The following is an essay I wrote because I felt the need to clarify where I stand in the atheist and non-theist debate. I also had to express the deep dissatisfaction, even anger I was feeling with the way Christian theology (inspired by Paul) "convicted" atheists for their atheism. I still feel it is not only unreasonable but undermining of honest faith to treat non-belief as sin.
Its a fitting first post to this blog for no other reason than it was the first thing I wrote after a long hiatus.
I'm not exactly sure what to title it. "Where I'm at" works for me.
I am not all about being an atheist. I don’t consider myself particularly and especially distinct from theists, just as a theist is unlikely to consider themself in fraternity with every other theist. In that vague way in which a theist may consider the term theist meaningful I am likely to share common ground in spirit at least. While I am in awe of processes of creation that are not designed from above, like evolution and emergence I don’t consider human scholarship as only recently having stepped out of ignorant darkness. Theism is a part of the same great imagining of the universe. I also see God is as often a tool of liberation – the great equaliser – as buttress of tyranny. Political atheism is not my bag. I would much rather share a conceptual boat and a political movement with the hopeful and kind than with every fellow atheist.
Further how could a negative word like atheism sum me up? I am as positive as sunshine. Seriously there is no more information to be gleaned from calling me an atheist as there is calling a Christian a non-Hindu or vice-versa, except that more is ruled out. Though not necessarily a lot more. The line between God and no-God is actually quite blurry. (Just as we might expect if people were genuinely trying to figure out the universe rather than focusing on debating each other.) Atheism makes the most sense in opposition to faiths with a clear and relatively unchanging deity like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The opposition struggles a bit with some of the mystic approaches within those faiths or whenever God is a diffuse force like in pantheism. It is harder to dispute a vibe’s existence than a personage’s.
Then there are the many faiths which are even less “theistic”. Hinduism includes a whole spectrum of beliefs about Brahma (the supreme divine whatever, not necessarily an entity) which are hard to translate to Western concepts. Some even talk about Maya – the illusory nature of the world – as extending to Brahma, while others firmly disagree. That’s as far as I can comprehend.
Many indigenous beliefs are full of metaphysical forces and beings but hardly a ruling theos. I get a sense that the dichotomy of real and unreal is poorly applied to these phenomenons by outsiders. How does atheism relate to this?
When we get to Buddhism the common usage view that atheism is also its opposite reaches the height of nonsense. Zen Buddhism includes some of the most aggressive atheistic pronouncements in human history. Other Buddhist schools (Perfect Land Buddhism) have a pantheon of allegorical characters like the monkey king.
I mention all the above because in order to accept the label of atheism I have to first strip it of its associations and disassociations. There is nothing new in the way in which a word like atheism constructs an opposite along the lines of its own history, obliterating their distinctions or the way in which it gathers around it a cluster of fashions. That’s the function of language backed up by social power. I have however needed to disavow the above elements of it.
So how am I an atheist? Simply, I do not believe in a discrete consciousness (or family of such) standing outside of time and space who is creator and sustainer of the universe and who intervenes consciously upon it. From here on I’ll refer to this being as God – begging the forgiveness of those Gods who don’t meet this description. I don’t replace this God with anything by the way. In my view there is neither need nor room for such a being. However the view does not precede my disbelief in God. It’s just the view I end up with after the disbelief.
The disbelief itself is a consequence of the exhaustion of belief. I sought God earnestly and honestly. I even believed I found them. This belief however needed constant maintenance and protection until I could no longer sustain the effort. The problem was that my belief in God was never based on any feedback in the way that a belief in a body of water is reinforced by wetness, cool air, and the smell of mud, the fecundity of surrounding vegetation or a splash. I was never even aware of God with that subtle sense by which we perceive someone behind us in the dark. After a while of accepting that God was invisible, inaudible (or silent), weightless, odourless, precenceless?....I began to doubt God was there.
So I prayed. I begged God to rescue my faith. Any sign at all was acceptable to me. It didn’t need to meet scientific standards of evidence or result in anyone else believing me. And the answer was... Nothing. Not a sound at all from outside my own head. What else could I do but cease to believe?
The transition wasn’t that smooth. I had to leave behind a chunk of my identity. My belief had been reinforced by intense collective emotional experiences. These weren’t anywhere near as powerful as solitary moments of the same induced by whipping myself into a frenzy of devotion. Those moments had been very dear to me – they were how I belonged to the community of the saved. Still nothing I could honestly call real. Nothing from beyond. I could possibly generate such a moment now with a little effort. I am quite the sentimentalist.
