An unlikely pair

unlikely pair
I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.

Myths about atheism

5film3As an atheist and a follower of public discussions of religion one runs into strange misconceptions and myths about atheism and atheists. In my personal life I have only heard a couple of these but because I am interested in debates and that kind of stuff I’ve been exposed to a lot more prejudice indirectly. Also, as Scandinavian living in England following this discourse which is mostly happening across the pond in the States I will say that between Finland, UK and US there seems to be an increase in negativity towards atheism the further westwards you go.

1. Atheists hate God and worship Satan

The term ‘atheism’ is built up from three parts where theos is Greek for any god, -ism indicates a system of principles and practices, and a- expresses not or without. Atheism at its core, stripped out of all additional meanings simply stands for an unbelief in any god. It’s not defiance of a god, nor a pretence – it is simply a lack of belief. Satan is just as fictional to atheists as is God, and so it is safe to say that atheists don’t tend to practice devil worship either.
When it comes to feelings towards the concept of the Abrahamic god in particular there are undoubtedly many who would say that they despise him. Christopher Hitchens called himself an anti-theist to emphasise his disgust toward Yahweh and the kind of dictatorial theocracy that the Abrahamic religions promote. Richard Dawkins has endured his fair share of religious outrage for the following passage in The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

At the most, some atheists hate the fictional character, God and his influence over non-fictional beings.

2. Atheists worship Richard Dawkins

At least Professor Dawkins is real, but no, he is definitely not the High Priest of Atheism. This myth encompasses a set of misjudgements about atheism. Being the opposite of theism – or religion, atheism is often seen as a unified movement comparable to any other political or religious ideology. Public advocates of atheism are easily taken as spokesmen and representatives for all atheists, and as a consequence an illusion of a likeminded group of people with common agenda, beliefs and values arises.
In reality the only thing that all atheists have in common is the unbelief in god or gods. Our morals and values do not come from a set ideology but are as varied as our favourite colours and foods. Atheists don’t have an agenda. Some of us might but again, simply not having a religious faith does not lead to any particular direction. In fact, another thing that atheists do share is perhaps a strong aversion to dogma and authoritarianism. The Atheist Agenda is kind of like The Gay Agenda – we just want to live our lives without being subject to organised religion and being attacked for our non-belief.
When it comes to Dawkins, there are many atheists who adore him and there are many who don’t. The only consensus is that atheists are not an organised movement with a single figurehead whose views we all subscribe to. There are numerous public atheist whom I look up to but I don’t need Richard Dawkins or anyone else to speak for me. That I can do for myself.

3. Hitler and Stalin were atheists therefore atheism is evil

First of all, we don’t actually know for sure about the religious convictions of either one.
Secondly, even if they were non-believers neither one proclaimed that it was their atheism that inspired them and justified what they were doing. A crime committed by a religious person is not always motivated by their religion, nor is a crime committed by an atheist necessarily motivated by their lack thereof.
Most importantly, there just is no way that this argument holds water even if we granted that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists, and that their evil came from atheism. In the grand scheme of things the centuries of religious wars, violence and persecution would still massively outweigh atheism in the overall amount of suffering inflicted upon humanity. From this line of thinking it would automatically follow that religion is even more evil than atheism.

4. You can’t disprove God therefore atheists are wrong

You can’t prove God therefore theists are wrong?
There is a sliver of truth in this claim and a more accurate denomination for most atheists is probably agnostic. However, agnosticism is such an elusive concept that it doesn’t really serve a purpose in describing one’s views. A theist is likely to interpret an agnostic’s stance on the existence of God as 50/50 – that there is an equal probability either way. Perhaps this seems trivial but there really is a huge difference in being 90% convinced of the non-existence of God compared to that halfway position that agnostics are easily prescribed.
It is important to remember that we are agnostic about many things. The most famous example of this is the cosmic teapot analogy coined by Bertrand Russell. It is simply to say that we cannot prove that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, which obviously doesn’t automatically mean that there has to be a one. This illustrates the logical fallacy inherent in the claim that because something is scientifically unfalsifiable it must be true.

5. Science is the religion of atheists

One sometimes encounters the claim that knowledge based on science requires faith in the methods of science and is therefore just as believable as religion. The distrust in science today probably stems from the tsunami of pseudo-science spawned by the shady corners of Internet. Not everything that claims to be science is in fact science, and this creates confusion. One study trying to prove anything is never enough to be a basis of reliable information.
Scientific truths are different from dogmatic truths in that they are fair game for review and critique. Scientific theories face rigorous scrutiny and multiple attempts to disprove them. This ensures that the knowledge that earns the gold star of being true has passed through such a volume of close examination and nit-picking that it’s nearly bulletproof. But only nearly, because even after being accepted it can still be tested and disproved.
Moreover, trust in the scientific method is founded on the fact that good theories make accurate predictions regardless of who is conducting the experiment. Science observes and seeks to explain how stuff works and when it succeeds things like eyeglasses, computers and skyscrapers get developed.
Science doesn’t require blind faith, it doesn’t have an inbuilt agenda and it doesn’t tell us what to do and how to live our lives.

6. “You just haven’t endured hardship. When you do, you will find God.”

Not only is this dismissive and presumptuous, but it also reveals how limited and childish religion can render its follower. I have nothing against those who feel better at the thought of an omnipotent, celestial being watching over them, but to insinuate that faith in supernatural is the only way to overcome obstacles and be fulfilled is stupidly unimaginative.
Personally I have found much more comfort in looking up to the early morning sky and spotting Jupiter; in learning that all elements that make up my body were forged within dying stars; and simply knowing that whatever happens there are real flesh-and-blood people in my life who will stand by me and physically hold my hand if I need it.
Surrendering to a metaphysical force is a gateway to ignoring responsibility and agency in one’s own life. That said, I’m not drawing a direct line from religious faith to infantilism. It’s a path that can be taken but certainly not by everyone.

7. Atheists are arrogant and look down on believers

This would be just as valid if it was reversed. Neither claim is based on evidence but on prejudice. Some people are arrogant, some people are funny, some people like cats. Atheism in an of itself doesn’t lead to arrogance – it is simply a way of abbreviating the statement: “I don’t believe in god”. Trying to force atheism to mean something other than it does will always reach a dead-end. I’m repeating myself but atheism is not a belief system like Christianity or Hinduism are. There are no atheistic traditions or core ideas because it is not a religion.
When you learn that someone is a Hindu you can immediately make some assumptions about them based on your general knowledge of Hinduism. These assumptions may or may not be accurate in the case of every single individual but they are reasonable because they originate from a set of known beliefs and values, which said individual has just identified with.
Learning that someone is an atheist merely informs you of something that this person does not believe in. The rest is up to you to find out.

Imagine being bald and never even growing any hair, and then a group of people insist on braiding and combing and curling your hair. You’re trying to draw their attention to the fact that you don’t actually have any hair nor are you going to. Your grandma is like “don’t be ridiculous, everyone has hair”. Someone gets offended and starts yelling at you “so you hate everyone who has hair!”. No guys, it’s fine, you have hair and I don’t. It’s not a big deal. Just don’t shove it down my throat. Literally. Pls.