By Wrath James White
Good afternoon, my friends. I’d like to first thank Maurice for inviting me here and thank you all for welcoming me. My name is Wrath James White and I am a humanist, an atheist. As Maurice’ll tell you, I am about as passionate in my disbelief as he is in his belief.
Let me begin by explaining what atheism is. Atheism, simply put, means not believing in any god or gods. There’s a quote made popular by Richard Dawkins: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” We are all atheists when it comes to believing in Zeus or Odin or RA. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.
But, so what? I don’t believe. You do. Who cares? And if there was a way to keep these two viewpoints from coming into conflict with one another I wouldn’t care. But I believe in many things that are threatened by the church.
I believe in euthanasia. I believe that people should have the right to choose when and how they die. I believe they have the right to a dignified end. But because of the dominant religious beliefs in this country, if I became paralyzed with some crippling, agonizing illness that deteriorated my quality of life to the point that I no longer wanted to live, I do not have the legal right to end my life. That pisses me off a little. I believe in same-sex marriage. I believe that society benefits from people being in committed relationships. It serves a stabilizing function by encouraging people to settle down, get a job, raise children in a stable loving environment, buy a house, and pay taxes. But once again, because of the dominant religious beliefs in this country many loving couples are not able to enjoy the same rights as every other American. And that pisses me off. I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I don’t believe it benefits this society and, in fact, it does great harm to bring unwanted children into a world already straining beneath the weight of overpopulation, crime, and poverty. But the dominant religion in this country is constantly trying to curtail that right.
I believe that people should be judged by their abilities, their morality, and their actions rather than by their religious beliefs or lack thereof. But yet, in this country atheists are the minorities least likely to be elected to public office. And yeah, that pisses me off. When asked who you would like your son or daughter to marry, once again, an atheist is at the bottom of the list. Despite the fact that atheists are most likely to be college educated, least likely to go to prison, and least likely to get divorced. And finally, I believe in reason. I believe that the practice of believing without evidence is demonstrably dangerous and has historically led to abominable acts of intolerance and cruelty. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
I don’t think it‘s a coincidence that nearly all the racist organizations in this country are religious organizations. When you don’t need evidence for your beliefs you can believe anything and that tendency can be easily exploited by the corrupt and the unscrupulous.
Atheism is not a belief system. There are no dogmas attached to it. No mores. No rituals. There are no Ten Commandments of atheism. It is simply the absence of belief.
I’m sure you have been told and many of you perhaps believe that atheists hold science up like a religion. That we have faith in it the same way believers have faith in their religions, but there’s no such thing as scientific faith. Science is the study of evidence whereas faith is belief without evidence and often in spite of all evidence. They are the antithesis of each other. There are no scientific beliefs that are sacrosanct. If a scientist could disprove evolution or gravity or relativity he would be famous. He’d be almost guaranteed a Nobel Prize.
“… my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.”
That was Richard Dawkins who said that. He is about as close to a fundamentalist atheist as they come. And that is why there is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist, because if there were scientific evidence that God existed there would be no atheists. I know exactly what it would take to convince me of God’s existence, verifiable evidence, facts.
I don’t have, and never had, the ability to suspend my disbelief and natural skepticism. Not even when I was a believer. I always questioned and doubted. That’s just who I am. I can’t believe just to satisfy anxieties about death or my place in the universe. I can’t believe simply because a particular belief system is popular. Truth isn’t decided by majority vote. I can’t be persuaded just because some priest or minister talks real pretty. I know they are just men like me. I talk pretty too. That doesn’t mean I’m not full of crap sometimes. I can’t just choose to believe because I don’t trust my own moral compass and fear that I wouldn’t be a good person without the threat of damnation and the promise of paradise. I cannot believe just to fit in, for that safe, comfortable, sense of community. I cannot believe just because everyone in my family, culture, or country believes and it has become a custom or a tradition. My mind just does not work that way. I am not terribly skilled at the art of self-deception.
I can only believe in any religion or ideology when I know it to be true, when it can be verified by empirical facts, by experiments that produce predictable results that can be duplicated. That’s the basic standard of proof we use for everything except our religious beliefs. If someone were selling me a TV set and they said “You can’t turn it on. You just have to have faith that it works. You can only turn it on after you’re dead.” I’d think they were crazy. And hopefully, so would you. But religion doesn’t allow you to turn it on and try it out before you buy it. You don’t know if religion works until you’re dead. Now, I’m just a kid from the ghetto so to me, that sounds like a con.
When I was growing up on the streets of Philadelphia, I learned the hard way not to blindly trust in pretty words and beautiful fantasies spun by charismatic individuals no matter how desirable the fantasies were, no matter how well they fit my personal aesthetic, my personal vision of how things ought to be, no matter how much they flattered my ego or calmed my fears. I learned to question everything. I wasn’t fooled by the pimps, hustlers, conmen, and drug dealers because I questioned every lie that came out of their mouths and I demanded proof. I demanded evidence. I saw what a crack addict looked like and so I never fell for the lies of the crack dealer. I saw the drunks and winos. That’s why I never drank when I was young no matter how much peer pressure there was to get drunk and party. I never smoked cigarettes. I never smoked weed. No matter how many of “the cool kids” were doing it. I never got into crime. I saw the end results of the drug dealer’s life, the pimp’s life, the gangster’s life, and so I was never impressed with their temporary wealth and ghetto fame.
Likewise, I heard the preacher telling us that “Jesus Saves” and then I saw my friends and neighbors gunned down in the street by drug dealers. I saw them in welfare lines and unemployment lines. I saw them get sick with cancers and diseases and die in agony. I saw crack babies born into abusive homes. I saw the socio-economic oppression of my people, crushed beneath the weight of racism and poverty and it was hard to rectify that with anything the preacher was saying. I read in the bible, Mathew 7:8 , where Jesus said “For everyone who asketh receiveth; he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” It floored me, because I had been asking for bread for as long as I could recall and had usually received stones and serpents. My own life proved the lie in this statement and it called everything else into question. As I looked around at my neighbors I saw that most of them had likewise learned to subsist on stones from heaven. The bible was obviously wrong. And so, like the lies of the pimps, drug dealers, gang bangers, and conmen, I learned not to trust it. Just as it had on the streets, being a skeptic kept me from being a fool and a victim.
Atheism, for me, is not a statement of any knowledge concerning the origins of the universe or of life. It is not saying, “I know for a fact that there is no God.” What it says is simply, “I don’t know if there is a God and neither do you. And because I don’t know I can’t believe.”