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Are All Religions Inherently Arrogant?

As an atheist who likes to engage with theists on their specialist subject, I cannot count the number of times an angry religious person has come at me with the accusation that atheists are all arrogant know-it-all types who think everybody else is wrong and they're right.

Um...are you even listening to yourself? You're telling me that your religion is the right one, that I'm going to burn in some weird super-hot place for all eternity for not believing it, that your God is the only one, and that you know better than poor misguided, ignorant me because you read about it in your holy book and heard someone preach about it in your meeting hall.

Can you hear how incredibly arrogant and know-it-all you sound?

As Ricky Gervais so succinctly puts it, there are easily a thousand gods that are worshipped by people in various cultures across the world, including your God. You don't believe in 999 of them, and I believe in only one fewer of them than you.

The simple fact that religions of various stripes all have adherents who claim to worship the one true God - or if you're Hindu a whole collection of them (greedy!) - is already an inherently exclusionary, elitist, arrogant claim to make. The missionary zeal with which some of these religions seek to make converts out of what they condescendingly refer to as "heathens" has in the past led to some of the worst atrocities committed by one set of humans against another set of humans that the world has ever seen. And don't give me that bollocks about "well, Hitler was an atheist, you know, and he killed millions." No, he fucking wasn't. Hitler was a firm believer in all kinds of mythological nonsense, and sought religious justifications for his Aryan supremacist ideology, even going so far as to have entire teams of Nazi archaeologists and historians looking for artefacts (including Biblical ones) that would bolster his cause (yeah, that wasn't just a script-writer's fantasy for Indiana Jones movies).

As for religious faith being in any way inclusive (it seems to be particularly Christians who try that one on me), all you have to do is look at faith schools, like the Church of England schools in the UK or Catholic schools in Ireland, to see that faith schools and the churches that support them discriminate against everyone not of their faith – in their admissions and employment policies, the curriculum they teach the kids, and their assumptions about the world-views and belief systems of others. Faith schools choose their pupils, rather than the other way round, and a proliferation of faith schools will decrease choice for the majority of parents, unless they are prepared to join, or pretend to join, a religion.

Muslim schools are no better, and in fact many are far worse. There are many illegal Muslim schools springing up all over the world (with over 6,000 children in the UK alone attending such illegal schools), where the children are taught xenophobic, narrow-minded, extremist, misogynist, sexist, intolerant values.

OK, but aren't atheists equally arrogant and exclusionary?

The fact is, we are atheists because we demand evidence, we think critically, and we kinda like science. And science is not about certainty, despite how it is painted by the anti-science god-botherers. Science itself is not arrogant (though scientists can of course be arrogant dicks, just like any other human being - but someone being both an arrogant dick and a scientist reflects two unrelated facts about them. Just like being a black woman or a disabled veteran or my neighbour's twelve-year-old kid, and also being an arrogant dick, are also just unrelated facts.)

In fact, science itself can never be arrogant, for two key reasons:

  1. Science is always looking for new data to explain the universe, and scientists find it exciting when observed data contradicts the established facts - nothing is ever totally settled (although we can be 99.99999% sure about some things)

  2. Science doesn't care if you believe in gods or fairies or creationism - and it doesn't seek to convert you. There isn't my science and your science, though there can be bad science (and on that note, I heartily recommend Dr. Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science). There is simply science - and the facts are simply the facts. You can't pray a rocket into space, folks.

The trouble with religious minds and their feelings of increasing threat (and possibly inferiority) is that science has been chipping away at their lofty ideas of being "special" for hundreds of years, and continues to do so. In his book Pale Blue Dot, the wonderful Carl Sagan called it the "Great Demotion."

Our ancestors lived outdoors. The only way for them to tell the passing of the seasons and the turning of the years, to know when to migrate and when to stay, to find their way in unfamiliar territory, was to watch the sky. Knowing about the sun and moon and the motions of the stars was not just a hobby but a matter of survival. How wonderful then, that the stars showed such regular and precise patterns of movement. That the shapes of the constellations were constant, and that some stars could be used to navigate by. They must have been put there by some higher power just for us, for our exclusive use. Nothing else on the planet used them, as far as we could tell.

