Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are atheists afraid of death?

It's happened to all of us. You're casually driving along on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, enjoying the fresh air and singing along to the music. The light turns green and you start through the intersection. Suddenly, a scream of tires and brakes rips you from your tranquil mood. You look to the left and directly into the terrified eyes of a teenager who was too distracted to notice his light had changed until it was too late. Somehow he misses you and you pull over. You can feel the adrenaline flood your system, your hands start to shake as you pull out your cell phone and call somebody.

Over the next few days you realize what a boring story this is. At first people seem to care because it just happened and you're still close enough to it to sound excited, but sooner or later the novelty wears off. You lose a few nights of sleep over it, but eventually everything goes back to normal.

Or maybe he hits you. In some cases you wake up in a hospital, maybe somebody who was in the car with you doesn't ever wake up again.

I wasn't speeding officer, I promise.

 Or maybe you're the teenager, I was. I just wasn't paying attention. I misjudged how fast somebody was coming down the road and pulled my station wagon out right in front of them. The driver of the other vehicle left a long streak of tire marks when he somehow expertly dodged around me at 60mph and continued on down the road. I pulled off to the side of the road completely terrified. This misjudgment changed my perspective long enough for me shift everything I was doing and to quickly propose to my first wife. I had looked into the abyss, peacefully waiting to embrace me for eternity, and I was afraid. Life is too short, I thought, anything could happen.

It is natural for life to decay, age, and expire. There are billions of organisms living on your skin and inside your organs as you're reading this. They live, feed, breed, and die constantly. Without them you wouldn't be healthy, but they are effectively invisible and an individual lifeform passing means nothing to you. Why should it?

Over 16,000 children die from hunger every single day. You don't have enough capacity in your heart to care about this. It's horrible and, if some commercial on televisions forces you to watch a kid with emaciated fingers pawing at a crust of bread, they might guilt you into giving them some money, but you can't wander the planet all day counting a new dead child every 1.5 seconds, you would rightfully go mad before dinner. But it matters, doesn't it?

If someone you care deeply about passes, your life is shattered, sometimes forever. One of my grandmothers woke up to a corpse one morning and never got married again. She's slowly losing her mind, but somewhere inside of her are the memories. Sometimes she calls me by his name.

I know it's taken me a long time to get to the point. I'm only 34, but one of my friends recently had her first heart attack, and two weeks ago my 88 year old grandfather fell nine feet off of a ladder and may never have complete use of his arm again. He served in the Navy in WWII, owned and operated a brick company with his brothers and father. He was always a tough guy and yesterday somebody and to stop by the house to give him a sponge bath, and it made him tired. There are no more ladders in his life, but he lost his father and brothers years ago. 

So are atheists afraid of death? They tell me that there are no atheists in foxholes, easily proved wrong when you talk to atheist soldiers, but it's something that gets thrown at us a lot.


Sometimes when you're talking to the faithful on twitter, they like to vomit out the "You'll change your mind on your deathbed, you just wait", like I haven't already tasted it before. Last year I went to the ER at the end of a three hour asthma attack. As the team of highly trained professionals worked on me, there was one no-nonsense nurse with a Nebulizer calmly reassuring me that I just needed to slow down and breathe, but I couldn't. I couldn't breathe. If you haven't had a severe asthma attack, I wouldn't recommend it. My attention was flitting from trying to slow down my breathing, to the calm eyes of my nurse, to the terrified eyes of my girlfriend who I dragged out of bed too damn early in the morning. She had wanted me to wait for her to finish putting on makeup. I yelled at her and she finally took me seriously. I found out later that she thought I was faking, there's a lot of reasons we're not together anymore, but in that moment the scariest thing to me wasn't dying, it was that our last conversation was going to be me yelling at her about her stupid makeup. I wanted her to know that I loved her, that everything would be okay. My self defense mechanisms are sarcasm and humor, neither of which work when half your face is obscured and there's an ER doctor stoically checking your oxygen levels. A small eternity later we got out of the danger zone and everybody started to relax. I felt the tension leave the room at the exact same rate as that my breath started to come back. Afterwards the doctor told me that in ten more minutes I would have stopped breathing altogether. Just another day in the ER.

I use one of these now, so I'm basically almost Darth Vader

My health issues contributed to the dissolution of my relationship which led to me currently living in a tiny basement apartment and writing this for you on the back of a cardboard box. But you know what I never thought about once? God. At no time during any of it did I pray or beg for something to rescue me. The calm in the center of my mind was positive that even if I had passed out they had other means to rescue me, I still don't know if this is true or not, but I was more focused on the strong voice of my nurse, the confidence in the stance of my doctor, and the fear in the eyes of my love, to waste time thinking about something miraculous happening. And when it was done, the doctor wanted me to stay for observation but we had a party to host in a few hours, I thanked everybody and we went home. I slept through most of the party.

