Atheists should read more science fiction

io9 has a very good article by Charlie Jane Anders on “Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction.” “You can’t be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness,” she says. “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. After a while, I can’t help wishing that these people would read some more science fiction, which above all is the genre of amazement and limitless possibility.”

“A lot of the best science fiction also features the realization that for all our knowledge, there are still things in the universe we don’t yet fully understand… A lot of the best science fiction is intensely ‘cosmic,’ conveying just how huge and unknowable the universe is, and how little we still understand it. In a sense, the huge cosmic imagery of science fiction resembles some of the best religious paintings… [T]he 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.”

The author is (probably) an atheist: “[I]t’s great to be atheist,” she says, “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.”

This is also my own attitude toward atheists. I firmly stand for their right to choose what to believe, or what not to believe, and their right to express their opinions, but I ask them to respect the right of others to do the same. I also firmly stand for the right of everyone to believe in God, Gods, Zeus, Thor, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, if that makes them happy and gets them through the night.

Many atheists live, by their own choice, in a black and white world, and prefer to stay away from the colors of imagination. They see this as an act of courage and maturity, the hard choice to face reality, but perhaps real reality is more complex than our simple models. There is a Cosmist “third way” besides blind faith and blind atheism, firmly based on science, but open to the sense of wonder and the endless possibilities in a vast and amazing universe.

It is true that the best science fiction gives powerful visions of mystery and vastness, similar to religious visions. The article mentions Clarke, Dick, Herbert, Le Guin, Sagan, and Stapledon. I find powerful and beautiful “religious” visions also in the works of less “solemn” science fiction writers like Egan, Morgan, Rucker, and Stross, and science writers like Drexler, FM2030, Kurzweil, Moravec, More, Rothblatt, and Tipler. We are all small cogs in a huge transcendent machine, part of a species that may expand to the universe, merge with our intelligent technology, leave mortality behind, leave biology and matter as we know it behind, and meet Gods out there, and perhaps build Gods, or become Gods.

Richard Dawkins (yes, Dawkins, the leading atheist thinker) says that “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.” In his book, “The God Delusion,” he writes:

“Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century.

“Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C Clarke put it, in his Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods . . .

“In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way. Science-fiction authors . . . have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution…”

I completely agree with Dawkins. In my worldview there is no room for the “supernatural,” whatever that means (I think “supernatural” is a contradiction in terms), but I set no arbitrary limits to what intelligent beings in a vast universe can achieve. The history of science seems to agree with me, and I am persuaded that “future magic” will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed.

  • Dave Sill

    I’m an atheist who reads lots of science fiction. Bug I’m not smug or in-your-face about it. I don’t like jerks who disagree with me and don’t like jerks who agree with me.

    Atheism isn’t “knowing that there are no god-like entities anywhere in the universe”–nobody could know that–it’s not believing that any of the gods around which Earth-based religions are built exist anywhere but in the minds of their believers.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Thanks for commenting Dave, and I find what you say very reasonable. I am persuaded that atheists and believers can discuss science and religion constructively, as long as nobody is in-your-face about personal convictions.

  • I have a line I enjoy using: ‘I believe in G-d because I know it doesn’t exist.’ It’s more of a conversation piece than a position, I use it to highlight the inaccurate use of belief and knowledge in this argument. If you know something, you no longer believe in it’s existence. I have a commendatory belief in G-d (G-d is technological, we can create G-dliness), the problem with existential beliefs in G-d is that when held and disproved they become delusional beliefs that still inform people’s decisions.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Terasemian – The concept of “existing” may be more complex than our everyday use of the term. Does Napoleon exist? Does my unborn granddaughter exist? Do alternative versions of you exist in other branches of the multiverse?

    I tend to think of God as something that we will build/become in the future. In this case God exists in our future, or in the future of parallel versions of us. If the future God is able to use weird physics and engineering to affect our present, then God exists in the present in a very real sense. If the future God is able to uplift us to the future via quantum archaeology, then again God exists in the present in a very real sense.

    God may not exist yet, but I totally agree with Sir Arthur Clarke: “Perhaps our role on this planet is not to worship God – but to create Him.”

  • David Ellis

    The problem I have with talking about “smug” atheists, especially without even quoting examples, is that all an atheist has to do to be perceived as smug (not to mention militant) is to simply admit to being one. Anyone who follows many atheist blogs will remember the ferocious objections to even the most innocuous atheist billboards. Ex:

    “Don’t believe in God….You’re not alone”.

    The above message prompted death threats to the owner of the land leased by the billboard company.

    http://current.com/community/91446453_death-threats-force-removal-of-atheist-billboard.htm

    A little awareness that atheists actually have some pretty strong greivances would have been nice:

    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/10/atheists-and-an.html

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUI_ML1qkQE

  • Giulio Prisco

    David, I understand that atheists may have some pretty strong grievances. Not feeling free to express personal convictions, or even to have personal convictions, is very unpleasant, and I empathize with atheists in this situation. It doesn’t happen in Europe, but I understand that it can and does happen in the U.S.

