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Atheism as a less irrational position

Stuff we believe…
Manado, NorthSulawesi, Indonesia

As the philosopher said, “It ain’t the stuff we don’t know; it’s the stuff we know for certain, but just ain’t so”.  Profounder words have rarely been spoken.
One of the things I have taught at Indonesian universities is critical thinking. The course I developed was created as a reaction to the faculty’s observation that, more than young adults in Western countries, Indonesian students seemed to accept tradition, authority, and peer consensus as sufficient reason to accept dogma. As a cultural observation, it is far less common to see beliefs analysed critically here in Asia than it is in the West. For the rest of a university education to have any value to a student, it is crucial that analytic thinking be employed and that cherished beliefs be challenged, and this is a tougher paradigm shift in most Asian countries than it is elsewhere.
There are a number of reasons this is so. The adherence to tradition is a much stronger value here in Asia than it is in the west where typically cultures are younger. Adherence to tradition, while sociologically beneficial to the maintenance of a culture, is somewhat inhibiting to innovation. As well, conformity and homogeneity are valued more highly in the densely populated regions that abound in Asia, whereas individuality and an inclination to swim against the current are more acceptable character traits in the West. For these reasons, modes of thinking are somewhat different in the two parts of the world.
Improvement, refinement, development; all these are areas in which traditional thinking can, and here in Asia does, excel.  But that spark of originality that leads to a revolution in technology or society requires – to employ a cliché – thinking outside the box, an activity which requires throwing off the shackles of traditional approaches in favour of something never tried before. Critical thinking, much of which is involved with challenging, testing,and criticising traditional beliefs, is central to developing that inspired originality that allows us to leap frog into the future.
That way of thinking is by no means absent in Asia, just as it certainly isn’t universal in the West; and as theWest grows more conservative and even reactionary, the difference is eroding.Nevertheless, a good dose of critical analysis of long held beliefs is something everyone in the world can use. And this all came up because of some things I’ve observed both here and in the West. In fact, despite the differences in the modes of thinking, there is a dangerous lack of critical thinking everywhere.

There are so many things we simply believe; we accepted them a long time ago and haven’t really thought about them since, but proceed with our lives as though these beliefs are unquestionable facts. The most obvious of these is religion. Most people simply accept their religion as though its underlying precepts were facts beyond dispute, rather than as propositions which are, on the face of it, absurd. This is so deeply embedded in cultures the world over that even among critical thinkers there is a tendency to grant religious beliefs some kind of special dispensation. Even among those of us who equate the belief in a virgin birth and the crucifixion as an act by God to expiate our sins, with a belief in a need to wear a tinfoil hat to keep out alien thought rays, as soon as someone says, “That’s my religion,” the inclination is to defer. There are all kinds of things we just know – here and in the West – that just ain’t so.
Every kid knows that a penny dropped from the Empire State building will gather enough speed to destroy the head of a passer-by on the sidewalk below. In fact, it will embed itself in the concrete sidewalk. Drop one from a plane and it will punch a hole through a steel roof.
Except it won’t; it just ain’t so.
In fact, it’s unlikely even to penetrate human skin. This one is easy to verify…five minutes research ought todo it. I checked it and found that it was one of the very first myths tested – and busted – on Mythbusters. I could go into details and talk about Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and terminal velocity, but the point is that a simple empirical test demonstrates that this item of common knowledge is just plain wrong. Not, perhaps earth-shaking and unlikely to change the way you live your life, but isn’t it nice to know with certainty? (if you think Mythbusters is what logicians and philosophers call “spurious authority” there are other sources you could check, and it’s easy to test for yourself)
Here in Indonesia, it’s common knowledge that if you eat durian with beer you will die. Or something. In any case, everyone knows that the combination is, if not a deadly one, it’s at least a dangerous one. Ask anyone. Now that one is really easy to confirm or bust. I personally have run repeated tests and invariably come up with the same results – busted. But don’t take my word for it…I urge you to test it for yourself.
So what does that tell us about genuinely important things? At the very least it should make us consider whether some of the things we habitually just accept ought to be thought through. If the basic proposition is contrary to logic and bizarre on its face, it should be thought through with great care. If it is something that actually affects our behaviour, we should probably consult genuine authority and apply rigorous reasoning to the issue. But if it is something that affects every aspect of everything we do and radically affects, even controls, our lives, shouldn’t we challenge it with real energy? Shouldn’t we require it to meet the most stringent standards of skeptical verification before we let an apparently absurd proposition take over our lives?
For some reason we don’t require that the most pervasive, the most absurd, and the most far-reaching propositions meet even the most fundamental tests of logic. Religion’s basic propositions (for example, that the universe was created out of nothing by a magic super-being that watches and judges every detail of our lives and is all-powerful, and all-seeing, as well as all good, and who then took a day off after six days of strenuous creating) if looked objectively, don’t even pass the laugh test.
And yet even to suggest a closer examination of these propositions, if they are expressed as religious beliefs,is considered disrespectful and ill-mannered; at one time, these things were considered sufficiently ill-mannered to be punishable by burning at the stake. Why when someone tells us that he or she is a  devout Christian or Muslim do we treat that delusion with grave respect? If they were to tell us that they devoutly believed in Ogopogo, or Yeti, or alien visitations, we would feel free to engage them in discussion and to challenge their beliefs; and each of these propositions comes with far, far,more evidentiary support than do any of the necessary propositions for Islamic or Christian or any other theistic belief. 

Not only is there actual, tangible evidence that can be scrutinised for the cryptobiological claims and the assertions of alien activity on Earth, something that is distinctly lacking in claims for the absolute, literal truth of each version of an Abrahamic doctrine, but the belief in the non-religious claims is open to criticism. One may even (God forbid) joke about them. Moreover, adherents to those  questionable, even laughable secular beliefs might argue for them, but we don’t see society making laws to accommodate them on the assumption that they are valid. Even more importantly, those silly beliefs, unlike their even sillier religious counterparts, are relatively benign. People are rarely killed as the result of a disagreement over Yeti, wars don’t start because of differences among UFO adherents; and those who insist that Ogopogo is a land-locked dinosaur and those who hold that he is an entirely new species are not known for their suicide-murder bombings of one another.
Surely as much scientific inquiry,starting from a skeptical posture, should be devoted to those “religious” absurdities as we have devoted to the other somewhat more rational propositions.
I urge anyone (and that’s virtuallyeveryone) who has been culturally coerced into deferring to the ridiculous beliefs of others to consider, when granting those of a religious nature special status, whether they would similarly defer if the belief was secular.In other words when someone tries to impose values, or worse still, laws, on us that emerge directly from an absurd belief system, we ought to object. Religious views ought to be treated as we treat beliefs in any other obvious misstatement of reality. We should treat those with strongly held religious views the way we treat schizophrenics who believe they are hearing voices; with pity and sympathy, until they start demonstrating their potential for harming themselves or others.
It’s time we recognised, and had the courage to say publicly, that religious belief is a delusional state and should be treated as what it is.

If these might offend you, why did you read beyond the warning?

Probably not a joke

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