Saturday, January 11, 2014

141.3 - Point of personal privilege: atheism

Point of personal privilege: atheism

I'm going to spend a couple of minutes talking about two things that I don't normally talk about here. These are two subjects that while I have opinions and convictions on them, they don't rank high on my personal list of political and social priorities, so I don't devote a lot of time to them. But I do want to discuss them briefly.

The first has to do with religious belief - or, rather, the lack thereof.

I'm an atheist. Again, it's not something I talk about a lot, it's just what I believe, what I'm convinced is true, and that's that. I've been an atheist almost my whole adult life after a gradual shift in my thinking that took place over the course of several years. And while it is, again, what I am convinced is correct, and while I have personally known too many people who were trapped by their religious belief into a life of suffering to accept religious belief as a path for all, I also say that I have personally known too many people for who their religious belief provided a foundation for a life of courage, decency, and justice to deny it as a path for all.

The point here is that as an atheist, I am a member of a minority community that actually is the target of prejudice. Surveys cited in a recent study out of the University of British Colombia have shown that of a list of 10 characteristics, being an atheist is the only one where a majority of Americans will openly admit that they would not vote for such a person for public office on that basis alone, even if they were otherwise qualified. Another study found that atheists are the group that Americans would most disapprove of their children marrying. Still another found that atheists are regarded as "criminally untrustworthy" to a degree comparable to rapists.

You can chalk the extremity of those results up to what prejudices people are willing to admit to in a survey, but the raw figures still remain.

What prompted this is an article in AlterNet including what the author felt were the five most notable anti-atheist related news stories of 2013. And I wanted to mention one, because this, for some reason, this is the one that always gets me when it comes up.

It turns out that endurance swimmer Diana Nyad is an atheist, which I didn't know. She said that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words, “to weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity.”

Well, Oprah was having none of that. "Well, I don’t call you an atheist then." That is, because Nyad could experience awe, well, she just couldn't be an atheist. Atheists have to be cold-hearted rationalists with no room for wonder.

Bull. I am constantly awed by nature, the world, the universe, the existence, all around me. The incredible complexity of it all, the astonishment of the interactions.

Try this: Look out your window at the ground - or the snow, if it's covered. Think about what's involved in seeing that, and think about it in every detail.

Think about the nuclear reactions in the heart of the Sun which produce a photon and the repeated atomic-level interactions by which it moves to the surface of the Sun, taking a million years to do so. Think about it propagating out as an undulating electromagnetic wave traveling at the speed of light, think about how even at that ultimate speed, it takes over eight minutes to get to Earth, think about the electromagnetic and chemical reactions as it moves through the atmosphere to strike the ground.

Think about the chemical and atomic reactions at the ground or the snow or the grass, whatever it is you're looking at, that resulted in it being reflected with a particular energy while other photons are absorbed, then it traveling again, another wave, to your eye and then think about the way the light is focused by the lens of your eye, about the biochemical reactions at the retina generating the electrochemical signals to your brain and to the astonishment, the amazement, the wonder, of your conscious awareness of what it is you are seeing, its shape, its color, even, thanks to binocular vision, its distance.

And even that doesn't begin to completely cover it. All natural processes, the laws of physics combined with three-plus billion years of evolution, not an act of a god involved. But you don't think that's just awesome?

Oprah, shove it.


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