For almost 30 years my license plate has read “SKEPTC,” but that’s only because when I first applied for it I was limited to six letters and so left out the “I.” I have a photography blog that I’ve named Skeptic Photo, and of course I have this Skeptic Reflections blog. But worse, one of my good friends, who happens to be Catholic, told me that I am one of the most evangelical of all his friends, not in a religious sense, of course, but in a “freedom from religion” sense, if you will. Further, I confess that I have done more than simply admit my secularism; I have done it with the hope that others might agree with my point of view. In short, I confess to being a secular evangelist. But why?
A number of the atheists I know have remained in the closet. They have been reluctant to admit to their family and friends that they have abandoned their faith for the secularist life. I can understand the concern, particularly as it relates to family members. I recall keeping the news from my mother in particular because I knew that she would be distraught to find out that I was no longer a Seventh-day Adventist, and I wanted to spare her the heartache. She might have suspected something when I continued to flout the strict rules of conduct that Adventists were supposed to follow, but I think she felt that I was simply being casual in my rule-keeping. When in my early 20s I finally did confess my atheism to her, she was in fact devastated. She got over that in time, though, and probably believed to the end that I would come back to the faith.
I think I have been fortunate that my friends, whether religious or secular, have been willing to accept me for who I am, warts and all, including how I feel about religion. So I have always felt comfortable in admitting to my point of view to my friends. Having said that, I will confess that before I retired I was occasionally uncomfortable about revealing my personal views to those of my clients who had strong religious beliefs and who might have formed a different opinion of me if they knew about my personal views. It would have created some complexities, and I just didn’t want our differences to get in the way of our professional relationship. And to my knowledge it was never a major issue.
So, why do I evangelize? I think there are a number of reasons. First, I’m sure that my fundamentalist upbringing has played a significant role. At this point it is impossible to identify how important that influence has been. I can only say that those of my friends who grew up in a more mainstream religious environment have generally kept some semblance of their faith. I, on the other hand, was reared in a religion that required acceptance of beliefs that simply couldn’t hold up under scientific or, in some cases, simple logical scrutiny. So what I experienced was a strong reaction, an intellectual revolt, rather than a gradual accommodation. I would like to think that I would have wound up in the same place philosophically even so.
Second, I have great confidence in the approach I take in trying to understand the world. Why should reliance on the scientific method and the application of reason be favored over reliance on accepted authority, such as scripture? Because the scientific approach works; relying on “revealed” authority does not. Indeed, over time advances in knowledge through use of the scientific method have continued to supplant explanations stemming from authority. These run from an understanding of such things as lightning and thunder to the heliocentric solar system to evolution to medical advances.
Ah, but there is a difference, you say, between science and secularism. One can fully embrace the scientific method and still maintain a religious faith. I don’t agree. This is a larger subject to be dealt with in another or perhaps several other essays. But suffice it to say here that in my opinion belief in God, or at least in a personal God, is incompatible with a scientific approach to an understanding of the world.
Third, as I may have stated elsewhere, for me the search for truth trumps everything else. I realize that we will never know truth (outside of mathematical truth), but we continue to get closer to it. And, for whatever reason, in crucial ways that is more important to me than, say, pleasure, comfort, or security. Moreover, I want to share what I believe with others. Intellectually, I realize that not everyone is obsessed with discovering the truth about our existence. Most people are simply content to be comfortable and secure. They don’t want to, or refuse to, open the Pandora’s box of belief. There’s too much risk involved. But emotionally, I feel that everyone should know as much as possible and I would like to do my bit to help.
Finally, my beliefs have a major impact on my aspirations, on my general attitude toward life, on how I conduct that life, on how I relate to others. More specifically, my belief that this is our one and only life and not just a preparation for a future existence (or not) has an enormous effect on how I live this life. What could be more important?
© 2013 John M. Phillips