I recently ran across an article by an atheist (Ian Murphy, Alternet) criticizing five of the most popular atheists of our day (link below). I too believe it is a duty to distance myself from the words and actions of my own beloved group (the church) when those words are untrue or the deeds unfair. Moved by Ian Murphy’s sense of fairness, I thought I would pay homage to five atheists who have taught me the duty of radical honesty.
Bertrand Russell was a philosopher and mathematician whose book Why I am not a Christian helped me realize the importance of being honest and open about what no human being can know.
“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
Clarence Darrow was an attorney in the Scopes trial, but he was also a fearless advocate of free thought.
“Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.”
Robert Ingersoll is the Shakespeare of free thought. Is speeches against religion are some of the best sermons I have ever read.
“We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of (humankind), reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins — they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. (Human beings) in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average (person) of to-day — of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.
These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience — and for them all, (humanity) is indebted to.”
Stephen Jay Gould was an atheist who explored how science and religion could co-exist as different kinds of approaches to life. He was attacked by the intolerant of both sides.
“Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape- like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.”
Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was a non-theistic hymn to the universe. He saw the scientific method as basic humility and as the only possible cure for the nightmares of the imagination.
“In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”