Friday, December 2, 2011

A misconstrued debate

"Atheism is to religion what bald is to hair color."

Have you ever asked any self-proclaimed atheist to define what agnosticism means to him; or vice versa? The more I ask, the more I get the impression that for a majority of people, it is a mere matter of personal preference. Some of us possibly looked it up in a dictionary, found several definitions and memorized one of them. Many theists must have learned it at church during a sermon. For others, it may have been an atheist channel on YouTube; perhaps a web page like this one. To me, what seems to be happening is very quite possibly the result; or should I say reflection; of our human brain's obsession with labeling everything into categories. We say: "Men are like this." or "Americans act this way." We should know that statistically, we are doing it wrong. We are just experiencing sampling bias. Do we realize how many people would need to be polled for us to get anything worthy of statistical validity, not considering the error margin? What sample are my fellow male representatives of humankind basing themselves on when they make ridiculous claims about how they have noticed women are, based on their past failed relationships?

People are like this, they tend to make such claims. But here's a question that I hope you will find interesting: What do you think happens if you try to put a label on something that cannot be labeled in the first place? For example, how would you label someone who does not believe in homeopathy? A homeopatheist? Let's pretend we lived in a world in which "everyone" trusts homeopathy to be able to cure most, if not all, illnesses. As firm believers of the unscientifically proven virtues of homeopathy, we would most likely become critical of anyone's non-willingness to believe. Yet, considering the fact that our belief is based on nothing more than faith, isn't it quite obvious that it would be silly to invent a word for such a specific type of non-belief? What if this man believes in homeopathy but instead says he does not believe in science? Would it make him a something? Perhaps we could call him ignorant about how science works but it would certainly not require any special label. As a matter of fact, there is no label for people who disbelieve the idea that science is a dangerous satanic cult; or those who refuse to accept that Elvis is still living.

Most of the labels we put on people really aren't that useful...
In this article, I am not going to try and push you to accept any specific definition of agnosticism or atheism. After much debating around this matter, I find that it is counter-productive; besides, I fear that such kind of quarreling does very little, aside from making us forget about more important issues. After all, don't we both know that if no one wants to agree on the meaning of a word anymore, there's a good chance it has already become obsolete? I think what we need is a broader understanding of why there is confusion in the first place. This way, whoever we are dealing with, we will be able to know both what they mean and how to be understood by them. Language was never about trying to convince others that our own vocabulary is better; it is about agreeing on how to name things and trying to be good at it at a given time; all these efforts just so we can be able to understand each other. Who knows; perhaps is free speech some kind of a threat to the traditional concept of language? If we all start feeling entitled to our own personal opinion of what words should mean and start crusading around, trying to convince others that they need to speak differently, this could add quite an unpredicted spin to the future evolution of our modern languages.

No longer do we want to submit to an unquestioned authority; we all aspire to be free from rules and this could eventually affect how we view grammar too. How then we would adapt to this seems completely left to chance. Ahh... forgive me; back on topic: In some cases, an irrational debate about what a word actually means can be a problem, especially when that word happens to represent a massive yet unpopular "getting out of the closet" movement. Probably well over hundreds of millions of nonbelievers have spent an eternity hiding, lying, being ostracized, beaten, sued and killed; now they're the latest taboo that nobody really wants to hear about. It seems just like homosexuality was about a decade ago (at least here where I live). When I first heard about the word atheist, it was presented to me as a rejection of God; a denial of something which is real. In fact, a quick web search tells us that the original word used to mean godless, nothing more. So it could either mean one who rejects God(s) or one who doesn't accept the claim that there are any. It could even mean someone who wishes there was one but cannot possibly get himself to believe that. It can thus carry a handful of meanings and, rather quickly, lose all intended purposes.

That our brain would attempt to classify things into simpler categories when confronted with large numbers, is understandable. Actually, the word religion is perhaps the best example of this. For instance, we nonbelievers generally make use of it to represent thousands and thousands of mutually-canceling beliefs and doctrines held by billions of people. This can arguably lead to a pretty shallow definition, once you think of it. As Sam Harris says so well, the word religion is a lot like the word sport. Some are completely harmless while others are quite dangerous or violent. But religious people don't see it this way. Most expect their religion to be the only one while all others are just cults; fakes. To them, there is only one religion; or at least, there is only one that really is true. When I use terms such as atheism and faith, I do this being fully aware that all kinds of people will read the same words differently. Not much can be done about it; except perhaps trying to be as clear as possible... I have to admit that on quite a few occasions, I have wondered what I should call myself. An agnostic-atheist, perhaps? Maybe just a skeptic; or possibly a humanist...?

