(This is the text of the talk I’m giving at the Global Atheist Convention; I also thought it would make a good Sunday Sacrilege, so here you go.)
I must apologize for some topic drift — I came up with a title for this talk some months ago, but the as I was working on it, it…evolved. So what I’m actually going to talk about today is my plan to assault heaven and kill God. You don’t mind, do you?
A little background, first. You may have heard this common phrase.
In the beginning was the Word.
But, wait, no…that’s not true. In the beginning of human society, there was the Blood. The marker of our identity was the family, the tribe, the clan. What united us into functioning social units was our pedigree: the web of familial ties that knit us together. Unfortunately, that union was limited to a fairly small group of people, and could only be expanded by the commitment of marriage and birth. It limited us.
So next was the Word, right?
No, next was the King. The king was a proxy for the Blood: you declared allegiance to the big man, the chief, the royal family. Maybe you werenÕt directly linked by familial relationship, but the King or Pharaoh represented you–he was a symbol of your identity. The size of the social unit grew.
Now we come to the Word?
No, next was the City. In the ancient world, the large social unit was the city: Babylon. Athens. Rome. Kings come and go, but Rome was eternal. People didn’t say they were Greek; there was an awareness of a similarity of language and history, but when you asked who they were, they thumped their chests and said, “I am an Athenian!” or “I am a Spartan!” Rome built a whole empire with an arrogance of pride in that special Roman citizenship, so it was even an identity that could be expanded to a remarkable degree; people standing on Hadrian’s Wall in farthest Britain or on the frontiers of Syria would find honor in calling themselves Roman.
So now we come to the Word.
There’s a problem with basing your identity on a city. Cities fall. When Alaric the Goth sacked Rome in AD410, St Augustine could sit back in the relative safety of his home in North Africa and note the event with both horror and triumph: the Fall of Rome was an immense cataclysm that shook the ancient world, shattering that sense of identity and constancy, but was also an opportunity for an alternative way of thinking about ourselves to come to ascendancy: the way of the Word, the People of the Book.
Augustine didn’t think of it. It had been tried for a long time. The most notable people of the book are the Jews; they attached their sense of identity to a collection of laws and stories and commentaries and books, part of which is the Christian Old Testament. They acquired a persistence that cities couldn’t have. When Jerusalem fell, the Jewish people were not destroyed; the event became a chapter in their books, a remembered part of their history. It strengthened their identity. A Roman couldn’t be landless, cityless, countryless, but a Jew could: you could take everything away from the Jewish people, you could make them homeless and scattered, and still they knew who they were.
The most brilliant thing Christianity ever did was to take that idea of the Word, that concept of identity wrapped up in an abstract set of ideas and stories, and to open it up to everyone. Aww, Rome fell? YouÕre all alone? Here, we can help you find yourself, we can give a new meaning to your life, we have a standard that you can hold high and find unity with a greater people. It’s called the Bible.
I repeat, absolutely brilliant. It made Christianity bulletproof.
Cities fall. Kings die. Bloodlines fade. But ideas can go on and on and on. Now, a 21st century person can feel continuity with a 5th century priest; an American can share a central element of their self with someone in South Africa, with someone in China, with someone in Australia; heck, with someone on the space station, or walking on the moon. We can have the concept of an ecumene; people tied together by a common belief that crosses borders. It’s a powerful tool. It’s widely used, too; what is a United States citizen but someone bound by a set of documents, the Constitution?
There’s also the power that comes from an unkillable idea. You’ll find a version of this in V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s graphic novel or the movie, which is precisely what the story is all about. Here’s what Evie had to say:
“We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught. He can be killed and forgotten. But four hundred years later an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of ideas. I’ve seen people kill in the name of them; and die defending them. But you cannot kill an idea, cannot touch it or hold it. Ideas do not bleed, it cannot feel pain, and it does not love.”
You were probably dubious and wondering what the heck I was doing saying the Bible was powerful and important, but maybe now that I’ve cited nerd god Alan Moore for the concept you’ll accept what I’m saying.
You can kill a man, you can sack a city, but Alan Moore says you cannot kill an idea. And ideas can change the world.
Ideas can change the world.
Say it again: Ideas can change the world.
Live it: Ideas can change the world.
This is something atheists share in common with Christians; you’ll get no argument from the believers in any religion that ideas can change the world. It’s what they’ve been doing for thousands of years, usually for the worse.
