To be or not to be?

To be or not to be? November 22, 2018

The quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” can mean: “to act or not to act,” to exist (live) or not to exist (die),” “to confront or to let be.” It’s necessary to read the rest of the soliloquy to get a sense of what Hamlet means by it.

What follows directly after that opening question is this:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.”

I was thinking about this when I read two letters to the editor of Free Inquiry magazine about an essay in an earlier edition that advocated confrontation with religionists. It was necessary to challenge their fact-free beliefs, the author said. The letters were both written by geologists who are nonbelievers. Geologists are especially qualified to question the absurd beliefs of Young Earth Creationists (YECers). The idea that the earth is only six thousand years old, and that dinosaurs were regular companions of humans is laughable to a geologist…or anybody else who knows anything about the earth sciences. But the two geologists disagreed on how best to approach people who had been gulled into such beliefs since childhood. Think about the lines from Hamlet above and read excerpts from the two letters:

I reject (author) Gibson’s thesis that any scientist who does not totally reject all aspects of religion is “simply lacking in intellectual honesty and courage.” There are positive philosophical principles, social support structures, and community outreach aspects of many religions that can benefit one’s life and help others. One does not have to be a religious fundamentalist to find solace and positive benefits in these aspects. Some people require that social outreach in their lives and scientists and others can compartmentalize the rejection of divine mythology from the acceptance of positive philosophy. I have found it is more helpful to show religious people that being a secular humanist is a good position by not belittling their deeply held beliefs but rather to intelligently show them the science and demonstrate how one can live a good and helpful life without the need for the divine aspects of religion. In my opinion, Gibson’s proposed adversarial position to confront religious scientists and others is intellectually dishonest, and does the secular humanist cause more harm than good in the public eye.

The author Gibson replies in his letter as follows:

“Positive philosophical principles” – really? All religions fear reason and venerate faith; they currency in closed minds, anathema to any philosophical principles of which I am aware. As for the social benefits offered by religions, all could be done better with secular institutions, as they do well in Scandinavia today. While it is true that churches and mosques provide “comfort stations” in a cruel world, civil institutions can do a better job. In worrying about me offending religious people by my naked brand of atheism, I would remind (the letter writer) how religious people view nonbelievers – as heretics, blasphemers, and they have a special place reserved for us after death, a place for us to burn in eternity! It was less than 300 years ago that none less than Edward Gibbon, the noted British historian, wrote a letter to the head of the Catholic church in Portugal urging that the church continue the Inquisition to rid the country of heretics. Science (reason) is at war with religion (superstition) for the minds of human beings, progress has been slow and the last thing I worry about is offending someone who would burn me at the stake or wish me to their version of Hell.

On the first letter I would make this observation.

He says, “…scientists and others can compartmentalize the rejection of divine mythology from the acceptance of positive philosophy.” That sounds like George Orwell’s “doublethink” from his book “1984.” How can a nonbeliever recite the prayers and sing the hymns along with the true believers, or participate in other explicitly religious activities without being intellectually dishonest?  And then he says “Gibson’s proposed adversarial position to confront religious scientists and others is intellectually dishonest.”

I fail to see how confronting the nonsense is in any way intellectually dishonest, and the letter writer does not offer any explanation or justification for his accusation.





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