Atheism explained

My local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, published my letter to the editor explaining – and hopeful demystifying – the word “atheism.” It stayed at the top of the paper’s most popular items list for about five days. Clearly there was interest.

The word still creates significant confusion, fear, and backlash among believers of certain religious claims, particularly here in the Bible Belt. There also remains, despite the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, a stigma associated with the word. This stigma was evident to me in a couple of letters written in response to a local secular activist. I reference those letters below. Given that stigma and confusion, I decided to have a go at clearing things up and hopefully removing some of the baggage that travels with the notion of not believing someone’s claims about their god or gods being real.

First some context for the upcoming analogy. If you have a statistics background, then you are familiar with the concept of the null hypothesis. Here’s a quick refresher for those who might’ve avoided statistics like the plague. No to worry, I’ll try to make it painless. When comparing two data sets, the null hypothesis represents the idea that there is no real, on in “statistics speak,” significant, difference between the two. The alternate hypothesis represents the idea that there is a statistically significant difference between them. Simple enough right?

Atheism is just a word that applies a label to the null hypothesis with regard to all claims about gods. It is basically the real world as it is, with no supernatural beings, oversight, or intervention. It is the status quo otherwise known as reality. The alternate hypothesis then would be that a god or some gods do exist  In statistics, until there is evidence that suggests any of those alternate hypotheses are true, we do not reject the null hypothesis. The way things are, remains the way things are.

The fact we have a special label for not believing in a specific type of thing, in itself is odd. There are literally countless creations of human imaginations that no one reasonably believes are real, yet there are no words to label those skeptics. You might even be an a-leprechaunist, a-goblinist, a-vampirist, and a-Bigfootist yourself!

When I took to the op-eds with this letter, I was hoping that my explanation might create some doxastic openness among the paper’s predominantly religious readership base. In other words, I was hoping some of them might, after thinking about the analogy, stop and think about why they believe what they do. I remain particularly hopeful I piqued the curiosity of local faith leaders. I’d love to have honest, respectful conversations about what they believe to be true and why. I will keep you all posted on that front. Until then, my letter is below.

DEAR EDITOR:

Based on the two letters, “Why do atheists always bring God into the equation?” (Dec. 5) and “Atheism does not offer the answers to violence” (Dec. 5) , written in response to Ed Buckner’s letter “Price’s column shows disregard for logic,” apparently there is some serious (and perhaps self-serving) misunderstanding as to what “atheism” means. Here is an analogy that should help clear things up.

Think of a swimming pool. Not just any swimming pool, but an Olympic-sized swimming pool with clearly defined swim lanes. In each lane is a swimmer representing a religion. In lane one, we have Christianity which claims there’s one God named Yahweh, and that God has a son named Jesus who is also the Messiah. In lane two, we have Judaism which claims the same God as Christianity, only there’s no Messiah … he hasn’t shown up yet. In lane three we have Islam, which claims the same God as Christianity and Judaism but instead calls him Allah and says the only way to salvation is by practicing faith according to Muhammad. In lane four there is Hinduism, which has its own set of very different gods, including but not limited to Ganesh, Brahma, and Vishnu. In lane five we have Sikhism which claims the god Waheguru is the one true god. In lanes six, seven, and eight we have Wiccan, Mormonism, and Scientology, each with their own god beliefs and revelations.

What I’m about to explain next is very important. Notice there’s not a swim lane for atheism. Atheism just means not believing anyone in any of those swim lanes, no matter how loudly they may splash and claim that they alone have it right. In fact, imagine another large, Olympic-sized swimming pool sitting adjacent to the big pool full of different god beliefs. This pool doesn’t have any lanes in it at all. It’s just calm, open water. Comparing the two, it is the pool without swim lanes, which, represents atheism. It’s not scary. It’s not evil. It’s just a word that describes the status of everyone, before they were told in what lane in the divided pool they were expected to swim. Hope that helps.
R.L. Bays

author of “There Are No Such Things as Ghosts: A Brief Guide to Critical Thinking

