Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Tyranny of the Majority

Our job was to select someone to speak for everybody. And I just couldn't in good conscience vote for a person who doesn't believe in God. Someone who honestly thinks the other 95 percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion. -Contact

In yesterday's entry, I mentioned that personally finding religion silly, superstitious nonsense is difficult to reconcile at times with people I love and consider intelligent human beings. The above quote from the only mainstream Hollywood movie (as far as I can recall) to celebrate atheism and science over religion (don't think so? Go back and watch it again) illustrates the difficulties non-believers have. We're badly outnumbered. It may not be 5% here in the U.S. (I think it's more like 15%), but there still aren't a whole lot of us to go around. If we decided to create and maintain relationships solely with people of like mind, we'd be pretty lonely.

Sometimes, this whole "majority rules" argument is used by theists as proof for their cause. After all, billions of people can't be wrong! There must be something out there to cause this kind of dedication and faith. Well, this theory sure would be a lot stronger if everyone believed the same thing. If 99% of the world were Jehovah's Witnesses, then I'd probably seriously re-think my atheism. But it's not.

There are a plethora of different faiths, all saying different things. Only one of them can be right. Heck, even within major religions, the differences are stark. Mormons and Catholics are both Christians, after all, but if Joseph Smith rose from the dead, went to the Vatican, and knocked on the Pope's door, hand-in-hand with Jesus Christ, I'm thinkin' His Holiness pretends he just went out for a carton of milk.

Then there's the argument that many great scientists and intellectuals believed in God. Well, before the 18th century or so, the Catholic church was pretty good at making sure science didn't get in the way of their religion. Galileo was put under house arrest for having the rocks to suggest the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. But even if lots of smart people did (and do) believe in God, that doesn't prove anything.

By the way, Einstein is used by both sides in this debate. Here's part of the text of a letter written toward the end of his life. Draw your own conclusions:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

Of course, Einstein's lack of faith doesn't prove there is no God anymore than hundreds of millions of impassioned Indians proves the existence of Ganesh (by far my favorite religious deity. To quote Apu: "Please do not feed my God a peanut"). You can't prove a negative. But simply to say, "Well, so many people believe in something, it must be true" doesn't follow Occam's razor, either.

So, why? Why do so many people believe in a higher power? Well, speaking of Occam's razor, how about another Contact quote:

So what's more likely? That an all-powerful, mysterious God created the Universe, and decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or, that He simply doesn't exist at all, and that we created Him, so that we wouldn't have to feel so small and alone?

We humans feel many natural impulses that the existence of God helps to assuage.

We are the only creatures who understand that we will all die one day; understandably, we are anxious about that fact. We want to be assured that death isn't the end, and that we'll meet up with all the people who have passed on before us. Believing that makes their passing more bearable. But it doesn't make it true.

We want to believe there's someone on our side, someone looking out for us, someone we can ask for help when times are hard. It's much harder to accept that we're on our own. However, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, "The truth doesn't change according to our ability to stomach it."

We can't possibly understand the complete majesty of the universe around us, so we attribute it to a sky wizard. I couldn't hope to explain how an Iggy Pop song from 30 years ago is able to fly through the air wirelessly and come out of my computer speakers 10 seconds later via iTunes, but that doesn't mean God did it.

Back to the original quote: Do I believe that religious people are suffering from a "mass delusion"? No. With the exceptions of people who actually believe God speaks to them/through them, most believe for the reasons I mentioned above, and also for the single biggest one: It's the way they were raised.

I also don't believe people of faith are stupid as a rule (although many, many are), just because they don't ask the same sort of questions (or at least come to the same conclusions) I do. I believe that they are human and desire the comfort, assurance, and tradition that comes with believing in a higher power. Although I don't agree, I can't fault them for doing what seems natural to them.

I was once told by an angry Christian woman to "believe in something!" It is tough to deal with all the questions and uncertainty that being a non-believer can bring. Yet it's also freeing in a way. We only have to worry about the here and now. We don't spend time worrying about things that we can't explain or are out of our control, like what happens to us when we die. I would love to explain my philosophy in my own words, but a few years back I read this passage by Jon Krakauer at the end of his amazing book Under the Banner of Heaven, and I said to myself, "Yes. This is exactly how I feel." He explains it much more eloquently than I ever could. If you'll allow me one more quote:

There are some ten thousand extant religious sects -- each with its own cosmology, each with its own answer for the meaning of life and death. Most assert that the other 9,999 not only have it completely wrong but are instruments of evil, besides. None of the ten thousand has yet persuaded me to make the requisite leap of faith. In the absence of conviction, I've come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life. An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain -- which doesn't strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.

And if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why -- which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive.


Sarah said...

I have avoided commenting on most religiously charged posts and arguments (except for Johnson, in which I just wanted clarification) because anything I say will sound completely self-centered and blasphemous.

That being said, I would like to speak out just a little with no desire to sway or educate you or other Atheists, but to affirm most of your thoughts and your beliefs (or lack thereof).

For starters, I was not raised in a religious household. I went to church voluntarily at the age of 16 and found a very safe and nice place to meet new people and gain new friends. After becoming a Christian and involving myself in church activities, I started noticing more and more hypocrisies. People were miserable and prayed for change, others were happy and prayed for consistency. This was my biggest issue. Who does God listen to?

Around the age of 19 I withdrew almost entirely from my "church family" and began researching and learning more about other religions and philosophies I had not heard of. It was there I realized Christianity wasn't the answer. To me, religion wasn't the answer at all. But, I still have faith. I see a clear distinction between practiced/organized religion and faith/spirituality. Does atheism allow for this at all, or is it purely thought process. To me, there are occurrences which cannot be explained both good and bad, this is where I derive my belief in something greater and larger than myself.

I don't say I'm a Christian anymore because I'm not. I would be detrimental to the name of the religion, just as the title Christian because detrimental to me. I don't want to be associated with religious nut jobs but I am not an atheist by a long stretch.

I agree with you on several of your points, although one major one I don't agree with is all religions saying that they are correct. Isn't Hinduism pretty open to other religious beliefs because that is where the person belongs at that time and in that life form?

Other than that, your experiences with the fanatical Christians aren't uncommon and I find highly disgusting. I appreciate your standings and agree that some religious people are of a lesser intelligence, but the majority of them are lost and looking for something to blame or hope for and found it in God (or Vishnu).

Nolan said...

It might not surprise you that I'm not a big fan of "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual," although the way you've explained it makes more sense than most. I don't believe that because we can't explain something, there must be a God. I'm ok with not knowing.

But I liked your comment and don't think you sound self-centered or blasphemous.

And congrats on the little one. We will soon be sharing stories.

HurricaneSarah09 said...

Thank you for the further explanation on your the spiritual vs. religious standpoint. Most Atheists I know seem to be pretty cool with that, however few and far between they are. I also meant to clarify, I'm totally cool and respect an Atheists ideas. I don't agree, but again, it's up to them.

And congratulations to you as well! It's so exciting that you are having a boy! I want a boy so badly but have this feeling that I will be having a girl. Also, we aren't finding out the sex, so lots of green is in our future.

Eileen was apparently friends with my step-sister (who gave birth 2 months ago) and went to Davis with Mandy's husband. Do you know Schyler as well? Anyway, I thought it odd because I knew you went to high school with Rena and Mandy, but then seeing your wife's connection I found rather humorous.

All that being said, great writing, I like your ideas, and I look forward to reading the next!