Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Religion vs. Atheism: Let's Move on to the Real Issues

Daily, I am confronted by a staggering mass of Facebook pages, websites, publications, radio interviews, YouTube snippets, personal statements and a myriad other forms of communication talking about the apparent dichotomy between religion and atheism.

If I am to understand correctly, the line which divides religion and atheism seems to be science.  To be religious, I am told, seems to require of me a complete and total repudiation of science, and to be scientific, I am told, seems to require of me a complete and total repudiation of religion.

Surely, I am not the only person in the world who is able to be both, and feel no apparent conflict.

This fruitless debate has all been recently brought to the fore for me by the rover landing on Mars.  On the day this happened, I was at a barbecue and a rather drunk self-professed humanist (and don't get me started on the ego required to adopt that title) sidled up to me and announced that the recent Mars landing really challenged my faith.  I laughed, as I thought he was joking.  I don't know why I laughed, as it wouldn't have been a particularly funny joke even if it had been an attempt at humour, but when a drunk person cracks a joke, I generally laugh as that seems to placate them and they go away.  But he was sincere.  I inquired why he felt the landing should have any impact on my faith whatsoever.  He replied, "Well, it's not like Mars is in the Bible".  I replied, "Neither are Canada and barbecues, but here we are".  He wandered off to freshen his cocktail.

Getting back to the landing: as a science (and, I admit, science-fiction) geek, I am thrilled to see this feat of human ingenuity.  The universe is such a vast treasure-trove of mystery and information, and human nature (whether you consider it to be divinely-given or a by-product of the process of evolution) is such that curiosity and the desire to know things make it nearly impossible for us as a species to restrain our efforts of discovery to one planet, to one solar system, to one galaxy, heck, to one universe, for that matter.  If the opposite attitude had prevailed throughout human history, whole continents on our own planet would have remained completely isolated from one another because to bother discovering them would have been deemed a massive waste of time, money and boats.

That being said, as a person of religion, I am also keenly aware of the suffering going on on our very planet, and I am equally keen to do what I can to alleviate it.  On our planet, there is no shortage of famine, hunger, addiction, abuse, political strife, pollution, sadness, depression, and war, to name but a few issues.  I am not blind to the fact that this venture to Mars is largely superfluous insofar as the vast majority of people suffering in the world are concerned, and that the money could have and perhaps should have been better spent on alleviating the suffering of people in the here and now.

Before I go any further, I ought to point out that, yes, I am aware that I am unfairly polarizing the two philosophies of atheism and religion and their adherents.  The truth is, most religious people I know are excited about the landing and about expanding the frontiers of science in general, and most atheists I know are concerned with the plight of the planet and its peoples, and they do their part to alleviate it.

But there seems to be an attitude which prevails among the least secure individuals in both camps, and that is that the opposite camp has its collective head totally crammed up their ass over the issues which concern their own camp.  In other words, to be religious means you have no concern for science and that to be an atheist means you have no concern for the human race.

I would like to disabuse people of that notion.  Yes, there are religious people who sit back and say "Atheists are evil and I hope they burn in hell" and there are atheists who say "Religion is evil and we should burn them all down in their churches".  I know this for a fact because these are both verbatim quotes from Facebook pages dedicated to religion and an atheism respectively.

Adherents to both of these movements would claim and do claim that their movement is a force for good.  I for one fail utterly to see it in those statements.  While such comments are by no means unique, in my experience, these people are a small if aggravating and obstructive minority who need to be ignored for the purposes of rational and productive discussion.

The vast majority of people in both camps that I have met are actually sane, reasonable, secure indiviudals who are able to A: find some common ground such as "We both love our children, we both love our parents, we both like chocolate and the Beatles, hey let's be friends" and B: are secure enough in themselves that they don't need to join Facebook pages and comment threads dedicated specifically to crapping on other people's belief systems.  Most people I meet from both camps are able to actually celebrate their differences, to see where the other person is coming from and to actually learn something about themselves from the other.

Imagine that, John Lennon.

