April 12, 2007

Angry Atheist

Have you heard of the angry atheist?

He was brought up Catholic. He makes jokes about the Catholic Church1 that indicate he thinks they left him with a guilt complex. He had some sort of bad experience, got angry at the Church and eventually left.

Now he calls himself an atheist, and he takes every chance he can get to bash the Church. He also seems to dislike Christianity in general, so he takes potshots at them, too. He’s got nothing but criticism for them, he overreacts, he really seems to be full of anger.

I get the feeling that this is what people imagine when they think of an atheist. (Ignoring for a moment that, in some places in this country they think an atheist is basically some sort of satanic baby-eater).

Lately, I like to think of myself as a happy Humanist. I was a Catholic. My memories of the Church are positive. My thoughts about the Christians I know are generally positive.

If I have no specific beef with the Church, and I have positive feelings, why did I stop going to Church? Was I just lazy?

No, it’s mainly because I realized that I’m not a theist, purely on the grounds of my understanding of the world. Because of this, I felt it would be hypocritical to remain in the Church. I don’t take that lightly. And in the case of my children, I felt it would be counterproductive to teach them things I believed were untrue; it’s hard enough to teach children the right things, let alone have to unteach them things.

I think it’s easier for people to assume you are not a theist for emotional reasons. Maybe that’s because many people are theists for emotional reasons, I don’t know. I don’t automatically see emotional reasons as bad reasons.2 The image of an angry atheist is counterproductive and, I think, largely inaccurate. As a non-theist in a largely theist world, a lot of what we have to talk about is where clashes occur. This contributes to the idea of atheists as misanthropes. A culture that is steeped in Christian symbols and assumptions is going to find its rut and soon everybody thinks in default Christian terms.

People who don’t conform present opportunities to “raise the consciousness” of Christians (and other theists). But people don’t like having their consciousness raised because it knocks them out of their comfort zone, annoys them, makes them feel the world is overly-complicated, and perhaps makes them feel bad about past actions that they made when their consciousness was on a narrow track.

I am interested in consciousness raising. If someone thinks twice before assuming you are a Christian, I think that’s progress.3

As a Humanist, it bothers me that my sometimes-contentious writing will hurt feelings or will clash with people’s beliefs. But I have realized a few things — slow realizations — over the years I have written this blog.

  1. Watered down opinions are next to worthless.
  2. You don’t help people when you mollycoddle them.
  3. If your ideas are worthy, they’re worth communicating. If you feel they’re not worth communicating, then they can’t be very worthy.
    1. If you feel people can’t handle your supposedly-controversial ideas, what is it you’re afraid of? If you’re afraid people can’t handle your ideas, you are being presumptuous and elitist, and you’re saying you know better than they do what ideas they should hear. Either you value your ideas or you don’t. People should respect you for honesty and the ability to be clear and focused on ideas, not for being patronizing.
  4. If people’s beliefs are strong, you’re not unlikely to shake them, or upset them. If their beliefs are fragile then they need to entertain thoughtful criticism.
    1. If they have a crisis of faith, they need to work that out.
  5. Respectful dialogue means honest dialogue that focuses on ideas, even if you judge those ideas harshly.
  6. If you criticise a person’s ideas and the person takes that as a personal attack, that is a result of a lack of confidence that a person has in his or her idea, not a fault in your criticism.
    1. Unless you did attack them personally.
    2. Of course, your criticism can be wrong, and you should be prepared to have your ideas treated harshly and be able to defend them.
  7. If your ideas are wrong, you’ll never know unless you give people a chance to criticise you. Then you’ll live in ignorance.

What is left is the ability to effectively communicate over this, and other, media. Sometimes you can try to be reasonable, but the message gets mangled because of poor communication. I worry about that a lot. I worry that, if I were having a conversation in person rather than writing on my blog, people would better understand what I am saying. But I think that’s not a problem with the medium; it’s a problem of my skill in the medium.

My criticisms of theist ideas is likely to be harsh, and to remain honest.

I also can’t deny I have a huge snarky streak. I truly cannot help myself that I tend to inject humor and sarcasm all over the place. Maybe sometimes where it doesn’t belong. For a long time I’ve known that humor is one of the most powerful and dangerous tools of communication. And people wield it like a loaded gun, including myself, often firing away willy nilly. The only promise I can give on that count is that I’m still working on my humor.

This is an effort to help people see atheists, but particularly me, more accurately. But also, I hope, to understand why I post, and will continue to post, criticisms of ideas I feel are wrong, counterproductive, misleading or even dangerous, even if they are widely held beliefs. Irreverent in the second definition, but also making the distinction that you can be respectful of people even if you do not respect their ideas. Or lack respect for their ideas but hold respect for the people. And that could be a whole post on its own.


