Wed, 18th Jun, 2014

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PostHeaderIconWhy Atheism Matters

The following is a response to Rebecca Barry's Opinion piece in the NZ Herald on Mar 23th by floyd_akl on the NZ Skeptics Mailing list

Rebecca Barry, in her column of March 23 asks "Why is religious faith such a scary concept that atheists need to hold a global convention?". Before answering this question, it's worth pointing out some obvious truths.

Atheists are, by definition, merely those who do not believe in a supernatural omnipotent being, simply because there is no evidence for its existence. Most of us don't believe in the existence of fairies, unicorns or the Easter Bunny for the same reason. Atheism is not a religion, and most atheists go about their day-to-day lives without being active in the atheist "community". However, some atheists choose to express their point of view publicly, which, thank goodness, we are permitted to do in our secular society.

One could make the observation that the people at atheist gatherings tend to spend most their time celebrating and encouraging science, reason and critical thinking, rather than engaging in the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel pastime of bashing religion.

Barry wonders why some prominent atheists always talk about terrorism, when most moderate believers are rather more concerned with doing the right thing by their neighbours. Of course it's true that Barry's moderates or "ordinary citizens" believe in doing the right thing, as do most atheists, but human beings don't need religion to care about their fellow man – it's called social evolution. She suggests atheists should "stop worrying and enjoy their lives". So the real question Barry seems to be asking is "Why don't you atheists just leave the religious alone?".

The answer to that question is this: many of us are worried about the consequences of living in a world in which credulity and adherence to dogma thrive.

There was a time when nearly everyone in the western world believed in God and the churches ruled. This was called the Dark Ages. Some regions of the globe, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even parts of the United States, seem to want to go back to those days. It is the mindset of belief without evidence that is so dangerous. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, there is a logical path from religion to violence, as evidenced throughout history in the form of Christian crusades and Islamic jihad. There is no logical path from atheism to violence. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot et al committed none of their atrocities in the name of atheism. On the other hand, we can be pretty sure what the last words of the 9/11 hijackers were as they ploughed their planes into the World Trade Centre, killing thousands of innocent people.

This does not mean of course, that millions of moderate believers are going to turn into raving holy war lunatics any time soon. But without the moderate base, worshipping the same texts, do you think the extremists would be able to do what they do? If religion is not challenged, criticised, and held to account, this sort of fanatical thinking can, and does, multiply and grow.

There are inherent dangers within religion that can cause real harm to modern, moderate societies. Religion's obsession with sex and the teachings that surround it, can lead to distorted sexual attitudes, unwanted pregnancies, discrimination against women or homosexuals, life-long feelings of guilt, and even sexual abuse. Religious ideals around the sanctity of life prevented the use of stem-cell research to aid in the fight against diseases in the United States for eight years.

Barry mentions the Brian Tamaki saga as an example of how religion has come into focus in New Zealand this year. Religion has always asked for money from their flock. Destiny Church just asks for it more forcefully. Many churches take from those least able to afford it to fill their own coffers. Most of this money goes towards building extravagant temples to perpetuate their particular brand of belief system and to make sure the punters turn up every week – and it's all tax-free.

Children of religious parents are often automatically indoctrinated into the church from birth. They have no say in the matter. Their right to free-thought has been taken away before they have a chance to develop critical thinking skills. They are told that this book or that scripture is true, and you mustn't challenge it, because it is sacred. How does that kind of thinking prepare a child for adult life?

Barry also wanted to know why the atheists chose to use the word "probably" in their bus campaign, as in "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". In science, nothing is absolutely certain, so it would be disingenuous to state categorically the non-existence of God, and would have opened them up to criticism for being dogmatic – something religion is very good at. The "probably" also lends a certain mildness and playfulness to the slogan, and aims only to get people thinking, which makes the offence taken by some believers all the more curious.

Do we really want beliefs based on 2000 year-old texts written by Bronze Age peasants to dictate how we live in the 21st century? Isn't it time we dispensed with childish delusion and superstition? Isn't it time we grew up?

For a long time, challenging a person's faith was seen as rude and disrespectful. Now, thanks to eloquent and erudite commentators such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheists feel more comfortable voicing their views.

In this country you have the right to practise your religion, but not the right to be free from criticism of it.

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