I recently appeared on our local radio show “Charlotte Talks” along with Daniel Dennett and Ellen Johnson to discuss the recent rise of Atheism. Mike Collins was the host.
To listen to the show, click the link below:
Here is my write-up of the event:
Before the show
I arrived at Spirit Square, where Charlotte Talks is produced, much later than I planned to. The place was like a ghost town and I wasted a bunch of time trying to find the studio. Once I found it, there was nobody there and it was only 10 minutes before airtime. Finally the associate producer saw me and let me in. The host, Mike Collins, introduced himself and was soon busy talking with the producer and recording the promo for tomorrow’s show. I was little anxious, but I felt that I had prepared as best I could.
Synopsis of the Show
Question: Why are you an atheist?
I think I was a bit verbose during this segment, but I wanted to take the time to accurately explain what an atheists and agnostic is so that there would be no confusion. I tried to explain that Atheism deals with “belief” and that agnosticism deals with “knowledge”. I made the point that we are all technically agnostic with respect to god…
It was kind of funny when Ellen later referred to me as an agnostic. She must not have been listening very carefully because I clearly stated that I was an atheist.
I liked Daniel Dennett’s explanation (borrowed from Richard Dawkins) that we are all atheists with regards to Thor, Zeus, etc. and that he just goes “one god further”. His comment that many people, even ministers, don’t believe but continue to go to church anyway was interesting and took the host, Mike Collins, a little by surprise.
Question: Difficulty of Being an Atheist?
I don’t think I handled this question very well. I think the point I was trying to make was that it’s easy for religious people to identify themselves as believers. They say things like “I’m going to church”, “my church is doing this/that”, “thank god for ….”, “I’ll pray for you…”, etc.. But it’s harder for atheists to identify themselves without appearing as though they are deliberately trying to offend people. If we say something that supports evolution or explain to people why we don’t think prayer is useful, we are seen as being intolerant, etc.
I also didn’t make the case for why religion can be dangerous either. It’s hard to think on your feet…
Ellen made the point about how religious people don’t really care that atheists exist, they only care when we do something about it such as filing a lawsuit, speaking out, etc.
Question: Are some people atheists just because they don’t want to admit that there’s something bigger than themselves?
Daniel Dennett answered with a definitive yes” and went on to say that there also deeply religious people who are selfish. “There are selfish jerks in the world and religion doesn’t seem to cure them.” He did offer an olive branch by saying that “at its best religion can help restore a sense of humility and a sense of purpose to people who have lost track.” He thinks that, instead of ending religion, we should try to help it evolve into a more benign form and get rid of some of the irrationality.
Ellen sees this question as just another form of the same argument that atheists hear all the time from theists which is that being an atheist allows to you commit horrible acts since you don’t believe in a supreme being. She mentioned that Atheists aren’t known for a higher crime rate and that this type of question is just a way for theists to turn table away from themselves so they don’t have to explain their own behavior and crimes, etc.
Question: The laws of the US are predicated on Judeo-Christian values and the 10 commandments…
Before Mike could even complete the question Ellen and I interrupted. I made the point that of all the 10 commandments, only 3 are actually laws (murder, steal, false witness). Ellen went on to make the point that some of the 10 commandments actually directly contradict our bill of rights. For instance, the commandment to not take the lords name in vain violates our freedom of speech. Also, the commandment to have no god before me violates our right to freedom of religion.
Question: Where do we get our morals if not from religious beliefs?
Daniel Dennett answered this one in the first of many brilliant responses. He said that our morality comes from “the political consensus of reflective people” and that Christianity has evolved over the centuries by modifying its views on what constitutes a capital offense and so on.
Question: Is religion irrational?
“Religion says that it’s irrationally based!” says Daniel Dennett. “Of course it’s irrational. If you could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith”. Nice…
Question: Can you prove that there isn’t a god?
I made the point that the burden of proof isn’t on us since we’re not the ones making a positive fact claim.
Question: What if you’re wrong?
My response was “what if Christians are wrong about Islam?” They are risking their eternal soul for not believing in Allah. Everyone, whether religious or not, can be said to be taking some sort of risk. Ellen said “I’m willing to burn for my intellectual integrity.” She went on to talk about the problem of evil and asked “who wants to worship a god that allows that.” She went on to say that “anybody who was omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent would prevent any child from getting cancer” and “Humans take care of humans. We solve our problems. We improve the world or it doesn’t get done.”
Email Question: Atheist doesn’t talk about it at work. Daniel Dennett would call them a bright.