1 This is not the sort of joke I am referring to: After the Baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, “That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”

2 In fact, my understanding that moral decisions in the brain are tied to emotional responses, and therefore have a biological basis that is common among humans, is one of the aspects of the world that supports my choice to be a Humanist.

3 Better still if he doesn’t assume you’re a Jew or Moslem either.

Posted by James at April 12, 2007 8:55 AM
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Comments

Hey james.

great post. I really want to touch on your paragraph about effectively communicating over this media.

This is where I struggle the most. Intending to espouse one opinion but having another come accross because my mind thinks faster than my fingers can type. Proof reading helps but not always as again my mind puts words on the page that may or may not be there when I am re-reading.

I will also admit to being overly sensitive to upsetting other people. ESPECIALLY when it is not my intention.

I'll post more on symbols and conscious raising later :) work beckons.

Posted by: hooligan at April 12, 2007 11:27 AM

Great Post.

Ditto on a lot of the topics. As an ex-Catholic, I left the Church 7 years ago at the tender age of 18. My basic problem with the Church is lack of social activism. People go to Church for one hour per week and that's it. Church members organize to protest gay marriage but not to decrease homelessness, improve our schools, or prevent drug use.

Oh, and I tend to question the legitimacy of the Bible as well. On the Fridays of Lent I purposefullt eat meat. Why? Because if eating meat on Fridays is among the worst things that I will do throughout my life, then I think I've lived a pretty good life.

Posted by: KB at April 12, 2007 12:41 PM

I also wanted to add that I'm not an atheist either. I am of no religion which is different from atheism.

Posted by: KB at April 12, 2007 12:42 PM

James, your post is, of course, very well written.

I don't believe in a higher being, as I'm sure you know. The idea that a superbeing controls the world is too far-fetched for me to believe. If that's your thing, however, that's fine, so long as I don't have to be part of it.

If people’s beliefs are strong, you’re not unlikely to shake them, or upset them. If their beliefs are fragile then they need to entertain thoughtful criticism.

I wouldn't want to shake someone's beliefs, just like I wouldn't want them to shake mine. Prosletyzing on either side is distasteful and, I feel, rude.

If you don't try to convert me to your flavor of theism, I won't try to convince you that there is no superbeing.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 12, 2007 1:32 PM

Just as KB said, I am not an athiest as to me, this implies that I spend a lot of time and energy contemplating the non-existence of god.

I just don't buy it and that's that.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 12, 2007 1:34 PM

I was programmed by the Jesuits to respond (4 years high school, 4 more college). Of course, they specialized in sophistry. And I never ended up convinced of any "religion." Even the ones they half-heartedly refute.
Often, I question whether or not most devout Catholics are not actually "atheists," since they are more willing to answer to some Pope's authority, rather than admit their own responsibility to others, the earth, or a even a "greater power."

Posted by: ThirdMate at April 12, 2007 1:39 PM

But I've seen some waves that made me pray real hard.

Posted by: ThirdMate at April 12, 2007 1:41 PM

I think I am an angry theist. I agree with Patti - I don't want someone - any religion including my own - proseletyzing anywhere near me, or near anyone else, although I do believe in God. I have to say, though, I'm pretty sure I don't believe in religion, and I also don't want anyone using politics to spread his or her own religious beliefs.

As for you being an angry atheist, I've never taken anything you've said that way. I hope no one else has, either, otherwise I've found something else to be annoyed by. I love this post, I'm sending out the link to a bunch of folks.

Posted by: Cindy at April 12, 2007 3:45 PM

I'm glad you've never taken me to be an angry atheist. I'm happy to be a Humanist. And since many religious and nonreligious people hold Humanist beliefs (religious Humanism has been around for a long time), I like to think about that commonality when I can.

Posted by: James at April 13, 2007 8:44 AM

I think, Patti, that if you don't believe in a higher being, then you are an atheist. That's the definition. There's no part of the definition that covers how much you think about there not being a god. It's boolean.

This is an interesting statement:
I wouldn't want to shake someone's beliefs, just like I wouldn't want them to shake mine. Prosletyzing on either side is distasteful and, I feel, rude.

I agree that it's rude to start a probing conversation about somebody's beliefs. I don't agree that it's rude to try to shake people's beliefs if it's discourse or an essay. Please, everybody, feel free to try to shake my beliefs, at any time, in any way. That way I either get better beliefs, or a stronger conviction in my current beliefs. My beliefs are not me, and are malleable based on evidence or a superior point of view.

I, too, would rather never think about arguments against religion and supernatural belief in general. However, I personally think it's an important subject because so many (VOTING) people feel the other way. If there were no supernatural belief, George Bush would not have been elected president. There would be no ban on stem-cell research, and there would be gay marriage. It isn't the supernatural belief per se that has led to these policy decisions, it's the capitalization on the supernatural belief by religious fundamentalists. As long as supernatural belief is socially acceptable, people will capitalize on it to the detriment of society.

