Re: Atheism

This was written in response to an online acquaintance’s defense of “militant” atheism. Since I have many atheists of varying convictions in my life, I decided I’d publish it as a blog instead of as a private response because I think it touches nicely on things many of us have briefly discussed.

First of all, I appreciate you taking the time to write out your thoughts more thoroughly. What I’m about to say isn’t supposed to be a counterattack or anything, it’s just a statement of my own position so that we both have an equal understanding of the other’s reasoning.

I mentioned semantics as being a problem because of the word “choice” and it’s probably not appropriate. In any matter — it doesn’t have to be religious — a person who has not had something adequately proven to them should never be expected to just go along with it as if they were sure. So if you’ve not been provided with compelling evidence for the existence of a God, then you’re not “choosing” to disbelieve — believing isn’t within the realm of rational behavior for you.

Unfortunately the nature of religious experiences, at least in my own life, is that they are personal and therefore impossible to convey to other people as proof of much of anything. I am no more capable of denying the reality of a god in my life than you are of accepting that reality.

It’s a poor analogy, but consider gravity. It’s an active invisible force that ultimately affects everything in the universe. Gravity, like the God of the Christian Bible, is rather inconvenient. In fact, given the choice, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would actually want either to exist as they do. The one prevents you from, say, flying to work. The other prevents you from living as you please.

But a person who “believes” in gravity doesn’t really have the luxury of pretending it’s not there. They can’t unlearn how to observe its effects. Moreover, they recognize that as it is a guiding principle of the universe it is going to affect people whether or not they acknowledge it. That means that even if someone’s crazy enough not to believe they’ll die when they jump off a tall building, you do your best to convince them not to. You may not know them, you may not even like them, but as a conscientious human you want to do your best to stop them from killing themselves.

For the believer, the world is filled with people who — to us — are ignoring gravity and playing on the ledges of skyscrapers. Some want to use legislature to keep people closer to the ground, or to at least put up safety nets. And while as a fervent libertarian I totally disagree with legislature being used as the means for doing so, I at least see how such moves could be well-intentioned.

Ironically, the very purpose of the Old Testament law — particularly the Ten Commandments — is precisely what you said you are militant against: “when it’s used to make people constantly feel guilty for being human.” To that extent it makes sense that you don’t like it. People don’t like fevers, or pain in general. But the point of fevers and pain is to make you aware that something is wrong in your body so that you can try to fix it before it kills you. If we weren’t guilty and in need of fixing something, religion would be pointless.

As for invading people’s lives, as I said, I’m a libertarian. I imagine for the most part we agree. The one area where I think legislation does need to be made is with abortion, but that’s a totally different issue. Suffice to say I think part of that debate is caused by how we frame it; you might consider abortion legislation interfering with a woman’s right to choose what happens in her own body, I consider it an attempt to extend anti-murder legislation to include everyone I consider to be a human being. If we both agree that murder is wrong then we can move the debate away from the petty women’s rights scapegoat and more towards scientifically and/or Biblically determining where personhood begins, as that’s really all that we disagree on.

For what it’s worth, the very function of religion is to interfere with people’s perceived happiness. As I hope I established earlier, following Christianity or Buddhism or Wicca for that matter really isn’t (at least it shouldn’t be) like picking a favorite flavor of ice cream. Every day I see things that make me wish Christianity weren’t true. I hate the thought of people who are, quite frankly, much nicer and much more beneficial to the human race than I am being condemned while I’m not. For me the notion of reaching out and trying to save them — that is, to stop them from jumping off that roof — isn’t about personal satisfaction in winning an argument. It’s about not wanting to see people die in the name of some “freedom” they never really possessed in the first place.

The great tragedy of human history is that religion has been so brutally misused. If you want proof that people are inherently flawed and incapable of exercising freedom according to their own rules, look no further than the church itself. Radically misguided interpretations of scripture have led to not just the persecution but the deaths of millions. Both Hitler and the KKK considered their actions godly. Radical dismissal of the sort of teachings that could lead to such behavior certainly doesn’t surprise me.

If you’re burned out by public displays of so-called Christianity, all I can offer you is the consolation that many Christians are too. We see the behavior of outspoken groups and we know, because we’ve read and lived the Bible, that there’s no room for hate or harassment or murder in the life of a true believer. We still might annoy you — as the fever on humanity’s spiritual conscience, that’s to be expected. But if you can remember that we are — or at least, we’re trying to be — acting in earnest for your best interest, then hopefully you’ll be able to tolerate it when, yet again, so-and-so speaks of Jesus’ great love or asks you if you’ve ever considered where you’ll spend eternity. We’re not trying to get you to join a fun club. We’re trying to convince you that gravity will kill you if you’re not careful.

I don’t know how deeply vested your atheist convictions are. I don’t know where you’ve been, what effort you’ve put into it, etc. And I respect the fact that many people will never be convinced by Christianity or religion in general and don’t want to spend their whole lives being harassed by it. Perhaps you can appreciate the fine line I walk: the desire to respect your freedom on one side, the conviction that I should do all I can to keep you from killing yourself on the other. Like any good emergency worker, I will wrestle you down if I have the chance — so you can live to enjoy your freedom another day. But for most people I’ll never have that chance, so I’ll continue to speak as calmly and as kindly as I can from where I stand.

Perhaps you really, really don’t care what I have to say. Perhaps you never got past the original notion that God is like gravity, and every time I refer back to it you’re sneering because it’s so ridiculous. Gravity’s real, and you can prove that. God’s not, so conversation over. Well, not really. As I’ve said earlier, I try to be as rational as possible in life. Usually to the point where people consider it asinine. Heck, the sheer length of this response should prove that I’m often more thorough than most people would have cared for me to be.

But the fact remains that we are, ultimately, discussing the nature of reality. Granted, the thing I believe in is supernatural — beyond natural — which means that science — natural philosophy, as it was once called — is neither capable of nor intended for proving or disproving God. But that hasn’t really stopped people from trying to put them at odds with each other.

So I’ll end with this. I act out of a belief that God is real. My belief is founded on personal experience in tandem with interpretation of the Bible, which I consider to be true. But I am also a rational, intelligent person, and if someone were to lay out a proof that God does not exist, that the things which I attribute to Him all have perfectly viable, proven scientific explanations, then I would be more than happy to leave what would have to be a life of the grimmest, most restricting illusions and finally be free to live as I wish. I don’t want my beliefs to be a challenge to yours, but if you want to fight — intellectually — then consider the gauntlet thrown.

And if not, or if you accept my gravity analogy and are willing to peacefully coexist with this newfound understanding of where we stand, then I couldn’t be happier to move along with our lives.

Oh, and thank you for reading!

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