism itself; of our obnoxious tendency to actually criticize people’s beliefs.  Where do we get off thinking that we know more than they do?  What gives us the right?

Well, quite frankly, the first amendment gives us the right (at least in the United States).  But more generally, the freedom of thought, opinion, and of criticism is a human right that should be upheld everywhere.  Religion should get no free pass in the marketplace of ideas.  Supernatural and superstitious beliefs are, like any belief, open for criticism.  If you don’t want your beliefs open for such criticism, well then that’s too bad.

Further, concerning why atheists think we know more than others; we may not.  But in my experience, atheists, especially those that are active in the community, tend to be much more educated and knowledgeable about religion in general and various holy books (especially the Bible in the case of those that I know) specifically in comparison with those that claim them as their holy books.  It’s not that we all know more than believers, its that many of us tend to know more than most believers.

It has been said that the Bible is the best book to read if you want to become an atheist.  In a sense this is true.  I have read the Bible, annotated versions as well, and have read about its formation, history, and backgrounds for the various books it contains.  I cannot comprehend how anyone can view it as the word of a god.  I cannot comprehend how it isn’t seen as no different than fairy tales mixed with poetry, philosophy, and bits of history.

Is this arrogant of me to say?  It may be irreverent, but there is no special reverence to be had there in my opinion.  I do like Ecclesiastes and Job, among a few others.  But I also like The Bhagavad Gita and The Odyssey. It is no more arrogant of me to say than it would be for a Christian to say that the Koran or the Vedas are not the word of a god.

But let us step back again for a second and look at the general issue at hand.  Atheists are being called arrogant for criticism of belief in god.  There is a sort of irony here.  Atheists being called arrogant because we don’t believe in silly stories about Mohammad being taken up to heaven, Jesus resurrecting, or in the various incarnations of Vishnu.  And yet it is theists of various religious traditions, with no mental capabilities that I don’t have, claiming that they are certain that not only does god exist, but they know its name, knows what it wants, and that they have a relationship with that deity.

They just know that their religious experiences are real.  I don’t doubt they have teh experiences, I doubt their interpretation of them.  From the point of view of a believer, all of the other people who believe in other gods are, I suppose, delusional or incorrect, but not them.  This is arrogance.

Theists thinking of atheists as arrogant because they don’t believe in their god is real; that is arrogance.  My irony meter has been broken too many times by this charge, and so I am not sure how much this is supposed to bother me any more.  Theists, please examine the log in your eye before trying to point out the splinter in the eyes of atheists.  You are the ones claiming knowledge about the proposed creator of the universe.  I’m just saying that I don’t believe you actually have such knowledge.  You believe, and I believe that you belief is unjustified.

That’s why theists have faith.  Because if you had evidence or knowledge, you would not need faith anymore.  I do not have faith in any gods.  If this is arrogance then the definition of arrogance has been stretched to the point of language breaking down to mean whatever we want it to mean.

I want arrogance to mean what it is supposed to mean; an overbearing sense of self-importance or self-worth.  Thinking you know what the creator of the universe’s name and access to its truths is would put someone in such a position.

The further irony is that many theologies seek to diminish this arrogant position by telling people they are sinners, insignificant, and that the height of piety is humility.  This is why they think atheists are the arrogant ones, because the arrogance of their own position is cleverly hidden behind subjugation to that which they arrogantly believe exists.

What a mind-fuck!

Theology and science fiction

If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion

L. Ron Hubbard (creator of Scientology)

I like science fiction. I wrote a science fiction novel (it has not yet been published).  But nonetheless, I know a little bit about the creative process that goes on in creating a story.  One has a world in mind, and that world has rules, social realities, etc that provide constraints for the writer.  And within those constraints one finds that they are able to create provocative and interesting stories that make the characters believable, problems understandable, and plots engaging.  The world becomes coherent.

More generally, we are able to construct stories and explanations about worlds–worldviews even–that are meaningful to us.  In an attempt to understand the real world outside of fantasy, were people that found themselves within a worldview that included deities, prophets, daemons, and even sons and daughters of gods doing something much different?

For thousands of years of human history, the model of how the world worked was not what it is today.  Pre-scientific models of the rules of the world we live in had ideas such as nature spirits, daemons, dragons, and so forth that sought to paint a picture of the world that contained magic, divine intervention, and even divine presence.  It was a dualistic worldview that dominated most of the world.  I have forgotten; that world has not disappeared for many people even still. The world as it is today does differ based upon ones understanding of the rules one accepts.

Science is not just another narrative among narratives to explain the world.  It is a shift in methodologies in how we explain the world that demands evidence.  And yet, still, there are multitudes of people that maintain older worldviews as still being relevant to us.  They still contain truths, even if the world it paints is itself not true.

That is the bottom of theology.  It is the attempt to make sense of the worldview one accepts in order to tell a meaningful story about the world we live in.  But in doing so the constraints don’t have to be what is true.  If one accepts that Mohammad was taken up to heaven in Jerusalem, that Jesus resurrected, or that Osiris was reassembled and thus resurrected by his wife/sister Isis after being dismembered by Set, then these are part of the basis for the rules for the story you will tell about the world.

Thus, a theology can be internally consistent.  It an proclaim meaningful ideas about the world within it’s constraints.  But this is because we are pattern-recognizing and meaning-creating beings.  We are able to find the raw materials for meaning in all sorts of places.  The fact that the things people find important seem coherent and important to them is certainly not to say that they are true.  Truth, at least not by itself, is not required to find meaning.

