Our necks craned as we peered up at the tiny television mounted from the classroom ceiling. The social studies teacher had put on a TV special about gay adoption. Two men appeared on screen, tears nudging the corners of their eyes as they talked with excitement about welcoming two sons into their family.
My friend Amber, whose eyes had been getting bigger and bigger as her mouth scrunched into a scowl of disapproval, suddenly blurted out, “Those kids are going to grow up messed. Up.”
I pivoted in my seat to face her, my mouth opening to respond, but she beat me to the punch. “Hey, I’m entitled to my opinion!”
Defeated, I slunk down into my seat. Usually, Amber and I enjoyed a bit of friendly debate, but she had no interest in discussing her beliefs today. And I couldn’t argue with her response.
Years later, now that gay adoption and marriage are both broadly legal and more accepted, attitudes like Amber’s are relics of (mostly) past belief systems. In addition, science increasingly provides us with verifiable answers to questions such as “What happens when kids are raised by gay couples?” Unfortunately, not only is bigotry persistent, but also the entitlement to one’s opinion continues, and with it, a conviction that one’s personal beliefs dictate reality.
People are so eager to have their opinions be construed as fact and form reality, they’re creating altered versions of movies and TV shows with edits to suit their preferences. Others are so suspicious of science, they’re claiming to do their own research that they think is comparable, based on their beliefs that Andrew Wakefield was wrongly discredited. Most dangerous of all, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum are legislating based on their beliefs, rather than facts, evidence, or, you know, the will of the American people.
Whether it’s global warming, trickle-down economics, or that doctors are conspiring with mothers to kill newborns, the dialogue too often revolves around what people “believe” (and no, those things are hardly equivalent). Moreover, belief is construed as being in opposition to science — and truth be told, many times it is. Science is based on examination and process; belief is based on emotions. Unfortunately, there is a general trend of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., and with it a suspicion of science on both the left and the right. The outright denial of scientific facts and theories is a deliberate tactic to legitimize one’s personal beliefs. Some people even characterize science as a belief system on par with religious or moral beliefs. And yet, as my school friend illustrated, no matter how powerful one’s personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality may be, they don’t dictate reality. Even though Amber felt entitled to her opinion, odds are that she was wrong and the boys raised by the gay couple turned out just fine.
“If you don’t believe in anything, what keeps you from killing someone?” My partner, an atheist, gets this question a lot. As a pagan, I’m not much better in these people’s eyes. It somewhat alarms me, because that question suggests that the asker apparently would kill someone if their belief in a higher power didn’t keep them from doing it. Perhaps I, as a science-minded individual, simply am not as susceptible to the power of belief. Rather, my general aversion to killing another person suffices.
It’s through questions like these that the moralizing power of belief, allegedly absent from science, is claimed and expressed. Scientific “beliefs” aren’t developed in such a way that they guide morality. That doesn’t make them immoral. Rather, they’re amoral — it simply isn’t part of the equation. And that alarms people who need external validation.
When I left the Christian church, it was largely because I perceived an artificiality in its morality: a list of rules to follow based on the threat of hell, rather than the appeal of simply being a good person. When people like Amber express their disgust for homosexuality, they often point to hell. Or they shrug and say, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” as though that really makes a difference in what they’re saying. They’re positioning themselves as Heaven-bound while still characterizing gay people as Hell-bound. Not much better.
Atheism is not the lack of a belief system: it is the belief that there is no external supernatural guide that tells how us to be. Basically, that there’s no external moral force guiding people to not be assholes, and that because of that, people should behave with compassion and reason.
There’s a reason that many scientists are atheists and vice versa (but not necessarily so): both rely upon rational thought and verifiable observation. Theists are quick to challenge atheists for the latter, mocking them for an apparent lack of imagination and faith to believe in what is unseen. And yet atheists don’t care, because those questions simply aren’t part of the discussion.
Moreover, when one believes without thought or consideration as to why, they’re more likely to believe blindly. Amber was distressed upon watching that video because her “faith” told her that homosexuality was bad. And so she felt concerned for the well-being of the adopted boys. Had she been open to scientific inquiry, she would have known that there was nothing to fear.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.