Via Chris, I find that there’s an ‘atheism meme’ going around that, unusually for such things, is actually worth picking up and responding to, so…
Q1. How would you define ‘atheism’?
An absence of belief in gods, supernaturalism, etc.
Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
That’s a tougher question than it looks.
I went to CofE schools because those were the local state schools and, family-wise, we did the whole church thing when necessary/unavoidable – weddings, funerals, that kind of thing – but otherwise religion wasn’t really a factor at home. Mom quite liked Harry Seacombe, so she’d watch Highway and I’d bugger off out to play. Going to church or Sunday school, especially on Sunday mornings during the summer months, would have intruded far too much on valuable cricketing time to ever have been an option.
Growing up, perhaps the closest thing I might had to a regular ‘religious’ experience was singing the first verse of Psalm 23 (‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’) on the terraces at the Hawthorns.
So I guess that probably counts as a fairly conventional working class CofE upbringing, at least up until I developed a mind of my own and decided that religion was just a bunch of irrational nonsense.
Q3. How would you describe ‘Intelligent Design’, using only one word?
Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?
Ooh, am I restricted to just one.
My tastes have always run to ‘Big’ science; astronomy. cosmology, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, anything like that. If I tell you that when I was studying for my ‘O’ level one of the big cult figures at my school was Carl Sagan, on account of the BBC showing ‘Cosmos’ and that, even today, I can still do a pretty good impression of his signature comment from the series – ‘The ooniverse is a wundiful place’ – then you should get a pretty good idea of my tastes.
So, really, there’s no single endeavour I can point to, but what does excite me about science, generally, is the whole ethos of a discipline that tells me not only that the universe really is an incredible place but that its possible to understand how and why it is what it is and how it all works.
Against that, the idea of gods and eternal insoluble mysteries all seems very mundane and uninteresting – if you ascribe things to god then you’re not giving an answer, you’re just giving up on the question.
Q5. If you could change one thing about the ‘atheist community’, what would it be and why?
Atheist community? Huh?
I don’t know – maybe we should be taking a tougher line with Warner Brothers over the amount of supernaturalism that’s been creeping into recent Scooby Doo movies and insist that they stick to the classic formula where the ghost/monster turns out to be someone in a Halloween costume. Why should we allow them ruin one the great adverts for scientific rationalism?
Otherwise what passes for an atheist ‘community’ seems fine to me.
Q6. If your child came up to you and said ‘I’m joining the clergy’, what would be your first response?
Huh? Where did I go wrong?
Seriously, in the extremely unlikely event of that happening I’d simple talk it over with the child just to satisfy myself that they’re making the decision for themselves, after which its their choice and not something that would affect our relationship.
At a minor level I’ve been having a bout of this recently because my 8 year old daughter contracted the whole ‘god thing’ from school a few months ago, although I pleased to say that she’s rapidly beginning to get over it simply because she find science really interesting and has a naturally inquisitive nature, which meant that, a couple of weeks back, we had our first chat about Darwin and evolution on the back of a bit of homework she’s been given and she lapped it up.
I should say that, as a conscious thing, I don’t go out of my way to discuss religion/atheism with my kids, I simply encourage them to ask their own questions and help them find their own answers. Given that simple freedom, I find that kids will get around to atheism eventually just by figuring it out for themselves – my oldest son did and I think he’s all the better for having found his own way there as its encouraged him to become an autonomous, thinking, human being and value the freedom to work things out for himself far more that he would have had I tried to indoctrinate him into that kind of outlook on life.
Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
Favourite in what sense? As in so bad its funny?
Jeebus, there’s loads. It’s a bit of a cliché to mention it but the argument from design has to go in simply for having prompted Hume to write his magnificent demolition of it in ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’. If only Hume hadn’t backed off in the home stretch I might be inclined just to hand theists the ISBN number and suggest they read it for themselves.
There really are too many to mention and one of the main, but perhaps too little regarded, achievements of Dawkins et al over the last couple of years has been to expose just how poorly conceived and constructed theistic arguments are simply by drawing their opponents into making an attempt refute their work.
Q8. What’s your most ‘controversial’ (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
I’m not sure that I have too many views that would be considered controversial amongst atheists.
I do make a clear distinction between debating the existence/non-existence of god, which I see as an essentially intellectual exercise and debating secularism, the role of religion in society and the privileges accorded to it, which I see as political/sociological and, therefore, not necessarily that connected to debates about god.
Does that count?
Q9. Of the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
Much as I enjoyed ‘The God Delusion’ and consider that any self-respecting atheist should own a copy of Hitch’s ‘Portable Atheist’, I’d have to say Dennett just for the depth of his arguments. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is an intellectual tour de force and a must read if you like your arguments with plenty of meat to get your teeth into.
Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
Which beliefs exactly?
The problem I have with religionists is not that they believe in god, etc. People, generally, manage to believe in all sorts of things that I personally consider rather bizarre and irrational but do so in a benign way that rarely, if ever, causes any problems.
Just think of all the people who ship at auditions for TV talent shows in the firm belief that they possess some indefinable star quality when it patently apparent within a matter of second that they’ve no appreciable talent at all. While I can’t say that I go out of my way to watch these programs, in fact I’ll generally do everything possible to avoid them as they’re often just that bit too exploitative for my own tastes, they’re also relatively harmless exercises in errant over-optimism in which no one really gets hurt.
If I could change one thing, it wouldn’t be the views of a single theistic person it would be the underlying political ethos of religious belief. Religion would be much less hassle all around if religionists got around to accepting that just because they have the right to believe what want, however irrational it might seems to others, it doesn’t follow that they have right to try and foist or enforce their beliefs, and the value they derive from them, on others.
So that’s my answers – if anyone fancies picking up the meme, then feel free but don’t feel obliged if you don’t have the time.