Saturday, November 20, 2010

Essay: Why Atheism?

I had an interesting discussion on a forum earlier this week. It started off with someone else making some affirmative statements about God and free will; I responded to those statements with some statements of my own, and at this point a third individual joined in the conversation and said to me:

I would argue that you act as though God were some person, and should be judged accordingly. Wouldn't God be about as foreign to us as extra-terrestials? On what scale would we then judge?

This person went on to say (or at least imply) that it was odd of me to try and argue against the concept of god, given that there are so many possible definitions of "god" that it would be unrealistic for me to even try to address all of them.

I think that's an interesting point, because it's true. Arguing that it's impossible for any kind of god to ever exist, or to try and decide what kind of god he would be if he did exist, is impractical. It's true, and yet, it doesn't really apply to any of what I say when I argue in favor of my own atheism/agnosticism. So why would someone say this to me, then? I asked myself, "What am I doing wrong here?"

I thought about it for moment.

As an American citizen who is actively engaged in politics, I have come to an understanding that it is fairly routine to see Christian Evangelicals arguing forcefully against things like abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc. etc., using Biblical quotes and religious arguments. In fact, it is precisely because of people who act that way that I have become so enveloped in the study of religion --- I realized, awhile back, that when I was arguing with religious people, I was not really on equal ground because, even though I felt it was wrong to base civil and criminal laws on theology and Bible quotes, I didn't really understand why they felt that way, or exactly what parts of the Bible they were arguing from, or even if their beliefs were an accurate reflection of scripture. I heard so many Christians arguing amongst themselves, even, trying to decide whose interpretation was "right" and whose was "wrong," and while everyone on all sides of this debate was always telling me, "go read the Bible, it'll make sense," etc., any time I would produce a passage that interested me and try to ask questions about it, I would get so many radically different answers from different Christians....I soon gained the impression that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about, and that there was nobody I could go to for information on the Bible that would be consistently acknowledged as a credible source. So I eventually picked up a Bible again and started doing serious research, as opposed to casual verification and reference for argumentative purposes. I wanted to have my own experience and knowledge to draw on, so I could stand my ground if I thought I had a point to make, without having to divert all criticisms to a third party and say things like, "well, that's what I was told," or, "that's what some people believe."

How this is all relevant is the process of re-familiarizing myself with Christianity and its tenets --- particularly the new American brand of hardcore Evangelical Christianity in all its attempts to invade science and philosophy and government --- I've become so distracted with this particular version of Christianity, specifically, that I've completely ignored many other (arguably more viable) versions of the same religion, not to mention many countless other religions' views or statements about God. Reading blogs like Frank Turek's and Neil Mammen's, I've grown accustomed to the use of the word "God" as referring not to a vague spectrum of possibility, but as a specific type of entity. So when I refer to "god" in an argument, there's a strong chance that I'm thinking specifically of the American Evangelical Christian movement's god, and to the claims that such people make about their idea of god.

Now why is this so important, you may ask? Aren't all gods the same when it comes to philosophy (which is the only way an atheist can relate to god, since we don't lend credit to theological claims)?

Well, actually, the answer is "no." You may see it as a "cop-out" or as "re-defining god" or "re-defining religion," but there are actually a significant number of ideas of god that many people have, even just counting Judeo-Christians in America. In fact, many Christians do not even agree amongst themselves about what god is really like; there are some basic founding tenets, but specific details (such as whether god created Satan on purpose to test us or whether Satan acted alone, or whether or not god intervenes with our lives in today's world) tend to remain up in the air. Chances are, if you ask two random Christians on the street about the more specific tenets of their faith, you'll find many differences, some small, some more important. As Greg Epstein said in his book, "Good Without God," we tend to assume that all people who answer "yes" to the question, "do you believe in god," are talking about the same thing, when in fact they are very often talking about completely different things --- to some, god describes abstract concepts like "love" and "justice," while to others, it describes nature and the universe (pantheism). And there are many other possibilities.

