Tuesday, 21 February 2012

On Atheism

Atheism. Some people act like it's a dirty word. Many people seem to think that being an atheist means you are somehow an amoral baby eater. Some people even go as far as calling atheism a type of faith. Today I am going to outline a few things about atheism, the way I see it. I've written about my thoughts on religion before, but this is more specifically about atheism.

I have been an atheist since long before I knew what the word meant. As I was never indoctrinated as a child, I had the opportunity to form my own opinions about life, the world and everything, without having to defer to an old book that has seen more revisions and versions than Adobe Flash. I also had the freedom to form those opinions without the ever present threat of an eternity of torment and pain. Unfortunately, I don't think enough children are given that opportunity.

So, in an effort to maybe educate and inform, I want to lay out a few points about atheism and debunk some common misconceptions. I am not the first to do this and I certainly won't be the last. This is atheism, the way I see it.

#1 - Atheism is a faith/religion

I wanted to start with this as it is a very common misconception and something I hear a lot. Saying that atheism is a faith and/or religion shows a misunderstanding of what those words mean. Atheism is a religion in the same way off is a TV channel and not collecting stamps is a hobby. You don't need faith to not believe in something. People will expand this point to include science, claiming that we accept evolution and similar on faith. They will also call us narrow minded for not accepting their views and requiring evidence of all claims. This is not only quite ironic but it shows a misunderstanding of how science works. In the words of the great and mighty Tim Minchin:

"Science adjusts its views, based on what's observed.
Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved."

To put it my own way, imagine that science proved God. Imagine if there was a repeatable, peer reviewable test that could be performed, under reasonable experimental conditions, that proved God. Any scientist or scientific thinker would have no option but to admit we were wrong and accept God. There would be no other option for us, because that's how science works.

However, if science absolutely disproved God, using a repeatable, peer reviewable method, under reasonable experimental conditions, the religious would still refuse to accept it. That is the key difference.

Atheism and science tend to go hand in hand, and there is no faith in science, only results. Sometimes those results are surprising and unexpected, like the recent faster than light photons. (I have been corrected on this point. They were neutrinos) That is where peer review and retesting come in. Faith lacks those things. This leads me quite neatly to my next point:

#2 - Evolution is only a theory

I love this one. Once again, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of words. In scientific terms, a theory is the highest classification of an idea. It means that the idea has been tested, peer reviewed and found to be worthy. An untested idea is a hypothesis. To any of you who have ever uttered the words "but evolution is only a theory" I would like to point out that gravity is also only a theory, yet I don't appear to be floating away. Evolution is a proven thing that happens. It's not up for debate, nor is it speculation. It is an observable phenomenon that can be tested in a laboratory, using things like fruit flies or bacteria that have very short generations. Evidence for it is also present in DNA and biology. For instance, the appendix (in humans), male nipples (humans, again), leg bone remnants (whales) and the correlation between the DNA of related species.

Another example is Texan rattlesnakes. Over just a few decades, they have evolved smaller, quieter rattles and a disinclination to use them, through natural selection. See, Texans love to kill them some rattlesnakes. Every year they take to the wilderness and kill as many as they can. Natural selection has weeded out any snake with a large, loud rattle, or a tendency to rattle a lot, as they are the easiest to find and kill. This has led to rattlesnakes unique to that area that will not rattle or make themselves obvious until they have no other choice but to fight. This is observable evolution that has happened in the lifetime of people who are still very much alive. Imagine what 200,000 years could. Or 200 million! Evolution is an amazing, beautiful and natural thing. I really can't understand people who don't see the beauty and wonder in it. How is 'God did it' a better option?

#3 - Can't people just believe what they want? Why does it matter?

The answer to the first question is, of course, yes. People can believe whatever they like. To quote Ricky Gervais:

It's your right to believe what you want.
And it's your right to be wrong.

