Isn't it amazing how clever we all are these days? Don't we feel absurdly sorry for those who came before us? Isn't it a shame those people back in the year [fill in blank] didn't have our advantages – such as hot-and-cold running water, really cool cars, and the benefit of all worldly wisdom via the internet?
Why, you just have to pity those ancients back in the Pleistocene/1st Century BCE/1950s. They just didn't know they were in the world, as my grandmother used to say.
Stop laughing, and I'll tell you what I'm on about.
I've just spent a couple of hours reading a thoughtful and obviously well-trafficked website called Daylight Atheism. I've included the link, as I suspect a large number of my friends on this site will find the opinions expressed simpatico with theirs. The Daylight Atheists seem to be able to keep the vitriol to a minimum, and for a website invested in the usual sort of false dichotomies humans can't seem to avoid ("all atheists are this, all Christians – referred to as 'Xians', just to be annoying – are that"), the posters seem to be remarkably free of cant, meanness, and textspeak.
I learned a lot from this website, and will visit it again. In the first place, I was pleased with the site because I stumbled across it trying to jog my own memory about a factoid I suspected to be incorrect in a piece of religious glurge I received1. The factoid concerned a hagiographical story, and, mediaevalist that I am, I felt I should know which pre-printing-era manuscript blogger had perpetrated that particularly blood-thirsty 4th-Century urban legend. The first satisfactory answer I found was at Daylight Atheism, surprise, with a correct notation about Eusebius, so I was intrigued enough to read on.
I'm not very aggressive by nature, and I have always been puzzled by organised atheism. After all, there are many things I do not believe in. For instance, I do not personally believe the Earth is flat (although I have been wicked enough to pretend I do for the sake of a joke2). But I don't start a militant flat-earth-debunking cult. What, I thought, are organised atheists getting out of it, other than the sort of sad pleasure badly-behaved toddlers get out of kicking over the other children's block towers?
None of us has a clue what's out there. We are all whistling in the dark. I may have – and I do – reasons which are utterly convincing to me as to why I believe what I do about the nature of life, the universe, and everything3. I may be utterly wrong. I may be right. We may all be Brains-Inna-Vat, or there may be n alternate universes, and you and I may inhabit different ones. I may – or may not – qualify for the latest-model tinfoil hat. (What size tinfoil hat I wear is really none of your business. Besides, all the recent UFO activity has been over Brightling, Sussex.) Speculating on what's there and not there shouldn't be cause for a fight – it should be cause for pleasure in the flexing of our brains. I have had lovely conversations with delightful elderly people who have seen visions I feel privileged to have been told about4. If I'd been dogmatic about it, I would have missed the blessing.
After reading some of the Daylight Atheist website, I think I have figured out why atheists organise. They're religious people in recovery from some terrible experience. There was a heart-rending story on that site by a woman who had been abused as a child – and whose abusive parents had used religion as an excuse for abusing her. The atheists also seem to be concerned with refuting accusations that they cannot be moral without religion.
Of course you can be moral without an organised set of religious beliefs. Just as you can be utterly immoral with them. If decent, ethical behaviour depended on understanding, clever people would be good, and the slow-witted would be evil. And that I refuse to believe, no matter what website it appears on.
Religious people need to read personal stories like this woman's tale of abuse. They should resolve that, if their message is true, they should be deeply ashamed if they damage it by behaving in ways that bring dishonour on their belief systems. And the atheists, of course, should stop tarring everyone else with the same brush – it brings dishonour on the name of reason (which they don't own, any more than the religious people own a bunch of books they didn't write) and does no one any good.
Now I'm going to add insult to injury and quote the Bible. Someone who doesn't "believe" in the Bible might find quoting it offensive. On the other hand, I assume it is irrefutable that someone wrote the text, somewhere, sometime5. And that – like the Mahabharata, from which I derive much insight, like the Bhagavad Gita, like the novels of William Golding, particularly Pincher Martin – it contains more than a grain of human experience and wisdom.
Rather like the internet, in fact.
Now, I don't know how many people think it is vital that we all agree that the Israelite general Joshua literally made the sun stand still about 3000 years ago. Or that travellers get swallowed by cetaceans and live to tell the tale. And I know there are millions out there who think people in the past were just plain dumb because they didn't have so many buttons to push. But I think this story is important:
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
– Matthew 21:28-31, KJV
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head, And...answered "The names of those who love the Lord." "And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel..."I pray thee, then, Write me as one that loves his fellow men." The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night It came again...and showed the names whom love of God had blessed...Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.
– Leigh Hunt, (1784-1859), Abou ben Adhem
I'm hoping that helps explain why I was rather pleased with the Daylight Atheists. And I hope it explains why I don't like to see people make fun of others' beliefs. Let them follow Lessing's Nathan the Wise – to prove their ring is the real one, they should show themselves worthy. If those folks help and comfort one another, if they refuse to take mental shortcuts, and want to know what it is they can know, if they practise the humility true wisdom requires...well, I suspect they'll get somewhere. I also suspect we won't be reading about them in the Police Gazette.
We are all sitting in darkness. If we can light a candle, we should.
But we shouldn't try to charge an admission price for the light. Not even the admission price of somebody telling us that we're right.