Showing posts with label Why I Am An Atheist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Why I Am An Atheist. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Christian Asks an Atheist - Part 3

If you don't BELIEVE then you can't have Christmas anymore! 

(This is Part 3 of a three-part interview. Part One and Part Two)

Q. Do you not participate in religious holidays at all?

I definitely do celebrate holidays!  I participate in as many religious (and non-religious) holidays as I possibly can, and with great enthusiasm!  I try to learn about the mythos and traditions that have developed around each holiday.

All holidays, both religious and secular (and a few which are both!) belong to everyone.  They grew out of the non-religious traditions and cultural development of all of our ancestors. Most have their origins in ancient rituals which long predate the modern religions which now claim them. They are my cultural heritage as they are all humanity's.

I love the winter holidays, especially the ones which grew out of my western European ancestry.  The fun of Santa Claus and the magical elements of the Christmas story (a giant star! angels in the sky! talking animals! That's magical stuff!) make Christmas my favorite holiday hands down, with the traditions of Yuletide and Winter Solstice included, of course.

New Years Eve is another big holiday in our house (we throw a huge party!).  We celebrate the twelve days of Christmas, not just a single day wrapped around turkey and presents. The myth of the magi/three kings is one of my favorites from long ago, and we celebrate Twelfth Night as the Christmas season draws to a close. 

I like Chinese New Year because I had friends in school who taught me a lot about it and the traditions around that holiday.  I rejoice in Easter/Spring - I celebrate the renewal of the earth (with no human sacrifice necessary).  St John's day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day/Canada Day (July 1), Independence Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are all marked with special meals,  decorations and family traditions.  I also enjoy learning about the holidays of other cultures and I celebrate them, too, when I can!

Like most people, I love holidays!  One of the nice things about being atheist is that, since I am not forced to regard only some as "true" and declare others "false" to validate a religious belief system,  I can appreciate the genuine history of human seasonal celebrations and the myths created around them, claim our common human heritage and celebrate them all! 

Q. Were you brought up as Athiests or did you decide on your own later in life?

No, I was not brought up an atheist, I was brought up a mainly cultural Catholic in a fairly open-minded, tolerant, book-stuffed household. I attended Jesuit/Catholic school right up to university, not by my parents' choice but by necessity: where I grew up, all schooling was religious. To my parents' dismay, my dream and my plan for most of childhood and teen years had been to become a Maryknoll Sister.  Those nuns were adventurous and heroic - doing important work! - and I longed for a life of purpose like that, too. I even spent a year in a convent boarding-school preparing to enter the novitiate after high school.

Growing up, my identity was intricately entwined with my religion, but only in a cultural sense.  The people I knew were not fundamentalists, nor social conservatives, nor did religion or god-belief figure in our daily lives much at all - it was just who we were.  My siblings and I walked to our Catholic schools with our Catholic neighbors and the Protestant kids on the street walked to their schools with the other Protestant kids. We all shared generic Christian holidays, but had different denominational holidays - we had St Patrick's Day off; the Protestant kids had St George's Day off.

Religion provided the calendar of our lives and the cultural community to which we belonged, but religious belief was not something that was in our lives every minute or hammered into us every day.  I barely gave God a thought. I never connected god-belief with fear. Nobody I knew behaved as though a judgmental god was in any way a real thing. At most, people seemed to regard God as an invisible pal who agreed with their gripes and who sympathized - silently and apparently impotently - with their troubles. We did have a religious denominational school system,  but in spite of that the society was largely secular and one might even say almost irreligious.

The only obvious difference between our denominational public school system and the secular public school systems I have seen elsewhere since then was that we did have religion classes in school a few times each week.  I remember catechism as dry and boring (except when I was thrown out of class - once for declaring that I was not a sinner and another time for insisting that I did so understand the "'mystery' of the Trinity"- I was in second grade).  In middle school and high school, catechism gave way to world religion classes which I remember as interesting and illuminating.  Outside religion class, we had a completely secular education in our so-called religious schools, learning about evolution in science classes,  ancient mythologies in literature classes and even an objective study of the Reformation in history classes. As far as I can tell,  there was no redaction or revisionism of inconvenient history to suit a religious agenda in my school in the 1960's and 70's, unlike what we are seeing today. I loved my schools and church and I was enthralled by the sacred music, the mythology and the ritual.  