If we accept the basis of the Abrahamic God, the concept of sin, atonement, etc then the story of Jesus and his “sacrifice” makes sense within that world.  If someone had written a set of science fiction novels that told the essence of the story within the Old Testament, the New Testament story (assuming we could actually boil it down to a single coherent narrative) would be a sequel that would make sense within that universe.

This is not to say that the universe that it makes sense in is this real universe.  This is what the discussion about religion and society comes down to when we are dealing with the truth.  Religious ideologies are meaningful, important to the adherents, and interesting to many, but they are not true in the same sense that it is true that when a particle and an anti-particle meet, they annihilate each-other and a photon is emitted.

Nice costume! Is that from Babylon 5?
Nice costume! Is that from Babylon 5?

Good science fiction does not need to be strictly scientifically true to be good.  The reason is that we can tell meaningful stories within imaginary worlds that tell us things about ourselves.  Good science fiction is an expression of our humanity on a different canvass.  Theology is no different, except that those that read science fiction realize (at least I hope they do) that they are reading about imaginary worlds.  Imagination and creativity are great, and without them culture would be poorer.  But it is time for people to realize that fantasy and theology are akin in ways that seek to provide a space for people to guide their real lives by imagination.

A future female Pope's costume?
A future female Pope's costume?

Both George Lucas and the Pope are very wealthy people who live very comfortably.  But we all admit that George Lucas tells stories.  From my point of view, the Pope simply became the new leader of an old story that people keep paying money to see and live within.  The Catholic church is one example of a never-ending convention of people pretending that the story of Jesus is true.  At least with science fiction, most of the convention people go home and put away the costume after a fun weekend.  And if they don’t, we think they are a little weird.

I think that people that think Osiris, Jesus, and Thor are all real are a little weird.

Dragon*Con provides synchronicity and skepticism

So, I attended Dragon*Con last weekend.  It was sort of a last minute thing, really.  See, my friend Margaret Downey was scheduled to speak there and needed an assistant.  I was in need to go to Atlanta to do some apartment hunting, and things fell together nicely.

Margaret Downey (left) with Eugenie Scott of the NCSE
Margaret Downey (left) with Eugenie Scott of the NCSE

If I were a less rational person, I might have thought some intelligent design was at work. But I’m a skeptic.  And luckily for me, there was a track at DC for people like me.  The skeptrack dragon can be seen to the right with two of it’s guests.

Margaret Downey has been doing a variety of characters over the years to deal with a number of issues related to skepticism, atheism, and freethought in general.  On Friday night, she did a presentation about anti-superstition parties, and superstition in general, at the Skeptrack section of Dragon*Con as the Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Nurse.

After all, we know that there are lots of people who are into science fiction and fantasy who believe lots of silly woo things.  The skeptrack, organized by Derek of Skepticality, is focused on trying to introduce skeptical thinking into this culture, as a sort of outreach to the larger community of slightly nerdy, geeky, and sciency people.  The fact that Dragon*Con 2009 attracted more tha 45,000 people means that there are a lot of people to reach out to, and in future years they hope to become a larger and more significant part of the event. I’ll look forward to that.

I mean, we all like to meet some celebs, right?  I got a chance to meet some of the cast from Babylon 5, which was pretty sweet because it is among my favorite sci-fi shows.  I also got to see people from Stargate, Star Trek, and he recent Battlestar Galactica (don’t get me started on how annoying I thought the ending to that was…).

Those Skephicks love them some aliens.
Those Skephicks love them some aliens.

On top of all that there were some pretty awesome costumes. In the picture to the left, Maria from the skepchicks is getting to know the local alien population a little better.

Of course, alcohol was involved, and hopefully she won’t have any little aliens popping out from her stomach anytime soon.

And what was great about the plethora of costumes, from a male heterosexual point of view, was how economical many girls can be with their costumes.  I mean, making a whole costume while using so few materials? Brilliant! I must say my head was turned on more than a few occasions, which distracted me sufficiently as to not get my camera out in time.  My lovely girlfriend, who stayed back in Philadelphia for work training, would have been thoroughly amused by this.  Actually, she would have likely done the same thing with the many guys who were not afraid to show off their various attributes.  We are quite a pair.  And speaking of great pairs…never mind.

And there certainly were a lot of people there.

Just one shot from one of the many hotels involved in the convention on Saturday night.
Just one shot from one of the many hotels involved in the convention on Saturday night.

And I got a chance to meet some pretty cool people there as well as well as catch up with some friends I only tend to see at such events.  A few drinks, late night conversations, fun panel discussions, tens of thousands of people and science fiction.  What else does one want from a weekend?

And you read correctly above; I was looking for apartments.  My lovely lady and myself will be relocating to Atlanta come October 2009, just a few weeks away.  But there is a good set of communities down there so we will be able to make ourselves at home.  I’ve already been in communication with people from a skeptical community down there, I will be in contact with the atheist and polyamorous communities, and then I will have to find myself employment in Atlanta.  We are moving because of Seana’s new job, and I love her enough to relocate to be with her.

Philadelphia is a great city and I will miss living here.  What I won’t miss is cold winters with snow, slush, and ice.  A nice cool winter with occasional snowfall seems much preferable.  I will miss hot, fresh Philly pretzels off the conveyor late at night, however.

But I’ll still continue to be your friendly neighborhood atheist, polyamorous geek.