So then, the reason this is relevant to my frequent bouts with religion and theism is because it helps me make a few very good points about my atheism, and really, about atheism in general, points that will help put a lot of my past and future comments into perspective:

1) Atheism is NOT a worldview; it is a component of a worldview, a stance on a particular issue. Atheism comes from the prefix "a-", which means "without," and the word "theism." All this word literally means is "without theism;" it is in fact theoretically possible for a deist to be an 'atheist,' even though he or she may believe in some kind of god, because the deist may reject theism. So taken by its strictest literal definition, atheism is simply a rejection of a specific claim or set of claims. In order for that to be true --- in order for me to be an atheist about something --- there needs to be a claim for me to reject. So again, atheism is not a claim or a view in itself, but rather a response to someone else's view. It cannot exist on its own; it requires a pre-existing theistic claim on which to base itself. This can refer to a rejection of theism as a whole, (the overarching concept that a god has given humans doctrines to live by), or it can refer to a specific theistic claim or type of claim.

2) As an atheist, I do NOT believe that it is "impossible" for any kind of god to exist. My own beliefs are that god, if he exists, probably has a nature that will forever be beyond our understanding, and so it's a waste of our time to bother with trying to decide if he's real or not (simply because if he IS real, it's entirely possible that his existence defies any rules or logic we could use to prove or disprove it). I do not believe that humans will ever know if god is real or not, in that sense. So I see no point in quarreling over it. So in the strictest sense you might say I'm more of an agnostic than an atheist....but this is where my claim of atheism comes in; I believe that god is unknowable. Theists claim that he is knowable, and that they know him. It is this claim that I reject. And that is why I choose the label, "atheist."

I do not believe that Christians (even Evangelicals) are "wrong" simply for believing in God. And I don't even think they are "wrong" as far as their doctrines, should they choose to abide by them. I think Christians (specifically, the American Evangelical brand) are wrong because they believe that they know (a) that god exists, (b) what god wants, and (c) that this justifies acting in ways that are socially harmful or heartless towards others. I am rejecting the possibility that Christians are "right" about god, or that their text is the "one true religion." I reject the idea that anyone who is not some specific type of Christian will go to a place of torment and suffer supernaturally for all of eternity; I reject the idea that god would be just for doing that if he DID exist. I do not believe that these are realistic views to hold. To reiterate, I am an atheist not because I affirm that there is no god or that there could never be a god, or that people are stupid or silly for believing that there is one; I am an atheist because I reject claims made by theists about god, and so anytime a theist claims that they can know god, I challenge them to show me how in a way that cannot also be applied to any other person's religious belief or idea of god.

In closing....going back to the comment that sparked this entire post, I find it interesting that people are so often ready and willing to come to the defense of "god" by asking an atheist, "are you so sure that god has to be within your realm of understanding in order to be real?" or, "how do you know that you can even know anything about god in the first place?" or something else about god's general "unknowablility," and yet, so few apply this same reasoning to the theistic claim being made in the first place --- how is it that a Christian can get away with saying, "I know god, I know what god wants, and that justifies my actions," when an atheist can't get away with saying, "oh, really? And how is that?"

The more I think about it, the more I think that it's probably a matter of equivocation; when a theist says, "I know (or believe) [x] about god," they're talking about a specific god, and a specific type of god. Some atheists will respond to that claim, specifically (this is my type of atheism), and others will respond to the general idea of a god existing. These may seem like narrow distinctions but they are important, because if you are talking about god with somebody, you may very well be talking about completely different things and not even realize it --- if you're railing against a certain type of god that the other person doesn't believe in, or if you're treating an atheist like he or she is saying something that she isn't (i.e. if you act like he or she is attacking the general idea of god, as opposed to a specific god or claim about god), then whatever you have to say is probably just going to go over the other person's head.

--Tim D.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Short Essay: Sin, Sacrifice and Codependency

This is a new segment I'll be posting under every so often, the "Essay" segment. Sometimes it'll be short, sometimes it'll be long, but it's usually a combination of opinion piece and independent research. Feel free to offer criticisms or correction; unlike some of the works I refer to and criticize, my work is not sacred :D

In the Old Testament (specifically, the book of Leviticus), God explains that blood is life and life is the price of sin, and that is why the Israelites were not supposed to eat the blood of any animal. It's also the reason why they were ordered to mutilate animal corpses and offer them as bloody "sin offerings" to "make atonement" (or "ransom," depending on your translation) for their lives, or their sins.