But I have to disagree with Alan Moore on one thing. You can kill an idea. This is also something that the people of faith are all aware of — perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not in any intellectual sense. But they know, and they are afraid. History is littered with dead ideas. Christians struggled hard to kill some of them, and succeeded in some cases, failed in others. They know it’s hard, but they also know from experience that it can be done.
Read the pronouncements of popes and archbishops, read the newspapers and web columns, look to the priests in their pulpits, and you’ll see something wonderful: they are reacting to the rise of the New Atheists in the same way the Roman establishment reacted to the Visigoths appearing on the horizon. I cannot blame them for being fearful; we are galloping towards the central ideas of their identity, and we aim to tear down their walls and replace their obsolete myths with change and something more vital.
Deep in their heart of hearts, they fear that a sequel to St Augustine’s City of God is in the works, and it’s going to be written by an atheist…and it will speak of a brand new world and new opportunities, it will create a new ecumene of people united under something other than the folly of faith.
So how do you kill an idea? How will we sack the city of faith?
By coming up with a better, more powerful idea. That’s the only way we can win.
Now I’m not so arrogant that I’d come in front of you all to tell you that I’ve come up with the grand idea that will be a religion-killer. This isn’t the kind of thing that pops into existence out of one guy’s mind — it takes refinement over time, lots of smart people hammering it out, just like those holy books weren’t magicked into existence in an instant. Fortunately, our idea has been incubating for a few centuries, and has involved multitudes of our civilization’s greatest minds.
It’s called science.
Science is our weapon, our god-killer. It’s the greatest tool humanity has ever invented — it’s taken us from a hodge-podge of bickering near-savages living in the mud and dying young of disease and childbirth and starvation and sword-pokes to a hodge-podge of bickering near-savages who sometimes walk on the moon, who sometimes cure diseases, who live twice as long as our predecessors, who can look deep into cells or far out to distant galaxies. It has given us great power to accomplish marvelous things or to screw up the whole planet.
Science also has the power to transform our sense of identity. Some of us are no longer People of the Word, members of a special tribe bound together by the narratives and rules in quaint old books. We are instead the People of Reality: we are united by common knowledge, by a sense of universality, by our commitment to evidence. Personally, I find no sense of myself in the Judeo-Christian fairy tales I was brought up with–they are too narrow, too bigoted, too false. The words of my people are written in the strands of DNA I find in every cell of my body, and the story they tell is clear and inspiring. We are all products of the natural world; stars died to create the elements we are made of, and 4 billion years of churning life struggled and was born and died to shape us. We are close kin to every single human being on the planet, without exception — there is no tribe that is outside our family. And even deeper, we are related to every living thing on earth. You simply cannot get any more universal than the scientific story of life.
I take far greater pride in the accomplishments of science than I do of my ethnic group, or my place in Western culture, or my particular ruling form of government, or least of all, the church I was brought up in. Science bridges differences: I can find common ground with American scientists, Canadian scientists, Mexican scientists, Chinese scientists, Iranian scientists, Australian scientists. Maybe you aren’t a scientist, strictly speaking, but you’ve read the latest book by Dawkins or Hawking, or you love David Attenborough’s TV shows, or you’re a bird watcher or like weekend hiking in the Mountains. You are my people! We are one, united in an appreciation of the natural world!
There’s another reason I can take pride in science. Science has real power. Science actually works. But maybe I should actually take a moment to define what science is.
Science is the process that does its damnedest to figure out how stuff actually works, rather than how we wished it worked.
You know, I kinda wish peach pits actually cured cancer, but I think it’s more important to do the experiments and measure the results and see if they really do…because if they don’t, I think it would be a good idea for people to move on to more effective treatments.
You know, when I’m shopping for a used car, I kinda wish that cherry shiny sports car that I look so good in and that the seller is dumping for cheap also had a smoothly functioning engine and a trouble-free transmission, but I’ll still take it for a test drive and bring it to a mechanic for inspection.
You know, my ancestors probably wished the shaman’s magic talisman kept tigers away, but he probably trusted more in a fire and palisades and a spear close to hand.
The real power of science comes beyond that immediate effect, though. It turns out that if you’re disciplined and careful, if you reject ideas based on superstition, revelation, and tradition and actually require confirmable evidence for any suppositions about even mundane things, you find yourself on good stable ground, and are able to ask even deeper questions, and get answers. And before you know it, you find yourself in possession of a strong chain of evidence that leads you to answers about the fundamental nature of the universe. That’s real power.
