Sunday shower – Believe it or not!
So I'm just about to hop into the shower when the phone rings. One leg in the shower, the other on the bathmat, arm akimbo to keep the cell phone dry, I press the green button. The gentleman wants to know if I'm still an atheist. For a moment I'm speechless. I look down, almost guiltily. "Uh, yes?"
After some clarification, and fiddling with the shower taps, it turns out he's from a radio station and wants to set up an interview. Yes, I'll be there at nine.
Kate Turkington's "Believe It or Not" is a live three-hour Sunday night talk show, broadcast on 567 Cape Talk / Talk Radio 702, that 'offers a non-denominational but multi-dimensional approach to philosophical, moral and religious topics and issues drawn from our daily lives,' according to their website.
I was invited on the show as a distant second choice when the guest Turkington had in mind was unreachable. Probably taking a shower.
By way of introduction, Turkington mentioned the usual suspects – Dawkins, Dennett & Harris – noting that she had already interviewed Dawkins and Harris on her show. She summarized many of their arguments, which rather left me with nothing to say. They're a hard act to follow.
Calls and text messages were apparently coming in thick and fast. I girded my loins and was ready to answer the questions.
Chris was first in line. He said that "believers like myself base [their belief] on a personal encounter with God" which brought about a fundamental change in their lives. Chris thereby entirely ignores sufficient psychological causes of change, in favour of a supernatural agent.
Chris also said that "many believers in the world, and that includes the best scientists you can think of, . believe this wonderful world we live in has meaning beyond life. … if you say, oh well, it all ends in the grave, then you are very poor, then you are very shall we say a desolate person in this life."
Well, really! My 'desolate and poor life' is just A-OK with me, Chris. I don't need a fantastical imaginary friend to shore up my ego.
As I pointed out, it's interesting that some people think that meaning can only come from outside of themselves, and are oblivious to that fact that one can create one's own meaning.
As for the "best scientists you can think of" being religious: ding-ding, Chris, facts please. Just saying so, don't make it so. And relevance? Of course, I couldn't resist pointing out that around 80% of the members of the American 'National Academy of Sciences' – arguably the top scientists in the US – do not believe in gods.
Next up was Basheer, who called atheism "an artificial religion". He went on to say that Dawkins writes in "God Delusion" that he is 'almost certain' that God doesn't exist – and wanted to know what I thought about THAT! "Ha, puny mortal," I imagine him thinking, "even your God isn't certain – who are you to argue with Him?" See my point? Basheer should look up "Argument from Authority".
Basheer's last point was that atheism has been responsible for oh so many atrocities, killings, murders, and on and on. Social Darwinism, Imperialism, and more. That's about as cogent as saying, well, since projectiles follow the gravitational laws of motion, you can blame 9-11 on Sir Isaac Newton.
Kobus was next, making the point that "what if you're wrong?" I didn't quite follow his first argument, which had something to do with radio waves existing and us being unable to see them. Now, Kobus makes a very good point – indeed, what if God didn't exist? How would we know? How would this universe be different, if the gods didn't exist? Answers in writing, please.
Then it was Nicky's turn. She described herself as having atheistic tendencies, but was concerned about spirituality. She'd heard a definition of spirituality as being "a sense of awe and wonder", but this didn't seem watertight to her. She argued that somebody could watch a violent beating and be in awe of the assailant's physical prowess – and surely one doesn't want to call that a spiritual experience?
I don't know how to answer her question, because I don't understand the finer details of spirituality. However, I have no confidence in her counterfactual – I don't think such a person (well, at least a psychologically healthy person) could actually exist.
Faizel was next, the second non-believer, who spoke about atheism as an intellectual viewpoint, followed by Kian, who was concerned (and a bit confused) about the very varied definition of the term "atheist".
Turkington then read text messages from John, Paul and Sandy, and the final caller was Ryan, clearly a solid A-team member. He spoke about how one should approach a religious person, and wondered about deconversion tactics. Ryan, if you're in Cape Town, let's do coffee.
Off-air, Turkington asked me to prepare a very quick wrap-up as they were almost out of time. As things turned out, they were out of time and I never got to say a closing remark. I would have said, "As a general rule, religion is bad, but people are not. Religion divides people and does NOT bring them together. It has great capacity to do good, but also does a great deal of evil. It is important that we question religious arguments and its implications on society, and show that there are non-supernatural alternatives."
At the end of the show, Tikiso, the programme director, promised a follow-up in a few weeks or so. So I'll be on stand-by, my cell phone in a Jiffy bag, praying fervently they don't get hold of Dennett instead.
Atheism in South Africa is badly in need of a visible organization. After all, the best atheist that the talk show could find in South Africa is me! LOL!
The arguments the believers offered on the talk show were the standard variety, and often go back to the origin of religion: personal experiences interpreted as supernatural; existential crises and externalised agents as meaning in life.
It's also pretty clear that there is the assumption that because religion is supportive of and helpful to many people, it has to be authentic and therefore God/gods have to exist. In fact, it is religion – as a social institution and a personal way of life – that makes people happy – not gods or spirits. As Shermer, Harris, Dennett and many others have pointed out, its "belief in belief" that is the prime mover here.
Oddly enough, nobody mentioned another major cause of belief – the fear of hell. Being properly religious is one way of assuring you don't go to hell when you die.
nothing more to see. please move along.