Over the weekend, I heard a talk by Seth Andrews. He’s a prominent atheist who runs The Thinking Atheist podcast. He is very good, which is not surprising. He had worked in Christian broadcasting before becoming an atheist. And he has a gorgeous radio voice and he’s pretty smart and knowledgeable. But I made the mistake of listening to more of his work. None of it is bad. It is just that he presents an extremely common and troubling outlook on life.
Again and again, he talks about atheism in terms of science and what we can prove. Most annoyingly, he claims to base his life on rational thought. It is such an arrogant view. And untrue! We humans are very strange and how we make decisions is only very slowly coming into any kind of focus. But what we do know is that we aren’t nearly as rational as we think we are.
Belief in God, at least today, is more silly than irrational. Most people believe in God for the same reason they vote Republican or root for the Raiders — it’s a cultural thing and they really don’t think much about it. The houses built by fundamentalist Christians are generally as sound as those built by atheists. So theists may be misguided in their belief in specific myths, but they aren’t irrational in a general sense.
I never believed in God. From a fairly young age — from about the time I understood what death was — I wanted to believe in God. But it always seemed too stupid to believe in. Even at the age of ten, I could not see any more reason to believe in Jesus than to believe in the Greek myths I read about in school or the Norse gods I saw in comic books. So perhaps I have a different approach to atheism. I didn’t start off in one culture and move to another. So it isn’t necessary for me to make religious belief or non-belief into a tribal issue. And I believe this is what Andrews has done.
That doesn’t mean that Andrews is bad. He’s actually charmingly inclusive. One thing I really like is that when I listen to him, I feel like I am an atheist. Too many in the atheist community make me feel like I’m a heretic. But a big part of why Andrews includes the great range of non-believers is just that he is so focused on his former Christianity. And I’m glad he clawed his way out of that tribal association. But let’s not go too far in claiming the intellectual high ground.
Much better than Andrews is Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist. Of course I would think that: he is a former math teacher. But as much as I like him, he exhibits some of the same issues. For example, I came upon the following video, “Atheists, where did the universe come from?” I was very exited to see that title, because too few atheists will even engage with the question. But I was really unhappy with his answer:
I don’t have a problem with the answer, “We just don’t know!” That’s a perfectly fine, if incredibly boring, answer. But he makes a critical mistake in framing the question as he does. He says, “Scientists can come up with theories of what may have been there [before the big bang], but the truth is, right now — and maybe forever — we won’t be able to answer that question definitively.” This makes the same mistake that theists make when they claim that God created the universe: it just pushes the question back a step. What if scientists proved that our universe is just part of a multiverse? That would be no more final an answer than the Big Bang is.
When it comes to this ultimate ontological question, I find science and theology equally useless. But theologians understand that the existence of “God” is a real problem — that it must exist in a form that we cannot comprehend because of our being locked into this universe. Scientists largely don’t see the real problem. They are like mechanical engineers thinking that they might figure out the structure of the periodic table by building better bridges. They won’t, because they aren’t even approaching the question.
I understand that we ask the kind of questions that we have tools to answer, and we really don’t have the tools to answer this question. But what a great opportunity this provides! There ought to be common ground here among scientists and theists. The scientists ought to look out at the universe as the theists look out at “God.” Because it is the same thing: the great unknown. I understand that theists are, in general, annoying in their dogma and fear of anything that might counter it. But they aren’t any more irrational than anyone else. What’s irrational is the universe.
I think that people who claim to be science-based and rational are generally people who don’t understand science all that well. Science is a fantastic tool for learning things about the universe. But it is, thus far, limited to the universe. And math has shown us that logic itself is not necessarily consistent if you push it far enough. Thus I see no contradiction between science, atheism, mysticism, and macro-scale rationality. Who wants to join my tribe?