American Atheists is an organization that, you can probably figure, stands publicly for atheism in the United States. I’m not a member – I have a pretty stringent Groucho Marx complex about that, I have trouble being in a club that would have me as a member – but as an atheist myself, I generally support the promotion of such ideas.
But I would like to address this most recent “controversy”: atheist billboards being erected around the end of the year. Because apparently, it’s still a “controversy”.
Once in a blue moon I find myself stumbling through the rabbit hole that is YouTube and watching a smattering of videos on a particular topic, all in a row, sometimes for hours at a clip – professional wrestling matches, music videos, and most recently, videos of atheists/humanists debunking creationist videos. Usually having fun at their expense, but still pointing out my favorite method of debate: “you are wrong, and here is why”. I don’t do it to affirm my own lack of belief – I’ve been open enough throughout the years about my never actually being a believer – but as a reminder that bad arguments exist everywhere, and deserve to be approached.
Those videos can be highly entertaining, but this last go-round they actually have made me a bit sad as well. Not empathetic so much for the attempts at converting me or other non-believers (that still feels “dirty” to me, trying to “save” a person from themselves when they can be perfectly happy and healthy as they are) but disappointed at some of the ways even my fellow atheists approach the aggressive proselytizing of the faithful with a nearly-equal fervor. And it’s made me really try to break down, both for myself and for anyone who might not understand, why so many atheists can come off either angry or frustrated in the face of the one trying to convert them.
It’s a pretty simple, straight-forward answer even.
I’ve been on a Christopher Hitchens kick recently. Say what you will about his thoughts on Mother Theresa (a con artist), or George W. Bush (supporting the surge into Iraq), or Henry Kissinger (a war criminal), when he debated the religious he was always two things above all: smart and witty. As I watched him decimate the likes of the abrasive Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and enjoyed his running circles around the backhanded (and remarkably ignorant) host of “Wretched Radio”, it reminded me of the times I’ve been approached by the proselytizing, and one of their most common approaches gets to me like no other… a popular argument commonly referred to (when identified) as “Pascal’s Wager.”
It basically flows like this: if you don’t believe in G/god, and you’re wrong, you’re infinitely punished for your mistake. And if you believe and you’re right, then you’re infinitely rewarded via heaven. If you’re a non-believer and you happen to be correct about there not being an afterlife, then you’re still in the ground. You’re still dead. Right next to the religious person who was wrong in their assertion. It’s the making of a grid with four boxes, only one of them leading to eternal paradise, and only one side even proposing such a possibility.
“So why not take the chance?”
This is one of the oldest and most classic of the arguments in favor of believing in a higher power – at least, one with an assertion of an afterlife – and thus I think it deserves a specific rebuttal. Because the very concept of it to me, the thought that such an argument is still considered “valid” and not “insulting to the human mind”, is very, very stupid.