Monday, July 09, 2012

I’m holding out for a hero

My older brother is about the most po-faced person I’ve ever met, the cynical old bastard. A few years ago I told him I was about to meet a few of my heroes (Dawkins, Ridley, Ward and Hurlbert, as it happens).  I was excited but my brother was contemptuous.  He doesn’t have any heroes. He doesn’t understand why anyone would.. Also he doesn’t like the name of my new cat.

Understand, of course, that as a brother ten years my senior he was my hero for many years. I didn’t try to emulate him, although we ended up doing similar things, but when I was a kid I wanted to be more like him (we are not very alike).  He still has many admirable qualities, but he’s no longer my hero. This is less of a demotion on his part than a development on my part of what sort of things I admire.

I’m not at all ashamed to have heroes.  They are all people who have achieved extraordinary things, but they’re sometimes unsung.  Some of my heroes are big names in the atheist and skeptical movements.  Dawkins, Benson, Randi, Watson, Christina, PZ, in no particular order are names that come to mind.  I have historical heroes too, mostly scientists: Lovelace, Curie, Darwin, Franklyn, Newton, Einstein, Turing, for example.  But also poets such as Coleridge and Blake and artists such as Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh.

But my heroes at the moment are those bloggers and commenters and other people who are taking a stand about what the atheism and skeptical movements could be.  While atheism is technically described as lack of belief in gods and skepticism is defined as a desire for appropriate evidence before some proposition is accepted, the realities of those positions can be different.

I’m an atheist because I cannot believe in any kind of god, but also because I think notions of god are dreadful and to be campaigned against.  I’m an atheist because it is necessary to point out the horrible things that only religions can get away with and because there are people the world over committed to not letting that happen. 

Those people are my heroes at the moment. I can’t do that.  My skills lie in ripping apart poorly formed arguments; ridiculous attention to detail; and interminable point-by-point rebuttals. These are not skills that are in short supply in this community and while they’re necessary and fun, they are not the sort of skills that change the world.  That will be done by people who can organise and cajole: people charismatic and smart enough to persuade without compromise. 

Those people are my heroes at the moment and most of them are bloggers, commenters and just random insightful and hilarious people.  Congratulations, because you’re the people who make the Internet and the movements great.

And brother: there is nothing wrong with calling a cat Fortran.

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