Something a little different today – instead of poetry or brief & allegedly humorous comments, I’d like to share with you some things I wrote on Facebook today, as part of a discussion that started with somebody making the statement “There is no religion quite as intolerant as atheism.”

I guess there’s a lot of misconceptions out there, and I certainly would never refute anyone else’s firsthand experience of intolerance. They were there, I wasn’t.
But if you’ve met ‘intolerant atheists’ that’s a different thing to ‘atheism being intolerant’; in much the same way, there are ‘terrorist Muslims’ & ‘paedophile Catholic priests’ without those descriptions being either exclusive to, or all-inclusive of, those groups.

Anyway, here’s what I ended up writing over the course of a couple of posts. I don’t know the other guy, who was hosting the discussion on his wall, well enough to presume that I can cut & paste his posts here, so I’m not going to, but after the initial post he was mostly asking straightforward questions which I think I answer in depth, so there is nothing left out by me …err, leaving them out.

Oh that’s not true at all.
Atheism isn’t a religion, and we are ‘intolerant’ only of misplaced faith.
We don’t condemn any segment of society to torment or punishment, and we don’t exclude any segment of society from our company, our buildings or from employment or government, simply because they think differently or had a different set of birth circumstances.

Religions are characterised by a number of shared features, even if they differ in beliefs and practices. Religions include rituals & festivals, which adherents participate in to reinforce their shared experience; religions request their members accept an imposed belief that may or may not accurately portray the observable reality of the universe, but must be adhered to none-the-less; religions contain at the very least a rudimentary spiritual element; religions impose a code of moral behaviour, deviation from which will have consequences ranging from social to physical sanction, and in extreme cases, execution. Atheism shares none of these aspects – we have no common ritual or festival; we require no person to believe anything at all, but do not sanction those with belief simply for having faith; there is no spiritual aspect to atheism, no souls, no ghosts, no higher purpose, no redemption or afterlife; no moral code adheres to the atheist except that which he deems best.
The closest atheism comes to ‘faith’ is trusting the knowledge that a demonstrable, repeatable evidentiary process can be relied upon to produce the same results time after time without having to actually occur. I know, for instance, that gravity will cause a hammer to land on my toe when dropped, even though I don’t actually drop it. Having burned my hand once, and having heard of many other cases from various cultures and locations that similar things have happened, I don’t need to expose my child to fire to know that they will burn if I do it. The stronger the evidence, the stronger the corroborative experience, the more verifiable the instances, the more firmly I can trust the knowledge.
On the specific question of evolution, I trust the science because the evidence is strong. Anyone who cares to make the effort can actually perform empirical real-time observations of evolution and will always come to the same result. Its a time-consuming expeirment, but can be done with very little equipment or scientific training. The theory of evolution allows for expansion of the relevant knowledge base; and while yes there are many gaps in that knowledge base, I can trust that evolution is still a true theory because previous gaps have been addressed, and resolved, without discrediting the theory in toto. Intelligent design is neither verifiable, nor does it allow for consistent addition to its certainty when new facts come to light.

I would define ‘misplaced faith’ as believing that something you can neither see, feel or prove any other way impacts on your life. Again, I can rely on the laws of physics & the observable universe to provide me a framework in which to operate. If its raining, and I don’t take an umbrella, I will get wet. I know this without actually having to get wet. If I eat poison, I will become unwell. But if I pray to Ganesha, I cannot be certain he will provide me with good fortune. If I kill a thousand infidels, I cannot be certain that I will reside in paradise with 72 virgins after I die. If I drink unfermented grape juice, I have no certainty that it transforms into the blood of a long dead man-god and forges a link between us. More to the point, even though I am an atheist and you are a theist, I know that YOU will get wet in the rain or unwell if you eat poison. I know the same things will happen to a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Odinist, a Sikh.

Its a misconception that atheism is well-organised. Certainly, some atheists form mutual interest societies, but I can be accepted as an atheist without belonging to any of them. There is no central authority in atheism, and nor should there be. There are well-regarded atheists, but they are invested with respect for their achievements or discoveries, not elevated to a superior position.

On the subject of exclusion – no atheist would ever wish to exclude a Christian, a Muslim, a Kabbalist or anyone else from a school, a club, a sporting organisation, a job or a position of civil authority SIMPLY because they are a person of faith. Its simply irrelevant. There are no exclusive atheist schools, no exclusive atheist meeting places. Where we take umbrage is with the imposition of a faith on those who either don’t have any, or have a different one, by dint of political power. In other words, be a Christian politician all you like. Let that inform your personal behaviour if you wish. Worship and pray all you like. I won’t lose any sleep knowing that you do. But if as a Christian politician you wish to legislate your beliefs onto me – that I must acknowledge your god in public prayer; that I must follow your particular morality even if the impact on others is negligible; that others of different faiths must be discriminated against or disadvantaged in some way – then we are gonna have issues.

Now, that’s not to say there are not intolerant atheists. There certainly are. But that’s because they are intolerant people, and would be intolerant Christians, intolerant Jews, intolerant Voudouns or intolerant Dionysians if their circumstances were different – not because there is an inherent intolerance that comes from being atheist.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me be clear – I grew up in a church-going house, and my parents are still happy Presbyterians. I love them dearly and do not begrudge them their religion, or judge them for maintaining it. It works for them, and that works for me. Some of my close friends are religious, and I would hope we could never fall out over something as intensely personal as their faith or my lack thereof. If ever we do, it won’t be my choice.

We could conceivably get a reasonable discussion going here if you guys are interested, so feel free to chime in with comments. All I ask is that you remain civil.