So whereas I recognize that there are many, many things that one can focus on to make this world a better place, and not everybody will want to choose the things that I choose, I have chosen to think about religion and supernatural belief and how that problem can be solved, because I think it's a serious issue that damages society.

Posted by: Maggie at April 13, 2007 10:23 AM

Um, except that my beliefs re abortion/stem cell research using aborted fetuses has nothing at all to do with my religious beliefs. My opinion on abortion changed during my fetal developement and embryology course I took when becoming a midwife. I'm not being argumentative, just pointing out that not all beliefs like that are related to religion.
:)

Posted by: Cindy at April 13, 2007 10:53 AM

Of course not all people are going to share the same beliefs, even if they all agree on the question of god.

I didn't mention abortion, I said that the policy on stem cell research was related to religious belief. The reason the bill was vetoed is because of the religious belief of the president. And the reason this president was elected is because the religious right were mobilized for this election by anti-gay-marriage bills.

Blastocysts used in stem cell research aren't aborted fetuses.

Posted by: Maggie at April 13, 2007 12:09 PM

I don't think Maggie meant to imply that religion was the only reason people decided to vote for Bush. That's a different assertion than noting the support Bush got by wrapping himself in god.

I'm pretty confident that without the organized support of Bush on religious grounds, he would not have been elected. Look at the election results.

Many people concluded that GHW Bush didn't get re-elected precisely because he didn't have that sort of support, because he failed to pander sufficiently to the religious right.

Posted by: James at April 13, 2007 12:14 PM

Cleary just because people aren't religious doesn't mean they think rationally or scientifically. And there is a corollary -- just because a person is religious doesn't mean he's incapable of thinking scientifically and rationally. But organized religion has made itself the enemy of science, and for good reason -- religious thought asks you to do exactly the opposite of what scientific thought requires -- question, and require evidence.

It is my opinion that this is a dangerous pattern of thought. A person must have incredible discipline to lock the religious, non-questioning portion of their brain into that one area, and apply reason in every other part of their lives. It is hard enough to do without the constant affirmation that it's good to accept things on faith. In fact, accepting on faith is a short cut that we all regularly employ -- e.g. we accept on faith that a person in a police officer's uniform is in fact a police officer, and also that he is concerned with the public welfare. If we didn't take these short cuts, we'd never make it out the door. Our brain is wired to accept things on faith, particularly from an authority figure, and it takes some practice, creativity, and luck to question at the right time.

This poisoning of mental processes is only one reason that I think about religion, and that I will actively try to convert anyone who listens or reads. (And by "actively try to convert," I'm talking about discussing religion, in some cases, and I'm talking about merely making it known that I'm a humanist and an atheist, in other cases, so that people can see what I hope they consider to be a positive example and dispel that "angry atheist" myth.)

I don't imagine I need to go into all of the violence and all of the resources wasted on this planet thoughout history in the name of religion. (I'm talking about golden candlesticks, religious wars, and wasted time when I talk about wasted resources, not programs that help the poor, no strings attached.)

There are many reasons I think religion is, in general, a bad thing for humanity. The current laws on gay marriage and stem cell research is only one example.

Posted by: Maggie at April 13, 2007 12:41 PM

As a maybeist, I aspire to live morally, rationally, motivated by the possibility of the divine as a purpose, not a sky pie. I quote the freshly dead Kurt Vonnegut:
"My epitaph should be--and I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association--'The only proof he needed of the existence of god was music.'"

Posted by: ThirdMate at April 13, 2007 3:53 PM

Great post. This is mostly how I myself felt about quitting the theist mindset.

But I wanted a spiritual community, and wanted my kid to have one, so I investigated and joined the Unitarian Universalist society in my area. It's a good fit.

Posted by: pam at April 13, 2007 4:26 PM

I generally think of myself as agnostic as that seems to be the best description of my thoughts.

I do not Believe in God

I do not Not Believe in God (which would make me an atheist)

I do not care if god exists or not

I DO NOT Believe in Religon

I cannot prove god (or a god or many gods)exists or doesn't exist (by definition)

I choose not to waste time thinking about it (which James and Maggie keep screwing up)

I'm not hedging my bets (Chuck). If god exists he surely will be pissed that I didn't Believe in him (if he is a Christian-like god) or not care what I think in my life if he is a god I would like to believe in if I Believed such things.

As I don't believe in afterlife at all the point is moot unless god wants to strike me down now.

If I'm wrong about the afterlife- WooHoo! bonus (or not if I go the other way, but if god's that big of an asshole I'm guessing I'll be happier there anyway).

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at April 13, 2007 4:27 PM

It is a common (and, I think, pernicious) misconception about atheism that you have to feel you can prove god doesn't exist to be an atheist.

