I'm An Atheist But..., Ctd

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by Patrick Appel

These two posts have obviously struck a nerve. As someone who has flirted with atheism from time to time, I've long been fascinated by such debates. I've rounded up a number of reader responses:

Almost every conversation about atheism on the Daily Dish seems to be confusing two very different sets of views -- largely because both groups self-identify as atheists. I'm an atheist, and would describe atheism as not believing in god, or believing there is no god. I think atheists are prone to criticism of organized religion; it is easier to see the negative effects these organizations can have if you're not part of one. But to carry that view to a fundamentalist extreme, to believe all religion is inherently evil, to believe all religions do nothing but harm, and to attack anyone who has faith of any kind -- that isn't atheism. It's anti-theism. With Andrew happily using the term Christianist to distinguish between Christians and the dangerous type of Christians, I'd like to see him using anti-theism to distinguish between atheists and the kind of people Christianists claim all atheists are.

Another readers adds:

An interesting angle you haven't mentioned concerns how belief systems concretely affect the development of the brain. People raised in cultures with distinct words for certain color tones see them more clearly than those in which just one word suffices (the most well-known example is Russian, which has one word for marine blue and another for sky blue -- but there are many others). So believers, having been raised in a cognitive environment in which this mystical experience was ritualistically repeated presumably have brain architecture that differs in significant ways from those raised outside the Church. This could explain the special pain of being a lapsed-believer. Your brain is structured to believe, but your intellect won't let you. In any case, my point is that this is why I try to cut believers a break. If they were raised in that world, they can't help but carry it within them.

Another reader:

Excuse me, but religion is not the same as one's ability to suspend disbelief when watching Star Wars or reading books with talking dogs. And the idea that atheists should treat the two the same is ridiculous. While both religion and "suspension of disbelief" both require you turn off or relax the factual part of your thinking, there is an important difference.

Religion, unlike space explosions in Star Wars or the Lochness monster, states that it is the unalterable truth of the creator and usually stipulates that disbelief will lead you to a lifetime of torture in hell. A very big difference, and one with huge consequences. People who believe in Santa Claus are not going to kill others who do not believe in Ol' Saint Nick. People who may wish to think that maybe, just maybe, there is something special in Lochness are not going to go on crusades, ban books, and fight against equal rights for gays. Religion is dangerous precisely because of its certainty on how people should live their lives. To compare religion to what is usually called "suspension of disbelief" or child-like wonder is missing the point entirely of what religion is and its effect in our world.

The question of "what religion is and its effect in our world" is one Bob Wright has spent much more time with than I have. I suspect he will touch upon it at some point this week. Yet another:

Your atheism posts are rubbing me the wrong way, including your implication that agnosticism or pantheism have anything to do with the issues of atheists (there are some pretty glaring inconsistencies there, most of them named "god"). 

From what I can tell, you're telling us atheists to just shut up and go along to get along.  You're saying that it's more civilized, more polite, to put up with people who preach at us about "God's plan" or who try to comfort us that deceased relatives are "with God".  You're saying to keep it inside, because it's just too rude to tell someone "I don't believe in that, and please stop shoving it on me".

Atheists can take it, you know.  We can live in a culture where this supernatural imaginary being has occupied some strange cultural sacred space.  We can deal with seeing this mass delusion unfold in the public square again and again, spilling into public policy and our lives no matter what we do.  But you're missing the flip side of that coin, which is that in personal interactions with others, I am NOT going to just shut the hell up when they try to argue using theological fallacy, or when they try to impose their religious viewpoint on me.  They get to yodel their belief 95% of the time, across airwaves and political petitions and now carving things on monuments (like we don't have enough carved monuments).  The other 5% of the time, they get to respect MY beliefs.

Sure, maybe Dennett is a little more strident.  But hey, I was ripped apart for almost a DECADE with the knowledge that I didn't believe in some overarching god.  During that time I allowed myself to be dragged to church because "it's family time" and sat in the pew feeling physically ill and hypocritical.  I had to fight with my parents every flipping holiday about whether or not I believed.  My mother guilt-tripped me with rants about how she worried about my soul.  I was actually AFRAID to tell people I was an atheist until literally a decade after I stopped believing, and even then it was because an aunt unexpectedly outed me to a third party during a conversation about religion.  And she said it so calmly and easily, and it was like a weight lifted right off of me.  Because it was okay not to hide anymore, I wouldn't get considered rude and nasty and be shunned.

So, no, I do not think we atheists need to hold up our end of the mass delusion.  Not just for ourselves (for whom it definitely rankles), not just for others (who could stand a few uncomfortable moments in someone else's shoes), but for all those hesitant atheists out there who are still being browbeaten by the vocal believers in a big imaginary best friend.

I'm not telling atheists to stop speaking truth to power any more than I am telling believers to stop preaching the good word. I do, however, take offense at either side arguing that the other side needs to be abolished and trying to enlist me in that pet project. Atheists are much more likely to be ostracized for their beliefs, but that does not excuse incivility on their part any more than belief excuses treating atheists with disrespect.

To partially answer this reader's other point, there is a connection between pantheism, agnosticism and atheism. James Poulos, who is a believer, wrote about this awhile ago. He sees much more to fear in pantheism or "moralistic therapeutic deism” than I do, but I'm going to ignore his criticisms for the moment. Most of the tension between the terms does revolve around "God" and how you define it. As for the connection between agnosticism and atheism, the Pope has a point when he discusses the difficulty of living an agnostic life. From Benedict’s Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures:

Even if I throw in my theoretical lot with agnosticism, I am nevertheless compelled in practice to choose between two alternatives: either to live as if God did not exist or else to live as if God did exist. If I act according to the first alternative, I have in practice adopted an atheistic position and have made a hypothesis (which may also be false) the basis of my entire life...

By this measure I would be an atheist. I no longer believe in a personal God that possesses consciousness as we understand it or requires prayer and obedience. I'm not sure I ever did. And I live my life as if God does not exist. At the same time, I'm overwhelmed by the complexity of life and my inadequacy in understanding the systems that created and maintain the universe. "God" seems like an appropriate term for these mysteries. Another reader discusses God further:

Something I find annoying about this atheist-believer dispute is that it all depends on what you mean by "god". If you require the talking snake, then, yeah, Dennet rules, in my opinion. But if you are some sort of mystic or pantheist and you experience that as "faith," then the the naivete of Dennet's arguments is indeed grating. The exquisitely beautiful, scientific worldview is rife with chaos, weirdness, randomness, unknowns and chance. And chance is mystery, and mystery is at the heart of religion. And that's at the heart of this dispute. To be a scientific atheist and assert scientific certainty about the world when, in fact, the scientific model is so full of uncertainty is, yes, just as irritating as the arguments of naive religious fundamentalists. Both assert that they know in a way that denies the mystery.

On a somewhat related note, Stuart Kauffman has tried in the past to re-claim "God" for non-believers and explained why it is important:

The question is whether we choose to take our most powerful, invented symbol and use it in a new way to mean the creativity in nature itself. Is it more astonishing to believe in a God who created everything that has come to exist -- planets, galaxies, chemistry, life and consciousness -- in six days? Or is it even more astonishing and awesome to believe what is almost certainly the truth: namely, that all of this came to be all on its own? I think the second.

Of course, believers have fought back against this sort of thinking. Ross Douthat's old blog post on pantheism is among the most fair minded you are likely to find.

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