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.

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