I'll elaborate in a future post, because it deserves some time.

I'm glad people are commenting on this post because it's helping me focus my thoughts. I've always considered myself lucky to have smart and thoughtful friends.

Posted by: James at April 13, 2007 5:00 PM

And Pam, you've hit on something else I've wanted to elaborate on. Thanks for the feedback!

Posted by: James at April 13, 2007 5:02 PM

LOL, Bob. You go, guy.

I was going to go all Dawkins on the issue of proving there isn't a god (do you also feel the need to prove that Russell's teapot doesn't exist, or that the invisible pink unicorn doesn't exist -- since when do we have to prove that other people's delusions don't exist?) but James says he's going to post on it, so I'll say no more. I'm sure his post will be more eloquent.

Posted by: Maggie at April 13, 2007 6:15 PM

Bob, I'd not accuse you of hedging bets. Whatever you want to believe/not believe is fine with me if it affects you and you only.

AFAIC, there are no gods, angels, demons, ghosts, or supernatural entities of any make and model. And I'm not the least bit angry about that.

I only get angry when people start trying to make laws that affect my life based on their particular fairytale beliefs.

My position on the existence of any supreme beings isn't arrived at through belief but through reason. An agnostic might say it is impossible to know either way whether or not God exists.

I say, sure it's possible there is a supreme being of some sort. But the chances are so ridiculously remote that there's really no point in holding such a belief.

In the absence of hard evidence, I will not accept that there are any supernatural beings. It would be foolish to do so.

Suppose I owe you $10,000. If I give you a closed shoebox and tell you there is a 1 in 100 trillion chance that there is $10,000 in the shoebox, but you can't look inside, would you choose to believe that you had been paid in full? To do so would be quite foolish, but your chances of there being $10,000 in the shoebox are much higher than the chance that a supreme being exists.

Posted by: Chuck S. at April 14, 2007 2:31 AM

So... like you James I was brought up catholic. However I am still part of the catholic church...(although I don't know if I will be for much longer).

I choose to believe in a supreme being. Largely because I was brought up to do so and I'm pretty wired with it now. However I tend to throw off the tenets of the an organized religion if they don't apply to my code of morals, which is probably kind of wierd I guess. I have lots of issues with the catholic church, the zealousness with which they try to integrate church and state (re: gay marriage, stem cell research), the crusades, only men can be priests... the list goes on.

I guess you could say I'm in the midst of a "religon-based" crisis :).

On the one hand I believe in math and science and proofs and disproof... letting evidence guide you to an answer. I enjoy solving problems.

On the flip side I believe in a supreme being. Largely, I think, because of emotionalism (for lack of a better word). Music, family, friends, doing something good for others without thought. These things fill me with emotion that's hard to describe in words. I believe this is where a supreme being exists.

When it comes to religion... I don't believe in "forcing" it on others. I understand that we are all entitled to our own beliefs and I never try to force them to change their beliefs.

I've not talked about my religion much to people (until recently).

So being religious I find it funny to say the following: I agree with Maggie. I think that religion for many reasons is bad for humanity. Why? well I look at it this way: Religion is like a scythe (or insert any tool/object here). It has certain properties but it doesn't do anything until a person applies their will to it. And in a group atmosphere it is often the charismatic few whose intentions may be questionable that influence the masses like lambs to the slaughter.

So I find myself asking... where does that leave me? Am I an angry atheist in denial? A devout humanist who believes in a god?

I dunno but I'll keep working on it :)

Posted by: hooligan at April 15, 2007 4:23 PM

So I find myself asking... where does that leave me? Am I an angry atheist in denial? A devout humanist who believes in a god?

Believe me when I say I am not being flip when I suggest you spend a Sunday at a Unitarian service. I attended one because I had to attend a function that featured American Sign Language for my ASL class at Northeastern a few years ago.

They sang about peace and freedom, and the service was really uplifting. These were people I could spend time with. I remember coming home and telling Bob if the government declared we must join a religion, I would be ok with the Unitarians. That's when he said this government probably wouldn't put the Unitarians on the list--to liberal, I suppose.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 16, 2007 8:38 AM

Church 2.0 -- this time it's personal!

Posted by: James at April 16, 2007 11:42 AM

Good lord (no pun intended, I assure you)--that is frightening!

Posted by: Patti M. at April 16, 2007 12:14 PM

Jay, I think most people "throw off the tenets of an organized religion if they don't apply to [their] code of morals" -- including the church itself -- thank goodness.

The church chooses to interpret some parts of the bible, while taking other parts literally. Take the sermon on the mount -- how many Christians do you know who "do not swear an oath," (I believe our hyper-religious president swore an oath of office), or follow this: "when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place," (there would be no church if the church didn't choose to intepret that one away), or follow this: "do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself," (there are actually churches that talk about Christian investment). Never mind the humanistic parts that we ignore (offer the other cheek, love your enemies, blessed are the peacemakers, it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, if your right hand is your undoing, cut it off and fling it away, etc.)

