Atheism: Those Who Know Do Not Say, Those Who Say Do Not Know


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With the coming of a very low-key, very gentle pro-atheism awareness campaign on facebook in ‘A’ week (http://www.aweekonfacebook.com/, Facebook event, #aweek Twittertag ), I’ve been reminded of the hesitation that many atheists feel towards the promotion of atheism in any way. Talking about any type of promotion or advocacy in favour of atheism as annoying because “this is the sort of thing that X-, Y- or Z-ians/-ists/ers do” may not be exactly how the majority of atheists feel, but I’d say, and only from my own feeling (not very skeptical, but still), that a large majority of atheists either couldn’t care less in trying to spread ideas and grow our mostly merry, but sometimes quite grumpy band of disbelievers, or are very uncomfortable with the thought of trying to actively or passively win people over to the idea that, maybe, they should give up the idea of an invisible Daddy In The Sky who grants wishes a little less frequently than you see the evil evidence of His Divine, or more humanly – if not humanely – divined, Will

But when you see the damage that religion does, and the toxic effect that a supreme, unquestionable authority and unquestioned afterlife can bring – from the banality and stupidity of the penny candle, crap wine and drain-filtering devices (pieces of The Christ’s Holy, suspiciously bread-like, Flesh must be saved from the insult of the sewers) of Catholicism (though after 2000 years on a bread and wine diet, I’m certain Jesus could make excellent use of modern facilities) to the horrendous tradition of wife-burning in Hindu ‘Sati’, thankfully both illegal and much reduced in modern India, or the unholy union of extreme Christianity in demonising a contraceptive layer of latex that could do so much to help the AIDS crisis – doesn’t this, shouldn’t this drive anyone with a rational bent and compassion for humanity towards doing what we can to reduce the influence of The Beast, even to simply kick the giant’s toe?

I can understand that being an atheist-in-practise and technical agnostic in a theist or desperately-wanting-to-believe world soaked in a steady stream of pap-filled, infuriating pamphlets, preaching and priests can be a frustrating existence, but to turn around from this and in that frustration deny to rationalism in general, or your rationalism in particular, the weapons of the battleground of ideas, the modern tools of marketing and persuasion, and give all the ground to fight for over to theists is to stop kicking the giant’s toe and take a gun to your own.

The argument that people should be left alone to find their own path, free to decide without coercion is, firstly, to deny that massive pro-theist coercion is out there, all day every day, not to fight against that tide is to resign the game. Secondly, it strikes of a high-handedness that’s quite prevalent in Buddhism, in my opinion, but without the necessary element in Buddhism of what is called ‘skilful means’, the art of manipulation over the long-term…

It’s with this in mind that I offer you, gentle reader, this parody of a pretty famous anecdote in the world of Zen:

A: Tell me, B, of this Atheism, this acceptance of the overwhelming probability that there is no supreme creator, no divinely-ordained purpose to the existence of every particle and person, no will to bend our souls to…

B: I know not of this Atheism. I cannot breathe of what I accept as truth, for this will inevitably influence your biases towards what would be your own internal outcomes… Yay, I decry the Dawkins and the Sagans of this world for their petty, insolent meddling in the minds of others. There should be those things left to monks and priests and dress-wearing men of every shade or stripe, every colour and complexion. We, WE have a very, VERY high horse upon which we sit and cannot be seen to enter into the arena of ideas with those of such trivial notions of idealistic fancy. Truly, it is a shame we cannot live without air and alimentation, for the foul believers indulge in these earthly, despoiling pursuits also.

A: But B! I’ve seen you chuckle at the Holy Men! I’ve seen you! You mock them! You do not go to the temples as other men, you prefer to sit with Dostoevsky, or a little light Kafka splayed upon your lap! Tell me! Show me the way that you take!

B: I cannot behave as the priests do. They take your hunger and feed you themselves… I leave you to feast upon yourself. Let your chips fall where they may.

A: Please! I beseech you! In the name of Pedagogy!

B: No.

A: An idea! A sign! A Symbol! Anything!!!

B: Have you finished your porridge?

