A Conversation with Aron Ra

SBN - interviews - Aron Ra updated2

By Andrew J. Rausch

Aron Ra is the president of the Atheist Alliance of America. He was previously the Texas state director of the American Atheists. In addition to these things, he is the host of the Ra-Men Podcast and the author of Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism. A public speaker, video producer, and blogger, Ra is an outspoken critic of Creationism and the director of the Phylogeny Explorer Project.

His blog Reason Advocates, which he co-writes with his wife, Lilandra, formerly appeared at Freethought Blogs and can now be found on the blogging network Patheos. Together with fellow atheist activists Matt Dillahunty and Seth Andrews, Ra was part of the Unholy Trinity Tour in 2014. Ra has held public speaking engagements around the world to discuss atheism and the falsehoods of creationism.

I understand you were baptized as a Mormon. Tell me about your history with religion.

I never identified as Mormon, although I was baptized and put in the books as being a Mormon and all that… The reason I never identified as Mormon myself was the same reason that no other person should ever identify as their parents’ religion. I think it’s strange that I was the only kid who thought like this. How could I know whether or not I’m Mormon if I don’t know everything that is required for a Mormon to believe and how would I know that I side more with Mormons than with any other religion since I’d never heard the beliefs of any other religion. So how could I know if I’m Mormon or not? It was just a logical thing to me. Why doesn’t everybody ask themselves this question?

Has your family been supportive of your atheism?

I would not say so. [Laughs.] With limited exceptions, they have not been supportive.

What’s it like being an atheist activist living in the great big ol’ red state of Texas?

It’s a very polarizing environment. I’m sure you have the same impression of Kansas… Kansas actually got me started. The Creationist movement in Kansas bled over into Texas with respect to the board of education. Our board of education is actually following yours there in Kansas in what they were trying to do in terms of putting religion into the classroom and politicizing the classrooms. With right-wing Republican religious-right dominionists in control of everything at every level, it creates a lot of polarization. When I talk to people from the Northeast, when I talk to people in California, they don’t understand why fighting religion is such a big deal. When I talk to people in the South, they get it. My feeling is, much to my dismay, that the people in the Northeastern states are going to know right where I’m coming from in the next year or so. Because they’re finally going to be under that dominionist rule.

You advocated for the inclusion of evolution in the Texas science textbook hearing. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?

I see creationism as not just religious, but also not based on science in any respect at all. Science works as the antithesis of faith. They move in exactly opposite directions with completely opposite goals. Everything that would be wrong with science is what religion does. There is the logical fallacy of false equivalents and projection—where they try to project their own faults onto their opponents. They want to paint science as if it were a faith: that you’re not believing based on evidence, but believing on faith. Of course, that is not the case. They want to say that we’re just choosing to believe what we want to believe just as they choose to believe what they want to believe. What I get from religious people is an admission that they believe what they want simply because they have to because they have an emotional attachment…because they were raised to believe that way and they don’t want to question it. “Why can’t I believe what I want to believe?”

With science, we have a completely different desire. We don’t have the desire to believe—we certainly don’t have a need to believe. Instead we have a desire to understand and to improve understanding. And you can’t do that with religious faith because there’s no way to show where the errors are or which direction would be correct. You only get that with science. So with evolution, it’s certainly not a belief system. There are things that we can prove to be true. And I’m very careful when I say these things. When I say proof I’m not talking about mathematical proof. Absolute proof is something that in positive terms is reserved only for mathematics. I’m using the legal definition of proof where proof would be considered an overwhelming preponderance of evidence. Evidence then also would be a body of facts that are objectively verifiable. Facts are something you can confirm in some way, so you have a body of evidence that are objectively verifiable facts which are positively indicative of, or exclusively concordant with only one available option. You can’t have the same evidence for two different mutually exclusive conclusions. Because if the same fact aligns just as well with both options then it’s just a fact. It doesn’t become evidence until it indicates one or the other. If it’s inconsistent with one or indicates the other, then it’s evidence.