Still there are other identities for a young man to walk into. The real pain was leaving behind God – not just the comfort of God but God. You see I had repeatedly been taught that God feels terribly pained when people refuse to believe in “Him”. As God loves us, God wants us to be in relationship with “Him” (where we are happiest) and when we reject “Him” we cause him great sadness. For a long time after ceasing to believe in God I was vulnerable to charges that I was hostile to God. This was a God who in this depiction had personally suffered for our salvation. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. We sentimentalists don’t enjoy being hostile even to beings we don’t believe in.
As a consequence I needed to make my peace with God. And I believe I have. I am not angry at God. Should God somehow establish their existence I’d be very open to knowing them. Should I get to heaven and find God there I imagine we will have a very pleasant chat. I’ll be mother. I feel no need to apologise for my disbelief as I feel confident there’s no malice to it.
Some of you may have guessed my “spiritual journey” to atheism was through Christianity. In particular Pentecostal Christianity –in a lower Anglican congregation – after a childhood raised as Catholic. It is fair to say I may have been barking up the wrong tree. I have subsequently explored other theistic traditions but to be fair never with the same open-hearted commitment. There are two reasons.
Firstly I feel that a conscious supreme being would be capable of responding to a genuine penitent regardless of errors in theology. It seems facetious to suggest I have to spend similar years in an orthodox and then a liberal synagogue, a Baptist and then a Lutheran church, a Suffi mosque, a Sunni mosque and so on with the same uncritical spirit. Also impossible.
Secondly in reflection on my time in Christianity I had to wonder how I could have believed in anything let alone a relationship with a personal God without any feedback. I think I can describe adequately the mechanisms by which this was possible. I have above described them subjectively but I want to show their universal nature as I see these mechanisms operating in the production of other theistic beliefs (and also many non-religious beliefs as well). Seen clearly these are sinister Orwellian devices which my general positive regard towards all things does not extend to. I am not about to subject myself to them again and again.
To illustrate let’s look at the doctrine of transubstantiation. This harmless Catholic belief holds that the host and wine of the mass are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Surely a simple smell – let alone a chemical analysis would be able to establish if this is true. Alas no. The host and wine are transformed into the spiritual body and blood of Christ. Who even knows what this means? However it is important that the “actual” transformation is believed – not as metaphor but as an actuality.
The statement of transubstantiation is untestable, contrary to any sensory feedback and completely alien to the rest of our experiences. Yet to fail to believe it is to stand apart from Gods family and to believe it is to be able to share in the breaking of bread with one’s own family and friends and God. It is a rite of adulthood, a sign of maturity and after all it does no harm. And so it is achieved (at about age 11 for most catholics) through the twin mechanisms of celebrating belief and vilifying disbelief belief without understanding let alone real cause is normed.
Over time strange phenomenon emerge to protect the presumption of belief. Belief is seen as a gift – no amount of thinking can gain or alter it. Almost in contradiction to this, disbelief is treated as wilful – a rejection of God’s gift, a hatred of the church and God. The last is particularly hurtful. Although the fear of heaven and hell is employed they are far less pernicious motivators. We can choose the virtue of courage when faced with the prospect of hell however we are left with our ingratitude when we are willing to offend God. Policed by parents, teachers and peers, most of us crumble and believe without even knowing what we are talking about.
What’s been said of transubstantiation can also be said of the existence of God. Perhaps some (even many) believe in God because of feedback but there can be little doubt all theists are encouraged to believe in God regardless of feedback through the same mechanisms of virtue and vilification. Children are not encouraged to pray only when they perceive Jesus in their room but before to thin air (in which Jesus may be floating weightless, odourless, silent and presenceless but why presume so?). Doubts (seldom emerging until adolescence) are responded to with sadness escalating to charges of sinful pride breaking Gods heart. Just believe and you can return to the fold and somewhere God is made happy.
Virtue and vilification - these are the mechanisms of charlatans and cults, and of drone producing political parties or sanctimonious new age baloney. In other spaces theists generally reject them as manipulative. It is their universality across theistic faiths that mean I won’t be barking up with the same guilelessness any other similar trees.