I never believed that the Biblical mythos was literally true nor that the Biblical god was a literal being (at least not in my conscious memory) so in that sense I appear to have been born atheist. The Biblical god was roughly equivalent to a story character in my mind - not a real thing, but an idea - a caricature with a purpose. I had a vague sense that everything we discussed and did in church was deeply meaningful ritual and poetry and art which was symbolically pointing us toward some kind of ineffable, supernatural goodness. To me, the religion and the Bible and the beautiful Church rituals and glorious music and liturgies were reaching toward so much more than the literal interpretation of them. My understanding of that ineffable goodness gradually morphed into a belief that the purpose of religion was to work toward the fulfillment of human potential for good- ie as stewards of the earth, as peaceful co-inhabitants of the earth with other people, animals and other living things, as intelligent beings seeking greater understanding of the universe and our place in it - no gods required. God was simply a metaphor.

The truly funny thing is this: I thought that was what everyone else thought, too! I thought I was completely normal in my church and that what I understood to be pointing to the greater meaning of it all, was in fact, what everyone else thought and believed! I thought that everyone else considered the Bible readings and lessons to be simply our ancestors' best acknowledgement (through centuries of wonderful effort and tradition) of our role as human beings and our duty to continue to strive toward fulfilling our role to the best of our ability. This was probably true in my hometown in that era (late 1960's- 1970's). I received all of my sacraments blissfully, joyfully convinced that I was completely in line with the Catholic Church's teachings. 

Until I was away from home poised to enter the pre-novitiate, it honestly never really occurred to me that other people in other communities (other than rare cults) actually have a very different - very literal and illiberal - view of religion. But there is a whole other world of religious conservatism out there, which I discovered when I traveled far from home to a convent boarding school.  I had come from a community where the fatherly priest at my school had enthused that I might become one of the first women priests if I wanted to be, to a place where the aloof young convent pastor made it clear how subservient I was to remain as a female Catholic - he represented a renewed wave of reactionary conservatism in the Catholic Church.

The hopes of progressive Catholics in the 1960s and 70s were soon to be decisively dashed, though I did not understand all of that in that one year.  I just knew that the changes I had heard about growing up were never going to happen quickly enough for me to be able to participate fully in the Church. Of course that realization was the main reason why I did not enter into religious life.  It was in the convent that I gave up my dream of becoming a Maryknoll Sister. I was not conflicted about it or upset; life is full of surprises and adventure and my realization only made me even more interested in religion as a social force, while saving me from a mistaken turn in my personal pathway.

I loved my Church. I grew up always believing that my beliefs were perfectly in line with everyone else's. To this day, in spite of that disconnect, I feel at home when I visit a Church.  I guess that is the power of "belonging" and "community" that so many people seem to be seeking in a church. However, both time and geography have revealed to me a far less beautiful Church than the one I grew up believing was a force for justice and goodness in the world.  I don't attend church anymore, and I am very happy to be recovering, but I do miss that sense of belonging.

Q. Can you share more about your non-beliefs?

What are non-beliefs?  That is a question I am not sure how to answer. How about if I share a few more things I do believe?

I can tell you that I believe very strongly in the power of humankind to grow and learn and to become better people.  I think that our emotional development will surge forward as we understand our environment better and can learn to manage our resources so that physical survival is not the main concern of the majority anymore. I believe that once survival for a reasonable lifespan is reliably ensured for most people on the planet, cognitive and emotional development will increase at a faster pace, allowing humankind to gradually approach its eventual potential. I am not talking about overnight, obviously.

As long as human survival is still precarious for a majority of human beings, the primitive pre-occupation with individual survival - with competing for food, territory and mates; with controlling other people to ensure reproductive success - and the survival and dominance of the tribe or nationality will continue to be a dominant trait in our species. These are all concerns which are instinctive to all living things and which, to me, are very convincing evidence of our evolutionary nature. We share this preoccupation with survival and reproduction, and the fierce competition which has its roots in these, with every living organism on the planet, from the smallest one-celled organism, to the largest animals on earth.

