My atheism in three books

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James McGrath over at Exploring Our Matrix recently posted about a challenge:

Rod Dreher shared a challenge aimed at combating religious illiteracy: offer a list of three books – and no more than three – that will together give an adequate introduction to a particular religion.

It’s a tough question, but I think it may be especially so for an atheist since we don’t really have a lot out there to choose from yet (though the body of work is growing quickly).

The ‘biggies’ of my faith group, like The God Delusion or God Is Not Great are okay reading for new “deconverts” still trying to process their feelings over what they’ve left behind, and The God Delusion did help me in the beginning as I tried to find a label for myself and understand the implications of my new worldview. But I would never ever (ever!) tell a religious friend who is interested in knowing more about atheism to read them. They are just too aggressive and, in places, I find them petty. I find that they foster a “yeah! I’m better than those guys!” mentality that I’m just not comfortable with.

I’ve been told that there are better books out there, but atheism itself isn’t really an active interest of mine any more, so I haven’t prioritized hunting them down.

But if a friend asked me for a primer on atheism and I had to give an answer, I think that I’d cheat and give Dale McGowan’s new Atheism for Dummies. It’s actually a really good book, and it covers both the history and the variety of atheism.

To understand a bit more about what an atheist goes through in the process of their deconversion, I’d go with Godless by Dan Barker. I haven’t read his book in several years and my thinking has changed a lot since then, so I offer it with the caveat that I’m not sure how much I’d endorse it if I read it again today. But from memory, I found it to be a very balanced and compelling personal account, and there was much that resonated for me.

For my final book, I want to go in a totally different direction and offer up a title that has nothing at all to do with atheism. Instead, I choose it because it’s had such a profound effect in shaping the adult me, my beliefs, and the way I interact with others. For this last choice, I will go with Faber and Mazlich’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

How about you? What three books would you recommend to someone to explain your worldview?

What would it take to make you lose your faith?

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James McGrath recently asked what it would take for you – assuming that you are a Christian – to lose your faith. Of course, being McGrath, the hypothetical situation involved a TARDIS.

I thought it might be a nice opportunity for me to share a few of my thoughts – sans Doctor – on the subject.

Why I stopped calling myself a Christian

I was never especially attached to Christianity. I believed in God because it had been presented to me as a basic fact of the universe – like that gravity’s strength is proportional to mass, or that France is a country in Europe, or that The Crystal Skull is a terrible movie. Everyone I knew (or knew about) believed in God, so it never occurred to me to question that.

But at the same time, I knew a lot about other faiths. I grew up travelling, so I spent a fair bit of my childhood around people who believe different things about the divine – particularly Muslims. I also loved learning about mythology (the first book that I remember owning for my very own was an Edith Hamilton Mythology), so I knew that the divine could be approached in many different – and clearly conflicting – ways.

In college, I started to get a little more personal with religion. Rather than simply learning about religions, I wanted to figure out what I believed. I was a Christian, of course, since I’d always been, but how could I say that my faith was True while another’s was false? Sure, I had experienced the numinous, and I had the testimonies of many sincere-sounding Christians, but I also had the testimonies of many sincere-sounding Muslims, and Hindus, and Wiccans… I had no basis to judge one side’s narratives as more true than another’s.

So I leaned towards a sort of deism. The way I described it at the time was that there was a moon – which was the divine – and many hands pointing towards it – which were all the religions. The problem is that many people get bogged looking at the hands and don’t look at the divine that they all point to. In essence, religions are humanity’s many ways of expressing God.

At the same time, I was taking several electives in Psychology in which I learned about how the brain functions. The idea that head trauma can turn an individual into a very different person led me to question the existence of an eternal soul. The idea that you can stimulate feelings like the numinous with electrodes made me question my own experiences of it.

Now, as then, I do believe that religious experiences are real. I just don’t believe that they are interpreted correctly by the people undergoing them. It’s like sleep paralysis and all the mythology that’s surrounded that utterly un-supernatural experience over the millennia.

