The atheist movement has become politically charged in an impressive way with the entrance of Sean Faircloth. This likeable politician has tried to harness and redirect Richard Dawkins’ efforts, which began to founder, perhaps for want of tangible long-term goals other than publicly scorning the spiritual nature of mankind, and perhaps also from the backlash this habit generated.
This irritation had become such a crowd pleaser in the media that new appearances by Dawkins were no longer seen on their own merits but as a fresh opportunity to revenge all the old ones. When stories started turning up from bored journalists pointing out that the Dawkins estate was built from slave money, and gleeful headlines like Atheist Richard Dawkins Forgets Full Title of ‘On the Origin of Species’, Invokes God for Help (Urban Christian News, Feb 2012) began to appear, the rebranding must have been confirmed as the right move at the right time.
Faircloth’s conversion of the classic “bitter atheist” moniker to the newly minted “affable atheist” is a much needed step, because at heart Dawkins is a likeable mix of elaborate intellect and a surprising naiivete, genuinely hurt to find people choose their own spiritual value over molecules. The political arena now offers a potential mass distribution of his ideology but also demands simplification, trimming and focusing just as manufacturing calls for design compromises to render Heath Robinson ingenuity into a safe, sturdy and palateable reality, for the litigation-prone masses and their heedless ways.
The bottom line in politics is that ideas, promises – and threats – need to be memorable, for a mass mind with a short attention span, and this calls for drama and simplifcation. Existentialism was always going to be a harder sell to the public than Read My Lips: No New Taxes or the playground chant of Drill, Baby Drill! That chant fell silent after the Gulf spill, but will soon be back, as the mass mind also has a short memory. So short that no sooner had newspapers stopped reporting on the Pacific’s sea of plastic waste – twice the the size of the American continent – people assumed it must have somehow floated off into outer space. Ask anyone about now and they reply, “yeah, I heard, but wasn’t that weeks ago?” Sure, and so was the invasion of Afghanistan. Probably all sorted out now.
Faircloth’s credentials are impressive – rather than act, like many in Congress, as a well-paid pimp for the weapons boys, a floating turd in the drinking bowl of global culture – his time in American government seems to have been spent improving the lot of children – throwing out schools’ lucrative fast food mentality in an effort to reduce obesity, protecting them from abusive adults via new laws, and establishing the Maine Discovery Museum among other achievements, including winning Legislator of the Year. In short, a committed politician but also apparently an individual of principles, a man able to get things done. His vision is of a Jeffersonian America, in which church and state are separated. Interestingly, Jefferson had an affinity to Christianity, divested of illogical or superstitious claims, and to this end made his own Bible by cutting and pasting sections to create what he considered a logical narrative.
Jefferson’s intellectual stature shows that, even to the incisive mind, Christianity has an appeal unrelated to fanciful embellishments, and to judge it solely by them shows a superficial approach to the important role religion plays in the mass mind. This approach which Dawkins has publicly sworn himself to also fails to take into account the colossal hurdles overcome in creating a system of morality and spiritual tracts that appealed to the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people over the centuries. The same problems exist now as did then in creating global movements; if anything, it should be easier today when the race has developed a more acute appetite for facts and a network of communications delivering them to millions within the day, but time honoured concepts persist, much to the frustration of those with a new and better vision.
Dawkins was exceptionally polite during an interview with Concerned Women for America’s Wendy Wright, and gave an engaging account of his position. Both grew defensive within moments: Dawkins seemed irked by her presention of the idea of a soul – something which should never form a debate for intellectual argument, as the concept itself is part of a personal worldview highly resistant to laboratory proof. He was also up-ended by her reference to science’s prejudice in preserving their own view of evolution, many points of which are still unclear, not least the origin of the whole thing. His rather uncalled for gambit was to expose her lack of scientific training as making her unsuited to comment, which gave the whole game away – since he must have known in advance who she was – and in any case would have been the worst possible thing to say to a woman defending herself. His reluctance to engage her as a person with a view to protect generated by observing the debate from the outside – the like of which there must be billions of in the world – confirmed her belief that scientists were arrogant self-admirers.
