I love the show, Mythbusters. In an age where Americans are some of the most credulous people in the civilized world, it’s refreshing to have a show that’s all about teaching young people the value of critical thinking and scientific investigation. Perhaps more importantly, I think it’s great that the hosts encourage us to challenge everything we believe.
One of my favorite episodes is Plane on a Conveyor Belt. Here’s the question. If you put a plane on a conveyor belt, going the same speed as the plane in the opposite direction of takeoff, will the plane be able to take off?
The answer, to anyone who knows something about physics and planes, is obvious. The plane can easily take off. The conveyor belt is irrelevant, since the wheels are free spinning, and the engine is instead delivering power to the propeller, which propels the plane forward, regardless of the speed of the wheels relative to the plane itself. What matters is how much lift is being generated.
However — and what I think is especially interesting — when you ask pilots, many of them don’t know the correct answer. Isn’t that astonishing? Someone qualified to fly a plane doesn’t even know the answer to a simple physics problem that applies directly to flying planes? (In fact, the pilot they hired to test the question on the program believed the plane would not be able to take off!)
There’s a valuable lesson here. Sometimes, we can function fine while still being completely wrong about very basic concepts. That’s why all of us, when faced with a new problem, should remember to trust reason and science — not our intuition.
To move this into the subject of healthy human living, I’d like to return to one of my biggest soapboxes. Atheism isn’t anything. It’s not a philosophy. It’s not a belief system. It’s not a moral code. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not a political agenda.
The only thing the word “atheist” tells us about a person is one tiny bit of information. We know exactly one thing that she doesn’t believe exists.
Let’s be really clear. Knowing something that a person doesn’t believe in doesn’t tell us one thing about what she does believe in. We have no useful information whatsoever. As a way of categorizing and grouping people, “atheism” is virtually useless — without further context.
There has been a lot of internet chatter lately about atheists in America. The newest theory (which I agree with) says that there’s a cultural context to atheism in America which contributes to the self-fulfilling prophecy fallacy. Most Christians (and many atheists) in America believe that atheists are angry, lonely, anti-social people who are mainly interested in causing discontent, rocking the boat, and “taking away people’s religious freedom.” As a consequence of this belief, many Christians (and many atheists) shun and ostracize people who are openly atheist. Being ostracized and shunned makes people angry and lonely. If they had any antisocial tendencies to begin with, it amplifies them. If they get angry and lonely enough, they might decide they want to change the situation, and might attempt to cause discontent, rock the boat, and perhaps even take away people’s religious freedom. (Although to be honest, I’ve never met an atheist over the age of twenty who wanted to do such a thing. Most atheists are big believers in individual freedom, at least in America.)
Let me return to one of the first atheist articles I published online. In it, I make the pointed observation that atheists have it worse in America now than they ever have before. We’ve had openly atheist statesmen. Some of our presidents were atheists. Many of the founding fathers were atheists. Many of those who were not atheists were deists. Many of our most treasured authors — the people who made “American literature” into a genre — were atheists.
Somewhere between the discovery of evolution and the Red Scare, atheists in America became the enemy. We became communists, malcontents, homosexuals, deviants, and bad spouses. We came to represent depravity of morals (which is shocking in itself. Many of the prominent moral theories of the 19th century didn’t rely on God for a moral foundation).
And now, in the 21st century, many sincere, well-meaning, and moral people believe that atheism is a lonely belief system.
If we look around the world, we see that this is simply not so. Japan and China are both filled with atheists, yet both countries have long histories of community and family oriented culture. Not believing in a personal, moral lawgiving deity has not stopped any of the subcultures in either country from becoming community and family centered. Holland, Sweden, and Denmark are also very atheist compared to the U.S., and all three are arguably much more community and family centered than us.
In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the U.S. — a uniquely religious outlier on most charts — is also particularly bad at promoting family and community. My highly religious mother and step-father celebrated this past Christmas with my aunt and uncle and me. That’s it. I have a large enough family, but there’s simply no cohesion to it. Nobody’s really that interested in being with each other on holidays.
I’m sure there are many reasons why my family (and so many American families) are so splintered. America is huge. We don’t have affordable public transport between major cities in most of the country. It’s just too far between them to be profitable. The “melting pot” concept that sounds so good in stories isn’t really all that great for community cohesion. Notice that there aren’t many blacks in Norman Rockwell’s paintings. In fact, the families look very homologous.
It’s worth noting that in my family (which doesn’t care to get together) there are a few atheists, some Southern Baptists, several Catholics, a few Episcopalians, and several whack-job New Agers. And you know what else I’ve noticed? They all spend the holidays with people of their own religious bent — not their families.
I’m not trying to make the argument that religion is divisive, although I believe this to be true. I’m trying to point out that there is ample evidence that atheists are not alone in being excluded by their families and cultures. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be an African American atheist in any of the small towns in the bowels of the Deep South? Tough, to be sure, but good luck trying to convert to Buddhism, or Deism, or New-Ageism, or any other religion that disagrees sharply with the deep south model of “Black Christian.”
Now, let’s think about the culture of say, Holland, where religion, when it is practiced, is largely cultural. Atheism is not a big deal in Holland, since many church-goers don’t believe in God. They go for the community. If I were to visit some of my friends in Holland (which I hope to do soon!) and go to church with them, there would be no ruckus if it was announced that I am an atheist. There would probably just be a mild shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, “Why are you bothering to tell us that?” After church, I’d be just as accepted by the community as before my monumental announcement was made.
The point I’m trying to make is that atheism is not inherently divisive. It’s not inherently lonely, either. Atheism isn’t anything at all without social context. And that’s the fundamental principle that lots of people get wrong. It’s like the simple principle of physics that would stump experienced pilots, and cause them to answer a question dead wrong.