This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Do atheists hate diversity?
Is the very act of atheist activism — the act of trying to persuade people that atheism is correct, the act of working to change the world into one without religion — is this an act of attempted conformity? Are atheists trying to create a drab, gray, uniform world, where everyone else is just like them?
It’s probably pretty obvious that I think the answer is a big fat “No!” (Probably said in the Ted Stevens voice.) But it certainly is the case that many atheist activists — myself among them — are working very hard indeed to persuade religious believers out of their beliefs. Not all atheists do this, of course; many have the more modest goals of religious tolerance and separation of church and state, including tolerance of atheists and recognition of us as equal citizens. But a good number of atheists are, in fact, trying to convince religious believers to become atheists. I’m one of them.
And since many believers see this as an intolerant attempt to enforce conformity — particularly believers of the progressive, ecumenical, “all religions perceive God in their own way and we have to respect them all” stripe — I want to take a moment to address it.
The Intolerant Bigotry of the Germ Theory
If there’s one single idea I’d most like to get across to religious believers, it would not be, “There is no God.” Or even, “There is probably no God.” I want believers to reach that conclusion on their own. Upon being awestruck by my brilliant arguments, of course… but ultimately on their own, after thinking it through, after looking at the reasons for belief and the reasons for atheism, and finally concluding that atheism makes more sense and is more consistent with what we know about the world. I don’t want people to stop believing in God just because I say so.
If there’s one single idea I’d most like to get across to religious believers, it would be this:
Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, at least in part, because of immaterial beings or forces that act on the material world.
Religion is many other things, of course. It’s communities, cultural traditions, political ideologies, philosophies. But those things aren’t what make religion unique. What makes religion unique, among all other communities/ philosophies/ etc., is this hypothesis of an immaterial world acting on the material one. It’s thousands of different hypotheses, really, positing thousands of immaterial beings and/or forces, with thousands upon thousands of different qualities and temperaments. But all these diverse beliefs have this one hypothesis in common: the hypothesis that there is a supernatural world, and that the natural world is the way it is because of the supernatural one.
Religion is not a subjective opinion, or an ethical axiom, or a personal perspective. (These things can be connected with it, of course, but they’re not what make its unique core.) Opinions and axioms and personal perspectives can be debated — but ultimately, they’re up to each person to decide for themselves. Religion is none of these things. Religion is a hypothesis. It says, “Things are the way they are because of the effects of the immaterial world on the material one.” Things are the way they are because God made them that way. Because the Devil is making them that way. Because the World-Soul is evolving that way. Because we have spiritual energy animating our consciousness. Because guardian angels are watching us. Because witches are casting spells. Because we are the reincarnated souls of dead people. Whatever.
Seeing religion as a hypothesis is important for a lot of reasons. But the reason that’s most relevant to today’s topic:
If religion is a hypothesis, it is not hostile to diversity for atheists to oppose it.
It is no more hostile to diversity to oppose the religion hypothesis than it is to oppose the hypothesis that global warming is a hoax. The hypothesis that an unrestricted free market will cause the economy to flourish for everyone. The hypothesis that illness is caused by an imbalance in the four bodily humours. The hypothesis that the sun orbits the earth.
Arguing against hypotheses that aren’t supported by the evidence… that’s not anti-diversity. That’s how we understand the world better. We understand the world by rigorously gathering and analyzing evidence… and by ruthlessly rejecting any hypothesis that the evidence doesn’t support. Was it hostile to diversity for Pasteur to argue against the theory of spontaneous generation? For Georges Lemaitre to argue against the steady-state universe? For Galileo to argue against geocentrism?
And if not — then why is it hostile to diversity for atheists to argue against the hypothesis of God and the supernatural world?
How is it any more anti-diversity for atheists to argue against religion, and to try to persuade other people to change their minds about it, than it is for anyone to argue their case against any other hypothesis, on any other topic?
Now. Many believers will argue that religion doesn’t fall into these categories. They’ll argue that religion can’t be proven true or false with 100% certainty… and that therefore, it’s reasonable for people to believe in any religion that appeals to them. (And that it’s unreasonable for anyone to make an argument against it.)
But… well, for one thing, that’s not entirely true. Many religions, from young-earth creationism to astrology, do make testable claims. And every single time those claims have been rigorously tested, they’ve folded like a house of cards in a hurricane. They can’t be disproven with 100% certainty… but almost nothing can, and that’s not the standard of evidence we use for any other claim.