Dawkins was measured in his response, but failed to deal with her defensiveness. She made some fair points, only asking that the debate be taught rather than the theory in isolation – what harm could there be in that? – and he could have conceded this without diminishing his belief in any way. She wanted humans to be treated with respect and dignity, but he interrupted defensively, “so do I, of course,” as if her stance somehow was an accusation. Instead, he could have said, “you’re entirely right, I’m glad we agree on something!” A subtle difference, but one unlikely to be lost on a woman. Dawkins refused to accept that a jump from one species to another was a significant enough step to warrant an injection of additional information from somewhere; the micro-changes within a species do not alter its fundamental architecture, and nor can they, as this requires concurrent adjustment to vast numbers of systems.
Evolution is clearly a fact but the mechanism is still a mystery; species can remain static for huge spans of time, and therefore require some kind of force yet undocumented to increase their complexity; even physics states that a body will remain at rest until acted on by an external force. Biology is far from at rest: the smallest components move with terrific speed and purpose, so there was plenty of room to compromise. As James A Shapiro points out with meticulous care and 1,162 separate references, no reorganising element of the genome is random, and the intelligence of brainless bacteria is so acute that they respond to threats by devising new machinery – completed pumps, scissors, confounding proteins – and then code the DNA in order to pass the designs horizontally to their peers. This is completely against Darwinian theory.
An essay in Scientific American from March 1993 (p112) by Otto Landman shows how long it takes to unseat popular myth even in logical minds. He pointed out several well-observed lab cases of aquired characteristics being passed on by bacteria, and then points out that a survey of 30 current college genetic texts showed no mention that the phenomenon actually occurs, and explains why most biologists believe it to be untrue.
It is not surprising then that Dawkins, clinging absolutely to random mutations and natural selection, has stiff opposition even from within the field. Shapiro, after watching a Dawknis speech in which he stated that he would now explain why Darwin’s theory was the only possible one, saw that the creationists have a point: these public figures are often militant atheists in drag, victims of ideology in spite of facts – the very thing they rail against.
Dawkins’ increasing isolation within the field is understandable, but his followers – despite the name freethinkers – blindly assume everything he says is correct. From this we see how belief systems take root the moment a person relies on another’s mind to sieve the true from the false. His irritation with Wright was amplified in his supporters, one of whom made a less than compassionate sketch (above), confirming her rejection of Dawkins made her unworthy of respect. Worse still, Dawkins cheerfully published it. While evolution theory itself cannot be a danger for anyone, this kind of bigoted certainty is the trigger for divisive problems and illustrates Wright’s whole point.
Dawkins has often said he cannot see any line that connects atheism with terrible acts, but the line is drawn not from a theory but from certainty about its superiority, and the first sign of this fungus is a spiteful view of others as unworthy. Compassion means seeing others as equals – you cannot have it both ways. As an illustration of this, in February I heard an atheist say that people who have had too many babies should be allowed to starve to death, along with their wretched children, to bring the population down. His friends concurred sagely, bemoaning the ignorance of those without food. It was their own damn fault, and facts were facts. Their irritation blinkered them to the fact that allowing anyone, especially a helpless child, to starve to death is an act of murder, diminishing one’s own humanity at any distance. Who wants to live in a world where Christians consign us to Hell while they drift off in the Rapture, or one in which others gladly let our family starve, should we find ourselves incarnated in some scorching desert?
Maslow’s Hire Archie
The atheists attempt to sway the same mass mind drawn to spiritual values, and it is significant that their first step was the introduction of compassion. Compassion and humility are the primary elements in all scriptures – something not lost on Dawkins or Faircloth.
The ten point plan for Secular America neatly sets out its stall by labelling religion’s “seductive simplicity of certainty” as odious flaw. But certainty is a quality of the mind not tied to logic and reality – in fact logic is probably the least powerful motivation for any human with emotion, and that will include most people – and all humans gravitate to certainty, even trying to reason it into existence when facts fly in the face of it. As for simplistic, there is nothing finding a berth among the entire mass of mankind that is not, in some way, simple; simplicity is even the essence of beauty itself. We want certainty about our home, so we purchase a mortgage and pay a vast sum over the odds for the certainty of a roof over our head, despite the precarious state we create having borrowed up to the limit for the next 25 years. We want the certainty of having our one and only soulmate, despite the virtually random nature of their selection from a handful, out of billions more completely unaware of our existence.
We spend two thirds of our days at a job for the certainty of solvency, knowing the fragile nature of commerce, yet spending whatever we earn so that we are never more than two paydays away from our sworn enemy, destitution; we vote for politicians who generate the greatest certainty, knowing all the while these people are attracted only to power and have no interest in our welfare other than buttering us up just before elections (mindful of our short attention span and limited memory) to ensure the continuity of their lifestyle. Certainty is the fundamental appeal of atheism: an atheist refuses to rely on faith because it requires suspension of certainty – he wants facts: certain facts, theories proved with certainty. Any argument with an atheist is futile if, armed with his books and facts and theories and geological samples, he is already certain you are mistaken!
