Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Extraordinary Ignorance

I'd already gotten an idea for a post formed up for the Carl Sagan Blogathon, but another great subject just fell into my lap, so I'm going with this one first. You see, I have an interesting ability to be completely ignorable when I don't go out of my way to draw attention. Sometimes it's a blessing, often it's a curse. Today, it led to a couple of guys on the elevator having an extremely bigoted exchange, completely oblivious to my presence.

The target of their bigotry? Atheists. In America, there's a ton of hate directed towards atheists, and many say that they're the only group it's still alright to hate. But this was Canada, which is supposed to be better. Not only that, this was at the University of Waterloo, Canada's answer to MIT. One would hope such a bastion of intellect would also lead to increased tolerance, but such is apparently not the case.

I kept my mouth shut during the conversation (well, it was more a rant on the part of one of them), as I figured it would be more interesting to see where it would lead than to interfere. Here's a paraphrase of the conversation, with my thoughts italicized:

It started when one of the boys (not men, boys) noticed a "Bad Religion" button worn by the other. "Bad Religion, you mean like atheism?"

"Nah, just Bad Religion. Atheism sucks."


No, not really.

"Yeah, it's like a cop-out."

I think you're thinking of agnosticism there. That's where you just say you don't know. Atheism is where you say you believe that there is no supernatural god or gods. Even so, I wouldn't call agnosticism a cop-out. We can't know, so admitting it isn't a cop-out.

The first guy commented, "My friend, Ben, is an atheist." I considered mentioning that I was as well, but decided against it.

The second guy continued with his rant, "Well, it's just stupid. Religion's good and all, who are they to go against it?"

So many problems in so few words. As for it being stupid, is there some obvious evidence for religion we're all missing? No? Then how is it stupid not to believe any of it? And Religion good? Do I even have to go into all the atrocities committed by religion? There were crusades, inquisitions, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, putting us 1,000 years back, the Church's stranglehold on medieval Europe preventing any progress, and that's just Christianity.

"And when I ask atheists why they don't believe in religion, they're like, 'Well, science has proved religion so it's not true.' And why is there nothing then? 'Well, I don't know, there's just not.'" When mimicking atheists there, he used an overblown "stupid" voice.

And now he's mixing scientism up into it. He's also implying the old mantra of "Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." The problem there is that sometimes it is - when evidence would be expected if the proposition were true. In the case of religion, if it were true, we'd expect to see some evidence for it. The fact that we haven't is evidence against it. The second statement is even worse; just a strawman built up to mock them. Might work when no atheists are around, but this wasn't to be the case.

This was the end of the elevator ride, so I didn't hear if he continued his rant. What I did hear was enough to sadden me with the current state of affairs. Not just in the hate for atheists, but the reasoning for it. The criticism of the scientific approach is what really struck me.

And this is where we get to the Carl Sagan connection, in his famous quote:

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Religion is one of the most extraordinary claims made by humans. To back it up, we should have equally extraordinary evidence. Except we have next to none. But for some reason, people accept it anyways. The comments this guy made made it clear that this was at least partly out of ignorance for what atheists actually said. Maybe I should have tried to explain it to him, but the elevator ride was too short. Perhaps, with this is mind, another line should be added to Sagan's line:

"Though for many, extraordinary ignorance suffices."


Rockstar Ryan said...

You forget the other group it is still "ok" to hate/discriminate in the U.S -


Infophile said...

Ah yes, fair enough. They've got a huge head start towards acceptance on us, though, even more so here in Canada, so they slipped my mind.