At around the same time, atheism hit the mainstream media and, for the first time, I learned that not believing in God(s) at all was an option. Rather than struggling to find a believe system that didn’t violate my understanding of other religions or of psychology, I could simply believe that the divine is a function of minds – something natural.

Could I believe again?

I’ve given some thought as to what could convince me that I am wrong. At first, I thought that a direct revelation would be a good start, but the more I considered it, the more I realized that I would be unable to distinguish a real revelation from a non-divine experience like a hallucination.

This was made even more clear to me in the days after my son was born when I was completely exhausted and sleep deprived. I had already begun my Bible-reading project some months before so, when I started hallucinating, many of the hallucinations had a religious flavour. I knew, of course, that what I was experiencing was merely due to my exhaustion, but I could easily have interpreted them as religious experiences instead. In fact, I probably would have if, at that time, I still believed.

What about meeting God? Well, how could I distinguish between an actual God and a technologically advanced alien calling itself God? How can I be certain that a being is actually supernatural?

Barring a change great enough that I would hope my friends and family would seek medical treatment, I do not think that any evidence could ever convince me of the existence of God. I am open to the possibility of the divine, of course, but I cannot think of any kind of evidence that would lead me back to belief.

When I see a piece of “sufficiently advanced technology,” my thought is to figure out how it works. I no longer consider supernatural explanations.

I realize that it sounds rather un-skeptical, but that’s where I stand.

On the limitations of Atheism

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I’m a bit late in commenting on this but, considering the fact that this blog’s current purpose is to review a series of books first published 2,000+ years ago, I’m not going to be too hard on myself.

Douglas Murray has written an article called Atheism vs. Dawkins, in which he argues that religion has “some points in its favour.” Well, I nearly took my GCSEs in Religion and I minored in the study while getting my B.A., so I obviously agree with that statement on some level. But that being said, I found much that was problematic with the article.

On Plurality

On Dawkins and those who agree with him, Murray begins with:

These new atheists remain incapable of getting beyond the question, ‘Is it true?’ They assume that by ‘true’ we agree them to mean ‘literally true’. They also assume that if the answer is ‘no’, then that closes everything. But it does not. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.

I can say that I have certainly seen that attitude. Within my local atheist community, there seem to be two dominant positions: In the first corner are those who believe that science and math are all, that non-fiction is worthy reading but that fiction is fluff, and that the humanities are for silly buggers who aren’t rigorous enough in their thought to approach a real subject. But in the second corner, there are those who came to atheism through the humanities, through philosophy, through literature. These are people who believe in the power of story and in the importance of community. The vast majority of atheists, while usually leaning towards one side or the other, fall somewhere in the middle.

It is not “hypocrisy” (as one commenter on my Facebook wall put it) to both privilege science wherever it is applicable and acknowledge that there are plenty of questions that capital-s Science can’t even begin to approach (in the context of the discussion, it was whether vanilla or chocolate is the best ice cream flavour).

But both of these positions are “new.” New atheism, if nothing else, is marked by its diversity, and I am uncomfortable with the co-opting of the term by/for a group that may well hold a (very vocal) minority position.

A place to ask questions

Murray continues:

Religion, whether you believe it to be literally true or not, provided people, and provides people still, with a place to ask questions we must ask. Why are we here? How should we live? How can we be good? Atheists often argue that these questions can be equally answered by reading poetry or studying philosophy. Perhaps, but how many people who would once have gathered in a place of worship now meet on philosophy courses? Oughtn’t poetry books to be selling by the millions by now?

There’s two parts to this: A place to ask questions, and whether alternatives exist.

For the first, I found it a problematic place to ask questions, and that was one of the main reasons that I became an atheist. It’s certainly true that, as collection of worldviews, religions do technically provide a place for people to ask questions. The problem is that they also provide the answers.

