Total Drek

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Atheism: Part Two

Hey boys and girls, welcome back to the show. Today, as you might have guessed from the title, we're going to return to our new series where I discuss atheism. This series began mostly out of a sense of frustration at how poorly a lot of folks understand atheists. I followed that up with a discussion of why it is important to me to be an atheist and, more recently, we enjoyed an intermission where we examined a fairly typical attempt to show an atheist the error of his ways. It's been a busy series already and I feel like we've only just begun!

Today, we take up the second of my three promised topics: why it is important for me to talk about being an atheist. As always, keep in mind the standard caveats: I can really only speak for myself (as atheists don't have a central scripture or doctrine) and I am in no way attempting to convert anyone to my faith. In the case of the former caveat, I do attempt to speculate on how I think a lot of atheists see things but my remarks will likely apply most fully to strong materialist atheists like myself.* In the case of the latter caveat, I really and truly have no interest in swaying someone else to my perspective. If what I say makes you curious about atheism I will be happy to discuss it with you, but I in no way want any of you to become atheists.** We all spend too much time and energy thinking what other people want us to- exercise your personal freedom and make up your own mind.

So, all that said, why is it important to me to talk about being an atheist? I have, after all, admitted that I do not want to convert anyone, so why don't I just remain quiet? Why deal with all the hassle of trying to explain things to folks who often don't get it? Why not keep my atheism out of the sight, and minds, of others? Well, as you might expect, there are several reasons. The first, and simplest, has to do with the answer to our first question. It is important to me to talk about atheism for the simple reason that I don't believe that we should have to hide. Consider, for a moment, that my atheism is as central and important to my sense of self as another person's theistic beliefs are. A theist may experience the world as full of signs and portends signaling the presence and majesty of god. When an acquaintence or friend is going through a rough time, they may respond by saying, "I'll pray for you." This statement isn't an effort to convert the other person but, rather, is a simple and warm-hearted expression*** of the theist's self. The simple act of genuinely being who and what they are in itself reveals their metaphysical leanings. In the same sense, my way of understanding my world and of feeling about it is rooted in my atheistic belief. Given that, how on Earth could I avoid talking about being an atheist, to at least a limited extent? Oh, obviously I could hold my tongue every time the issue threatened to come up but, if I do, I'm concealing who and what I am. I can, and do, choose not to talk about parts of my life in many circumstances**** but when it is appropriate to discuss my atheism it is important to me that I be able to do so. Otherwise, people aren't talking to me so much as to a caricature of me designed to be relatively non-threatening.

This simple reason is not the entirety of my motivation, however. The second part of the importance I attach to talking about my atheism is that, to be blunt, atheists are not well thought of. There are a variety of reasons for this: the unfortunate and inaccurate association with totalitarianism, the self-absorbed writings of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, and even a certain amount of lingering distaste from earlier periods. The thing is, most atheists are quite invisible in society because we are not unethical exploiters of others. We are, in fact, at least as ethical and honorable as the average non-atheist. Yet, we remain feared and disliked. I believe, however, that the best way to dispel this idea that atheists are bad people is to be open about being an atheist and hope that my own behavior will serve as a sufficient counter-argument. After all, if atheists are assumed to be bad people and we never reveal ourselves enough to dispel this notion, we will continue to be regarded as bad people. It is important for me to talk about being an atheist because I would someday like to live in a world where I don't have to explain why I can be ethical AND be an atheist.

Finally, however, there is one last reason why it is important to me to talk about being an atheist: because there are other atheists. Consider, for a moment, what it is like growing up as a Christian: you are, by and large, surrounded by others who share your faith. If you have a question you can ask your parents, or your pastor, or your youth group leader. For that matter, there's a good chance that you have a youth group leader or a Sunday School teacher who provides authoritative instruction in the basic ideas and beliefs of your faith. There are places you can turn to discover what you are expected to do and how you are asked to feel. The thing is, none of this infrastructure exists for atheists. People that find themselves drifting towards atheism can have a very difficult time understanding what is happening or knowing whether or not it is okay. Trying to ask religious parents or friends about these thoughts and feelings often ends badly, as Brad Wright has previously observed. Often this negativity may emerge because a person who is becoming an atheist is often thought of as deconverting- as losing or moving away from something. From my perspective, and it's a perspective I suspect many other atheists share, this is in fact a process of moving towards something. This is probably why my earlier distinction between weak and strong atheism is so crucial- the strong atheist hasn't just relinquished religious faith, they have gained a new structure of beliefs.

For some, becoming an atheist may be a little like the opening scene in Carrie when the protaganist experiences her first menstrual period but, not having been educated about it in advance, is terrified. She believes something is wrong with her and fearfully reaches out for help. Unfortunately as we know, Carrie was mocked and rejected by other students at her school, adding to her misery, and the young atheist may, likewise, be mocked and ostracised by those around them. The unfortunate truth is that, right now, a young person who finds themselves gravitating toward atheism may be completely unable to find any guidance in the process. Often all they will find are exasperated demands to "return to the fold," or some such thing.

