Answering idiocy

It’s not often that I feel inspired to respond to things I read in the newspaper.

Well, that’s not quite right. There’s enough madness in any given issue that I usually have a response to it. But a response in writing, submitted to the same newspaper? That’s a rarity.

So when a fellow atheist passed this story in the Albany Times Union on to me, I was mostly unimpressed. At first. And then I read the entire thing, and got to thinking.

I originally wrote this response in an e-mail to the opinion editor of that newspaper, but it’s been a couple of weeks now, and I haven’t heard back from them about whether or not it’d be published. So what the hell? Let’s publish it here.

I’m an atheist and a humanist. There are many of us in the Capitol region, as the turnout at any Capitol Region Atheists & Agnostics or Capitol District Humanist Society event might attest. I don’t worry about the afterlife, because I see no reason to believe there is any such thing. (I do worry, though, that Mr. Ingui feels comfortable with the idea of worshiping a deity that creates human beings and places them on Earth with the foreknowledge that they’ll end up rejecting him and spending an eternity in torment and suffering.) I imagine that Mr. Ingui has spent a similarly tiny amount of time worrying about the bad potential afterlife he might face if any other religion but his own turns out to be true; for example, I doubt he’s lost much sleep over the idea that the ancient Egyptians were right and that his soul will be devoured by the god Amenti if Osiris discovers that it weighs more than the Feather of Truth.

But without an afterlife, what are we left with? This life, of course. And for some over 750,000,000 atheists worldwide, that’s quite enough. After all, how long do you have to live to feel like your life has worth? Is living forever the only way you can imagine that you have value? This certainly isn’t the case for me, and I’m not willing to lie to myself and believe that I’ll live forever just because it’s a nice idea. I’d rather use what time I have in this life to do what I can to leave behind a better world for the people who follow me. Even though I won’t be around to see them enjoy it, I can take a measure of pride and happiness now in knowing that they will.

As for Mr. Ingui’s contention that ‘goodness’ has no meaning unless it comes from a God, I’d propose that precisely the opposite is the case. If goodness is just a matter of divine will, then morality has nothing to do with whether or not we’re decent human beings; it just means obeying God, no matter what the cost. People who believe that their actions come with the force of divine fiat are potentially dangerous. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac – in which Abraham is willing to offer his son as a human sacrifice, believing that this sort of thing is in line with God’s will – is an example of what could be considered ‘moral’ under the idea that being moral just means being obedient to God.

If we acknowledge that morality deals with how living things relate with one another – after all, what else could it deal with, if there’s no god? – then we can begin to build a rational system of ethics that does everything it can to maximize the common welfare and minimize suffering.

With regard to the claim of miraculous healings, I’d simply ask for some evidence of this, and then a reason to believe that they’re because of the Christian god and not the gods of other religions. When you consider the many billions of people praying for some kind of healing every year, and the fact that the vast majority of them receive nothing of the sort, the only conclusion that stands to reason is that either there aren’t any deities out there answering prayers (and thus the ‘miraculous healings’ are just a matter of statistics), or they’re very, very picky (and thus prefer to let the vast majority of us suffer rather than give us a good reason to believe in them).

I won’t comment much on Mr. Ingui’s misunderstandings of science, other than to say two things.

First, a scientific theory is the pinnacle of scientific discovery – a model of how part of reality works which incorporates numerous facts, observations, and laws – and that theories are not “promoted” to laws, as he seems to believe. Evolution is a fact – a law; the theory part is that natural selection is the process behind the fact. Evolution is based on myriad evidence spanning disciplines such as paleontology, biogeography, developmental biology, morphology, and genetics, all confirming the fact that life on earth has evolved from previous forms over billions of years. There is no scientific controversy over evolution, only an ideological one. Acceptance of evolution is not a matter of faith; we know that the processes required for its function actually exist, which is more than we can say about a god (Mr. Ingui’s claims of certainty notwithstanding).

Second, there’s a bittersweet irony in seeing a person argue that evolution may be overturned one day by pointing to the examples of the flat earth and geocentric models. Both of these ideas, when they were commonly held, were promoted by the church (as the imprisonment of Galileo by the Inquisition for heresy may attest). The flat earth idea was rarely, if ever, believed by scientists.

I contend that Mr. Ingui and I are both atheists, to a degree. When we go through the list of the thousands of gods that humanity has fashioned over the many millennia of our history, both of us will agree that we don’t believe in them – until, of course, we reach Mr. Ingui’s god, which he knows is real with as much certainty as all the people who believed in all those other gods had about their own gods.

I bear Mr. Ingui no grudge, and know (hope?) that his views are likely not representative of the Christian community as a whole. As a man who has been, in turns, a liberal Christian, an evangelical Christian, a fundamentalist, a deist, and an atheist, I’ve seen all sorts of people who claim the mantle of Christianity and know that there are nearly as many flavors of the faith as there are people who follow it. I’d be happy to have some of his church’s free ice cream, and even sit down to hear his sales pitch, but I seriously doubt that a free sugary treat is going to be enough to change my worldview. That many Christians do good works in the name of their faith is undeniable and commendable; then again, so do people of all faiths – and of none, like myself – so it doesn’t go anywhere toward proving them right.

I sent this off to the Times Union without realizing just how repugnant and stupid Mr. Ingui’s web site really is. I strongly encourage you to visit it yourself to experience the depth of its stupidity.

I’m a bit disappointed that the Times Union was eager to promote such patent unscientific and small-minded nonsense, but not a response to it. It makes me question their journalistic neutrality on the subject.


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