EXCERPT
 

Who Speaks for Earth? isn’t for everyone.  It’s a straightforward memoir, and parts of it may offend some readers, since I explore a controversial topic:  “Religion vs. Science.”

In this book I recount personal experiences to help explain my opposition to faith-based religions and my support of scientific exploration of our Universe.  I believe that our species has a yet-to-be-discovered destiny and that ancient religions are shackles, which over the past millennia have restricted our social evolution and have incited violence that has resulted in agonizing deaths for millions of men, women, and children.

Is my criticism of faith-based religion too extreme?  Decide for yourself.  But bear in mind, on September 11, 2001, nineteen True Believers, armed only with box cutters, murdered more than 3,000 innocent people.  If instead of box cutters, these religious zealots had possessed weapons of mass destruction — atomic, biological, or chemical devices — they undoubtedly would have used them.  In the hands of zealots, today’s destructive technology is capable of eradicating all life on Earth.

In the 21st Century, we cannot survive if we continue to accommodate the ancient mythologies and superstitions, which have plagued mankind for thousands of years.

- Carlos Ledson Miller

 
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186 Pages
ISBN-10: 1482583852
ISBN-13:  9781450536158

 

 

EXCERPT:

WHO SPEAKS FOR EARTH?

AUTHOR NOTE

Who speaks for Earth?
We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness.  We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.  Our loyalties are to the species and the planet.  We speak for Earth.  Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

- Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I’ve read that paragraph countless times.  The late Carl Sagan possessed a rare duality of intellect:  the logic of a scientist and the humanity of a poet.  I have neither his scientific background nor his poetic eloquence.  What he expressed succinctly in that single paragraph, I try to convey in these meandering personal observations and conclusions, taken from the more than seven decades that I’ve walked our planet.  Now, possibly in my last decade, I too attempt to speak for Earth.

CONTENTS

CHAPTERS

    1. Am I an Atheist?
    2. Our Fear of Existing
    3. How different are we?
    4. A Century of Birmingham Sundays
    5. Our Trivialization of Life
    6. Evolution vs. Religion
    7. Who are the Believers?
    8. The Role of Academia
    9. Our Need to Explore Our Universe
    10. The End Game
    11.  And in Conclusion . . .

PHOTOGRAPHY CREDITS
RECOMMENDED READING

 

1.  AM I AN ATHEIST?

I would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than one closed by belief.

- Gerry Spence

I strongly support scientific exploration of our Universe, and I strongly oppose faith-based religions.  I believe that our species has a yet-undiscovered destiny and that faith-based religions are shackles, limiting our comprehension and impeding our evolution.

Am I an atheist?
I thought I was.  But then in 2007, I attended an Atheist Alliance International Convention at the Crown Royal Hotel in Crystal City, VA, south of Washington, D. C.  I’d arrived at my religious skepticism on my own while still a teenager, and this convention was the first atheist gathering of any size that I’d ever attended.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As I made my hotel rounds the first morning, I overheard snatches of conversations — in the elevator, in the coffee shop, in the lobby, and finally in an atrium where we queued up for the opening ceremonies.  My impression was that other attendees seemed quite familiar with the proceedings and what would be in store for us.  Between first and eighth grades, I’d attended a dozen different schools, and here at the onset of this convention, I again experienced that familiar “new kid” feeling.

Convention planners had anticipated perhaps 250 attendees; however, by the time we filed into the hotel ballroom, twice that number had arrived, and a like number were on the waiting list.  A third of the conventioneers were directed to an adjacent conference room, where they’d have to follow events via closed-circuit TV.

Bomb threats had been reported, and before entering the ballroom, each of us had to undergo inspection by black-suited security guards, one wielding a hand-held metal detector and another restraining an inquisitive German shepherd.

I’d arrived early, and once inside the ballroom, I managed to get a seat on an outer aisle.  It offered a good view of the speakers and provided ample room for my right knee, which I’d twisted while working out in the hotel fitness center earlier that morning.

I stood beside my seat while the rest of the room filled, knowing as soon as the presentation started, I was in for a long session of sitting on a straight-back, armless chair.  Scanning the audience, I noted it was almost exclusively white, with an equal mix of men and women.  Everyone was casually dressed, but throughout the audience, there were pockets of people wearing matching T-shirts, emblazoned with the names of their regional atheist organizations.

A group wearing bright yellow shirts filed into the row behind me.  The blue lettering across their chests proclaimed they were proud to be Midwest atheists.

Convention organizers had given each of us a clip-on tag that indicated our name and state.  A smiling male member of the Midwest group read my tag and said, “Texas, huh?  You here with the Austin atheists?”

“Uh . . . I’m from the Texas coastal area,” I said, “and I’m . . . a group of one.”

He frowned.  “Well, you ought to be able to hook up with the Austin group later,” he said, apparently assuming I’d want to.

The crowd settled into place, and after a few moments of technical difficulties, the convention was underway.

The schedule the first day, and the two days that followed, offered a continuing program of speakers, including:  scientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Oxford University science professor Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), journalist and TV personality Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell).  The participation of these four best-selling authors was my primary reason for attending this conference.

