Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I'm sorry, your free pass has expired

I saw a news item this morning for a conference at the University of Otago in New Zealand entitled: "The New Atheism - A Christian Response". The program was summarized as follows:

Participants will explore questions such as: How should Christians respond to the New Atheism? Are the central claims of Christianity reasonable? Do the New Atheists have a new case to be answered or are they dressing up old arguments?

The last question about a new case vs dressing up old arguments is worth a few words, I think. Yes, there are some new arguments that come from new research in neuroscience, cognition theory and the study of religion as a natural phenomenon, among others. We're shining the light of science and reason on areas that have hitherto been off limits. We're asking questions that weren't considered proper or polite.

To me, it's really that we've just stopped giving religion and faith their free pass. We're not playing the game on their ballfield anymore. They don't get to sit back as the presumed default world view and demand that we explain ourselves being properly polite and deferential and taking pains not to ruffle anyone's feathers.

No, we're moving ahead with these inquiries whether they like it or not. We're asking the embarrassing questions, we're saying the Emperor has no clothes. The burden of proof is now where it should have been all along, on the faithful and the dogmatic; on those who assert that there are supernatural beings or political dogma that demands not just how they should live their lives, but how I should live mine. We're pointing out that believing in God or Allah is no less preposterous than believing in Santa or Elvis. It's all just human imagination wanting to find an intentional agent, dressed up with a lot of pageantry, rituals and double-talk.

And we're not letting the faithful tar us with their brush, either. Not taking things on faith is not simply having a different faith. We're not playing that little shell game anymore, where it's "just your belief, and my unprovable belief is just as good as your unprovable belief." I'm sorry, but no. Just because I don't believe something you made up out of thin air, doesn't mean I must believe something equally vaporous but just different. Not believing does not equal believing.

I wish we could do this without hurting people's feelings or asking questions or saying things out loud that have to this point always been considered out of bounds, but it's just too bad. Considering your opinion to be off the table of rational discourse because of faith is no longer accepted as a valid move.

But why, you might ask, can't we just let people believe what they want to believe? Why must we upset the applecart, challenge people's comfortable assumptions? If simply believing was all that was in question, I would have no argument at all. It's what people do because they believe that concerns me. When your beliefs start affecting other people, that's where the line must be drawn.

Simply stated, the fate of humanity and civilization is at stake here. When the technological means exist to wipe all life off the planet, we can't let people's imaginations and superstitions pull the trigger. 9-11 was, or should have been, a wake-up call to all civilized people about the liabilities of faith. It's not what you have faith in that's the problem, it's that you take things on faith to begin with.

The natural world, the laws of physics, are not subject to human interpretation or opinion. They are the same for everyone. It matters not a whit to the universe what we think or believe. It spins along blissfully unaware of our presence. That real world, that observable, measurable one, is our only common ground. Let's meet there.


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