For 10 years of my life I was an atheist. For the last four years I was a “militant” atheist, which is a polite adjective for obnoxious, arrogant atheist. I’ve noticed among scientific colleagues that about half are atheists or agnostics when they are younger, and about half of those who are atheists in college seem to recover. I suppose the rest don’t recover because an acceptable alternative doesn’t plop into their lap. However, a lot don’t recover because they become entrenched in their belief system, and won’t remove the blinders and even look around. These atheists are always, consistently, very proud of themselves.
ALL atheists have a religion. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (irony in that name) have a religion: they are militant, proselyting atheists. They quite literally preach nothing. An Egyptian friend, a PhD geophysicist from Stanford, had abandoned Islam, but still had a religion: he raised and trained German Shepherd dogs. Absolutely everyone has a religion. I know people who are biologically oriented; THEIR religion is Darwin - they swear that natural selection can explain everything - despite the readily demonstrable fact that it doesn’t. If pressed, they will tell you that they are sure that it eventually will... they just don’t have enough data yet. For others, the religion is climate change: obey the Earth god or we will all be damned... in about 50 years. For some politicians, the religion is to WIN, even if it requires that they outrageously lie, and cold-bloodedly appeal to the basest fears of their weakest-minded constituents. For some Wall Street bankers, the religion is use whatever immoral scheme that doesn’t quite break the letter of the law - and will give them the largest bonus. He who has the biggest yacht when he dies (or goes to prison) wins. Now, there’s a belief system for you. Hooo.
But here’s the thing, which drew me away from being an atheist: it explains nothing. The Anthropic Principle? Oh, there must be an infinite number of universes out there. We just lucked out and fell into the only one where all the physical constants are set precisely to support life (don’t laugh, there are physicists who believe something this utterly untestable, utterly unprovable). I held the belief for many years that if I couldn’t see something with my own eyes, or derive if from Maxwell’s Equations, I wouldn’t believe it.
Then honesty hit. It increasingly undermined my intellectual pride.
Honesty seems to always be in short supply in this world; perhaps there’s a Law of Conservation of Honesty: there’s just that much to go around. Maybe some people were hatched, and didn’t have a mother to explain the really obvious things. There’s certainly another law: I’ve observed that honesty is inversely proportional to arrogance - pride on one’s mentality, in one’s education, in one’s wealth, whatever. Some people get so full of themselves, or stake out a position that they don’t have the courage or humility to admit was stupid, that they cling to belief systems less rational than any extant religious system. Atheists cannot explain the why of the Big Bang, cannot explain the Anthropic Principle, cannot explain why there is altruism in abundance in this supposedly Darwinian world, cannot accept the fact that there are obvious routes to gain knowledge other than scientific experiment.
Science has given us our modern technological world, but it is both inefficient and very imperfect... just reading news releases about the latest scientific studies can make you weep. Some scientists believe that the science that they know now - in 2011 - is the supreme knowledge of all human history, and explains everything. They implicitly assume that every human scientist who preceded them just wasn’t smart enough, and somehow they are The Enlightened Ones. These are people who will acknowledge, if pressed, that yes, science preached as late as the 1960's that smoking a cigarette after dinner aided digestion - that it was scientifically proven. These are people who can’t explain how the pyramids were built at one block per every 19 seconds for 20 years. I’ve heard PhD scientists suggest that they were built with help from aliens. Please. Yet somehow they cling to the idea that the science that they believe in today is somehow, inexplicably different: their science is perfect, the pinnacle of all wonderfulness. Sigh.
Christopher Hitchens is dying of esophageal cancer as I write this. By now he realizes that there is no immortality in his writings: they are like tears in rain. My heart goes out to him.