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Another Day, Another Dragon

Some days, I hate writing about atheism. I want to tell you why.

Two weeks ago, I was watching a PBS show called Inside Nature’s Giants, about a team of biologists dissecting a sperm whale that died after beaching itself on a British coast (this involved heavy machinery and a chain saw, if you were curious). Richard Dawkins took part in the program, although he wasn’t among the scientists wading in whale viscera on the shore. In cutaway shots, he explained the evolutionary significance of the anatomical structures the dissecters were pointing out and the marvelous adaptations that whales have for deep-diving, like hinged ribs that allow the chest cavity to collapse harmlessly under the enormous pressure of ocean depths.

Dawkins has become so well-known as an advocate for atheism, it’s easy to forget that he was a scientist and a popularizer first and foremost. But when you see him talking about science, it’s much easier to remember. There’s an almost tangible joy and wonder in his voice, a manner which says clearly that even after a lifetime of study, he finds these things as amazing and enthralling as someone learning it for the first time. It comes through in his writing as well; I remember the happy summer day I spent in the park a few years ago reading most of The Ancestor’s Tale, still one of my favorite science books.

But as much as I enjoy reading about it, I don’t often write about pure science myself. I spend a lot more time taking up arms against the latest religious outrage against human values – something I’ve been spending a lot of time doing these past few weeks, whether it’s Muslim mobs assaulting free speech, Haredi Jews pushing women out of the public sphere, anti-choice Christians trying to cut off access to reproductive health care, or any of the thousands of other examples I could recite.

I hate that it’s necessary to have these fights. Even if we always won, which we obviously don’t, there are so many more interesting things we could be talking about – so many real, fascinating, important problems we could be solving – that we’re not addressing because the endless battles over antiquated superstition distract us and consume our time and energy. We could be talking about leapfrogging the electric grid by bringing distributed solar to rural India; we could be talking about using genomics to create individually tailored cures for cancer; we could be programming self-driving robot cars; we could be building more observatories to search for habitable extrasolar planets. It’s not that no one is talking about or working on these things – but think how much more progress we could be making, if only all the resources and the devotion that are presently being poured into religion were put to more meaningful ends.

I believe that the human race has an amazing future ahead of it. But if we’re going to get there, the last thing we need is people putting obstacles in our path. Instead, we’re repeatedly seeing these depressingly predictable stories about believers doing just that: pompous old men preaching doctrines from the dark ages who think their moldering books hold all the knowledge we’ll ever need; mobs of ignorant maniacs screaming that it violates their religious freedom to see or hear anything they disagree with; the millions who think the most important problem we have to worry about is what consenting adults do with their genitals. These bad ideas are like dragons – ugly, venomous serpents coiling and hissing, keeping us from getting at the treasures they guard.

I’d like to write about these other things, but this fight is important. It’s secularism against theocracy, the free intellect against dogmatism, conscience against barbarity, the future against the past. Like it or not, it’s one of the defining struggles of our time. And there are many decent, well-intentioned people who don’t want to confront the full scope of the problem, who turn their gazes from it or try to paper it over with soothing platitudes. (Or worse, they claim that we, the people who are pointing out the problem, are the ones who started it all, and everything would be fine if we’d just be quieter and more respectful.)

Whatever technological or scientific advances we make, humanity won’t be truly enlightened, and won’t inherit a peaceful future, until we kick off the religious shackles that have been holding us back; until we overthrow the supernatural beliefs that teach people to fear science, to oppress women, to rule by dogma rather than by reason. I’m not saying that religion is the sole cause of every evil we suffer, but I am saying that we have no chance of ridding ourselves of many of those evils until humanity is less religious. That’s why we have to fight against religion. Of course, the battle has to be waged by peaceful persuasion, otherwise we betray the very ideals we’re trying to uphold – but it does have to be waged.

I’m not saying that it’s always a thankless slog. Activism has its rewards, not least of which is that it feels good to fight on the side of right. In a way, I relish the opportunity to defend my ideals, which I’m certain are the best ones; and even if we have to fight the same battles over and over, it seems we’re winning them more and more often. We shouldn’t have to be fighting them at all, but I look forward to a day when that will in fact be the case, and I hope I can contribute, in some small way, to bringing that day a little closer. So, when I hear about some new theocratic bully making headlines, some new religious pressure campaign against knowledge or human rights, I get outraged – but then I pick up my sword and shield, and go out to slay another dragon.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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