But why do you suppose humans can generally agree on a code of morals? Where does moral behavior come from? You argue supreme being, I argue ventral and medial sectors of the frontal lobe. In people with damage to these areas, moral reasoning, as well as emotion, are impaired. Emotion evolved, moral behavior evolved -- it's all hard-wired into our brains and tied to decision-making. Without these brain sectors, not only are emotion and morality compromised, but decision making is impaired to the point where the person cannot function at all in a job, yet all measures of intelligence who the person is completely normal. Emotion and morality are part of a healthy, functioning brain.

Your answer raises the larger question -- if god put morality in us, who put the morality in god? If there are parts of us that you answer with god, isn't your answer actually a more complicated question?

Posted by: Maggie at April 16, 2007 12:16 PM

Interesting discussion!

I am someone who does beieve in God and who does believe that religion is a good thing and theology even better. My argument is that religion without theology is a bad thing for humanity because it does lead to many of the harmful things mentioned in the posts above.

Religion isn't supposed to accepted without argument--though spirituality is. Spirituality can encompass anything and everything as it eschews rationality. My opinion is that the majority of churches today, especially the American fundamentalist churches are far more about spirituality than religion.

I am also of the mindset that a "crisis of faith" is a good thing and something that people should have periodically throughout their life. We don't have all the answers for anything. We can't explain everything on a chemical level and we can't explain everything on a spiritual level. Rather, we are all engaged in a pursuit of knowledge and wisdom and we should use every tool available to us rather than waste our time arguing about why one tool is ineffective. Just because a hammer strips a screw doesn't mean it shouldn't be used with a nail.

Yes, religion has done harm. So has penicillin. I won't advocate getting rid of either one. I will advocate intelligent use of both. Nor can I think of anything to which reasoning should not be applied even if there are some things for which I don't yet know what the best answer is.

Posted by: Bridgette at April 19, 2007 11:04 AM

That's why I worship penicillin.

Posted by: Julie at April 19, 2007 2:52 PM

Bridgette,

How do you know the hammer doesn't work on the screw if you don't discuss under what circumstances the hammer is effective? (Or learn by some other means.) By your model, we'd walk around smashing hammers into everything until we found a nail.

Which is, IMO, what "religious" and "spiritual" people often do.

I suspect you use the tool of science when you need it (e.g. penicillin, and it is absurd to compare the number of people killed by penicillin vs. the number killed by religion), and you use the "tool" of spirituality or religion when you want to believe you're important, i.e. there's something deeper in you than what science can discover.

Posted by: Maggie at April 19, 2007 3:25 PM

I think that the bit about "when you want to believe you're important" is at the crux of religious belief.

Often people ask "why are we here" and they think that "why" questions are outside the realm of science. But what they mean is that there is some answer to "why" which is outside of the physical universe. It's a search for external meaning.

Humanism, at least the way I practice it, is a recognition that the meaning in life is internal, not external. You are not born with meaning in your life, but you can create that meaning. You are not given meaning by an external force. Meaning is something you make of what you've been given.

In the strictest sense, meaning really is something your bran makes. It takes sensory input and processes it into meaning. I see that as a convenient metaphor for the larger "meaning" of life as well.

Without religion, and without spirituality, you stop looking for an external, spiritual meaning to "why am I here" and start looking for your own reason to be here, based on your understanding of the world. The meaning, then, is a product of you. The key difference is that it is based on reason and understanding.

You have hit the nail on the head, Bridgette, with your separation of reason and spirituality based on an approach of thought. Any atheist (or de-facto atheist) that has thought about it has probably come to the personal conclusion that they're going to base their decisions in life on rational approaches.

We may never be able to explain everything, but to a person who takes a rational approach, a spiritual approach seems random.

Posted by: James at April 19, 2007 4:40 PM

Er, I meant "your brain makes" not "your bran makes."

Your bran makes a good muffin and that's about it.

Posted by: James at April 19, 2007 4:42 PM

...you use the "tool" of spirituality or religion when you want to believe you're important, i.e. there's something deeper in you than what science can discover.

Someone near and dear to me recently lost her husband, and some days the only thing that keeps her going is believing her husband's spirit is always with her, telling her she's doing good and to be strong. Believing she will see him again when she passes away is the tiny thread of hope that she clings to right now. It's just an awful time for her, and I can't take issue with her choice of beliefs.

Some people need religion as a source of comfort in hard times, and use it as a safety net, or something to lean on when they are facing the worst life can offer. There is nothing wrong with this sort of comfort in my opinion.

