You know when something bothers you just a little bit, and you ignore it, and then it bothers you just a little bit more, and you ignore it, and then it bothers you just a little bit more, and you ignore it, and then BAM you can’t ignore it anymore? That’s what this week’s Takedown is about. Specifically, smug atheists.
Don’t get me wrong, I fall on the atheism side of the fence, or, because I think it more accurately describes my viewpoints and doesn’t sound so much like I scoff in the face of believers, the naturalist side of things. I like to call myself a naturalist. It feels more comfortable, and more importantly, it reminds me that I, too, have a belief system, one that is rarely challenged because my beliefs (that the world is operated by the laws of nature, rather than anything supernatural) are also held within most religions as secondary rules. But the truth of the matter is that nothing is really knowable, and the fact that I know that the earth revolves around the sun doesn’t mean that it actually does – it just means that that’s as much as we’ve been able to prove given what we know and understand about the laws of physics (i.e., according to my belief system, it is true). When I think about that, that is not really different from somebody else knowing that Jesus came back from the dead. For all anybody really knows, we could all be some weird figment of non-reality that happens to follow a specific set of rules, we could all be some supernatural being’s science experiment, maybe I’m real and the rest of you are just holograms created for my amusement (come on, fess up). We don’t know anything.
Which is why smug atheism makes me cringe. I have a set of beliefs that I feel very strongly about, and I can back them up because I believe that they can be proven. Others have a set of beliefs that they feel very strongly about, and they can back them up because they believe they don’t need to be proven. Neither system is inherently better than the other.
So, this week’s Takedown may be haunch-rankling. Be warned.
It comes from a comic at The Oatmeal. It is entitled “How to suck at your religion.”
Here’s the thing: what is shown in the comic isn’t that religion makes people judge people, but that there are many religious people who do not listen to their doctrines. The doctrine says that people should not judge. Religion doesn’t make people judge other people; instead, it is a characteristic of human nature that many religions try to restrict.
And, speaking as a naturalist, the entire cartoon is about judging religious people for being stupid and backwards and brainwashed. So far, according to this cartoon, many naturalists “suck” at their religion, because of things like this cartoon.
What this is assuming is that the religion of science is superior to any other religion. That other religions should bow down before naturalism, and if they don’t, they are doing it wrong. Actually, they are doing it right, even if I personally think it’s terrible. I think religions should bow down before science, but that’s because that is my belief system. Other religions should think that science and nature are less important than their doctrines, because that is their belief system.
I learned science for years and years and years in the public school system. And you know what? Telling a five-year-old that the earth revolves around the sun was easy for me to believe. Had I believed otherwise, telling me such when I was 25 would have been a much harder concept. It’s not about forcing your belief system on to children and therefore brainwashing them – it’s about teaching your children things that you know to be true. Of course this seems ridiculous to naturalists, but that is because we are busy teaching people about things we know to be true, i.e., science. There is plenty in science which seems ridiculous: I challenge you to listen to this episode of RadioLab about the Multi Universe (it is more weird than Noah’s Ark, and it follows the belief system of science, and it will blow your mind).
Actually, parents do this all the time. Not so much with preferences, but with basic, everyday choices. Sofia wants to drink Coke and sleep in a barn, and she gets very upset when we don’t go swimming during thunderstorms. “No,” I say. “If you’re thirsty, you’re going to drink milk, and that’s FINAL.” One of the main jobs of parenting is guiding children to make decisions that are good for their overall wellbeing.
This seems like a great idea to me – as a naturalist. But this is because I don’t know that the Christian doctrine is true. If I did, if that were my belief system, of course I would be trying to nudge Sofia in that direction. I make choices for her all of the time – what to eat, what to wear, how often to bathe, what behaviors are okay. If I truly believe that eternity lies in the balance, it would be practically abusive to not teach her about it.
Teaching your children about your belief system, as I fully intend to do with Sofia and science, means you are doing it right. It means that you believe fully in what you say you believe in.
Well, I’ve heard the “biology” argument about homosexuality more times than I can count, so this isn’t restricted to the mainstream religions. I think many religions are too restricted when it comes to many things, but that is because it is not my belief system. If you really believe in your particular religion, and that is what the doctrine says, then that is what you are going to go with. The fact that scratching at my skin can give me infections gives me weird anxiety about my urges to scratch at my skin – but my doctrine tells me it’s a bad idea.
Ugh. If I had a nickel for every impassioned argument I have gotten into with anti-vaccine advocates… oh, yeah. That’s the same thing. I know vaccines are effective because science proves it. Or, at least as much science as we have. And I can’t resist the urge to try to spread these beliefs, just like many naturalists, such as the one who posted this comic.
Seriously, go listen to that RadioLab, and tell me science isn’t just as absurd.
I mean, this is true about just about anything – not just religion. If somebody is voting against Mitt Romney because 20 years ago he put his dog on top of his car, they probably aren’t super informed. Or, they believe that that one small fact tells a fundamental truth about a candidate, which will color all of their policies, in which case, more power to them. Democracy!
There is a big difference between “problems with religion” and “problems with extremism.” This cartoon mixes and matches, and the smug naturalist walks away thinking, “Wow, religious people are ridiculous! Terrible!”, even though this applies to a very small percentage of the population. Yes, extremists are upsetting, but that is true if they are religious extremists, greed extremists, pop culture extremists, or animal hoarder extremists.
Let’s exchange the word “religion” with the word “children.” Would you die for your children? If so, does that mean that you are parenting wrong? No, it means that you feel very, very strongly about your children. If somebody is willing to die for something they believe in, how is that so awful?
This is tough for me, because I am a pacifist, and I really, really hate the idea of people hurting in the name of religion. But if “religion” were replaced with “children,” what would we think? Would people kill to protect their children? There are laws on the books saying that that is okay, and certainly hurting, hindering, or condemning in order to protect those that you love is okay by society’s standards.
It’s not that I think that killing (or hurting) in the name of God is okay – but I don’t think that killing (or hurting) in the name of anything is okay. People do it. People also hurt, hinder, or condemn for lots of reasons, many of which are far less consequential than a system that they know to be true.
If science were at risk – if the government decided to strike all science from the books and teach children nothing about the natural world, and instead, only religious stories to explain everything – I can’t say that I would kill, but I would absolutely condemn. Science is dear to me. It is critical to me that it not be ignored. It is rarely challenged, because it is held within religions as secondary, but if it were…
It’s hard for the naturalist to see things from the point of view of the theist, because naturalism isn’t challenged. But if it were challenged in the same way, if what you know with your whole being as truth is put up for debate, reactions are strong.
Here’s the thing. I agree with a lot of this, but that’s because my belief system tells me that it’s true – just like a Christian’s belief system may tell them that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib. The thing that a lot of atheists forget is that atheism is also a belief system. It’s based on observation, this is true, but there is no reason, other than the fact that it’s always been that way, that how things have always been is how they will always be. If there is a God, or many, they control physics and math as with everything else. Here’s another RadioLab podcast, this one dealing with the Decline Effect, that is… puzzling. We think that science tells us everything we need to know, but what happens when observations simply fail from within the belief system?
This comic isn’t about how religion is crappy, or about (as I think it intends to be) how atheism is superior. It’s about the way an atheist sees theism, minus any self-awareness. Everybody thinks that their belief system is superior, because otherwise they wouldn’t believe in it – and the biggest problem that this cartoon seems to have is that theists keep on insisting that their belief system is superior. Much like the comic itself.