It shocks and upsets me that I should have to say this. It especially shocks and upsets me that I should have to say this to another atheist. But apparently I have to:
Truth is not boring.
You may have been following the debate about Alain de Botton’s article on CNN, What atheists can learn from religion, which began thus:
Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”
Including mine. I read de Botton’s piece when I was stuck at the Charlottesville airport waiting for a re-scheduled flight, getting over a stomach bug and trying to sleep on the airport floor… and I immediately started rage-writing this piece in my head.
Truth is not boring.
Reality is not boring. Reality is not irrelevant. Reality is not some trivial footnote in the larger, more serious business of keeping our brains in a bubble of happiness.
Reality is all that we have.
There’s something JT Eberhard says a lot in his talks, and he said it again in some of his responses to de Botton: Caring about reality is a moral obligation. You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you’re not committed to understanding how the world really works, you’re going to make bad decisions: decisions that hurt yourself and others around you. You’re going to let your child die when medical treatment could cure them; you’re going to cut off your little girl’s clitoris; you’re going to tell people in a country ravaged by AIDS not to use condoms because they make baby Jesus cry. If we really do care about making ourselves and one another happy, we owe it to ourselves and to one another to understand reality, to the absolute best of our ability.
I totally agree. But I’m going to say more. Again, it shocks and upsets me that I should freaking well have to say this, but apparently I do:
REALITY IS NOT BORING.
Here’s the thing. We have two competing hypotheses about how the universe works: religion, and naturalism. The religion hypothesis says that the universe is the way it is because a super-powerful supernatural being wished it into existence. The naturalism says that the universe is the way it is because of a chain of physical cause and effect.
And I’ll be honest: Either of these hypotheses would be fascinating.
If religion were right, and a super-powerful supernatural being had wished the universe into existence? That would be fascinating. If that were true, I would want to know. I would want to know everything there was to know about that being. I would want to know where it came from, how it worked, how exactly it made things happen, what it was thinking, why it did things the way it did.
As it turns out, the religion hypothesis doesn’t hold water. It has never, ever, ever, in the entire history of human knowledge, proven itself to be true. The naturalism hypothesis is almost certainly the correct one. And this hypothesis is also entirely fascinating. Space that bends? Continents that drift? 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? Life forms that are all cousins to one another? Consciousness that somehow arises from brain chemistry? That is freaking awesome. That is entirely fascinating. I want to understand every centimeter of it, in as much vastness and as much detail as I possibly can. It is one of the great tragedies of my mortal life that I’m going to die before the great mysteries of our time are answered.
I am not an atheist because I like the conclusion of atheism. I am an atheist because, based on the best evidence I have, that is the most plausible and consistent conclusion I can come to. I am an atheist because I care about the truth.
And I am not an ally with people who think the truth is irrelevant.
Some atheists, most notably Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, have been defending de Botton, saying that his main point was that religion provides something valuable for people, and atheists need to figure out ways to replace that. If that really were his main point — fine. I don’t know any atheist activist who disagrees. Just about every atheist activist I know is working on this question of building atheist communities. We’re working hard — often to the point of obsession — on figuring out what people get out of religion, and how the atheist community can provide some or most or all of it without the “believing in things you have no good reason to think are true” part. We have some disagreements about how to go about building this community, and what to call it, and so forth — but we recognize that we have to do it, and we’re doing it, and we’re working hard on trying to do it better.
If that really were de Botton’s main point — yes. Fine. We’re not “overlooking” it, as de Botton thinks. We’re on it. Thank you for sharing.
But I don’t agree that this was his main point. It was one of his points, but it was far from his only one. Other writers (see “tops of atheists’ head coming off” above) have thoroughly reamed de Botton for his ill-informed and unfair characterization of modern atheists and the modern atheist movement. Other writers have pointed out that of course atheists care about morality, art, gratitude, mental exercise, education, politics, ritual, travel, even fashion. Other writers have pointed out what I just did: that modern atheists are acutely aware of what people get from religion, and are working like crazy to build secular alternatives. Other writers have even asked why hard-line atheists are divisive jerks for calling out de Botton, but somehow de Botton isn’t a divisive jerk for calling us out. I don’t need to say all that again. (Okay, I just did. Oh, well.)
But when you open your piece by saying that “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’”?
I don’t have to pay attention to a damn thing you say after that.
The fact that de Botton is an atheist does not make him my ally. I am far more in alliance with a religious believer who cares passionately about the truth, who genuinely wants to understand the truth, who sincerely believes that God is real and is carefully investigating that question to arrive at a better understanding of the truth, than I am with an atheist who thinks truth is boring. I think that this believer, if they genuinely care about and pursue the truth, will eventually reach the conclusion of atheism. But I am more allied with them, in their sincere pursuit of the truth, than I am with an atheist who thinks truth is boring… and who issues an ill-informed lecture chiding other atheists for being so naive as to care about it.