The interesting and amazing thing is how human beings began to develop more complex concerns as tiny pockets of them settled into relative prosperity and began to enjoy freedom from extreme want. Enter: confessional religion.

People were still strongly influenced by the ever present concerns about survival, but the small comforts and privileges of small pockets of settled humanity allowed people to begin to think about issues other than killing or being killed, starving others or starving themselves, winning land/food/mates or losing them and losing the battle for survival. With the stress of these constant concerns easing slightly, they were able to begin to think about how to make societies better, how to treat their fellow humans better and so forth.

Obviously, even this step forward was hampered by many of the more primitive concerns of humans (thus the elaborate rules and strictures around reproduction, for example).  Still, it was a significant leap in a relatively short space of time and with only slightly eased circumstances!  Imagine how far we could go if the majority of humankind could enjoy freedom from extreme want for several generations! I have great faith that humankind will reach that happy point, maybe not in my lifetime or my children’s or even my grandchildren’s, but it is coming.

This is a huge subject and it would take days to type even a brief overview, but the above is a small sampling of what I believe about the development of humanity and religion. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Christian Asks an Atheist...Part 2

Heathens like you are going straight to HELL!

(This is the second part of a 3-part interview. Part One is here)

Q. Do you believe we all have a spirit/soul?

No, not in the accepted Christian sense. I do not believe in a god-given, inborn, supernatural "soul" which is supposed to be the key to a mythological eternal life but has been already besmirched by the actions of prehistoric, mythical people. The repugnant idea that right from birth one is stained with "sin" not of one's own doing is one of the most sad and self-loathing aspects of Christianity. I do not share that belief and I never have.

I do believe, however, that some sort of entirely natural "spirit" is possible. There could be a spark of energy which animates our bodies and fires our minds while we are alive.  I could call it a "soul", especially since that word seems to be in general usage meaning the parts of ourselves that we cannot yet explain easily. I imagine that such a spirit or soul would be pure and bright and joyful.  It could be a spark of the source of life itself, whatever that was.

My beliefs and imaginings about spirits and souls are completely subjective.  I recognize that these ideas are just my own pleasant musings on the subject, often inspired by books I have read or the insights of others. My fantasies have no basis in reality nor any hard evidence to support them.  In that sense, my ideas have exactly the same weight and validity as the ideas about an afterlife held by theists.

Q. If so, does it live on after bodily death? If so, where does it go?

Perhaps the spirit becomes one with the universe when we die. Maybe it leaves our bodies and joins the energy in the living things around us. The most likely answer is that "it" - if there actually is a soul or spirit - goes nowhere, but simply ceases to exist when bodily death occurs.  If that is the case, of course, none of us will know or care when it happens to us.

Obviously, though, the idea that people we love (including ourselves) will simply cease to exist anymore one day is really hard to handle. Emotionally, this is not a concept that sits comfortably with self-aware human beings.  Most of us would like to think that some part of us continues after we die.  I recognize this wish in myself and in others. I don't confuse wishing with reality, though.

We are star stuff!
So, like most people, when painful loss occurs I indulge myself in fantasies about what I would like to think could possibly happen if there is a special spark of life energy inside living things. I don't see the harm in doing so, and who knows?  Maybe something wonderful does happen!  It is nice to let oneself daydream - to feel that departed dear ones might still be somewhere close by. To relieve the pain of grief, I am as apt as a theist to invent stories to comfort myself about my loved ones' "souls" or spirits living on in some form after death.

I know that my ideas are pure fantasy and I expect that other people will have their own, probably different, fantasies.  It is a coping tool, not dogma. I remain aware that most of what I let myself believe on this subject is what I want to believe. I think most people tell themselves what they want to believe when contemplating an "afterlife", but religionists tell themselves it is the objective truth - based on dogma not evidence - instead of accepting what it really is: a psychological coping tool.

