An Atheism Meme

I’ve been tagged by the ever-readable Scribbles.

Q1) How would you define atheism?

The provisional conclusion that there is no compelling evidence for the existence of spiritual overlords.

I still use the term ‘atheist’ as it’s pretty easy to explain what I mean, which I’d have to do for ‘freethinker’, ‘nontheist’ etc. anyway. Don’t get me started on ‘agnostic’, though (the director’s cut of Donnie Darko defines an agnostic as ‘someone who believes that there can be no proof of the existence of God, but does not deny the possibility that God exists’. WTF.).

Q2) Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Not really. I wasn’t Christened, and I can’t recall my parents ever making outright claims one way or another. But when I was a kid my (not all that religious) grandmother inexplicably bought me ‘the Bible in 365 easy stories’, or something, and I made my parents read it every night. I recently asked what they thought of that, and they said they didn’t anticipate how violent it would be. I remember the artwork more than the stories, but some of the old testament stuff stuck. I’ve yet to re-examine the battle-watching dude who had to hold his arms aloft to prevent the mass slaughter of all his people, but even at 10 that was a bit weird. But I bought into anything that seemed mysterious, so I was Generically Christian until probably 14-15ish. By then I’d begun to realise the assembly-guest vicars sometimes came out with total rubbish, and I remember calling myself an agnostic (argh) in a discussion with über-Christian RE teacher1 at about that age.

Q3) How would you describe ‘intelligent design’, using only one word.


Q4) What scientific endeavour really excites you?

My favourites have always been astronomy and cosmology. I mean, stars are only ever point sources no matter how big your telescope, but by analysing their light we can figure out their chemical composition. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a picture of the Pheonix Lander parachuting to the ground2. The light from the Big Bang is still bouncing around, making up 3% of the static on an untuned tv screen, and we can use this to figure out the conditions in the first microseconds after the Big Bang. It’s just nuts. And brilliant.

But the older I get, the more I’m impressed by the basics. Just the easy little physics equations, and that they actually work. I get regular holy-shit flashes about natural selection, too.

It seems like most things, the more I think about them the more they descend into grey-area mess. Politics, photography, the day-to-day running of my life, whatever. But science is the inverse: the deeper I look, the more detailed and clearer things get, and it’s both a lifeline and a joy. So I’m rather a fan of the endeavour as a whole 🙂

Q5) If you could change one thing about the ‘atheist community’ what would it be?

Erm. I don’t think the ‘atheist community’ share anything but a disbelief in deities, really. The Internet forums suffer from the usual problem of online communities, though, and I’d like to kick out the mental atheists who forget religious people are human too.

Q6) If your child came up to you and said ‘I’m joining the clergy’, what would be your first response?

Which one? Why that one? Will it make you happy? Can I be a guest speaker?

Q7) What’s your favourite theist argument, and how do you refute it?

I quite like the ontological argument, which essentially says:

Imagine the most perfect being you can. Got it? Well, that one’s just in your head. A really perfect being would actually exist, because existing is more perfect than not existing. Therefore god exists.

This one’s quite good as it’s obviously completely bloody stupid, but it’s actually quite difficult to put your finger on why. People have, of course, and it’s fun wrapping your brain in knots trying to keep up.

The ontological argument doesn’t come up much in the cafeteria, though. Pascal’s Wager is better: if you die and god does exist you’re screwed, but if he doesn’t there’s no experience of any kind, so play the odds. That’s always entertaining, as I reject it for the same reason I don’t erect shrines to my toaster.

Other than that, there’s the moment when someone looks at you with pity in their eyes and says ‘Jesus’. As if that proves shit.

Q8) What’s your most ‘controversial’ (as far as general attitudes amongst atheists goes?) viewpoint?

I suppose thinking the Iraq War was at least a tricky decision is pretty controversial. And I’m a total relativist on the arts. But these don’t really count – they’re counter to the general opinion of commenters on atheist forums, but only in as much as they’re common to everyone.

As regards general attitudes amongst atheists, I can’t think of much…I take the Dawkins / P.Z. Myers approach that critical thinking + scientific knowledge will inevitably erode religious belief, and that saying the two are compatible is duplicitous. That one does at least split the scientists in the atheist community.

I also harbour some suspicions about the arguments over the best ways to change people’s minds. There are endless arguments over the merits of meet-them-halfway versus stand-up-for-what-you-believe-in, and I’m not sure there’s evidence for any of it yet. Although I haven’t yet read Carol Tavris’ book, so I might be talking rubbish.

Q9) Of the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite and why?

Dawkins, for reasons that will be terribly tedious to anyone who’s read this blog for a while. The Blind Watchmaker literally changed my life – I haven’t looked at the world the same way since – and I’m thankful to and admire the guy such that I have to be careful not to let biases get in the way of critical thinking. A couple of years ago I got him to sign my original TBW, and I think it’s time to read it again.

Q10) If you could convince one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Ahmadinejad. And Katie Holmes, because she seems so nice.

Also: Russell Brand. He’s not specifically religious, but goes in for all sorts of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It’s a shame, as the guy would be such a force for rationality.

Pass it on

I’m setting you free, little meme. Run, run like the wind.

  1. “on Christmas morning I want you all to get up and shout, as loud as you can, ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS!'” []
  2. I so want a poster of that photo []

Expelled from expelled

The latest tactic by US creationists is to cry academic discrimination, and they’ve produced a documentary, ‘Expelled!’, claiming that anybody who criticises evolution is being forced out by evil Darwinian scientists. The makers interviewed biologist P.Z. Myers under false pretences, and yesterday he tried to get into a local showing:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird — I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

This isn’t all that surprising, but I haven’t included the best bit. Head over to Pharyngula to see what happened next…Via L.