The issue is not personal, individual belief. The issue is that religions tend to force their beliefs into places they do not belong, like politics and science lessons. If you want to see what happens when religion is allowed to influence politics, go to any country that enforces sharia law. People are put to death or mutilated for frankly fucking ridiculous things because an old book says it must be so. I think many Christians would point to this as an example of why Islam is bad and why people should be Christians. If that's you, I ask that you firstly go and read a bible because it's just as bad. Then I would like you to look at the current climate in America and what people like Senator Rick "Frothy Mixture" Santorum would like to write into law if they got the chance, regardless of the fact that basically everything out of his mouth violates the first amendment. If somebody like him actually gained power, it would be a fucking fast and slippery slope back into the dark ages.

I would also like to bring up the fact that the religious are protected, certainly in the western world. Religion is considered above reproach and criticism and whenever something is above criticism it will inevitably slide towards corruption. The Catholic Church is a case in point. However, the same courtesy is certainly not extended to those of us without religion. The religious are allowed, even encouraged, to talk about their religion to anyone who will listen and to 'spread the word of God'. If an atheist does the same, we are immediately labelled as militant, close minded or ignorant. If we disagree with their beliefs, we are accused of somehow attacking them. I think the following comic illustrates the idea quite well.


#4 - Atheists are amoral because they don't accept biblical morality.

Whenever I hear this, all I can think is that the person saying it has never actually read a bible for themselves. It is packed to the brim with violence, xenophobia, incest, rape, murder, you name it, it's probably in there. When you point this out to them (with the relevant chapter numbers) you will inevitably be told that the section in question is 'metaphorical' or 'to be interpreted'. It's funny how this line is metaphorical and to be interpreted but the one next to it (that happens to be in keeping with the individuals personal world view) is literal and cannot be contravened on pain of eternal damnation.

It's this cherry picking that totally undermines the entire concept of biblical morality. If you are able to interpret and decide which bits are good and which are bad, why do you need the book to tell you what is good or bad? You obviously already knew. Of course, there is a good chance that you never consciously chose your world view but had it inserted into your mind by the concerted efforts of your parents and their holy man of choice, but they had to interpret and decide which the good bits were, so the principal is still sound.

My point is, why do you need the book and the big fucking building to keep it in and the man to read it to you, to ensure you only hear the right bits? The answer is that you don't. If the only thing stopping you from murdering people is the thought of going to hell then there is something wrong with you. I have no fear of hell as I do not think it exists. I would still never murder someone, in the same way I wouldn't rob or cheat someone. In fact, as an atheist, murdering someone would be worse! In the religious world, death is not the end but only the beginning. This life here on Earth is merely a waiting room for the wonders of heaven (or horrors of hell) so murdering someone is just ushering them along their path. As an atheist, I know that to murder someone is to end everything they are. I know they won't be coming back or going to some mystical better place. They will be going in a box and then, most likely, either into a hole or a fire.

In a lot of ways, we atheists are more moral as we don't rely on an ancient text for the basis of our morals. Good Christians have been known to bomb family planning clinics because they don't agree with abortion or contraception. Show me an example of an atheist starting a war or fire bombing a building for religious reasons. And no-one better try and pull out the 'Hitler was an atheist' chestnut because it is patently not true. Hitler was a confirmed Christian. Bill Gates, on the other hand, is a staunch atheist and has donated billions of dollars to charity for no other reason than he can and he wants to help people. He isn't doing it for some mystical reward when he dies. Which, for me, makes it a much more powerful and meaningful gesture.


In closing I would just like to say that if you think atheists are bad people, devil worshippers (lol!), close minded or evil in some way, you have been woefully misinformed. Learn to form your own opinions and think for yourself. Learn critical thinking and teach it to your children. Question everything and never accept anything at face value with no corroborating evidence. Oh and stop telling us we're going to hell. That's like a hippy telling me they're going to punch me in my aura.

Friday, 3 February 2012

On Homelessness

Normally what happens here is I rant about shit and then, well, nobody reads it. That's fine and I don't intend to deviate too much from my intended plan, but today I'm not going to do that.

Today, I saw this video.

The point of this video is actually to illustrate the way changing the words of a message, whilst retaining the meaning, can make all the difference to the response you get. However, that is not the reason it moved me. What moved me was the fact that the man was blind.

