Monday, April 2, 2012

Mixing up the steps: Why theists continue to trip themselves up

'Dancing with the Stars'

It rained on the parade, but from all reports the Reason Rally in Washington DC last Saturday was a roaring success. It must have been a unique experience to be among so much rationality in one place. I have managed to catch a few clips of the presentations on youtube and it has been amazing to hear speaker after speaker stating emphatically that "the world is 14 billion years old not 6000." It was refreshing to hear such statements greeted with rousing applause from the secular masses. At the same time it was amusing to hear the statement of a simple scientific fact stirring such emotion. It's like hearing screams of delight when a physicist says that the acceleration due to gravity here on earth is 9.8 metres per second squared.

Immediately, it occurred to me what is the big difference between the many Christian mass worship events I have seen and a rally like the one last week. A religious speaker would never start off a sermon with a scientific fact. A leader in faith would start by appealing to the human desire for meaning, purpose and moral guidance and then include in some way these considerations in determining what the facts are. There is quite a contrast there.

 The secular thinker approaches life by taking two distinctly separate steps.

Step One: Investigate the world to try to determine what the facts of the reality you live in are.

Step Two:  Seek to find meaning within the reality you discovered in step one.

So for the atheist, facts come first. It's a simple two step rhythm. Fact then meaning, that's the way we groove it. This is important to remember because things are not as clear when it comes to theists.They consistently mix up these two steps. Trying to find meaning without having a clue about facts then attempting to get facts to fit the motif set up by the meaning.

If you are ever on the dance floor trying to put down some moves with a theist, you'll see what I mean. You try to set up the basis for the dance by telling them that they need to start with the right fact first. But, they will shake their head at you. They will tell you that you're too boring, too mechanical, dancing is an art not a science, it's just about feeling it. So, when you start with a fact like, the earth is 14 billion years old, or that we have reached our present state as a species through gradual evolution, they will stare at you blankly. So what? What does that mean?  Why is that important? How does that make me a better person? How does that give life value? 

This is a huge misstep on their part but they don't recognise it. They are surprised when we stare back at them just as quizzically. Meaning? Value? Purpose? We are talking about scientific facts, the first obligatory step in learning about the world around us. To try to find purpose within these brute facts is to pull us entirely in a different direction and that is where they start to stumble in their arguments even more. It may surprise you, but if we as atheists don't keep the balance in our arguments when something like this happens, we can end up flat on our faces alongside them.

Yes, before you can say 'Baila!' they are doing the slide into an argument from meaning, making you feel embarrassed for trying to fact things up. They talk about how believing in evolution and big bang, means that everything is just an accident and there is no reason to value anything in life. You are just a biological machine, molecules in motion, a chemical reaction just fizzing away into oblivion. There is just no point to anything if  you just follow science. In fact they tell you it is a mystery to them why you even bother doing anything. Why bother even learning to dance? In fact, why not just go and kill yourself?

It's at this point in the dance  that there is that awkward pause in the routine. You realise that things are already going awry with the simple 'two-step' that you had set out to do, but the music is playing and other people around are watching you. So, you have no choice but to think on your feet. You can do one of two things. You can pull your partner firmly by the hand and lead them back in to 'step one.' Tell them to stop tap dancing around the issue and stick to 'fact'.in step one whether they like it or not. This can be a risky move though. If you are dancing with a stubborn partner and they don't trust your ability to lead, this could spell trouble. They will just resist and make you look like the one who doesn't know the moves. They will insist that you need to follow them and that your resistance just confirms that you really have no idea of  'meaning.' Atheists in such situations can become frustrated and accuse their theist partner of not giving a 'fact.' Major tension can ensue and in a worse case scenario,  the tug of war can send you both crashing down to the floor in a millisecond. Once that happens, it will be very difficult to get back on your feet and neither of you will have any credibility in the eyes of the guests for the rest of the night, no matter  how much each of you tries to throw the blame on the other partner.

Another option is to go with the flow, smile and pretend that the stumbling and sliding is all part of the choreography. If your partner wants 'meaning' do 'meaning.' So instead of doing what you would prefer to be doing, which is giving the evidence to establish the 'fact' in step one you do a bit of a shuffle and spin around seamlessly into 'meaning.'

You take this opening to reveal that there is indeed meaning in the atheist position. A finite life means that every day is worth more. No ultimate judgement means we have to ensure we have as much fairness and equity as we can  in this world. The freedom from religion gives us the ability to live fulfilled lives which we can enjoy according to the things which we individually find fulfilling, rather than dancing to the beat of somebody else's drum.We can live our lives in a way that clearly benefits ourselves and others, rather than waiting for a cue from some unknowable capricious cosmic being who works in mysterious ways. How much meaning is there in a life where followers are required to bow down and worship a God every day in order to escape punishment? How much meaning is there in a  life after death where you sit around singing praises to God everyday and playing the occasional harp solo?

