On Atheism and Responsibility

A long time ago I decided to stop practicing my father’s religion, Buddhism, and declare myself an atheist. That’s very different from not believing in its ideas, which are very good: pacifism, for instance. And it has been hard to practice pacifism in a world where almost everyone subscribes to one religion or another, and assumes I do too. This post is about how I come to peace with the religious, day after day.

Like many other atheists converts, I felt oppressed and angry, battered on every side by people who either did not understand, did not trust us, or simply did not accept it. My family’s attitude can be summed up by ignoring my choice entirely, deeming it the foolishness of childhood. To this day they will just mention offhandedly that I should observe their religious beliefs, even though I’ve voiced time and again that it is offensive to me.

Even after years of debating, studying, and refuting, I still feel bitter and put off by any mention of organized religion. My observation is the practice does nobody any good; organized religion is unlike personal spiritualism, in that it can be used to justify almost anything, with no rational backing whatsoever. If you’re sitting at home meditating and dancing naked during certain times of the year, more power to you. You’re hurting nobody. But I think it’s fairly obvious what a group of people convinced of divine right can do. Organized religion is the embodiment of fallacy ad populi: just because most people subscribe to one is no evidence that perspective is right.

But I have long since stopped trying to convince the religious of that. It’s not because I’ve had a change of heart, or because it’s exasperating to repeat the same tired arguments (which it is!) As an atheist minority, we often have to put up with public declarations of belief, and actions based on nothing but religion. I’m convinced that much of the labor woes of this country go back to an interpretation of original sin: that everybody should work because we have offended God, even when there is enough wealth held by the 1% to give everybody a universal basic income and still have tons left over, working or not. (It’s just math. The 1% own 97% of everything.) Of course, the people who support things like “Right to Work” laws are often wealthy and don’t have to work themselves. But I digress.

It’s because I’ve reached a philosophical point in my personal development that I have stopped telling religious people off. Ironically to explain this point of view, I have to include a creationist argument:

This and every other rebuttal to evolution is a perfect illustration of the anthropic principle. When the human brain doesn’t have enough information to process something, it fills in the gaps to make up a meaningful pattern; “anthropic” meaning “Human,” those fillers are naturally things that make most sense from that person’s subjective experience. “Stuff was designed” is easier to relate to as a human being, therefore the human mind naturally gravitates to it.

The egg is an elaborate evolution of the cellular membrane, which can be found in most types of life on Earth. It’s been theorized that the first proteins in Earth’s primordial oceans used microscopic bubbles in the surf as a model to build cellular walls. The incorporation of calcium (which provides hardness) is seen in the earliest crustaceans, and appears to be a very early development.

The truth is the anthropic principle can easily and ironically be countered by understanding evolution properly. Evolution happens because of natural selection. The animals that did not produce eggs with just the right porous shells or air sacs simply perished; it’s a statistical inevitability. And you can find evidence of that simply by comparing different types of avians: Ostriches are much larger and developed much larger eggs. This can NOT be explained by design, since the Ostrich is a ridiculous animal that nobody in their right mind would make. It can only be explained by the surrounding environment shaping a creature through generations to better suit the wide, flat plains and other factors that contribute to the species success.

But let’s think about my rebuttal for a moment. At this point I as a human being understand two very important things:

1: The anthropic principle, which is a deep understanding about the way I and every other person processes and absorbs information.

2: A rough, college-level grasp of the complete picture of how life came to be on Earth, as scientists understand it. This requires cursory knowledge of astronomy, oceanography, biology, chemistry, physics, elementary particles; literally every field of scientific study, which is the accumulated intellectual wealth of humanity.

If God was the parent allegory that so many religions insist it is, then it should be very confident in letting its children grow the hell up: brushing off itself and leaving the universe in our hands. We now have the tools to wield the very fires of creation, if we only had the will to do so. But like weak, mewling children, we cling to the thought of a protective parental figure, despite having achieved so much in such a short time. It’s why there are humans who balk at taking responsibility for climate change, and who don’t like the idea of people changing their genders. They’re not sure what’s acceptable or not to some parental figure that might whip off its belt at any moment.

And that’s why I can tolerate the religious on a day to day basis. I understand they’re just afraid, and often don’t have the knowledge to go forward with choices that everyone they know won’t tolerate. And who can blame someone for being afraid of the unknown? It’s the atheists’ responsibility to spread the knowledge that will allow people to overcome fear. And in the age of the internet, that’s become easier than ever.

And what can be more adult than accepting responsibility?


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