Sunday, December 18, 2016

Paul Simon's "Proof" to an #AtheistEar

In 1990, I was caught in the grip of Paul Simon's incredible 1986 Graceland album. I wore out more than one copy of that cassette in the tape deck of my ancient Datsun while commuting to school. Then in 1991, Simon followed that album up with another.

Rhythm of the Saints was a clear attempt to build on Graceland by bringing together an eclectic group of musicians from around the world. Where Graceland had famously (and infamously) defied the international boycott on South Africa by featuring South African artists, Rhythm went to South America and the Caribbean to find inspiration. Simon also attempted to recreate the magic of Graceland's breakout hit video for You Can Call Me Al by recruiting his Saturday Night Live buddies, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, to appear in his new videos.

Critically and commercially, the new album didn't quite reach the heights of Graceland, but I fell in love with it - and when it comes to songs that might work as "atheist anthems," this one seems to be a contender:


 (Lyrics are available here.)

Typical of Paul Simon lyrics, you could interpret the verses in many ways - but the chorus seems pretty clear to me.

Some people gonna call you up
Tell you something that you already know
Sane people go crazy on you
Say, "No man, that's not
The deal we made
I got to, I got to, I got to"
Faith is an island in the setting sun
But proof, yes
Proof is the bottom line for everyone

When I really began to own my atheism a few years ago, I really felt like one of the participants in the conversation from that chorus. Sometimes, when people would realize that I no longer believed in the God we used to share, their shock would cause them to "go crazy on me" and withdraw. Sometimes, I am sure, they felt as those I was the one who had gone crazy. "That's not the deal we made...I got to, I got to...." In some cases, I have been able to talk to them and rebuild some sense of normal; with others, I haven't.

Even with those folks who have been okay with my non-belief, there is a certain delicacy required when speaking of matters of faith. As a rule, people don't consciously choose to delude themselves. The things that they believe tend to be a fundamental part of who they are and how they deal with the rest of the world. Sometimes the things that people believe - the things they put their faith in - seem trivial to me, but more often, their faith is how they deal with harsher realities.

I struggle when the things that people have chosen to believe are not only wrong, but also harmful. On occasion, the "harm" done by believing things that are not true is hard to explain. (If you visit What's the Harm? there are some tools for doing so.) Most of the time, I try to take a "live and let live" approach, but participating in society means talking to other people, and that is an activity that almost always leads to disagreement.

When that happens, I find it useful to understand the standards of logic and the burden of proof.

I'm sure there are times when I get caught up in the emotional baggage of an argument, but I try to stay open-minded enough to be persuaded by evidence. I hope you don't mind if I check that evidence before I change my mind, though - because proof, yeah... proof is the bottom line for everyone.

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