A: I have. I HAVE!

B: Then wash your bowl.

Easter is based on a beautiful, empirical, scientific scheme – The first Sunday after the full moon (The Paschal Moon) following the Vernal Equinox – and is a picture of the lack of divine influence in the universe. Why not take this event, this year as the chance to express to the people who know you, the people who may be vulnerable at the moment, to say to the people who may be tempted (link NSFW: Swearing) to celebrate the death and resurrection of a Jewish Carpenter by telling children that a giant bunny left chocolate eggs in the night, to tell the people who will be influenced to even a tiny degree by your choices that you choose reason, you choose a life without a manic-depressive divinity pouring over every detail of you life – especially your sex life and pig-eating habits – and that you openly, unashamedly, staunchly reject giant bunny rabbits with the lock-picking skills of a cat burglar bringing chocolate eggs to the bedrooms of our children in the night.

Don’t get me started on Santa.

Come on!

Go get the A.

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  1. #1 by Helen on March 31, 2010 - 14:00

    Hrm…I recognise this discussion…where have I seen this before?

    I didn’t get chance to respond to you the other day (work and a heavy cold are driving me nuts) but the example you’re using here is bizarre since A already seems to know that B is an atheist…doesn’t that mean that B has already gone some way towards ‘spreading the word’? If B knows that A knows (and from the example it’s because of B’s actions that A has anything to say at all), then why wouldn’t B answer the questions? It’s not like B has walked around in a sandwich board proclaiming hard-line slogans like ‘GOD IS DEAD’.

    I suppose my objection to ‘A week’ is pure methodology. It seems designed to royally piss off deists. Not only is it running over Easter, but it’s using similar tactics to those deists themselves have employed (both arrogantly and pretty fruitlessly) to convert atheists. To show anyone that a person can be moral without god is a good and noble cause – why can’t this be shown by BEING good, moral and noble? That doesn’t mean questions can’t be answered upon the asking…

  2. #2 by Helen on March 31, 2010 - 14:49

    Helen :Hrm…I recognise this discussion…where have I seen this before?

    I forgot the little smiley face after this BTW…so a belated XD to you Meester Callister! lol

  3. #3 by Allan on March 31, 2010 - 14:55

    I really don’t think ‘A’ week is designed to piss off those of a theistic bent at all. The fact that certain people will be pissed off at the mere mention of atheism is no reason, whatsoever, to deny the oxygen of publicity in all its forms to a lack of belief.

    Anything A knows prior to the discussion is based on his own inferences from B’s, not explicitly atheistic, behaviour. B won’t answer because he doesn’t want to influence A’s behaviour explicitly.

    Point is missed somewhat, though… it’s an extended parody of this story… with the preamble replacing the context of the entrance of the monastery.

    http://www.nozen.com/washbowl.htm

    It’s a gag, and i’m not explaining my gag anymore. *folds arms* 🙁

    The event is running over Easter, fine… you could take that as a slight. I don’t see that as a particularly massive insult, specifically as A week itself isn’t explicitly deriding or ridiculing the beliefs of others… and, for Christ’s sake (bum bum), the majority of believers go around celebrating with chocolate eggs… In the UK we even call the holiday by its pre-Christian, Germanic links, rather than the paschal names of most other languages, based on Jewish Passover.

    Contrived Astronomical Dating, Bunny Rabbits, Chocolate Eggs, Pancakes, Self-Flagellating Lent… In the modern world Easter lampoons itself. There’s no need to insult it, really.

    When, exactly, could atheism fit itself in for a little self-promotion around all the other religions? Is there a place in the calendar that won’t piss off any religion at all?

    Got it!

    February 29th.

    Oh no.. That’ll always be during Lent.

    *rolls eye*

  4. #4 by Stu on March 31, 2010 - 15:54

    I’m not a person who goes out of his way to convert – if that’s the right word – people to atheism.

    However, and I do do this every other Saturday in Ormskirk Town Centre, if people are trying to convert me to Christianity by shouting at me in the street then I reserve the right to shout my own non belief out and to point out what I consider to be the flaws in their arguments. I’m on first name terms with them all and we go for some tea and toast afterwards mind.

