Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Isaac Asimov helped me embrace atheism

From Mad Mike's America: How Isaac Asimov helped me embrace atheism
I have long been an admirer of Isaac Asimov. I knew of his fiction for years, first being introduced to him through his brilliant short story Nightfall. Here is a memorable Asimov quote to start out our story:

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually disrespectful to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that god doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” –Isaac Asimov

It wasn’t until a few years later that I encountered one of his books on religion. The book, In The Beginning, pulled me in and I soon found I could not get enough. In it, Asimov took the book of Genesis and looked at it from three different angles: how the religious see it, how such writings came to be as they are now, and what science says about the idea in question.

I had known for a long time that something was seriously wrong about religion; that it didn’t fit quite with reality, but I was still something of a deist bordering on agnostic. But this book helped me along the road to leaving belief in the past. Finally someone else who saw what I did and didn’t try to give some lame excuse as to why religion didn’t match up with reality.

Years later I discovered that not only was the whole thing ridiculous, but it could actually be damaging and rather terrifying. It was not just for the harm it does to the vulnerable mind, but how it views those who do not believe in their specific brand of magic. Not to mention the often downright rage they would express to those who dared to actually doubt the concept all together!

These people had made not believing in an invisible man in the sky such a terrible thing that to consider it openly was one of the deepest of taboos. It was so strong that someone who had such a powerful mind and, through much of his life, was such an open atheist, was pushed to hide his own views. Views that he knew made sense, that were the only ones that really did make sense in light of the evidence. But still he hid them because they were frowned upon.

If someone such as Isaac Asimov could be bullied into such a belief then what does it mean about so many others, including myself?

But instead of the ‘dangerous’ view that far too many often claim it is, atheism is, to me, as it was to Asimov, freeing. It was the universe laid open for us to scrutinize and wonder over. It was finally no longer being afraid of one’s lack of belief and openly saying “there isn’t enough evidence to support the view and it isn’t one that is important enough to waste any more time considering further”. It is finally being able to look at religious belief in the same way one does believers in the Loch Ness Monster and not think that one has to suppress such views.

The quote that I offered is a prime example of these views. It is his looking back and realizing that he had been silly the whole time and should have just been open with himself from the very start.

To be clear, when Isaac Asimov says that he is an “emotional atheist,” he is not meaning what so many theists claim. He is not someone who ‘believes’ atheism is accurate like a theist believes in their particular patented version of a deity. It is the feeling of elation you feel when you realize that the universe works without the need for a ‘man behind the curtain.’

It is seeing the workings of a cell or the life cycles of stars and realizing “I can understand this!” followed soon after by “Wait…what? I can understand this?” A critter that evolved as an overly complex way of replicating strands of amino acids can look at the universe and say, “OK, I see how that works!” If that does not instill within you a sense of awe then I pity you.

Some theists may cling to the end of the quote where Asimov says “I don’t have the evidence to prove that god doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” They point their finger and go “Aha! You don’t have any evidence and you still believe there is no god? Where is your science now!” Then feel rather pleased with themselves and wager Jesus would give them a high five.

We then go on to ask whether they have evidence that the tooth fairy does not exist. Our imaginary theist might respond saying the idea is absurd, they have never seen a tooth fairy and that parents are the ones who hoard discarded dentition.

“Exactly” is the only needed response. The believer might not see it, but I do. It is obvious to the point of absurdity and to paraphrase Asimov, to waste any further time with it seems like an exercise in futility.

So here is to you religious extremists. You are the reason we have to step away from the adult conversations and deal with such silly ideas as invisible sky daddies. Let’s get to talking about things like evolution, stellar formation, the big bang, quantum physics, and the possibilities for xenobiology. Not to mention other things more important than whether their deity exists or what I’m going to have for breakfast.

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