I understand that Christians think that everyone can be "saved." I also understand that this desire to "save everyone" was probably born from the realization that, by OT laws, the guilty were punished harshly or put to death while the innocent were allowed to live in peace (mostly). It seems to me that Christianity was not born from the hearts of the innocent, who obeyed the laws they believed were right (and for whom society was more or less acceptable and sustainable), but from the guilty, who were unwilling to accept their own faults and actions and instead desired a scapegoat onto which to project these transgressions (in fact, the ritual of Azazel/scapegoat is described in detail in Leviticus 16:20-22). This need to "prove one's innocence" to an external witness is a common psychological trait of people who are unwilling or unable to cope with their own "cognitive dissonance," actions which are inconsistent with their own moral beliefs. It is, by and large, considered very unhealthy to seek external validation for an internal conflict of judgment --- this sort of behavior can lead to codependency and obsession, whether with God or with another person. Have you ever heard a person say to someone, "What are you trying to prove?" Or, perhaps, "Who are you trying to convince?" Chances are, they're talking about this sort of situation.

If this system of sacrifice were to, in some way, allow both the innocent and the guilty to overcome their transgressions, then it would at *least* be consistent. But rather, what it does is sacrifice the innocent to "cancel out" the sins of the guilty. I see this as no more than the particularly violent coping mechanism of a people which had not learned to deal with their own imperfections as human beings, created by God or not, and so they codependently and violently projected this dissonance onto an external recipient.

This is one important thing that I find wrong with Christianity; we are not encouraged to accept ourselves and our faults, and our flaws, and our imperfections, but rather reject them as unholy, evil, and terrible, and to consider ourselves as unworthy of anything without God's grace or acceptance. An important stage of the personal and moral development of a mature human adult is learning to accept oneself and have realistic expectations of oneself; I see modern Christianity as running counter to this vital process, attempting to mire us in our own desire for perfection, talking down to us and convincing us that we have no value on our own, that we can never be "good enough," that we need some external source to verify us and tell us it's okay and that we're worth something. We are encouraged to deny ourselves and refuse to give our own lives personal meaning that we can relate to, and instead we're encouraged to seek external verification and purpose, relying on something outside of ourselves to establish the identity that forms the center of our relationships with the very external forces we seek to identify with.

Seeking meaning and importance in others is not a bad thing, of course; however, it's a kind of bridge-building. If I may lapse into order to build a bridge between two places, there must first be two individual places which someone desires to be connected. Which means, you (and the person you are having a relationship with) should really have a firm understanding of yourself and what you expect of yourself before you try to build a relationship; everything else comes as a result of the interaction of your identities. You can't really, truly and honestly interact with someone if you aren't being honest with yourself and admitting who you are and what you expect of yourself, and what you're capable of. Seeking verification of your intrinsic "self" in the intrinsic "self" of another person is dangerous because that person, like you, is mortal and finite and can disappear at any moment. You must be ready to answer the haunting question, "What will I do if this person disappears?" Is this person a fundamental part of your identity? If so, you are codependent --- you rely on others to define yourself and who you are. This is what the Judeo-Christian mythology teaches us, to allow an external source to define us as individuals, before we even attempt to reach out and touch other people through relationships, such that we never really have a chance to be honest with ourselves or try to build natural, realistic expectations of ourselves; instead we abide by the commands of someone whom we endeavor ceaselessly to please, in the hopes that this entity will validate us in the way that, we have been taught, we cannot validate ourselves. I believe that this is a negative teaching and a negative pattern of behavior; if I were going to sum it up into a catchy book title, I might go out on a limb and say that "Judeo-Christianity makes us codependent."

--Tim D.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why I'm Starting A Blog

I said in my last post (what, a month ago?) that I would explain briefly why I've decided to start a blog.

Yes, lame, more blog posts about blog posting. I promise this will be the last such post for awhile. But it's important, so bear with me....the reason I'm starting this blog is because I was recently put in a situation where I could very well have lost my job, solely because I am an atheist.