    Just being good, moral and noble isn’t enough though. As I pointed out to my born-again Christian friends last time we had a ‘discussion’, things done in the name of faith based belief can kill!

  5. #5 by Jon d on April 1, 2010 - 09:47

    Good luck with your campaign against eating chocolate and having a long weekend.

  6. #6 by Simon Nurse on April 1, 2010 - 11:25

    Come on Allan! You can’t pretend that this event isn’t designed to get the goat (a true biblical farm animal) of Christians. Pick the middle of June (17th-28th to be precise) if you want to dodge any festivals.

    I’m with jon d. I like the long weekend and Easter eggs -especially the ones with the little bag of smarties in them. Incidentally, I’m an Agnostic. There is no proof whatsover of the existence of a God(s). Equally, there is no proof whatsover that there isn’t a half-hearted, fairly lazy, let ’em-get-on-with-it-no-matter-how-nasty-they-can-be-kind-of-God, either. So to contend absoultely there isn’t, is to promote belief of another sort.

    In the spirit of rationality, until someone can prove there is a god(s), I will assume that there isn’t one, but be open to the possibility on production of the evidence (in the – granted – extremely unlikely event that it ever arrives). On this basis, I won’t expect salvation, feel the need to pray or to carry out any nasty acts in his/her/their name(s).

    This issue differs from others such as homeopathy and climate change, where science has proved pretty conclusively that the former is real and the latter is bunkum. To be closed minded is to not be skeptical.

    I like this statement from everyone’s favourite commons (except people reviewing academic papers that is) Wikipedia:

    “Scientific skeptics do not assert that unusual claims should be automatically rejected out of hand on a priori grounds – rather they argue that claims of paranormal or anomalous phenomena should be critically examined and that such claims would require extraordinary evidence in their favor before they could be accepted as having validity.” On that basis, Atheism would not seem to fit in with a true skeptic position until science ultimately discovers the origins of the big bang, dark matter and whacks a few more particles together under – ironically – chocolate central (Switzerland).

    I do agree with Stu’s point about things done in the name of faith based belief. But that of course is not to say that all religious people are involved in these activities or that the individuals wouldn’t find some other horse to back in the absence of religion (like football terrace hooligans, racists, WI members* etc. etc.)

    If anyone out there is missing a deity, I can heartily recommend ‘The Gospel of the Flying Spagehetti monster’. Now I AM prepared to believe in him – http://www.venganza.org/ – ‘cos I like his style and think it’s unlikely this God will ask me to sacrifice anything other than a 500g bag of penne. I bought the leather bound copy of the book. I’ll sneak it into a church one day. 🙂

    *joke!

  7. #7 by Allan on April 1, 2010 - 12:57

    Mid-late June = midsummer.

    Midsummer = religious festival for many faiths. 😉

    Oh, and on the subtle agnosticism/atheism line debate… I’m a technical agnostic, because I can’t prove there are no gods just as i can’t presently prove there are no teapots orbiting the sun between the earth and mars… Practising atheist because, really, there’s no point in presuming something might exist if there’s absolutely no evidence in favour of it.

    So yes, technically, I can only go so far as the limits of agnosticism allows. Practically, I’m an atheist. I doubt you take the judgement of any deities into account in your daily life… therefore…

  8. #8 by Allan on April 1, 2010 - 12:59

  9. #9 by Simon Nurse on April 1, 2010 - 14:54

    “Practically, I’m an atheist. I doubt you take the judgement of any deities into account in your daily life… therefore…”

    Who presumes? This agnostic doesn’t. There’s simply no evidence at all, either way (and almost certainly never will). I might take the flying spaghetti monster into consideration though – I love Italian food.

    Thanks for the calendar. It’s similar to my source, good old politically correct, Auntie:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/tools/calendar/date.shtml?month=6&year=2010&go=Go

    I took the liberty of dismissing Pagan’s though, which is a tricky standpoint – my mother in law is one!

