I’d like to kick things off with an upfront apology to all of those who are sick and tired of the religious debate raging in this forum. I, too, am increasingly convinced of the futility of it all (despite my previous contributions) and seriously considered not perpetuating it with this article. Alas, I have caved and what follows will probably result in much of the same circular and uncompromising debate. I am posting this mainly for the occasional gem comments that surface amongst all of the kak. So, if those comments, or this debate, do/does not interest you, perhaps, now is the time to stop reading. Having said that, I would like to ask (where possible) for intellectual honesty from the commentators, as I am genuinely interested in what people think of what follows.
I have recently been pondering two quotes, as, in combination, I think that they raise some interesting questions.
“Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think – not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment – on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘it is’.” – Ayn Rand (Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged)
“I know that you don’t now, because I don’t know – and you possess no faculty for understanding the world that I do not.” – Bill Maher.
Rand’s words were not written in specific reference to religion. But, she was a ‘devout’ atheist and it is easy to see how these words may find reference to the religious debate, insofar as it might (from the atheist perspective) be argued that religious people ‘induce an inner fog’, refuse to think and simply attribute everything to God.
Maher’s words were written in specific reference to the religious habit of claiming knowledge of God, without supporting evidence.
Easy enough? Well, I’d like to put a different spin on things, for the simple sake of argument. However, I need to first make reference to a third quote, in preemption of the inevitable accusation that I have wavered in or converted from my disbelief, as evidenced by my posting of this article.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle.
What if we used Rand’s and Maher’s words within the context of what the religious have been telling us this whole time? What if Rand’s words are correct, but in the wrong context, and Maher’s are, simply, wrong? I imagine that I’ll need to expand a little bit here …
Rand talks about the closing of the mind and/or a refusal to know. In essence, she does not despise ignorance, but, rather, the educated refusal to acknowledge something that is true. Rand despises the people who, despite all the evidence, would argue that A is B. Now, we’ve all encountered the religious argument that God (A) is obvious everywhere and that atheists have simply closed their minds to the truth and have refused to acknowledge A as A, rather straying off and saying that A is B (where B could, for instance, be represented by The Big Bang Theory). If this were true, then we atheists are truly a reprehensible bunch and are probably deserving of the condemnation sent our way by believers (and, ultimately, God). Do we agree here?
As a hypothetical, I accept the above – but, I cannot leave things there. Personally (knowing that I cannot talk for all atheists) I have not willingly chosen to fog my mind. I have read broadly (including religious, philosophical and scientific texts); I have observed diligently; I have meditated deeply; I have prayed desperately; I have tested meticulously; I have discussed openly; and I have listened carefully ... My beliefs are as they are, as a result of thorough, conscious enquiry. Therefore, if there is a God, I remain ignorant of his existence. I do not refuse to acknowledge him, despite an abundance of obvious evidence before me. In this sense, at least, I do not think myself reprehensible, even if I am wrong.
This leads us to Maher’s quote. The religious maintain that God is obvious and that they know of his existence. But, how can they know, if I don’t know and they possess no faculty for knowing that I do not? What if Maher is wrong? What if the religious do possess some faculty for understanding that we atheists do not? What if we are, in a sense, handicapped? What if, despite it being obvious to them, we are incapable of ever knowing God? What if, because of our handicap, we are bound to remain ignorant, until death (along with its revelations) provides us with the truth? Will we be sorry then?
Well, if we accept the all-loving and forgiving image of God (basically, what we’re told about him) then it’s unlikely that he’s going to hold us accountable for a handicap that he, as the creator, built into us. It would be to punish us for something that we, by design, could not control and this would contradict what he’s all about, no?
So, I’m in the clear, right? Not quite yet … I could still, hypothetically, get sent to the ‘naughty corner’ for the bad things that I did in this life. So, I should be a moral person.* Does this mean that I should obey his commandments, or would it suffice that I have used my reason to work out an ethical code? Seeing as I’m incapable of knowing his existence, I’m probably also incapable of appreciating the threat of his punishment and, so, am only really left with doing the right thing because it is right (which involves me thinking about moral conundrums). In conjunction with the fact that my reason is all that’s left to me, with my vital ability removed, the creator could hardly fault me for following it, even in the event that my mind led me to dismiss one of his commandments. He could not punish me (surely?) for using the only moral compass available to me, in my handicapped circumstances, or, once again, it would contradict what he’s all about.
I’m hoping that, apart from being hypothetically interesting to atheists, the above also allows believers to consider some things, to the extent that they may be right about everything. Even though I said that I can’t speak for all of them - I can say, with confidence, that many (if not most) atheists haven’t willingly fogged their minds. Instead, they have considered the issue/s deeply and have still not found God. Assuming again that believers are correct, I can only make sense of this contradiction by suggesting that Maher’s words are wrong. Either way, assuming that we atheists live our lives guided by (our sense of) morality, the condemnation needs to stop, in the name of your God.
*I am not saying that fear of punishment is a good reason to be moral. My mind (go figure) suggests the contrary.