PZ Myers has an article up calling attention to a recent article by "conservative scholar" and Hoover Institution fellow Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza, in his opinion piece, wonders where the atheists go when bad things happen. As "evidence" for the missing atheists, D'Souza points out that Richard Dawkins has not been asked to speak at any of the memorial services. To describe that particular argument as asinine would be an understatement of truly monumental proportions; to call D'Souza a "ghoul," as Myers does, is an insult to the mindless undead. Their vitality-impaired condition may have stripped them of the ability to think, but they don't suck the logic and rationality from everyone in a ten mile radius.
As PZ points out:
Dawkins has not been invited to speak, true enough; it's understandable, since he is living in a far-off country and doesn't have any direct ties to Virginia Tech, as far as I know. Has the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, David Miscavage of the Church of Scientology, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, or David Hasselhoff been invited to speak? Shall we take that as a rebuke of everything they stand for?
There's really nothing more to add to that - a potted plant could probably have come up with a more reasonable argument than D'Souza did. D'Souza, to put it kindly, is a complete and utter jackass.
Now on to new business.
One of the "arguments" (for want of a better word) that D'Souza uses in his pathetic attempt at atheist-bashing is the old "atheists can't deal with good and evil because in a purely materialist worldview immaterial things like good and evil don't exist" line. Sadly, other than the "where's Dawkins" schmuckery, that's pretty much all he came up with. Strangely enough, I'm actually glad he brought up that particular bit of idiocy, because it reminded me of an essay that I really needed to re-read.
My emotions may come from nothing more than the firing of neurons in response to various stimuli, but that does not mean that they are not real. I may view "good" and "evil" as abstract concepts that have no independent physical existence, but that doesn't mean that they aren't real concepts or that they do not matter. I may recognize the powerful evolutionary benefits that can result -if the environmental conditions are right- when parents become more emotionally attached to their offspring, but that does not make the love I feel when I tuck my kids in at night any less real or less powerful. I may understand that bad things happening may result in one set of neurotransmitters being released, and good things another, but that does not mean that I feel sadness or happiness or loss or joy or fear or hope any differently than someone who believes that the emotions come from an intangible but real soul.
The emotional and social bonds that connect humans to each other may be a derived evolutionary trait. They may be nothing more than the net result of the unique set of historical, ecological, and environmental contingencies that, after billions of years, produced us. The bonds are still real and they still matter.
Like many humans in many parts of America and around the globe, I felt horror when I learned that somebody had, for no apparent reason, ended his own life and the lives of thirty-two other people. As a parent, I know just enough to know that I (fortunately) can't possibly know what the parents of the dead are going through. I have empathy for the community, and for their loss and pain. I recognize that there is nothing I can do to reduce their suffering, and feel bad about that, too.
The news from Virginia on Monday was compounded by the news from Iraq today. Hundreds more lives have been snuffed out there, as the result of acts that are just as senseless as what happened in Virginia. With all the evil in the news, I started to wonder if there was really any reason to still have hope.
Fortunately for me, that's when PZ brought D'Souza to my attention. When D'Souza asked - rhetorically - where the atheists are when something bad happens, the first person that popped into my mind was Stephen Jay Gould. Gould - a native New Yorker - spent countless hours at Ground Zero in the days and weeks following the 9/11 attacks, helping his wife and stepdaughter collect and deliver supplies needed by the rescue workers at the site.
Just over two weeks after the September 11th attack, an op-ed by Gould appeared in the New York Times. In it, Gould provided a reminder - much needed then, and much needed now - that for every massive act of evil, there are thousands or millions of small acts of human kindness.
Twelve apple brown bettys into the breach. Twelve apple brown bettys for thousands of workers. And then I learned something important that I should never have forgotten -- and the joke turned on me. Those twelve apple brown betty's went like literal hotcakes. These trivial symbols in my initial judgment turned into little drops of gold within a rainstorm of similar offerings for the stomach and soul, from children's postcards to cheers by the roadside. We gave the last one to a firefighter, an older man in a young crowd, sitting alone in utter exhaustion as he inserted one of our shoe pads. And he said, with a twinkle and a smile restored to his face: "Thank you. This is the most lovely thing I've seen in four days -- and still warm!"
At a time like this, when enormous acts of evil stare us in the face, it's good to be reminded of all of the little acts of common decency and kindness that go unnoticed every day, everywhere. I'm glad I went back and re-read the Brown Betty essay - even if the reminder did come as the result of an idiot saying something stupid about atheism. It just goes to show that even schmucks like that can - if only accidentally - get people to think about the better parts of human nature.