Monday, May 07, 2007

The proof is not in the book.

Dan Gardner has written an absolutely brilliant article in which he dispatches those who would call atheists "fanatical".
Yesterday was one major religion's holy day. Today is another's. Tomorrow is a third's. So I thought this is an opportune moment to say I think all three of these faiths -- these mighty institutions, these esteemed philosophies, these ancient and honoured traditions -- are ridiculous quackery. Parted seas. Walking corpses. Nocturnal visits to Heaven. For goodness sake, people, the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is more plausible.
As P.Z. Myers says, "Preach it, brother". I might even add a "Yea! Verily!" to that.
Less Olympian thinkers have portrayed strident atheists as hacking away at the bonds of morality, which must inevitably lead to various forms of depravity ranging from the sexual to the genocidal.

Don't you know Stalin was an atheist? That's the way it goes. First you read Richard Dawkins. Then you have an abortion. Then you're putting a fresh coat of paint on the Gulag.

This frames the debate in a pleasingly symmetrical way. Over on that side are the insane religious fanatics who fly jets into skyscrapers and march around with signs saying "God Hates Fags." Over there are fanatical atheists. Between the two extremes are sensible moderates who take the Goldilocks approach to faith and reason. Not too hot. Not too cold. Lukewarm, please, keep it lukewarm.

But what constitutes a strident atheist? Apparently, this:

... among the atheists such as Richard Dawkins who have been labelled "fanatics." Now, it is absolutely true that Dawkins' tone is often as charming as fingernails dragged slowly down a chalkboard. But just what is the core of Dawkins' radical message?

Well, it goes something like this: If you claim that something is true, I will examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so.

That's it. That's the whole, crazy, fanatical package.

I don't really examine the claims of the religious. Dawkins does a pretty good job of it and I'm lazy. That doesn't mean I intend to restrict the rights of the religious. Not at all.

Knock yourself out, I say. And that's where it ends. Keep it to yourself or within whatever mythology you want to buy into. I'll let you. The freedom to pursue whatever zero-sum, death-centric, mumbo jumbo you want is a right in dozens of democracies. It's my right to ignore it. The problem arises when I say, "I'm not buying", somebody always, always tells me I'm persecuting them.

When the Pope says that a few words and some hand-waving causes a cracker to transform into the flesh of a 2,000-year-old man, Dawkins and his fellow travellers say, well, prove it. It should be simple. Swab the Host and do a DNA analysis. If you don't, we will give your claim no more respect than we give to those who say they see the future in crystal balls or bend spoons with their minds or become werewolves at each full moon.

And for this, it is Dawkins, not the Pope, who is labelled the unreasonable fanatic on par with faith-saturated madmen who sacrifice children to an invisible spirit.

This is completely contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even trivial claims ("John was the main creative force behind Sergeant Pepper") and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at least temporarily important ("Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction" being a notorious example).

So isn't it odd that when claims are made about matters as important as the nature of existence and our place in it we suddenly drop all expectation of proof and we respect those who make and believe claims without the slightest evidence? Why is it perfectly reasonable to roll my eyes when someone makes the bald assertion that Ringo was the greatest Beatle but it is "fundamentalist" and "fanatical" to say that, absent evidence, it is absurd to believe Muhammad was not lying or hallucinating when he claimed to have long chats with God?

I strongly urge everyone to read Gardner's column. And take a look at PZ Myers' take on it. If you emerge with your faith intact, good for you. That's not permission to weave ridiculous poppycock into government.

And speaking of PZ Myers, here's a present. I know it's not a beer drinking octopus, but it's the best I can do on short notice.

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