Monday, December 6, 2010

What Atheists & Religious People Don't Know About Each Other

Atheists, Secular Humanists, Non-Theists -- whatever it is that I am and others like me are -- are an incredibly diverse group when it comes to how we view religion and how we view ourselves. Most Christians and Muslims -- and probably other religions -- don't realize there is such diversity among Atheists in terms of how we view people of faith, how we do (or do not) congregate or work together, etc.
  • There are some Atheists actively trying to encourage people to abandon their religions, but a lot, and maybe most, are like me -- we're not.

  • Some Atheists join an association (or even more than one) of people who also do not believe in invisible friends, but the vast majority do not.

  • There's no one spokesperson or one organization for Atheists. There are lots of outspoken Atheists and there are a log of organizations for such. But not only are most Atheists a member of an Atheist group -- they don't even know about Atheists pundits, bloggers, etc.

  • Some Atheists would never walk into a church or mosque for a religious service; some Atheists are happy to observe such (I do -- I find it interesting, even when I disagree with some, most or all of what is said).
As I said in my very first blog here: While I wouldn't mind at all being responsible for turning people of away from fundamentalist religious beliefs that promote things like the enslavement and oppression of women, that cultivate hatred of gays, that discourage an understanding of science, that encourage revisions of history to be kinder to their religious beliefs despite the facts, etc., I'd be perfectly content if those folks didn't abandon religion altogether and, instead, all became oh-so-tolerant and reasonable Universal Unitarians, Sufi Muslims, adherents to Confucianism, etc. In my experience, those people who believe there are many paths to a god or gods tend not to block the teaching of scientific principles like biological evolution and plate tectonics, tend not to encourage gay teens to kill themselves, and tend not to tell women who have HIV positive husbands that they are forbidden from using condoms, and I really appreciate them for that. We can co-exist quite well.

The discovery at Mono Lake, California of what is apparently an entirely new form of life -- a bacteria based on toxic arsenic rather than phosphorus, one of the six building blocks of all life on Earth -- has set many abuzz. It's a confirmation of biological evolution -- of biological adaptability -- and the discovery has LONG been predicted (I can't count how many times it's been talked about as only-a-matter-of-time on oh-so-many science shows I've watched), either on our own planet in some extreme environment (which is exactly what happened) or on another planet. For a religious person who doesn't believe the Earth is flat, who doesn't believe the Sun goes around the Earth, and who doesn't believe the Earth was created in six days and is just a few thousand years old, this discovery is not a challenge to their faith at all: they don't see science as in opposition to their faith in some kind of conscious meaning behind the universe, because they don't take their religious scriptures literally. Like Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit at the Vatican Observatory, (the Catholic Church has, thankfully, accepted the teachings of Galileo and other scientists they formerly persecuted); he wrote this in an email to a religious blog: "Any scientific discovery that broadens our knowledge of creation, deepens our understanding of the Creator." That's not a person I worry about trying to keep science out of schools, who is going to use religion to shut down scientific discovery and innovation entirely (although what his views are on stem cell research would probably make me shudder, so let's not go there).

A lot of Atheists don't know that there are Christians or Muslims or other religious adherents like this -- people who believe in science, including evolution, that don't see faith in an invisible friend and science as enemies, and think scientific discover and innovation are just dandy. Those Atheists don't know this for two reasons: because so many newspaper and television reporters and producers get comments from only extreme and/or fundamentalist religious folks, and because many science-adhering religious folks do not speak out in support of science.

Maybe this latest news can encourage religious folks who support the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment to speak out, now and in the future, about the importance of science education and exploration? Myself and many other atheists would welcome that!

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