A post today about renowned atheism proponent Richard Dawkins on Reddit’s r/atheism channel reprised an old but good quote from Dawkins then added a reader comment that reminds us how difficult it is for many people to get their heads around the utterly easy idea of unbelief in gods.
‘I am against religion’
The by-now-famous Dawkins quote that leads the post is,
“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”
This refers to the religious idea that only supernatural faith, not natural material evidence, can answer the fundamental questions of existence, although science has been doing a pretty great job over centuries of answering big questions long considered only answerable via the divine.
Dawkins’ quote also essentially mirrors another famous quote, one by pioneering medieval astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) that I myself used in a recent post on my Godzooks blog:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use.”
Both quotes lament the shared impulse of religious believers over eons to ignore the real world for a surreal one trapped only in our private minds, and to thus remain willfully ignorant of material realities that very well might improve human life and reduce human suffering.
For example, without science, resisted mightily for centuries by religious institutions because its discoveries often contradicted scripture, plagues would still be periodically clear-cutting populations worldwide.
Dawkins is ‘wrong’?
After reading Dawkins quote in Reddit and the accompanying video of one of his previous academic debates, one respondent, opining that the atheist gadfly is “wrong in a general sense,” tried to conflate religions with fast-food joints:
“There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea [of fast-food outlets], it’s just that the ones that have become popular have serious problems. I feel the same way about religion. Like, what does a religion basically do? It gives people faith in things, things that they can’t prove. … And I think that given the nature of human beings, and the nature of the universe we find ourselves in, that having faith in some answer to those needs can be useful.”
Put aside for the moment the unsupportable idea that fast-food restaurants, like McDonald’s and Burger King, say, give people “faith in things … they can’t prove,” except maybe faith that their burger will always taste the same at each place. What matters in this comment above is that people commonly assume it’s always beneficial — “useful” — to have faith in things that can’t be proven, no matter where such confidence comes from or how implausible its scenario.
Waiting for God
The Reddit commenter, identified by the tag PM_ME_UR_Definitions, continued:
“But humans aren’t rational all the time, probably not even most of the time. We’re slightly evolved apes that are wired to live in small groups and worry about things like not starving every day. And look what the world is like now, we’ve created an environment that we’re completely un-adapted to live in. Our emotions and instincts are often not useful or actually harmful. Maybe it’s worth embracing the idea that sometimes we need some help when we’re not being rational to make the right choices. … Maybe we don’t have to be satisfied with not understanding the world, but we can still accept that sometimes we need a little help when we can’t understand sometime.”
By “need some help,” the commenter means “need some religious faith.”
But this is exactly the opposite of what atheism proposes, which is that, with no gods evident anywhere in reality, it would appear we of the Homo sapiens species are totally responsible for our own lives, with no hope ever of divine intercession. Atheists accept that the only problem-solving, decision-making, idea-wrestling “help” available is from ourselves or other human beings, not divinities in absent supernatural locales.
However, with some 70 percent of Americans still believing in the God of Abraham, and others believing in various different deities, it’s clear that a lot of folks are still holding out for divine intercessions for their seemingly unresolvable problems and unanswerable questions.
No ‘deus ex machina’
The atheist response is that they’ll be waiting for an infinitely long time and, in the meantime, it might be a good idea to experiment with some proposed resolutions and answers of their own. Better yet, stop waiting for a deus ex machina, a divine saving grace, that likely will never arrive.
So, when people hear the word “atheism,” they should know it just means roughly “belief in no gods,” nothing more. Don’t overthink it; it’s not mysterious or unfathomably deep.
The complicated, but rewarding, part is how we use that belief to improve our lives and others’ in the real world.