Category Archives: atheism

Atheists Believe in Systems

When Richard Dawkins sued webmaster and forum moderator Josh Timonen for embezzlement a little over four years ago, it made an impression on me, then newly out of graduate school and fresh from my internship in the Archives Division of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. It was a painful episode for me of course, being that I considered both men to be friends, although I was not pleased at how the forum at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science had been abruptly scrapped by Josh. Richard ultimately dropped the suit.

Later, when I had the opportunity to be an archival consultant for the aviation museum for which I had volunteered for years, I asked to be the assistant archivist, and to have a lead who would also be my mentor. The Richard-Josh mess was the direct reason for my request. It was my first paid consulting gig, but that was not the reason; I was sure of my capabilities and my grounding in archival theory. The real reason was that I did not want to be in the same position that I perceived Josh had been in, with free reign quickly given to him, and without oversight. I wanted oversight.

As it turned out I was wise to ask for this. Not because I needed a mentor – the lead archivist seconded by decisions and judgments, told me that I did not need her, and converted much of her paid hours into supplies for the museum instead. As it turned out, the politics of nonprofits can be emotional and nasty, and suddenly in the middle of my project I was saddled with a bossy, narcissistic former volunteer who tried to press an Air Force cataloging system upon me (we were not Air Force) and who, not unlike many “dedicated” volunteers, seemed to think that the museum owed him something for his time – wasted, in my opinion, in creating what was essentially a parts catalog in Microsoft Access instead of a registry of artifacts – and for his donation of supplies, which were useless.(Commercial plastic bins are not archival, as they have a low melting point, much lower than the flash point of nonacidic cardboard archival boxes.)

All this happened while the blackguard who brought back this volunteer to “help” me went around falsely accusing a staff member of embezzlement (ironic, no? There was no stealing in this case) and alienating what staff and volunteers who were not already alienated by my new friend (old to them). The writer of the grant got involved somehow and began moving the goalposts of the grant. It was a nightmare! “I don’t envy your position,” my mentor told me.

I handled it. I managed to bring the grant back from its elegance creep to its original goal, made the volunteer turn over the information he had taken home and hoarded as a bribe to come back, and let the board member who had saddled me with him what I thought of the situation. The board member resigned soon afterward and both men were out of my hair!

I had applied the lessons learned from the lawsuit by Richard against Josh: human beings need systems in order to do their jobs correctly, in order for there to be accountability, in order to remain honest. It is not enough that people are good, honest, and have integrity; we need layers of accountability and peer review to ensure that they stay honest. In my case, I had a bona fide archives expert, a consultant with many years’ experience, to back me up. It was a smart move for me to request this. It would have been a smart move for Josh to request that he have someone to report to, someone to check his work and render opinions on his decisions.

My aviation museum descended into a paranoid pit of rumor because that board member and my “helper” had had free reign for too long, and I recognized that I had been given free reign as well. Though I was a certified archivist and these men were basically blowhards, they had the ear of other board members and so I had to marshal my forces to push back. My mentor backed me up and wrote up some conclusions to help me, and I did push back. I also asked advice from my archivists’ listserv, who proved to be very insightful and helpful. We archivists lean on each other a lot; there are a lot of standards, and these are constantly being refined in our still relatively young profession. No one can remember every policy, every preservation method, or be informed on everything.

I don’t care who or what you are – we are all prone to greed, mistakes, and confirmation bias. Power corrupts. Individual morality or expertise is not essentially the question. Our system of government is a system of checks and balances, as is the scientific method (via the efforts of colleagues to replicate one’s results), as is peer review, and so on. As I’ve often pointed out, I worship no one, not even Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins. As an atheist, I believe in systems that prevent fraud or the malignant concentration of power.

(You can see the photo of me with NASM staff, all of us posing as patrons, here. I was wearing my polka dotted dress for the Interns’ Ice Cream Social later that day. Photo by Eric Long.) 1271

My photo of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega at NASM

Weaving False Rainbows

John Danaher has a take down of this now famous quote by Richard Dawkins:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

While acknowledging the beauty and power of this sentiment, Danaher replies:

If we stripped away the lyrical writing, what would we be left with? To be more precise, what kind of argument would we be left with? 

Lyricism aside? I almost laughed aloud at my computer as I read this. The beauty in language for human beings is often in the language itself; stripped of its beauty, if there is an argument to be made (and there is here, of course), that can be examined, and Danaher is right to do so—but lyricism aside, what would religion, or even science, or anything, be left with?

But let us examined the kernel of argument in this flowering prose.

It is rather amusing to see atheists accused of having no sense of humor, then taken so literally when they joke or employ a colloquialism. I did not see Dawkins’ use of the word “lucky” as an argument strictly championing existence over nonexistence—he is merely stating that the latter is far more likely than the former. We are “privileged” by the mere fact of being the less likely ones, the elite, as it were. Dawkins is making an observation, not a judgment, for the real focus of his quote is not nonexistence, but the ordeal, and consciousness of, our impending deaths.

It is death that gives teeth to the statement of our fortune. My evidence for this is, would Dawkins have made this statement if we, the lucky living, were to live forever? The obvious answer is, of course not. Dawkins is not really concerned with being “grateful” for existing, but with putting death, much as it looms over our lives, into proper perspective. Danaher has missed the point.

Moreover, it is not against the fear of death against which Dawkins warns. When interviewed by physicist Brian Greene, who admitted speaking to his dead father despite knowing that no ear heard him, Dawkins is hardly surprised. I see no evidence of any exhortation to “quit whining.” Rather, it is against the construction of a fantasy afterlife which motivated Richard Dawkins to make this statement.

The response to the reality of death does not have to be “gratitude,” and for Danaher to cast it as such leads us perilously toward another tiresome design argument (to whom, or to what, shall we show “gratitude?”). Be grateful, or not; be angry, or not; feel the fear, acknowledge the fear, but the point is, however one reacts to death, no cri de coeur should ever result in a denial of death’s reality and the subsequent exploitation of our natural human fears by those who pretend to be travel agents for the “next world.” (As Susan Sontag once said, “This world! As if there were any other.”)

Dawkins is, as always, arguing not against human feeling, but against fraud.