What religious people want to bring up as evidence for their belief are basically a list of falsehoods and fallacies. Basically they want to bring up every single fallacy they can bring up, including personal incredulity and anecdotal situations like, “Well, I used to be a crack dealer or I used to be addicted to heroin, and then I traded one emotional addiction for another. Now I believe in Jesus and I haven’t been stoned since Thursday.” That’s the kind of thing they present as evidence. That of course does not qualify at all because it’s not an objectively verifiable fact and does not positively indicate or is not even concordant with…. Now I can provide all the evidence we need for evolution—all that would ever be necessary. All the facts that positively indicate that and that are only consistent with that. And then I can sit and listen to the crickets when I ask for their evidence. “I used to be a crack whore” isn’t going to count. But if that’s all they’ve got. We’re done.

What kind of advice would you give to those who would debate creationists?

Don’t. [Laughs.] The problem that most people have when they debate creationists is that they make the naive mistake of believing that the person they’re debating has some interest in credibility. They don’t. They’re credulous. They don’t care what the truth is.

You can’t have an honest creationist. There are people out there who believe in creation, who are honest people and believe for honest reasons—because they’ve been lied to and they don’t realize they’ve been lied to. It is possible to show somebody the truth and have them realize that they’ve been misled up to this point. They have to come to a choice very quickly when they end up arguing evolution with somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about, like me, who has some background in both evolutionary science and also in theology. Then they’ve got a problem. Very quickly they’re going to have to face the choice to remain honest or whether to remain creationist. It is no longer possible to be both. They have to concede that macro-evolution has been observed, that there are beneficent mutations, that there are transitional species, and so forth. Or they can lie about that in defense of faith. All too often I’ve seen people do exactly that.

Professional creationists—the people who actually make money doing this—all have to lie in order to maintain their positions. They know exactly what lie to tell at what point. So I’ve made a challenge to people very often when they say that evolution is a hoax.

I say, here’s the challenge and it’s in two parts. Name one evolutionary biologist or geologist—anyone who’s working in a field directly related to evolution—who lied while promoting evolution over creation. Now I’m not saying that there are no scientists who are dishonest. There certainly are, and I can name some off the top of my head. But no, I mean people who have lied in defense of evolution, promoting it over creationism. And people want to bring up things that just don’t work. Like Nebraska Man. I’m sorry, but Nebraska Man is not the name of a scientist. And neither is Piltdown Man. There was one case of an actual fraud, and it was perpetrated against scientists, not by them. The best that you can say is that the prime suspect was probably not a creationist. The prime suspect was trying to dupe a museum in hopes of getting some money or notoriety. It was evolutionary scientists who found out the fraud and exposed it. It was not creationists. Creationists don’t know how to expose a fraud—that’s why they’re still creationists! Creationism is entirely fraudulent.

So name an evolutionary scientist who lied in promoting evolution over creationism, and tell me the lie verbatim, and explain how we know that it’s a lie. It’s a very simple challenge. And it’s a little bit different from the alternate challenge, which is to name one professional creationist—anyone who actually makes their money promoting creationism—ever in history who did not lie when promoting creationism over evolution. You don’t even have to go into specifics; just give me the name. Then I’ll go through the rest of it to show you the lie and show you how we knew that that guy knew it wasn’t true when he said it. And so far, in making that challenge many times, no one has been able to come up with an answer to either question.

They might accuse Ernst Haeckel. But no, that turned out to be a creationist misrepresenting images that he had worked on in the first edition of his book. They’re talking about the drawings that he made that when they duplicate these pictures, and they duplicate them incorrectly, they don’t look the same. No, this was a creationist sham a hundred years after the fact. This was not Ernst Haeckel, and even if Haeckel had faked the drawings it still wouldn’t satisfy the question, because it’s not promoting evolution over creationism. There’s never been a case where an evolutionary scientist had to do what every professional creationist always has to do. There’s that much disparity.
Creationism doesn’t just have no truth to it. It is based entirely on logical fallacies and fraudulent falsehoods, and that’s it.

What are some of the apologetic arguments that drive you the craziest?

[Laughs.] You can go through any list of logical fallacies and you realize that all of them have been used in arguments for god. That’s one of the problems. When you argue with someone over creationism, they don’t understand the simplest rules; that anecdotes are not evidence, for example. You know, the things that you cannot reproduce. Such as “my cousin says she saw a ghost.” This is not evidence! Changed lives, again, is another one that doesn’t count. But why don’t they understand that it doesn’t count? Or how about “there are so many prophecies.”