And yet the more I think about it, the more it turns out that I am all of the above. I'm a believer of many things. I even believe in love. I just don't hold to my personal beliefs like if they were some kind of sacred truth; they can be influenced by solid evidence; any day. Some people would like to call that agnosticism, but is it? I'm indeed agnostic about my beliefs; I realize that I don't know whether there is a creator or not; but I also realize that my decisions on the matter bare no effect on reality. I do not think that not knowing something does in any way mean not being able to know, ever. Agnostics I speak to usually assume that since we cannot know at the moment, we should remain neutral; although for any subject other than religion, it remains perfectly acceptable to reject someone's hypothesis if that rejection is based on the fact that he has no clue how he came to his conclusions after being given years to dig the subject. To me, this view is flawed, and it is perfectly normal to believe that someone has got to be mistaken if he has not made an ounce of progress researching an issue, other than being able to say: "I just know this in my heart, got it?"

No matter how many people agree on something, they could still be wrong.
Ironically enough, the word "atheist" can even be applied to theists. Let us suppose that you are a Muslim. Given the possibility to travel back in time, you end up in Denmark a few thousand years ago. As you are standing there in disgust, you see all these people around you believing in the existence of Thor. To them, you are an atheist. You do not believe in God. Realize that the label is interchangeable, depending on the belief. Yes, how about them? Are they not atheists too because they don't believe in the abrahamic God? Of course, but only in your perception since you come from a future riddled with different traditions. Obviously, I am more atheistic than that; I go "one god further" and my skepticism is greatly influenced by the lack of data that would be required to justify claiming to know so much about these supernatural beings and their personal attributes. That we do not have any more empirical data on "modern" popular deities than on any other ancient deities, is an often overlooked fact. To this day, our reasons for believing in these divine entities are still pretty much the same as for all older forms of mythology: Our fear of death; our hope of an afterlife.

Still, it seems that the word "atheist" comes loaded with so much negative baggage today that many who share my opinions; although they can relate to the concept; are reluctant to deal with all the social pressure that coming out as such would imply. How many of them realize that the main reasons why they hesitate are social reasons; religious reasons? For most people of strong faith, atheism is nothing more than foolish certainty; it is a form of faith in itself. Is it not paradoxical that theists would view atheism as unreasoned because they view it as faith-based; while at the same time, they view their own faith as a good thing? Well, let's have them deal with their own cognitive dissonance; I have never been too fond of mental projection. As of now (and my mind may change in the future) I feel that the word "atheist" is the best way to describe my rejection of their empty claims. Although the word "theist" can itself bear many different meanings, considering the social context in which we live, so far, I think that defining myself as atheistic is the best way to depict my view that the personal gods most theists are trying to befriend with, deplorably lack credibility.

It does take more time for some to realize when they're doing it wrong.
Whenever presented with supernatural propositions like the possible existence of fairies or the unlikely idea that Elvis may still be alive somewhere, we don't waste time making individual labels for each kind of non-belief; even less would we put those in a dictionary. We also don't claim that the only reasonable position is to assume there is an equal probability between yes and no; and teach this as fact to our children; all this just because we know we don't know. All scientific discovery seems to point in the direction that no intelligence was required for the universe to "create itself" out of what we perceive as nothingness. As a nonbeliever of unfounded claims, I simply say that because we have even less empirical data on "God" than we have on homeopathy, we can certainly afford to say that until further notice, all divine claims are just loaded with bull. We should all know by now that there is no viable way to label the act of not accepting a proposition. The stigma around atheism isn't anymore relevant than the ones around homosexuality and gender equality. It truly does not matter how many believe or not; it's clear why so many around us still do.

Parents just tell their toddlers that the belief is not a belief; then let them figure out by themselves that it was actually one after all; at which point in their life they have become so convinced already, that the indoctrination is almost irreversible. We could believe an infinity of statements; we all know that if we did on the basis of faith alone, we wouldn't have gotten very far yet. We are all capable of grasping the idea that rejecting a specific belief about any of the thousands of deities that our ancestors were worshiping in the past, is perfectly reasonable. This does not need justification and neither does it require us to stay forever doubtful about any claim that anyone could come up with at any time. Certainly we all have rejected allegations before, based on the idea that these were preposterous and pretentious; this is nothing new under the sun. We cannot help but reject the ones for which there is absolutely no evidence. When it comes to one belief or another, we are all atheists, skeptics, believers and sinners in at least someone else's point of view. These labels are up for us to accept and cope with; or to reject and dissociate from. Consequently, whether or not these words and ideas should be fought for or defended, remains bound to distinct interpretations...

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