    As I wrote in the article, I firmly stand for the right of atheists to choose what to believe, or what not to believe, and their right to express their opinions. I just ask them to respect the right of others to do the same.

    I also firmly stand for the right of everyone to believe in God, Gods, Zeus, Thor, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, if that makes them happy and gets them through the night.

  • David Ellis

    “As I wrote in the article, I firmly stand for the right of atheists to choose what to believe, or what not to believe, and their right to express their opinions. I just ask them to respect the right of others to do the same.”

    In what sense are atheists not respecting that right? I don’t hear any calls from atheists to make religious belief illegal. Of course, we agree that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs they like.

    But this does not entail a right to have one’s beliefs go uncriticized.

    And this is mostly what makes so many angry at vocal atheists: we criticize that which religious privilege has so long put outside the bounds of civil discussion.

    But is there actually a good basis for this social habit of letting religious claims go uncriticized? I can see no good basis for it but I’d be happy to hear why anyone thinks it should be preserved.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @David re “I don’t hear any calls from atheists to make religious belief illegal.”

    Sadly, I do. I often report that, in a Facebook discussion of a couple of years ago, a militant atheist fascist proposed forced mental therapy for believers, and others agreed. These thugs would make religious belief illegal and send believers to gulag if they had the power to do so. Actually, they _have_ done so where/when they have been in power, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_atheism.

    “Of course, we agree that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs they like.”

    And this is exactly my point. Everyone must be free to hold whatever belief they like, to criticize whatever belief they dislike, and to express their convictions freely, provided that they respect the right of others to do the same.

  • David Ellis

    “Sadly, I do. I often report that, in a Facebook discussion of a couple of years ago, a militant atheist fascist proposed forced mental therapy for believers, and others agreed. These thugs would make religious belief illegal and send believers to gulag if they had the power to do so.”

    Thankfully, this is an extreme minority position. In a decade of discussion with atheists on the internet (and more than that in real life) I’ve yet to have seen it myself.

    “Actually, they _have_ done so where/when they have been in power, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_atheism.”

    Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that two people being atheists means they have significant ideological similarities. I, hardcore rationalist atheist that I have, have vastly more ideological sympathy for hippies and new agers than I do for Ayn Rand devotees. The major ideological strand among western atheists today is secular humanism. That you think the behavior of communists tells us anything about secular humanists simply suggests to me that you have a pretty strong dislike biasing your assessment.

    “Everyone must be free to hold whatever belief they like, to criticize whatever belief they dislike, and to express their convictions freely, provided that they respect the right of others to do the same.”

    If that is what you’d said from the start without the strong hint that you consider it rude and offensive to publicly question other people’s cherished religious conviction we’d not have had this discussion.

  • Giulio Prisco

    David, I didn’t say that that I consider it rude and offensive to publicly question other people’s cherished religious convictions. I use to enjoy discussions with people who question my own convictions, and I think a world where everyone thinks the same would be a very boring place.

    There are, however, different ways to question the convictions of others:

    A)I am not persuaded by your argument […] because […].

    B) Only a moron would think of such an idiocy like […]. I think you should grow up and forget your infantile ideas. Cease and desist, and if you dare to continue spreading your bullshit we will lock you in jail and throw the keys away. Also, fuck you, asshole.

    See the difference?

  • David Ellis

    Of course I see the difference. I’m not defending the proposition: be an asshole.

    I’m objecting to the strong hint of “just shut up and let people believe what makes them happy” coming from your comments.

    You came very close to explicitly articulating this as your position:

    “I firmly stand for their right to choose what to believe, or what not to believe, and their right to express their opinions, but I ask them to respect the right of others to do the same. I also firmly stand for the right of everyone to believe in God, Gods, Zeus, Thor, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, if that makes them happy and gets them through the night.”

    It’s this idea, suggested but always falling just short of fully articulated, that troubles me.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Re “I’m objecting to the strong hint of “just shut up and let people believe what makes them happy” coming from your comments.

    Well, I will believe what I want to believe, because it makes me happy, or for other reasons that make sense to me. The important and non-negotiable point is that my thoughts are mine. If I want to believe in the Tooth Fairy, I will continue to believe in the Tooth Fairy, regardless of what others think.

    Of course, you can say that you find my belief in the Tooth Fairy stupid. I will certainly not take offense if you say that(I reserve the right not to listen though). But I will not tolerate it if you try to force me to give up my belief in the TF, to prevent me from meeting with my fellow believers in the TF, or to shut me up. Freedom is beautiful if everyone is free.