Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Necessity of Atheism

The public debate about evolution, like every battle in a culture war, is and always will be conducted by guys in clown suits bopping each other with pig bladders. That's just the way things are. Serious science and serious philosophy are and will remain the business of a tiny and largely invisible minority. The culture wars are not politically unimportant, however, and it behooves us to don our own clown suits from time to time. Sometimes the appropriate clown suit is a village atheist outfit.

Philosophically speaking, atheism is a very uninteresting position since it amounts to making a big fuss about something obvious, i.e. that traditional religious ideas are fatuous. As Diderot pointed out long ago, "It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all." Atheism, at least the sort of atheism one encounters on public access television, also promotes a version of history which is factually dubious since it endlessly recycles the same banal anthology of religious excesses (Crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions) to somehow prove that organized religion is the root of all evil, a proposition that probably gives the churches too much credit. All that admitted, however, loud and obnoxious atheism is still necessary in a country like the United States, if only to assert the right of people to dissent from the totalitarian conformism to which we are so susceptible.

The argument against public assertions of anti-religious ideas is that such language is politically unwise and will only elicit more intolerance from the religious right. In fact, however, the anguish of the believers is good evidence of the effectiveness of such polemics. It makes a huge difference that skeptical ideas are in circulation. They wouldn't be so loudly denounced if they didn't resonate—there may be more Cotton Mather than Mark Twain in the American character, but there is some Mark Twain. In any case, ideas have to be publicized in order to persist since the vast majority of mankind will never find an idea in their heads that somebody didn't go to the trouble of putting there first.

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