Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thoughts About Atheism and Religious Knowledge

Perhaps you've seen all the headlines today describing a Pew Forum which shows that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than believers. The religious community seems to be puzzled by this revelation. As the non-believing community continues to hold the title of largest American minority and as it seems this trend is in no danger of slowing, I think it's crucial to understand the reasons for this new information.

Although it's true that all human beings are born atheists (without gods) it is an unfortunate reality that by the age of five, the most fundamental years of psychological development, most Americans are either indirectly exposed to or directly indoctrinated with religion. Most religions target children for this very reason, at the age when appeals to authority are absolutely imperative for survival. But just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, there comes a time in a person's life when they must, for themselves, weigh the evidence of certain claims.

The adult atheist in America has a lot to lose by rejecting religious claims. Family ostracism, professional discrimination, the narrowing of social community, etc. Atheists are commonly likened to dogmatic mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin as well as being accused of all base immorality. George Bush Sr. even pronounced the unbelieving community as unpatriotic sub-citizens.

While considering these remarkable sacrifices the atheist must make sure that her decision to reject religious claims is built upon the firm ground of reason. This naturally involves a studious education of the holy books as well as a sober view of how the teachings of these holy books play out in the world around us. For many these observations are so unlikely and scientifically unverifiable that the most reasonable response to the claims of religion is agnosticism. We just don't know. For others of us the claims of religion are so devastatingly irreconcilable that we simply must reject the claims out of conscience.

The Catholic church in the pre-Reformation/pre-printing press era built their empire on the ignorance of the masses. Why was this? I submit it was because they knew that, left to think for themselves, the masses would see enough of these holy books to warrant a safe amount of skepticism about their claims.

A philosopher once said that the only book you need to suggest for someone to convince them that Christianity is not true is the Bible. This is my story and the story of many of my beautiful, unbelieving friends. It doesn't mean that there are not intelligent Christians or that there aren't dumb atheists. It just means that most atheists have weighed the evidence. We know our holy books. We've sat in the pews and read the theology books and paid the tuition fees for seminary.

And as much as it may rub the religious, the evidence indicates that we've taken it a lot more seriously than the believers. That should be a sobering thought. Lots of love and kind thoughts to you all as you continue to investigate the truth in this strange, beautiful world. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of belief, we're in this thing together. I hope this finds you well.

In reason,

Clint Wells


Anonymous said...

I wonder, though, if there is something inherent in human kind that wants to believe in God. I think of Hellen Keller and how, when she learned about God, said "So, that's what you call him." I wish whoever witnessed that had asked her some more questions, because I'd really like to know what a deaf and blind girl concludes about the existence of God.

This is a personal question, I know, but do you ever miss God? You might think "Well, no because he doesn't exist." But still, do you miss the idea of God?

I just heard a story on NPR about an elderly woman who is anxious during the darkest parts of the night and she prays, but sometimes she just sings the Star Spangled Banner over and over again. And it just struck me how heartbreaking it is to just reach out into the cosmos for something to comfort you. Just like we are all wailing children with our arms up waiting for reassurance and safety. To think that you face your death without thinking there is anyone there to pick you up is such a difficult thought that I literally find it physically painful. I actually thought of you.

Random. Sorry.


Robert said...

This study only proves one thing: Our state monopolized education system is primarily responsible for propagating (propagandizing) one type of worldview over the others. (ie the "facts" of religion are more well known to the educated)

I challenge you to apply your criticisms of Catholic dogmatic paedo-indoctrination to the modern state.

Clint Wells said...

SB - There is a lot of neurological research being done to show that belief systems involving the survival of death and a transcendent authority figure were evolutionarily hardwired into the human brain. If you're really interested in that subject a clear, thorough account of this can be found in Mathew Alper's, "The God Part of the Brain." You can find it here: http://amzn.to/9JKZ9t

A deaf and blind human being, with a full understanding of the world and her condition, could only conclude that if there is a god, he is either capricious or very cruel. One only needs to spend five minutes pondering the present and past miseries of the world to make the same conclusion. Consider for a moment the amount of human and animal suffering that occurs throughout the world in the time it takes you to check your e-mail. Then square that circle with a loving, all powerful god. If it is not very difficult for you to do that then you have not properly weighed the suffering.

Clint Wells said...

SB - You asked if I ever miss god or miss the 'idea' of god. I really appreciate this question and I want to answer it thoroughly.

I miss god the same way a child might miss Santa Claus. Of course the story of Santa Claus, a guy who flies magic reindeer to my house to give me free presents every year, is a preferable belief than the reality that no such creature exists. In a similar way it's more palatable to me to believe that I will survive death and that there is an eternal, benevolent father to wipe away all of my tears. It is comforting to explain away pain by appealing to the "cosmic" plan of an all powerful god.

