Charlie Jane Anders, a writer for one of my favorite nerd blogs, io9, wrote a post today called Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction. The post, to be as charitable as I can, is total crap. Anders starts out by saying
You can’t be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness. You know what I mean. People who can’t just profess that they don’t believe in God — they have to taunt religious people for believing in “fairy tales.” Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science… and yet, they won’t recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other.
The first problem here is that Anders is attacking an attitude without citing any examples, just saying “you know what I mean.” This is an almost guaranteed straw man, as it relies on the detractor’s characterization of the offending behavior with no room for interpretation.
The next problem, just with this paragraph alone, is that Anders characterizes equating religious belief with belief in fairy tales and/or the Tooth Fairy is “smug.” The problem is that religious belief is no more reasonable or supported by evidence as is belief in those other “ridiculous” things. In some ways, it makes more sense to believe in the Tooth Fairy, as parents often specifically set out to provide evidence for its existence. Anders just throws this out there like it’s obvious, instead of providing an argument or any reasons why religious believers shouldn’t be mocked for their ridiculous beliefs.
Third is the classic agnostic fallacy – we “simply have no data, one way or the other.” Wrong. We have a ton of data disproving a ton of religious beliefs. The only way you get to “we have no data” is by reference to a vague, squishy idea of “a higher power” which doesn’t necessarily do much of anything. Any time you get more specific than that, chances are there is some evidence against your belief. But that also ignores a central idea behind all reasonable thought – belief without evidence is unjustified. If we have no data for or against a proposition, the reasonable thing to do is to disbelieve it. The strength of a belief should be proportional to the strength of the evidence. If there is no evidence, there should be no belief, and anyone who has a belief is being unreasonable. Anders continues
A lot of the best science fiction includes a sense of wonder at the hugeness of the cosmos — and the flipside of that is a sense of our own smallness. And the humility that goes along with that. If you want to feel a real sense of quasi-religious awe, don’t think of the world as being 6,000 years old — think of its actual age, measured in billions of years, and the huge timescales of the universe before and after our world. And think of the vastness of the cosmos, whose mysteries we’ve only just begun to glimpse in the past century.
What now? Anders sounds like most of the often-called “smug” atheists I know of in this paragraph. Is Anders trying to suggest that atheists lack a sense of wonder at the universe? I’d say that Anders ought to take a look at The Magic of Reality before making unsourced assertions like that. Anders’ next point:
There’s a common plot in science fiction — particularly media SF — where someone is “seeing things” or having experiences that can’t be easily verified or quantified using technology. Like a sense of “deja vu,” or hearing voices, or seeing the missing-presumed-dead Captain Kirk floating around. And a huge problem in these stories is that nobody can really know what another person is experiencing, or whether it has any validity or is just a hallucination. Thus it is with religious experiences — other people can speak about their profound experiences of the divine, which seem immensely real to them, but may sound like a crazy delusion to the rest of us.
Is Anders seriously suggesting here that “smug” atheists aren’t aware of stories in which people seem crazy, but are later vindicated? Of course we’re aware of those stories. The reason we don’t immediately draw parallels to the people we know who seems crazy is that THESE ARE WORKS OF FICTION! Seriously, how dense do you have to be not to understand that? One of the common criticisms that “smug” atheists level at believers is that they can’t tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Anders seems to be proving that point. Anders closes with this:
Still, it’s great to be atheist — and I strongly support arguing publicly and loudly in favor of atheism as a point of view. Just, you know, don’t be smug about it. You don’t actually know any more than the rest of us, and the universe is a much stranger, more bewildering place than any of us can really begin to grasp, and the only thing that would be surprising is if we stop being constantly surprised. If you don’t believe me, just read some science fiction.
This is the paragraph that inspired the title of this post, in that it seems to me that Anders just doesn’t know any atheists. Almost all of the atheists that I know agree wholeheartedly that the universe is a strange, bewildering, and ultimately unknowable place. Our frustration is with religious believers who claim to know things that they cannot possibly know, based on holy books or intuition. It’s the atheists who are insisting that the universe is a giant mystery, and the believers who claim that they have it all figured out. Atheism is nothing more that the belief that the idea of “god” is unsupported by the available evidence. Anders should actually speak to a few atheists before painting them with such a broad brush.