Saturday, September 3, 2011

Agreeing to disagree

 I'm a bit of an asshole.

At various times in my life, I have been arrogant, condescending, argumentative...annoying. A dear friend of mine once asked me why I have this compulsion to always be right. I didn't have an answer for her then. My answer now? Agreeing to disagree is immoral when the right answer leads to a better understanding of our world, and how to improve the lives of the humans contained therein.

When I was in graduate school, I had an argument with my lab mate, Tom, about which reagent would work best to accomplish the chemical reaction we were trying to do. This argument lasted 3 hours. It lasted so long for two reasons: number one, I was certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I was right...as was my lab mate, and, two...we were too stupid to go grab the book off of the shelf that would tell us who was right.

Until finally, this occurred to us. I grabbed Carey and Sundberg off of the shelf, (a compendium familiar to anyone who has spent any time doing organic chemistry for a living...three of you, right?) flipped to the chapter containing the information we needed...and read it. And, it said:

I was wrong.

I turned to Tom and said, and I quote, "Shit...you are right."

My lab mate was stunned. Not over being right, as he was convinced of this all along. He was stunned because I immediately conceded. We spent a while after that looking up the points in both of our arguments, where I was right but came to a false conclusion, where he began with a false premise.

Tom did the reaction, it worked, and he got his product. Had he done it my way, the reaction would not have worked. The point?

There is objective truth, it is possible to know things. Tom and I could not simply 'agree to disagree.' There was a right answer for the question being asked. There are right answers for everything, absolutely every question ever asked has an answer...somewhere. And many of the questions being asked have answers that will directly affect the lives of those asking, their family, friends...all of humanity.

I am an atheist, in short, because the information presented to humanity by every single religious institution or 'personal experience' leads to a conclusion, based on the evidence, that we are really really afraid of dying and have been searching for a way to suppress that fear.

But that's not why I am an atheist 'activist.' In answering that question, one needs to look no further than "Jesus Camp." In this documentary about a Christian summer camp, you will meet a very young man in anguish and torment, crying his eyes out because he can't understand why he can't hear God. This boy is being tortured by his own mind, convinced by family and clergy that he needs to find Jesus or he will burn in the fires of damnation for all of eternity. This is an eight year old kid.

I fight religion because I cannot bear to tolerate this sanctioned torture. Not when there are questions to be asked, and answers out there to be searched for. Not when this boy, who is not alone, stands a chance of being mentally crippled by the abuse done to him, and may be limited in his capacity to be a useful and contributing member to society. Not when this boy stands a chance of going through life without ever being taught to question, and seek answers.

So long as we dwell in these dark age beliefs, we do not, as a civilization, get better. I have a compulsion to try to be right because I'm trying to improve, and that's all I can do. I have a compulsion to try and be right because I can imagine how much we will be capable of when we leave this demon haunted world behind.

-Paul Wittmeyer

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