Amidst the clamour to attach certainty to every conceivable surface of our life, and finding it brightly painted and offered to us by those who want our money, it’s hard to believe a politician can be surprised if mankind desires certainty about its own spiritual existence: as Jefferson shows, this trait is pronounced even in the most intelligent minds. In fact this affinity to ideas of the spirit partakes of a mental element so massive that it can overwhelm even than the procreative urge, itself buried deep enough within the psyche that for most, abandoning it would be an impossibility. Those who confidently venture into the unknown earn our admiration, but anyone who promises to replace our flawed ideas with better ones of their own is missing the whole point. Certainty may be inspired by others, but it always comes from within.
The rebranded union might seem an odd alliance – a politician sensing a new tsunami to ride, and an academic known for his blistering attacks on faith. But the whole movement is a paradox in many ways, and no element more so than Dawkins himself: a man on the one hand seeking to dismantle religion on the basis of science, and on the other dismissing all laboratory research proving neurotransmitter and cortical benefits afforded by spiritual practices; mustering all the intelligence he can to grapple with the laws behind biology but writing off its ingenuity and causative layers as disordered flukes; a Humanist denouncing the most human sentiment of all: spirituality – the sole aspect setting humanity apart from the animal world. And lastly, despite offering a scientific modus operandi as evidence of his respect for truth, Dawkins tries to strip away the one thing humans built solely to encourage a union with the still mysterious depths of the Universe, as if he deals with beasts.
And it does seem strange to see Dawkins appear on stage to assure the crowd of natural selection’s central role after one of Faircloth’s rousing performances. Not only has NS been long discredited as a shaping force by genetic SNP research, and abandoned by those with mathematical skills, common sense, or both, but it’s a little like watching Segovia calmly tuning his Ramirez on stage, after The Who have torn the place to pieces.
Faircloth is quick to praise Dawkins’ efforts, assuring the audience his place in history is guaranteed by his scientific reputation, and that he and his book, The God Delusion (available at the back) represent “a humanitarian effort for which the world will thank him for generations to come.” His appeal to a certainty nobody can be sure about shows his political nature but also that he may not completely grasp the problem, as whatever sympathy Dawkins generates from the progeny is unlikely to be based on The God Delusion, a book so flawed even he has been seen to distance himself from in debates with intelligent Christians (“It’s only one book”); it is even less likely to result from trying to tear the age-old spiritual wisdom of religion to shreds, using a kind of vitriolic loathing, with the afterthought of “compassion” scribbled on a napkin and sellotaped on top.
Perhaps for politicians, like those who sell stars to the wealthy, the future is a little too easy to be generous with, and has the handy quality of taking any imaginable form and colour; anyone in need of certainty is most welcome to vast helpings of it in exchange for relinquishing a modest claim on the present.
The rallies might be a little predictable – borrow from JFK speechcraft, paint the shadowy religious bogeymen in monstrous colours – religious childminders who leave children in their own feces, religious parents who torture their children to death, religious chemists who refuse drugs to dying sinners – all mentioned in the book Attack of the Theocrats, by the way (available at the back) – impressing people with the need for their time, effort and money to eliminate these inhumans. Yes, it does all sound eerily familiar, and as usual the religious character forms a generous-sized screen for projecting fears, whether you’re an ex-WWI corporal channeling the self-loathing of a country on the hard working Jewry, or an OPEC baron plotting a course for foreign oil, after the resistance of those to whom it belongs is dealt with using crushing force, monstrous savagery, and banal headlines in the NY Times (“Drones remain a vexing constitutional issue”) to be chuckled at over celebratory press dinners. Of course, religious abuses do exist, and Faircloth’s point – that in some cases they are protected by law from being investigated, and in other cases enshrined somehow within the law itself – must be worthy of support. Even as a trivial goal, a matter of legislation and generating popular support, to a man with a hammer, every problem resembles a nail!
What is much less sound for a long-term movement is taking religion to task instead of human weakness itself, since the same old sinners leap up anew in every field of human endeavour and will not perform to order just because they’re presented with a new list of rules. Power attracts the power hungry, and power tends to corrupt. And once religion is gone, what to do about greed, moral decline, and human weakness itself, which remain? Or would all that magically disappear with religion? To judge by the escalating cruelty of rich nations towards poorer ones, accompanied by an utterly repulsive callousness, this is hard for anyone to believe. Only to someone who blames religion for all the flaws in man is it a foregone conclusion.
