A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

As a ‘strong’ Atheist, I believe there are no gods. That is a belief that I am very comfortable, if not enthusiastic, to have challenged. The thing that irks me, however, is that those who try to challenge that belief almost never challenge it at all, but instead lay out a challenge to science. Now, I have an extremely eclectic resume but I am definitely not a scientist; as a matter of fact, at the time of this writing I make my living with a chef’s knife. What the hell could I possibly know about science that isn’t already published and open to criticism by anyone who actually cares to do so?

Why is it that my belief is so readily interpreted as a statement that I know how the universe came to be? I have absolutely no idea how the universe came to be and neither does science, as near as I can tell.

I realize that the distance between galaxies has been observed to be increasing at an accelerating rate, and that one can describe that behavior mathematically and then reverse the math to calculate that everything came from some singularity about 14 billion years ago – but that is where the current mathematical models break down, apparently. After that it’s really anybody’s guess.

Maybe the universe pulsates from singularity to some end point and back again, infinitely repeating. Maybe the singularity was actually a vortex from someplace else through which our universe got ‘sucked’ or ‘pushed’. Maybe the universe is just an attribute of a less finite context that itself is just an attribute of a less finite context and on and on infinitely. To be honest, I believe we will never know the complete picture.

The only people who have the audacity to claim knowledge of the complete picture seem to be those who claim that it’s a portrait of their invisible, imaginary friend. What a Kodak moment that must present – just keep shaking that Polaroid until the image clears up enough for me to take a look too, please. In the meantime, stop asking me where the universe came from.

Why is it that my belief is so readily interpreted as a statement that I know the details of abiogenesis and/or evolution? It really irks me when people ask me to explain these things, especially when they don’t even understand that they are different concepts. Abiogenesis really eludes me because it is based on such a large knowledge base of chemistry and still in such early phases of research.

Evolution can be even more difficult because so few people realize that it isn’t a fact at all, just an explanation that is supported by literally millions of facts that aren’t nearly as accessible to the layman as the cosmos. To make matters worse, although U.S. courts readily accept DNA evidence of two men being brothers as being rock solid enough to put a man to death, they won’t accept it as rock solid enough to establish the irrefutable relationship between humankind and the rest of the great apes. Fuckers.

Even if I were a scientist and had devoted my life to a field that fell within the bounds of one of the aforementioned scientific realms, that still wouldn’t give someone the right to demand free private lectures. These days I make my living in restaurants, and if you don’t believe that eggs and oil can be whisked into mayonnaise then you can go buy a fucking jar of Miracle Whip – it’s not my job to educate you and if you want my services then talk to your waiter. Furthermore, I have no idea how the absence of a conclusive scientific proof for anything serves as evidence to support the impossibly self-contradicting postulations made by Bronze Age holy books. For the most part those texts manage to completely disprove themselves without any need for science.

What I do know is that if you could pray to get shit done then people would pray and get shit done. If the god of Judaism existed then the Jews wouldn’t have spent their entire history getting their asses kicked all over the planet only to wind up back in the only part of the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil under it. If another god existed then I’m certain that the Jews, pragmatic people that they are, would have tossed their Torah and Talmud into the trash centuries ago and jumped on a bandwagon that actually had wheels. All I can say to deists is that I find their concept of god equivalent to fat-free, sugar-free, caramel syrup; if the word oxymoron didn’t just pop into your head then please look up the definitions of oxymoron, god, and syrup in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Prayer doesn’t work, science does, and you don’t need to be an egghead to figure that out. Go get a job at the Cadillac factory like Johny Cash and take a toodle around on your lunch break. The engineers aren’t dressed in ceremonial robes reading incantations in a dead language as they wave a big brass incense ball over plans scrawled on parchment – they are at computers, punching in numbers, and using instruments to take measurements. Science works.

Science is for the public and you don’t need anymore than bus fare to find that out. Hop on a bus, head to a local campus, and casually walk into a lecture hall with a bunch of students, inconspicuously taking a seat near the back. Quick note - it might be a good idea to leave the holy books at home for a day and instead carry a binder or laptop or something to give the impression that you are literate. Anyway, you can sit there and listen to them speak and you’ll quickly discover there is no fucking conspiracy going on. Everything that they are saying can be confirmed at the library – the public library. Science is public.

