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.”
I have trouble with the word atheist because I don’t believe that any exist. I suspect that everybody has a god– a god in which they trust– a god which they serve at the depth of their being. It may be money. It may be nation. It may be white or black power. It maybe self, or some set of concepts that most of us consider wonderful (liberty, peace, truth, love, etc) or things that most of us would see as suspect (power, hierarchies, dogmas, etc.) I constantly remind people that the biblical sin is not atheism but idolatry, or as Tillich said (and I paraphrase) : “Treating the contingent as the ultimate.”
I am agnostic about many things, including many things that are included as dogma in various religions, including my own. I see doubt as the background of faith, and you really can’t have one without the others. The 2nd commandment was to make no idol. I think most of our idols today are made of concepts in contrast to sticks and stones and even precious metals and jewels.
A friend of mine once said, “Anything added to the words “God is” is heresy. To speak partical truths is not to tell the whole truth, and we cannot proclaim the whole truth because it is unknown.
I believe that there was a man Jesus who walked upon the earth, and in him, people found comfort peace and healing. I believe that those who wrote about him after the fact probably expanded parts of the story and overlayed other stories on Jesus, and therefore one must be very careful when one speaks about Christianity, because lots of “Christians” are actually biblicists who use the bible as their idol and their club. But I do think that a better way of being human was shown by Jesus. The problem is that he annoyed the system and was crucified. But those who had been touch by him, physically and mentally, realized that what he said and did will live forever because it points to full and abundant life. The greatest enemy to living an abundant life is fear, for once people know how to scare you, they know how to control.
Again, I don’t disagree with everything self proclaimed atheists say, however, I’m not sure that I accept their self description.
I hae long considered myself to be agnostic- to not know the full story about our (humanind’s) connection with the devine. But, I cannot imagine a universe where the preceived concept of god is created in man’s own image with, as Robert Heinlein put it -” with trhe manners and themorals of a spoiled child.” I expect more from God than is portrayed by many faiths- from the radical murdewrous extremes of the Muslim faith to the hateful, judgmental tirades of the Christianists (I really like that word) played out every day in the media. I do not recognize the sweet Jesus I grew up with – the concepts of love, and peace and forgiveness are drowned out by the cachophany of damnatiion and exclusion based on .who you love, who you are and what you think..When my daughter was just 6 or 7, I overheard her talking to a neighbor child as they were sitting on the stoop eating popsicles and discussing religion.Megan told the other girl that we were ” golden rule kind of people” and was told that she was going to hell because she didn’t go to a Christian church.. To say the least that judgmental attitude with no room for accepting another opinion (especially a view that is a christian concept) was quite disturbing. One thing I do know about god is in the overpowering,, unconditional love for a child. That has never changed in almost 30 years, only deepens with each year I cannot imagine not being able to express doubt, or question matters of religion , paring away the fact from the unwavering acceptance, off faith and chosing what fits your life best. That is what ,is lacking in organized religion and why I do not affiliate myself with any one.
Thanks Walt. “Atheist” is obviously a name theists came up with. A lot of people prefer words like “free thinker” so as not to be defined in opposition to someone else.