“You have to keep an open mind. That’s the trouble with you atheists/ materialists/ skeptics. You’re just as bad as fundamentalists. You’re so convinced that you’re right, and you’re not willing to consider the possibility that you might not be. The universe is profoundly strange: we’ve been surprised by it thousands of times in the past, and our assumptions about it often turn out to be mistaken. So how can you be so close-minded about the universe? How can you just reject the idea that God, or the soul, or a spiritual realm, might be part of it?”
If you’re an out atheist — heck, if you’re an entirely closeted atheist who reads atheist blogs and forums and whatnot — you’ve almost certainly heard some version of this spiel. And it’s almost certainly made you want to scream and tear your hair out.
I’ve been running into it a lot lately. So today, I’m taking it on. I’m summing up some ideas I’ve written about before… and I’m presenting some new ones. (Please note: There are a few places in this piece that are more strongly worded than usual, as my feelings on this particular form of anti-atheist bigotry run high. Consider yourself warned.)
Yes, it’s good to have an open mind. How is that an argument for religion or spirituality being correct? I mean, if someone insisted that they had a three- inch- tall pink pony behind their sofa who teleported to Guam every time anyone looked back there — and, when faced with people who were skeptical about this hypothesis and asked for some evidence in support of it, merely said, “You have to keep an open mind”… would you consider that a good argument for the pink pony hypothesis?
And if not — then why is it a good argument for religion or spirituality?
The fact that a hypothesis can’t absolutely be disproven with 100% certainty doesn’t make it likely or plausible. And not all hypotheses are equally likely to be true. To persuade me to accept an idea — heck, to persuade me to seriously consider it, or even to respect it as a reasonable possibility — you have to do more than show me that it hasn’t been absolutely disproven, and then scold me about having an open mind. You have to show me some good, solid, positive evidence supporting your idea. And you have to use good logic to show why this evidence supports your idea better than any other idea.
But wait! There’s more! Whenever believers ask atheists and materialists and skeptics to be open-minded and not to close ourselves off to possibilities, I always want to ask them: Do you honestly think atheists have not considered the possibility of religion?
Religion is the dominant paradigm in our culture. Non-believers have considered it. We continue to re-consider it all the time. We can’t help but consider it. It is constantly in our faces. We’re soaking in it. Telling atheists, “Have you considered the possibility that religion or spirituality might be true?” is like telling gay people, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be straight?” I mean — do you seriously think this idea has never occurred to us? Do you seriously think this is the first time anyone’s suggested it?
In fact, most atheists were believers at one time. Most atheists are former Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, religious Jews, moderate or progressive Christians, New Age believers, and more. The culture of religion we’re steeped in isn’t limited to traditional or fundamentalist belief, and most of us have considered a wide range of religions before rejecting them all. It’s the very fact that we do have open minds that led us to change our minds about religion and become non-believers in the first place.
What’s more, the accusation that atheists aren’t open-minded is extra- aggravating — because it so often comes from people with completely closed minds. When it comes to religion, anyway.
Ask most atheists, “What would convince you that you were mistaken? What evidence would make you change your mind about God or the supernatural world?” Most of us can answer that question. (Or, if we’re too busy/lazy to answer it ourselves, we’ll point you to someone else who answered that question really thoroughly, and whose answers pretty closely dovetail with our own.)
Ask most believers the same question… and they’ll say, “Nothing could persuade me that I’m mistaken about my God. That’s what it means to have faith.” Either that — or they’ll dither. They’ll say that their beliefs are too complicated and subtle to summarize. They’ll say that they don’t want to proselytize… even though they’ve been directly asked to explain what they believe and why. They’ll say that they don’t know for sure what they believe… they’re just trying to keep an open mind. (Even though you know perfectly well that they have very definite beliefs — they just don’t want to explain them to a critical audience.) They’ll come up with some standard of proof that’s ridiculously impossible. They’ll offer “evidence” for their beliefs that’s flatly terrible — not replicable, not double-blinded, not controlled, not screened for confirmation bias or the placebo effect, with methodology a sixth-grade science class could poke holes in. They’ll turn the debate about the evidence for religion into a meta-debate about how atheists are being big meanies, and how we’re rude or intolerant to ask these questions in the first place. They’ll insist that our questions and critiques are valid when it comes to other religious beliefs, but not to theirs… without explaining why theirs should be the exception. They’ll change the subject. (And then, three sentences later, they’ll once again accuse atheists of being close-minded.) In my experience, the overwhelming majority of religious and spiritual believers will do anything at all to avoid explaining exactly what it is that they believe, and what evidence they have to support that belief — and most importantly, what evidence would persuade them to change their minds.
So on what basis are these believers accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?
