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silence is simple

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Recent debates on Atheism have me asking: do atheists have to know a lot about religion to be able to dismiss it? Some of the discussions I’ve read go in to excrutiating detail on religion’s origins and history, the theological justifications for it, or lack thereof.

I work in IT, and firmly believe in keeping things simple, and reliable. When I see theists constructing complicated arguments for the existence of God, I have the persistent impression that they’re having to work too hard at it, like Wil. E. Coyote flailing his legs around in the hope that gravity will leave him alone!

We do have experts in the field, such as Prof. Richard Dawkins, who has spent some time studying theology and discussing it with “modern” (i.e. educated, non-dogmatic) theologists. He interviewed some for his Channel 4 documentary The Root Of All Evil? and wrote about them in his book The God Delusion. Theology is a major “humanity” field, which encompasses philosophy, sociology, epistemology, psychology and more: you can spend your whole life studying it, or your whole life arguing with theologists. Sorry: my life is too short. My “personal atheism” is far simpler, starting with the absence of belief, how the word “atheism” is the best description of that, and I take it from there.

This also helps to explain why atheists aren’t generally out there pushing their agenda: we have literally “nothing” to be evangelistic about. The current books by Sam Harris and Dawkins are a sign of something else: we would have little to say if we were just left in peace, but the way the world is going – particularly the USA – appears to be a precursor to theocracy and religious war.

Telling people “your faith is founded on nothing” is unpleasant, and should not be necessary in an ideal world. I don’t like to antagonise people that way, it feels uncomfortable, and I don’t do it to friends unless the topic comes up in discussion. But out here, on the Internet, I can be more blunt; not only does the Pope have no Clothes, people are so invested in the idea of clothes that nudity horrifies them!

Here’s an experiment I recommend for anyone interested in getting to the heart of the matter: find a quiet room, sit down, and put on John Lennon’s Imagine. Listen to the lyrics, and try to Imagine what John was imagining. Then, after the song has ended, sit in silence for a while, and listen. Your ears become more sensitive as time goes by. Is someone you know walking around outside? That computer fan is a bit noisy, isn’t it? Listen to your breathing, your heartbeat. That tune stuck in your head? Ignore it, it will go away.

The more I use the analogy of “atheism as silence”, the more apt it seems. There is music in the universe, some of it the product of religion, some created by people without reference to religion, most of it the soundtrack to the universe itself. Religion itself, to my “ears”, is unnecessary noise. We could debate the relative merits of pink noise vs. white noise vs. brown noise, but your ears will thank you for just turning the noise off.

Written by brian t

October 24, 2006 at 11:21 am

4 Responses

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  1. I disagree with your statement, “Theology is a major “humanity” field, which encompasses philosophy, sociology, epistemology, psychology and more: you can spend your whole life studying it, or your whole life arguing with theologists”, and it is with regret that I have to point out that it is manifestly not correct, though I cannot blame you for being duped by those who wish to claim that theology has valid academic credentials.

    Theology encompasses no valid enquiry into truth, reality, epistemology, philolgoy, psychology, sociology, or any other -ology for that matter, since it commences with the presumption that the premiss that the godhead exists is a given. Thus, theology is immediately flawed, ab initio, as a meaningful enquiry into truth and reality.

    Historically, theology departments were initially set up in universities simply to produce spurious yet apparently valid reasoned arguments to support the belief that god – which in this case was the Xtian version exclusively – existed, since it was recognised by the clergy that there was de facto no valid evidence that their god existed at all.

    To quote Dr Theodore Thinkelspein, “Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy can do for those who study it.”

    In other words, theology is all a lot of self-serving bunkum!

    The Old Git

    October 25, 2006 at 11:08 pm

  2. I think you have what we call “the wrong end of the stick” here… I agree 1000% that “theology is all a lot of self-serving bunkum” – I think the same of all “humanities”. Yet, people are spending whole careers studying them!

    I didn’t mean to imply that I approve of it – quite the opposite, which is what I thought I was referring to: even humble preachers use sophisicated arguments to ensnare their “flocks”, and I don’t see why I should complicate my atheism that way. I can see you’re enjoying it, though – keep up the good work, please! 8)

    brian t

    October 25, 2006 at 11:22 pm

  3. I didn’t think for one moment that you believed that theology was a valid field of study, and I realise now that I misinterpreted your original statement, for which I apologise.

    I also believe that most of what passes for academic excellence in the humanities is simply a load of waffle dressed up to look like something worthy of serious consideration, but the primary purpose of most published papers is simply to make one look good in front of one’s peers (important when it comes to the political infighting for advancement in the academic world). I also agree with you that many people spend whole careers studying these subjects, but the reason for that is simple: it beats actually working for a living!

    As for my tackling those who spout all that nonsense as if it is worthy of serious consideration and respect per se, it’s not so much for enjoyment that I do so, but because it is manifestly wrong that religious beliefs of any kind are allowed to influence governments, legislators, educationalists and our other public institutions. In other words, all religious movements actually wish to silence anyone who denies them the power which they desire to achieve, which is why they wish to silence those who do not share their beliefs by subverting political, juridical and educational institutions.

    Unfortunately, current governments in the UK and the USA seem to be willing to support actively the braying demands of the religious that their particular version of god should be given special treatment and respect by everyone else.

    May the Invisible Pink Unicorn help us!

    The Old Git

    October 26, 2006 at 8:13 am

  4. I concur in that we don’t need to know much about religion to dismiss it. Religion makes positive claims that it must support with evidence. It often does so (e.g., Bibles, “miracles”), though it always will retreat–when pressed at all–into saying that God is “separate” and unmeasurable. Therefore, training in critical thinking is required in order to evaluate the evidence put forward, such as it is.

    As for the value of studying religion in higher education, I do not believe that it is so much bunkum. Religions have played important roles politically, culturally, and historically. It is a major institution of social control. It provides morale and the appearance of order to the upper classes and deadening the pain and pointlessness of the lower classes. It gives the appearance of sanctity to the most horrid and despicable acts. For these reasons, and more, religion is a valid area of scientific inquiry. Hell, had George Bush or Tony Blair or any of their advisors any clue about Islam and its factions and history, perhaps Iraq might not be a catastrophe! But I do agree that studying religion out of a desire for personal salvation–without evidence showing the salvation is required and that the religion can deliver–is utterly pointless.

    Mr. Flibble

    November 27, 2006 at 6:18 pm


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