by Larry Bollinger
On September 25, 2018 Kathleen O’Conner, Lindsay Baxendale and I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of high school students from Silverton. The dozen or so students, ranging from 9th through 12th grade, were members of Mr. Jordan Bierma’s humanities class. They were in the process of visiting various ‘faith’ communities in the Four Corners vicinity to acquaint themselves with their neighbors’ differing religious perspectives. We were delighted that Mr. Bierma thought to include Durango Skeptics and Atheists in their inquiry!
Being the ‘angry’ Atheist in our delegation (Kathleen is the ‘voice of reason/maternal/comforting’ Atheist and Lindsay representing the ‘next generation’ Atheists), I was conscious of my obligation not to be argumentative or appear to want to de-convert our guests. (Always a struggle for me!) Kathleen led off with the bottom line of Atheism: “We don’t believe in God. Period. Full stop.” In fact, she explained further, we try to purge all superstitions from our daily lives. We don’t ‘believe’ or have ‘faith’ in anything that can’t be supported by Evidence.
Our position thus staked out with an epic economy of words, we were left with approximately 59 minutes of our allotted hour to be filled with student questions. They asked how each of us came to our Atheism. For my part, it was a gradual dawning (after enduring 8 years of indoctrination at the hands of the good nuns of Our Lady of Grace Elementary School) that Roman Catholicism was riddled with bizarre voodoo-like beliefs that were relentlessly anti-human, arbitrary and cruel. Added to that, I realized that there was no evidence whatsoever to convince me that there was a loving Father/Creator God driving the bus. Quite the opposite, in fact. Author Jim Holt* put it best: “God is 100% malevolent, but only 80% effective”. And that describes the observable world perfectly, IMHO!
Kathleen brought out the Dawkins Scale and we each explained where we rate ourselves; Both Kathleen and Lindsay are high 6’s out of 7, leaving a bit of wiggle room as to whether any god exists. I don’t believe in hedging my bets…I am a full-blown 7, convinced that there are no gods, end of story. BUT, we all said, confront us with incontrovertible evidence of a loving God and we will change our minds in a heartbeat. (Really, a loving God should WANT to reveal him/herself to humankind in an unambiguous way. If God willed it, we could all be presented with indisputable proof of his/her existence. Boom. But there’s just radio silence beyond the ‘word of God’ as portrayed in the Bible. Don’t get me started on the Bible).
The take-away nugget we tried to emphasize was the difference between ‘faith’ and Atheism: Faith is a knowledge statement – an assertion of fact – despite the absence of evidence. Atheists, on the other hand, try to form a world view based on the model of scientific inquiry: observe, hypothesize, form a theory that fits the observed facts. Then we stand by those facts, ever mindful that we must change even our most fundamental beliefs if presented with contradictory facts and evidence.
We were asked if ‘religion’ (small ‘r’ intentional) should be taught in school. Our answer was an enthusiastic ‘YES!’ but only if it’s an objective, comparative study and not devotional instruction. I think that may have surprised some who probably expected overt hostility from us towards all religious thought. But a comparative study of religious practices just equips a person with understanding that may lead to compassion and empathy for others’ perspectives and cultures. Exactly what the Silverton students were accomplishing in their quest visiting temples, mosques and churches. And visiting the Durango Library to meet with The Atheists!
Lindsay asked a great question as we were about to break up the meeting. “Did any of you change your opinion about Atheists as a result of this discussion?” I would very much like to report that every single one of them renounced their birth religions and signed up to be members of DS&A. But Reality is never as tidy or accommodating as that! The fact is that most of the students had no opinion of Atheists one way or the other going into our meeting…and what they took away in their heads, remained in their heads. We provided our guests with a suggested reading list and our ‘What is Durango Skeptics and Atheists’ FAQ sheet, hoping to plant a few seeds that might persuade the students to use the lens of Rationality to make good decisions in their lives. Kathleen adds: “I found the experience to be very positive! I thought the students were inquisitive, polite and genuinely curious about atheism. I enjoyed their thought-provoking questions, and I hope they all left with a positive impression of atheists and atheism in general.”
We are very grateful to Mr. Bierma for providing us an opportunity to meet his class! Call on us anytime!
- *NYT Best-seller Why Does the World Exist?