Are you a closet atheist?

Posted on March 31st, 2008 in Culture,Religion by Robert Miller

I am what Richard Dawkins would call a closet atheist. That means I am an admitted atheist, but I don’t go around bragging about it. In fact, if possible, I avoid talking about the subject at all cost. I spent too much time in my youth going over and over this issue and I am a little weary of it: in the age of absolutism, it seems hard to change any minds or have meaningful discussions on this issue. The Socratic method of dialog died and with it went my interest in duscussing this almost pointless issue. But, there is a biological and an important cultural point of view to all this. In Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion,” he emphasizes how Darwin’s principle of natural selection offers a completely rational way of accounting for the seemingly most complex biological specializations we have identified. Some of these biological complexities, such as the rotor motor of bacteria or the vertebrate eye have been used in modern times by the “intelligent designers,” to infer the existence of God, as the master planner and designer. To me, the intelligent designers are the shills of religious dogma, reflecting the truly desperate religious fanatics who can’t live with science because they find it is encroaching on their religiosity: I certainly hope that’s true. But the science phobia of today is not doing America any great service. Dawkins’ point is that one could in fact, historically justify the concept of intelligent design right up until 1859, when Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was first published wherein he introduced the concept of natural selection as the means by which all biological complexities could arise and thereby be explained by evolution. Darwin in fact used the eye as an example of something that seemed to be of some intelligent design, but, on closer examination, one could find examples of progressive evolutionary steps along the phylogenetic tree from the simple, pinhole camera eye of Nautilus to the most sophisticated eye of raptors and primates. Dawkins’ excellent book on this topic, “The God Delusion,” sold 1.5 million copies in its first year of print. He is a fluid and flamboyant writer who infuses his writing style with the high enthusiasm he has for science and evolution and the popular issues of religion and atheism. Richard Dawkins is currently a professor at Oxford University where he holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. He is certainly our most famous and widely read atheist and a prominent secular humanist.

Most scientists that I know fall into the “closet” category of atheism, but I know few scientists who like to discuss the topic and many of them attend church or give nominal lip service to some sort of religious affiliation, for the purpose of belonging to ‘a larger social unit’ as it has been explained to me. The common scientific reaction to religion is that, because it is not a scientific issue, it is not proper to debate the matter as such. It’s neither possible to prove nor disprove the existence of God, therefore it is not an issue for science. But Dawkins wants the closet atheists to go another step. He asserts that, in the face of all the probabilities that God doesn’t exist, we should have denounced him as never having existed a long time ago. Science is in fact the process whereby we draw conclusions based on probabilities. Most things we think we know are probabilistic truths, like the structure of the atom, or the expansion and creation of the universe. We believe, with some evidence to support it, that our experiments and dialogs grow ever closer to the core nuggets of how things are organized and how they came about. I suspect that most religious people get the same satisfaction from the scientific explanations of things because either the Bible couldn’t address the issue or did so with completely erroneous derivations, like the age of the Earth and the fact that the Sun was supposed to revolve around the Earth, etc. Dawkins goes a step further. He asserts, that the probability of God’s existence is so minuscule, that the issue is like other probabilistic, scientific truths and we should treat it as such. Dawkins’ emphatic attitude about God as a scientifically valid issue of debate, when done on scientific terms, is beneficial not only to science but for society as a whole. Who could argue that, in America, the absence of a dialog about science within our political spectrum has allowed religion to gain an increasingly worrisome foothold and an expanding dominance in our culture. Would George Bush have invaded Iraq if he didn’t believe he was a prophet of God? I personally don’t think so, since religious convictions are the enemy of reason and that invasion was not supported by reason or logic.

Dawkins believes that raising children in a strict religious environment is a form of child abuse, since children are highly vulnerable to adult beliefs, as a spin off of their survivalistic gene pool behavior, which accepts adult beliefs as those that will provide the child with his/her best survival outcome. Religion becomes a vicious cycle, handed down from generation to generation, always taking advantage of the child’s vulnerability and apparent need to accept parental mores as their own adaptive strategy. Dawkins quotes polls which show that half the people in America look at the Bible as a literal document, which means that half the people in America haven’t read it. He goes on to conclude that the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (perhaps a fourth with Mormonism), all sharing a monotheistic core, have done and continue to do more to inflame the world and suppress the growth of their constituents along the lines that evolutionary biology intended for them, as hominids, to express a natural curiosity about the world and the environment around them. Religion completely suppresses these more natural tendencies. 9/11 brought home the extremism of religious indoctrination that serves to prepare people for martyrdom, with the understanding that they will be given lots of virgins in the life hereafter for their noble deed. So, in one little belief system, we have martyrdom and gender exploitation all wrapped up into one.

I believe that our instantaneous anti-communist lurch, right after WW II, beginning with the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the beginning of the Truman presidency, eventually became a kind of national religion: and, it did so through the indoctrination process of children, aided by scary stories about atomic bombs and nuclear threats, holding drills where children had to get underneath their desks, preparing them for incineration in a fetal-like position, something totally absurd and designed solely for the purpose of scaring them into alignment with the Godless communist red scare of that era. This transition (wholly unnatural as Russia had been a powerful ally in defeating Hitler), was created by a huge effort from a small number of adults to get the country re-oriented to view communism as the Godless threat that it was before the war. But, it was greatly intensified because Russia at the end of the war had become a world power. Though this cultural lurch started with adults, it quickly spread into the lives of our children and, within a generation or so, created a much more unified culture which denounced Godless communism with knee-jerk mentality, just as people swear that the Bible is a holy book, or God created the universe in six days.

