Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The Atheism Thing

I've been working on this post in my mind for several months now, and it's still no more "finished" than my own thought processes. But since some people (Shaw) are pestering me for a post, and since atheism is "somewhat in vogue" now -- and it's rare that I manage to intersect with any "vogue", so I'm pretty excited about that -- I'm going to go ahead and slap it up while it's timely. Even if it is unfinished.

The great thing about having so many unbelievers coming out roughly concurrently is that we're getting an opportunity to get a lot of chatter going. There's a lot of idea-exchange happening, and the ground's very fertile for atheism right now. Following the ongoing commentary surrounding our new "vogue", there are a number of thoughts that I keep coming back to, ideas that I feel compelled to expand upon a little.

1) Religion lets you off the hook when things get too difficult.

This is my main complaint against faith, and it's pervasive and far-reaching. Have you done something you're ashamed of? Don't worry -- just apologize to your god and you're no longer accountable; you're "forgiven." Even if you never make amends to the people you've hurt or try to repair the damage you've done, you're off clean. Furthermore, anyone who brings up your past misdeeds is being unfair; god doesn't hold you responsible, so they shouldn't either At the very least, don't let them make you feel bad or guilty about the stuff you've done but never bothered dealing with. There, isn't that easy and convenient?

It extends into larger issues, too. Can you not quite get your head around some tricky scientific, philosophical, or ethical issue, or perhaps just haven't tried very hard? Don't understand how the universe works, or how you could've come to exist? Don't waste your time thinking about it too hard: God did it.

Mankind? God did it. Crab nebula? God did it. Mozart's Requiem? God (indirectly) did it. Quantum physics? God had to have done it, nobody else even understands it. Does homosexuality make you feel kinda weird? Don't think about it, don't question your own sexuality or prejudices -- God's against it, and that's all that matters. God said it, you believe it, that settles it. It's so simple. I'm willing to posit that every believer indulges in it at some point, about one thing or another. If they accept evolution, they'll still fall back on "God did it" when they get sick, or when someone they love dies. If nothing else, they invoke it when thinking about their own belief: I feel something I can't understand or explain -- it must be God.

2) "Respect my religious beliefs" has become a code-word for "don't dare question me."

So you believe in something for which you have zero objective evidence -- fine. That's your prerogative. But what other category of irrational, unsupported opinion demands -- and is given -- respect and validation equal to that of well-supported opinions? What other category of irrational belief is granted tacit immunity from critical discussion? And yet otherwise open-minded people get completely puffed up at the vaguest hint that you find their religious beliefs absurd. This is one situation where I freely admit that liberals are very nearly worse than conservatives. The religious right just smiles with smug satisfaction that one day they'll be sitting on a cloud jerking off to your screams while your flesh melts away in the fires of hell; religious liberals, on the other hand, feel so personally, deeply betrayed by your disrespect that they vow to never, ever be your friends again. The invective coming from the left regarding atheism is no question more obnoxious than that coming from the right. Then again, maybe I've been damned to hell by so many conservative evangelicals that I just don't notice it anymore.

3) Moderate/progressive Christians think they shouldn't be lumped in with crazy fundies -- but they have a lot in common.

I do make this distinction between them: progressive Christians aren't actually dangerous. Arguing belief/nonbelief with a progressive Christian is an intellectual game, not a question of the fate of our culture and society. Watching a progressive Christian tie themselves in knots trying to defend their faith while not coming across all fundie-Jeebus-y can be particularly entertaining, but the well-being of the nation isn't at stake, so it lacks a certain immediacy. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, I regard as a genuinely dangerous faction -- maybe not quite this dangerous (though if this never happens, it won't be because there weren't plenty of willing, cross-waving would-be brownshirts voting for it), but dangerous in the sense that they're working against peace and progress. These are people who have not only rejected reason outright, but who are apparently hell-bent on forcing all the rest of us to live according to their delusional ignorance as well. So the progressive Christians can be regarded as allies against them, even if they're not really good for much in practical terms, and frequently seem to be angrier at unapologetic unbelievers than they are at the fundamentalists.