Richard Dawkins clearly was the most popular speaker with the conventioneers.  The throng obviously was familiar with his work, and when he threw them red-meat passages, they roared their approval.  After his presentation, he then made himself available throughout the remainder of the convention.

Similarly, when it was Christopher Hitchens’ turn at the podium, the crowd sat alert, and they cheered as if on cue.  There was some uneasiness during the concluding question-and-answer portion of his presentation, when he grew short with some of the questioners.  My impression was that toward the end, he was in need of a cigarette, and perhaps a stiff scotch.

In the hotel bar that night, my suspicions were confirmed as, with what appeared to be scotch in hand, Hitchens captivated an attractive young lady on my right.  A short while earlier, she’d been conversing with me; however, we’d been interrupted by two men on my left, who turned out to be American Civil Liberties Union lawyers.  I’d never met anyone from the ACLU before; now two wanted my Texan viewpoint on the separation of church and state.  I sidled away, claiming a need to phone home, although I only had a geriatric tomcat waiting for me back in Texas.  As I left the hotel bar, I glanced back and took perverse pleasure in seeing that the dedicated ACLU lawyers now had descended on Hitchens, and the young lady had drifted away.

Of the advertised “Big Four,” Sam Harris’ presentation proved to be the most controversial.  He was warmly received as he approached the podium; however, he soon lost his audience when he had the temerity to suggest that the term “atheist” invoked such negative emotions from the general public that it was counterproductive to what they hoped to accomplish.  In The End of Faith, Harris avoids using the terms “atheist” and “atheism” altogether.  Instead he advocates “reason.”  Who in the general public could criticize a call for reason?  At times during his presentation, there were uneasy murmurs among the audience, and occasionally as he spoke, there was only the sound of two hands clapping.  Mine.  On those occasions, people turned in my direction, and I realized I’d probably blown any chance I’d had to join the Austin group.

The most impressive speaker at the convention turned out to be someone I’d never heard of:  author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel and Nomad). The lovely, intelligent Somali-born woman entered the room, surrounded by bodyguards.  A victim of genital mutilation and child marriage, in articulate English she recounted her harrowing life, before and after the Islamic fatwa that had been leveled against her.  In a quiet but firm voice, she continued her criticism of her former faith for its treatment of women.  At the end of her moving presentation, as she and her personal bodyguards filed past the omnipresent convention security, the true meaning of a religious indictment was palpable to everyone in the audience.  We rose as one, and cheered long after she’d been ushered away.

I passed some of the time between lectures, perusing a line of tables that had been set up in a passageway and served as the convention gift shop.  I again was struck by my naivety.  I’d never associated atheism with politics.  I guess the evidence had always been there; I’d just never thought about it.  As with my religious views, I’d arrived at my political views individually, and on questionnaires I categorized myself as “Independent.”  Perusing the convention tables, I discovered that atheism not only was liberal, it was unabashed Democrat.  In addition to the atheist books, pamphlets, and other paraphernalia, several tables contained political propaganda.  Bumper stickers promoted either Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama, and some promoted a joint ticket.  Lapel pins advocated “Impeach Bush.” In front of one table lay a welcome mat on which conventioneers could wipe their feet on the likenesses of President Bush and Vice-president Chaney.

The Democrat influence was confirmed in one of the lectures, when the speaker, yet another ACLU lawyer, departed from a lament over legal injustices confronting atheists and exhorted his audience to support the Democrat presidential candidate, whoever he or she might be.  Don’t be confused by what Barak or Hillary might have to say while campaigning, he reassured the audience; once either was ensconced in the White House, all would be well.  As I sat there in the audience, I felt out of place, like an ant that had crawled into the wrong anthill.  I’d assumed convention security was intended to shield us from religious terrorists.  Perhaps instead it was intended to weed out Republicans, and maybe even Independents.

 

 

The final day of the convention, there was to be a closing ceremony, but I decided to skip it.  I worked out in the fitness center, then cleaned up and went downstairs for breakfast.  I had the hotel dining area almost to myself.  Over a second cup of coffee, I tried to identify what had disappointed me about the past three days.

My personal views paralleled most of those I’d heard expressed here.  While I’d been indoctrinated in Christianity as a child, by my teens I’d discounted claims that virgins could give birth, men could walk on water, and the dead could return to life.  Even when exposed to more nuanced views, that Biblical accounts were parables, intended to convey truths to simple people of an earlier time, I remained unconvinced.  If intended for simple people, why were they so ambiguous?  By and large, the parables made little sense to me, and the Bible as a whole seemed to be cobbled-together nonsense, open to any interpretation a reader wished to make.

I realized that most educated believers didn’t take every passage of the Bible literally.  Some discount the entire Old Testament.  I often thought it would be interesting if these believers took a copy of the Bible, highlighted passages they could accept literally, and then ask themselves if, in fact, these passages weren’t just common sense, rather than revelations of previously unknown truths.

In addition to finding no profound new truths in the Bible, I never bought into the proposition that an omniscient presence might be following and judging my every move, much less might grant my wish, just because I pleaded.

