Posted by: Memo | July 21, 2009

On my atheism

[This is a responce to a Facebook link and is not my run of the mill blog post. Apparently you can't publish a comment if it runs more than 200 words, or something]

Sussi,

Secular education had nothing to do with it, but I’d be happy to explain it to you. I’d like to thank you too, as well, since you’ve asked me to explain it and for not dismissing my stance outright :)

I was raised in a christian household and my loving parents taught us the good things that loving parents teach. It wasn’t until I was 18 or thereabouts when I couldn’t coincide what I saw in the world (famine, wars, violence, death) with an omnipotent, omniscient God that did nothing to stop it. But I also saw beauty, selflessness, humility, love, and the sheer human will to help others–without God having a hand in that either. This is way simplistic way of putting it but it came down to a niggling feeling that all was not right with the world, and religion had big fat hand in making it that way.

I do believe we evolved from a common ancestor, as did our closest relative, the chimpanzee. This video explains this tired argument (and it’s short!):

Evolution provides a framework that makes our world and all living things in it (including us) fit within the context of our coming of age, if you will. This time frame spans millions and millions of years (not a mere 6 thousand years), with a growing record of fossils, genetic mutations, and biological processes that are natural and non-induced by an invisible hand, or supernatural being. Scientific methods and advances, much of what we use to cure diseases and make our lives better, has helped uncover the fantastic array of life. Here’s a link to a New York Times feature to a project called “Tree of Life,” which can better illustrate the sheer diversity of life in our planet http://bit.ly/2Yfok1 If you take a look at it, you’ll find no evidence of a supernatural guiding hand there either, but rather a complex hit/miss evolutionary ascendancy that favors organisms that adapt best to their environments.

Given the plethora of religions around the world and their fervent belief in *their* god, what makes you think your or another person’s religion is “The One”? Each one of those religions have millions of believers that truly, in their heart of hearts, believe their god is the true one. And we’re not even including other, lesser known religions as well. Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witness, etc. have followers that believe their religion is right and yours and other people’s is wrong–and will prove it by violent means if necessary (remember 9/11/01?). Such divisive rhetoric is not indicative of a loving God, but of powerful men in positions to “guide” believers in courses best suited for their purposes, not God. I found this quote to be quite insightful on the “God” question: “If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority/ tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?” from http://bit.ly/tIWmZ

Finally (thought not really, right?), there’s this video from Christopher Hitchens that I think summarizes why religion is dangerous, and that a radical shift to rational thought and a naturalistic view of our place in the universe is best:

Overall, I think we can lead harmonious and happy lives, lives of fulfillment, ethical living, and joy without having to resort to a higher being telling us to do so, or even teaching us that, should we misbehave, we’ll have an eternity of fiery hell. Or, if we behave, have everlasting life. I don’t see how this as a particularly good option, either way. And it’s a life that is free of gods and all things supernatural. We live and die by how rich we make *this* life, and by the love and that of our good nature allows us to share with friends and family and the rest of this crazy world.

Sorry to be so long winded but these are a few things that make me believe there is no higher being, whatever his name.

Thanks!
Memo

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Responses

  1. Very good summary for being so brief, Memo. I have been following this conversation via the magic powers of facebook, and I happy to see you sum up the argument in such a way. I have also spent a lot of time in my own thoughts regarding this issue, and have read the works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the like. I too hold convictions much like yours (I am also an atheist that believes religion is inherently dangerous), and am happy to see someone proudly put there beliefs out there for others to see. I applaud you… especially given the fact that most polling data indicates that atheists are the most feared minority in American society.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Bryce. I think most people misunderstand the lack of god-belief and are, understandably, afraid of it because it challenges a fearsome being–even one that offers no tangible evidence of its existence. Superstition and fear are tangible enough to harm, but they don’t have the power to bring about understanding and reason–how are we in the minority?!

  2. Memo, thank you for sharing this. You express much of the frustration I have felt in explaining why I too am atheist. I have encountered those who believe the only way to give back to the community is via the church. I believe the choice to be a good citizen of the world has nothing to do with religion but with the connections and compassion we feel towards our fellow life forms. Your succinct explanation is impressive. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Laura. It’s quite difficult to explain to others that life can be great without religion. As I’ve said before on another post, life is too wondrous and beautiful to fit the narrow scope that religions impose on it. Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it so well when he said, “I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path.”