Then, of course, this “close-minded” canard ignores a basic fact about atheists that we keep repeating until we’re blue in the face — namely, that atheism doesn’t mean being absolutely, unquestioningly, 100% certain that God does not exist. It simply means being certain enough. It means concluding that the God hypothesis isn’t plausible or supported by any good evidence, and that until we see better evidence, we’re going to conclude that there’s almost certainly no God.
In other words: Atheism doesn’t mean we’ve absolutely made up our minds, without the possibility of ever reconsidering. Atheism means we’ve provisionally made up our minds. That doesn’t make us close-minded. Being close-minded doesn’t mean reaching a conclusion; it means being unwilling to reconsider that conclusion even when new evidence contradicts it. And that doesn’t describe most atheists. Atheists understand that we’re not perfect and that we might be mistaken. If you give us some good evidence showing that we’re mistaken, we’ll reconsider.
But — to repeat my first argument — you have to actually show us some freaking evidence already. Just repeating “Have an open mind” — that does not qualify as evidence. That just qualifies as annoying.
Okay. Most of this is stuff I’ve said before.
Here’s the part I haven’t said before.
The world of science — the world of carefully examining cause and effect in the universe, using rigorous methods of testing hypotheses designed to filter out bias as much as possible — has given humanity our most surprising, shocking, unexpected, counter-intuitive, mind-expanding, mind-boggling revelations about the true nature of existence.
Science shows us that solid matter is almost entirely made up of empty space. Science shows us that the ground beneath our feet is not solid, but is constantly shifting. Science shows us that the universe is expanding. Science shows us that space bends. Science shows us that time is not constant, that it moves differently depending on how we move. I could go on, and on, and on. Science — carefully examining cause and effect in the universe — has shown us things about the world we live in, and about ourselves, that we would never have come up with if we’d set our best poets and artists on the project for ten thousand years. Science has opened our minds to possibilities we would never have imagined without it.
And maybe more to the point: Science has given us revelations about the world that are not only mind-bogglingly surprising, but that have been profoundly unsettling and difficult to accept.
Science shows us that we are not at the center of the universe, not at the center of our galaxy, not even at the center of our puny little solar system: that the Earth is nothing special, only one of billions of rocks orbiting one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies in a universe that dwarfs us. Science shows us that humanity is simply another life form: not uniquely created with a special purpose by a loving divine maker, but just another species that evolved from proto-organic soup along with sponges and slugs and seaweed. Science is showing us that, whatever the heck consciousness is, it’s a biological product of the brain, and that it therefore dies forever when the brain dies. Science shows us that the Sun is one day going to expand and heat up, and that when it does, all the Earth will be boiled into molten rock. Science shows us that the universe itself is eventually going to die.
So don’t go telling skeptics and non-believers that trusting science and scientific evidence makes us close-minded and unwilling to consider new possibilities.
We’re the ones saying, “Yup — humanity isn’t that special, and death is the end. Those are hard realities to accept. But that’s what the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, so therefore we accept it.” Believers are the ones sticking their fingers in their ears and saying, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you! Humanity is a special snowflake, and we’re all going to live forever!”
So yet again, I ask: On what basis are believers accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?
Now. At this point, many believers will step in and say, “I’m not against science! Science is great, it’s shown us wonders! But science is limited. It’s flawed, It doesn’t know everything. Therefore, God.”
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
You don’t get to pick and choose. You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that continents drift — but when it comes to the scientific consensus showing that life developed entirely naturally through evolution by natural selection, I’m going to insist that life must have been designed, because that’s what my preacher tells me, and besides, it sure seems that way to me.” You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that germs cause disease — but when it comes to the scientific consensus showing that consciousness is a biological product of the brain, I’m going to dither and equivocate and say that it hasn’t been proven with absolute 100% certainty and therefore it’s reasonable for me to believe in an immaterial immortal soul.” You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that the universe is expanding — but when it comes to the fact that supernatural hypotheses have been repeatedly tested using rigorous scientific methods and have never once been shown to be true, when it comes to the fact that science has probably been applied to religion and spirituality more than any other topic and has consistently come up empty, I’m going to repeat ‘Science is sometimes wrong, science is sometimes wrong’ until the skeptics give up and go away.”
You don’t get to say, “With ideas I already agree with or am comfortable with, I’m willing to accept the rigorous process of using reason and evidence to sift through ideas and reject all but the most plausible ones. But when it comes to ideas I don’t believe or that I find troubling, I’m going to prioritize my highly biased intuition — which tells me that the things I already believe or most want to believe are probably true. I’m going to keep pointing out all the flaws and mistakes of science… and completely ignore the far greater flaws and mistakes in intuition. And unless you can prove to me with absolute 100% certainty that I’m wrong, I’m going to keep believing.”
Well, okay. Obviously, you can do that. People do it all the time. And it’s certainly your right to do that.
But if you do that, then one last time, I must ask:
On what basis are you accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?