Science is international and you don’t need to travel the world or speak seven languages to confirm that. You can pick a subject, like the second law of thermodynamics (a favorite of so many holy rollers), look it up on Wikipedia, and you’ll find that it is available in at least 30 languages. For those that have had their nose in the holy books too long, feel free to scroll through the list of languages and select ‘simple English’. If you doubt that this information is available around the planet then all you need to do is sign up for a myspace account using a picture of a blonde woman on your profile. Within hours some guy with a name like Achmed from Egypt or Morocco will send you a message requesting a conversation by webcam. Now, tell him you will turn your webcam on after he reads the Wikipedia article to you, confirming the translation in his native language – a lot of them seem to speak French as well so you can have them check that too. Science is international.

So, I would like to ask, once and for all, that all holy rollers please stop asking me to give them free science lessons. Everything that I know about science is publicly available at a nearby college, local library, or on the internet. I’m an Atheist, not a scientist.

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Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 18, 2011 at 12:00pm
Thanks so much, Sara.  I get a lot of my understanding of psychology from Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained, which, I was recently saddened to learn, I read almost 20 years ago.  I've also learned a lot about religious thought from Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained.  The blogs I post here are ones to which I've received good reactions.  I'm thinking of soon posting this one: http://spoonheim.blogspot.com/2011/03/genesis-of-god.html
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 18, 2011 at 11:14am
@Glen Rosenberg - Ramen, bruthah!
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on May 18, 2011 at 11:04am

John,

Say it aint so. Cuz it aint. Talk about a false equivalence-atheists and theists.

Foundation: Theists-Mythology, Superstition, Ancient texts written by ignorant cult leaders.

                  Atheists-scientific method, epistemology, evidence, reason.

Results:        Theists-preservation of power for elite males, war, torture, homophobia,

                   sexism, guilt, retardation of science and medicine, zenophobia, ignorance,

                    overpopulation and starvation. Oh and how about perpetuation of two great

                     lies. 1 pathetic and infintile world view. 2 religion equals morality

                    Atheists-longer life spans, general improvement in 

                                health, improved understanding of the human psyche,

                                exploration of space, parimutual technology etc.

Motivation:       Theists-Fear

                       Atheists-Curiosity,Wonder, Awe, Need to understand and improve civilization.

The two forces are not comparable. It is true that the majority of atheists do not understand the how and why, but even scienctists cannot understand deeply other scientific disciplines. Too much specialization for even a renaissance person to grasp it all.

Yes, priests and scientists are both authorities and yes there is a human tendency to cede responsibility for ourselves to authority figures. Authority figures, however, are not close to equal. You know it. I know it. Floor with it.

The inability to grasp as complexity spirals exponentially will likely have awful results but these are the continuation of historical forces and aint nuthin nobody can do bout it. Right?

So in the future it may be fair to say science, atheism and reason brought about our demise. Religion bought us time. Not yet.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 18, 2011 at 6:09am
Ok, John, let's cut to the skinny here.  I don't need to have an alternate belief system in place in order to believe that religion is bunk.  I don't believe in invisible men, and I really don't care about evolution.  People who waste their time praying are wasting their time praying because it doesn't make things happen - there is no one on the other end of the phone - and I don't need a degree in physics to figure that out for myself.  Capiche?
Comment by John Camilli on May 18, 2011 at 1:23am

I can tell you're getting your info on deism from Wikipedia, which is fine, I get lots of information there too. But you are ignoring a lot of what is said there. I'll pull a quote from them that demonstrates that deists do worship - "...Deism gives credit for the formation of life and the universe to a higher power..."

 

Worship is the idea that one's existence is owed to a higher power. Deists do believe the universe was created and they use the term God to describe their creator, so they do worship. Any religion that involves a higher power has worship worked into it because it puts authority in something other than the self. This does not mean they pray, but prayer is not the same thing as worship. Prayer is the idea that outcomes can be affected by rituals, an idea to which deists do not ascribe. Of course, if you have different definitions for the words prayer and worship, then you may still be correct within your own contexts. I'm just explaining mine.