Well, there’s another challenge: show me one. And they can’t! For instance, they bring up in Matthew where it says the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophecy by Isaiah. No, it’s not. Let’s go back and read Isaiah, and we’ll see that he was talking about somebody who was supposed to have been born seven hundred years earlier and was not supposed to be a remarkable person. The only thing about that prophecy was that king, by the time the child was old enough to choose honey over curds, then the king would know that the other kings oppressed against him were no longer a threat. That was the prophecy. Well, that prophecy failed every way a prophecy could fail, because that king ended up killed by the other kings. That prophecy failed nine ways to Sunday. And whoever put it in Matthew, saying that this was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah had obviously not read anything more out of Isaiah than one interpretation of one sentence! That clearly doesn’t make any sense when you read the rest of the paragraph. The whole of the Bible is this way. You have to read between the lines and then ignore the lines; just make up whatever you want it to say. This is quite literally what people do.

You’ve said that Christians don’t want to understand the Bible. They don’t just not understand, but they choose to not understand it.

It’s make believe. It’s not about understanding. It’s about pretend. When they say the word “belief,” they’re using it differently than I would. When I say I believe something, I am saying this is what I believe is most likely the case. But if I believe that, then it means that I can’t prove it. If I can prove it, it then becomes something that I know. But a believer says he knows things that no one even can know. They certainly don’t know, and you can prove it-so it’s pretending to know what they don’t know. That’s what faith is. And then it goes more into it, where they just need to convince themselves this is true. It gets to the point where they either think that if they believe hard enough that it will either change reality through the power of positive thought, or if reality doesn’t change, it doesn’t matter because you’ve convinced yourself anyway. And this way maybe you won’t be afraid of dying because you’ll have convinced yourself that it’s not really the end.

And I don’t understand what the fear of dying is. In Christianity, for example, and there are a number of other religions that do this, they tell you that you won’t really die. But being dead, being not conscious—it’s the same thing when you go in for a surgery. They give you the injection and suddenly you’re gone; you don’t even have a dream. You’re just out. There is no you at all. This is what death is. Death is not something to be afraid of. It really isn’t. The fact that you are no longer contributing in other people’s lives …that’s a point for some remorse, I guess. But being dead isn’t the problem. It’s getting dead. And no religion saves you from that. Regardless of what Christianity wants to promise you, Christians and atheists and Hindus and everybody else runs that risk of lying on the floor, clutching at their chest, and gasping for that last breath.

I’m waiting on a heart transplant, and you’d better believe I’ve heard about every Christian argument there is to try and make me feel better about my situation. Everybody just assumes that because I’m sick I must be Christian—that I must have help from a higher power.

[Laughs.] I find it so difficult to believe that other people believe this when they tell me what they believe. I’m like, you can’t really believe that. And then they hold the same position as me. “I can’t believe you don’t believe.” What? How could I? And this is the question that throws them off. You don’t give them the reasons why you don’t believe. You put the burden of proof on them because they can never match the burden of proof on anything. So if you say, “How could I?,” then they have to think of how you could convince yourself that all of this nonsense is true. They know. Not all of them, but there are some who know that they’re believing just because they want to. I had one person actually say to me, “You really don’t believe?” I said, “Of course not. How could I?” And she said, “I believe because I have to.” What the hell does that mean? You don’t have to. Someone else told me that they know there is a god because they want to see their dead son again after they die. Sorry, but you don’t know there’s a god. By definition that is not knowledge. That’s another logical fallacy, and that’s all that there is in support of a god.

In the past you’ve said that you believe real explanations are much more rewarding than supernatural explanations. What did you mean by that?

Only accurate information has practical application. There’s only so much you can do with a placebo, which is kind of what religion is. It’s a soft lie that’s meant to make you feel better. Although for most people it’s used to manipulate and terrorize them. I see all manner of deception as being a form of violence. Lying is the same thing as violence in the sense that it’s something that you might do for self-defense in a desperate situation, but it’s something you would want to avoid in all other cases. Because it’s considered an affront to someone else. Lying to other people’s children in a classroom where they see you as an instructor and they’re coming to you for education—is even worse. This is not just child abuse. You’re also abusing the child’s parents because parents want—or they should want—that their children will understand the world that they’re going to take the helm of. Children have to have some sort of mastery of their situation before they need to take charge of it. So when you misinform and mislead and misdirect, then these kids have no idea. Then they end up literally wishing upon a star rather than going to see a doctor or having a real solution to any situation.

