Philosophy with Attitude

From [email protected] Fri Oct 10 12:25:58 1997
Date: Tue, 7 Oct 1997 18:22:50 -0400 (EDT)
From: Reverend Jan
To: Editor of TNH
Subject: Forum response to Walt E. Laux

Jan Andrea
Graduate Student

Ah, time to drag out the old soap box again. Some of the returning students here at UNH may be familiar with my work already; for those who are not, I must introduce myself. I am a graduate student in education, currently doing a teaching internship at Oyster River Middle School. My eventual goal is to teach science, whether with the seventh- and eighth-graders with whom I am currently working, or at a high school level. I play the violin in the UNH Symphony Orchestra; have been happily married for 1.4 years; look forward to having a family in the not-too-distant future; and am, in short, extremely happy with my life.

According to Walt E. Laux in his Forum piece of Tuesday, 7 October, this picture should not be possible: as many of you may already know, I am also an atheist. My parents and siblings are also atheists or at least agnostics; most of my closest friends are atheists as well. And you know, just as is the case for my Christian acquaintances, some of them are happy with their lives, and some not quite so pleased. I'm no sociologist, and I won't pretend to have a published study, but based on my knowledge, atheists are no more or less happy overall than are believers, despite Laux's claims to the contrary. Is it really possible that *all* atheists "either gruble in discontent, or fake being happy despite an obvious cognitive dissonance?" That's a pretty broad statement for Laux to make, and it's one with which I think even my middle school students would be unlikely to agree.

If Laux would care to open up the most basic etymological text, he would find that the term "atheist" is based on the prefix "a-" meaning "without" or "no," and the suffix "-theist" meaning "religion" or "god". Simply put, it means "without god," or "without religion." Saying that the lack of belief in a higher power (Laux's version of God, in this case) is dependent on the existence of this God is logically identical to saying that a normal adult's lack of belief in the tooth fairy depends on the existence of the tooth fairy. This is, of course, not the case; we can say without fear of devine cavities that the tooth fairy does not exist, and saying so does not immediately call her into existence. As far as I'm concerned, atheism is the default condition (no one is born knowing anything about religion: it must be taught), and it's only an accident of language and social custom that we have the negative term (that is, the one that supposedly "denies" god).

Could we not turn the tables on dear Mr. Laux, however? Could we not say that religion is based on the lack of a god, since religion denies that there is no god, and if the lack of god did not exist, theists would have nothing to deny or discredit? Why, indeed, does he need to "advertise [their] profound beliefs so frequently"? I'm not suggesting that you stop, of course, Mr. Laux -- as a citizen of this country, you have every right to say what you please about your religion -- but I would like you to consider your arguments more carefully in the future.

Now, about your concern that atheists "use science as a crutch." Would it surprise you to learn that until the end of the last century, science was routinely used to support the existence of a deity? Using exactly the same arguments that you did, many theologens/scientists stated that the world or indeed the universe could not have come into existence without a deity. This has only changed during the last century because of the wealth of new ideas and discoveries: many phenomena that were previously unexplained except by invoking god are now covered by scientific theories. (Incedentally, "theory" does not mean "guess" as many people think it does; a scientific theory is a statement that has been repeatedly upheld by considerable evidence, and by many different people. Gravitation is still a theory, because it is impossible to prove anything in science 100%; however, it has been experimentally shown to be correct in numerous circumstances, and thus is granted the title "theory" rather than being a mere hypothesis (educated guess).)

No atheist in her or his right mind would truly claim that "science disproves the existence of God." In fact, science says nothing of god: god is a supernatural construct, meaning that it exists outside the realm of nature. Since science is limited to the study of the natural world, the world we can observe, directly or indirectly, and which is bound by natural laws, which at least the Christian god is not said to follow, science can neither prove nor disprove its existence. The more knowledge we obtain about the universe, the less we "need" a deity to explain natural phenomena; but science can never truly say "there is no god" because the notion of god is outside the realm of science.

As do many Christians, Mr. Laux and Ms. Adams also feel it necessary to bring out the analogy of the clock. This analogy is at least 100 years old and has been argued for as many years; yet it is flawed. No one expects to find a fully-formed mechanical timepiece out on the beach, because such a thing is indeed not possible. However, the fully-formed mechanical timepiece has never simply sprung into creation: timepieces have, in fact, had a long "evolutionary" process themselves, beginning with water clocks and hourglasses, and gradually becoming more and more complex to suit our more complex technological needs. The clocks that didn't work weren't replicated; those that did have been "passed down" from clockmaker to clockmaker (in a metaphorical sense). So, rather than supporting the existence of a watchmaking deity, this analogy in fact must draw upon the scientific theory of evolution. Clever, eh?

As for the morality of Christians versus atheists, I must take great offense to Mr. Laux's insinuation that atheists are less moral than those with religion. Simply because we have used our reason, critical thinking, and genuine compassion towards others to formulate morality, rather than taking them as read from a 2000-year-old book, are we immediately thought to be less ethical? I shudder to think that blind adherence to "thou shalt not kill" is considered a higher moral stance than my belief that it is the circumstance that dictates morality, that sometimes it is better to kill one person to spare millions than it would be to allow that one to kill for the sake of the letter of the law. There are dozens if not hundreds of situations where Biblical law falls short of genuine morality; the nouveux-Christian tradition of "what would Jesus do?" comes closer, but is still rather close to the blind adherence stance. It does not take religion to create morality; I hope that Mr. Laux and others like him can eventually come to that realization, and stop treating atheists as second-class Americans because of their misconceptions.

As an atheist, I do not look forward to death. I look forward to a long and rewarding life, one in which the consequences of my actions are immediate and personal; I look forward to serving humanity to the best of my ability; I look forward to reflecting on a life well-spent. I am happy, thoughtful, reasonable, and free of any crutches besides my love for my husband; and I and other atheists are not sinking. We are swimming with all of our hearts, and will continue to do so until we finally die and rejoin the earth in peace.

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