I get a little testy when someone accuses fervent atheists of being “as bad as religious people.” It’s not the atheists who are trying to shut down abortion providers. It’s not the atheists who are trying to keep gays from marrying. It’s not the atheists who want children brought up in ignorance of science. It’s … oh, wait, who is doing that? Right. It’s the religious people.

Is it the religiously devout who can’t be elected to public office in the U.S. owing to bias against them by atheists? Why, no! It’s the other way around. Atheists can’t be elected to office due to voter bias, yet the most rabid, confused fundamentalists can march off to Congress and freely promulgate their bizarre views, to widespread public approbation.

The accusation that atheists are “as bad as” religious extremists popped up today in a conversation on Facebook, and I fired back. The conversation was dominated, it appeared, by agnostics. Their idea seems to be that we’re supposed to be polite to religious people, because who really knows?

Well, indeed — who really knows? None of us knows. For all we know, the entire universe could have been created ten minutes ago by a gang of giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts and Groucho Marx mustaches. I mean, really. It could have been. That hypothesis cannot be disproven.

It’s just not very likely. And from all the evidence that science has been able to gather over the past 300 years, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as “God” is no more likely than the hypothesis about giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts. The scientific investigation of the God question was conducted, at least for the first 200 years, not by atheists but by scientists who quite definitely believed in God and wanted to find evidence of the existence of God and the soul. Try as they might, they couldn’t find any evidence.

That being the case, to cling to the notion that “nobody knows — there could be a God” is just intellectual ineptitude wearing a fancy suit. Agnosticism is a refusal to look at the complete failure of scientific investigations of the question. It’s an embrace of ignorance.

I am impatient with people who embrace ignorance.

The “God” hypothesis has been used for millenia as an explanation of anything that people didn’t know how to explain in any other way. Love, seeds sprouting, being healed of disease, the movement of the planets in the sky — it was all God’s handiwork, right? But as science has learned about the real physical nature of these phenomena, there has been less and less need for the God hypothesis. The God of liberal religions today, some sort of vague cloud of universal love, is no more than a faint shadow of the God whose supposed acts were trumpeted by the old-time religion.

Liberal religious groups have retreated for a very good reason: The “God” hypothesis doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s a useless and waterlogged piece of intellectual flotsam.

It seems to me that self-proclaimed agnostics want atheists to sit down and be quiet because they want everybody to be polite. Especially, we should be polite to religious people, because, you know, they might turn out to be right after all. Or at least in the name of tolerance.

Given the amount of mischief (a euphemism for bloodshed) perpetrated by religious people over the past few thousand years, I feel disinclined to remain polite. And as a member of a minority that is widely misunderstood and discriminated against in various subtle ways, I can’t help feeling that asking me to tolerate religious people and their views is being a bit one-sided. We know perfectly well that a broad swath of conservative religious people do not and will never tolerate atheists. Every time we open our mouths to express our views, we’re a threat to them. It’s not just that they don’t understand us, or that they fear we’ll force them to question their beliefs. They think we’re evil. A source of social degeneracy and blah blah blah.

Should we be asked to tolerate people who think we’re evil?

You can read a good summary of the atheist point of view here. This article is a little repetitive; reasons 1, 4, 7, and 10 of the ten reasons are a lot alike. And we could debate about reason 9, because the more glaring awfulness of many sects with long histories has in fact been moderated over the centuries. Nonetheless, anyone who thinks agnosticism makes sense should give it a read.

What I think people mean by the “just as bad” comment is not that atheists’ views of social policy are bad, but rather that atheists sometimes express their views of religious questions in terms that are just as uncompromising. Atheists can be stubborn and confrontational.

But why shouldn’t we be? We’re right. We have logic and science on our side. The religious believers have only tradition (poorly understood or selectively cherry-picked), emotion (treacherously fickle), assorted legends (worthless), and the herd mentality (never reliable).

You hand me an empty bushel basket. You tell me, “There might be a diamond in the basket.” I look in the basket. There’s no diamond. I tell you, “There’s no diamond in there.” You tell me, “No, there might be a diamond. Really. Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.”

If that’s the kind of intellectual tap-dance you enjoy, congratulations. You’re an agnostic.

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2 thoughts on “Ignorance and Bliss

  1. I agree. you are or you aren’t. you believe or you don’t. Agnostics are Believers who may or may not question. We will never know, they are very non comittal. My opinion is that all self proclaimed agnostics are simply people who never get the attention they feel they deserve, so this title elevates their prestige among other believers who would never think to be so daring as to question their faith. The bad boys of the choir. These are the guys who were relegated to going no further than to “drop another basket of fries”, secretly admiring the shiny “Asst Manager” lapel pin that the boss wears. All they want is a shiny lapel pin that says “Fry Dropper”.

    Good piece, Jim.

  2. MidiJim, I, too, agree that agnostics aren’t trying hard enough. It is a lazy point of view that is irksome. I read the ’10 reasons I don’t believe in God’ piece you had highlighted. One of the 10 reasons had to do with the fact that people tend to believe the way their families believe. Very true. It is that sense—rather than logic—that keeps believers in the religious traditions.

    Another, and very potent reason to not have belief is the fact that as we learn more about how our world works, fact and reason trump the need to have a God send a flood, cure disease, etc.

    To be an agnostic and say, “I am just not certain….” is not enough. To say that I don’t know enough to deny God means you need to do a lot more study.

    Jim, keep blogging along these lines, and readers, please state your cases. It may take a long time, but we someday may look back upon religious thought and wonder why we muddled around for so, so long.mz

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