How to Be An Atheist (Without Being a Dick), 11 April 2016

As I have detailed elsewhere, I have never had a crisis of faith, any sort of religious belief system, and shortly after I was adopted, when told of Santa Claus, my first idea was to find a way to prove it — one way or the other — right or wrong — by setting up a camcorder (for you kids under … it was a large iPhone that couldn’t make calls or embarrass your employer). To look at that story, check out The Children Santa Cheated by clicking here.

There is a false and consistently demonstrated notion among members of the religious community that atheism is a strict belief system that denies goodness and man’s superiority over all animals and also women. The question is: are we born believing? The answer is, when I was three, I thought that deer were capable of flying around the world handing out presents to good little boys and girls. I believed that. It is a blank belief folder, instead of a named folder – it’s the best way to hide your porn. It is that atheism is a belief, or a belief structure, or that being atheist makes you less likely to value human life over the life of other animals. Not only is it not a belief, it is the de-facto nature of reasoning before the presumption to religiosity and divinity is imposed. Atheism is a religion if bald is a hair color. And yet, it is irresponsible, and wrong of non-theists to forever belittle and demean the beliefs of others.

          My atheism is not a flat denial of things beyond nature or understanding, it is the conclusion that I cannot believe in something as presented. It is the rejection of the specific, not the abstract, notion of a divine creator. My disbelief is in the specific, inasmuch as I don’t believe that history and biology needs to import a supernatural creator in order to be part of a divine, harmonious system. I believe in divinity; The Magic Flute, Mozart’s music, Beethoven’s sonatas, Einstein’s field equations, the all-mighty power of gravity – something that literally controls our experience of time – this is enough of the divine for any one human being to be getting on with. But I wouldn’t kill someone because they don’t like Beethoven, nor would I compel someone to worship him. After all, the definition of bullshit is what other people believe. 

          If we grew up without a cultural presumption to religion and its most common tenets – that of an omnipotent, all-powerful, omniscient, super-fabulous creator; the appeal to fear and desire – I think it would be a strange artifact for the modern world to encounter. If we grew up in a world without a societal presumption to religion, to an afterlife, to Gods and demons, how would religion emerge in a world without it? Well, it had to have done before, as cultures existed before and without the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What was unique in these ideas, and what cultural conditions nurtured the dissemination of these beliefs until they were made into laws? The difference is between faith and belief, philosophy and theory.

          What do you believe and why do you believe it?

          I believe that something can come from nothing. I have a reason and a legal biological precedent.

          At one point your father was not alive. That first number on his gravestone, that’s the moment he became a thing. As in, before that number, he was inside of your mother. He existed, but he didn’t have the mechanisms in place that would one day help create you. You did not exist before he existed, and at a point in time he was not in that point in time, meaning he did not exist, came into existence, and then because of this, you did. At the core of everything we passionately believe is something pretty ridiculous.

          I believe that tiny tiny tiny things called particles put together the universe using electrical information exchange. I cannot see them unless I squint really, really hard. I’ve seen some really lovely equations. At its core, this belief is based on how musical Feynman and those guys were in their mathematical language. Mathematics and chemistry are rare in that your theories can be proven within hours, maybe days; if you want to add phosphorous to a flaming methane slab, you will get results. If you say that you can calculate the distance between stars by beginning with the axiom that light travels at a finite speed, it has covered x amount of space in x amount of time, this gives us distance.

          If you propose that Napoleon quietly cultured a restoration of Monarchy by throwing the battle of Waterloo, your historical treatise will either be slightly interesting but never really verifiable but ultimately interesting, kind of. Someday documents may be found to verify that Napoleon was auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick film during the entire thing, and you’ll be proven right. If you claim that you can use a type of sand called silicon to store information, the veracity of that claim can be put to trial by combat immediately. If the numbers don’t work, they don’t work; and Napoleon was actually just an egotistical genius who thought he could defeat the world with a French army. That’s not neat and tidy, like fusion, numbers converting into explosions of solar energy. Maybe not everyone looks at e=MC2 and hears strange music and thinks, this is truth. This is right. And at its core, that’s objectively ridiculous and cute. Tiny particles can collide in the right way and create a sun, but a guy can’t fly a sleigh with reindeers.

          I was born into a culture that supported the notion that people could know what is objectively unknowable. What I call unknowable I think unknowable because I know of no way as of yet that can render empirical evidence, evidence that I could know it to a degree that I’d kill somebody to prove it. If the sun is not green, and e in fact equals nothing squared, nobody will be hurt. Unless that equation is just the representation of a cosmic process that could be turned into a weapon to destroy worlds. And it did. It is the equation of death. F=ma is romantic, Force equals mass times acceleration, a tenant of Newtonian, pre-Einsteinian motion. That works for me. That follows.

          People who don’t know me or what is and is not right, in my estimate, believe their duty lies in helping me. By sharing stories. Turns out, that guy is the reason for everything and all I have to do is make a pinky promise not to think differently and I’ll get to see my father again! It sounds too good to be true! It does not follow. It sounds like somebody had the wish before the wishmaker, and just granted the wish without ever paying for it. It’s an IOU – one eternity of happiness and stuff with angels and harps.

