From the Archives: Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters. The tl;dr: Atheists are often accused of caring more about what we don’t believe in than what we do. In this piece, I talk about some of the things I believe in most passionately — reality, and coming to the best understanding of reality I’m capable of — and explain why caring about what isn’t true is a crucial part of caring about what is.

A nifty pull quote:

The real universe, the universe as we currently understand it, is magnificent, and awe-inspiring, and far weirder than anything we would have made up about it. Solid matter that’s mostly empty space? Black holes at the center of every spiral galaxy? Billions of galaxies all flying away from one another at breakneck speed? Space that bends? Continents that drift? Life forms that are all cousins to one another? Consciousness that somehow arises from brain chemistry? That rocks my world.

And we’ve found all this stuff out, not by giving up on trying to understand it, not by saying, “It’s a mystery and we’ll never fully understand it,” but by saying, “We may never fully understand it — but let’s try. Let’s understand it to the best of our abilities.” We’ve found all this stuff out by being willing to let go of beliefs and preconceptions and opinions we were attached to — and being willing to reject all ideas except the ones supported by the rigorous gathering and testing and cross-checking of evidence. (A very humbling process, I might add.)

But here’s the thing.

The negative part of that process? It’s absolutely crucial. We can’t say, “Yes, the earth orbits the sun,” without saying, “No, the sun does not orbit the earth.” We can’t say, “Yes, the universe is expanding and will continue to expand,” without saying, “No, the universe is not in a steady state.” We can’t say “Yes, all life on earth evolved by descent with modification from a common ancestor,” without saying, “No, life forms were not created fully formed all at once, more or less as they exist today.” We can’t say, “This what almost certainly is true about the universe,” without saying, “That is what almost certainly is not true.”

There is an impossibly huge infinitude of things that we could imagine about the universe. Only the tiniest fraction of those things are actually true. If we’re going to be truly open to the mind-altering magnificence and hilarious freakiness of the universe, if we’re going to truly understand and accept and explore what is true about the universe to the best of our ability, we have to be willing to say “No” to the overwhelming majority of things we can imagine about it. We have to be rigorous in sorting out reality from unreality… and relentless in our rejection of unreality.



  1. hoverfrog says

    The best thing about reality is that it can be used to smash all those false ideas about it that we may have picked up along the way. Think the moon is made of green cheese? Send a rocket up there and cut a bit off for analysis (with crackers). Think the universe is 6000 years old? Use carbon dating techniques to test an old thing to see if it confirms or denies your hypothesis. Think that the world is flat? Get walking in a straight line. See you in a few years.

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