Bringing Light Into Dark Places

My inaugural post on Big Think drew a wide range of opinions from commenters. (New site, new community! It takes some getting used to on both sides.) But this comment in particular struck me:


"As a born again agnostic, I don't have a problem with your having this take on reality, but must you sound so sure, smug and evangelical."

I'm used to fierce denunciation from religious believers. But this comment is remarkable because its author apparently agrees with everything I believe, yet even so, he implores me not to say it so openly or confidently: Ssshhh! Not so loud! Keep your voice down!

In response to this comment, I say thus: There's an important difference between willingness to change your mind if the appropriate evidence is provided, and hesitancy about your beliefs just because. I'm certainly fallible, as are all human beings. But if you think I'm wrong, prove it. Point out the facts that contradict me. Deploy your strongest arguments to persuade me. If you can't do this, then don't expect me to back down. When the facts are unclear or the choice is complex, then is the time for hesitancy and caution. But I don't think the existence of God is one of those cases, and I refuse to be moderate for the mere sake of moderation.

There's an immortal quote by the American anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison. As he said in 1831, in the inaugural edition of his newspaper The Liberator:

"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD."

In just the same way, why should atheists today not speak out forthrightly? Doesn't the state of the world merit it? Aren't there evils being committed right now in the name of faith that deserve our unflinching condemnation?

Right now, in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other Islamic theocracies, women are treated as slaves and prisoners by sharia law, forbidden to get an education, forbidden to work, forbidden even to leave the home without their father's or husband's permission. And this theocratic slavery gives rise to the phenomenon of "honor killing" - a woman who disobeys her male owner may be brutally murdered by her own family members, to cleanse the shame of harboring a disobedient female. This isn't solely a Third World issue, a problem of primitive, backwater nations: it's increasingly happening in Europe and even in America.

Right now, in Africa, nations are struggling with the devastating fallout of the AIDS epidemic; and their problems are made worse by the Pope, who commands the faithful in AIDS-stricken countries to abstain from condom use, unconcerned for the millions who will become infected with HIV because they trusted him. Nor does the Roman Catholic church bear all the blame: in countries like Uganda, Pentecostal leaders burn condoms for Jesus, and religious believers throw away their antivirals in favor of holy water.

And the harm done by religious belief has the potential to be greater still. Global climate change is the most pressing moral crisis facing the human species and brings unprecedented threats: rising sea levels swamping coastal cities, mass extinctions of species, weather disruptions that will convulse economies and topple nations. Yet the largest single bloc of opposition to climate science comes from religious zealots who damn the evidence and say that the climate can't be changing because God promised in the Bible he wouldn't let that happen. Climate-change denialism has become a litmus test of orthodoxy for the American religious right; one of their own, Richard Cizik, was ejected from his position in part because he deviated from the party line.

Religious faith has been the consistent enemy of human progress and equality. The religious lobby is the single greatest force against marriage equality today, just as they once were the single greatest force against interracial marriage, just as they once were the single greatest force against female suffrage, just as they once were the single greatest force against abolishing slavery. In all the most profound and meaningful areas of human life, they want to wield dictatorial power: who we may love and who we may marry, how we're born and how we die.

What all these evils, and many more besides, have in common is that they all spring from faith - from the unexamined, unquestioned belief that there's a being called God whose will we should obey. (Since there's no such being speaking to humans and telling us what his will actually is, the role of "God" in practice is played by the religious traditions and authorities whose teachings the believer has absorbed.) Faith has nothing to do with human desires and human needs, and so when it produces good results, it does so only by coincidence. When religious texts tell believers to build hospitals and feed the hungry, they do so; when those same texts tell believers to stone rape victims or burn heretics in the town square, they do so just as gladly.

I may be leaving myself open to accusations of optimism, but I believe it's possible to keep the good while jettisoning the bad. What we need is for faith to have less power and reason to have more; we need a human-centered morality that will produce good results for people consistently and not just by chance. We need to dispel faith-based ignorance and bring the light of humanism into dark places. And with this site, that's just what I intend to do.

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