 

As for the rest, you seem to be saying that you hold to beliefs for which you have little or no evidence. You do not know how a plane is built or the chemistry of what is happening when it is operated, but you trust the people who say they know, and who say it is safe. Basically, you have faith in popular opinion. But let me ask you, if you had never seen or heard of a plane, and someone showed you one and said "Get in that thing, and it will fly you thirty-thousand feet in the air," would you do it? Hell no, you wouldn't! People scoffed at the Wright brothers and their predecessors when planes were first being invented. They said that shit's impossible, because they had never seen it done. And you would have been one of the people scoffing because everyone else was too. You would have gone along with the masses, and you would have been wrong. So in the end, your beliefs are really no different than any religion.

 

I'm not trying to be a dick here, although I realize it probably sounds that way. I'm trying to show you that you are claiming superiority by the same means that theists claim superiority. Lots of people say something is so, and you believe them. That you can see their predictions hold true with your own eyes means nothing if you have no understanding of how they predicted it. It's hypocrisy, and so many atheists do it without even realizing it. At this rate, atheists will simply become the new religion, and the world will not be better for it because they will all simply be ascribing to the ideas of others who they perceive as authorities, just as thiests do.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 17, 2011 at 9:42pm

@John Cahill

 

Deism does not involve worship, animism worships everything.  Deism purports a god that neither requires worship nor intervenes in the natural order of things, and for this reason generally does not recognize supernatural events or prophecy.  The most common analogy used to describe deism is that of the absentee clockmaker, having left the shop upon setting his invention in motion.  My comparison with sugar-free syrup was with that of a god-concept that did not require worship and which could not be entreated to intervene in the natural order.  I have to ask deists, then, just where is the god in their god-concept?

 

Back onto science vs. religion, I don't need to be a devotee of either to jump on a 737 headed to Atlanta.  That being said, when I peer out the window before we depart, I'll see some technicians filling the plane with fuel.  I know that fuel has chemical properties that science for calculating the energy produced by burning it, thereby ensuring we'll have enough to get to Atlanta, and that amount of energy will not be altered by ritualistic vocalizations.  No knowledge of chemistry on my part at all.  I know that aerodynamics has been employed to determine the lift and drag of the body of the aircraft, and it is the care taken in those calculations that ensures lift-off rather than the sacrifice of a goat on an altar at the end of the runway.  The pilots don't pray for runways to be clear for landing, they use radios to talk to airline controllers who use computers and radar and other shit like that.

 

In point of fact, I can observe every single day in almost everything that I do that science is providing answers that work - without any need whatsoever to make a study of science.  In point of fact, I can observe every single day that millions of prayers that go out to end world suffering aren't accomplishing jack.  I don't need to understand evolution, or even 'believe' in it to understand that the biblical account of things is a children's story - although it must have been very compelling to a Bronze Age mind.  When I see astronauts floating in outer space, I realize it isn't full of 'the waters above', and the very fact that they got there without having to navigate to one of the 'windows of heaven' indicates that the sky is not a 'firmament'.  In fact, I don't need to have faith in anything in order to be without faith.  Prayer doesn't work, no messiahs have been delivered unto the people, there is no god - no science required.

Comment by John Camilli on May 17, 2011 at 7:06pm

Marc, you said - "Let's say I have a  billion pieces of information that prove my theory - that makes it a fact. However, if I find one piece of evidence that disproves my theory, then - regardless of all the other evidence - the theory is invalid. This is not something that happens very often."

