The Atheists’ Way Forward

06Apr10

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently; partially as a response to the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and recent religious holidays, but also because it’s good to do a mental check up one’s standing in the realm of the metaphysical (or lack thereof). A little background; I was born and baptized Catholic, and though nearly everyone in my family has had problems with that faith at some point, most of them still identify as Christian in some regard (though under no denomination). Sometime around the ages of 15 though 17, I became an agnostic.

Two points on this–I’ve never like calling myself an agnostic, because it implies that I’m simply not interested in the conversation and it just gives a sense of ambivalence about a greater purpose. Instead, I prefer to be called an atheist because I’m not really coming from the framework of a god(s) (or God). Agnosticism implies that it’s almost just as likely that there are supernatural forces as not, and I can’t get down with this idea. It also implies there’s no way of knowing, so that there’s no point in arguing. Of course, even the religious don’t know, they believe (the sane ones, anyway).

The other point is that I never woke up one morning, or actively made a decision to become areligious. Yes, at a certain point I had a moment I got the impression (and apparently many Catholics get this) that there was no God listening. But maybe He didn’t have to listen? I took a religion class taught by a big-hearted, cranky man named Mr. Neun who loved pointing out the inconsistencies and politics of the Bible. Yet this man was allegedly a Quaker, and I’d be willing to bet he was. I read Voltaire. I listened to the Smashing Pumpkins who at that point declared “God is empty, just like me.” The line was jarring at first, but on further reflection, it’s meaning is ambiguous; after all, if a human being is “empty” yet real, why could God not be the same? But at the time, I took it as an anti-religious message. At some point, someone must have asked me what religion I was (with my large ears and dark curly hair, I look like I could be Jewish) and I stopped calling myself Catholic. Later, I’d say something like vaguely Christian. Then, Deist (a tradition which I still have tremendous respect for, and one to which I could see myself returning to), and finally atheist.

Not to tout my own literary artistry, but the lowercase “a” is key. Lately, I’ve been very uncomfortable with those who insist there absolutely is no god, that religion is meaningless, and we must eradicate it to move forward as a world. For one, I don’t want to band together with a group of atheists. This leads to dogma, which we are supposed to be against. Furthermore, I’m not sure the extent to which I can tell people for certain they aren’t going to heaven or hell or some posthumous existence. While I think it’s very unlikely, I just don’t know (though again, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a part of the conversation).

Atheists–very prominently Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher–have often lamented that religion makes us do stupid and irrational things. This idea is true on its face–after all, wouldn’t you have to believe that there was a glorious afterlife to blow yourself up? I don’t deny that religious fanaticism influences terrorism; it’s quite obvious it does. But how then, do you explain war prior to, and including the American Revolution? British soldiers literally stood in lines waiting to be shot for their country, and of course this was not unique to Britain. Barring an aristocratic background, there was rarely a reward for participating in this tremendously stupid strategy, and certainly Jesus was not informing the generals on tactics (if he was, why don’t we use this divine idea for counterinsurgency?). The reason seems to have been for the pride (not to mention land and riches) of Britain, but nationalism too is a sort of irrational, amorphous concept.

Atheists also charge that religion inspires us to hatred; this is sadly true. Currently, the United States is an apartheid government, in that GLBT people have less rights than straight people. The Christian Right (a group that shouldn’t be confused with actual conservatives, although actual conservatives shouldn’t to co-identify with them under the label “Republican”) is largely behind this push, and indeed gay rights are sold out more often than Lady Gaga tickets. I don’t doubt that marketing hate behind the label of Christianity is effective; earlier in America’s history, the Bible was used to justify slavery. However, I am often reminded of a study Dr. Drew Pinsky (pre-Celebrity Rehab) discussed on Discovery Health. Straight men were given an fMRI scan, and were flashed images of gay pornography; the study found that the brain’s first response (not cognitive, just instinctual) was one of fear. Which is to say, if one ever questioned the use of the word “homophobia” on the basis that the phenomenon was one of simply hate rather than fear, then one best check himself/herself. Perhaps the wise Jedi philosopher Yoda said it best– “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

I don’t bring up the study to excuse homophobia (or racism, which also has some roots in unconscious response)  in any way; remember, it’s not a cognitive response, and one would hope that any thinking would temper the “alligator” brain. But I do mention it to say the groundwork for hatred is there. And this is really my point; can the areligious seriously convince themselves that homophobia, racism, and other intolerance, would simply go away in religion’s absence? Yes, dogma does fan the flames, and yet a large part of me thinks that we’d just find something else to fight over. South Park got this one right with the “Time Child” episode, in which everyone’s an Atheist, but there is a war over what to label the religion…err…lack thereof.

I can’t personally buy into religious ideas. However, I do see some overlap with believers and non-believers–most crucially, in the inevitable fallibility of humans. Although, we would probably argue over what constituted wrong or imperfection. But here’s where I cop to being envious of religion–in its power to transcend, albeit to transcend on earth. I watch this MLK speech and I just see something I don’t have: this complete assurance that progress is possible, and human beings can improve. I want to be clear about this. I don’t know how this type of speech or MLK’s other accomplishments are possible without some sort of divine inspiration. That does not mean there’s a God, but King certainly believed there was. To put it simply, this speech is why non-believers must be nuanced in their criticisms of religion.

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