When theologians argue, they try to resolve differences by turning to murky sources remote from anything fundamental: they open their holy texts, they cite fellow theologians, they try to reinterpret words that have been reinterpreted many times before. Have you ever heard scientists argue, though? They do all the time. But they don’t resolve issues by appealing to higher authorities: they don’t usually argue that because Richard Dawkins said it, it’s settled. They don’t argue that we have to parse Charles Darwin’s words a little more finely to arrive at the truth.
No, they say, “I’m going into the lab and do an experiment to test that proposition.”
They say, “I’m going to build a new instrument to measure that and see who’s right.” Our only authority is reality, and that’s what we test all of our inferences against. When you’re studying the world, your source of information is the world.
I’ll have more respect for theologians, whose object of study is god, when they actually start querying their subject directly. OK, they can start small and begin by pinning down ghosts or angels and asking them the tough questions that will eventually lead to collaring the deity, but you know, it’s just absurd that people who make so many assertions about the supernatural never seem to actually study supernatural sources of information.
It’s almost as if they don’t exist.
Now I’m sniping a bit at religion, and there’s a reason for that. Science and religion are in opposition. Faith is the atheist’s enemy. Remember, science is a process for figuring out how the world actually works. If you short-circuit the process and declare that you already have the answer, you just have to believe, then you are an enemy of science. If you simply assert your desired conclusion, and ignore the fact that reality is rarely about the answer you want, you’re an enemy of science. Truth is often uncomfortable, you have to value it because it is true, not because it makes you feel good.
The clearest examples of the dangers of religious thinking can be found in issues of science policy. Questions about the environment, for instance, ought to be resolved by careful examination of the evidence and by weighing the costs and benefits of proposed solutions, right? That’s what you and I would do. That’s how reasonable people operate.
Not George Pell, as you Australians know lives in a state of denial. Not James Inhofe. Not John Shimkus. These are our American representatives, who have influence on energy and environmental policy, who endorse the “Green Dragon” philosophy and actively deny the evidence of the world around us. What is the green dragon, you might ask? Here’s a statement from one of its proponents. The green dragon is environmentalism.
“Around the world, environmentalism has become an unbalanced, radical movement. Something we call “The Green Dragon.” And it is deadly, deadly to human prosperity, deadly to human life, deadly to human freedom and deadly to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Make no mistake about it, environmentalism is no longer your friend. It is your enemy. And the battle is not primarily political or material, it is spiritual. As Christians, we must actively trust God and obey His word. So when it comes to environmental stewardship, we must reject the false world view, the faulty science and the counterfeit gospel that threatens to corrupt society and the church.”
So in addressing the problems of the world, they deny evidence of the world to favor of mysticism and dogma. Both Inhofe and Shimkus have come out with unbelievably clear statements: we don’t have to worry about climate change, global warming, and CO2. Why? Because, in the bible, God said we don’t have to worry about a flood anymore, he promised it wouldn’t happen. And besides, god is also going to end the world soon, so it’s out of our hands.
Oh, yeah, it’s the End Times, don’t you know. Would you believe that, according to a recent Pew survey, 40% of Americans believe that Jesus is finally going to get around to fulfilling that promise he made 2000 years ago of global death and judgment, and it’s going to happen in our lifetimes? Aren’t we lucky? And here’s the creepy thing: those affirmative respondents all think that yes, we are lucky. Hooray for Armageddon and Apocalypse! Bring on famine, war, plague, and death! The demented ghouls of the end times are actually a significant political lobby, fighting to support Israel, no matter what. Why? Because they have a prophecy in Revelation that the Jewish state must be restored, in order that it be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, after which the surviving Jews will convert en masse to Christianity. Go on, read the Left Behind books, which spell it all out, so it must be true.
If a scientist saw a cataclysm coming, say a meteor on collision course for earth in 2050, we wouldn’t be saying, “Hallelujah, physics is true, bring it on! Our faith in mathematics is strengthened!” We’d be trying to stop it. Which makes the Christian reaction puzzling. If I actually believed Jesus was coming to end the world, I’d be preparing by stocking up on timber and nails. They were pretty effective last time.
Now wait, there might be some people saying (not anyone here, of course) that that’s no fair. Maybe you’re a liberal Christian, and I’m picking on the extremists (although, when we’re talking about roughly half the United States being evolution-denying, drill-baby-drill, apocalypse-loving christians, it’s more accurate to say I’m describing a representative sample). Perhaps you’re a moderate, you support good science, education, and the environment, you just love Jesus or Mohammed, too.
