by Patrick Appel
A reader writes:
A minor point, but you wrote something that still drives me crazy: "they didn't have a hard time abandoning religion because, for whatever reason, they never got much out of it in the first place. "
This makes an enormous assumption about atheists: that they were once religious or were raised in a religious household. This simply isn't true in more and more cases. I didn't even know what religion was until I went to elementary school, where it seemed prima facie silly to my 6 year old eyes. I've come to a much more nuanced view the more I've studied religion (and as an atheist, I try to understand religion as much as possible), but I never abandoned religion. It never abandoned me, either. Religion has just never entered my life in any plausible or meaningful way, which is why it isn't something I feel the need to wrestle with myself. Though as an artist, it is clearly a philosophy I must wrestle with in order to understand the vast majority of western art, but it's not something I bring into my home-life.
I take my reader's point about the impossibility of the non-religious from birth giving up something they never had. But this reader's argument actually enforces what was intended as my central point: that projecting our own theological struggles, or the lack thereof, upon others often muddles exchanges between believers and non-believers. Another reader is in related territory:
Patrick states that lots of atheists just don't seem to care about questions of "ultimate purpose" and that this is pretty much the equivalent kind of situation of vegetarians who just never really liked meat.
I personally find this to be a very apt analogy and it does seem to describe my own version of agnostic atheism in that I have never really felt that my religious upbringing (liberal roman catholic in the US) really spoke to me, and thus I've never felt that I was "rejecting" something, but more like I just wasn't interested in it.
However, later on, Patrick then seems to slip back inside the kind of religiously-framed mindset that perturbs so many atheists (myself included). He states, "Whatever religion's failings, and there are many, it is one of a handful of institutions that compels us to contemplate unanswerable questions. The new atheists mostly neglect questions of meaning, probably because they and their followers don't obsess about those questions to the degree the devout do."
Although there are certainly a bunch of rhetorical caveats in that statement, it still strikes me as rather biased. In my experience, religion doesn't actually seem to compel most of its adherents to ask or contemplate these deep existential questions or to consider the source of meaning in their lives. Many, many, many religious folk don't ask these questions because they don't think they need to be asked--at least that's the reaction I get when I've asked them such questions and they don't really have any thought out answers to them.
Now, of course, there are some deeply thoughtful thinkers that contemplate the question of "meaning in our lives" who are religious, but then again, there are many other thoughtful thinkers who aren't religious who also contemplate how meaning is created without any religious assumptions put into the mix. To imply (perhaps unintentionally...) that the question of "meaning" is always tied to the issue of "ultimate purpose" is to frame the question in a way that is already biased in favor of religious approaches to the problem and which doesn't allow for the fact that there are many different ways to find, create, and understand the concept of "meaning" in each of our individual experiences.
To conclude, I'd like to go back to Patrick's analogy about vegetarianism. As I noted before, I agree with his analogy that for many atheists, their relationship to supernatural entities is very much like vegetarians who never actually liked meat. It's just not something that they ever felt any need for. However, Patrick's subsequent statements about "ultimate purpose" and questions of meaning take this a step further and seem to be like a person saying that these vegetarians who never liked meat don't really seem to care about protein(=meaning), because protein is mainly a meat-thing. The implied and assumed support for this position is that because meat-lovers obviously consume a lot of protein through their meat, and meat is disproportionally made out of protein (although there's a lot of fat in there too!), then only meat eaters really care about protein and know about protein. It is then regularly assumed and even often explicitly stated that the non-protein focused vegetarians are just not really able to talk about protein at all. Furthermore, because of the lack of centrality or dominance of protein in all vegetarian food, it is assumed that they lack competence or interest in the issue of protein.
In real life, as in this analogy, this position is just silly. The point here is not that atheists don't care about meaning--but that they mostly all have a very different foundation for creating and understanding "meaning" in their lives. Just as vegetarians can point out that there are many different kinds of protein that you can get through different non-meat foods (with the resultant scoffing and smirking by many meat-eaters about how obviously silly these vegetarians are for not just eating meat to get their protein...), atheists can easily and, in my experience, do easily point to a variety of different sources of meaning in their lives that don't revolve around religious experience. These expositions by atheists (or vegetarians), then seem to be ignored out of hand as not really being valid because the framework for understanding meaning (or protein) is so totally and implicitly understood in religious (meat eaters') terms and concepts.
Thus, if you want to help make the debate more comprehensible to both sides of the group, one needs to be more careful about how you frame the questions and terms. Religious groups don't control the question of meaning any more than meat eaters control questions of protein consumption. While it may certainly be true that religious groups do spend a relatively greater amount of their time focused on this topic (just as meat does have a lot of protein in it!), that doesn't give them ultimate or exclusive competence in this area.
I agree wholeheartedly with the reader. A couple readers made this argument:
Patrick writes:"Whatever religion's failings, and there are many, it is one of a handful of institutions that compels us to contemplate unanswerable questions."
