In recent weeks I have been thinking about my life. I was an atheist from the ages of 13 to 21. Then I became a Christian at university. I am now almost certain that I will be returning to atheism. Here are some reasons for my decision.
Like many I have been very disturbed about the decisions and deeds of a politician, Vladimir Putin. You might have heard of him? This world seems so full of evil wars and its horrors. So it has been so consoling to read the words of a truly enlightened atheist like Richard Dawkins. He really speaks to me in his brilliant article – ‘Let’s all stop beating Basil’s car.’
This is a work, albeit very short, of inspired genius because Dawkins is unafraid to be bold and face the truth full on. To be honest I have met so many atheists who are not as enlightened or as brave as Richard Dawkins. They tell me that atheism can nurture both goodness and a meaningful, purposeful life.
Dawkins puts it so clearly:
“As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.”
This is enlightenment of the first order. Dawkins unpacks this full-bodied, honest and courageous atheism. In a purple passage he helps us to understand Basil Fawlty beating his car. Dawkins unpacks the significance of this so eloquently:
“Basil Fawlty, British television’s hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn’t start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. “Right! I warned you. You’ve had this coming to you!” He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?”
Isn’t this true and so honest about the human condition? Putin cannot help himself as he orders his soldiers to ravage Ukraine. Dawkins is so crystal clear about this:
“But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?”
Dawkins then invites us to consider how foolish and unenlightened it is to blame so-called evil doers like Vladimir Putin.
“Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.”
This is so helpful, soothing and comforting. When we are truly enlightened by a materialist and secular worldview, we can relax. We know now that the machine we call ‘Vladimir Putin’ is just a chemical, moist robot who has no free will. Evil and good are just human inventions. We will also understand that all Putin’s actions, beliefs and prejudices are determined by the laws of physics. We should not blame him (how unenlightened!) but fully grasp that everything we do is determined by the laws of physics.
I find this a great solace and comfort in these difficult and challenging times. I shall no longer be attending church because I am now ‘enlightened’.
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