Me personally? I don't need religion, and I don't want it. It obfuscates reality and I prefer to see the world around me as clearly as possible.

And so I can only take issue with religion when someone tries to push it on me, even as a source of comfort. The person I referred to above knows I don't share her beliefs, but doesn't try to force them on me, apart from saying "If you believed you'll see him again, it might not hurt as bad now, otherwise what is there to look forward to?" I respond that I look forward to living my life the way he would have wanted me to.

But I know another person who lost someone a couple years ago, and who turned into something of a zealot. Which is interesting because she was not very religious before he passed away, and now she is overtly religious. The difference is that this person sees my lack of belief as a threat to her own belief. And therefore it isn't enough that she believes--everyone else has to believe too, otherwise her loved one is really gone. Everytime she turns the conversation to religion, it always comes in the form of a challenge, as opposed to observation or explanation. Which makes spending time with this other person unpleasant because she is always chiding me about my beliefs, and worse yet, pushing her beliefs on my daughter in direct contradiction to my expressed wishes. It's very irritating because my wife and I both care about this person, and we hope that given time she will mellow out.

So like all vehicles for human interaction, it comes down to tolerance. If you can't learn to respect the differences of other people, then religion in your hands is dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than any other form of belief. But in the hands of an openminded, tolerant, and all around decent person, religion is harmless as far as I am concerned.

Posted by: Chuck S. at April 19, 2007 4:54 PM

Perhaps the woman who lost her husband would find some other consolation, as you have, if she didn't believe she would see him again in an afterlife. Perhaps she wouldn't believe that if she hadn't been raised to be deeply religious. I don't know that it's an argument for religion or spirituality as a useful tool -- it happens to be the tool at hand. There are religions in which no afterlife figures. There are religions with horrible afterlives. It's possible that one reason Christianity is so popular is because it offers to take away the worst pain imaginable -- losing a loved one permanently.

The fanatical person who lost someone has gone through one of the most stressful situations that any person can go through. I've seen studies that state that mothers who lose their children do not recover. Period. The older the child at the time s/he was lost, the more likely the mother is to die accidentally or by her own hand within five years of the death of the child. It's not surprising that she has jumped off the deep end, metaphorically. I hope she comes back, too. Again, I think religion was just the convenient tool for her, and it's clear she doubts it as she requires everybody else to wield it as well. I pity her, as you do, for her loss. Empathy would be too painful.

I don't know if people would be better off if they were realistic about the death of a loved one. That is a question that I would leave to a psychologist treating the individual. There are five stages to grief, and believing in an afterlife seems to play into the first -- denial. It seems that in the case of your second example, it may be holding her there. In the case of the first, I think it's more likely that it's comforting her through the process, but I have more confidence that she'll make it through the process naturally. Most older people who lose a beloved spouse do miss the spouse, but they recover relatively quickly (within 6 months, I think?) from depression, perhaps because it is a more natural time for a person to die.

Posted by: Maggie at April 19, 2007 5:26 PM

I hope I can give you a thoughtful, useful and respectful response, Chuck.


It's just an awful time
for her, and I can't take issue with her choice of beliefs.

If by "take issue" with her beliefs you mean confront her (unsolicited) and try to convert her away from her religion, I certainly agree. When someone is deep in grief, they're unlikely to be swayed by rational arguments and possibly this would just drive a wedge between you. But that doesn't mean she might have not been better off with some different beliefs, like that there is still value and meaning in her life and that she has people to focus her love on, and who lover her, and who need her and that the good that her husband did in the world has a lasting effect that continues. You can rely on X, Y or Z when you're in grief, but that doesn't make X, Y or Z good or productive. Some people turn to alcohol in their grief and I'm sure that helps for a time as well. There are a spectrum of forms of denial and escapism with their own pitfalls.


Some people need religion as a source of comfort in hard times, and use
it as a safety net, or something to lean on when they are facing the
worst life can offer. There is nothing wrong with this sort of comfort
in my opinion.


Your assertion that some people need religion depends on the idea that they've already been indoctrinated. People don't wake up one morning in their grief and, in the absence of any exposure to [INSERT RANDOM RELIGION X] suddenly turn to [RANDOM RELIGION X] because they realize they need it as a crutch in their grief. That's not to say that sometimes people fall into religion after grief. But they were usually exposed before, and usually have people encouraging them during. In any case, Maggie makes salient points about the denial phase of grief.


Your statements thus far strongly imply that you're talking about a temporary phenomenon, which strikes me as not quite the same as religion. Equating grief-induced unsupported beliefs to religion is probably giving religions short shrift. Religion is (or should be) more than just a manifestation of grief-induced escapism.


And so I can only take issue with religion when someone tries to push
it on me, even as a source of comfort. The person I referred to above
knows I don't share her beliefs, but doesn't try to force them on me,
apart from saying "If you believed you'll see him again, it might not
hurt as bad now, otherwise what is there to look forward to?" I
respond that I look forward to living my life the way he would have
wanted me to.


