I saw Bill Maher discussing his new movie on the Daily Show last week, and this jumped out at me.
“I don’t say there is no God. I’m not an atheist, because I find atheism to be a mirror of the certainty of religion, and I don’t like certainty about the next world, ’cause we can’t know…”
I’m really, really tired of this kind of false equivalency.
Yes, in a very technical sense, we’re all agnostics, because we quite literally don’t know what happens after we die; we don’t know if there is some sort of deity waiting for us. Yet, David Hume proved a long time ago that we never have absolute certainty about anything, and we just have to live with that. In most cases, we do. No one absolutely knows if the sun will be on the eastern horizon tomorrow morning, but we’re all living as if it will, and no one is losing sleep over it. You don’t know for certain that this guy standing in front of you talking about his pet unicorn that only he can see doesn’t really have one, but no intelligent person would actually grant the possibility. We gather evidence to the best of our ability and pick the most likely choice, and quite obviously, not all choices are equally valid. Why, then, when it comes to the existence of God, the soul, or an afterlife, do people like Maher pull up short and act like it would be some sort of crime to do the same thing?
I can only guess that they’re still harboring a vestigial sense of awe, or even some residual fear, of the notoriously psychotic Christian God, who, as we all know, has no patience for anyone questioning him. But even if that’s not the case, this sort of subtle, self-congratulatory back-patting for being so reasonable and fair-minded is really irritating. How convenient that these kinds of people are levitating above it all on a lotus blossom of intellectual purity while all the benighted, dogmatic fanatics fight it out in the muck below. And speaking of elevating oneself, the whole “but doesn’t religion provide comfort?” trope that Stewart brought up earlier in the interview smacks of condescension. I noticed years ago while reading this book that every time religion had been challenged over the centuries, defenders of the status quo had usually said something to the effect of: Okay, sure, those of us gathered here, being sophisticated men of intelligence and education, can handle frank discussions of whether God exists or not, but if the masses were to have their faith taken away, why, the savage beasts would soon be raping, robbing and pillaging in a nihilistic fury, so we have to prosecute you for the good of society, sucks to be you. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in other words.
I bow to no one when it comes to my contempt and scorn for hoi polloi, the great unwashed, the hive mind, but I do at least start from the premise that they deserve to be treated as adults who know their own minds and thoughts, not feeble-minded children who need an encouraging muss of the hair and a condescending smile. Heated arguments are far better than patronizing coexistence, as far as I’m concerned. But to return to the original point: false comfort is no comfort at all. Let people have the dignity of being given all the information available and trusted to deal with it.
I call myself an atheist for practical reasons: as an American in the 21st century, talk about “God” is, in the vast majority of cases, centered around the Christian God, the personal, loving God who cares about you, your family and friends, and your favorite sports teams. Most people are not interested in an abstract intellectual version like what the Deists offered. So, with that in mind, I hope it doesn’t still require belaboring how the Enlightenment-era philosophers did a fine job in pointing out the ways in which it was impossible for any intellectually honest person to reconcile a loving God-the-Father with the endless misery suffered by the majority of people who had ever existed in the blood-soaked history of the human race. Schopenhauer catalogued the even more mind-numbing details of all the suffering of the animal kingdom. We’re all aware of this, yes?
But what about a soul or an afterlife? Sure, that’s believable. It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all to think that your thoughts and feelings somehow can exist in a disembodied state, independent of the sensory organs and brain that inform and process them, floating around in the ether for eternity, or until they inhabit another body like a virus. And never mind all the naysayers from Nagarjuna to Alan Watts who have pointed out that all the elements that make you “you” were around before you existed, from the atoms of your physical body, to the language you use to form and express your thoughts, to the air, food and water you need to sustain your existence, and they will all be there after you’re gone, when your physical body has dissolved into the soil or into a pile of ash, and your thoughts and actions exist only in the memories of those who knew you.
There is nothing to suggest the existence of any of those things besides the burning desire of believers to want them to exist, but, you know, the universe doesn’t need our permission to be the way it is, sorry to break it to you. That’s why I feel confident enough to call myself an atheist – whatever mysteries remain to be discovered about the universe, I’m willing to bet (to bet my eternal life, in fact), that none of them are going to point towards the existence of a bipolar deity waiting to judge us based on what we’ve been doing with our genitalia. I don’t claim to have absolute knowledge; I just say that all the available evidence points in that direction. Claiming that all this puts me on the same level as a snake-handling fundamentalist is semantic bullshit.