What do you hope to achieve through your activism?

I need to be completely blunt here. I don’t have a lot of hope in achieving anything because my concerns environmentally are extreme. I think we’ve come to a threshold and we elected Donald Trump at a moment when we didn’t have that option anymore. We didn’t have another four years to go backwards. So I can’t say that I’m very hopeful, because I am aware of how we’re overfishing, and… I can’t even get into the list of things that I understand that would just sound pessimistic and terrifying. And nobody’s taking any of it seriously. But assuming that maybe I miscalculated practically everything—if there’s any hope at all—then what I would like to do is to get people to start taking the environment seriously; to start taking education seriously.

I am an anti-theist because I find that religion is a net negative against humanity. Not only does it not have a positive result or reason to be, aside from one or two trivial things—this is at best lipstick on a pig. On the whole, religion is just bad. It’s not the source of all evil, but it certainly covers for it. It covers for mental illness and it covers for racism and it covers for every other thing that is wrong with humanity. It makes excuses for it and it enables it. We need to be more humanist, we certainly need to be more rational. I would like to be part of a grassroots change to have a culture that respects literal truth. You know, that you can’t just say things are true because you want them to be. It’s not truth until you can show that it’s true.

That’s another one of the rules that I have that people can’t seem to follow; I can’t say that something is true until I can show that it is true. Otherwise I have to say that it might be true. Then with religion the game is to just convince yourself and pretend that it’s true even when you know it isn’t. It can’t be.

You recently announced your intentions to run for the Senate. What are your motivations for throwing your hat into the political ring?

Once again I’m thinking that everything in this state, at every level of government, is run almost entirely by right-wing Republican demagogues and dominionists. Nobody knows what a dominionist is, but it’s someone who believes that these are the end days and that what’s supposed to happen is that the Christians take over everything and take command of the planet before Jesus comes back. Why? I don’t know. But that’s the game—take over everything. Abuse the environment as much as possible; reproduce as much as possible; consume all the resources… And you don’t have to do anything to help anybody because you can wish upon a star that they’ll get the help that they need. And you don’t have to atone for anything you’ve done wrong because you can just say that you’re right with your imaginary friend and that he’s forgiven you. Then you don’t even have to serve jail time for whatever you’ve done. It’s a completely amoral belief system. It’s wholly irresponsible and we need to take responsibility. This is what I believe Christianity was designed not to do.

I want to run for office because in two years, when this election happens, I think that after having the majority of the United States in a virtual theocracy, I believe people will start to wake up and start looking to different directions. I don’t know what people are going to be thinking about people of my political perspective. I don’t know what they think now. I think they think that everybody that is not a believer is somehow a socialist or that socialism is communism—they have all kinds of terrible conceptions about whatever is not the religious right.

I don’t know why people want to vote for less government—or think they’re voting for less government, but they’re always voting for authoritarian candidates who are always as much government as possible in every aspect. They want to govern your bedroom as much as they can. They want to govern in a way that they don’t pay taxes and you do. I don’t think people understand what less government means. Then they look at me and think that I worship the state or that I must be some kind of a socialist because I think government has a job to do and a responsibility to its people. I want less government than the people who say they want less government! I want the government to get its hands off of people’s personal lives.

However, I’ve also committed the sin of saying that I think rich people should pay their share of taxes just like the poor people. And of course the rich people are in power, so they don’t want anything like that.

We have people who say that somehow industry is going to be moral now if you allow the free market. It’s going to have some morality that has never existed before. When have corporations ever done the moral or right thing, ever in history? It’s not going to happen. It’s never happened and it never will. There needs to be regulations on some of this. The founding fathers wrote that the greatest threat against our government was corporations and that they should not be allowed to have power. I didn’t even know corporations existed in 1776, but they were aware of that, and they said that the worst thing that could happen to the country was to have corporations come into power. So we are in a very dire situation.