War: Terrorism with a Much Bigger Budget
An eager journalist once asked Gandhi, “well, what do you think of Western Civilisation?” to which one of the most compassionate humans ever to walk the Earth replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.” Human rights have been established and supposedly protected by almost every country but the one which Faircloth means to galvanise, America, is at the root of more social inequality, imprisonments, executions (even of those convicted as children), drug abuse, support for terror, rigged courts, rigged elections, racism, political nepotism, police brutality, widespread disillusionment, corruption, stock market greed and corporate-induced third world slavery than any other supposedly advanced nation.
This grotesque Frankenstein, together with its hunchbacked, fawning assistant NATO, is also responsible for more invasions, wars, threats of dreadful mass flayings and boilings alive via nuclear weapons, birth defects (whether from Agent Orange as reported by Christopher Hitchens himself, or depleted uranium, used in Fallujah and still deforming 15% of all subsequent ones years after the mass slaughter – in a country formerly so advanced medically that it carried out the world’s second heart transplant) and sheer human misery than any other country on Earth, and more military spending than the rest of the planet combined. Hatred for America is usually branded “terrorism” but it isn’t – it’s unvarnished revulsion.
It is into this blistering inferno that the atheists aim to prod fresh olive branches of intelligence and compassion, and seeing as these are the two features most lacking on the global stage, every sane person must wish them all the luck in the world.
Enmeshed in politics and well aware of what is practical and what is not, Faircloth is careful not to demonise the weapons business, responsible for the largest still unaccounted-for heist in all of human history, that is, $2.3 trillion stolen by the Pentagon, or the guzzling of the planet’s resources by terawatt-bulb cities and massive SUVs, or for that matter the wrecking of its ecosystems.
Some might assume all these issues would naturally sort themselves out, if only the wretched religious types were restrained by flawless secular reasoning, but that reasoning is itself as unsound as expecting the Pentagon to remorsefully hand back all the money Rumsfeld admitted they stole; such simplistic reasoning might be the only way to market a polotical group to the masses, but is certainly a bad sign in a group devoted to the power of the intellect. For example, abuses such as the experimentation on living black and Hispanic orphans by drugs companies in places such as the Incarnation Children’s Centre in New York are not pilloried in the ten point vision of secular America, because they are carried out on financial grounds, not religious ones. Perhaps this is fair enough; reason and humanism cannot be inexhaustible resources, or their political forms all-powerful. And probably at this entrenched stage, only a thorough shaking by Nature could release any privileged society’s ferocious throttling of the rest of the planet.
But in that case, perhaps the flags and disguises under which the abusers operate are not as relevant as the genetic decline the country as a whole finds itself in, where such abuses blossom unchecked, so that attempting to outlaw the symptoms using a piece of paper stamped with a Congressional Seal while leaving the actual causes free to fester is a futility that, contrary to the banner, fails to use any reasoning at all, on this day or any other. One may as well demand that, in order to turn things around, the orchestra sliding down the deck of the Titanic must play a secular tune instead of that hymn.
Religion: the Oxytocin of the Masses
Pedantic criticism aside – and I realise I am overly critical by nature, but Hell is no place for timid politeness – the attempt to rebrand atheists as affable and compassionate is long overdue, as most of them are as put off as everyone else by the angry stereotype bashing and mocking the faithful, first making a stupid cartoon of their beliefs, or attaching religion to acts of destruction which they can plainly see to be political in origin. My experience of atheists generally bears out this more genial view; of course, some can be abrasive but others are warm and conscientious, human beings along the same lines as everyone – good, great, or indifferent. If they are now all about compassion, who can fault it?
We know these newly branded emotions of compassion – gratitude, forgiveness, love of your fellow man, generosity and the like – generate oxytocin, a highly complicated neurotransmitter manufactured consistently by a relatively small (and therefore well researched) group of neurons in the supraoptic nucleus, buried deep inside the brain, above the pituitary gland. This single molecule is medically so important for every major bodily system, especially the brain, that any trend increasing its production must be a valuable contributor both to robust health and the essential hygiene of the brain. A recent clinical trial of a cholesterol inhibitor deliberately sabotaged a protein in the cholesterol production chain, but the trial had to be called off when the patients started dropping dead at double the untreated rate. The reason was probably that the same protein they sabotaged turned out to have a role in oxytocin delivery: someone might have saved tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives, if they had only bothered to do a little research. Oh well – they were scientists and they meant well, so that’s alright then.