  10. #10 by Simon Nurse on April 1, 2010 - 15:02

    oops, sorry quoted the wrong bit. I was after ‘no point in presuming’. I’m rubbish with a keyboard (and lots of other things besides).

  11. #11 by Jon d on April 1, 2010 - 16:43

    Perhaps after wiping chocolate eggs, pancakes etc. off the menu you could turn your attention to religiously mandated ‘days of rest’ and insist on working 7 days per week 365 days of the year?

    See afaict society, least in britain has secularised christian festivals and they’re all about feeding your face and having fun.

    Imo you make yourself round a little bit bonkers getting worked up about it just cos there’s a scrap of the obsolete christian label still attached.

  12. #12 by Stu on April 4, 2010 - 19:56

    Simon

    I used to call myself an agnostic until my ‘psoriasis moment.’ I was actively looking for god when I happened upon a book explaining the beliefs of many different religions.

    The fact that different people are willing to fight, kill and die over how the same god should be worshipped sickened me no end! God is also capable of different things in different religious peoples’ eyes which is the same as saying NOBODY KNOWS. What I can be certain of in my own mind though is that nobody is watching me type at the moment.

    The all knowing god – of the abrahamic religions at least – is nothing short of a Bronze Age tribe inventing an idea to justify their ethnic cleansing and land grab. I’m half way through the old testament by the way.

    As Sam Harris put it: The church that allows millions of people to die each year just because they themselves don’t like condoms deserve no respect AT ALL!

    I wish Jon d’s final paragraph were true, I really do. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Imagine being the subject of vitriol and hatred just because you don’t believe in the central message of easter? This happens all over the world where christianity is practised.

  13. #13 by Michael on April 5, 2010 - 17:28

    What would we then call the long weekend holiday in springtime? Equinox weekend?

  14. #14 by Simon Nurse on April 5, 2010 - 19:03

    Stu – I agree with all that you’ve said about Christianity and there will always be pyschopaths, madmen, uneducated people and plain old naiivety. None of this affects the evidence surrounding the existence or probable non-existence of a god figures(s), but it says rather a lot about the sorry side of human nature.

    No matter what excuse people use to indulge in foul acts against others or how potty their chosen faith is…….there is still no evidence either way. So to call it definitively, in the absence of any evidence is to follow an alltogether different faith, driven by an alltogether different belief system. But it is still a belief. The absolute belief in no god. If you want to argue against a particular religion or indeed all religions, for some of the disgraceful views they can purport, well……that’s different. Go for it, I’ll be with you all the way. A true agnostic’s views will not be clouded by how bizarre a particular belief is or the acts carried out in it’s name. It’s too easy to let our judgement get clouded by anger.

    Personally, I just can’t see evidence for or against, so I’ll agree to disagree with all views in either direction until somebody can prove different – and I think we all know how unlikely that is!

  15. #15 by Ben Y on March 29, 2011 - 22:22

    Simon,

    Philosophically it might sound fair, but remember that I can be equally agnostic about the initial agnosticism, then someone of me… ad infinitum. That is the problem when it is ‘simply’ a philosophy.
    Also agnosticism claims that no evidence will ever be found, can ever be found. This is a connection to the world outside of the philosophy. Should the agnosticism care about any evidence? Would a miracle disprove it, or mathematical proof of an eternal universe requiring no creation? No, because nothing is ever 100% (we can be a computer simulation and not be real at all etc).
    So what is agnosticism if it will never weigh evidence? A belief itself (an infinitely recursive one?), a philosophy?, connected to evidence? not connected to it?

    Is it possible to go any further than agnosticism while staying within its ‘truth’ that we remain skeptical about certainties?

    Yes and no. I definitely think it is possible to be a little more sophisticated in our arguments than agnosticism itself. If we consider that all ideas are actually just fallible human ideas. Agnosticism is the application of a rule of uncertainty to the idea of Gods and the means in which they are able to be constructed, but the sophistication in their refutation does not come from any philosophical stance alone, but in realising that any evidence given for them is just a human idea that can be tried and tested by other human ideas.

