Positive thoughts

Over at the Guardian are a few responses to a criticism of atheism. According to the first response:

Giles Fraser insists (Comment, 7 February) that “atheists” are defined by what they are against, and should therefore be barred from contributing to the BBC’s Thought for the Day. This is absurd. I might as well call him an anti-rationalist, and insist that he is defined by his opposition to reason, science and evidence. Humanists may privately sympathise with Richard Dawkins’s views, but we are not all determined to “attack the beliefs of others”.

So, the criticism seems to have been that atheists are defined by what we are against. Strictly speaking, I think this is a bit strong. Minimally, atheism is simply not having a belief in any transcendent supernatural beings. There is simply nothing there to be “against”. Now, many of us do go further and recognize that there are inherent dangers in religious thinking. Historically, it has been responsible for reprehensible actions (Witch hunt anyone? Or the latest dangers of suspicion of being an atheist.) and we see boundless evidence of its tendency to dull critical thinking skills. This is probably what the critic actually had in mind.

But is there anything positive about a lack of belief in any gods by itself? Is there anything positive about being highly skeptical of Russell’s Teapot orbiting about in the solar system? For one thing, I don’t have to spend one minute trying to convince anybody else that there is an orbiting teapot, since I rather doubt that there is one. So, I can find more constructive things to do with my time. No need to waste time searching for it, since there is no reason to suspect it is there. Depending on the imagined size of the teapot, that’s one less piece of space junk I need to worry about, either from the standpoint of falling through the atmosphere or crashing into the space station. If we do start sending people deeper into the solar system, we can be pretty sure there will not be a place to stop and get some free tea. So, if we want to have that particular beverage in this case, we’ll need to take the opportunity to figure out this challenge for ourselves, thus enhancing our skills and knowledge (not to mention that if we are counting on it for survival, we’ll be in for a nasty surprise). So, there are some positive things to come out of being an a-teapotist. You can probably think of more.

One can of course make analogous statements for having no religious belief. In general, it seems to be a good idea to base decisions and actions upon demonstrable evidence, when possible. In contrast, we have seen time and again how religious belief based on no evidence whatsoever has often been detrimental. Many Christians would no doubt claim God as the ultimate moral example. Yet the Old Testament describes a jealous, vindictive, petty, and arrogant tribal war god. Granted, Hellenistic influences gradually morphed this into a somewhat more benign father figure, but, according to most Christians, it’s still the same guy. What kind of moral example is this setting? This kind of example seems to influence some theists into restricting human rights, childishly blaming natural events on human behavior, living in fear of hell, and worse. Look at both history and current events, such as the ongoing problems in the Middle East, and the drive to dumb down our citizenry by eviscerating science classes. One may try to make the argument that atheism is not positive (to which I would strongly disagree), but the negativity of religious thinking is much further down the scale.

As one of the comments in the original link pointed out, the simple recognition that there likely is no invisible father figure handing down morals and watching over us implies more responsibility for us. We get to choose how best to live together and make a working society in which each person has the opportunity for happiness. We may not always make the best decisions, but we learn and move forward. We control, as much as possible, our own destiny. For better or for worse. I think that’s fairly positive thing to be for.

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