Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Non-Belief, Pt. 14: What Happened?

One of the most common explanations I hear for atheism is that something must have turned us away from God. Did we have a bad experience in church? Was our pastor mean, boring, or uncaring? Did we lose a loved one to a horrible disease? What was it?

Christians (pretty much the only theists I know) like this idea, because it means there's nothing fundamentally wrong with their faith. And this way, atheists don't really disbelieve in magic. We're just reacting emotionally to a bad experience.

This article*, written by a Christian apologist in The Atlantic, is a good example. He interviews young (college-age) atheists and discovers things which "startled" him - that they were just reacting against Christianity, that they acted out of emotion, that there was some trigger which caused them to reject what they'd been taught all their life.

He's probably right, at least in part. When you've been taught since infancy to believe in magic, it's not easy to let it go. (Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny go easily; 'eternal life,' not so much.) Most atheists have doubts for a long time, before they're finally willing to admit, even to themselves, that they don't believe. It's not easy for most people (not as easy as I had it, certainly), so why wouldn't you think that an emotional trigger would help?

And he's interviewing young people, many of whom are still trying to find their way in the world. If you asked them about anything where they disagreed with their parents, you'd probably find a similar response, in many cases. We go from just believing what we're told to questioning it to rebelling, sometimes, against what we think is wrong. What's unusual about that?

I've heard, too, that many young people are turning away from Christianity because of the right-wing politics associated with it these days. That might be true. I hope so. All we atheists really need is a foot in the door.

Once people actually start thinking about their own religion, they become good candidates for atheism. It's the mindless believers who don't think at all, the people who tell me they don't care if what they believe is true or not, who are impossible to reach.

But the thing is, if you have a bad experience in church, there are other churches. If you reject right-wing politics, there are liberal churches you can join. When it comes to religion, you can believe - quite literally - anything you want to believe, since it's all based on faith, not evidence.

Even just within Christianity, churches are night and day in their beliefs. If you don't want to believe something, you don't have to. That's the whole point of faith. And here in America, jumping from church to church to find exactly what you want is very, very common. Most people don't think anything of it (while they'd likely be shocked if you became an atheist).

Larry Alex Taunton, who wrote that article in The Atlantic, profiles a couple of the students he interviewed, and I have no reason to doubt him (though I suspect that he cherry-picked these examples for his own purposes). You see, the only thing we atheists have in common is that we don't believe in gods. Everything else,... well, we're all over the place.

We atheists don't have a dogma. We don't have popes or priests. We don't have holy books. The media might identify "four horsemen of new atheism", but what does that mean to me? We atheists admire clear thinkers who can express themselves in books and/or debates, but there's nothing official about it. There are many well-known atheists, and I can, and do, disagree with them, sometimes.

Theists have official holy books - many different holy books, in fact. But even within a single religion, you have to wonder how an omniscient, omnipotent god could write a Bible or a Koran, or even just inspire it, and still have believers disagreeing so vociferously about what it means. How incompetent is your god, anyway?

And, inevitably, theists claim that their god is necessary for ethical behavior,... and then have to explain why that doesn't work for so many of them.

We atheists aren't like that. I wish every atheist were a good person. I wish every atheist were rational and intelligent. I wish every atheist had a good reason for his atheism. I'm an atheist because I'm a skeptic, but you can believe in homeopathy, Bigfoot, and dowsing, and still be an atheist. We atheists - as atheists - don't make any claims. We just don't believe in the claims of theists, that's all.

So Taunton talks about 'Phil':
"Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya," Phil said with a look of disgust. "I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible." ...

Phil was once the president of his Methodist church's youth group. He loved his church ("they weren't just going through the motions"), his pastor ("a rock star trapped in a pastor's body"), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim ("a passionate man"). Jim's Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn't dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: "He didn't always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn't run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart."

Fine, but so what? Taunton wants us to believe that Phil became an atheist because his "rock star" of a pastor was replaced by "Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, 'didn't know a thing about the Bible.'"

But, come on. If you don't like your pastor, you just switch congregations. Or maybe you leave organized religion entirely, but remain 'spiritual' - meaning that you still believe in God (the Christian God, inevitably, here in America) or at least in Jesus (which lets you ignore the nasty stuff in the Old Testament).

OK, an extended aside here:  I hear many people say they dislike religion, but remain 'spiritual.' Ironically, I like religion better than I like believing in things without good evidence they exist.

Religion is a social activity, and we're social animals. We can do great harm in groups (mobs have a particularly bad reputation, and deservedly so), but we can do great good in them, too. And most people enjoy social activities. As I say, we're social animals.

What I dislike about religion is simply that it's not true - or, to put it the best way I can, theists make claims which they have no good reason to believe are true. I reject those claims, because no theist has convinced me that he knows what he's talking about. But believing in some nebulous spirit isn't any better. (It can be better, in a practical sense, if your magic spirit doesn't make any demands. But that doesn't make it any more true.)

If you belong to a religion, at least you have a holy book to explain away. If you just believe in some nebulous spirit or non-denominational 'God,' that gets you even further away from reality, in a sense.

And if you just "follow Jesus," as I've heard people say, well, first of all, we have no real reason to believe that Jesus even existed. If he did (and I suspect that there was a historical Jesus of some kind), he was almost certainly illiterate, but that doesn't matter, because we don't have anything he ever wrote, anyway. And we don't have anything he ever said - or ever did - related by anyone who ever heard it or saw it.

The Bible is just stories told by anonymous people, who supposedly heard them from other anonymous people, later written down by still other anonymous people, and then edited by yet more anonymous people for their own purposes. No one who wrote the Bible had ever even met Jesus. So it's kind of hard to "follow Jesus" when you don't have a clue what he really said, what he really did, or even if he existed at all, don't you think?

OK, sorry. I'm back. My point, before I veered off into that extended digression, was that you don't become an atheist just because you're unhappy with your church, since it's a piece of cake to switch churches or simply become an unaffiliated believer, one of those 'God is love' people.

This may indeed have been the trigger for 'Phil' to admit his disbelief to himself, but his doubts undoubtedly came first. And maybe he would have stayed with the church, doubts and all, if they hadn't fired his favorite pastor. It's not easy admitting that you don't believe what you've been taught all your life, that you don't believe what you'd really, really like to believe. (Who, after all, really wants to die - and to know that their loved ones are going to die, too.)

I must admit to some skepticism about this article, just because most atheists don't care what the Bible says, since we realize that things written in a book aren't necessarily true. The Bible can't be evidence for itself, obviously, and there's no more evidence outside the Bible for the magic stuff it claims than there is for the supernatural claims in the Illiad and the Odyssey. Or in the Harry Potter books, for that matter.

But it doesn't matter if it's true or not. How one person came by his atheism, what one atheist believes,... none of that has anything to do with the rest of us. We atheists don't necessarily have anything in common, other than a disbelief in gods.

Still, theists really, really want to believe, apparently, that we weren't thinking clearly when we abandoned religion, that it was an emotional reaction to some trauma, that it wasn't the lack of evidence backing up religious claims, or the complete lack of consensus among believers themselves, or anything else they'd have trouble explaining away.

What happened? I can't speak for anyone else, but you just never showed me any good evidence to back up your claims. You never showed me even one good reason to think that your claims were actually true.

You never convinced me that what you believe is more than just delusion and wishful-thinking, almost always believed only because you were raised to believe it.

* My thanks to Jim Harris for the link. (Note: The rest of this series is here.)

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