Today is Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday, so I wish to extend holiday greetings to any devout atheists or agnostics planning to attend services.
There are services, incidentally. They’re called “Phylum Feasts,” and hearken back to Darwin’s days at Cambridge where he and like-minded members of the Gourmet Club met weekly to devour whatever novel and (probably endangered) animals their cook could obtain. Darwin’s pallet expanded after his travels, which opened a whole new world of tortoise cholesterol.
Today, on the anniversary of Darwin’s birth, many biologists hold Phylum Feasts in deference to the progenitor of evolutionary theory, wherein they try to digest as many different species as they can in a single sitting. Due to the inevitable gastronomical effects of such an event, I have no intention of ever attending one. It’s a neat idea until you consider that if they all farted at once it would violate the Geneva Convention.
Nonetheless, tonight I will celebrate alone by eating something exotic; perhaps a kangaroo burger. If Darwin’s birthday eventually becomes an atheist holiday (and atheism is very nearly a religion already), I hope the virtue it celebrates won’t be triumph of science over darkness, but rather kindly tolerating people who you think are wrong.
One of my more popular standup lines is actually a cribbed Darwin anecdote:
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In his own day, militant atheists saw in Darwin the prospects of a spokesman to once and for all smash the false idols of religion. When a German atheist delegation visited him in 1881 for recruitment purposes, they were surprised by his timid attitude. He didn’t even call himself an atheist. “An Agnostic,” noted the visiting Herr Doctor Edward Aveling, “was but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable, and ‘Atheist’ was only ‘Agnostic’ writ aggressive.” (My standup joke is this observation, only with swear words.)
If you read Darwin’s thoughts on religion, he doesn’t really fit into Aveling’s equation. And Charles certainly lacked aggression. He invited his old parish priest to the same dinner with the Germans. Darwin and his former vicar remained friends throughout life, well after Darwin ceased believing in God. In this I see a wonderful model of partnership for people who devoutly believe in the Almighty and those who don’t or can’t.
The opposite of this model is of course dickheads. In day-to-day encounters (I rarely meet Islamic terrorists or Soviet gulag commandants) I find dickheads of both persuasions. They come in the form of religious people who assume all non-religious people are morally inferior, or atheists who assume all religious people are stupid.
Moral haughtiness displayed by the pious is unbecoming, if not openly antagonistic. (Newt Gingrich said in a debate earlier this year “If you don’t pray, how can I trust you?” I don’t know Newt, how does your third wife trust you?) A few months ago a guy asked me, “Wait– you don’t believe in God? What’s to stop you from murdering and raping people, then?”
My immediate thought was– holy cow! Is that your natural impulse? You mean to tell me the only thing holding you back from armed robbery or mowing down pedestrians with your Buick is fear of divine retribution? That’s horrifying!
I presently don’t think God exists. Hopefully I’m wrong. Either way, I’ll continue paying my taxes and holding doors open for old ladies, without hope of reward or fear of brimstone. Just as a freebee. You’re welcome.
Next we come to the militant atheists. These are people who drip condescension and enjoy spewing forth invectives about how stupid and intolerant religious people are.
Both my home parish and the local parish in Washington actively encourage me to visit their services and social functions despite my apostasy. They have never once stood on the lawn waiting to pelt me with rocks to smite my unbelief. Yet I’ve met atheists who think the world would be better if these kindly people disbanded. Folks in line at many soup kitchens would disagree with the militant atheists, as would thousands of recipients directly benefited by religious altruism. It’s not all crusades and car bombs; there’s also charity, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and coffee hour.
That God created the world in exactly seven days with precisely two people is absurd to militant atheists. I concur. But when I ask them to explain how exactly gunks of protein turned into “life,” or what triggered the Big Bang, most start waffling around, because it turns out that a lot of atheists are English Majors or tax accountants, and don’t know jack about quantum mechanics or microbiology.
If your worldview hinges on Natural Selection and the Big Bang Theory, and you can competently explain either, then you’re not religious. You could still be a dickhead, though. Here’s an easy litmus test if you’re worried:
You are an atheist on a bus. You mention to the passenger next to you that you’re on your way to the radiologist to see your test results, and the stranger promises to pray for you. How do you respond?
If your impulse is to belittle or antagonize them, you’re a dickhead. If you say “thank you, that’s very kind,” and move on with your life, then you’re okay and we can hang out.
Happy Darwin Day to everyone. Go and eat something funky. If you’re devout, pray for us watery skeptics. For that matter, pray for the fiery atheists– at the very least it will irritate them.
For those more inclined to rally beneath a question mark than a crucifix, be nice to the pious. We’re all in this together.
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.