None of us knows what really happens after death but if the stories people believe sooth the pain of losing a loved one (or soothes the fear of where we are going ourselves after we die), I have no quibble with any of them, as long as the concept of soul is only used to ease private emotional pain. I believe that is one of the purposes of the mythos of afterlife. And a perfectly sensible one it is, given our human fear of death. You have to marvel at the resourcefulness and creativity of our ancient ancestors!

Unfortunately, most religious traditions do not use the soul concept or the idea of afterlife simply to cope with grief and loss. I reject totally the usual religious imaginings about what happens after death - ascension to some sort of Valhalla/Paradise/Heaven to live among the gods or else condemnation to a Uffern/Hades/Hell to suffer for eternity.  Those fantasies strike me as naked revenge fantasies and nothing more.  However, codified into religious dogma,  these fantasies cause real harm to people.

The fundamentalist Christian idea, for example, is that one's eternal destination is completely dependent upon belief.  This means that the concept of sin - though used by religionists to cause untold misery to their fellow humans - is, in fact, just a red herring:  eternal joy or eternal damnation depend completely upon something which a person cannot actually control - whether or not s/he can believe in a deity - so sin and morality are actually irrelevant  to Christian "salvation",  making their theology amoral at best and (if you think causing suffering to millions of people all over the world is immoral, as I do) evil at worst.

I feel that only people who have swallowed the entire theist mythos could ever accept these ideas at all, let alone consider them just or good. It is a psychological tool used for ill, in my opinion, and is yet another reason why I dislike religion.

Q. Do you absolutely believe there is no God/Higher Power?

Absolutely not.  Unlike some theists, I don't pretend to be absolutely sure about anything for which there is inadequate evidence or - as in the case of gods -  no evidence at all.  However, like Bertrand Russell famously said in his book of essays, Why I Am Not A Christian,  neither can anybody say for certain that there is no teapot orbiting the planets, invisible to the naked eye...but I do think it is reasonable to believe that a teapot in a space orbit is so unlikely that we probably would all call ourselves "aorbitalteapot".

Proof for teapot-belief! 
I feel as certain as most people feel about orbiting teapots that there is no Biblical God, whom I consider to be exactly like - and as real as - the gods and goddesses which preceded him. They are all human fabrications used by humans to explain natural events or to provide themselves with the comfort of imagining a higher power watching over them in times of crisis - sort of a parental figure, which is what most of us long for when we are in trouble or afraid - so I think the fact that people assigned this role to a supremely powerful God is perfectly understandable and its genesis is not difficult to figure out.

I think the most important (and least defensible) reason why gods were invented was to provide a supreme, supernatural power upon whose authority ancient peoples were able to base justification for their own political and social and cultural ambitions.  This is the aspect of god-belief that disturbs me the most and continues to cause the most trouble to this day.  I don't know if it should be surprising, though.

In prehistoric times, when god-belief is thought to have developed, life was a constant struggle for survival. As humankind began to evolve more complex brains and critical- and creative- thinking ability, it stands to reason that people would begin to use these new skills to augment their physical survival skills. Standing thousands of years in the future,  and out of harm's way so to speak,  I can appreciate that inventing monotheism was a pretty creative and resourceful hammer in the survival toolbox of ancient peoples.

As for some kind of higher power that may be suggested or pointed toward through god-mythos:  that, I feel, is more likely than a literal god-being, though not at all in the way people usually mean by "higher power".  I believe that whatever higher power there might be in our universe is likely within all of us and, if it is unconnected with self-consciousness, then it is probably within all living things.  However, it is power we are probably several millennia from understanding or being able to harness for good, because I don't think we've evolved enough yet to overcome our more primitive urges and needs.

Nevertheless, my completely imaginary concept of what a real higher power might be gives me tremendous hope for humankind when nothing else is cutting it.  I do believe that a transcendent impersonal energy probably does exist.  I do not believe in any anthropomorphized gods; at most I think it is possible that we are all small parts of a universal energy.  But with or without a higher power, the growing moral power of the human spirit is evident to me in the striving of more and more individuals for justice and peace.  While we have not yet come anywhere close to realizing our full human potential, I think we are evolving steadily toward it.

It will be a long journey, but I think we will get there.

Part Three

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.