Thursday, May 17, 2012

What Do I Believe? Confessions of an Atheist

Just a few hours ago a young couple knocked on my door here in East Nashville. They both shook my hand and seemed nice. The young girl handed me a book and told me that it was all about the "journey of freedom in American history." She informed me that the book was normally $30 in book stores but that she was willing to sell it to me for a donation of $15.
I said no thanks and began to shut the door. The young man asked if I would like to receive Bible studies in the mail for a small donation. Again, I said no thanks. Finally the gal asked if they could pray for me to which I, of course, respectfully declined. They looked at me oddly and wished me a pleasant evening as they made their way to the next home.

In my last essay I talked about evangelicalism and proselytizing (Thoughts On Easter and Religious Criticism) so I'll try not to repeat myself here. There are a few interesting things about today's experience that I'd like to talk about.

Money and Prayer

I found it interesting that this couple of evangelicals only wanted to pray with me after they had dealt with the donation issue. On the one hand this makes perfect sense. The goal of their door-to-door marketing may in fact be to save souls and spread the good news of Jesus, but we all know that this is practically impossible to facilitate without money. On the other hand I find their priorities telling. By the lights of Christian theology, prayer is perhaps the most important and, more succinctly, efficacious aspect of religious life. It is direct communication with the creator of the universe. It seems that if one really believed in the power and possibility of prayer, that would be the place to start. Not with petty petitions for small donations in exchange for a vague and, no doubt, proselytizing book about the
"journey of freedom in America."

But this is not uncommon. In my tenure as an evangelical Christian I often heard appeals for donations that began with money and ended with the pious "coveting of thoughts and prayers." I recall a 3.3 million dollar stewardship campaign at my first church home, Pelham First Baptist. During the month-long stewardship campaign every Sunday was geared towards generating money for the already purchased (on faith, of course) multi-million dollar annex the church was building. The pastors cunningly wove a thread of practical pleading with grandiose sermonettes about prayer, faith and trusting the Lord to provide.

I always wondered: what if we don't raise the money? Are we willing to interpret our deficit as God's way of telling us not to build the annex? Perhaps 3.3 million dollars would be better spent, I don't know, feeding the poor, restoring broken homes or improving schools and playgrounds for children in the community. 

Well, of course not. The church never did raise all of the money but they sure did start building that annex. On faith. It's the kind of confirmation bias that is so obtuse and steadfast that I find myself slightly in awe of it. 

Prayer is invoked to make people think that things other than practical solutions are needed to make this material world function. It's a marketing tool. I've written about the ineffectiveness of prayer in this essay (Counting the Hits and Ignoring the Misses). Check it out. Or don't. 

Actually, pray about it!

The Conversation

Whenever I envision people coming to my door to talk about religion I like to imagine myself inviting them in, making some coffee and having a civil discussion about our respective beliefs. However, that rarely happens. Life is busy and talking to a stranger about the nature of God is often awkward, time consuming and ineffective. I'm tempted to pity the travelers. Selling a product, whatever it is, door-to-door is a tough job. I remember doing door-to-door evangelism when I was in high school. We were all so terrified and uncomfortable. I remember how mortified one of the girls was when we coincidentally knocked on the door of one of her friends from school.

The last thing we wanted was for these people to invite us in and present rational arguments for why what we were selling might be as harmful as it is wrong. I could see relief in the faces of my would-be converters as I briskly declined their petitions for money and prayer. In many ways the conversation is a miscarriage, doomed before it even begins. 

Some people have accused me of proselytizing for atheism on my blog, twitter feed, and facebook page. I'd like to clear that up, if I may. I do spend a lot of my energy criticizing religion for it's harmful side affects. My thoughtful believing friends share my complaints. I decry the anti-science movement of mainstream Christianity as well as it's rampant homophobic bigotry. I lampoon televangelists preying on the weak and disenfranchised. I point out logic fallacies, cognitive dissonance and behavioral inconsistencies. Yes. But this is hardly trying to sell anyone on what I believe. The truth is, people never ask me what I believe.

Many people incorrectly assume atheism to be a belief system. I've written an essay about this problem (Common Misconceptions: Atheism Is a Religion) but I'll briefly clarify: Atheism is a rejection of a claim, not a positive claim itself. As one satirist noted, if atheism is a belief then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Not collecting stamps may very well be my favorite hobby because I literally do it all the time. See the difference? Some atheists believe in capitalism while others are socialists. Some atheists believe in free love and peace while others believe in mass genocide. Some atheists are kind and reasonable, others are assholes. You see, people cannot be defined by what they do not believe. There is no word for all of the people in the world who do not believe in Santa Clause.

