getting my atheist on

Last week, I was told that I have a “god-shaped hole in my heart.” … I think I’d prefer to phrase it as he has a god-shaped figment jammed crosswise in his brain.

P.Z. Myers, Pharyngula, 2006/10/27, “A godless ramble against the ditherings of theologians

The last couple of years I’ve been pleased to see an outbreak of out-and-out criticism of religion, not just for the bad things religious folks do in the name of religion, but for the silliness and harmfulness of religion itself.

For me, the charge has been led by Richard Dawkins (most recently, The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula). Dawkins, Harris and Myers aren’t truly leading a charge; they’re surfing the zeitgeist. A lot of folks are ticked off about religion, but until lately, one would rarely hear us talk about it. Despite the stereotype of the proselytizing atheist, most of us don’t bother. (If only the religious folks of the world would just stop flaunting their lifestyle.)

But in response to the front-lash of religion, Dawkins/Harris/Myers have put themselves on the frontlines. They’re engaging in public dialogs that help individuals, like me, engage in personal dialogs. Out of their work, I’ve gotten great conversational segues: “No, I haven’t read X, but I’ve been really enjoying Sam Harris’ The End of Faith — it really is time for a resurgent anti-clericalism!” We’ve got pithy quotes: “omg, please check out P.Z. Myers’ “god-shaped figment” quote!” We’ve got war-on-xmas gifts.

Anyway, I woke up this morning, thinking (again) how happy I am to have finally seen people articulating, publicly, three of my favorite and most deeply-held sentiments about religion:

  • Religious education is child abuse. (Dawkins) Religious education is indoctrination by another name. It’s indoctrination into a fictional belief that, unlike the belief in Santa Claus, isn’t widely dispelled by peer mockery early in life. And, unlike beliefs in Santa Claus, religious beliefs generally carry a lot of really harmful baggage in the guise of “moral” training — foremost among them, sex is bad; which leads to sexism, homophobia, mandatory “modesty” (it’s not just for Muslims, by the way–plenty of Christian sects require headcoverings for women, special underwear, and other weird manifestations of discomfort with the human body), and lots of tweaked sexual behavior by adults who learned, as children, to confuse a natural biological urge with something that inherently poses ethical questions.
  • Religious beliefs make you stupid. (Dawkins, Harris) Shoring up one’s faith by mustering shoddy arguments in defense of it models sloppy thinking. Rationalizing belief in the irrational is not just a waste of time, and an exercise in pointlessness — it’s dangerous, because it’s limitless and it’s habit-forming. The “leap of faith” is a jump off a cliff into darkness — a tunnel with no light at the end of it. There’s no telling where you’ll go: Once you’ve made the leap of faith that God exists, there’s no reason to not make hops of faith about anything else — unicorns, the Easter bunny, the soul, reincarnation, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the effectiveness of prayer, a tripartite God, God’s desire to impose Mosaic law, God’s voice in your head telling you to do something, Jesus entering your opened heart and lurking there like a genii in a bottle, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum. People’s ability to believe in, well, just about anything, is bounded, apparently, only by their imaginations, their childhood religious indoctrinations, their adulthood exposures to charismatic manipulators at times of personal crisis, and neurochemistry (internal, illegal, or prescription). Which is to say, once unmoored from reason, beliefs are not bounded at all, except by personal chance.
  • Religious faith should not be respected. (Dawkins, Harris, Myers) People are worthy of respect, and religious beliefs — like any other freedom of thought — are, inalienably, an individual’s right. But respect? No. You respect an individual person, and you can do so by arguing with them as if they were intelligent, capable of reason and understanding and growth, and able to argue intelligently about ideas. (As opposed to hearing your ideas and then, say, killing you or ordering your torture or impugning your personal character.) Religious beliefs should not be singled out for special treatment, as if inviolable. It’s dangerous and irrational to let religious belief pass without inquiry. People should argue about religion — the religious should argue with each other, and the irreligious should argue with the religious. Arguing is communication, it’s sharing information and perspectives and opinions. Open argument, dissent, disagreement, is the first step towards toleration and understanding. And it’s my “belief” that toleration and understanding and interfaith dialog are steps along a path towards atheism, with stops at comparative religion and understanding the role religion plays in human life and understanding the neurochemistry behind mystical experiences.

To me, these are obvious emperors-have-no-clothes statements. But until Dawkins, Harris and Myers got their atheist on out in public, it was rare to hear them said. So my Saturday morning celebration of outspoken atheism is dedicated to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and P.Z. Myers.