Daniel Dennett talked a bit about who the “Brights” are and that the term covers both atheists and agnostics. He stressed that you don’t have to shove you views in peoples faces, but that there are times when you should risk rudeness when someone says something outrageous about atheism. He says it’s still acceptable to call people “godless” and mean that in a negative tone. “Staying closet for many people is wise” especially if you’re a politician.
Question: Can you be an atheist and a politician at the same time?
Daniel Dennett replied “Sure but you just can’t admit it!” Next, I made the point that there is a double standard with regard to religious belief such that religion is off limits in conversation. As an example, I mentioned that if I said that the holocaust never happened, I would be pinned to the wall to explain my position and give evidence. But if I said that the Earth is 6000 years old because the bible tells me so, then that is off limits. It would be considered impolite to question me because that’s part of my religious belief.
Question: Why are people against that kind of conversation?
Daniel Dennett explained that the taboo over criticizing religion is just one of many adaptations that helped some religions evolve and thrive. If you can make people feel guilty about criticizing religion, then religion is more likely to survive. He finished by saying “Today’s religions are just the survivors of hundreds of thousand religions that have vanished without a trace. The ones that survived are the ones that had the best defense mechanisms built in to them.”
Telephone Question: Atheism is a religion. How do atheists rationalize pushing their religion on the rest of society by filing lawsuits that clear out the public square?
I jumped on this one first by defining what religion is and how atheism isn’t even close to being a religion. Religion involves the belief in a supernatural being which atheists don’t believe in. Atheists don’t have sacred objects or sacred texts. We don’t do ritual acts and we don’t get our morals from ancient religious texts. My last comment was “As far as lawsuits go… it’s called the constitution and the founding fathers were wise enough to create a secular constitution were there is a separation of church and state. America was built for everybody not just for specific interests.”
Question: Is religion an outmoded construct that should be retired from the field?
Daniel Dennett replied by observing that some religions are remarkably reasonable and open. His main example was the Unitarian/Universalists who provide fellowship, communion of spirit, good works and tradition. He said “If more religions could become like that I think that would be fine.” He noted that each of their principles is open to criticism and skepticism.
Question: Harm caused by religion?
I mentioned intelligent design and the general attack on science by religion. Daniel Dennett expressed concern over the end times/rapture push because it encourages people to not plan for the future and it licenses irresponsible policy.
Question: What do you think of the idea that you should live your life for the reward ahead (heaven)?
Daniel Dennett said hat’s an ignoble motivation and asked “how about just being good because you want to be good?”
Question: What is the motivation for a non-believer since there is no reward or punishment in the afterlife?
Daniel Dennett explained that you can be motivated to live up to an ideal set by people who inspire you including Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He said you don’t have to be religious to be inspired.
Email Question: What about teaching religion and moral philosophy in schools?
“Knowledge is the best protection against fanaticism” said Daniel Dennett. “Fanaticism thrives on the enforced ignorance of the young.” He made the point that any religion that can thrive under scrutiny deserves to thrive. Ellen brought up the point that the right-wing doesn’t what their children to be taught about other religions.
Question: Given the “perfection in nature” (i.e. Fibonacci sequence), how can you deny the existence of at least a master plan?
“The mathematics of the universe is eternal and doesn’t need to be created” said Daniel Dennett. Ellen added that it’s still not proof of a designer/creator.
Question: In the absence of a creator, is there a void in your life?
Here’s Daniel Dennett’s fantastic response: “But look how wonderful it is! Look at this great wonderful planet. It’s so beautiful and there’s so many wonderful things that thousands and millions of people have created over the centuries. There is a tremendous amount of goodness in this world and I, for one, am very grateful to be alive and I feel an obligation to give back to try to contribute to this wonderful stock of goodness that there is in the world. That’s enough.”
Ellen Johnson added that idea that when the theist’s lives come to an end, they fight to stay alive just like the rest of us. They have the will to live. “If they think that there is something more wonderful, more beautiful why is it that they resist death with everything they have. Because we know instinctually that there is nothing else.” She also stressed that “We don’t make the rules. We atheists aren’t making the rules. It is what it is.”
My final comment was “Atheists have the intellectual freedom to handle real world issues without having to reconcile an ancient theology. We realize that this is the only life we have and we better live it to the fullest.”
Looking back, I think I did “ok” for my first media appearance. Next time, if there is one, I need to try to make my points more short and concise and plan the main points I want to make in advance instead of just sticking to the questions asked. I also need to remember to mention Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics along with the web site URL.