Interview with the Gazette: Part 1

I was asked a few days ago by the Colorado Gazette do do a series of email interviews on a variety of subjects. They wanted an Atheist’s perspective on a number of issues ranging from gay marriage to Internet access, and I was happy to oblige. The responses I wrote were probably too lengthy and detailed for them to be able to publish, and so I asked if I could post them up on the site for you who may find something of interest in them.

I have divided the interview in two parts; one available today, and the other will be published tomorrow. It’s my hope many of you will enjoy some of my rather unorthodox views on these subjects.

Q: What do you think of the current education system, and how it might be changed or improved?

Every day, scientists are discovering unique properties about the human brain. What is unfortunate is as we learn more about how the mind works, we have failed to make modifications to our educational system to reflect these new facts. Consider how quickly and easily children can learn new languages; the minds of young children function like a sponge in the first few years of life, and language skills are one of the first to develop. Yet, in spite of this, we send children to school to learn only one.

It’s difficult to know just what shape schools should have, but one thing is certain; we are not doing our children any service by under developing their skills. Many progressive schools recognize mathematic and logic skills develop in children far later than artistic ones. These schools encourage children to pursue endeavors that will in turn help foster stronger, and more creative minds.

I believe we need to do more to improve schools than what has been done in the past. It might mean making radical changes to the way schools are managed, but we should not be surprised if this is necessary. As far as institutions go, modern schools are still the new kid on the block, and to think that the current system is the height of human achievement seems to me the height of hubris.

Q: Would you support the rights to teach children voodoo? How does this right differ (if at all) between biological parents, adoptive parents, public schools, private schools etc?

Religious traditions that differ radically from established rituals sometimes frighten us. This is because the visceral nature of some of these religions is a cultural snapshot of an age many of us have forgotten. We are no longer accustomed to literal sacrifices during our ceremonies. These traditions have, over time, been stylized and modernized so as to make them almost completely different. Consider Holy Communion for Catholics. Here the act of eating human flesh and drinking blood has been transformed into the eating of their symbols. However, according to Catholic doctrine, even these symbols are transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Christ during consumption. They call this ‘divine’ act transubstantiation. Still, despite the shiny veneer of modernism, the primitive tradition of eating the sacrificed flesh and blood of a creature still remains. The difference in religions such as voodoo is that it has not been radically altered by the modern world.

I think there is a difference between teaching a kid about religion and forcing your belief on them. Parents raise their children to believe in the same things they do, but I believe this is a disservice to them. If your religion is inherently true, then it should be up to the child to choose what to believe in when they are mature enough to do so. Little kids who are told from early childhood about God have not had the opportunity to think about the relative truth of these propositions on their own. As such, I believe that religion flourishes only because of the susceptibility and gullibility of children. I was raised to make up my own mind about the existence or non-existence of God. My beliefs differ from those of my parents, and I’m grateful they respected my intelligence enough to allow me the chance to make up my own mind.
Q: Do you support the freedom to sell homeopathic medicine, and if so under what restrictions (if any)?

Homeopathy is based on three principles: 1) that like cures like (symptoms are cured by products that cause those same symptoms), 2) that dilution increases the efficacy and potency of the remedy, and 3) that the more diluted the remedy is, the more potent it becomes. The ingredients on all labels are listed in such a way as to reflect this: a solution that is 30X (probably the most common) has 1 part of the ingredient for every 30, billion, billion, billion of something else (typically either water, wax, or chalk. Comparatively over such a small thing as a pill, it is unlikely to contain any of that ingredient at all. Not one molecule. But this does not deter the Homeopath from questioning the medicinal properties of his concoction at all).

A pharmaceutical company who devotes millions of dollars of research money to hypothesize, develop, and test a drug is forced to prove that the symptoms it purports to cure are effective or not. However, we seem to not give Homeopaths the same rigorous expectations. Why not? They make claims that are verifiable all the time. If they were proven to be true, then they should be allowed to sell their medicine with their pharmaceutical counterparts. However, homeopathy has failed every verifiable experiment, and accounts for nothing more than the placebo effect. In light of this, homeopathic medicine should be relegated to the toy section of the pharmacy next to the water pistols and fake vomit.

