I’m an atheist. Just getting that out of the way. Because this is about a problem that I have with atheists. Not all atheists. Just the strident ones, the humourless ones who form and join clubs, who campaign and complain and object. The ones who picket shopping malls when they provide prayer rooms but not ‘rational contemplation rooms’. Those ones.
The source of my problem is simple enough. Atheists are wrong. To be clear: they’re not especially wrong. They’re just roughly as wrong as everyone else. And, like everyone else, from far enough away they’re almost completely wrong. I can say this with certainty. We’ve got plenty of evidence. Thousands of years of it. Neolithic astronomers could line up the stones for the equinox but were wrong about everything else. Copernicus knew the planets orbited the sun but, we can see, got practically everything else wrong. The Papal inquisition was wrong. But so was Galileo. Newton was wrong. Darwin was wrong. Even the mighty Darwin. The splendid edifice of his scholarship is intact and still uniquely influential but, across the decades, large parts of it have been revised, replaced, dropped – as they should. The flat-earthers and the ether/phlogiston merchants – they were all wrong. But then, later on, so was Einstein. Being wrong is more-or-less universal (everyone’s wrong) and more-or-less eternal (all the time). And the more time passes, the more wrong we all are.
To make it more obvious, go back a bit further. Go back ten thousand years, in fact. To the time of the first big settlements and the beginning of farming and the origin of written language and inquiry into the world. What did we know then that isn’t now known to be wrong? Clue: almost nothing. See what I mean?
Now wind forward ten thousand years from the present day: from out there, from as far into the future as we’ve come since the last ice age, almost everything we take for granted now is going to be wrong. Horribly, fundamentally wrong. Wrong in ways that will ripple through human knowledge and force us to revise even our most basic assumptions about the world. Wrong in ways that will make our future selves laugh as they look back and wonder how any of us – believers or non-believers – managed to dress ourselves in the morning.
But, you’ll protest, it’s not about being right or wrong, its about the method. Rational inquiry – the scientific method – actually depends on being regularly, consistently wrong. And, of course, you’ll be right. The big difference between the scientific method and the invisible fairies crowd is the tolerance for being wrong, the constant readiness to check your thought against reality and revise it. The religious folk have a fixed worldview. In fact, their worldview depends on nothing changing: on invariant laws handed down by Gods. Case closed, surely?
But no. Not at all. Rewind again (go the whole ten thousand if you want). Examine the thought of an earlier era – the myths and laws and creation stories of that time. See where I’m going with this? Are they really invariant? Are they even, in fact, recognisable? Do the beliefs that animated the irrational folk of earlier eras still apply? No, they don’t. They’ve been overturned, thrown out and replaced – dozens, hundreds, thousands of times. Objects of worship, origin stories, social and ritual elements: are any the same now as they were in earlier periods? Hardly any. It turns out that just because religious people say their beliefs are eternal and unvarying, it doesn’t mean they actually are. They shift and change constantly. The Vatican, which persecuted and executed astronomers, now operates an important observatory. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists – they change their minds all the time, constantly (when looked at from the right distance) revising and updating their beliefs, quietly dropping the stuff that’s incompatible with current models.
So, rational folk (like me) are as wrong as everyone else and – more than that – have no monopoly on a readiness to update their thought as they acquire new knowledge. And this is what upsets me about the assertive hard-core of atheists/secularists/rationalists – the ones who put ‘atheist’ in their Twitter bios, do stand-up comedy about the silly believers, sue the council for putting on carol concerts and all the rest. Being slightly less wrong than the God botherers doesn’t make you right. We should have the humility to recognise that – over the long run – we’re all gloriously, irredeemably wrong.
Update 30/04: James O’Malley has posted an interesting response to this post called, naturally, ‘What’s Right with Atheists‘!