I’m sorry, but I don’t like you. I’ll concede that you are doing less direct harm, and I will thank you for your support of shared causes, and I’ll also happily work alongside you in those causes, but I also think you are still doing indirect harm to foundational principles of a rational society. You believe in some outrageous bullshit; the christian myths of a virgin giving birth to a god who dies are illogical lunacy, and the Christian doctrines of original sin and redemption through blood sacrifice by proxy are crippling psychopathological abominations. You promote unreason by telling people that it is OK to believe in some things without evidence, and even in contradiction to evidence and reason. You are cafeteria realists, and you undermine the essential goal of bringing the whole of humanity out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of the real world.
I tell such people that the universe is clearly lacking in gods and supernatural forces, so grow up and set all that nonsense aside. Join us and become a good atheist — you’ll be much happier and will waste less time in pointless just-pretend foolishness.
So, what does it mean to be a good atheist in the 21st century? How do you live as a good atheist? What should our values be?
We’re a diverse group, and we never agree on everything, so I’ll give you just a few: truth, autonomy, community.
This one is so fundamental that it’s hard to say much about it. If you aren’t dedicated to learning and discovery, to finding out the factual truth of matters, then you can’t be a good atheist. Goodbye.
You might be saying to yourself, but this isn’t a very good criterion, because doesn’t everyone seek the truth? Don’t Christians say they value truth, too?
Unfortunately, they say it, but they don’t practice it. If that were true, all the major Christian denominations wouldn’t have denial of the mechanisms of evolution as core parts of their doctrine. Now I know right away that many of you will be protesting that the Catholic church nominally accepts that humans evolved over time; so does the church of latter day saints and many other denominations. But note that I said the mechanisms of evolution; we have a battery of well-supported, unambiguously factual mechanisms driving evolutionary change, and none of them involve fairies, aliens, angels or gods. The only process of evolution endorsed by any of these religious institutions is of god-guided, directed, teleological change, a mechanism completely unsupported by any evidence, in direct contradiction to known processes, and propped up only by an irrational need to make their holy dogma relevant to human origins.
They’re all intelligent design creationists, in other words, and they’re all wrong.
I left my liberal Lutheran church when I was 13 years old and learned that I was expected to believe in a lot of false ideas to be a member. This has been a lifelong value for me; how much of the facts and data and evidence are you willing to compromise? My answer was zero.
For many years, atheists have been in the minority; I have talked with so many people who thought for so long that they were the only one, the only person in their community who saw through the godawful babble of the church. (of course, now that we have the internet, those same people are discovering that they are part of a global movement). What that means, though, is that many atheists are nonconformists, boat-rockers, weirdos, and outcasts.
And we like it that way.
We are not sheep. We love people who stand up for themselves, we detest people who try to impose rules on us — I have to be very careful to keep my description of values general, and be clear that I’m not dictating them to you, but describing what I see emerging as a consensus, because otherwise I’ll be pilloried by my own kind. We’re a pitiless bunch.
But what it means is that we find common cause with the people who have also been oppressed by this racist patriarchal culture we live in. People should be free to be who they are…and more, they should be free to stand up loud and proud and be that person with impunity. We will not live in a monoculture. We’re going to find strength in diversity.
I can think of no clearer example than a struggle that has riven the online atheist community for the last year or two, the effort to acknowledge the role of women in atheism. For years, the face of atheism has been white, male, and middle-aged, and a certain complacency had settled in — women by default had their role, as wives or organizers, and we had adopted a casually masculine expectation that all of our intellectual leaders would look like, well, me. Atheist meetings looked a lot like meetings of the Mormon leadership.
That’s changing. We’re telling people to come out, join us, be free of the straitjacket of convention, and what’s happening is the discovery that women have even more reason to be pissed off at religion than men, and they are a fast-growing segment of our community. Some people resent that — I cannot and will not argue that being an atheist makes you free of irrationality — but I can say for myself and the majority of atheists that we are all overjoyed. Our ranks are swelling with fierce independent women who are changing us, making us stronger and louder, and standing up for their causes and making all of us fight for women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and equality of opportunity. This is atheism, too.
Are you LGBT, wanting equality and social justice? You are atheism.
Are you a member of a minority, seeking recognition for your rights as a human being and respect in a society you helped shape? You are atheism.