I am unclear about the idea of "pushing it on you." Your wording of "apart from" says you think this is an isolated case where the woman pushed her beliefs on you. By a loose definition you pushed your beliefs on one another. And I don't see anything wrong with this discussion you engaged in. Perhaps she took some comfort in your more rational view. And I think that, if you are directly confronted as you were you should be honest and compassionate in your response, as you were.


But I've thought a lot about the idea of "pushing" your beliefs on other people lately. Why don't I like it when people come to my door? Because it's annoying? You know, it wouldn't matter what they wanted to talk about; if it's something I'm not interested in, I'd object to them. I realized that my objection to religious discussions in the past may have been because of the lack of rationality in the approach to discussing the issue, and perhaps the sad truth that I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the reasons behind my decisions.


I won't extrapolate, but I'll try to give you my definition of "pushing" your beliefs on others. You are pushing your beliefs on me if you somehow get your beliefs codified into rules I am forced to follow. Like if I am told I have to go to church as long as I live in your house (which is overt). Or if you pass a law saying that "under god" is part of the pledge my children say in school (which is less overt, but a sort of coercion nonetheless where patriotism and religion are conflated).


The woman of whom you speak didn't push her beliefs on you, by my definition.


If someone wants to inject their religion in an open forum, I don't object as long as I am allowed to respond rationally. Why should I object? If they're not prepared to be rational, that's not my problem. If they don't want to discuss it with me, they are free not to. And if they challenge my understanding of the universe I welcome it. And kudos to them if they want to put up with my often ham-handed use of the language and the art of argument.


But I know another person who lost someone a couple years ago, and who
turned into something of a zealot. [...]


Again, the time aspect comes into play, and I think that's significant. Make your own conclusions but it feels to me like we're giving people a pass, in extremely emotional times, from acting rationally. And at some point we expect them to emerge.


You didn't go into detail about how you deal with this person, and so I am going to have to take a leap here, and you can correct me if I am wrong.


You try to respect her, and/or tolerate her by not challenging her back just as strongly. In other words, you haven't established a pattern where a reasonable person calls her on her assertions. Outside of, perhaps, a couple of incidents. Not that you haven't made your lack of belief known, but you refrain from trying to disabuse her of her sudden zealotry. Out of compassion and an understandable lack of relish for the disharmony it would likely create.


I agree with you that this person sounds like she has taken a more annoying approach. But, in her own way she's trying to communicate with you and she is opening a 2 way door, even if she's leaning heavily on her side of it.


I don't blame you for not wanting to always be the person to try to counter her blooming superstitions, but I disagree that refraining from injecting a rational point of view when you are faced with equates to tolerance.


The difference is that this person sees my lack of belief as a threat to her own belief. And therefore it isn't enough that she believes--everyone else has to believe too, otherwise her loved one is really gone. Everytime she turns the conversation to religion, it always comes in the form of a challenge, as opposed to observation or explanation.

Well, isn't it the case that if you're right and she's wrong, her loved one probably is gone (in the sense that she means)? Your existence reminds her that her belief may not be accurate, but without discussion it's just a reminder. Even if you refrain from discussion, she knows you and so that's not going to change. Perhaps if you did argue with her she would learn that your beliefs aren't arbitrary and that she's going to be subjected to your POV when she opens that door. Maybe she'll learn to leave it closed around you, if she doesn't modify her own beliefs. In which case, at least you might prevent having to go over the same ground again.

So like all vehicles for human interaction, it comes down to tolerance.

If you can't learn to respect the differences of other people, then
religion in your hands is dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than any
other form of belief. But in the hands of an openminded, tolerant, and
all around decent person, religion is harmless as far as I am concerned.

I think that the "decent person" division is too vague. And I'm not quite willing to say that just because someone has some beliefs that I find goofy, and they're open and vocal about it, that they're not a decent person. People can be misled, and they can also come around. But they're not going to do that if goodpeople who are atheists and Humanists and agnostics and Brights feel that they shouldn't make an issue of their worldview. I want to be very open about my Humanism and my lack of theism precisely for this reason. I want to show that it is compatible with being a good person.

I won't accept that being a good atheist means being a quiet atheist. And while i won't seek to inject my opinion here, there, and everywhere it isn't welcome, I want people to see not a coincidence of a Humanist with good morals, but I want them to see the rational reason behind the good.