About a month ago, I went to a lecture at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Hemant Mehta was speaking to the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) there, and as I'm a fan of his (more on that later), I went to hear him speak and have him sign my copy of his book. I actually got a lot more than I bargained for --- at most, I expected him to say, "thanks for coming," *maybe* sign my book, and that would be that. But as it turned out, several of the other SSA members stuck around after the lecture and we all ended up going out to eat at this Mexican place a few blocks away. And Hemant came along! Woot! Got pictures and everything. It was really cool --- laid back, discussion (not really debating, just talking), meeting people who were just "coming out" as atheists or agnostics, as well as people who had identified as such for a long time. It was an interesting evening for someone who lives in Alabama and can't take three steps without running into five aggressively evangelistic Christians.

So anyway....I want to say real quick that I DO NOT talk about religion or politics in public, ESPECIALLY at work. EVER. It's a personal policy because of situations exactly like this.

The problem started that next Monday. I went to work, just like normal. No problem. I've mentioned to some of my friends at work (in passing) that I don't really do religion, that I don't believe in an afterlife, etc., so it was my understanding that they basically knew this much about me, and were more or less "okay" with it --- even if they didn't *like* it, per se, we seemed to get along pretty well, and nobody ever tried to argue with me or convert me or anything. So it's not like this came out of NOWHERE; they knew that I was nonreligious. We just never talked about it because there was never a reason to.

Well, that Monday, this older lady I work with asked me how my weekend was. I figured if I kept light on the details, it would be no problem to tell her that "I met one of my internet heroes this weekend, and got him to sign me a copy of his book." She asked who it was, I told her his name, and she had never heard of him. I said, "Well, he's this atheist guy who basically promotes synergy between religious groups and atheist/secular charities and stuff. He has a blog," etc. etc., minor details. Well, she stuck on that word "atheist" and made it clear that she disapproved.

I didn't want to argue about it, so I kinda tried to defer the conversation in another direction. Instead of outright defending Mr. Mehta, I said something to the effect of, "well, at least he's not like that pastor guy that was gonna burn all those Korans. I mean, it's not like he's going around ****ing on people's faith, he's just trying to help people out." She said that yes, he WAS as bad as the Koran-burning pastor, actually WORSE, because "at least that guy believed in some god." That was when I realized it was a bad conversation. So I just kinda shrugged and went back to work, like, "well, anyway, it's over now, so...."

But she followed me into the other room and started trying to argue with me. "So you don't believe in god? Well how did all this get here, then? Who created everything?" I told her, "I don't know." She said, "that's right," and kind of mocked me, like "take that!" I tried to walk away again, but she followed me and said, "What I don't get is, you don't believe in god because you can't see him, but can you see the wind? Do you believe in the wind?" I told her that this was a really gross simplification of even the most primitive atheist belief. It really seemed to be bothering her, though, so I said, "Look, it's not like I'm hostile to religion. My mom's Baptist and my dad's some weird kind of naturalist or something. I've grown up around Muslims and Christians and all kinds of weird stuff. It's no problem to me." I basically tried to assure her that I wasn't going to try and convert her to Satanism or whatever. She interrupted me, though, and insisted that I "must've had some tragic event happen in my childhood to drive me away from GAWD," since my mom was so Baptist (she's actually not that religious, she considers herself "spiritual") and I was raised that way.

Well, I got pissed at that point and decided to bail out. I just said, "That's entirely wrong," and I walked out. She was busy with something by that time, so she couldn't follow me.

Well, I thought it was all done with after that. In a completely unrelated story, I had just purchased this book (the same day, as it were) by Christopher Hitchens (for research purposes) called "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." It was sitting by the coat rack in the back of the store, and I had taken it out to read it earlier when I'd gone on break. Well, I have a feeling this lady went and said something to somebody, because *all of a sudden* people were taking a heavy interest in what I was reading at the time. The book got slightly defaced (someone poured water on it), but since it was still readable, I decided to keep bringing it to work. Other people bring prayer books all the time, so I figured fair is fair --- breaktime at work is pretty much the only time I have to read most days, so I'll be damned if I'm not gonna read what I wanna read. I never talked about it to anyone, and I never showed it to anyone. The only way it would've bothered anyone is if THEY looked at it or if THEY asked about it. Otherwise they'd most likely never even know I was reading it.