I don't think religion makes anyone contemplate unanswerable questions because each religion dictates that its god is the answer to all questions, in fact, all problems. Christianity, in particular, squelches contemplation of unanswerable questions. Take, for instance, the acceptance of Jesus Christ as a real person who walked the earth -- in what Christian church does everyone attend in which any number of attendees are encouraged to contemplate whether Jesus really existed at all? None. Of course, the Christian religion requires the existence of Jesus or the religion wouldn't exist, yet the unanswerable question is why nearly two billion people around the planet accept as their figurehead a person who had no documented existence outside of the Christian bible itself.
Perhaps Patrick meant something else in this sentence because I do not see religion compelling us to contemplate unanswerable questions. It does the opposite. Religion indoctrinates, and with indoctrination comes blind acceptance. With blind acceptance, contemplation dies.
I have been able to contemplate far more about everything in life by escaping religion.
A reader takes the debate in another direction:
In my experience, the most outspoken atheists come from very religious families (a product of living in the South) and are fairly reactionary in the rejection of their parents' religion. As an atheist that was exposed to many religions but not one more than the other, I do not share their anger or feelings of betrayal. What frustrates me is when religious people assume I have not contemplated the same things they have when I state I am nonreligious/atheistic/etc. (my religious background: my grandmother is Orthodox Christian, my grandfather's family is Muslim, my cousin is Jewish lives in a Muslim country and is a practicing Buddist, my Uncle is a devout Baptist, and my family's circle of friends are Presbyterians, Quaker, New Age, Jewish, and Catholic....in addition, my father encouraged my sister and I to read many holy texts as well visit churches, mosques, and temples for services). It is assumed I just reject, because if I contemplated, surely I would believe. Or it is assumed I have not had transcendent experiences that they have. Or have not opened my heart (the must infuriating) as they have.
At the same time it is also frustrating to be among atheists who just reject religions without an ounce of curiosity to understand their history or texts. Even though one rejects religions and gods, one can still be enriched by studying them, and that does not speak at all towards their alleged divine inspiration. It is perfectly possible to actively engage the religious material around you, reject it not out of anger but because you feel you have a dedication to follow the truth as you see it. My personal belief is that the world functions just as one would expect as if there were nothing divine, and thus it is up to the individual to create a personal purpose (as there is no universal purpose that takes humanity into consideration) with the amount of freewill that we are able to exercise. As for what keeps my moral code from devolving into chaos, that is my family and friends. There is no greater hell than having the people you love stop loving you because of your actions.
"Whatever religion's failings, and there are many, it is one of a handful of institutions that compels us to contemplate unanswerable questions." I am curious what other institutions you refer to. It seems to me that it is life itself that compels us to contemplate, not the institutions that demand we do. There are plenty of religious non-contemplatives (many Christianists!) that do not heed the call to look inward (and outward) as some of their teachings wish they would. And many religions do not appreciate non-traditional interpretations of their dogma, so they value the study of theology more than personal contemplation (unless personal contemplation is an effort to accept their dogma).
"The new atheists mostly neglect questions of meaning, probably because they and their followers don't obsess about those questions to the degree the devout do." I agree with this statement, and the majority of your post if one were referring to only atheist blogs/forums/comments/angry emails. Many of us nonreligious battle with these questions without ever invoking the divine. Or sometimes we do invoke the divine, but realize that answer gets us further from the truth. While many of us nonreligious folks do not always agree with the approach of our fellow outspoken atheists, we understand the importance of being vocal and unashamed of our beliefs. We are who we are, and let us be heard for our differing morals and worldviews are as valid for consideration as those who believe.
I wish we could all keep Montaigne in mind when we have our zealous spells; "All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed."
A final reader:
To speak for myself, and pretty much every other atheist I have ever met or been acquainted with, it is most certainly not the case that we don’t care about “ultimate meaning” or “ultimate purpose”. It’s that we recognize such a thing does not exist. If it did exist then it would be rather important, but it doesn’t. Meaning in the manner in which it is being employed in discussions like this one is a value judgment, and is as such entirely 100% subjective. EVEN IF you were to accept the hypothesis that some form of deity existed, and EVEN IF you were to declare that in that case the meaning that entity declared for you was the one you chose to adopt, that would change nothing. You would simply be adopting someone/thing else’s meaning for yourself instead of embracing your own… which still doesn’t make meaning or purpose universal.
Atheists do not neglect questions of meaning. We simply do not think any such questions can be resolved by an appeal to some supernatural (and whenever it is sought, absent) higher authority and abdicating our own need to define and take responsibility for the meaning of our own lives. My life has plenty of meaning thank you very much. I simply did not require it be imposed upon me by an external source.
This will be my last post for the week. Andrew should be back later tonight. Thanks to David Frum, Dave Weigel, Chris Bodenner and all the readers for a fantastic week. Until next time.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.