  3. Memo, you are one courageous guy. It’s hard to be honest when you know you’ll disappoint people you care about. I had a similar path, growing up in a fundamentalist household with loving parents. But my father also taught me about logical arguments and critical thinking. He once told me that having a closed mind is sometimes a good thing, and I think that’s how he kept his faith. Didn’t work for me.

    Have you read “Founding Faith” by Waldman? I think you’d find it very interesting.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks Christy. I haven’t read Waldman yet–thanks for the tip, and your thoughts.

  4. Memo,

    Fantastic, well-worded post (I came across this via Treasured Valley). Just wanted to add my voice in support — I agree with everything said here so far. Like you, I was raised in a devout Christian household as well and have had to go through the process of extracting myself from my religious roots and the social network it provides. I think we are reaching a critical point in our species history — if we can shed ourselves of our ancient superstitions, there is hope for our extended survival.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Akita – It’s taken me a while to come to grips with my non-belief as well but, dang it, it was high time for me to step up to it and admit it. Thanks for sharing and for pointing me to Treasured Valley–I didn’t know about that site until now!

  5. Thank you for a very clear, honest perspective. I do think there is a different way to look at religion, or the spiritual life or life of the soul (or whatever), that is neither close-minded nor bigoted, but that embraces modern science, evolution, and self-criticism. I happen to be a Christian, but remain radically open to the truth of other religions, including atheism, and open to the amazing truths we are discovering about our universe. I don’t pretend to have the whole truth, and I don’t judge people of other faiths. I recognize that the Truth, should we ever discover or experience it, will be beyond Christianity, beyond Buddhism, beyond atheism, beyond our wildest imagination.

    Sometimes, the problem with us recovering fundamentalists is that our view of religion remains fundamentalist, remains that false, oppressive, narrow faith of the church of our childhood. That’s not the faith of Jesus, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Buddha. My question: given your position of atheism, what can you still learn from at least the axial religions – esp. the traditions that grew out of China, India, Israel, and Greece – about the spiritual life (setting supernaturalism aside)? I believe that, granted the abuses of religion throughout history, there are also resources for liberation and soul-full, this world living in all the religious traditions. Are you prepared to see atheism as one religious perspective among others, or is atheism now the only valid one?

    • Eric, thanks for writing. You ask if I can still learn from other religions and if atheism is the “valid” one. First, I have explored other religions and have learned a great deal from them—it’s from these and other life experiences that have helped shape my worldview of how religion is used in our world both for good deeds and some in horrible circumstances of greed, violence, and murder. At its best, religion can provide a framework for establishing a connection to a higher self/god/universe/whatever. At its worst, it is misinterpreted and distorted and used to encourage division between peoples. It is ultimately a divisive endeavor, a thing that shears our common humanity and bases it on claiming to know “truth,” of which most all religions will make that claim.

      I appreciate your statement of, “I recognize that the Truth, should we ever discover or experience it, will be beyond Christianity, beyond Buddhism, beyond atheism, beyond our wildest imagination.” That you recognize such a sentiment is a testament that religions are but mere shadows of what they aspire to be. So, why have them in the first place?

      Second, my position as an atheist (or one who does not believe in supernatural beings or occurrences be they God, Allah, Ra, Zeus, Santa, Easter Bunny, etc.) is, I think, the natural stance taken by one who sees the magnificence of life and universe and find the “God made it” argument insufficient. Never mind the historical writings of dubious documents thousands of years ago that, while historically fascinating, do not fully establish how we came to be. No one in science claims to know how we came to be either. We’re here on this earth because we have taken a long time getting to where we are now—millions of years, in fact—as evidenced by scientific records, studies, fossils, gene mutations, and what we can ascertain from the theory of evolution. To me, that is a better answer than the theological one. Not believing in supernatural beings does not exclude me from experiencing beauty or joy either—we all have that capacity as a shared human trait. If I’m a believer in humanity and our power to do and be good, then I guess I’m a humanist too :D

  6. Memo,
    Thank you! Your answer reminds me that, often we have more in common with like minded people in other traditions than with people from our own (though, of course, we disagree on theism). A friend just sent me this link, which I think casts an interesting light on the issue of science and faith: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

  7. As a Christian, two things I would like to observe:

    * There are several Bible stories about Jesus’ own distaste for religious hierarchy and authority, so just note that religion and authority are not supposed to go together (at least, from my Christian perspective).

