The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

A Clarification

I recently wrote a post (Atheism, Some Assembly Required) that appears to have confused some people.

Some readers thought that I was advocating some sort of atheistic ‘priesthood’, or that I believed that formal education in atheism was required. Some were even confused about whether or not I was an atheist. I am.

Put simply, what I was trying to say was that in order to talk about something, one should probably make some attempt to know what one is talking about. In the case of talking publicly about religion, which atheists do almost all the time, this is especially true. Otherwise, we look just as stupid as the religious proselytisers.

The entire article was aimed at the increasingly prevalent atheist slacktivism that I have been encountering on the internet with depressing frequency. Sloganeering and the endless repetition of maxims do not an argument make, and the important – scratch that – the most vital part of atheism is that it should rest on a basis of reason. To cede this basis and imitate the behaviour of the religious right is, in my opinion, the opposite of helping.

Atheism – Some Assembly Required

According to Richard Dawkins, everything in the world is reducible to reason except, apparently, his beliefs. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he fails to see that religion has ever had any positive affect on humanity at any time in history. Then he starts going a bit frothy and saying things like “Religion is Evil”, over and over again, just to show how rational all us atheists are.

I’m sorry: “Religion is Evil”? Which one? All of them? And is it exclusively evil that is practised by all these religions, or are they occasionally known to indulge in the odd good deed? And while we’re at it, are we talking absolutely and including past and future times, or am I to take the statement as representing a contemporary snapshot of the entirety of Earth’s religions? Aren’t we atheists supposed to be the sane and thoughtful ones?

And then it occurs to me that all these questions are irrelevant. There is no point asking them as there is next to no likelihood that they will be satisfactorily answered. It isn’t a considered, rationally derived statement of position. “Religion is Evil” is simply a declaration of the Secular Humanist Creed, recited faithfully from the Gospel according to Richard Dawkins. This is totally fine. Everyone has to believe in something, so why not Rationalist Secular Humanism? There are worse things to believe in. Mosaic law, for instance. Or anything said by Cory Bernardi.

Where this simple, uncomplicated kind of belief becomes problematic, however, is when it is applied in public religious and political debate. In the never-ending argument between the faithful and the unbelieving, there is a depressing tendency for each side to appear as wacky as the other.

Unfortunately, one rational decision (atheism) a philosopher doth not make. Logic and the rules of evidence are not innate – they must be painstakingly learned. Attacks on the Church, to stand any chance of being taken seriously, require equal or greater levels of scholarship to that commonly possessed by priests and theologians. This requires serious and lengthy study in several diverse academic fields. Just conducting a considered evaluation of the Bible, OT and NT, represents years of careful study.

So, a mind that has vacated God is not a mind that can automatically be considered enlightened by reason or illuminated by the pure light of science. Nor is it a mind that has necessarily been equipped to do effective combat in the atheist cause. It’s very much the same mind that was recently capable of believing in the resurrection of some bloke called Christ. The same mind, no smarter or dimmer, no more or less ignorant, just changed.

Atheism is not a free pass into intellectualism. Atheism does not make anyone an automatic expert on history or comparative theology. An atheist who doesn’t know what he’s talking about is just as wrong as a believer who is equally ignorant.

But it is only the religious who have an excuse for talking nonsense. The atheist is supposed to know better.

What Are We All Talking About?

I read Tim’s post ‘Keeping it Simple’ recently. It was about marriage equality and it was compassionate, heartfelt, sensible and correct. What in part made it so sensible was that it simply ignored almost every aspect of the marriage equality debate. The fact that I agreed with his proposition and his approach made me wonder: am I some kind of bigot? Why am I so ready to immediately dismiss so much argument and so many complex positions? Why am I so convinced that I am right? Well, it’s because I am. It’s really very simple.

Firstly, we live in a society that not only champions liberty and equality, it’s one that claims to have achieved equal rights for all sorts of people, including homosexuals. The simple fact of the matter is that if there are legal statuses not available to gay couples, this claim to have achieved equality is false. It really is just a matter of civil and legal equality. Does it exist in this case? No. Should it? Yes. There really isn’t much more to say about that.

Secondly, there’s the religious objections. Let’s leave aside all this ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ business as it’s plainly ridiculous. As I often like to say – if homosexuality is unnatural, then why do penguins do it? The fundamental objection from the major Christian churches seems to boil down to ownership of the institution of marriage. Which is a little bit stupid. Marriage certainly exists as a sacrament in the major churches, but anyone who’s been to a wedding is probably going to have a vague memory of the bride and groom filling out and signing some forms. Government forms, in fact. Because marriage also exists as a legal state. If a church doesn’t want to deliver a sacrament to a gay couple, that’s totally fine with me. I suspect that the 90 odd percent of the population that fails to interface with the church on any kind of regular basis doesn’t give a shit either. This does not constitute a rational or valid reason to attempt to block a government from granting legal married status to whomsoever it pleases. So that side of things is pretty simple too.