You smile smugly after you make these comments. There you have it. You're back in the groove, your atheistic meaning in life can match every theistic move they make. That's great, until your partner starts without warning to bring in this twist. The theist will look at you and say, " Oh, you don't want to believe in God, because you don't like the impositions he puts on you. He can't be real just because you can't understand him or don't find meaning in what he wants you to do. But who are you? You can't make God who you want him to be! God is real! Facts are facts! The truth is the truth whether you like it or not!" Wow, you suddenly realise what has happened here. Once again, it's trouble in the dance hall. Your partner has somehow stumbled from meaning back into facts again. This is what you were begging for earlier but now the timing is off, you're both way behind the beat.

Now things are really confused, you have no idea when and where things will move after this. It's 'fact' and 'meaning' meshed into an incomprehensible concoction of hand waving, head bobbing and foot stomping in all directions. It's obvious to all and sundry now that neither of you knows what is going on and you are both tripping. So, what do you do now? You have realised that you are not likely to look very good if you follow the theist lead in this dance. If you go back to speaking about the scientific factual bass of your position, they will pull you back into talking about the lack of 'meaning'  in that step. You go into 'meaning' and they will tell you that you are really an atheist out of emotion, wanting to believe something even though it has meaning only for you. They will imply that you don't really care about objective facts, which of course can only be discovered when revealed by their God. You will get very dizzy from the constant spinning and it's not likely to end well. In many cases like this, I have known atheists to just walk away. Hold up their hands, say they have had enough, gracefully walk off the dance floor and let someone else cut in. This may appear to be the honourable thing to do, but it often backfires. Your partner as well as others on the floor, will heckle you, do the 'chicken dance' in front of your face. They will tell you that you have the fancy talk but you can't handle it when the heat is on. They will take your withdrawal as an admission that theists are simply better on the dance floor than you.

Take control of your partner

You can take a more aggressive route and stick to the dance routine as you know it should be done and do some advanced 'fact' steps that you know your partner will never be able to follow. You can deliberately then show others around how poor the theist's dancing skills are and how out of step with reality they are. In all likelihood the theist will be the one to  leave you this time, letting you do your own thing in front of your friends. You may think that this is a good way out and that it is better to have your partner being the 'chicken'  than you. If you think that way, you'll  be wrong. Onlookers on the dance floor don't treat atheists and theists equally. You are likely to find a cool glass of beer splashing down on your perspiring face within seconds. Abuse being hurled at you from all directions. Your friends will call you out for embarrassing your partner who clearly was not at your skill level. They will say  that you never really wanted to have a fair dance in the first place. It was all about you, just trying to show off with your arrogant self. Just because you went to some prestigious dance academy you wanted to make a young amateur look stupid. You are a coward, who would never be up to dancing with an equal.

I won't tell you a lie. It's not easy being an atheist dancer. But if you keep a smile on your face and generally respect others around you, some of your dance moves will be copied by the crowd around you. They may not catch on right away, but you might encourage them to practice on their own at home. Before you know it, they could be dancing like you too, doing the 'fact' step first. You have to reassure them that 'fact' first doesn't mean that facts are all that matters. It's just that you have to let the meaning fit around the facts rather than the other way around. Indeed,'meaning' in step two may be more important than the 'facts' in step one.  There is certainly more style and flair associated with step two. It's meaning that gives us much of our desire to do something. For many scientists it is the drive to find out what the facts are that actually gives life the meaning. But that is not the case for everybody and we need to recognise that. For some, the meaning that comes from believing in a God will not be matched if they go the atheist route. Nonetheless, there are times when meaning comes along to surprise us. I don't think I have met any atheist who has told me that their move to atheism came as a result of looking for meaning. Most were quite happy with the meanings that they already had in theism, but they just wanted to investigate more and find truth, atheism just happened to be the result. They found eventually much joy and meaning in being godless but that all came later, well after the fact. I don't think any of us would have been able to see that joy from the other side of the theistic fence.

It is true that we are "Good Without God" and we should keep letting people know that, but let's not lead the theists into confusing the steps. We don't believe in God because of what the facts tell us, the evidence that is glaringly absent, not because we can live better lives without him. If living a life without God was miserable and depressing, we would still be atheists because for us, facts come first.

Let's hear it for the facts!

So, let's keep cheering for the facts as we did last Saturday and encourage our theist friends to do likewise, because it takes two to tango. We want them to follow or lead not because they will feel better for it, but  because we all have a basic obligation to understand as much as we can about our world in order to make the best decisions. Both on our own behalf and on behalf of others in it. It's similar to how a driver must seek to understand all the traffic laws in a country if he nor she is to avoid putting other road users at risk. Learning how to interpret traffic signs and signals is not the most exciting activity in the world but lives could very well depend on us getting these basic facts right.

So, let's keep the rallies going and inviting the theists to come dance with us on our stage, but let us never allow them to sidestep the critical issues. We must constantly remind them that when they are dancing with us they must pay close attention to our footwork, which requires that they always, yes always, lead with the facts.

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