Sure, I miss some of those things. But I'd rather spend my life living in reality, not fantasy. The truth is that there is no more compelling evidence for the god of Christianity than there is for Santa Claus. Just wanting something to be true does not make it true. In fact, one should be even more skeptical of claims that flatter the human ego.

But this question really does not end here. Unlike the belief in Santa Claus, rejecting Christianity has left me with a much larger list of things I do not miss at all.

I don't miss pretending to know things about reality that I have no way of knowing for sure.

I don't miss believing most of the world population, past and present, is going to burn in hell for all eternity just for believing differently than I do.

I don't miss the amazing burden of believing in a loving god when his book is filled with blood, misery, murder and rape.

I don't miss bending bronze age social statutes into modern day age of reason culture regarding women and homosexuals.

I don't miss giving my money and time and energy to a church that rapes the souls of good people.

I don't miss hearing boring, long winded sermons from liars who profit from pretending to know the truth.

I don't miss the look in my friends eyes when they asked me if I thought they were going to hell and I had to say yes.

I don't miss giving up one of the only days of the week I can be with my family and rest just to feel exhausted and confused at church.

I don't miss all of the doctrinal masturbation and infighting. No one thinks anyone else is truly saved. Protestants, catholics, mormons, PCA, PCUSA, church of christ, anabaptists, reformed baptists, anglicans, RCA, AG, blah blah blah.

I don't miss ignoring reality in favor of wish thinking.

I don't miss attempting (and failing) to square all of the circles of the bible and science.

These are just some of the things I don't miss.

Clint Wells said...

SB - You will have to pardon me for being very frank here at the end. You said this:

"it just struck me how heartbreaking it is to just reach out into the cosmos for something to comfort you. Just like we are all wailing children with our arms up waiting for reassurance and safety. To think that you face your death without thinking there is anyone there to pick you up is such a difficult thought that I literally find it physically painful."

Your depiction of us as wailing children reaching into the cosmos for safety is pathetic. I'm really not saying this as an asshole, I'm just honestly responding to that image. To think that all the processes over billions of years that brought you into the world with a sound mind and clothes on your back and the world at your fingertips is wasted on a such a demoralizing and self-hating image is the true tragedy.

Please do not waste another second feeling sad for me in that way. I do not consider myself a wailing child who must face death with no kindness or grace. I know that I will die. I believe that when I die I will be dead. This makes me very sad. But I don't need to believe in a god who murders and rapes people to properly deal with these facts. I have a wonderful community of friends and family (both believers and nonbelievers) who provide me all the comfort I need to cope in this brutal world.

All we have is each other. And until we all quit letting our petty gods divide us we will not be able to move forward and learn how to live and die well.

I sincerely hope this finds you well and I wish there were a better medium for us to have had this particular discussion. Lots of peace ad kindness to you, SB, whoever you are.

Anonymous said...

I honestly didn't expect such a reply. You're very honest and I appreciate that. As far as the first two issues, I think it will take me some time to really process what you've written.

As for the final issue, If by "pathetic" you mean tending to invoke pity, I agree. (And maybe I agree if by "pathetic" you mean lame.) I'm not a particularly self-loathing person although I do enjoy the occasional romantic melancholy. :-) I'm just kind of at a place in my life where I realize my frailty. I'm a strong person and a smart person and a person with a lot of resources. But all of those things can be fleeting.

For me, there is a level of suffering that just can't be entered into by another person. Sometimes, even if people love you, you're alone. But Jesus meets me there. And sometimes only there. And yes, that's subjective and romantic and illogical. I don't know what to do with it, though. It's my truth.

What do you do with things that are illogical if by being illogical they aren't valid?

It's not that I pity you, really. I guess that's because I don't believe that you'll just be dead when you die, but I don't believe you'll go to hell either. I think you might have a pleasant surprise. I don't think God is finished with you yet. (And of course, I have no proof for that. It's just a feeling.) I have a deep sense of the mercy of God. (Maybe because I need it.)

Peace and kindness to you as well. Today, I have been blessed with both.


Clint Wells said...

SB - As Bukowski said, the only thing that matters is how well you walk through the fire. Death and pain are both many times immune to the balm of friendship, community, resources, and personal strength. Such is life.

How one chooses to cope is their personal business and I take no issue with it. The problem is that most people who cope with religion are not satisfied to apply it within their own personal individuality. Christianity, by its very nature, is evangelical, which means that it is at best offered to and at worst imposed upon others, especially gullible children. This must be brought under the bright light of scrutiny. It will either survive or die. My personal contention is that it will die and the powers that be know this better than I. That is why they are fighting to somehow excuse themselves from the enterprise of criticism. The powerful know its bullshit but their bankrolls depend on it. The laymen need to it cope and are kept in the dark without any viable alternative. Thus humanism and the great scientific disciplines enter to wake us from our slumber.

I have never claimed that something is automatically invalid just because it is illogical.

Your penultimate paragraph is offensive, however I don' think you realize this and so I don't hold it against you.