Q: How has technology and the rise of the Internet impacted people’s beliefs and how might this effect the future?

Access to information is becoming an inalienable right for human beings, and I see this as a good thing. For centuries, human beings were denied the right to read to avoid uncomfortable questions from being asked. Even in a literate society, newspapers, television, and the radio can manipulate information to reflect a given attitude or belief. The Internet shares no such agenda. It is truly a marketplace of ideas. I don’t deny that access to some information becomes problematic, or even dangerous. But overall, the ability to read and share ideas with others around the globe represents the ultimate achievement in the history of communication. I can transmit my thoughts (in written format, video, or audio) over the entire globe in the blink of an eye. The distribution of this content is managed by a complex web that works in unison despite no specific agenda.

The future lies in our ability to maintain the neutrality of information. If we begin to tamper with the Internet in the same way that private interests have been allowed to tamper with the distribution of other media, we run the risk of losing the marketplace of ideas in favor of a very selective and controlled experience. So long as information and ideas can be traded without worry or reprieve or suppression, there is great potential for true journalism, accountability, and integrity to be part of the world of news.

That is not to say that the Internet does not have a wide array of facades. It can be as much a place for cooperation as it can be for entertainment, pleasure, coercion, fraud, or conflict. The Internet represents the many different aspects of humanity, but it doesn’t mean it is in the proper proportions. Although I don’t pretend to know which characteristics will have prominence, I’m hopeful it remains mostly positive.

Q: When might happiness be more valuable than the truth (if ever)? For example, comforting a dying grandparent with the idea of heaven despite your non-belief.

In the example you gave, there is no reason to make death, of all things, more difficult. In dire situations such as this, I cannot deny that believing in heaven could serve as a great comfort to many. But that is the same way we justify using morphine to ease the suffering of a dying patient. We numb them to the harsh reality of pain in favor of something more soothing. Life rarely affords us the luxury to be able to live in a comforting fantasy land, however. Despite the fact human beings are prosperous and safe, the planet we live on is not a silent partner in this affair. Mother Nature has its dark side, and the history of the Earth is peppered with stories of dominant species wiped from history. Even some disasters can be manmade; the warming of the Earth represents a direct threat to our continued survival. Even this reality has not shaken the fog of faith from the majority of Americans, who believe the end of the Earth will occur in their lifetime, ushering the glorious resurrection of Christ. Are we to think then the price of happiness outweighs the obligation we have to ourselves and to the next generation?

It’s not to say every religious person lives in a giant delusional bubble. Many Christians in America are reasonable, educated people who would not place the safety of their loved ones to the winds of fate. However, some who do call themselves Christians accuse others of not obeying the dogma they do. The fundamentalists cannot be convinced their views pose a threat to our safety and security, and if we are not allowed to call into question the beliefs of others, how are we to defend ourselves against their accusations?

Q: In a society with what some might call a constitutional level of separation between church and state, many would argue that the government can do no more than a “civil union”, and that any and all Christian marriages would be left to the church, though they would have no legal weight. Under such circumstances, would you support the rights of the church to disallow marriage between homosexual couples?

A church should no more be forced to perform weddings for homosexuals than homosexuals be disallowed from marrying. Gay couples should have the right to find licensed organizations or individuals to marry them, but I see no reason a private institution should be forced to do something against its will. In any conflict of civil liberty, there are people and organizations that invariably fall on the wrong side of history. It should be a decision the Catholic Church should be allowed to make, even if I feel it is the wrong one. As much as possible, the state should avoid taking any specific stance on marriage beyond their legal status in society. It is not up to the state to decide what is wrong or right. All it must ensure is the laws it enforce shows equal treatment of all nationalities and creeds.

The Founding Fathers believed a government’s mandate should not dictate the actions of the individual so long as his/her actions did not cause any harm. Religious institutions who try to accuse homosexuals of destroying the ‘sanctity’ of marriage make the rather bold assumption that the concept belongs only to them. Marriage has existed long before Catholicism and will continue to exist for long after (it has also existed in many different forms, but that’s a different topic altogether). It does not belong to any one religion; it is a right all human beings have: the ability to share their lives with whomever they chose.

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