 

You are right about a single contradiction being the downfall of a theory, and I do understand your mathematical analogy of including 0 as a multiple. No matter how many numbers are multiplied together, if one of them is 0, the whole thing is 0. However, I can't agree that this doesn't happen very often. To me, every theory ever constructed has run up against this wall because every theory can be doubted under some conditions. For instance, consider the condition that you might be in a virtual reality right now. You would never know it, and all of the "evidence" you receive inside such a reality could be tricks of programming in your brain. Thus, under that one conditional, all knowledge can be doubted. That this is even possible means nothing can ever rightly be called a fact. A fact is something that is absolutely true under all circumstance, and as far as I know humans don't have any of these.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on May 17, 2011 at 7:02pm

John,

Science is qualitatively and quantitavely superior to religion. Universe is 14 billion years old, not six thousand. Our origins are in evolution, not in special creation. How could Noah have fit em all on that little ship, had room for the animals or their food, found the time to gather all of the species? Blah, blah, blah. . . . A level playing field is comparing that stupidity to how could Santa deliver all of those presents in one night, why dont we see him, how do reindeer fly?

Any ideology that originates in myth, is based on dogma, and requires suspension of disbelief (faith) lacks any prospect of learning.

I agree that science has limitations, not including the childish assumption that humans are the center of the universe, and perhaps there is a similar lack of humility in assuming we can get to the bottom of it all; but religion is a dead end and it preserves and perpetuates bad morals and unjust social orders.

The success of science in figuring out part of the puzzle is undeniable.

I understand your skepticism regarding objective reality. Make sure you remember that when you are positing strict determinism. I believe that a wait and see grounded attitude is healthier and makes more sense. Give science a chance. Wait for the matrix. Turn on the juice and see what shakes loose.

Comment by John Camilli on May 17, 2011 at 6:54pm

Marc, you have your own definitions for theory, fact, and law. From my experience, they are not shared by most of the scientific community. A theory can become law, once it has passed the tests of science and has been accepted by enough "authorities." However, nothing can ever become a fact, as in a certain truth, because time has not ended, so all possible challenges to an idea have not arisen. Something can only be irrefutable if doubting it becomes impossible. And as far as I'm aware, the only irrefutable claim ever made is "I think, therefore I am," which is a statement that makes no testable predictions. Every other statement a human has ever made can be doubted, as far as I know, although I welcome you to attempt at another one.

 

You contradict yourself by saying that "laws are (or should be) irrefutable" and then saying a few sentences later that "laws fail from time to time." It can't be both. Furthermore, you make the same mistake of thinking a thing can be close to correct, by saying that Newton's ideas were close. He was not close at all. His theories made predictions which agreed with observation better than any before him, but just because something looks the same on the outside, doesn't mean it works the same on the inside. You are using phrenological evidence to judge the merrits of ideas. Phrenology is how we used to classify species, by judging which species looked similar on the outside. We have since abandoned this method because we have discovered that things can arrive at the same appearance through very difference means. Newtonian mechanics did that, and for all we know, so do relativistic and quantum mechanics.

 

Btw, there are multiple theories of gravity, but none has been reconciled to the other massive theories of science. That's the whole hoopla over finding a GUT (Grand Unified Theory). For over a hundred years now, physicists have sought a reconciliation on quantum and relativistic mechanics, but they still contradict each other. Both theories are massively supported by observational evidence, but they are still logically incompatable, which just goes to show that a whole lot of evidence can still support an incorrect idea.

Comment by John Camilli on May 17, 2011 at 6:20pm

Glen, you say "...in comparing the relative merits of science v. religion, science is less flawed." I do request examples of this, because I have just given you examples of how science is flawed. Now, you might think you can come up with more examples of religion being flawed, but flaws are qualitiative, not quantitative. One enourmous flaw, like causality contradicting itself, can mean more than a thousand tiny flaws, if your belief system is totally based on causality (which science is).  

 

Forget about the word "perfect." You flat out said religion is more flawed than science. So tell me, is an apple with a hole through the middle more or less flawed than an apple with many, shallow holes around the circumfrence? And it doesn't matter which apple represents theism or atheism, you just can't make a judgement about one being more flawed than the other. Both apples have holes in the them. We who support science are wont to say that science works better, but I bet you a theist will say the same thing of their religion, that it works better for them than science. The measure of success is still in the individual, since we haven't found anything we can call objective knowledge, and theists tend to say their beliefs are successful, so who are we to say they are wrong?

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