"I Wouldn't Like to Think That ..."

This phrase is quite a common one in dialogue between atheists and theists, and it is usually spoken by the latter. When it occurs, it is followed by something, usually true, that is in conflict with the theists' beliefs, and that the theist, for some reason, is unable to handle. I'd like to talk about some of these unthinkable ideas (I use the phrase with complete irony), and why most of them are not all that bad. It should be understood that even if these unthinkables are not quite as comforting as their religious counterparts, that has no bearing to the truth value of the religious beliefs.

We'll start with the afterlife. Some people are simply terrified at the thought of there being no life after death, so they cling to their beliefs, because the world would simply not be just if it worked any other way. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that there is any part of our being to live on after we die, nor of a place that these spirits would go if they exist. While this does not conclusively prove that there is no afterlife, the odds are pretty good in the favor of our eventual expiration. The fact is that we are all going to die, and everyone we know is going to die. This is not a comforting fact, but unless we find evidence that points the other way, we are forced to accept it. This is our only chance we get to live, the only chance we'll have to experience what this world has to offer. We can sit for the rest of our lives and moan about it, or we can make the most of the lives that we have. I prefer, as I'm sure do most of us here, the second option.

Now, theists seem to think that making the best of the lives that we have means going out and committing every crime under the sun. They assume that if we believe that we are not rewarded for good deeds, or punished for bad ones, we will not feel that we should make efforts to help others, or indeed that we should have any respect for the rights of any other people. I do not know why people making this claim are not forever embarrassed afterword. Do they not realize that they have just told anyone who would listen that they only act morally because they believe that they will be rewarded if they do so, and punished if they don't? Have they not just told the world that they are selfish and anti-social by nature, and that it is only their religious beliefs that cause them to override their natural tendencies? Anyone who tells you that no afterlife means no morality is a person you should be wary of. By the way, isn't it odd to notice that many of the people who do try to make this argument are the same ones who don't think we should bother helping other people? You know, the ones that think that it's too bad for people in low-paying jobs if they can't pay for healthcare? Clearly their beliefs haven't really changed them that much. Many atheists on the other hand do want to help others. We acknowledge that there are problems in the world, and we are concerned with them. We want to see what we can do to help solve them, even if it's only a little bit. We don't need anyone from the sky glaring down at us demanding that we do these things on pain of everlasting life in a furnace.

Oh, but isn't it obvious? All of the most terrible world regimes were run by atheists. Surely there's some correlation there! Except that I can't quite seem to find it. For one thing, there are plenty of regimes in the world that are run by religious fanatics, and I certainly wouldn't want to live under any of those regimes. For another, The terrible things done under people like Stalin were not brought about by atheism. Stalin did not think, "There's no God, so I need to kill several million people." His thoughts were more along the lines of, "I'm the greatest thing that's ever happened to the country of Russia. Millions of people don't think so, though, and so they'll have to go before I can have absolute power." Stalin, however, did not think that the claim of his greatness needed to be backed up by anything so trivial as rational evidence. Most of the atheists that I know of feel that when you're making any kind of extraordinary claim, you should have a reason to be making it, and this reason should be one that actually can be shown to coincide with the real world.

Another unthinkable idea for many theists is that of the purposeless universe. I did not have trouble understanding the fear of death, but I am at a complete loss to comprehend this one. Theists seem to feel that the idea that their lives have no purpose or meaning in the universe as a hole is the worst news they could ever imagine. Why? Why would anyone find comfort in the idea that they are essentially robots, put into the universe to perform a specific task? Isn't it much more liberating to think that we are free, intelligent beings who are capable of deciding for ourselves what kind of purpose we will have? Yes, I knaw that I said myself that how a belief makes you feel has nothing to do with the truth of it. However, since the findings of scientists have made it quite clear just how small Earth is in proportion to the universe, this liberating belief is a reasonable one to hold.

Unfortunately, many don't find this view to their liking. I feel, though, that the fact that we mean hardly anything with respect to the whole cosmos doesn't really matter, because really, the whole cosmos doesn't mean very much to us, either. All it really is to us is a source of fascination. Astronomers like to study stars that are thousands of light years away. They have made predictions based on research they have done. They can tell us where a star is, how and what it orbits, what it's made of, and what might be orbitting it. The rest of us can't help but be in awe of these things, but really, how much do we think of them in our every day lives? Not very often, unless we happen to be astronomers, or at least aspiring ones. So we are an infinitesimal part of the universe. Who cares? We have better things to worry about than how much we will affect the cosmos. Maybe we should be worrying about something that affects us more directly, something that will make life on this world, however small it is, better for everyone.

The third unthinkable idea I will cover is that of evolution, and particularly, our evolution. Apart from the fact that evolution contradicts the perfectly inerrant book of fables from the stone age, many people just don't like what the theory says. They find the idea that we share an ancestor with the great apes to be a repulsive one. It's not all that surprising, after all, since these are usually the same people who think that people can and should be judged on the lives of their ancestors. Now them ape things, they ain't very on'rubble ancestors, ya know? Ah don't want no bawdy compairin' me with wun a them. And what about those bacteria? I'm, like, so much better than they are, because I can like think and stuff. I don't like to think very much, but at least I can do it, So I must have been made as I am right now. We must have been made separately. I mean, you don't see chimpanzees having baby humans, do you? And how can you think that there was this random clump of bacteria cells that just poofed into a mammal one day?

The focus here is not on the factual accuracy of evolution, and the ludicrous arguments made against it by people who don't really know what it means. Enough people have commented on those arguments, both here and elsewhere. It's about the terror some people feel when they contemplate the idea that we might have evolved from "lesser" species. It ruins there idea that their ancestors were perfectly glorious human beings who knew how to make things work good and proper. I'm not saying that every creationist thinks that his or her ancestors were perfectly admirable, merely that the reason they think evolution is so degrading to human beings is that they think that one's ancestors (even from four and a half billion years ago) are a perfectly legitimate basis on which to judge a person. There's some weird thinking in these people that if your ancestors were honorable, then you will be too, and mutatis mutandis if they were terrible people. They feel that there's no better way to find out about a person than by looking at their ancestry. This could hardly be less logical in my opinion. There's no reason to believe that you will behave a certain way just because your grandparents, or even your parents, behave that way. There are certain genetic behaviors in all of us, but genetics by no means has complete control over the things we do. There is no reason, therefore, to be upset by the fact that we shared an ancestor with chimpanzees. Our ancestors were apes of some kind, but we're not. Isn't that good enough?