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Another blog?? And here’s introducing…

6 January 2009

Welcome to Hurtling Through Space.

Why this particular name? I wanted to call the site something like “Pale Blue Dot” — a reference to the legendary Carl Sagan‘s awesome use of NASA’s Voyager I spacecraft in 1990 to take a photograph of earth from almost 4 billion miles away, the pale blue dot…

Pale Blue Dot

…to illustrate how mind-blowingly insignificant the angry, self-destructive little bipedal species we call Homo sapiens are in the greater scheme of things, but as with all things in the realm of free (or cheap) Internet names… it was taken. So I thought to paraphase a stand-up line I heard many years ago into something that approximates the awe of the pale blue dot:

Earth is moving at 67,000mph around its star, and still people insist there’s no such thing as progress!

My main aim was to convey my awe at everything around us: the earth and everything on it, our solar system, our galaxy and what we can and understand of our universe, but I wanted to do it in such a way as to make it clear that we, as humans, are both special and insignificant. Special in that we are the only sentient, self-aware beings that we know of — at least in our neck of the galactic woods (or perhaps in our understanding of nature around us) — and insignificant in that this planet, this third rock from the Sun, is not the centre of anything meaningful or important. We have no special place in the universe, the universe does not revolve around us, neither physically nor metaphorically. It’s not a matter of belief; in fact, it’s the complete absence of any belief or dogma. It’s simply stating what we know as fact so far. This may sound paradoxical, or even insulting, especially if you are from a religious background, as indeed I am, and you may immediately recognise where I am going and wish to move along to a less challenging site. But I hope you don’t.

I am, among other labels, an atheist, but note the lowercase ‘a’ — I consider it important. It is a device that I use to simply illustrate that I am non-theistic but am understanding and compassionate of the billions of theistic people on the planet which, if statistics are anything to go by, you are probably one of them. I used to be, too, but that doesn’t really matter here — I’m not trying to convert you, and I’ll thank you to treat me with the same courtesy and respect.

Before I begin, let me make one thing clear: I might speak of various theistic and non-theistic positions, but they are my take on the particular topic. I do not speak for anyone other than myself, and nor do I pretend to — not even for atheists or other labels with which I identify. I am representative of me. This is a clarification that may come up in the future — as many debates and arguments often include the “You don’t speak for…” line, or variants of it — so don’t be surprised if I either point you to this post or ignore the attempt. I’ll also be mix-and-matching “God”, “god” and “gods” not in an attempt to inflame, but rather to neutralise any partisan positions, point out that one man’s God is another man’s Satan, and of course to illustrate that ALL theists are going to whatever hell you believe in as you are ALL heretics to someone else’s faith or interpretation of it — even sects within the same religion — and they ALL claim to be the final authority on such matters. Think of it as an exercise in humility or, preferably, a level playing field.

Some time ago I was trying to determine where my position was on religion and the hornet’s nest that surrounds it. For some time I called myself an agnostic (claiming that I didn’t know whether there was a God or not, so the only logically-correct position was neutrality), but gradually came to the realisation that an agnostic is someone who hasn’t really thought about it enough. By this I mean that I’d been avoiding the ‘a’ word: atheism. To many it is a subjective word that conjures up images or memories of iconclasts, god-deniers and intolerant, red-faced angry-shouty people who think that anyone who believes in fairy tales of any sort should be hanged, drawn and quartered. It’s true that those people do exist, I can’t and won’t deny it; however, I call those people hard atheists — or in moments of pedantry, just Atheists (note the capitalisation).

The ‘a-‘ in atheist denotes absence, or not, or without. For example: sexual and asexual reproduction, moral and amoral behaviour (a favourite of ad hominem and pro-theistic arguments), tonal and atonal, social and asocial, chromatic and achromatic, and so on. So you can see that atheist means the absence of belief, not the denial of belief. It is a truly neutral position that contrasts considerably with theists (who insist that the unseen and unproven is real, calling it faith) and the subset of atheists who consider the supernatural (in the literal sense) to be impossible; both are examples of dogma, having chosen a belief or a “side” over the facts. A truly a-theistic position is one that can and will change its view as new facts come to light — not in a “God of the gaps” manner as many religions treat scientific discoveries (i.e. where everything not understood by science belongs to religion, shrinking in size as our knowledge grows) — but objectively, without holding onto anything that has been disproven according to the best yardstick we have at our disposal so far: scientific method.