Let me explain. My father-in-law* is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from COPD, a debilitating lung condition that requires him to have home oxygen. About 3 years ago, when he was still drinking, he went into a serious downward spiral of depression and became very ill. The COPD wasn't diagnosed then and he was still smoking and drinking a lot. He'd been a 'functioning alcoholic' for years, basically meaning that he had a job (as a truck driver) and never drank on the job but when he was at home, he drank heavily.

Anyway, he became more and more depressed and reclusive and stopped going to work because he was too ill and depressed. This went on and on and became more and more serious but he refused to let anyone help him. He started to suffer from agoraphobia and his ability to breath properly diminished very quickly until he couldn't go back to work, even if he had been in any state to do so. Eventually he had to be rushed to hospital and he came within hours of dying and it was only through luck, really, that he woke up when he did and started accepting treatment.

Once he came out of hospital, he was unable to work. My better half had been spending a lot of time talking to the CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau) about what benefits he was eligible for but it was a slow moving process and we had to lend him our savings so he didn't loose his flat.

The reason I'm telling you all this is because if he hadn't had his daughter to help him with the benefits office, he wouldn't have been able to do it himself. At the time, he could barely talk without becoming distressingly out of breath and, even if he could, he wasn't good at dealing with official things like that. He would have ended up homeless. He wouldn't have survived a week.

It really showed me how a lot of people end up on the streets. Take the blind man in the video above. I'm sure he's probably an actor or something, but let's assume he's a real guy, begging on the streets. People like him fall through the cracks of society all the time. If you haven't got someone who can fight your corner for you when you cannot do it for yourself, you will find that the system is biased against you at every turn. My father-in-law has had his benefits cut a couple of times because of screw ups in the benefits office and if we hadn't been there for him, he wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. He can't go to the office and talk to the people face to face. He can barely manage a phone call without getting flustered and out of breath! Any one of those benefits cuts would have put him on the street to die.

Watching the video above really fired my empathy circuits. My brain immediately started wondering how the man ended up on the streets, how we as a society let that happen. It also reminded me that this man could easily have been my father-in-law, a man I love dearly.

We all walk past homeless people on the streets and act like they're not there. I'm not going to try and act like I don't because I do. We also judge people. We think "It's their own fault! It's not my problem!" We walk on by and act like we never saw them in the first place. But that could be your friend or a family member who fell on hard times and somehow missed society's safety net on the way down. It could be you, one day.

I recently had a motorbike accident and broke my foot. Luckily, I have very understanding bosses and a job where I sit at a desk, so it was fine. However, if I had a manual labour job, the 7 weeks I was on crutches and the further month it took for me to walk properly again could have cost me my house. And that's in the UK, where the health care is free. Imagine if I lived in the US! The situation would be the same but I would also owe up to several thousand dollars in medical bills. It can happen that easily. One day, everything's fine and then something unexpected happens and your whole world can quickly fall to pieces.

Now, I don't advocate giving money to random beggars. It doesn't really help them and is advised against by charities like Shelter and The Big Issue. But that doesn't mean you should act like they simply don't exist! Instead of giving them money, buy them a sandwich or a coffee or simply talk to them like they're real people. If they're an official Big Issue seller, buy a copy. What my Mum does is gives them the money and refuses the magazine so they can sell it again.

I used to see the same homeless guy a lot of days in the city centre near where I live. One day, instead of walking past like he wasn't there, I stopped and talked with him. He didn't really elaborate on how he had come to be homeless but he was a nice guy and did say that he just wanted money to go to a place down the road so he could be warm and buy a coffee and some food. He was clearly sober and didn't even smell of booze, so I gave him some money and then I did something that I think he appreciated a lot more. I shook his hand. The look on his face will always stay with me. I could tell I was the first person in who knows how long who treated him like a human being instead of a piece of trash.

I will get back to the regularly scheduled rage when I next write, whenever that will be. Thanks for reading and always remember that even when a person falls on the hardest of times, they are still a person and should be treated as such.

*He's actually my future father-in-law, but for simplicity's sake, I'll just call him my father-in-law.

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