Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Sermon - another ist

Last summer I participated in a survey of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and sceptics titled administered by researchers at U of Waterloo (my alma mater btw). It was bound to have a bias as the survey was linked from many atheist web sites. I got an email from the researchers that gave a link to their preliminary results. As I read through the descriptions of respondents I realized that I hoped I didn't fall in the "new" atheist group. But I am. I'm in the group because I strongly agree with the idea that religion should be practiced privately and not inform  public policy and I'm in total agreement with individuating morality rather than binding/purity morality. I've held my religious (or lack thereof) beliefs for decades so why would it bother me to be put in the "new" atheist bucket?

Well for one thing gnu atheists *are* passionate about excluding religion for public policy. That means butting heads with pretty well all cultures as people seem to think you can't have culture without some kind of belief in a "higher something" authoritarian or not. This is not a fight I want to have. I just want to live my life according to my beliefs as I stay within secular law (hard sometime when it comes to speeding). My beliefs inform my actions and I expect your beliefs to form your actions.

For another - atheist are the last group public figures can malign and no one speaks up (except the Universal Society of Hinduism). Who wants to "own" that label? First the Pope now the Dalai Lama lay a lot of ills of modern society on criticism of religion as if the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Irish civil war, Yugoslavia and Bosnia atrocities and the ongoing deal between Israel and the rest of the Middle East are equal to words that simply saying that being religious doesn't make you more moral or ethical and religious documents do not correlate with known events.

And finally - whenever you read anything about how science and religion could get along if only those "new atheists" didn't rock the boat both belief, as it is commonly practiced, and atheism are distorted beyond recognition.

But after participating in and reading preliminary results from the Beyond Belief survey I'm happy to be identified with "New" Atheists who I would prefer were called informed atheists but I don't make up new terms just to make me comfortable. I am agnostic in that there could be an omniscient, omnipotent being pulling our marionette strings but how can we comprehend anything about such an entity much less how to make it happy? I am atheist about the existence of a God who listens to your prayers and decides what is best for you. I am "scientistic" about a shared reality that can be explored to give consistent measurable results that apply to everyone whether they believe or not.

When I was a teen, I thought religion was an effect way to control a diffuse population. Religious leaders were in it for the power. Everyone else was in it because it was the culture (and fear of punishment from the leaders). I couldn't imagine that there are people who are comforted by an authoritarian figurehead and unchanging world. Now that I've suffered some personal losses and empathized with friends who've had losses I can understand the appeal of a world view where you are promised that if you follow all these rules then you will get to see all those people/friends you've lost again. Your human suffering has a point other than mere existence and as a bonus you can feel superior to those who don't follow the rules as they've been handed to you (if that's the way you roll). Face it, premature losses haunt you as you wonder if there is anything that could have done. Change and uncertainty is frequently uncomfortable.

At this point in time it would take some extraordinary public event to make me accept the reality of God - that's the "scientistic" part of me. I'm sure I would resist the evidence but in the end, all the answers would lead to that reality regardless of whether I believed it or not.