Posted by: James at April 20, 2007 4:37 PM

James,

Having recently (within the last 3 years) come to my senses concerning my true beliefs, I am now in a quandary as to whether or not to discuss my strong non-beliefs with my very catholic sister and parents.
My sister - my twin and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum. She has evolved from a normal catholic upbringing into a scripture quoting - bible thumping zealot. I would never bemoan her need for the church community that she has embraced - it is a community that gifts her with purpose and friendship and acceptance. I on the other hand can’t be there with her. I have had a revelation of sorts over the last few years that has open my eyes and produced a peace unlike I have ever known. And no, sleeping in on Sunday is just secondary to this peace - I prefer a walk in the woods on a Sunday morning with my dogs, than a church full of people pretending to be Catholics.

The dilemma - should I tell her my views? You do realize she spouts her “god” to me all the time - it is like she senses a need to save me from myself and yet I feel defending myself and my real views would only hurt her and my parents, they would never understand. My sister loves to tell me she only wants to be accepted for who she is - I love her nonetheless, but I’m trapped into the person she thinks I should be.

tam

Posted by: tam at April 23, 2007 3:02 PM

My beliefs are hanging all out on my blog for everyone to read. But I figure that if they're here reading them, that's their choice.

I don't get into religious discussions with my family, but I think that's because they know I differ and they're not the evangelizing type. Sure, there is some friction over differences, but we haven't let any of that get in the way of being a family.

I never dramatically "came out" as an atheist to them. I just slowly withdrew. I am lucky; my family has always accepted me for who I am.

I think family relationships are important, and it sounds like you do, too. You don't want to damage that relationship. However, your sister may already be driving a wedge between you, and maybe a little bit of openness about beliefs could help.

The key, I think, is in your sister's interest in being accepted for who she is. Explore this philosophy of hers and find out how deep it goes, and whether it extends to all people. If so, you should tell her that you, too, would like to be accepted for who you are. And that part of that acceptance would be not trying to change you.

If you are interested in a free 2-way discussion of ideas, tell her you prefer that to being preached to, as long as she understands what 2-way means. Or, maybe it will turn out that the best thing for you is to focus on other aspects of your relationship and allow each other leeway in your beliefs. You could come to an understanding that certain topics are off limits for a while.

Perhaps a rest on those topics will give your family a chance to see that your underlying beliefs have changed, but that your sense of morals are intact. If that can happen outside of a contentious discussion, it will help them to accept you, I think.

I wish you the best of luck.

Posted by: James at April 23, 2007 3:50 PM

These discussions are far to interesting to walk away from for so long. There are so many pieces that I'd love to pick up on, but, well, duty demands that such pleasures are limited. :)

A couple of things (and forgive me because I don't know how to do quotes):

Maggie said, "How do you know the hammer doesn't work on the screw if you don't discuss under what circumstances the hammer is effective? (Or learn by some other means.) By your model, we'd walk around smashing hammers into everything until we found a nail."

I am in total agreement with your first statement, though a little confused in the second about how it became my model. For I'm a huge proponent of rational discussions of just about anything, religion included. Where I think there is a flaw is when people (either theists or non) insist that it is not possible to introduce reasoning into a religious discussion. I find it scandalous that many modern churches have abandoned their academic roots and eschewed an intellectual examination of their faith.

Maggie also said, "I won't accept that being a good atheist means being a quiet atheist. And while i won't seek to inject my opinion here, there, and everywhere it isn't welcome, I want people to see not a coincidence of a Humanist with good morals, but I want them to see the rational reason behind the good."

I agree with you. I also agree that being a good Christian doesn't mean being a quiet Christian, but that one should accept the bounds of courtesy and respect for others. I will always try to be respectful (and try again when I fail), but that doesn't mean I have to pretend to believe other than I do. If I do, how will those beliefs ever get challenged? How will I know that I'm not being delusional?

Given that I want to be that way myself, I absolutely believe in extending that to people of every other stripe. How else will we connect with each other if we can't talk about those core issues which make up who we are? And if we don't connect with each other, well, then we really will see a lot of harm done.

Going back to the original post, I would agree that an atheist shouldn't have to explain why they are not something else, though it can certainly make for an interesting discussion. Flipping it around, while I think the most compelling discussion is why I am a Christian, there are also logical reasons why I am not a Humanist.

Ultimately, though, whether a discussion is interesting or compelling relies solely on the judgement of the people who are involved. Whereas one person would agree, he or she who would disagree is no less "correct."

Posted by: Bridgette at April 24, 2007 11:59 AM

Dear Brigette,

Just to clarify, James made the second remark that you attributed to me.

As far as your model of smashing a hammer into everything until you find a nail, I was referring to this statement:
"we are all engaged in a pursuit of knowledge and wisdom and we should use every tool available to us rather than waste our time arguing about why one tool is ineffective"

I don't think it's a waste of time to understand the strengths and shortcomings of the tools available to you. In fact, I think it's an essentail conversation. Perhaps I misunderstood your statement.

I, personally, would be very interested to know why you're not a humanist.

Posted by: Maggie at April 24, 2007 1:23 PM

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