So what, in actual fact, are we all talking about? What is with all the ludicrous posturing, toxic prejudice and irrelevant hysteria? It boils down to two very, very simple questions:

  1. Should gay people have equal rights?
  2. If gay people have equal rights, should they be allowed to do all the stuff that straight people do?

The answer to both questions is ‘yes’.


Stupid is as Stupid Does

Is it possible to sack a politician for being stupid? I don’t mean for the odd slip of the tongue or ill-considered gaffe – I mean for actually lacking an acceptable level of intelligence.

I understand that politicians, our representatives, need to be chosen by the people. We can’t have a pure meritocracy because it’s simply impossible to ensure that the way in which merit is calculated is kept fair. Having said that, however, can we not find some better way to find those candidates we do put in front of the people?

Being a politician these days is a demanding and complex job. Not only do they bear a magnitude of responsibility unprecedented in all of human history – they are also required, more or less as the case may be, to operate a machine that appears to insert thoughts directly into the minds of staggering numbers of people. I refer, of course, to the machinery of mass media.

If a politician says something stupid in a forest and everyone hears it, does it really matter in any way whatsoever? I’m usually inclined to say no. But then my friend Tim drew my attention to a passage from an apparently widely sold book by Senator Cory Bernardi. I quote:

“Islam and the Quran are a blueprint for an idealogy that seeks to create an Islamic super-state and dominate every detail of life in an Islamic society.”

I don’t know if it’s Tim or the Senator who’s forgotten how to spell ‘ideology’, but as Tim and I were educated in the same place, I’m afraid it’s the Senator who misses out on the benefit of the doubt.

The comment above is stupid, ill-informed and almost certainly based on the best efforts of the Senator’s Lilliputian mind to understand whatever little information it has been able to process. None of this, however, presents me with any problem. The problem arises from the fact that this kind of broadcast stupidity is dangerous. At best it sits in the public mind like a boil, ready to burst into pustulent violence at the slightest heightening of social tensions. At worst, it’s deliberately inflammatory bullshit.

So this is why I wonder: Is it possible to somehow remove a person from a position of power on the grounds of intellectual incapability? Both Cory and Tony better hope that it isn’t.

Keeping it simple

I’ve been to a lot of weddings. And I went to another one on Friday. It was pretty much like all the others – the beer was cold, the canapés were warm, and the guests were hot. But as I stood chatting to new friends, waiting for the bride to arrive, a nervous tension suddenly filled the room. What’s that sound? Are people whispering? Why yes, Tim, yes they are. And the whispering is getting louder… spreading through the room like Vegemite. Which is to say, pretty quickly, but not as quickly as mayonnaise. Eventually, the whispers made their way to me, and my eyes, once bright with anticipation, were now glistening with shock and sadness – the bride wasn’t coming.

Which is just as well, because the grooms didn’t really need one.

Yes, grooms. For this wasn’t just any wedding. It was a same-sex wedding. So there wasn’t really any nervous tension. And there was no whispering, or shock, or sadness. There wasn’t even any Vegemite, but it wasn’t my party, so I shouldn’t complain. There was, however, a large group of very happy people, gathered together to celebrate with Michael and Gregory.

And as I stood there, one smiling face amongst many, I was struck by a sudden thought. This wedding was remarkable, but only for the fact that it shouldn’t be remarkable. And then I had another thought, which was also remarkable, because I rarely have two thoughts so close together.

The whole same-sex marriage ‘debate’ is really quite simple. It’s not a battle between competing ideologies. It’s not about political point-scoring. It’s not about trying to reach a middle ground that we can all be happy with. It’s not about gay and straight, left and right, liberals and conservatives, or compassionate realists and Bill Muehlenberg. It’s not about tradition, slippery slopes, or flawed science. And it sure as shït aint about Jesus.

When you strip away all the theories and theology, you’re left with just one thing.

A couple.

Two people who have had the good fortune to find a partner, but the apparent misfortune of being gay. Who tell us they’ve found love, only to be told that it’s not the right kind. Who want to stand up before their family, their friends and their country, and proclaim their love without shame or fear. That’s all it’s ever been about. Two people, in love, who want the same chance at happiness that the rest of us take for granted.

I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. Do you?