If we take legality as a secular given and move beyond that to questions of meaning and of above-and-beyond morality, religions’ answers are only satisfying insomuch as the individual agrees with them. If I think that 10% of my income is better given an adult literacy centre than to a church, I’m likely to run into problems unless I happen to find a church that also agrees with my answer.

In other words, I would say that religion is more of a place to receive answers (answers that may be problematic and that may well be coloured by ordinary human vices such as the greed of one’s particular pastor) rather than a place to ask questions.

That’s not to give atheism a free pass, since there are plenty of atheists who would love to provide answers as well. In fact, I’d say that -isms of any sort are a terrible venue for the asking of questions.

So while Murray seems to believe that religion is a good place to ask those ultimate questions simply because they exist within that realm of ideas, I think that individuals would do much better taking a little extra time out of their busy lives to answer the questions for themselves.

The next part of Murray’s statement regards the source of answers – poetry? philosophy? Sure, if that’s your bag of fish. Personally, I like literature. And here I have to separate myth from religion, because I do think that myths (yes, even Adam and Eve) are a great explorative vehicle when tackling ultimate questions. The problem with religion (we would have to define this as the dogma, or the truth weight that is given to select individual myths) is that it does the precise opposite of what Murray claims.

As for popularity well, Murray really should know better. How many copies have been sold of Twilight? Would Murray argue that Twilight is therefore a great vehicle for answering ultimate questions? The popularity of religion rather than poetry tells us exactly nothing. Other possible explanations might include:

  • More people like to ask their questions and receive immediate and explicit answers. A pastor can do this. A book of poetry (usually) can’t.
  • More people aren’t actually interested in the ultimate questions. They would rather just put in the time for religion and then not worry about it, or perhaps they are getting something entirely different from their religious belief (such as the community that tends to form around worship).
  • Our culture sells religion as the place to address ultimate questions, and it does not commonly acknowledge alternative sources. Different cultural emphases might yield entirely different searches for meaning.

What atheism doesn’t speak about

Murray next argues that atheism is limited because:

It is faint on human suffering and tragedy. And although it does not have nothing to say, it barely speaks about death. It has little if not nothing to say about human forgiveness, remorse, regret or reconciliation.

And I disagree entirely. There are many kinds of atheism and they will address these differently, but my version would address them as follows:

  • Suffering: Some suffering is caused by known things, and we can reduce this suffering by improving conditions, regulations, and early warning systems. Some suffering just happens for no reason, and we can mitigate it by helping each other.
  • Death: You die, and it’s sad, but it happens. That is the end of your life just as the beginning of your consciousness was the start. The sooner you realize that your clock is ticking, the more time you have to give your life meaning and purpose. May I suggest “leave the world a little better for having had you in it”?
  • Forgiveness/Reconciliation: There’s a time and a place. The trick is knowing when and how. Forgiveness in the absence of remorse and rehabilitation creates victims, but grudges can too. Try to practice balance.
  • Remorse/Regret: It’s good to feel an appropriate amount of remorse – just enough to spur you to change the behaviours that caused it in the first place. But beating yourself up for the rest of your life isn’t healthy. Aim for balance.

All of these terms take on rather different meanings in the context of some religions. So if Murray still thinks that atheism doesn’t touch on these things, I feel that his standards are warped. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to approach a Shinto priest and accuse him of not having an answer for the moral implications of the crucifixion. That would be silly.

The Compromise

Murray finishes up by offering a compromise between religious believers and atheists:

First, religions must give up the aspiration to intervene in secular law in the democratic state. In particular they must give up any desire to hold legislative power over those who are not members of their faith.

[…]

But non-believers like me should make a concession as well. We should concede that, when it comes to discussions of ideas, morality and meaning, religion does have a place.

The first, of course, I agree with. We live in a pluralistic world and laws must be secular if they are to be equitable. The free exchange of ideas, democracy, freedom of speech – all of these things hinge on the value that ideas are to be judged on their own merits, and not on the social membership of their proponents.