Now does it follow that for the reasons I am an atheist others should be too? Absolutely not. The inducements to belief in Christianity and similar faiths are manipulative but this could be a secondary fact. It doesn’t preclude that they are true. Rejecting them because they are manipulative is no better than believing in God just because it is virtuous to do so.
The primary reason for my disbelief in God – the “response” to my prayer – and absence of any preceding feedback – should also not compel any theist to change their mind. It’s certainly not proof that God doesn’t exist. God may have chosen not to answer me or may even have answered me in a way I am not wise enough to appreciate. Certainly there’s no scriptural basis in any holy book I know of suggesting that God mightn’t reveal or conceal themself as they see fit. So I don’t think it produces a theological bombshell if God hid from me.
That said I think any reasonable person following my story would accept that my atheism is a perfectly un-spectacular response to my experiences. Rather than wilfully denying an obvious God I am simply following my nose. Those who must see me as motivated by sinfulness and rejecting the gift of faith have my sympathies. I was once also in the thrall of such manipulative illogic.
The other point I would hope that theists concede is that if they wish to change my mind the burden of proof is theirs (or alternatively their Gods’). If two people look at a hilltop and one sees a deer it is their duty to evidence it to their companion – not the other way round. A simple “There” is good enough but if the deer has flown then fresh tracks will do. It is ludicrous to ask the person who believes there is no deer – because they were looking at the hill and saw nothing - to prove their case. How should they start?
The game becomes even sillier when instead of a deer we have a being outside of space and time who could dance on a pin head with a thousand angels should they want. How on earth could anyone disprove such a being? Why should I try? A simple “Where?” is all I need to say.
Unfortunately this leads the atheist and the theist into an Abbot and Costello routine of “Where?”, “There.”, “Where?”, “There.” At its strangest the theist points to the miracle of birth or the beauty of a sunset as proofs of God which to an atheist are merely jolly good things.
I think both theists and atheist have to concede that even more credible sounding forms of this contest are pointless. Here my sympathies lie with the theist whose frustration is more understandable. Time after time the theist can present situations in nature for which no explanation exists other than God but the atheist is unconvinced. The atheist can counter with natural phenomenon where there are clear observable causes but why should this concern the theist – they prove nothing conclusively. Neither however do the theists examples but the reasoning is less obvious.
Lets look at the example of the bumblebee. For a long time the bumblebees ability to fly contradicted the laws of aerodynamics. Science had no explanation. No-one however proposed that this proved Gods existence. When the science of aerodynamics figured it out and the bumblebees flight was understood according to natural laws this didn’t prove anything either.
At the moment there are serious questions regarding the origin of life which science cannot answer even tentatively, just as there is much of the development of species that can be explained without reference to God. Again both theists and atheists can legitimately say “So what.”
Then there are the modern miracles. God saves a family from a burning building or a cancer is healed by faith. Personally I find these proofs offensive to the people who are not so lucky. To me the overwhelming picture drawn by calamity and tragedy is of an indifferent universe where the flu virus is as favoured as a human child regardless of prayer. It certainly seems unfair to accept as proof of God a successful prayer when a thousand more unsuccessful prayers mean nothing. Miracles or their absence seems to only serve to reinforce belief.
Lastly there are the spirit mediums and angel channelers whose amazing insights come from beyond. Maybe they are proof of their beliefs and some of them are theistic– however so many of them are exposed as frauds using subtle deceptions (sometimes unwittingly) that its impossible to feel confident. Personally I find those kids with amazing recall of their past lives compelling but friends of mine assure me they are coached.
What are we left with then? Are atheists and theists just unable to communicate – trapped in their own predispositions? It seems to me that all the usual arguments are doing nothing to help either side hear each other. If anything we just seem to be financing authors preaching to their own camps.
One more thing remains to be mentioned. If there are theists who are not just caught up in celebrating belief and vilifying unbelief, then they have actually “seen the deer” or to use the earlier metaphor, swam in the lake. That event - what they have experienced and I have not - is at least something new in the conversation. It may not be convincing but it will atleast be better than the “Where?-There” game.
I do urge all theists to examine carefully if they are victims of manipulation and even more so that they are not manipulating others to perpetuate unevidenced beliefs through virtue and villification. I haven’t discussed why this is so terrible as I consider its cruelty to our cognition and self-confidence to be self-evident. If you disagree I’m not even sure we have the common ground to have much of a conversation.
To those whose theism survives this investigation I extend the offer of further conversation. I would be happy to hear what you’ve seen.