          Imagine:

          You are born into a culture without deeply entrenched systems that purport to know what is objectively unknowable:

          1) Death is not explained or given special emphasis, notice, and is treated as a matter of small moment;

          2) No one tells you stories about ancient scriptures, the varying interpretations inherent therein, and the world is without mythology and theology;

          3) There will be questions seemingly without answers: metaphysics is – essentially – the academic discipline of formalized nonsense – despite it being very somewhat sensical. Philosophy is the religion of the secularist world. Philosophy is religion without pronoun bias. Religion is built upon philosophical questions, or at least what can be presented as answers to philosophical questions.

          4) A philosopher emerges triumphant among a sea of otherwise more or less like-minded people within a small geo-political sphere of influence. How does the philosopher, not too different from the others in thought, come out on top of all the others, spread the message, and use the message to form a system of behavioral guidelines and control?

          5) Appeal to the naturally cultivated fear of the unknown in everyone, and replace the unknown with a presumed known, and give it an ominous, not quite provable but not easily refutable construct: you make it above nature. Once an idea becomes above nature, it loses the weakness a mere philosophy would have as criticisms based on and in nature can be dismissed for an idea ‘above-nature.’

          6) The appeal to fear and the appeal to hope have to be simultaneously triumphant and condemnatory; there are different types of fears in human lives, some of which are cultivated in various ways for different reasons, but there are deeper fears than, say, losing wifi signal. For example, there are different categories for fear: among them are the most preternatural of all: the super-fears. These all have to do with what has been chalked up to evolutionary baggage, accumulated over our species’ time on this planet: drowning, burning, falling, etc.

          7) An above nature idea is contrived as such to debunk criticisms prior to the criticisms being made, and ideas within the philosophy are put in place to intentionally pre-bias those who subscribe to the above nature idea by hinting at types of attacks the ‘non-believers’ will make against the idea. This is where the philosophy and the philosopher begin to morph into a theologian and a theology, a religion. The structures made by and maintained by human beings are fallible, and no one’s philosophy of life, if an asterisk must be added* will be taken, spread, and used as a means to justify that structure.

          If in religious texts, the prophecies and fables and parables – all of what makes up the religion part of it – is prefaced as ‘this is what we, as a group, think is correct’ – the zeal and importance behind its spread, I’d imagine, would be a lot less zealous and important. If the philosophy is the work of a mere man, it is up for review and subject to a type of scrutiny that faith and belief sets itself apart from.

          At what point does a philosophy become a religion?

          Imagine if Nietzsche, one of the most popular Western philosophers in history, hadn’t written Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the character of a prophet as a poet and dramatic device and instead wrote the same work under his own name and claimed divine inspiration. The text would have had the same words, but in the guise of a religion, the work would no doubt attract followers, followers who would codify which parts of the work were actually legitimately divine and which parts weren’t, which parts should be made into law. And there it is: the moment philosophy becomes religion is the moment when its messages, attempted teachings and morals, become the basis for laws – laws which are to be applied to those who believe as well as those who do not. If you disagree with Albert Camus that the nature of reality at its core is absurd, there is no system in place to make sure that you are punished for thinking this way. Because there is a subtle difference in the shift between philosophy and religion and it’s somewhat subtle: the language changes from, ‘I think this is so,’ to, ‘I believe this is so,’ and more dangerous still, ‘I know this to be so because of reasons outside of the realm of nature and human experience.’

               How philosophy becomes religion.

          To differentiate himself from the others, a moral or metaphysical philosopher will invoke the supernatural, something beyond logic and nature to circumvent the part of our brains that evaluate ideas in the context of how they work within the natural, real world. Second, the use of fears – the most primitive fears like drowning and fire, most commonly – are used as a means to give incentive for believing and a warning about the consequences of not believing: pandering to our most base desires, living forever, a reuniting with our lost loved ones, never having to face the horror of an indifferent universe, and in the same paragraph using the most base of our fears as a way to short-circuit our logical processes and reason, the type of reason with which we try to rationalize other ideas: like evolution, gravity, etc.

          The reason evolution is not a belief in the matter that a religious ideal is a belief is a simple, but critical departure: the presumption towards evolution was not a societal movement based on conditioning, it was a widely rejected, ridiculed, and maligned idea. By the time I studied evolution on a University level, it seemed to not be any great leap of faith to follow Darwin’s reasoning as reasoned in his On the Origins of Species. It is not an appeal to the suspension of our belief in the reasoning process. It is not preached as a philosophy – although it certainly was considered natural philosophy – but as a scientific, testable hypothesis. It is believed based on whether or not it can be shown. Reality is something that keeps happening when you stop believing in it.

             Atheism is a response to the specific, to one account of an omnipotent being, and the rejection of it having been shown as proof. If a singular document is the source for proof of that same document, you have what we call in academia, bullshit. Do not seek to convert the world, because fighting fire with fire only ends up burning everybody. Fight fire with water. Fight cruelty with kindness. Fight hate with love. Fight injustice with justice. Fight ignorance with the spreading of knowledge. And in the fight against ignorance, start by fighting your own. Nobody is helping anyone by assuming superiority based on religion (or the lack thereof), do not become the very thing you sought to oppose — the rigorous and zealous attempt at converting or otherwise demeaning those with whom you disagree. In other words, those who would presume to make atheism a movement or a condescending roommate to the world, just stop being dicks and tend your garden. You’re making heathens look bad.

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