Yesterday I took tons of questions from people for Ask An Atheist Day 2019. Today you get my answers!
What makes your puppy so cute? – Amy
My husband Kolten and I recently adopted a wonderful puppy Ella (short for Cinderella). She’s a tiny brown Chihuahua and she is absolutely precious. I’ve completely fallen for her, despite never being a dog person and growing up with cats. What makes her so cute? Let me count the ways:
- Hey floppy ears (Chihuahuas’ ears don’t stand up until around 3 months old, and hers flap wildly – it’s adorable!)
- Her deep brown eyes, which look up at me with love.
- Her little waggy tail.
- Her sloppy kisses.
- The way she makes Kolten smile.
She’s truly the best.
Who is your favorite royal and why is it Harry? – Rachel
Sadly for Rachel, my favorite royal is not Harry. I am in fact a republican, in the British sense – I think we should get rid of the monarchy and choose our own head of state. However, I am fond of many British cultural customs, and I understand why people enjoy following the royals – in fact, Kolten loves everything about royal history, and I’ve grown in appreciation of it through him. Together we’ve watched the whole of The Crown at least twice, and when we were in London last year we toured Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Banqueting House, the Tower of London – our time was filled with royal history.
I have to say I think Meghan Markle in fantastic. It can’t be easy to marry into that family – particularly given that she’s not from the UK – and it seems that she’s taken to her new public role immediately and is handling it very well. Her focus on women’s empowerment and girls’ education is marvelous.
Are Christians and atheists equally arrogant in their respective assertions that they “know” the makings of the universe? Why or why not? – Krystle
This is a complicated one, and I have to answer briefly, but here’s what I think: being an atheist doesn’t mean you are certain that god doesn’t exist. And being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re certain god does exist. It’s possible to be an arrogant atheist and an arrogant Christian. No one has a monopoly on arrogance.
I do think, though, that atheists often get accused of arrogance unfairly. If I say that I don’t believe god exists because the evidence and reasons haven’t convinced me, that is not inherently an arrogant assertion: it is actually an appropriately humble one, because I am refusing to believe in something for which insufficient evidence has been provided to support it. Even if I say that, in my judgment of the evidence, there is no god, that isn’t necessarily arrogant either: it could be just my honest assessment of the cases made.
I think a case could be made that it is “arrogant” to refuse to follow the evidence and reasons where they lead, even if that means asserting lack of knowledge where knowledge is warranted. If, for instance, I refuse to believe that vaccines do not cause autism, saying instead that I “withhold judgment” and am “agnostic” on that question, that seems to me an “arrogant” position, in that in overrides the evidence with my own desire to sit on the fence. Sometimes, the least epistemically arrogant position is the sure one.
How do you see this [the atheist] Movement evolving over the next 15 years? How would you like to see it evolve? – Cody
I think the atheist movement has already seen a significant shift even in the ten or so years I’ve been very actively involved. We’ve seen a concerted movement away from activism merely focused on securing a place for atheists in contemporary life (what has been called “atheist identity activism”) toward something which is more broadly concerned with issues of social justice (something more humanistic, essentially). If you look at major movement organizations like the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance, and even American Atheists, you see that shift quite clearly. I think this trend is likely to continue, particularly as a new generation takes positions of power in the movement: millennials and the following generation have little patience for a movement without a social justice core.
At the same time we’ve seen the exacerbation of a fracture which was always in the movement, but which has now become a complete break: some of the voices who have always been uncomfortable with a more social justice-infused atheist movement have now jumped ship altogether, embracing either the Intellectual Dark Web or even the Alt-Right. Increasingly, I think the discussion within the movement is going to be not about how we relate to religion, but how we relate to politics and culture.
What would I like to happen? I’m glad to see that many atheist groups and organizations are taking a more social justice-oriented position. It was never a good thing that the movement seemed to care about atheists and only atheists. Now I’m wondering what we can do to encourage people who feel uncomfortable with this shift to stay on board. Contemporary social justice discourse can be uncompromising and even quite self-righteous, and I wonder whether we might find ways to talk about social justice values within the atheist community which would bring skeptics along more effectively. I’d like to see us become experts in communicating social justice ideas in welcoming ways, without compromising any of those values in the process.
At the same time, I think it’s important that we maintain space for issues of particular importance to atheists. Atheists are still marginalized in America, and it is perfectly acceptable – necessary, actually – for atheist organizations to address those issues. There’s nothing wrong with our movement maintaining a focus on atheists and our issues – as long as it has a full commitment to the liberation of all people at its heart.
How can I explain the science behind Easter (spring equinox) to my Catholic family? – Trez
The vernal equinox has already happened this year, back on March 20th, and I think a good way to describe it is as follows:
- Imagine the earth, spinning in space, bisected by the equator – the line around the earth which delineates the northern and southern hemispheres.
- Imagine the sun, a very long way away, hovering directly above this line. If you were standing at the right spot on the equator, you could look up and see the sun directly above you.
- Because you are standing on the equator, you are precisely halfway between the North and South Poles, and the axis of the earth (which travels through the globe from one Pole to the other) runs perpendicular to a line drawn from the sun to where you are standing.
- The Earth spins on its axis. So, on this particular day, the length of the day and the night would be exactly equal – that’s why it’s called the “equinox” – “equal night!”
I feel in myself and perceive in others a need for some kind of undefinable something. Many seem to find that something, or a close proximity of it, in religion. Others find it in some other form of spirituality that they take with varying amounts of seriousness. Do atheists not have that need? Or do they find another way of filling it? – Joy
I think the answer to this question varies from person to person, whether they are religious or not. I’ve known atheists who have a deep need for what they think of as “spiritual” experiences, and religious people who have no need for them at all. I think this is likely to be normal human variation, not causally linked to our beliefs about god.
That said, I think it likely that people with a strong need for spiritual experiences do gravitate toward religion, simply because religions have tended to do a better job of 1) talking explicitly about these kinds of experiences and 2) developing systemic ways people can access them. I don’t think there is anything inherently “religious” about the spiritual, though: I, as an atheism, find numerous sources of spiritual feelings in the natural world, in works of art, in communal endeavor. I tend to think that naturalism has a great store of spiritual wonder which atheists could do more to reveal.
What are your thoughts on how Kantian ethics have become a judge of a lot of societal decisions ? And what are your thoughts on Zen Buddhism? Do you see Zen Buddhists as Atheists? – Karl
I think it’s up to Buddhists of every kind to decide whether they want to consider themselves atheists, but in my mind anyone who doesn’t believe in god is an atheist.