But then, a couple of days later, my GM came out and asked me blatantly, "So you don't believe in god?" She's a Christian, too, but I figured if anyone would have some sense about this it would be the GM. So I said, " could say that." So then my manager says, "Well, how do you think this all got here? Who created the world?" And that other lady, who's at the other end of the room listening, says, "That's what *I* asked him." And I told her the same thing I'd said before, "I don't know." So my GM smugly says, "You know, that's the one question that people who 'don't believe' just don't have an answer for." I tried once more to derail the conversation in another direction to keep the peace, so I said, "yeah, you're right. It's a mystery. But there are mysteries no matter how you look at the world, not even god explains everything." She countered with, "Well, the Bible has probably more truth in it than any other book."

This is when I started getting I ****ing ASKED you for your advice? Jeez, leave me alone! So I said, "Yeah, my favorite part is where Jesus teaches us how to properly beat our slaves, with a close second place going to the verse that says women can't hold authority over men or teach them." She just looked at me with this weird expression like she'd never heard of those verses before.

And so suddenly people started to have "complaints" about my work, which, for the last 3 years, had been perfectly satisfactory (to the point that they still call me in to work when other people don't show up). I started putting in applications elsewhere, just to be safe.

Well, I do still have my job now, and the issue seems to have blown over....but you can tell that something's not the same, and it probably never will be. The lady who first tried to convert me seems to have realized that she overstepped her legal boundaries by harassing me at work, and she's stepped her game down a little bit, but she still doesn't like me and she's not afraid to let me know. She doesn't trust me at all anymore, anytime I make a mistake she acts as though I did it deliberately to piss her off (even if she wasn't even involved or affected at all), and she talks trash about me when I'm not there. She shamelessly tries to egg me on about religion in front of other employees --- just a week or two ago, she told me about the miners that had been rescued in Europe or wherever that was, and what a miracle that was. I just kinda said, "Yeah, that is pretty cool that they all survived." She turned to me really conspicuously and said, "If that don't prove to you that there's a god..." and trailed off, as if waiting for a response. I shrugged it off and went back to work. I tried to deal with the passive-aggression by just acting like I always do, while also going the extra mile to be prompt and considerate of everyone, so they'd be able to see that I'm not some kind of relativist assface just because I don't share their religion.

It all went well until one day when she was trying to get me to do some asinine job that she should've been able to do. I was very, very, VERY busy, and she was not, and I have reason to suspect that she was doing this just to give me a hard time, but she asked me to perform a specific job. I said I was busy but that I'd try to get to it as soon as I could. She said, "you're a man, and men do things like that," as if the fact that I was a man had any bearing on whose job I should be doing besides my own. I got irritable and I said, "Oh, yeah, I have a penis! That means I can perform incredible feats!" She went on to argue something about how men could do things that women can't, and so in my frustration I said, "Look, I know the Bible says that men are better than women and we're supposed to rule over you, but I don't buy that." It shut her up very quickly, and we haven't had any issues like that since. I didn't like being rude like that, but I felt it was necessary to stand my ground --- up to that point, she seemed to have this impression that I was just going to keep letting her push me around and harass me and make my job difficult. That quip was my way of putting my foot down and letting her know that there is a line that should not be crossed.

I realized something after all this happened: if I had been a shy person, or an easily-intimidated person, then this environment would very easily have driven be "back into hiding" as an atheist. I would have succumbed to the constant pressure from people who want to change me by force or get rid of me if they can't. As it stands, this situation actually made me more confident in my atheism, and more inclined to speak out about it and stand up for it when it comes under attack. I realized that there are other people out there who are less inclined towards confrontation that I am. And so that is one purpose of this blog --- to reach out to people who are atheists, or maybe who are just agnostic or even religious, but who have felt the sting of alienation that stems solely from discrimination based on religious difference, be it in the workplace, at home, or among "friends." I don't expect to change the world or change anyone's life, but I can tell my stories as they happen and provide knowledge and experience to people who want it and who will listen. Statistics are made one person at a time, after all :D

That pretty much sums it up....I started this blog because of a small period of time wherein I could have lost my job due to my atheism --- I want to say something now, while it's fresh in my mind, so it can be on the table for future reference --- but it is by no means restricted to that topic. That's just the jumping-off point for where I plan to go in the future. I won't be re-treading ground like that. Expect new content like essays, debates, musings, maybe even some interviews at some point. I also write songs, I'll upload them here if they're relevant to the topic.

Well, thanks for reading, all three of you --- see you next post!