Richard Dawkins has written many other famous and popular books, including “The Selfish Gene,” published in 1976. and “The Blind Watchmaker,” published in 1987. “The Selfish Gene” has been an endless source of discussion and controversy by placing the emphasis on the evolution of the gene pool rather than the organism. It’s like the chicken is the egg’s way of making another egg. I personally resonate with this view (it isn’t so much a separate theory per se, but a way of viewing evolution through a different set of spectacles: the processes and outcomes remain as Darwin specified). Although this viewpoint did not originate with Dawkins, He has popularized the concept and emphasizes how it helps to account for mechanisms of socially adaptive behavior as an evolutionary outcome, obtained through natural selection, as first advocated in the sociobiology concept of E.O. Wilson.

When my wife Rosemary and I decided to start a family, eventually having two sons, we discussed the issue of religious upbringing for our children. I was very strongly opposed to any religious influence on their childhood; I wanted them exposed to a neutral climate on the issue, until they reached adulthood, when they could make up their own minds on the topic (of course the religions themselves make it hard to have inter-religious marriages and hence adult conversions are sometimes created out of this dilemma, committing young people to religion when they really didn’t want it in the first place). My own upbringing in a Mormon community in Salt Lake City Utah taught me about the atrocities of such indoctrination. Rosemary was not as dogmatic on the issue as I was and she wanted to find some sort of organization that could meet my insistence on the absence of religious indoctrination and her subscription to the idea that religion could be an organizational means of feeling part of a community. We explored “The Ethical Society” which was my favorite (and the place where we sent our children to pre-kindergarten), and several other quasi-religious organizations, like a nearby Unitarian Church. But we did not find a mutually agreeable common environment and, quite satisfactorily for me, we didn’t raise our sons under any hint of religious influence. In fact, their environment was quite the opposite. I took great pleasure one summer, when we gave permission for our youngest son, at age 13, to go to a summer camp with his friends for a few weeks, a trip that was organized by one of the local Lutheran churches. I didn’t realize that during the camping experience, one of the adult leaders would meet with the kids and try to indoctrinate them about the Bible and their belief in God. But our son challenged this leader from the start and kept the entire camp group up until the wee hours by holding his own about Biblical interpretations and the logic behind believing in God. I couldn’t help but laugh when thinking about the camp leader’s experiences, unexpectedly running into a young kid who challenged him in a way that might have caused him to challenge his own beliefs, had he not been already so heavily inculcated and indoctrinated with religion. But the conventional Lutheranism is mild compared to the Evangelical camp. If you want to see the process of childhood indoctrination, watch the documentary “Jesus Camp” where a Christian Madrasah is fully visible and quite disgusting to watch and contemplate the intellectual damage that is being done to these young children. As an adult, my youngest son is not a closet atheist, but he believes and advocates a firm conviction that God does not exist and is a preposterous invention that everyone should think about abandoning, like yesterday.

Now that my two sons are adults, I delight in discussing religion and all other aspects of the human condition with them, knowing that their biases are few and their insights are many. They are proof-positive to me, than when you strip religion away from our childhood experiences, religion itself would disappear or fade into the social background within a few generations. Under those conditions, the hatred and venom of religion would be stripped away, because, for religion to appeal to adults with no religious upbringing, they would have to drop their attacks on science, on other religions, leave out the fire and brimstone and appeal to people on the basis of advantages in joining a religion when people don’t have the reflexes of automated devotion. All religions know that their future depends on childhood indoctrination: the earlier the better. We complain about the Muslim Madrasahs as schools for indoctrination and breeding centers for terrorism, while completely ignoring the fact that our own religious indoctrination schools, most notably those of the Evangelicals, are just as mind-distorting, and through them we have also produced Christian terrorists and fanatics who have killed abortion providers, themselves living within the law of the land. If we didn’t have a public school system and other forms of public engagement, where the American Madrasah children could assimilate into a more balanced view of life, we could create a new Crusade against Islam, if GW Bush hasn’t done so already. Dawkins refers to the American Evangelicals as the American Taliban and who can disagree about the threat that this mentality poses to our culture. Who do you fear the most: al Qaeda or the American Taliban? Who will do the most damage to America? Who has done the most damage to our country as of today?

If you are an atheist, you are in good company. One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and perhaps the greatest genius in all of our political history, was probably an atheist, judging by his own writings on the topic. But then, as today, it would have been political suicide for Jefferson to acknowledge his feelings on religion in a public way. In America we are creating a culture in which scientists are beginning to look and feel like prisoners or indentured servants. Science may be necessary for some things, but scientists themselves need to be kept away from us and certainly science should never be mentioned in our political dialog: science is the mortal enemy of the American Taliban. America is badly in need of another period of enlightenment. Perhaps if all the millions of closet atheists publicly declared their true beliefs, a new constituency could emerge, where competition would exist for the indoctrination processes of our children. According to Christopher Hitchens, in his book “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America”, Jefferson wrote to his nephew Peter Carr, in 1787, who had earlier expressed concern about religion and his own beliefs and Jefferson wrote, “If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in this exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.” Amen!

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