Monday, March 24, 2008

I will choose my own way

In a womb – somewhere on earth, sometime in history – a small baby grows. Its tiny, pink hands float freely in the surrounding fluid; its small head rests gently against the uterus. Only a few hours are left before it is born.

Suddenly the small body stirs, and in its mind ghostly faces appear around it. Some of the faces are kind, some are frightening. They stare at the baby, silent and solemn.

After a few moments one of the faces, a man with a beard, moves forward and in a slow, deliberate voice says:
“Little one, when you enter this world you will be expected to follow Allah. Because you are female you will, when you grow up, cover your entire body in public, and your only desire will be to serve your husband. You will have no choice, because you have, by the very fact of your birth, inherited our religion.”

A second face, a black one this time, moves forward:

“Little one, because you will grow to be a Xhosa male you will go to initiation school to be circumcised in order to enter manhood. You will follow all our traditions, because you have, by the very fact of your birth, inherited our culture. You have no choice.”

A white, angry face interrupts:

“Because you are black you will, for the rest of your life, serve yo
ur white masters. Sadly, you will never have the intelligence to rise above the tribalism of your race, you will never have the ability to govern your own affairs. By the very fact of your birth, you will become the very stereotype that we have imposed upon your race. You have no choice.”

Another face speaks up:
“Little one, because your skin is white you will always be expected to feel guilt for the evils of the slave trade, colonialism, and apartheid. Your race has been responsible for much suffering, and by the very fact of your birth, you have inherited the sins of your forefathers. You have no choice.”

A man’s face, full of kindness, smiles and says:

“Son, I’m so proud to be your father. You will grow up as I did, and as my father before me. You will play baseball, and will excel in mathematics. You will follow the family tradition and become a successful lawyer. You have no choice son, because by the very fact of your birth, you have inherited the responsibilities that come with the privilege of carrying our family name.”

Suddenly, more and more faces make their demands, and soon their voices blend into a cacophony of unintelligible sound.


The baby stirs its little feet, and within its mind it shouts:

“Please, stop!”

The faces are quiet for a moment, and the baby addresses the crowd from within its mind:

“Why do you demand so much from me? Look at me for a moment, will you? All that I have inherited are two sets of chromosomes that will determine my physical attributes. But in terms of your beliefs, traditions, culture, and religion – I have inherited nothing. Those things do not currently form any part of me; thus I have no obligation to pay homage to them in any way.

“I can’t understand why are you so eager to mould me to according to your expectations, or why I must carry the burden of your fears and desires? Is it fair that I be a victim of the pain, mistrust and guilt that you caused in the world before I existed? Would it not be better for me to represent a new beginning instead?

“Why do you think you have ownership over me somehow? This is my body, my mind, and my future. You own no part of me. My genes determine what I am, but the only agent that will choose who I become is me, and me alone.

“You can teach me your creeds, culture and traditions, and instruct me on what to wear, who to love, how to live. You can even condition me to act according to some racial or gender related stereotype. But I am the one who will one day make that final decision whether to live by your expectations. I do have a choice, and you can’t make that choice for me.”

The baby pauses as the first spasms of labour shiver through the womb. As the faces, now expressionless, fade away, the baby tenses in preparation for its birth into an unknown time, place and culture; and one final thought lingers in its mind:

“I’m sorry, but I will choose my own way.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

No to an atheistic world

I’m an atheist, but I would never want to live in an completely atheistic world.

In this informal debate with Daniel Dennett, Alister McGrath opens by describing the ‘crisis of confidence’ that seems to be sweeping atheism. According to McGrath, atheist organisations are worried sick about the rise of superstition in society; there is a whiff of panic amongst atheists, a loss of faith of some sorts amongst unbelievers because – despite atheism’s aim to eradicate faith – religion is still on the rise. A similar theme threads its way through McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, in which he argues that atheism has had its day in the sun, and is currently on the decline.

As an atheist, am I experiencing a crisis of confidence? Well, the answer is no. There are two premises that form the basis of McGrath’s argument: (1) that the goal of atheism is to eradicate religion, and (2) that atheists somehow measure the legitimacy of their beliefs according to the influence that those beliefs have on society. My own beliefs are not dependant on these two points.

First, I don’t want to live in a society that is totally atheistic. It will be pretty boring if everyone believed as I did. There will be no debate, no counter arguments, no learning. I would hate to live in a world where only one idea reigns supreme, even if it is an idea that I hold dear. So what kind of change do I, as an atheist, want to see in society? Despite what McGrath might say, I don’t want to destroy religion. I believe that religion can contribute positively to society in many ways, and I’m not that na├»ve to believe that the removal of religion will usher in some sort of utopia for humanity. Rather, all I want – in the words of Dale McGowan in this interview – is to live in a world where being an atheist is totally fine, where non-belief is no longer a issue in the minds of others. I want to work towards a society where I can be accepted for who I am, not for what I believe.

Second, my non-belief is not dependent on the strength or influence of atheism worldwide. It can be argued that the recent surge of atheism – which some have termed “The New Atheism” – is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the unhealthy growth of religious power in the Muslim world and the United States. In a few years religion’s power in politics might decrease, and as a response vocal atheism will decrease also. Even if the number of atheists decline, I’m not worried, as my own beliefs regarding the supernatural are not dependent on the number of people who believe as I do. Rather, my beliefs are based on the fact that many religious claims do not seem to match what we observe in the world around us. Even if I was the only atheist left alive, and everyone else were theists, this wouldn’t change the fact that we can’t empirically detect demons and angels; that conception does not usually occur with one set of chromosomes; and that people don’t usually rise from the dead.

I’m not saying that McGrath is wrong here. There might be some hostile atheists who would like to see the eradication of religion, and there might be even fewer who are actively working to reach this goal. I hope that these atheists will never rise to power. If I’m ever brave enough, I will be one of the first to stand up against them if they do.

Return to Twilight of Atheism index page

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Morality: are God's commandments really needed?

If you are a parent, and your child asks you why she/he should not steal, how do you respond? What would be your answer? I was listening to this interview with Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, a book for non-religious parents on how to raise ethical and caring children outside of religion. He presents the following example that outlines how parents teach their children about morality. If a child asks why it is bad to steal another child's lunch, parents will probably ask the child two questions:

  1. How would you feel if someone stole your lunch, son; and
  2. What would the world be like if everyone stole each other's lunch?

The first question relates to the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated; the second question emphasises the fact that no person is an island: the survival of each individual is dependent on a society that functions, and there are various types of behaviour - those that should be avoided - that threaten the well-being of society.

McGowan points out that he has never heard a religious parent tell her/his child the following: “I have no idea why you should not steal another child's lunch, but I do know that God commands us not to steal.” In other words, religious and non-religious parents always explain the reasons why a child should be good, but religious parents are the only ones who add the additional, and seemingly pointless, coda at the end: “. . . and God does not want us to steal.”

This raises an interesting point: if humans already know the reasons why we should be moral (reasons covered by the two questions above), then why do we need God's commandments at all?