Letter to the editor: evolution is true

Alas, this past Sunday’s Marietta Daily Journal editorial section was once again awash with scientific illiteracy. One of the paper’s regular columnists, who also happens to be my old high school English teacher, is Roger Hines. I have fond memories of Mr. Hines’ class so many years ago, and I’m sure he’s still an amazingly nice fellow, but he has a very bad tendency to write some shockingly anti-LGBT, anti-science, and anti-progress pieces. This past week, he submitted the following paragraph and I just sent in my idea in the form of a letter to the editor, in response. Here’s what he wrote:
“Evolutionary theory is a million miles wide and a quarter inch deep. Not all smart people are evolutionists. Many scientists embrace cause and effect. Every effect (a wrist watch, a building, the universe) has a cause, and the cause is bigger than the effect. I’ve observed geological evolution in my back yard, but wait and see if “human evolution” ever changes us. (If you can wait a trillion years, that is. Undecipherable, unimaginable amounts of time are what super-evolutionists stand on for support, you know.)”
What follows is my response. I’ll be sure to let you all know if and when the paper publishes it.
Evolution is true
DEAR EDITOR,
This letter is in response to Roger Hines’ column, “A Self-interrogation on the joys and ills of this age” (12/16), wherein Mr. Hines says that biological evolution must be wrong because he’s never seen it take place in his backyard. Clearly this one letter is not going to suddenly eradicate Mr. Hines’ shocking misunderstanding of this most fundamental principle of biology, so I have an idea. In his previous week’s column, Mr. Hines talked about teaching English in college. I would encourage him to go back to that same college, presuming it was a legitimate accredited university, and visit the Biology department. While there, he should talk to several Biology professors about Darwinian evolution. It doesn’t matter which ones, as they will all confirm for him the truth of evolution by natural selection. Not because they have some “liberal agenda,” but because they understand the evidence for evolution by natural selection. But before he has these chats, he should be willing to change his mind if he’s given an evidence-based explanation. In my book, I call this Ground Rule Two of intellectual honesty. Ground Rule One being, we trust reason and evidence as the best methods for determining what is true. I can’t wait to hear his results!
R.L. Bays

Letter to the Editor: Marietta Daily Journal – After Sutherland Springs, nothing will change

Originally published on November 14, 2017, about one month after the Las Vegas massacre

DEAR EDITOR:

I would like to say that enough is enough, but I know better. As I write this letter, on the heels of a letter I wrote a few weeks ago after 59 lives were cut short by a maniac in Las Vegas, 26 lives were just cut short by a maniac at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. This maniac, like the previous one, had both the desire and the means to pull off yet another mind-boggling massacre. Many of these victims were young children just released from Sunday school to join the main service. The rest of my letter is unchanged since last month’s mass shooting.

We can’t restrict desire, but we can restrict means. But we won’t. If the little bodies of first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, aren’t enough to motivate action on keeping weapons of mass destruction — yes, mass destruction — out of the hands of those hellbent on destroying people, then nothing will.

Sure, our politicians will look somber. They will look sad. They will tweet their condolences. They will offer their thoughts. They will offer their prayers. And they will do nothing — absolutely nothing. Nothing will change. We will just wait for the next massacre. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. And we will hope that our faces, or our loved one’s faces, don’t become the faces that flash before a TV screen as the latest quickly forgotten victim of a massacre made accessible by our American gun lust and the unwillingness to exercise reasonable self government.

We as a society can’t restrict desire. But as a society, we can restrict means. I imagine the responses this letter inspires will illustrate why we won’t. Remember this when the next massacre happens. As it surely will.

Letter to the Editor: Marietta Daily Journal – After Las Vegas, nothing will change

Originally published on October 12, 2017

DEAR EDITOR:

I would like to say that enough is enough, but I know better. As I write this letter, 59 lives have been cut short by a maniac in Las Vegas with both the desire and the means to pull off a mind-boggling massacre. Hundreds lay in hospitals, ripped apart by a madman’s bullets, clinging to life. The body count will surely grow.

We can’t restrict desire, but we can restrict means. But we won’t. If the little bodies of first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, aren’t enough to motivate action on keeping weapons of mass destruction, yes mass destruction, out of the hands of those hell-bent on destroying people, then nothing will.

 Sure, our politicians will look somber. They will look sad. They will tweet their condolences. They will offer their thoughts. They will offer their prayers. And they will do nothing — absolutely nothing. Nothing will change. We will just wait for the next massacre. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. And we will hope that our faces, or our loved one’s faces, don’t become the faces that flash before a TV screen as the latest quickly forgotten victim of a massacre made accessible by our American gun lust and the unwillingness to exercise reasonable self government.

We as a society can’t restrict desire. But as a society, we can restrict means. I imagine the responses this letter inspires will illustrate why we won’t. Remember this when the next massacre happens. As it surely will.

Letter to the Editor: With hurricanes, we see climate science confirmed

NOTE: This letter was originally published in September, when storms and hurricanes were decimating many parts of the Caribbean and the southern United States. Sadly, it inspired several climate science denying responses in the newspaper.

DEAR EDITOR:

Climate scientists have been warning us for decades: human-caused global warming is going to lead to more intense storms. We all saw that it took Hurricane Harvey only four hours to go from a Category 2 storm to a Category 4 storm. We all see the devastation it brought to Texas in both lives and property.

Now all eyes are on Hurricane Irma. As I write this, Irma is the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. I shudder to imagine the devastation in lives and property it will bring if it hits Florida square on.

 It is a sad irony that the governors of both of those two states deny the reality of human-caused climate change. It is also a sad state of affairs that our president as well as many of the so-called leaders in Congress, including the 11th and 6th District’s own representatives, deny the reality of human-caused climate change.

As they deny reality, the effects of storms boosted by a warming ocean are unleashing catastrophic damage. It’s past time to wake up. We have to elect people who understand science.