Sunday, January 15, 2006

If God Would Send His Angels

You may have seen the first of a 2-part series by Prof. Richard Dawkins on Channel 4, The Root of All Evil?, last Tuesday. The second part is this Tuesday, I think, and I was waiting until I'd seen it to comment. However, reading one of Johann Hari's latest articles in praise of the show has prompted me to comment a little bit early.

There are two things I want to address - one I've mentioned before (that bugs the crap out of me) and another more metaphysical argument. The first is the oft-repeated claim made about the Catholic Church condemning thousands of Africans to death due to it's opposition to the use of condoms. One more time, nice and slowly!: The Catholic Church preaches abstinence before marriage, no contraception and fidelity to your spouse. Personally I don't want to live by those values, but one's opinion on them is irrelevant to the argument.

If people lived their lives according to those values, there would be no AIDS crisis anywhere on the planet. Logic dictates that the disease would not proliferate at anything approaching it's current levels in Africa (or anywhere else). If such notions of relationships were adhered to, then the victims of AIDS would die quicker than the disease would spread (notwithstanding the other, infinitely rarer instances of contracting HIV through non-sexual means). But African people (men) are not living their lives according to such conservative rules, hence it is hypocritical to cherry-pick one aspect of doctrine and hold it up to the world as being the cause of the HIV explosion in Africa.

The liberal lefties, like Hari, that bang-on on this point never criticise African men for the way they treat women as second-class people and virtually as sex-slaves in many parts of that continent (because saying such things is probably racist in their eyes). To be blunt, you can't leave your wife, go off and nail a prostitute or two, catch an infection, pass it on to your wife and any children you might have, then turn around and blame the church for saying you couldn't use a condom while shagging said prostitute to avoid picking up an infection.

Hari also highlights Dawkins' quoting of the philosopher Bertrand Russell who basically said that if he claimed there was a small china tea-pot orbiting the sun that we can't see then it would be impossible to prove him wrong, but it would clearly be ridiculous. This is an attack on the agnostic, which I consider myself to be. Frankly for a 'great' philosopher it is a rubbish analogy. I can comprehend a china tea-pot and for that matter I can comprehend objects orbiting the sun. Also, for another matter, it is theoretically possible for man to make a china tea-pot orbit the sun if he so wishes. The point about a God-figure is that it must be, by definition, something beyond the comprehension of mortal men.

It is easy to cherry pick straw-men arguments about lunatic God-botherers making absurd statements of certainty, or to pick ludicrous passages in the Bible, Koran or wherever. But these are the writings of man (despite claims they are the word of God) - they are within our comprehension. Proving them wrong or presenting them as fools offers no further clues to our existence - atheism remains a belief system - one grounded in logic, reason and the proveable, but ultimately a belief system until we can know everything we do not yet know. The agnostic, on the other hand, accepts that the origins of our universe and our being and whether or not there is a reason for that existence cannot be proven with certainty (and is not likely to be). Therefore any belief system is a belief built on a certain degree of blind faith.

In my opinion the burden of proof lies with the religious when they wish to use the certainties of their beliefs to restrict the freedom of others. Then it's open season as far as I'm concerned and I enjoy seeing them ridiculed as much as any atheist. However those that keep their beliefs personal (the silent vast majority) are under no burden of proof and should be respected by the atheistic, not attacked as being superstitious by Dawkins and his ilk. I choose to believe in a God because I figure that if I'm wrong I'll never know, whereas if I was to side with the non-believers, and be wrong, then I'd die and end up with Satan's hot poker up my ass! It's called hedging your bets.

The one challenge I have for atheists is to explain to me the logic behind any value system in a Godless universe. The answer 'humanism' is often given, but humanism is just a handy way out of an uncomfortable thought process. Besides, humanism is just the Christianity of the New Testament with references to JC removed. We are an animal species and it is not possible for any entire species to strive for and reach shared goals in harmony in a world of limited resources. So, without belief in an ultimate reward for working to a greater common good, there is no logical reason for being 'humanist'. The fact is, there is no value system to be derived from atheism but, for me, the fact that humans have consciousness and consciences implies a... reason... for our existence.

And to Dawkins specifically, being so utterly convinced of your atheism and, by extension, your finite existence; expending your energies arguing the toss with people about their faith, when the lack of proof is why it is called faith, seems like an incredible waste of your pretty limited time.

That was way longer than I originally intended.
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