But the fact remains that both groups have one thing in common: they believe in a concept for which no evidence has ever been found, and on some level live their lives according to that belief. They may have widely differing ideas about how that concept should be defined and acted upon, but the fact remains: they both maintain some version of an imaginary friend. The problem arises when progressive Christians demand that their imaginary friend is vastly better than the fundamentalists' imaginary friend -- he's very a very sophisticated, nuanced, benevolent imaginary friend, you know -- and that therefore the basic idea of an imaginary friend deserves respect. It's okay to say that the fundamentalist imaginary friend is ugly or mean or violent, but to point out the more essential issue at hand -- that it's imaginary -- well that's just going too far.

4) No, that doesn't make atheism a religion, too.

Nothing irritates me more than watching the faithful desperately trying to turn atheism into a religion so they can battle it on their own terms. Atheism does promote a view of the world that will hopefully eventually explain our origins and the nature of the universe in which we live; it has this in common with religion. And that makes perfect sense, in my opinion, because religion and science both owe their existence to the same basic human impulse to understand their world. Religion was absolutely the best available structure for human understanding during the long millenia before we began to get a firm grasp on reason -- it never worked, but it's not like we had many better options.

But now we do. Now we can explore ourselves and our world and gradually build a new story of our existence based on evidence and disciplined exploration and examination. Science is an evolution of human understanding beyond the limitations of religion; we no longer have to be satisfied with a god to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Which obviously doesn't mean that we're done working yet -- the gaps are still there, and probably not much smaller, really, than they were when we began. But as those gaps continue to shrink, so, hopefully, will our need for myths to satisfy our curiosity. We can replace supplications to god with thought and experimentation -- we can move from a passive state to a more active one. And there, I think, is where the key difference lies.

5) Unbelief doesn't mean giving up your soul.

At least it doesn't unless you're still thinking about the world according to religious structures. Ecstasy, awe, transcendental peace and joy -- these experience are all shared by unbelievers, too. You know that strange feeling you get when you look at the stars for a long time? I feel that too. But I no longer call it "god." That doesn't mean I know what it is, any more than I know where my consciousness comes from in the first place. But just because I don't understand doesn't mean I automatically assign responsibility to god (see #1).

6) Faith often seems to come hand-in-hand with a persecution complex.

Contrary to the interpretations of atheist thought presented by some believers, arguing against, even disapproving of widespread religious faith is NOT the same as advocating that all religious people be sent to re-education camps. I want you to consider the rationality of your beliefs to the point that you stop assuming that everyone shares them and/or you stop trying to push them on those of us who don't and demanding special dispensation for them. In my black little heart I hope that the religious eventually become as self-conscious about their beliefs as they would about making regular use of phone psychics. But that's not the same thing as a blanket call for the destruction of all living religious people. A little perspective, please.

7) I don't actually think that the end of religion would make everything better.

It's not that being done with religion will end war or violence or intolerance. But without religion, those who engage in any of the above would be forced to be more honest about their motives: hatred, fear, greed, lust for power, and all those other ugly impulses that drive human beings to abuse each other. Religion didn't start the Iraq War, but would so many Americans have supported it if their religious fear and fervor hadn't been invoked? Would the ongoing civil war there be so threatening over the long term if it was merely tribe vs. tribe, as opposed to sect vs. sect? Would we ever have gone in the first place if the real reason for the war -- strategic greed -- been the only available justification? Would people still be trying to justify the restriction of rights for homosexuals without religion, and if they did, on what other basis could they possibly do it? Would we still be fighting for stem-cell research without religion? Doubtless some people would still hate Arabs and gays, and would still prefer blastocysts to suffering adults even without religious justification. But would the majority of us spend even a moment considering whether their opinions mattered if we didn't have this idea of religious privilege hanging over our society?

So no, I don't believe that religion causes all of humanity's problems, but I do think it hugely exacerbates them. People will always be horrible to each other, God or no God. But they'll do so communally and on an otherwise unimaginable scale if they're convinced God is watching in approval.
8:41 PM ::
Amy :: permalink