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Unreasonable people have access to cars and guns?

April 14, 2009

One of the humanist bloggers I read quite regularly posted a blog entry entitled The Most Inhuman Statement Ever?, in which he’d posted about how he couldn’t understand how someone could post an incredibly ignorant, hateful and hurtful response to a poll. While having a conversation via the comments to the blogpost, he asked (and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing it here):

If we want to reduce the number of criminals in the world, shouldn’t we be screening for this person, early in life and finding a way to reach their humanity?

I started to respond with another comment that again I realised was large enough to both make an unwieldy comment and a useful blog post of my own. So here we are, with a reply that became a standalone blog post…

I completely understand your despair and the reasons for your questions. But as a fellow humanist, you probably recognise that part of the nature of humanity is varying beliefs, approaches to problems and ways of dealing with situations. For us secular humanists, and therefore typically atheists, there rises the popular statement:

Whenever there are 2 atheists in a room you will typically find at least 3 opinions.

And of course what we may allow ourselves to think or say — particularly on the Internet with its (mistaken) assumption of anonymity and no risk of being smacked in the mouth for it — does not necessarily relate to the actions we allow ourselves to take. There are exceptions, of course, to every rule.

It’s been my experience that up to a certain age most people are simply spouting the beliefs and bigotry of their parents, and aren’t reasonably and rationally responsible for them. Then they reach an age where they are forming their own view of the world and those beliefs and opinions are either challenged and replaced, or solidified. It’s at that point, I think, that a person truly becomes liable for their beliefs and opinions. However, you still have the gap between thought/speech and action.

After all, I may think that all religions and their apologists/colluders have deliberately retarded the development and progress of mankind, and have in many (but not all) cases been immense forces for harm, but other than words it’s extremely unlikely I’d take any direct action — except whenever those people regularly try to use the system of government to force their religious dogma onto me. My inaction is not because I’m cowering in the corner, but because I recognise that Homo sapiens babies are born completely dependent on their parents — due to brain size, early development, motor skills, etc — and therefore to unquestioningly accept whatever our parents tell us, and is an instinct that enables us to survive long enough to reach young adulthood. And the things our parents typically tell us include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Don’t touch that fire!
  • A fat bloke on a sleigh visits each year.
  • That animal is dangerous!
  • The sky wizard will take us to heaven if we’ve been good.
  • This is how we make a shelter.
  • The sky wizard will evilly torture us forever if we make a mistake.
  • This is how we hunt for food.

And so on. But unfortunately some of us never re-evaluate those stories, as many people do not truly attempt to think for themselves. Perhaps because that is a deliberate attempt to question what we’ve already been told is fact, and constitutes a thought-crime or doubt of the established authority?

Looking at my own background, I’ve gone from a credulous child to a fervent believer to agnostic and have now settled as a secular humanist. I may or may not be representative of humanity as a whole, but I’m pretty certain that had someone with a well thought out rationale tried to foist reality onto me in the middle of my fervent believing, I’d have laughed in their face. (As I did with the many poorly thought out rationales). And today I recognise that arguing with true believers is ultimately a futile exercise until they reach the point in their journey when they begin to realise that the questioning voice in their head isn’t Satan (as most are taught to regard the voice that questions religious authority), but rather their natural curiosity demanding to know why it’s been shut away while the believer rides the emotionally-intoxicating roller-coaster addiction that is fervent belief.

Every believer comes to that point somewhere in their journey, and it’s then that those of us based in reality need to be there to provide support and establish dialogue. Not least because they’ll have also coincidentally realised that there is no reason for their being — they are purely a cosmological accident whereby a few billion cells have collectively agreed to be them for a while — no more and no less. And that’s another reason why religious belief is so popular — it makes us feel warm and cosy in the belief that we are special. This also explains why early scientists had such a hard time of things when their discoveries were made: they represented a gradual understanding that neither mankind (and their religious leaders), Earth nor its Solar System was in any way remotely special, except that there is life here in the Goldilocks Zone. The much later realisation that there were other galaxies beyond our own was another nail, and then the discovery that our Solar System was far out on an unimportant arm of our own galaxy simply sealed the coffin.

I think it’s this realisation of the total and utter insignificance of mankind that represents the biggest fear of religious believers. It’s not that we’re not the centre of the universe — as our monstrous, primitive egos would have us think — but that we just don’t matter. Once that is truly understood, it creates both an existential dilemma for those who are new-to-thinking and puts all our petty tribal wars and power-mongering into perspective. We’re not fighting for Right or Wrong, Good or Evil, the side of God versus his Enemy… we’re just angry little ape-descendants flinging increasingly-advanced forms of dung at each other.

But that’s not cause for despair.

Whenever I step outside to watch the International Space Station pass by overhead (see the ISS section at Heavens-Above), I feel intense awe and pride at knowing that in that shiny sardine tin flying 190 miles overhead sits a number of those angry little ape-descendants on the baby steps to exploring and populating the Solar System and — given time and the chance to mature as a species without an advanced-dung-induced catastrophe — we may even survive long enough to explore and populate our nearest neighbouring Solar System, and perhaps beyond that.

Isn’t it amazing?

Isn’t that enough?

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