Atheism and Social Progress

Keith S Cornish

Submitted to the
5th World Atheist Conference
on behalf of the
Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc

When we use the word ‘Atheism’ we should clearly understand its basic meaning. It is a reaction to the word ‘theism’, which the Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines as: “belief in the existence of gods, or a god, specifically; belief in a God who is supernaturally revealed to humankind, who created and intervenes in the universe, and who sustains a personal relation to living creatures.”

Most dictionaries define ‘atheism’ as “disbelief in the existence of God or gods”. The above-mentioned dictionary defines ‘atheism’ as: “a theory or belief that God does not exist – from the Greek ‘atheos’ = without God.”

The word ‘god’ came into the English language from the Norsemen who invaded England, hence four of our days of the week bear the names of the Norse gods.

To use the word ‘god’ as a generic term is acceptable but spelling the word with an upper case ‘G’ for the name of the Hebrew god, Yahweh, is unacceptable.

It is obvious that these definitions were the work of Christians in a predominantly Christian culture and imply that ‘atheism’ is the disbelief in the belief of the Christian god and his functions.

A few years ago a member of the Committee of the Atheist Foundation of Australia proposed a new definition of ‘atheism’ that removes any hint of negativity and puts the onus of justification right back where it should be – that is, on Christians. His definition is ‘Atheism’ is the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural’. This was accepted as our official definition, though personally I would prefer the removal of the word ‘credible’ because of its association with ‘faith’ and ‘belief’. It could well be replaced by ‘logical’.

Remember that ‘belief’ is an admission of ignorance. When something is known it is no longer a matter of ‘belief’.

The admission of ignorance by homo sapiens has been the crucial factor in the advance of humanity. This is where religion has stalled. One person has had an idea and it has been taken as an absolute truth. It has been placed beyond critical investigation.

In the realm of science every idea is subjected to intense scrutiny, then modified, rejected or provisionally accepted.

‘Belief’ is at the core of the striving of humanity to achieve anything significant. The trouble arises when ‘beliefs’ have an adverse effect on a person, society or the environment. It is then that society has the right and duty to subject a ‘belief’ to investigation, modification, restriction or rejection.

Society has rejected slavery and is presently struggling to grant women equality with men and equality on other issues.

Atheists cannot prove that no gods exist. We can only join with the Christians who readily agree that the ten thousand gods that human imagination has brought forth do not exist. Atheists go one step further by declaring that the semitic Yahweh should be on the list also.

Having been brought up as a Christian, I know that Christianity is based on the ‘fall of man’ through the eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve in 4004 BCE. This necessitated the horrific death of Jesus to make atonement so that human ‘souls’ may continue forever in Heaven and not in the torment of Hell.

When Charles Darwin conceived his theory of evolution, underpinned by his investigations, it was rejected by Christians because it proved that the notion of Adam and Eve was false. There was no point in time when humans received an immortal ‘soul’, or ‘fell from grace’.

When geneticists discovered the secrets of human reproduction it became obvious that there was no moment in the fertilisation process for the introduction of an immortal, supernatural element. The case of multiple identical births proves this point.

When scientists recognised the fact that practically every cell in a human body has the potential to be the source and matrix of a clone, it renders obsolete the concept of a human ‘soul’. Humans lose thousands of these dead cells every day. No one suggests that these cells contain dead ‘souls’. I expect that no one can prove that supernatural entities do not exist but we know that humans do not have ‘souls’.

Without the concept of ‘souls’ all the major religions collapse.

Because religions are promising eternal bliss, threatening everlasting punishment and are unable to substantiate their claims, they come into the category of scams and should be regarded as such by the legal authorities.

Religion is a matter of culture, for Jews beget Jews, Muslims beget Muslims, Hindus beget Hindus and Christians beget Christians.

Religions exist only because infants receive indoctrination by their parents or guardians, reinforced by the local culture. This brainwashing occurs generation after generation because no one pauses to think and assess what is being passed on. Children are legally protected from sexual abuse but not from the more serious crime of mental abuse. This should not be tolerated.