I can't speak for all atheists when I say that I'm not afraid of death. I have a myriad of chronic health issues and have had my share of depressive episodes and near suicides, but I do know one thing: We don't talk about death. Not ever. There are a lot of clever quotes from atheists about death, but at no point does a group of us normally bring up the subject. Death exists, it is a normal part of the cycle, but it is just one part. Atheists believe that life is all that we have, that the feelings of the dead are the same as the feelings of those that are not yet born. We don't hold rituals where we drink the blood of a god to cleanse us for the afterlife, we don't wear magic underwear or promise each other virgins (overrated!) when we die, and we certainly don't martyr ourselves in the belief that an eternity of heaven awaits us. From our perspective, everyone else seems to be obsessed with death, but when our number is finally up, I think most of us would rather have lived a full life than fear what happens after.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Does science require faith?

Last week a picture was circulated around my neighborhood of Facebook.

This one right here.

It immediately spawned two conversations with believers and I, of course, gleefully joined in the fun. Both discussions were interesting in their own way, I do love a good argument, but one of them really stuck with me because it underlined one of the many difficulties people have when discussing science and religion, and that problem is language.
It started out simple, we were having a discussion about whether or not there was evidence for souls (protip: there isn’t), when this guy popped in:

That's right, his contribution to the discussion on creation science, neurology, quantum physics,and souls, is "We may not be able to prove anything, but you don't know anything either". Now, as is typical of Internet arguments, everyone stopped the interesting argument we were having to engage the new guy. We all tried our own tactics of logic and reason, an atheists favorite game, but it didn't go anywhere. We tried explaining the difference between blind faith and verifiable evidence...

Wait, wat?
And here is where we run into a little problem that the English language has created for us. This gentleman is someone I've known casually for a few years. He's not an idiot, but he's clearly not highly educated either. He was surrounded on all sides with researched and practiced atheists, and in these things everybody just wants to be right, so all he was left with was something that he felt couldn't be disproved: the only things that we truly have evidence for are the things that we ourselves have experienced, all the rest requires an element of faith, thus, faith is both normal and prudent. 

But that isn't what faith is at all. There is a difference between faith and reasonable belief, and all real science is based upon reasonable belief. He goes further to say that he WOULD listen to us, but he doesn't have to because none of us are scientists. 

Notice that someone 'liked' this. That's when I knew we had a problem.
When I leave to start my car in the morning, it's not faith that I have walking out the front door. I know barely anything about the mechanics of my vehicle, but I have a reasonable belief that everything is in working order and enough rudimentary knowledge of the physics behind it to expect it to continue functioning. The difference between myself and a mechanic or engineer who designs motor vehicles is collected knowledge and experience. If I do know something about how a car works, let's say the car battery, it is not considered invalid information just because I can't explain the rest of the car. And even the engineer herself didn't start off at the beginning, she jumped into a career where people were already building and designing cars, learned everything she had to, and started working in the field where she continued her education.She doesn't have to know how to make car paint, just how to apply that knowledge. There is just too much information for one person to know everything. Science works the same way.

A final parting shot from our antagonist...

So now, not only are we uneducated, but all of our knowledge that he doesn't understand was acquired through science fiction as opposed to valid sources. Not only this, but he raises the stakes. Now we have to prove Evolution (This has already been done, just speak to the nearest biologist or use google if you have any questions), disprove souls (It's impossible to disprove something that doesn't exist, which only underlines how we've been wasting our time here), and become brilliant scientists with MANY accolades. That's right, unless Neil deGrasse Tyson himself wonders into this conversation, golden boy refuses to listen to anything we say. 

I think I'll let someone else have the last word about this conversation...

I try to stay away from direct insults, but that doesn't mean I don't agree with them.

And it all comes down to our antagonist's understanding of what the word 'faith' means. Faith is a belief not based on truth. It is not faith to believe that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, that is an expected occurrence. To burden 'faith' with every nuance of "things that are believed" is to make the word lose all meaning. There is also a misunderstanding of how scientists use the word 'theory' and how the rest of us do. In science a theory is a highly tested hypothesis, so even things we consider facts like gravity are always considered theories. When your typical person uses the word theory, they mean some idea they've just had, and it is easy for those uneducated in scientific terminology to confuse the definitions. This ignorance is frequently exploited by the Intelligent Design crowd who like to cast doubt on evolution because it is considered a theory, highly tested and verifiable as that might mean, and your average citizen has no idea that there's any difference.

Well, now you do. To be clear, science is not a construction of faith because there are people testing it for weak spots every single day. It is stretching the definition of faith to say that my knowledge in science is based on faith because I myself am not a scientist. I hope that clears everything up, although I doubt it will for our friend here, because I don't have many accolades. Yet.