Well, actually we call them adults. 

What Do I Believe? 

I subscribe to a worldview called secular humanism. Secular humanism is defined as the embracement of human reason, ethics and justice while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, psuedoscience, or superstition as the basis for reality or decision making. 

I believe in methodological naturalism as the only reliable way of building models that correspond with observable reality. This is not to be confused with metaphysical naturalism which states that ONLY matter exists. If I were a betting man I would bet on materialism. However, because this is simply unknowable, I respectfully reserve judgment until more evidence is in.

I believe in objective, provisional morality. There is no evidence for either absolute or relative morality. Rather, morality evolves with our understanding of pain values. The evolution of morality is clearly seen in the annals of history and as our bioethics continues to evolve we may even arrive at a place where it is immoral to kill ants. Morality is objective because it belongs to the species, not the individual. This is the most reasonable and rational view of morality I have ever encountered. If you would like to read about it I highly recommend Michael Shermer's wonderful book, "The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share and Follow the Golden Rule."

I believe in the reproductive freedom of women. I also believe in a very serious and evolving conversation about the nature of life, consciousness, conception and value. We simply do not know enough to deny women their reproductive freedom. I believe existing life is more important than potential life. Both sides of this debate have a lot of growing up to do. 

I believe that any and all homosexual bigotry is unfounded, shameful and evil. It is a monstrous movement completely motivated by religious fundamentalism and will be a hallmark of religion's dinosaur-like relevance in the evolving moral world. To all of my Christian friends: if you want to stay relevant you must amend your archaic and disgusting hatred for homosexuals. It will mark your extinction in social discourse. You can evolve or die.

I believe that the question of god's existence is unknowable. Supernatural phenomenon are, by definition, outside the purview of science. In regards to the existence of god we are all agnostic. We simply do not know. I dissent from my believing friends by rejecting the claim of god's existence based on insufficient evidence. Belief and knowledge are two different things. I do not believe in a god or gods but this is not to be confused with the false assertion that I know there is no god. Please seek to understand and integrate the difference. 

Lastly (for now), I believe in people. I believe that, despite our differences in belief, we can find a way to exist together respectfully. We can find a way to be good neighbors and co-workers. We can find a way to make beauty together and undo the ugliness of the world. Make music and art. We can listen to one another and grow and be known. We can taste the best of what it is to be alive and aware in such a brilliant and stunning universe. 

We're all in this together. 

In reason,

Clint Wells


Jawan said...

Clint, Not all Christians hate homosexuals, just homosexuality. There are many Believers who befriend gay men and women for honest conversations and can still agree to disagree. The Bible can be the basis for the Christian's belief but can do harm or good in how that belief is communicated: in hatred or in love. I believe harm has been done in that there is no absolute truth in our lives anymore - it's too bad that a Christian who truly loves with compassion and grace is often seen as intolerant. I'm sure, though, that you have believing friends who love you even though you're no longer an evangelical, no?

Clint Wells said...

Jawan - I understand there are people who claim hatred not for homosexuals, but their homosexuality.

I find that strange and ridiculous. It's a category mistake. I have a friend who is an alcoholic and, though I love this friend dearly, I hate their alcoholism.

This is different because alcoholism is a debilitating disease. Sexual orientation is natural and beautiful. Loving a homosexual but hating their homosexuality is offensively missing the point. It's like tolerating the skin color of your black friends. Gross.

I do have many thoughtful, beautiful Christian friends and family. My post was not intended to assume that ALL Christians were bigots. I do, however, believe that most of them are. I also believe that the Bible itself is a bigoted and evil book.

It was once said that in the world there are evil people who do evil things and there are good people who do good things. But for a good person to do something evil, that takes religion.

Thanks for commenting. I hope I've cleared some of that up.

Jawan said...

I appreciate the tone in which you replied. I always hate commenting on people's blogs that I have no relationship with b/c it just seems moot to me (often, not all the time). However, we have alot of mutual friends and I've been reading your blog for a while.

Obviously, you and I will disagree on much, especially regarding your point made about the Bible. A commenting section isn't the best place to expound upon those disagreements but I will say that alot of what we disagree on boils down to definition (you might argue categorical as well). I define all of life based on the Bible and you don't...I believe man is spiritually dead and depraved, you probably don't....I believe that portions of the Bible are poetic and others don't apply to our society today & you MIGHT would have a few words to say about that. Therefore, disagreements will abound....and it's good to talk with those who aren't in my Christian bubble (esp. one like you who knows alot about that bubble, although I'm sure we'd disagree on much in that bubble as well!).

I just wanted to say that it's good to be able to make a one time comment and know that convo can happen without harsh words ....not to mention that we'll probably never meet anyway.

