Reason is the New Reason for the Season
At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
This is the same organization that placed this billboard in downtown Seattle over the summer:
OK. There are quite a few assumptions to unpack here. First of all, despite King 5’s sensationalist handling of the story, the controversy seems to be largely manufactured. In fact, Ron Wesselius, a Tumwater real estate agent who sued the state in 2006 to get a tacky plastic nativity scene installed in the nave adjacent to the one where the atheist sign is now (which housed a menorah at the time), says he’s in favor of the FFRF’s freedom of speech, though he disagrees with the sign’s message. Good. This is America, after all.
Naturally, I also agree wholeheartedly with the FFRF’s right to put the sign in the capitol. I do have some issues with the sign’s content, however my dissent is not based on my having an opposing opinion or viewpoint. My problem is the internal contradiction in the sign itself—namely, that a plea for the use of reason is followed by three separate statements that defy logic. Let’s go through it step by step.
1) At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail.
So far so good. You’ve got me looking forward to a reasonable argument!
2) There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
Oh boy. I’m not even going to get into the complex neurological and cultural origins of these concepts, although plenty of research in this area has been done by mainstream secular scientists. Assuming there is absolutely no physical evidence of gods, devils and the rest—which I don’t doubt—the statement itself is still blatantly unscientific. As any good scientist will tell you, a lack of evidence for something does not equal proof of the non-existence of that thing. To make this statement logically and scientifically sound, therefore, it would need to say something like “There is no evidence to support a literal belief in gods, devils, angels, heaven or hell.“
3) There is only our natural world.
Same fallacy. To be made logically defensible, this should be changed to “Therefore we have no reason to assume there is any reality beyond that of our natural world.“
4) Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
Ouch. I take it the author is probably referring to the vicious pseudo-Christian consumo-fascist jingoism that passes for religion in America today and not, say, Tibetan Buddhism, which guides its practitioners in an ego-releasing acceptance of death as a natural part of life. Or the native religions of the American Plains, perhaps, which taught the original inhabitants of this continent that their survival was dependent on their cautious reverence for the delicate ecosystem in which they lived. Or the liberation theology wing within Christianity that seeks to emphasize the triumph of the human spirit over even the most devastating hardships. Built into this statement is also the tacit assumption that “myth” means negative or useless. Am I to believe the mind that conceived this sign has never been moved by a poem, painting or Hollywood blockbuster rooted in the transformative power of myth?
“Myth” is not synonymous with “falsehood.” It is the attempt to codify complex relationships between ideas in a symbolic vocabulary that transcends language. And “religion” is not some monolithic institution as many atheists would have us believe. It is a broad category of human behaviors and cultural realities. The real offender is not religion, per se. It is religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is what warps the deeply symbolic allegories of the mythic realm into rigid and destructive literalist worldviews. It is also, incidentally, what motivated the FFRF to overlook logic, rationality and truthfulness in composing the text for their sign. As neuropsychologist Stephen Larsen points out in The Fundamentalist Mind, we are all subject to bouts of fundamentalism, be they religious or secular. I have discussed this entire issue at length elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll just say this:
ATTENTION FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION: Thank you for standing up for the rights of non-religionists. Your conviction is commendable. But unfortunately you are not winning any converts with this stunt. Yes, contemporary evangelical Christianity—I’m talking about the mean-spirited kind that helped Bush get elected twice—is arguably the most vulgar, divisive and destructive assault on decency ever conceived by the human mind. But it does not exist in a vacuum. It is an endemic cultural affliction and any attempt to eradicate it must be aimed at the root, not the hydra-like heads (which grow back faster than you can sever them). The root is the rigid, brittle conviction that anyone, anywhere can possibly hold the monopoly on truth. Science is based on the humble willingness to stand and face the eternal mysteries of the cosmos and say “I don’t know.” When science pretends to have discovered some ultimate truth, it ceases to be science. To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo, “If you think you got God figured out…it ain’t God.”
P.S. Please feel free to email me if you want me to write your sign for you next year.