As to the second, it would have to come with a rather big caveat. If we are talking, for example, of whether homosexual marriage is moral, “because Jesus says so” is not acceptable. A moral judgement doesn’t become so simply by calling it one and name-dropping. When the judgement creates victims but the “crime” doesn’t, then I call into question the authority of that judgement. In other words, whenever we are talking about social morality, we’re really better off just sticking with secularism.

None of this is to say that religious people have no place at the table. Some of the moral thinkers that I admire most have been religious. However, they use religion as a motivator, and make their judgements from a more universal humanistic place (even if they would disagree with that statement).

But when it comes to personal morality or meaning, then yes, of course religion has a place for people who give it one. And I do think that there is value in interfaith dialogue, in seeking to understand each other and finding common ground. We all gotta be room-mates on this little planet of ours, and that’s a whole lot more pleasant if we learn how to work together.

An Atheist’s Christmas in Wales

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One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It’s that time of year again – the malls are bustling with last-minute gift buyers, your mailbox is bursting with cards, and Faux News keeps telling you that you are waging a war against it all. As an Atheist, it can be difficult to decide what to make of it. Am I compromising my integrity by participating in a Christian holiday? Or is it okay because it was stolen from the Pagans first and, in any case, is just about secular consumerism?

The Myths

Christmas is not a Pagan holiday – sorry. The date was moved to coincide with Pagan celebrations and many of its traditions (“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum…“) are Pagan in origin. But Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, a decidedly un-Pagan topic.

There is no War on Christmas(TM). The whole concept comes from the same place as the Medieval theory that Jews use the blood of Christian babies in their dark rituals. That is to say, it was made up by people who stand to gain from your fear and hate. Most Atheists would be perfectly happy to be wished a “Merry Christmas” and open presents with you.

The Facts

Christmas, as we know it today, is a very recent invention. Most of its ‘traditions’ have been tacked on in the last 150 years or so and have little or nothing to do with Christianity (in fact, most are either Pagan or commercial – or both – in origin). In other words, the support for a ‘traditional/Biblical Christmas’ is about as hollow as the support for a ‘traditional/Biblical marriage.’

Christmas, whether we like it or not, is a cultural construction. Atheists have as much claim as Christians do to everything beyond the Christ-mass (which I sat through for many years and shan’t miss).

So what does this all mean?

It means that Atheists choose, as individuals, whether to celebrate Christmas or not, whether to wish “Merry Christmas” to others or not, and whether to be offended when it is wished to them or not. As far as my Christian readers go: relax, enjoy your federal holiday, do your holy-day thing, have fun opening your presents, try to make it through without throttling any relatives, and try not to break the law.

What do I do?

Last year, I sent out cards wishing my friends and family a “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.” This year, I stuck to wishing them a “happy New Year.” When speaking, I also just wish people a “happy New Year” (I don’t see much inclusiveness in “happy holidays”).

For the past few years, I haven’t bothered with anything special on the 24-25 unless I am visiting extended family. Christmas with my parents is whenever close to the season we get to see each other. My husband is Russian, so he prefers to open presents on New Year’s day, and I’ve adopted that as well. We do decorate, and we own a plastic tree that gets pulled out of the closet every year for the purpose.

Closing Comments

I am never offended by a simple well-wishing in the form of a “Merry Christmas;” however, some people have been taking the War on Christmas(TM) too far. For example, a customer at my work sent out an e-mail to our entire mailing list last year to the effect of “Merry Christmas! That’s right, I said it, because that’s the kind of man I am. I stand by my principles and I don’t care what the liberal PC-police has to say about it!” Turning the phrase as a soapbox launchpad is a huge turn off, FYI.

Another example is the Boys&Girls Club ‘Holiday Angel’ program. Last year, my office decided to donate toys to charity instead of buying each other more useless things. One subset of the office refused to participate because the program title used the term ‘holiday’ instead of ‘Christmas’! I’m sure that all the little children who didn’t get presents that year appreciated that my co-workers stood by their principles.