    * I think Christianity is actually fundamentally humanist. A central tenet is to nourish a relationship between God and yourself. Not so much as a self-serving relationship, but as one that extends God’s reach in the world. My understanding of God isn’t one in which he magically does his work via supernatural acts; he works through Christians and all humans who nurture their relationship with him. This is just as humanist as it is religious.

    And note that this work does not necessarily need to be evangelical in nature (e.g. recruiting people to faith), though some Christians feel strongly about that.

    • Hello, Kristofer – Many thanks for writing your thoughts on the subject. I can appreciate that your version of Christianity is manifestly humanistic, though if we’re referring to this type: “Humanism is a comprehensive life stance that upholds human reason, ethics, and justice, and rejects supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition.” then the Christian label is irrelevant.

      I would appreciate the stance of many religious folks if indeed they behaved (especially the zealous ones) like the enlightened figures they revere. The sort that Martin Luther King Jr. refers to when he said, “Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.” Those I can relate because they’re intrinsic in our human capital.

      Thanks again for writing.

    • Like Memo, I also find your version of Christianity to be refreshing. Although, I feel there are a few problems with this view. Your first point is valid. According to the story of Jesus, he did express a distaste for religious hierarchy, and in fact one could argue he did not intend to start a new faith, but rather, he simply wanted to reform the Jewish faith.

      Your second point is a bit more problematic. The view that God “works through Christians and all humans who nurture their relationship with him” makes one question the true nature of God. Christians, and indeed those who do nurture their relationship with God, have played a significant part in creating many of ills of society that we see today. If this is the work of God put in action through Christians and God’s followers, this implies that God takes pleasure in the suffering of humanity. Also, and perhaps most importantly, implicit in your view is the idea that human beings are empty, amoral creatures that require assistance from God in order to act in a positive way towards the world. This is not humanist because it does not place power in the hands of human beings themselves; reason, ethics, and justice do not exist a priori in your view, they must be gifted upon man. These “gifts” are also limited to his followers, which excludes a large segment of the population.

  8. Bryce, I just saw your response.
    Christians are human beings. Christians, nominal or sincere, have messed up throughout history. It is true, Christians have screwed up, have misused the Bible and theology to justify whatever bad actions they were engaged in. Guilty as charged. Whenever Christians have done this, I’d argue that they have gone against God’s will, but the evil done by Christians is evident in history.

    Be careful though, of attaching everything bad done in the Western world to the Christian faith, as if it were following Jesus that led to every mistake or evil in history, and if only we’d all embrace atheism, all our troubles and all evil would vanish. It seems to me that atheism is subject to the same kinds of distortions and abuses as any other perspective – think of the misery perpetrated by Stalin, just to name one example. There was plenty of misery caused by both Christians and atheists (and followers of other faiths) in the 20th century. In each case, it is a distortion and misuse of something good in the interest of evil; in each case, the result was the opposite of vision of justice and peace that is at the heart of all true religions (including, I would add, atheism).

    I also disagree with your second point. I am sure that you are quite able to use “reason, ethics, and justice” in acting in the world. I also believe they are gifts of God, but you don’t have to believe in God to have and use those gifts. I don’t believe in a narrow God who blesses only ‘my’ people. I believe that the Christian faith is a good and true way of being in the world – but that does not make your way false.

    Thank you, Memo, for getting this discussion started.