If you are a human being with real world concerns, who wants to change the world, who wants to contribute in a unique way that encourages those diverse views, then you should be one of us.
The club is only closed to people who fuss about an imaginary afterlife, getting right with an imaginary god, conforming to an arbitrary dogma, and who think the most useless act of all, prayer, is a contribution you deserve thanks for.
There is a tired stereotype of atheists current in conservative circles. We are all cranky curmudgeons, grim nihilists and loners. Not a word of it is true. When you’re a social pariah, as so many atheists have been, is it any wonder that some of us might be a bit lonely and bitter? As my colleague on freethoughtblogs, Greta Christina, has been arguing, we also have good reason to be angry with a discriminatory society that does stupid things in the name of the Lord.
But atheism is blossoming. Atheists are coming out everywhere, speaking up on the Internet and public spaces, gathering together in meetings and discovering that we are not alone, and yes, it is good. We like each other. We work together. We’re happy together.
Three weeks ago, we had a wonderful meeting in Washington DC,the Reason Rally. 20,000 people gathered together in utterly miserable weather — it was cold, and it rained all day. I walked around in the crowds, and you know what? Everyone was smiling. Nobody was complaining (except for the cranky protesters on the fringe). The policemen monitoring the crowd were smiling. Goddamn, if I were the Grinch my heart would have grown three sizes that day.
I was also privileged to be backstage with all the speakers and celebrities and leaders of atheist organizations, and they were all jubilant, too. We were all damp and soggy — I remember watching Tim Minchin doing his set, barefoot on a stage puddled with water and strung with cables to Bad Religion’s amps and speakers, and thinking one good short and the atheist movement could be decapitated today — and every one of us had big goofy smiles on our faces.
And now this weekend we meet 4000 strong in Melbourne–and what an amazing crowd this is.
This is not surprising. We are a social species, and we thrive in communities, it’s how we have survived and grown so far. And atheists, contrary to some of our critics, are fully human, not aliens at all.
This willing cooperativity is something we have to value. Not only is it who we are, but it’s how the good atheists of the 21st century will win in the end.
We humans are different from other species in this regard. I have a favorite story from the primatologist Robert Sapolski to highlight this human attribute. We are not baboons.
“When baboons hunt together they’d love to get as much meat as possible, but they’re not very good at it. The baboon is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he hunts in a group because they screw up every time they’re in a group. Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and they’re gaining on it, and they’re deadly. But something goes on in one of their minds — I’m anthropomorphizing here — and he says to himself, “What am I doing here?I have no idea whatsoever, but I’m running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago. I don’t know why we’re running so fast right now, but I’d better just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me. ” the baboon suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just become disinhibited. ÊThey get crazed around each other at every juncture.”
I think that’s cool. That’s not us, we aren’t baboon-like at all. Even though baboons are really scary animals — they’re stronger than us, individually fiercer, and they have those savage huge fangs — they have this weakness, and we have this strength. We work together.
You know that in the childhood of our species, we were prey to the predators of the African continent. Alone, we were soft, weak, and tasty, and I’m sure the lions and leopards enjoyed a hominid snack. But together…I’m sure that when some ferocious big cat came upon a tribe of humans, together, and when they all turned 10 or 15 pairs of eyes on the predator and reached for stones and sharpened sticks, that cat felt fear and slunk away. Those eyes, those hunter’s eyes on the front of the face…when a group of us turn those eyes in cold calculation on any problem, when our hands work together, we are the most powerful force on the planet.
Yesterday I was listening to our Christian protesters outside, and I thought, “Huh. So that’s what you get when you give a sheep a microphone, amplified bleating.” There they were, calling on everyone to deny the richness of human experience and join the flock in the narrow boring confines of the sheep pen, so mindless they didn’t even realize they were calling to the wolves.
I have a different metaphor for us, my brothers and sisters in atheism. We are not sheep; there are no shepherds here. I look out from this stage and I see 4000 pairs of hunter’s eyes, 4000 hunter’s minds, 4000 pairs of hunter’s hands. I see the primeval primate hunting band grown large and strong. I see us so confident in our strength that we laugh at our enemies. I see a people thinking and planning, fierce and focused, learning and building new tools to conquer new worlds.
You are not sheep. You, my brothers and sisters in atheism, are a fierce, coordinated hunting pack — men and women working together, and those other bastards have cause to fear us. So let’s do it: make them tremble as we demolish the city of god.