A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we contemplate nothing in return. —The Bhagavad Gita
But apart from bodily health, the lack of oxytocin is a main factor responsible for, or possibly the result (nobody is too sure yet if its deficiency is the result of a genetic parameter, and if so, how flexible that parameter is) of human cruelty, a diluted form of which is the scorn and bitterness which atheists are understandably now trying to distance themselves from. Therefore the essence of their movement is down to neurotransmitters, which is particularly ironic, as neurotransmitter manipulation is one of the principle aims of spiritual practices.
“Generosity, or dana in Sanskrit, is a power. Traditional teachings tell us that a life of generosity forms the ideal foundation for all other spiritual growth. We nourish this power when we offer a gentle word, an open mind, or a gift of food or money. Dana flowers when we are content with things as they are, when we let go of what is not needed, and when we do not take what is not freely given to us.” [www.opendharma.org]
To this end they might also be interested in trying meditation, which thickens the cortex, and dramatically sharpens the perceptive ability of the amygdala. It also releases telomerase, which rebuilds the telomeres capping our chromosones, extending their copyable lifespan and therefore, our own. Fasting may be a staple of religions but with good reason – it boosts the signalling capacity of neurons, though nobody is yet sure exactly why, but this is why apostles fasted before making decisions. Another approach would be to visit awe-inspiring sights: architecture or sculpture intended to generate a soaring feeling of grandeur within the mind, tends to subdue the ego and accelerates the development of compassion: La Sagrada Familia and Cologne Cathedral come to mind, but the Spring Temple Buddha and Christ The Redeemer inspire the same emotions, as does the Statue of Liberty.
- Matthew 5:42 – Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
- Matthew 23:23 – Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
- Luke 19:8 – But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Sights of natural beauty have a similar effect, activating wider areas of the brain simultaneously, causing the “big ideas” which occur on holiday in places of scenic beauty. Reason dictates that if you need humanistic values, you need to consider the brain: methods to extend the various axes of our flexible brain capacity on which we hang the fabric of our personality, must surely be welcomed by atheists seeking to increase the compassionate value of their brand.
One last idea won’t be of interest, but is nonetheless useful to know – trying to formulate one’s own idea of divinity, and attempting to keep it in mind during the scrum of life seems to expand mental calm, intuition, and perhaps by a strange form of osmosis, the gradual development of altrusitic traits within one’s own personality – all the well-known icons of divinity in human form enconpass altruism.
Mocked though they were by atheists before the rebranding, these icons nevertheless serve an essential purpose – planting an appealing ideal of mental perfection, subject to the varying capacity of every brain, drawing it by fits and starts to that evolutionary end. This process is as certain as an anxious accountant drawn by his constant focus on the bottom line to ever more miserly acts, because of a law of the brain: like it or not, the mind becomes a mirror of whatever concepts it habitually dwells on, and though subject to upheavals and abuses like all harnesses to power, religion has formed a handy bulwark against despair and amorality over the centuries.
Whenever Prophet Muhammad met a miserly person, he advised him to be more generous and charitable. Ibn `Abbas said that he heard Prophet Muhammad say, “The believer is not the one who eats when his neighbour beside him is hungry,” another companion heard the Prophet say, “The believer is simple and generous, but the wicked person is deceitful and ignoble.”
Shorn of lofty ideals, shorn of benevolent neurotransnmitters, the brain quickly falls prey to materialism, cynicism, selfishness, suspicion and hatred, and the 20th century is as good an example of this as we are ever likely to see, except perhaps for the 21st century. An added benefit of developing positive characteristics is the increased expectation of these same traits in others – seen as equal members of the same universal consciousness – all of which adds, however gradually or imperfectly, to one’s optimistic social outlook, improving society a little, however slightly. But that’s enough religious proposals – let’s not push our luck!
So, while compassionate atheists should be welcomed all over the world, the same welcome must be extended to any school of thought fostering such compassion – since compassion is compassion whether expressed by an atheist or the Mujahedin. Such schools of thought would include those based on mankind’s scriptures, all of which – without exception, and regardless of abuses committed by those seduced away from them by politics and greed – emphasise the importance of cultivating that most important and highly regarded of all human qualities.