You're the only Atheist I "know", so I bounce questions off of you and appreciated your calm response.

Anonymous said...

hey clint. i really enjoyed reading this post and learning a bit more about how you think, and what you believe (or don't believe - ha). i agree with, and celebrate your last paragraph. let's make this world a better place together.

Molly Bush said...

Hi Clint,

My first thought whenever I read your blog posts is: "He is really, really smart."

I appreciate your candidness and authenticity with sharing your personal beliefs and your willingness to engage others in real and respectful discussion.

I suppose I am at a "crossroads" in trying to flesh out my beliefs.

At one time in the past, I did subscribe to the idea that homosexuality was wrong, and now, looking back, I realize how absolutely ridiculous and unloving and closeminded that was.

Thanks for writing - I always learn something from your essays.

Anonymous said...

I'm at work and probably shouldn't be reading blogs, but oh well....

I really enjoy reading your posts-I'm interested to see how you would address the differences in western Christian thinking/culture (the prosperity gospel and billion dollar mega-churches)versus Christians (or other religions)whose sole mission is to serve the poor in underdeveloped countries....

~Anon at work :)

susan said...

Clint, sometimes I think we've had very similar experiences with religion to have landed in such different places.

In Shakespearian studies (I'm not a Shakespearean, just for the record), there is a huge emerging field of study that deals with Queer Theory and Shakespeare. One interesting thing that some critics have explored is the idea that the notion of sexual orientation as a fundamental aspect of identity is a very modern construction. So, the Shakespearians didn't think that someone was necessarily gay and nothing else. Sexuality was much more fluid. Your actions were sexual and not your identity.

So, you wouldn't say "I'm a homosexual." There was PLENTY of homosexuality, it's just that people didn't really consider it as part of who they were.

So, in that respect you could "hate the sinner and not the sin." But I assure you that the vast majority of Queer Theorists didn't intend for that conclusion to be drawn.

Sorry. Rambles. Just interesting to me.

Clint Wells said...

Jawan - I think the Bible is bigoted for a lot of really clear reasons. The bible mandates the killing of homosexuals and witches (which do not exist, of course), as well as provides guidelines not only for how to own and sell a slave, but also how to beat them.

The Bible explicitly states that women are to be subjugated and are not allowed to even speak at a church gathering.

The Bible encourages the slaughter of those who do not believe in the God of the jews, including family members.

I suppose lots of well intentioned, kind people like yourself have found many ways to ignore the parts of the Bible that are archaic and unpalatable. I just have a hard time swallowing that.

Feel free to bounce any questions off me any time.

Casey - I'm with you.

Molly - Here's to evolving!

Anon - There are many facets to criticizing religion. I can see that there are many different variations of Christian experience and theology. The Protestant church now boasts more than 30,000 denominations. In America it is really easy to criticize mainstream evangelical culture for obvious reasons. Fundamentalists (godhatesfags, Fallwell-types, etc.) are sitting ducks and do incalculable harm.

To people who devote their lives to easing the suffering of the world I would say: why do you need an iron age mythology to do that? There are plenty of non-religious human beings who also devote their lives to the easing of suffering. Why the talking snake and burning bush and slaughtering of first borns and filicide and depravity and washing in the blood of a god?

You don't need it.

Susan - I understand what you mean. In Roman times homosexual acts were extremely common and not socially taboo. Engaging in homosexual acts often had very little to do with individual sexual orientation.

Sexuality is definitely on a spectrum.

However, the more I've learned about sexuality the more I've learned that sexual orientation is very much a part of one's identity. I, for example, am definitely heterosexual. I'm not at all interested in homosexual thoughts or acts. It would be strange of me to disassociate this fact from my identity as a conscious being.

On the spectrum some of us are more hetero and some of us are more homo. Perhaps the luckiest of us are bi-sexual and enjoy everything sex has to offer.

All I know is that, wherever you land, no one has the right to deny you your personal expression of sexuality. To do so is ignorant, disgusting and evil.

Robert said...


This may be your best blog post ever IMHO. Given the tactics and method of these evangelicals, there is little doubt on my part that, apart from the protection of a real and guiding Holy Spirit, you'd have successfully "converted" them. Your worldview is well formed, consistent and flows logically from your assumptions. Very few evangelicals are equipped to handle your onslaught of critique (certainly not the door to door ones). I can say this, "if the universe is fundamentally Platonic in order, natural law and materiality" then your conclusions have to be correct (feminism, homosexuality, cosmological origins et al).

Deep down, the Church desperately wants Plato as part of its ethos. This is a great error IMO and this latest writing reveals as much. Well articulated. Well done!