    Because of this you are being a little fallacious (self fallicious?) when you say you are agnostic about God’s, Theism and Atheism. Agnosticism requires total absolute agnosticism. About God’s, about tea pots, about bridges and aeroplanes, economies and people. It is a complete philosophy about all things, not specifically about deities. If we can say nothing on the human claims about God’s then we can say nothing about human claims altogether. Unless you are being self serving in your argument the absolutist claims inherent to agnosticism must apply to all things.

    Obviously I do not think that that is necessary. I believe that while it is true that we cannot claim certainty it is reasonable to assume it is possible to know things. That planes are capable of flying, that radiation kills, or that we need food to survive for example, not through philosophy, but through practice and example.

    I think that these things show a weakness in the philosophy, not that philosophy shows a weakness in these things. More than that I think that (until evidence to the contrary) the existence of evidence is what we use to judge the numerous different and conflicting philosophies. We do not get to choose a philosophy we like and follow it contrary to evidence.

    Concerning Gods it is still complicated. Yes we can formulate types that do not conflict with evidence, such as your one that is ‘half-hearted, fairly lazy, let ‘em-get-on-with-it-no-matter-how-nasty-they-can-be-kind-of-God’.

    I note though, and I think you should too, that you have adjusted the concept of a God based on external evidence, not something entirely consistent with pure agnosticism. Your incorporation of Lazy, Nasty etc is there presumably to accomodate Theodicy – such things as children’s eyes being eaten from the inside by worms, or Tsunami’s that kill 10,000’s of men, women and children – or entire extinctions. Strictly, do that is not agnosticism, since you are respecting that evidence can change the nature of Gods.

    So, what can science do?

    I think it can help us talk about different God types very well. If someone makes the claim that God is X, Y and did Z and we look at nature and understand that those claims either did not happen or are in some other way incorrect and unsound then what we have done is not so much invalidate the God, but invalidate an idea put forward by another human using another idea put forward by another human.

    This allows us an avenue around contemporary agnosticism, and a window into how we can be productive and remain grounded in how we build understanding and fairly evaluate it.

    Protecting a special idea using the unfounded idea that understanding can never touch it is not valid unless it holds for everything toasters to combustion engines – and agnosticism does not hold so well against them.

    Basically I think it only looks like it is wearing nice clothes because typically it is used to address something non-corporeal, mysterious and difficult for many people who have not read the science and philosophy surrounding the subject.

    I am agnostic about your agnosticism, but also agnostic about my own agnosticism about your agnosticism, which I think makes it intellectually untenable in a world where we regularly use advanced technologies, stemming from the human ideas. I think our intellectual world is populated only by human idea’s and it is both fair and reasonable to judge these using other human ideas, not ring fencing them with protectionism.

    The claims, without support:
    It made the world.
    It made life.
    It protects us.
    It gives us a soul.
    It made the universe.
    It made people.
    It answers prayers.
    Specifics; Jesus ascended, Mohammed ascended, Mary ascended
    The tombs split open and the dead walked the earth
    King Arthur reigned with his knights of the round table

    The above are human sentences, human ideas created by people. It is not philosophically unreasonable to assess them using fairer rule sets than protectionist ones. Rules that create usable information in other, testable, circumstances. To derive answers to whether the above are tenable or have other working explanations.

    The question for any budding agnostic is how to manage the philosophy in that world. Where human claims can be tested against other humans claims (A vs B) to produce ideas that work against the backdrop of existence. If agnosticism must look outward to see if it is correct, then it must rely on science as well. It need not sink into itself for its own protection, when it too has points where it self assess based on the input of external ideas.

    Much fairer to say we can never know anything to 100%, but recognise it as a pure philosophy in a world where every day millions fly around in complex machines, receive scans from ingenious medical marvels, or play in virtual reality worlds based on mathematical constructs of the unimaginably small.

    In short, I take the functional evidence over the isolationist ‘pure’ philosophy any day of the week, but at the same time respecting the limitations of any evidential argument not as being grounded in agnosticism, but as being limited to the honest appraisal of the next result.

    That is how understanding and knowledge are built. Agnosticism is not the fair means of pulling them down.

(will not be published)