Much more to the point, though:
When you start seeing religion as a hypothesis?
The fact that it’s unverifiable suddenly stops being a defense.
In fact, it’s completely the opposite. The fact that religion is unverifiable becomes one of the most devastating arguments against it.
One of the most important things about a hypothesis is that it has to be falsifiable. If any possible evidence could be used to support a hypothesis — if your hypothesis will be shown to be true whether the water in the beaker gets hotter, gets colder, stays the same temperature, boils away instantly, turns into a parrot and flies out the door — it is an utterly useless hypothesis. If any event at all can be fitted into it, then it has no power whatsoever to explain past events, or predict future outcomes. It is, as they say, not even wrong.
And that’s just as true of religion as any other hypothesis. If any outcome of, for instance, an illness — recovering dramatically for no apparent reason, getting gradually better with medical intervention, getting worse, staying the same indefinitely, dying — could be explained as God’s work… then the God hypothesis is useless. It has no power to explain the world, or to predict the future, or to tell us how our behavior will affect the outcomes of our lives. It serves no purpose. (Except, perhaps, psychological ones.)
The fact that religion is unfalsifiable doesn’t mean we have to accept it as a reasonable possibility. It means the exact opposite. It means we should reject it wholesale.
And it is not anti-diversity for atheists to point this out. Any more than it’s anti-diversity to point out how any other hypothesis is unfalsifiable, or unsupported by evidence, or directly contradicted by evidence, or in any other way mistaken and flawed.
A New Model for Diversity
I know that a lot of people will still have problems with atheist activism. Even if they know in their minds that atheist activism is fair and reasonable, they still have a strong, instinctive reaction against it. For a lot of people, it just seems like religious intolerance to say, “Your religion is wrong, and I think you should change your mind about it.”
And I think the problem comes from how we think of diversity.
Historically, we pretty much have two models of dealing with religious beliefs that are different from ours. We have (a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy — forcing religious beliefs down other people’s throats, through social pressure at best, through legal strictures and even violence at worst. And we have (b) uncritical ecumenicalism: the idea that all religions are at least a little bit true, that they’re all part of a rich, beautiful spiritual tapestry, that they’re all perceiving one little piece of the truth about God… and that even if they’re not, it’s intolerant religious bigotry to criticize them or try to persuade people out of them. It’s a model created largely in response to intolerant evangelism and theocracy… and therefore, it’s a model in which any criticism of any religion automatically gets slotted into that ugly category.
Atheism is offering a third option.
We’re offering the option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief… while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken.
The atheist movement is passionate about the right to religious freedom. (With the notable exception of a few assholes on the Internet. Name me one movement that doesn’t have its share of assholes on the Internet.) We fully support people’s right to believe whatever the hell they want, as long as they keep it out of government and don’t shove it down other people’s throats. We see the right to think what we like as a basic foundation of human ethics, one of the most fundamental rights we have — and we have no desire whatsoever to overturn that.
Yet at the same time, we see the right to free thought and free expression as including the right to criticize other people’s thoughts and forms of expression. We passionately defend people’s right to believe what they want… but we defend with equal passion our right to think what we want about those beliefs, and to say so in the public square. We express our disagreement in a variety of ways — some more polite and respectful, some more insulting and mocking — but we damn sure think we have the right to express it.
And we see no reason to treat religion with any more deference than any other idea. We see religion as — yes, you guessed it — a hypothesis about the world. We see it as a hypothesis that has never once in all of human history been shown to be correct. We see it as a hypothesis that at the very least has been falsified numerous times, and at worst is unfalsifiable and should be therefore rejected on that basis alone. And we see no reason to treat it any differently from any other deeply flawed, completely unsupported hypothesis. We see no reason not to criticize it, to ask hard questions about it, to make fun of it, to point out flaws in it, to point out the good evidence contradicting it and the utter lack of good evidence supporting it… and to do our damndest to persuade people out of it.
Most atheists would probably be okay with a world that included religion, as long as it was tolerant of other beliefs and stayed the hell out of government. (Some of us are skeptical about whether this is possible… but we’d be okay with it.) Many of us even enjoy some of the rituals and traditions of religion, as long as they don’t involve actual religious belief (a la secular Judaism). But yes, many atheist activists would like humanity to eventually give up on religion. We think religion is a mistaken idea about the world. We think we can make a good case for that position. We think it’s entirely reasonable to try to persuade people that we’re right.
And this is not an attack on diversity.
It is a defense of reality.