this weekend I attended the Greenbelt festival and various thoughts came uninvited into my head about the presumed battle between the faithful and the faithless. here are some of them. This is a reflection of this conversation in the UK, i realise that readers outside the UK might have a very different experience of the religion versus atheism discussion/feud/fist fight (note – as usual please remember this is not journalism so no editorial process has taken place – expect poor spelling, ugly punctuation or peculiar phrasing, my brain has an erratic toolbar)
Does it matter to me if someone is religious?
Does it matter to me if someone justifies their cruelty or oppression to others because of their religion?
Does it matter to me if someone is a creationist?
Does it matter to me if a creationist insists it should be taught with science at school?
I have just been at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, a liberal Christian festival that celebrates music and the arts and hosts many discussions on human rights and the environment. Some people are surprised that I perform at the festival as I am an atheist. Just because I am an atheist does not mean that I have no desire or interest in speaking to Christians or that I immediately look down on them as they hold a faith position. When I tour I rarely go on stage and say “all the Christians, Jews and Muslims in the house say ‘yeah!’…ha ha, now I’ve found you, get out, my words are not for you”.
I think it is very important that there is a dialogue between those of religious faith and those without faith. Despite belief in a deity, you may find that many Christians haven’t shot at the wall of one abortion clinic and quite a few even believe in the theory of evolution by natural selection. On my way to Greenbelt someone tweeted a warning, “I wouldn’t mention Darwin”. I replied that this wasn’t that sort of gathering. As luck would have it (NOTE: I do not believe in luck, so perhaps as chance would have it would be better) I met one creationist and one intelligent design proponent within the first half hour, but many I spoke to had no problem with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The problem with many debates and discussions that occur between atheists and the religious is they are often designed to create drama through conflict rather than any form of enlightenment through discussion. While at Greenbelt I was asked why I was debating Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria with Reverend Richard Coles and I had to explain that we weren’t debating it, merely discussing it. Certainly we would find areas of disagreement but neither of us was hoping to win some furious battle of cage rattling and spittle so it would have been no good for radio or TV.
When someone tells me that they are a Christian, it doesn’t tell me that much about them. Some Christians are Stephen Green or Ann Widdecombe and some Christians are Simon Mayo or Frank Skinner, there are huge chasms between what they believe on many issues though they all can be defined as Christians. Sometimes we work backwards on our beliefs – I don’t think Stephen Green is a bigot because he’s a Christian, I think he can use his specific interpretation to justify their bigotry.
I know some atheists who think religious belief is the recourse of the stupid, that to believe in a god is an act that comes from ignorance, but I think that is shortsighted. I find it hard to believe why, in these times where there is so much in the natural world that has been explained, people require a god for explanation, but some people do. I also think that good scientific education and the creation of enquiring minds does make belief in the requirement of a mystical hand to create a universe less likely. When talking to the creationist at Greenbelt he seemed surprised when I mentioned that biblical literalism rose in the nineteenth century and many scholars and clerics had not believed in Genesis as history. Had we talked for longer and started to get into the science of evolutionary theory I don’t believe that he would have been shaken from his position of creationism because he has the truth he wants. I wonder what his science education was like at school. If pupils are armed with a strong grounding in evolutionary theory at school and minds that ponder on why the forms of bugs and butterflies they see represent the best shapes, colours and behaviour for survival, then I think we would have fewer creationists. This is why it is so important that unintelligently compiled theory of intelligent design is not allowed in the back door of the education system because, scientifically it is a fraud and the more fraudulent theories that are allowed into the science curriculum, the more turtles that return to support the earth.
I might believe that creationist’s position came from being educationally misled and youthful ignorance that has now become immoveable, most Christians I know are well-read and not just the Hamlyn Colour Bible and Cliff Richard autobiographies. They have read about Darwin, Bohr, Mendeleev and wide ranging philosophy from Spinoza to Sartre, yet they still have their Christian faith. To declare that religion is a position held due to stupidity does the argument of faith versus reason a disservice. Some Christians have found a method of living in a world which is scientific but still finding room for a god. I know idiot atheists and smart vicars (and idiot vicars and smart atheists too, oh and a very unpleasant Catholic leader of Scotland)
My main argument is not against faith, but against dogma and ultimate, unalterable truths. That’s why I don’t care when someone drags ups the old “oh look what happens when you have no religion, you get Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot blah blah blah”, the battle seems to be making human beings more comfortable living in a world of doubt and uncertainty. Some atheists tell me that religious people turn to religion so they can live in a certain world
We live in a world built on evidence based thinking, and where evidence and testable hypothesis can be used to get to the least wrong conclusion for policy and law, then it must be used. As I believe that our existence is unfortunately finite then society and individuals should attempt to create as happy a physical existence for as many as possible, as for what happens after we’re dead, then someone else can deal with those possibilities.
It is blind faith that I protest against – if you hold your position solely because your ancient book can be interpreted to tell you so, or your purple bishop has declared it true and you haven’t stopped to use your own reason to think it through – then your opinion is worth little. The majority of Greenbelt Christians I met didn’t hold blind faith and the majority of atheists I come across are not the blindly faithless.
Atheists, I think we should be careful in how we view someone merely because they are a Christian (or other deity praising faith), diversity lies within. Equally, religious people should be wary of being persuaded that atheists wish to ban them from their right to worship and their necklaces. We have seen faith groups outside theatres waving placards and attempting to prevent art events that criticize or lampoon religion, I have never seen groups of atheists outside churches handing out leaflets and chanting that there is no god and the churches must be closed down as their mysticism is a criticism of rationalism.
NOTE TO THE LIBERAL FAITHFUL
Next time someone like Stephen Green is invited on to TV and radio to air his ‘Christian voice’ and represent the faithful, why not complain that he is not representative of most Christians (if it turns out that he really is please ignore everything I’ve said in the above blog)
. AND NOW THE FEYNMAN QUOTATIONS
“…I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me”
“one of the things my father taught me besides physics, whether it’s correct or not, was a disrespect for respectable…there was picture of the pope and everybody bowing in front of him. And he’d say, “now look at these humans. Here is one human standing here, and all these others are bowing. Now what is the difference? This one is the pope…why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and position”