Natural forces were so far beyond our understanding, and elicited such awe and terror and wonder in us, that we assigned personalities to those forces - oddly human ones. Volcanic eruption? The gods of the earth are angry at us! Gentle rains to feed our crops and swell our rivers? The gods are pleased with us! The only control we could exert was to seek ways to control what we could in our environment. It is a well-known human trait that the more precarious your position, the more attractive becomes the idea that you're somehow "special" in some way.

Nothing fed that conceit more easily than the lights in the sky, and the sun and moon. If they rise and set around us and give us the seasons, the days and nights, then is it not evident that we are the centre of the universe? This is the kind of thinking that led to the geocentrist conceits that are so pervasive across all cultures that it even shapes the way we speak: the sun rises, the sun sets. Ancient cave paintings in France and rock art in Southern Africa show that our ancestors already thought of the sun and moon as setting and rising around them, before writing was even invented.

But the invention of writing and the resulting codification of observations did nothing to dislodge the view that we humans are at the centre of everything. Which makes our god or gods the creators of everything that is so clearly meant for us to use and inhabit. For example, the great 2nd century astronomer, Ptolemy, wrote that the Earth was a sphere (you hear that, Flat Earthers? People who lived a thousand years ago knew this shit already!) He wrote that its size was a mere point compared to the distance of the stars from it, and yet he still taught that it lay "right in the middle of the heavens." The greatest minds in history bought into this delusion: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas - almost every great philosopher and scientist spanning the 3,000 years ending in the 17th century.

From such a point of view, it's not too great a leap to the idea that the "perfection" of the universe would be incomplete without humans, as Plato asserted in the Timaeus. Yet for all those thousands of years, the Earth stubbornly persisted in orbiting the sun, not the other way around. And the gods we invented along the way (and by extension their representatives on Earth) did not approve of fallible humans and their corruptible societies making contrary claims. Just ask Galileo.

The tide began to turn in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, oddly enough through the world of art. My all-time Oscar nomination for the complete rebirth of painting in Europe, and for the beginning of a new way to see the universe, goes to Giotto di Bondone, an artist living in 13th century Florence in Italy. He is credited with rediscovering three-dimensional painting, but with things being a bit slow back then, it took until the Renaissance of the 15th century before his ideas hit the rest of Italy and spread across Europe.

In the realm of science, things began to change with Nicolaus Copernicus, who published a book that made the dangerous claim that the Earth revolved around the sun. Obligingly, many scholars were quick to reassure the Catholic Church that the Copernican hypothesis was a mere mathematical device that could be used to plot planetary positions.

It was only when Galileo Galilei turned the first good telescope to the heavens that the predictions of Copernicus were proven to be correct. Like any good scientist, Galileo supported experiment and observation, not dogma or beliefs, in attempting to answer questions about the world and the universe. And like any good scientist, Galileo thought that people deserved to know this stuff - so he wrote about it.

But what if the facts that are revealed in this way contradict the beliefs of those who hold their religions incapable of mistakes?

The prevailing religious hierarchy of Galileo's time was the Catholic Church, and they duly proceeded to threaten the old astronomer with torture if he persisted with publishing his work. He was forced to recant, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Our geocentric and anthropocentric notions are brought to a culmination by the arrogant idea that we are created in the image of the God who supposedly created the entire universe. The creator looks just like me! What a coincidence! The 6th century BC Greek philosopher Xenophanes knew how arrogant this view was when he wrote that "Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, the Thracians say that their gods have blue eyes red hair, and if oxen could paint, their gods would look like oxen."

I will write more on the subject of Sagan's Great Demotion in another blog post. I'll finish this one by telling you one more thing about the arrogance of religions:

It took the Catholic Church until 1832, almost 300 years after Galileo's death, to remove his books from the list of things that good Catholics were not allowed to read. The church finally repudiated its denunciation of Galileo in 1992.

I don't care what you want to say in church or at home. Just don't bring your fantasies and delusions, your pseudo-scientific twaddle and your intolerance and bile into my kids' classrooms. And don't you bloody dare to tell me that I'M the arrogant one!

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