The first person to seriously teach me about evolution was a creationist. I say this in all seriousness, using a non-ironic sense of the word “teach”. This creationist was my 7th grade science teacher, who for the purposes of this essay, we’ll call Ms. Science. I went to a small school, so Ms. Science taught science courses for grades 6, 7, and 8, and 7th grade was the year we studied “Life Science”. An appropriately large portion of the course was dedicated to teaching us the principles of evolution, and we learned it straight out of the textbook. There was nothing to indicate that our teacher didn’t wholeheartedly believe everything she was teaching, and I ended the year with a decent (for a 7th grader) understanding of evolutionary theory.
This was our textbook, in case you’re curious.
Hypatia’s student, Orestes, urges her to leave the rest of the scrolls behind as the Christians destroy what remains of the Library of Alexandria.
A few days ago a friend of mine introduced me to a film he cleverly describes as “the atheist’s Passion of the Christ” – Agora. This Spanish-made 2009 film tells the story of Hypatia, the great philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who researched and taught in Alexandria, and the film deals with the relationship between religion and science/learning.
The year is 391 A.D., and the Christians of Alexandria are causing unrest by defiling the gods of the ruling pagans. The pagans, against Hypatia’s urgings, attack the Christians but then find themselves outnumbered and are beaten back. They take refuge in the Serapeum, the temple to the Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis, which also housed an offshoot collection of the great Library of Alexandria (which was destroyed before this time, although the date of its destruction is unknown). The pagans, Hypatia among them, are besieged in the temple for a time. All the while, Hypatia is looking at the sky, trying to figure out the mysteries of the heavens, namely why the “wanderers” – the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – move as they do; as one of her students suggests, the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which places the wanderers on epicycles moving around the Earth, seems too “whimsical”, and there must be a simpler answer.
(This continues my last post: How I Became an Atheist)
My high school apologetics class dealt with its subject matter as rigorously as any other class I took there. The purpose of the first unit was to clarify for us the concept of God, to get a look at the idea’s nuts and bolts and figure out exactly what is meant by “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We started with the most basic apologetic arguments for deism: arguments for god as First Cause and Ground of All Being, on the grounds that rejecting this hypothesis leads to the the dilemma of positing an eternal Universe or an infinite regress of causes. Once a theologically precise definition of God had been established, we went on to see what followed from this definition and what could be inferred about God from the world, as well as examining the evidence for the divinity of Jesus and the reliability of the Bible. It was all interesting material, but I found it abjectly unconvincing from the start. While I came into the class as an agnostic deist, this exposure to a rigorous analysis of what I kept telling myself I believed was enough to push me over the edge into full-blown Strong Atheism (the positive belief that there is no God). In this post, I’ll explain why I find even the most basic conception of God philosophically untenable.
For starters, my parents were both Catholic, and I was brought up in the Catholic Church. I went to a Catholic school and attended Mass regularly throughout my childhood. Initially, I found the whole religion thing boring; I insisted on bringing a book to church, to read for pleasure while the rest of the congregation was doing whatever it was people came to church to do. When I got older, however, I learned more about the meaning of the Mass and the symbolism and the history behind it all, and I became really enthusiastic about being a part of the Church. On some level, I believed I was a devout Catholic, but of course all I’d heard of Church doctrine was the watered-down Veggie Tales version that they teach to elementary school kids. In any case, it was more of an identity; I hadn’t really thought through the implications of what I ostensibly believed. Catholicism was the default at home and school, so I ran with it for a while.
I was raised in a Muslim family. I was never a particularly “good” or devout Muslim and I rarely practiced Islam, but I more or less espoused a belief in God and the tenets of the religion, and generally used this to guide my opinions about morality.
My path to atheism began when I was a junior in high school (though I did not realize it until after I became an atheist). Throughout high school, I was interested in a career in politics, and in the fall of junior year I had just returned from a summer camp geared towards students interested in politics. Instead of being excited by the experience, I became rather disillusioned; one of the things we did there was nightly debates on all sorts of political issues, and I became disillusioned by how entrenched people were in their political opinions, how people stick to their positions even if it means making fallacious arguments, and how the mining of facts and statistics to support a position trumps the search for what is actually the case.
This was not for me. Something in the fabric of my being told me that there was something that everyone was missing out on, and that the endless ideological charlatanism of partisan politics was obscuring what was actually the case. I did not want to end up like everyone else; I did not want to argue for positions unless I could have a high degree of assurance that they were true, and I thirsted for an intellectual setting where people value truth over ideology.
Words are hard. Hard to understand, hard to use properly, and hard to control once they’re out there. Those of you who know me personally have heard me say this, and I certainly believe it, but even I often don’t realize just how powerful and dangerous words can be. Words are powerful because they represent reality, and they are dangerous because – and you might want to write this down – words are not reality. They have no meaning apart from the ideas they convey, and they have no importance apart from the actions they inspire. Ignorance of this fact is, I think, the biggest problem behind the whole Bill Maher thing. I was bothered at first that people wouldn’t stop talking about it, because I don’t think it’s important, but the controversy has given me the opportunity to clear up something that I think is important.