Magic for Nerds

If you're in Toronto and into that sort of thing, I'll be performing at Nerd Night Toronto for their event Nerding Out at the Glenn Gould Studio downtown. Tickets are available online at nerdingout.eventbrite.ca. You'll notice the evening is divided into two segments; a free portion and a paid portion. I'll be performing in between. Come join us and Nerd Out!

No we won't

Yesterday CBC.ca posted an essay by Michael Enright titled Could Atheists Please Stop Complaining. The short answer is no.

But since you can read the characters in the actual link and see that the essay is supposed to be titled http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/essays/2013/09/29/atheists-stop-whining/, I offer up the long version.

Now the essay does give me pause as it rises far up above the vast majority of of what is penned on the internet about atheists, and even above a portion of what is penned by atheists. If this was the level of discourse we were used to encountering in the public sphere, we might very well complain an awful lot less. But sadly it's not. Which is what makes your request that we stop complaining quite unreasonable.

Conflicting values

[Richard Dawkins'] arguments are as immutable as Church doctrine; religion is bad.

Among the many different definitions is:

Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement. -Oxford English Dictionary

Is that bad? That depends your own moral compass. The whining you are experiencing is a reaction based on two conflicting values:

  1. People have the right to freedom: the right to behave and believe however they like so long as their actions don't infringe on the freedom of others.
  2. People should only want to believe things which have been shown to be true.

Taken in isolation, no one will argue the validity of either of those values. (And if they do, we have reasonably effective ways of making those people so they don't wind up as elected officials or school teachers.) But when it comes to religion - the belief in superhuman power/s you can't have both at the same time. You're forced to decide which one is more important.

This is the intellectual analog to abortion. Everyone agrees that preserving human life is important. Everyone agrees that women have the right to decide if and when they get pregnant. But when the two values conflict, everyone could not disagree more fervently. Luckily, this disagreement is primarily intellectual, so this disagreement sounds to you like whining; something infinitely preferable to threatening doctors.

Richard Dawkins faces an additional problem. He is the (emeritus) Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. (I'm also a fan of AC Grayling's work but haven't gotten around to his book yet so can't comment on it.) He has more values to juggle:

  1. People with false beliefs are at a long-term disadvantage even if those beliefs may make them feel good in the short term.
  2. People who live in a society (i.e. everyone) have a moral obligation to avoid false beliefs because false beliefs can harm others. (The gratuitous example I am not above bringing up is children who die because their parents pray for them instead of seeking medical attention. Well-intentioned doesn't mean not dangerous.)
  3. People who live in a society  have a moral obligation to point out false beliefs when they observe them in others. (For the same reason stated above.)

What is an educator with a conscience supposed to do when confronted with people with demonstrably false beliefs and people who defend them with fallacious arguments?

And if you want to defend the right to believe something regardless of whether or not it happens to be true, can you expect respect for such an argument?

I hasten to point out that religious people hold these exact same values. If they didn't, there would be no Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on doors. They believe they have the secret to eternal happiness and are compelled to share it. You can question their logic, but can't doubt their compassion.

Now you can come back and say that freedom of belief trumps all that and I would be incapable of arguing against it. I can defend all five values listed above individually, but I know of no fair way of ranking them effectively without creating a mountain of trouble. The best I can hope for is to stare back with an eyebrow raised* and say, "Dude, seriously?"

Now to Michael's credit, I loved this part:

It's not that atheists don't believe in God. That's fine. It's not against the law. Atheism is a coherent system of beliefs arrived at, I am sure, after some very serious and sober consideration.

He also complimented the late Christopher Hitchens' sense of humour, revealing himself to be a sensible human being and impeccable judge of character!

But he took a good thing and ruined it straight away:

Atheists are not being prosecuted or silenced. They are lovingly tended by media interviewers, me included, and their nuanced arguments are politely acknowledged.

Followed up by a quotation from Elizabeth Renzetti:

I say this as an atheist: My goodness, we've become a smug, dreary, proselytizing  lot. We, the fervent unbelievers, have won the war** and yet are still behaving like persecuted outsiders.

Which brings me to the second error in the essay.

2. The War is Not Yet Over

In Canada, it may certainly seem like victory. Really it only runs skin deep and there is a long way to go. Yes, the laws are all in order, but I'm not convinced. Find a Federal science minister who accepts evolution, and get rid of those anachronistic Catholic School Boards and get the giant cross out of the Quebec legislature and we'll talk about the war being over.

I admit I approach this from a slightly biased perspective. My business card says "magician" on it so I'm a doubly out of the closet gay atheist who practices witchcraft. In effect I am the most stone-able demographic on the planet. That gay rights are so tightly intermingled with freedom from religion is just one more reason to continue complaining.

Here at home I've never faced any overt prejudice. And I really do mean zero. It's never cost me a job or caused me to suffer abuse or even insult. I am 6'1 and used to teach martial arts professionally, so that may have something to do with it. The closest I ever came was a Roman Catholic coworker who took me aside and politely told me he would be uncomfortable if I was out with a "gentleman caller" after work and he saw us kissing.

Everything looks a bit nicer when you're in Canada, and it's why I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But every time I travel I always find I have caring friends who feel the need warn me, "Don't tell anyone about your... you know." And there are countries I wouldn't even dare to visit right now. The sad thing is, I don't even have to say what those countries are, you've already guessed them. And the less said about American science textbooks and Danish cartoonists the better.

In the event Michael Enright actually reads this... dream on James... We appreciate your concern, and you should know you're not the reason we're whining. Or rather you weren't until you wrote a whiny essay accusing us of whining.

* I confess I'm not actually capable of raising a single eyebrow.

** Calling it a war is stupid and a columnist for the Globe should be embarrassed for letting that comparison wind up in print.