I’m not a pessimistic person. I generally see the bright side of everything. I’m pretty much happy all the time, but as I said, this situation is actually very serious. I shudder that no one else sees that, and in even trying to explain it would make me sound paranoid. So I don’t even bother. The best thing that I can do is to be a part of the grassroots resistance and hope that it hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s too late.

What kind of feedback do you get?

Well, I can say that I frequently get e-mails thanking me for what I’m doing—for changing their minds. There are a lot of times I get people saying they were headed for the priesthood or they believed in the church they were raised in all their lives, and then they came to this irritating realization because of something I said. It’s very nice to hear that.

Surprisingly, I don’t get much hate mail from believers. They kind of leave me alone. I actually get more hate mail from other atheists over political differences. There are so many people who can’t understand that nobody’s going to agree with everybody about everything, and that’s okay. You don’t have to. If I say the government has, for example, a responsibility to its citizens or a reason to exist at all, then the anarchists will be all over me because in their eyes I worship the state. Everybody wants dichotomous thinking. They can’t look at nuance.

I see everyone as being in a u-shaped curve where the vast majority of the population are somewhere out in the middle and it’s virtually impossible to be on either extreme. The people I find are my worst critics are the people who can only see the extremes; you’re either all the way on this side or you’re all the way on that side… That’s never the case! But this is the way that way too many people think now, and I find it disturbing that people think this way.

There’s kind of a division in the entire country, and not just in this country anymore I’m sorry to say. There was a time when I was a kid that it seemed like everyone understood that science is real and you’d be crazy to deny what we can show to be real. You’d be crazy to deny science. But at the same time, everybody had this idea that when they died they’d go somewhere. Everybody had both of these beliefs at the same time. It’s not like that now. It’s an even division pretty much right down the middle of our country. We have religion that’s in steep decline in every state and atheism on the rise in every state—at least a third of this country does not believe in a god or anything like that. But at the same time religion is in decline, creationism is on the rise. How could both of these statistics be true at the same time? It’s because you have people who are walking away from religion altogether, and you have people who are walking away from science altogether. There are people walking away from all aspects of science; they’re denying climate change, and a hell of a lot of people are arguing that the earth is flat. People are denying their children medical treatment, (and) trying to pray the gay away… You have people turning completely to supernaturalism, and that’s half the country. We have a very polarized population.

I would like to think that there’s a duality here, that all of them are bad and all of us are good, but I know better. There are a lot of decent people in the religious ranks that have just simply been lied to, and once they realize they’ve been lied to, then it might have some impact. You have a lot of people on my side of that particular opinion who are no damned good at expressing the common good for the common man. I don’t make those same kind of black-or-white judgments that my critics tend to do. I don’t put people in the good or bad box, because I know it doesn’t work that way.

I understand there’s an interesting story behind the way you met your wife that ties in with your activism. Would you like to share that?

We met online. She was in a group called Christian Forums, and I found myself there arguing with religious believers online. And I ended up in an argument with her. I made the challenge that I often make, that I can prove evolution to your satisfaction. It’s a Socratic method. I don’t have a specific set of questions or anything. I just feel out where you are on this topic and then start asking you questions to direct you to what reality is. What usually happens is that people refuse the challenge altogether. On the rare occasion that anyone has accepted that challenge, they bolt when they realize that it is effective. It gets them to understand what they don’t want to believe. And that’s what they’re really afraid of. They want to believe what they already know can’t really be true. But as I said, that’s not everyone. There are people who believe as they do because they’ve been deceived, and they’re like, if most of the planet believes this, then there must be some truth to it.

My wife happened to be one of these. She was the only person who ever took that challenge all the way to the end, and she eventually conceded that evolution was an actual thing. It’s real. It’s not a belief. It’s something you can actually prove to people. When she admitted in her community—she lived in a small town in Texas—that she no longer believed in creationism, she was ostracized by the entire community.

Now when you come up and tell me that you’re an atheist and now you’re a creationist, I’m sure as hell going to want to ask you a bunch of questions. I’m going to want to know what went wrong in your head that you’re thinking this. What did somebody tell you that convinced you of that? But religious believers don’t do that, and the answer for this is obvious-they don’t want to know what changed your mind. Because they don’t want their minds changed. That’s why I said it’s all make believe.

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