Every cultural practice should be appraised for its validity and value to society. Head-hunting, human sacrifice, slavery and cannibalism are some cultural practices that are no longer considered acceptable in society today. Three of these practices are condoned in the Bible.

However, religion is still seen as good for society and, in Australia, it forms a part of the education of children in our government school system. It is time that the punishment and reward system – the ‘stick and carrot’ idea – should be replaced. It can have some success but is far from ideal in securing a society that is based on the highest moral principles.

We are well aware that religion does not ensure ethical behaviour as the dictators and the church hierarchy have shown. Of course atheism does not, of itself, guarantee behaviour acceptable to society. Atheism is based on reason and that is the vital factor. When a person accepts that this is the only life they will ever have, and they realise that the society in which their life is to be spent could be better, they conclude that they must pull their weight to make that society the best possible.

The State of Western Australia was recently inviting comments on a Bill to outlaw Vilification of Race and Religion. Race has no association with religion. Race should be coupled with sex because they are both genetically based, determined and fixed at fertilisation. Vilification cannot be justified in such categories.

Religion being based on culture must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in the same way that we assess slavery or child exploitation, which still exist today.

Here we move on to the other theme of this Conference – Social Progress. That implies the examination of the many facets of social life and deciding what improvements, if any, should be made or attempted.

The range of social activity is virtually endless but the desire or the ability is restricted by the competence, persistence and time available to each person. Every person is unique but all carry the traits of our evolution. Do we allow evolution and culture to triumph or do we strive for improvement?

Many social problems are universal and probably those mentioned will be problems in most other countries. A few may be solved by a single person but most will require a focused and dedicated group. All will take time and effort.

One problem that comes to mind is the fall in the value of our currency. In my youth a loaf of bread was delivered to the door at the equivalent of eight cents (Australian) but now the cost in the supermarkets is around $3. Food is vital. What will be the cost of food in a hundred or a thousand years? At one time money was simply used in the exchange of goods but now it is a commodity in itself and that presents problems.

Australia may claim to be a democracy but democracy has its weaknesses, for the majority may be indoctrinated by flawed dogma under which a minority suffers. Even our judicial system has flaws. When the abundance (or lack) of finance can determine the outcome of a court case or an election, or a citizen can be imprisoned for three years without being charged with any offence, then justice has failed.

Neither we in Australia, nor on the planet at large, can continue to exploit any limited basic resource, no matter how great, without the realisation that that resource will eventually run out.

Greed, or the desire to acquire an exorbitant share of the good things available, is still a trait that must be curtailed. Equality of treatment is an ideal that is shown more often in the breach than in its realisation. It may well be the source of poverty, of the denuding of our forests and the rise of cartels.

As atheists we recognise how much we owe our present state of well-being to scientists. Nevertheless, to expend an inordinate amount of finance on the feasibility of colonising another planet surely is wrong when so much suffering on earth cries out for immediate attention.

In South Australia we have a problem with our Education Department, which grants Chaplains access to our state school children. These Chaplains must believe in the incredible dogmas of the Nicene Creed. It reflects badly on the mental competence of some of our public servants and the population generally that religion is still included on the curriculum. Of course, we realise that our children must have knowledge and appreciation of the acceptable codes and laws of society but they must also realise that every law is human-made. Unjust laws are unacceptable. The AFA is working on this problem which may be widespread elsewhere.

The present population explosion creates and highlights another problem for our planet, which is made far worse by religious prerogatives that deny effective sex education and contraception. Surely it is obvious that there is a limit to the number of people which this planet can sustain in reasonable comfort. The present divide of rich and poor is disgusting and intolerable.

It is far easier to point out problems than to suggest the alternatives or the way to fix problems.

I realise that, generally, I have simply noted some problems, yet this is surely the first stage in Social Progress. One can only hope that other speakers will fill this gap and propose solutions.

Finally, it is my hope for the future that atheists, mindful of the fact that they have only a short period of life here and now, will act worthily.

In the words of Thomas Paine: “We live to improve or we live in vain”.