I for one don't see a dichotomy between science and spirituality, what I'm being told is the battle line upon which atheists and the religious ought to form.  I am a religious person and I am also a scientist.  Religion is the philosophy which helps me look inward, to explore who I am as a person, and science is the philosophy helps me look outward, to understand the world and my place in it.  What either does for you is your own business.  Both perspectives I have found are necessary to my personal well-being, and to my development as a balanced human being.

Not that I could claim to be the most balanced person in the world, mind you.  I, as everyone else, am a work in progress, but the two thought systems which I feel best help me make this progress (and which I feel are erroneously held by many to be contradictory) are science and spirituality.  As a side note, spirituality does not need to be accessed or exercised within the confines of a religious institution, but mine happens to be fed and nourished by that, among other non-church activities.

If either is to blame for being a force of evil, it is due to this combative, adversarial, dysfunctional relationship that seems to have always existed between the two camps.

For example, when I meet someone who has different ideas than mine, I am generally delighted to hear about how they interpret the universe and their place in it.  It informs my own interpretations and nourishes my soul and intellect to hear these things, regardless of whether they are strictly religious, strictly scientific or any permutation in between.

The only exception to this delight is if the person with whom I am conversing expects or demands that I adhere to their belief system, and that mine is inherently wrong because it does not conform with theirs.

The issue is this: the above-mentioned small, aggravating and obstructive minority of religious people claim that if atheism and/or opposing belief systems could be wiped out overnight, Utopia would ensue.  The small, aggravating and obstructive minority of atheists claim that if religion and/or competing belief systems could be wiped out overnight, Utopia would ensue.

This is the point which really needs to be understood: this is the same as blaming a gun for a murder.

Yes, religion has been used as a force for oppression, coercion and control (the Spanish Inquisition, the religious oppression happening in many areas of the Middle East today).  That much is beyond question.  But so have a variety of philosophical and political movements with ostensibly no religious connection (communism, Marxism).  So has atheism (modern-day North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge).  So has science, or at least the claim to scientific validity (Hitler's eugenics program).

To frame the point somewhat differently: some of the preserved remains of various prehistoric stages of the evolution of homo-sapiens show evidence of death by violence, undoubtedly by human (or pre-human, if you prefer) hands.  So evidently, we were kicking the shit out each other well before the creation of religion, atheism, politics and British football.

If someone has hatred in their heart, the simple fact is that no belief or thought system is actually required for them to act on it.  Yes, it might give them some twisted sense of peace or justification; it may provide a convenient platform from which they can pounce on their fellow human beings, but a heart full of hate is still a heart full of hate.  If we were to remove religion or atheism from the mix, that heart could, would and historically has fallen back on racism, sexism, sexual orientation, language, elitism, political inclination, education, or any of a limitless number of differences in order to justify their treatment of another human being or group of human beings.

Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the true powers-that-be, those who are actually oppressing others through their own individual action love the fact that we are wasting time publicly debating the inherent goods of our own system and the inherent evils of another system.  It takes the focus off of them.

I mean, you do realize that, right?  That this whole debate is about as useful as comparing the objective merits of cork versus rubber stoppers while your boat is currently sinking?  That this whole debate actually keeps us spinning our wheels while real problems go unsolved?  That corrupt leaders can and will use anything to control the easily led, whether it be religion, politics, atheism, self-help books or the media?

The point I would like to drive home is that none of these particular belief systems is inherently good or evil in and of itself.  None of these movements inherently makes a person or a people informed or ignorant.  None of these particular modes of morality guarantees sanity or insanity in either a culture or an individual.  If anything, history has amply proven and continues to prove that no thought system is the sole purveyor of love or hate, good or evil, morality or immorality.

To blame a philosophy for anything is irresponsible.  We as individual human beings are the sole purveyors of any of these characteristics.  We only accept as true what we accept as true.  We cannot blame anyone for forcing a belief system upon us.  We must take responsibility for accepting that.  And if you can't accept that someone else has found a truth other than the one you have found, you may want to re-assess how secure you actually are in what you believe.  It is insecurity which compels us to enlist others and to vilify those who don't adhere.

In the end, it is not religion or politics or philosophy which damages ourselves, others and the world.  It is greed, fear, insecurity, anger, hatred.  No religion, no philosophy, no political persuasion is responsible for that.

You and I are.

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