As an aside — and as an indicator of where the bar is — proof requires more than testimonials from rich, famous, important (or even lots of) people — it requires critical thinking while avoiding logical fallacies and cognitive biases. There is no middle ground on these points.

The other side to the hard atheist coin is what I call soft atheists — they tend to have the same intellectual position as hard atheists about the validity of religion, each religion’s sects and fragments, the actions of its followers, and its place in the world, but they tend to differ in the reaction to those points. A soft atheist is more likely to accept a theist’s position — or, perhaps more to the point, the theist’s right to that position — rather than a hard atheist, who may consider such discussion fruitless as they’re “dealing with someone who believes in fairy tales.” The soft atheist may feel the same about the theist they’re speaking to, but compassion tends to stop that becoming a show-stopper. A hard atheist may wish to rid the world of the scorge of religion, but a soft atheist may understand that it’s human nature to believe in something so, rather than try to beat it out with words, s/he seeks to engage and educate. It’s not so much that “theists are ignorant”, but rather it’s about understanding how much of our lives is affected by the contents or — more often — the interpretation of stories purportedly written anywhere from the Stone Age to the Medieval period, depending upon the religion.

This brings me to humanism (which typically refers to secular humanism). For me, humanism goes hand-in-glove with soft atheism, though there are as many different points or view and opinions within humanism as there are within even soft atheism. It probably varies based upon background (ethnic, family and socio-economic), education, exposure to science and religions, authority figures through life, personality, and individual goals. Humanism provides, among other things, an ethical framework around which non-theists can structure their approach to life. It is not an alternative religion, as that presumes that religion is the source of ethics and morality which, if you have critically examined any religious text, if most certainly not true. Such texts may contain examples and guidelines of such patterns of behaviour, but they also contain many examples of appalling crimes against humanity.

People are people, and neither religion nor the absence of it makes any difference to how we treat people. History has unequivocally proven this time and again.

And this brings me, in a roundabout way, to the various labels I use to address myself, depending upon who I am speaking to. In early 2008 I found an acronym that summed my perspective up almost perfectly: HASSNERS. It is as follows:

Humanist: Try to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.
Atheist: Affirm that, in all probability, god(s) do not exist, or at best it cannot be proven.
Scientific: Consider science and the scientific method is the best way to understand the world.
Secularist: Work towards the end religious privilege and discrimination.
Naturalist: The natural world is all we know for certain, and events have natural causes.
Ethical: Follow ethical standards worked out by man not by god(s).
Rationalist: Believe truth can be discovered by reason.
Skeptic: Suspend judgement as knowledge is rarely final and absolute.

Even if you are the most ardent theist — let’s say a right-wing neo-con Zionist Christian or a closet jihadi furiously hammering your keyboard every night in a chat room — you will undoubtedly see yourself in some of those points, even if the rest offends you. It’s because not everyone fits into a neat little pigeon-hole. Everyone is at least a little bit like just about everyone else. I’d say think of a Venn diagramme with a set for each individual trait known to mankind in it, but it makes my head ache too — you get my point, I’m sure.

Back to the point of this website. You now know how I view myself and, to some extent, the strength of my position. It’s my intention to post individual posts and links to other posts of interest. I’ll apologise up-front if a disproportionate number of them are posts of outrage or examples of theistic intolerance, and note that I’ll mix-and-match “God”, “god” and “gods”, but I promise I will endeavour to keep the balance. This balance is unlikely to take the form of examples of theistic puff-pieces, as you already know that is not a position I consider realistic or helpful, but I will try to make an environment that encourages your participation and thought.

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