    • Eric,

      I appreciate your response. I didn’t mean to blame all bad actions that occur in the world on the Christian faith. I understand that religion is not the sole problem that exists, and that much harm that takes place is done by the hands of believers and non-believers alike. The difference (as I see it) is that all religions (not just Christianity) provides justification for harm. Stalin (using your example) did not commit atrocities because he was an atheist, he did what he did for a number of different reasons (political, various psychological disorders, etc.). Much of the harm that religion has caused is done simply because one is religious. The crusades, the support of slavery, acts of terrorism, the condemnation of homosexuals, etc. is a DIRECT RESULT of religion (the bible tells us so), whereas Stalin most likely would have acted the way he acted even if he happened to be religious. There were other factors at work. The myth that Stalin’s (and others) atrocities are somehow a result of atheism is one of the many reasons so many people have an unreasonable fear of atheism.

      As for my second point, I agree with what you said one hundred percent. I cannot discount your views, or your faith. I mad this point in response to a specific quote made by Kristofer. I admire your view of Christianity in this respect.

      I hope I don’t come off bitter, Eric. I do understand where you are coming from, and I am deeply appreciate the openness with which you are sharing your faith.

  9. Bryce,

    I’m so glad to you wrote about these concerns. I’m not sure I can address them all conclusively, but I will try:

    1. Re. God taking pleasure in society’s ills and suffering: This is always a tricky part of having faith, reconciling God with evil and suffering. But because I believe that humans exist to be free and to use this freedom to create and do God’s will, it is inevitable that this freedom will allow some people to be more sinful than others (after all, we’re all sinful to begin with, to some degree). But I do not think that God takes pleasure in these mistakes. Rather, Christians are taught that he does indeed take pleasure in us having this freedom to begin with, and simply that we exist. It is this unique trait that makes us created “in his image”. And to quote Bishop Desmond Tutu, “God would rather see us go freely to hell than to be required to go to heaven.”

    So it may be somewhat of a paradox that God allows evil and suffering, but that is unfortunately the price of freedom and the very essence of humanity. You can’t have good without evil; you can’t have joy without suffering.

    2. Re. people needing God and him favoring his followers: I don’t buy this argument at all. I don’t think people need God, really, nor do they need to believe in him to be loved by him. People are loved by God regardless of their faith. So the idea that followers are somehow more blessed is not true, though I do believe that having a life of faith might provide benefits, especially during times of trial. I sometimes wonder whether the faith of Jews and Christians imprisoned during the Holocaust helped them overcome their oppression? Books written on this topic seem to suggest that this is true; conversely, I’m not aware of any comparable books by atheists that are moving accounts of their nonbelief prevailing over evil.

    So, your two concerns are common, even among Christians themselves, and I don’t dismiss them lightly. But taking a harder look at faith, God, and the core tenets of Christianity (as well as many other faiths), I firmly believe that the existence of God can be meaningful despite the presence of evil, and despite the fact that there are those who believe in him and those who do not. God’s existence does not require our faith to be real: after all, that’s the whole point of faith! That it can be real despite it not being able to be proven. And like good and evil, faith and doubt co-exist. So God is not bothered by our doubting, nor is God troubled by atheists. He loves us all, and works through all of us, despite our many doubts and other weaknesses.

    In the end, the most valuable lesson in Christian faith is the act of forgiveness. God may not take pleasure in suffering, but I believe he can accept it because he can forgive us. And similarly, we are taught that the only way to heal the broken aspects of our world are through love and forgiveness — to act in God’s image, just as we were created in his image. No mistake or shortcoming is exempt from his forgiveness; we with our human limitations are the only ones guilty of putting limits on forgiveness. The less we impose such limits, the more we can help heal the ills that surround us.

    And if faith helps us to do this better, than that is the only real benefit of having faith versus not having any.

    • Hi Kristofer,

      Thank you for responding. It is difficult to address anything conclusively in a discussion such as this, but I really do appreciate your willingness to try.

