Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Christian Asks an Atheist...Part 1

Let's Keep it Friendly, Shall We?

Five or six years ago, I participated in a discussion about religion on an online parenting forum. In one of the discussion threads, a religious person decided to pose a series of questions to the atheists on the board in order to try to understand an atheist point of view a little bit better.   She trotted out the usual atheist tropes which so many theists seem to think are shiny, new ideas with fresh "gotcha!" potential. The one small mercy was that she didn't ask the time-tested and tiresomely repetitive, "Without a god, where do you get your morals?".

It was a useful exercise, though. My participation in that discussion spurred me to try to further flesh out my answers so I copied the theist's questions verbatim and I wrote the responses which follow.  My views have evolved since I wrote these but much of this is still true.  Looking at religion from a purely rational perspective, I still see it much as I describe below. The main difference is that I am not as soft on religion anymore.  It doesn't get the "purely rational" free pass anymore.

The fondly delusional delight I once felt about the "creativity" and "resourcefulness" of humankind has been rudely shoved aside by the reality that religion was created and continues to be used for far darker reasons than I was prepared to confront back when I was so tentatively coming out as an atheist. I was raised in a culture so thoroughly divided by religious affiliation that, while overt conservative religiosity was rare (and even frowned upon) in my birthplace, my whole identity - like that of everyone else I knew - was intimately entwined with my identification as a Catholic.  Letting go of one's identity as part of a religion community is probably the hardest part of the process of coming to terms with - and coming out as - being atheist.

I will discuss that aspect - the reaction from the community to an atheist coming out - in greater detail in another series of posts. I only mention it here because fear of rejection by my community was very much underneath the answers I wrote to these questions,  so I wanted to explain that.  It turned out to be completely justified fear, by the way, which is something which I suspect all closeted atheists know deep down, and is probably the single most powerful reason why many atheists remain silent.

Ultimately, however, the shunning and rejection I experienced after even the most carefully chosen and respectfully delivered words explaining my atheism proved to me that Greta Christina,  PZ Myers and others are absolutely correct. There is no accommodating the religious majority.  There is no language gentle enough, no phrasing respectful enough.  It is disbelief itself which enrages and threatens them.  Be "nice" or be "confrontational", the result is the same:  you're out.

With a few revisions (the more "confrontational" stuff is newer ;))   here’s the question and answer essay:

Q. I was just wondering what it's like to be an Atheist?

This is me
I can't speak for anyone else, but I think it's wonderful!  Literally. :) Every day is full of wonder for anyone who dares to look beyond a religious tradition that insists that everything one needs to know has already been written in one set of iron age books. There is a huge universe out there full of mysteries to unravel and discoveries yet to be made. 

There is a useful argument that comes up in debates about atheism that goes something like this: I believe that everyone on the planet is actually atheist and that I am not really very different from modern theists. What I mean by that statement is that most modern theists do not believe in most of the ancient gods, such as Zeus, Jupiter, Odin or Freya (though many are on the fence about Yahweh, since he is mentioned confusingly in the Jewish Bible/Christian OT:  I suspect that many modern Christians are not aware that Yahweh was actually one of a pantheon of ancient gods who was elevated to prominence by the early Jews who wrote the OT... but I digress) so in a sense current religionists are all undeniably atheist.  I totally agree with modern theists that the ancient gods and goddesses never literally existed, and I also believe that the Biblical god(s) likewise never existed. 

So, "what it's like to be an atheist" for me is very much like what it is like to be a theist, except that I disbelieve in one more god than theists do.

I do however, believe that the mythos surrounding all of these gods does point to a vital aspect of being human; I think it is reasonable to call it spirituality, for want of a better word.   I value the Bible and the Christian New Testament and all ancient/sacred books, including those which pre-date the Bible and those that came after it (such as the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon) as well as books which were excluded from the sacred canon by men (such as the Gnostic gospels), the Dead Sea scrolls and any other ancient texts which have been or have yet to be discovered.  I think they have both historical and cultural value.

Proof for god-belief!
Most of these "holy" books were written for a variety of purposes. Biblical scholars say they were composed primarily to share history and culture with future generations, but also (somewhat unfortunately) to cement various peoples' claims to superiority and entitlement, as human societies developed.  It seems to me that there is contained in these books a mixture of high-minded philosophy, rich cultural stories of deep human significance and clumsy attempts to explain the natural world.  The overwhelming focus and purpose of these books, however, is to enshrine political, social and territorial goals into some sort of permanent record, and to justify, through claims to a supernatural authority, the actions which people took to achieve these goals.

As works of human creativity, they deserve a place among our historical treasures along with the other works of art, literature and music which have survived down through the centuries.  As a blueprint for something divine,  I think - not so much.  I think all creative human endeavors point to something which is transcendentally human - this reaching toward and beyond literal understanding of the universe and our existence within it.  It is something that seems to be important to all of us, to varying degrees, whether we seek to understand through religion, philosophy, science, art or something else, and I believe we should continue to celebrate the rich history of humanity through preservation of these treasures.

The history of human development, especially the development of human societies and ethics, is fascinating to me. It's pretty much been my lifelong avocation to study religion, holy texts, and scholarly books discussing religion and its importance to human beings and the power that religious influence has exerted over societies.

It may sound corny, but being an agnostic atheist is one of the greatest joys of my life.  I feel extraordinarily privileged to have the intellectual and spiritual freedom I enjoy as an interested and enthusiastic amateur philosopher.

Q. From a Christian POV, it (atheism) is just unimaginable to me.   

I can't really help with that. It took me a long time to understand that other people don't see religion as I see it, but their POV is not unimaginable to me. It's just that, to me, modern theists seem to settle for such a small part of the entire amazing picture while I prefer the huge potential of a subject I can hardly contain in my thoughts all at once.  I cannot contain it, because the subject is too vast and splendid.

I know many people who speak of their belief in God in this manner, and I totally get what they are saying. For me, there is no conflict with this, because I consider the use of God as the word to try to describe the indescribable to be perfectly valid and historically traditional.  Agnostic writers and scholars and philosophers down through the ages used the term "God" to refer to the ineffable in spite of their unbelief.  I'm fine with that.  People today use the word "God" to refer to as many different ideations of the divine as there are believers. Where our thinking diverges is that I think of God as a mythical concept that, at best, may point toward some universal truth whereas my theist friends think of God as a literal Being. I understand that most people prefer things that way and I respect their feelings. It isn't unimaginable to me that they would feel or think like this, it is just not the way I feel or think.

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