Yet here at this convention, I somehow had felt apart from the other attendees.  I hadn’t been able to shake a feeling of . . . what?  An overriding element of “negativity” was a close as I could come.

 

 

After breakfast, a cousin who lives in the D. C. area picked me up, and she and I drove to the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, to take part in a three-mile Leukemia & Lymphoma Society march.  It was a crisp fall day, chilly in the shade, but perfect in direct sunshine.  Booths had been set up along the concourse at one end of the football stadium.  We would be marching in honor of one of her friends.

Despite the fact that the group had assembled against these dread diseases, there was nothing morose about this gathering of two or three thousand people.  Perhaps it was the beautiful clear day, but whatever the reason, I didn’t have negative feeling I’d had back at the hotel.  Quite the contrary, these cancer marchers were as resolute as the atheist conventioneers; however, they also were cheerful and upbeat.

We filed out of the stadium and walked through the surrounding neighborhood.  A short time later, we crossed a long scenic bridge and entered the center of town.  This was my first look at Annapolis, and I was quite taken with the venerable dark-red brick surroundings.

At the mile-and-a-half turnaround point, by mutual agreement, my cousin and I called a two-person break and ducked into a picturesque pub.  On the outdoor deck, over a couple of beers, we got caught up on family news.  By the time we returned to the stadium, the parking lot was almost empty.  It had been the most enjoyable day of my trip.

 

 

Late the following morning, I was one of the few convention attendees still registered at the hotel.  Sitting alone in the dining area, I took a sip of coffee and again mused over the undercurrent of dissatisfaction I’d experienced with the event.  My opposition to faith-based religions coincided with the views of most of the conventioneers, but something had been missing.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that for the past three days, I’d been an outsider.  While I shared the conventioneers’ contempt for faith-based religion, for me there was no need to gather in a group just to ridicule the obvious absurdities.

Then I experienced a personal revelation:  while devout Christians vow that there is but one God, so many of these devout atheists had expressed with equal certainty that there is no god.  It was the certainty expressed by either group that was sticking in my craw.  Is there a god?  Personally, I didn’t know.  And, I didn’t believe any of these 500 assembled atheists knew the answer to this question, nor did any of the other 7,000,000,000 people walking our planet today, nor did any of the estimated 93,000,000,000 people who went before us.  The reality is, during this brief instant in time in which we live, we’re too ignorant to even pose sophisticated questions, much less presume to answer them.

Our problem is, when it comes to questions about the existence of a god and our role in our Universe, too many of us would prefer to have a wrong answer, rather than no answer at all.

The waitress interrupted my musing, asking if there was something else I needed.  I shook my head and explained that I was just killing time before heading to the airport.  She smiled, refilled my coffee cup, and then disappeared into the kitchen.

Returning to my thoughts, I wondered if others who’d attended this convention had experienced the same reservations that I had.  I opened my laptop computer and brought up my notes file.  After each presentation, I’d transcribed my handwritten scribblings while I could still read them.

From time to time, I’d heard conventioneers mention calling themselves something other than “atheists,” and I’d jotted down names for future investigation.  “Brights” in particular came to mind.  That speaker had noted that in the minds of most Americans, no group was more reviled than “atheists.”  With that in mind, he had advocated following the strategy that homosexuals had used in adapting “gay” as an acceptable descriptor.  The audience response to his “brights” suggestion had been polite, but with a lack of enthusiasm.  The majority of these people apparently considered themselves to be atheists, and were proud of it.

Over the next hour or so, referencing my notes and my computer’s dictionary, I compiled an imprecise list of groups who were unaffiliated with religion:

  • Atheists — believe there is no deity
  • Agnostics —  hold the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable
  • Freethinkers — form opinions based on reason; doubt or deny religious dogma
  • Secularists — skeptical of there being a god or gods; oppose any inclusion of religion in governmental or educational affairs
  • Humanists — reject there being a god or gods, but advocate the creation of moral and ethical systems, based on reason and logic
  • Secular-humanists — apparently a combination of the two above
  • Brights — a network of various unaffiliated groups – sort of “all of the above”

 

What I had in common with each of these groups was my lack of belief in the any of the past or present gods and religions.  While each definition applied to a certain degree, none was a label I wanted to pin on my lapel.  I recognized, however, that “believers” would simply settle on “atheist” to describe me.  However, I hadn’t fit in with this gathering of atheists.

Then it occurred to me.  The missing component in this convention had been any sort of positive direction.  Given the superstitious nonsense that has been formulated and perpetuated over the past millennia, if our species is ever going to throw off the shackles of faith-based religion, how best should we go forward?  In other words, absent God, Allah, or any of the other estimated 4,000 mythical deities, what now?  How do we fill this void?

As I shut down my computer and prepared to leave the dining area, I realized that the person missing from the convention had been the late Carl Sagan.

 

 

So in answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this chapter, “Am I an atheist?”, I recognize that most faith-based believers will view me as such.  However, I disagree.  Despite my advanced years, at this point in my life, I still consider myself to be a work in progress, so the best I can come up with is to classify myself as an “aspiring realist.”