      Again, I find your view regarding Christianity rather refreshing. My response that included the idea that God takes pleasure in the suffering of humanity was simply an implication I found regarding your previous statement. I understand this is probably not what you intended, as it is difficult to sum up one’s religious views in a brief blog post. I also understand the need for free will, and the view that much of what evil occurs is a result of an autonomous human being acting out against the wishes of God. The obvious problem with this is that it is impossible to truly understand what the wishes of God truly are. The sources we have seem to be problematic. Relying on religious leaders who are vulnerable to sin (and thus capable of misleading us) is not a good source, nor is the Bible, a document that reveals God to be rather angry and full of spite (and provides support for the hypothesis that God does enjoy suffering). So if one is not a literalist with regard to the Bible (which you are not, I take it), how does God communicate his will to us? Are all things good God? And if so, how can we prove this? And how can we justify the atrocities that God commits according to the Bible?

      Your second point is well-taken. I do not intend to challenge your personal convictions regarding God. You are entitled to this view (and I do like the fact that you have this view). The reason I wrote what I did is because I was responding to your statement that God “works through Christians and all who nurture their relationship with him.” This seemed to imply that since God is the source of everything in this world (including “good”), that in order to be “good” one had to have a relationship with God. Like I stated earlier, expressing yourself via the internet makes it impossible to say everything you want to say. I am happy that you cleared this up for me.

  10. (I’m the same Eric that commented above)

    Wow. Thank you for some good conversation. I didn’t mean to blame Stalin’s evil on his atheism, Bryce – in the same way that Stalin’s actions did not flow from good atheism, Christians who do evil are acting according to the opposite of good theology. I also grant your point that, indeed, some Christians do indeed use their religious beliefs and reading of Scripture to justify evil – we find Christians on both sides of most social issues in history, whether it’s slavery, feminism, civil rights, or GLBT rights, and both sides find justification for their views in the library of books called the Bible. My guess is that conservative and liberal atheists, for example, also find justifications (reasons) for their beliefs in science, philosophy, sociology, etc. In each case, we often find the real reasons for people’s beliefs and actions to lie in their presuppositions they take to their reading of texts or the world. In all religions and philosophies, there is an ongoing debate about what is good and true, and I often find myself, for example, to be closer on some issues to progressive Jews, Buddhists, atheists, etc., than to fundamentalist Christians (who often find themselves allied with fundamentalists of other religions, too).

  11. I find it intriguing that, for the most part, the views expressed by Kristofer and Eric is that of Christianity as a vehicle for personal growth and substance. I think we can all take something positive from every religion that augments our behavior towards the positive in our daily lives. I don’t think we’re arguing against those aspects of religion.

    I know religious individuals to have taken to hear the best that their faiths offer: compassion, humility, and empathy. Those are indeed great qualities though not the exclusive purview of religion. It’s because our intrinsic value of our fellow human beings demands we take steps to behave and act with goodness.

    The flip side to religious affiliation is one that perverts those qualities based on ancient beliefs that have survived to this day. One of my issues with religions in general is that it’s based on static thinking, namely sacred texts that, while they are incredibly important in their historicity and norms of ancient life, still maintain a hold in our collective consciousness that should be best addressed by current social mores, basic human rights, and scientific advances. Women can still be stoned to death by zealous religious cops; slavery, racism, homophobia, overpopulation, and disease are but a few of the things that religions instill in their followers by static thinking–every sperm is sacred, God hates gays, condoms are dangeours, AIDS is God’s wrath on mankind, vaccines are evil, slaves don’t have souls, etc. Yes, I know I’m generalizing but the message is in how these ills have had the hand of religion behind it, and have perpetuated this type of thinking even to the detriment of our society.

    Another issue I have is the acceptance/reward model. If you accept God into your life, if you believe in the words of the prophet, if you take the sacraments, you will be rewarded. It’s the exclusivity of religion that bars the ones who accept this tenet, versus the ones who do not. It is an approach that actively seeks to divide individuals because of a way of thinking, again based on static thinking.

    Last, I think blind faith is used as a crutch to carry the heavy burden of personal responsibility. I have no doubt that, should you come to realize that no sky man will come to your rescue in this or any other life, the burden of your behavior, actions and thoughts rests squarely on your shoulders. You live and die in this lifetime. You only get this life to make it count. You make it by your wits and by the love you foster in the here and now with your fellow human beings. Yes, they will sometimes disappoint you. But sow seeds of love, compassion, and understanding and you have begun to take a stake in how you live your life in the here and now.


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