Eventually atheists manage to figure things out and decide what they believe. Moreover, eventually atheist come to understand that what they believe is okay- that it doesn't make them evil. From there, however, the atheist has to figure an awful lot of things out by themselves. This was not an easy task for me as a young man and I doubt that I will ever be completely done with it.***** Yet, looking back on the experience now, I wonder how much less traumatic becoming an atheist might have been had I examples of stable adult atheists to draw from. I do not believe that strong materialist atheists are very common, nor do I believe that we will ever be very common, yet by concealing ourselves we make things so much harder on those few who will someday join our ranks. We force them, however inadvertently, to suffer in isolation and silence when we could make ourselves available to talk, to help, and to guide. This is intolerable. I can talk about being an atheist, I can simply work to create space for others like me to live in, and I can hope that this makes a difference. I honestly believe that atheism is a deeply rewarding way of living and, as a consequence, I want to help proto-atheists find their own happiness in it. If people flirt with atheism and eventually decide against it, that's just fine, but if someone decides atheism is right for them, I'd like there to be a welcoming presence waiting for them.

I can also hope that in the process of writing this series I don't descend into pointless melodrama.****** Hey, everyone needs a dream, right? In any case, this concludes the second installment of our series on atheism. Tune in next time when I finally get around to discussing why being an atheist makes me happy. Or, if we're lucky, when I harpoon yet another ill-advised conversion attempt. Either way, it should be a hoot.

See you then.

* If you're not sure what a strong materialist atheist is, see the discussion here.

** There are days, actually, when I think that the worst thing that could happen to atheism is for it to become more popular. Nothing kills a good philosophy like mass-popularity.

*** I, of course, don't include the more aggressive version of "I'll pray for you" here. You know, the one that emerges when you tell someone that you're an atheist/homosexual/democrat/etc. and they respond, "Oh, well, I'll pray for you." Um.... thanks.

**** For example, I absolutely do not discuss my religion in the classroom. It isn't relevant to that and, indeed, discussing it would likely be an abuse of my authority.

***** Perhaps more accurately, I hope I don't ever figure everything out completely. I mean, what the hell is the point of living if you have all the answers already?

****** Too late.

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Blogger jason said...

Once again, a very well written and informative post. I especially like paragraph 5. I have not thought about or realized the point that you are making, but I totally agree with it.

I am a bioengineering graduate student, so as you can imagine I don't have much free time to learn about philosophy, theocracy, etc... You seem to be well read and have spent the time necessary to truly figure out what your views are on life. Thanks for sharing your perspective with others and keep the posts coming.

Thursday, February 21, 2008 7:03:00 PM  
Blogger Marf said...

You know, you're right... I never really had anyone to talk to about being atheist. My grandpa tried his best to convert me to Christianity. And for the longest time I was afraid to tell my dad because I didn't want him to react like my grandpa.

Thankfully, my dad was much more understanding when I finally did tell him.

Oh, and in case you didn't already know, I'm a fellow strong materialist atheist.

Thursday, February 21, 2008 7:40:00 PM  
Blogger JordanBaker said...

I just started reading your blog. I'm not an atheist, but I am a Unitarian Universalist, so we're like theology cousins. (Maybe.)

You say that you would absolutely not discuss your beliefs in the classroom, and I'm wondering how you came to that decision. I don't know exactly what the content of your teaching is, but I studied Comparative Religion in college, and our Religion professors made it a point to never discuss their beliefs, and wouldn't name their religious affiliation.

I can understand that, especially at Giant Public University, but I also think that part of the university experience is learning to be the person you want to be, and it helps to understand how your role models got to be who they are. If you only have discussions about faith with jerks who are willing to talk about it ad nauseum, you don't have the opportunity so engage with people you respect and can miss a valuable experience.

So I guess my $0.02 is that smart people should be more open with their beliefs, even though it's weirdly taboo exactly for those young people who end up feeling like they're jumping into nothingness when they leave the faith they grew up in.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 9:26:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Jordan: UUs may or may not be theological cousins to atheists (it depends as much on the UU in question as on the atheist) but my wife is a UU, so you needn't worry.

I guess I would say that I know that my position as an instructor gives me a certain amount of power over my students. This unavoidably introduces an element of coercion to much of what I say. With a topic as sensitive as religion I think the most honorable way to deal with my students is by standing mute on the subject of my own faith. I am concerned that in discussing my own faith I may inadvertently pressure my students and, likewise, because I have power over their grades, stifle their ability to disagree with me.

That said, my reluctance to talk more or less ends when the class ends. Once I turn in final grades I no longer have any coercive authority, whether I want it or not. So, students who come chat with me once they are no longer my students have, from time to time, learned of my own personal faith.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 2:00:00 PM  
Anonymous BobC said...

Drek, I'm just wondering why you would call your atheism your "own personal faith". Does it really require faith to not believe in sky fairy magic? Faith means believing in things that have no evidence, so I was surprised to read about an atheist who says he has faith.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 2:19:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

BobC: Fair question! I admit I go back and forth on this from time to time but my reasoning is, more or less, thus: I cannot prove conclusively that there are no gods. Particularly given the convoluted and bizarre definitions granted to such a being it is simply not possible for me to demonstrate its non-existence. As such, if I assert that god does not exist, then I am taking something to be true without conclusive proof. This seems to me to fit a loose definition of faith. I say "loose definition" because evidence (or lack thereof) enters into my decision but, nevertheless, I have a certain degree of faith that I'm not being deceived.

That said, I think that the burden of proof is not on the atheist to show that there is no god, but rather on the theist to show that there is. We do not, after all, look at people oddly when they do not profess belief in other things for which there is no solid evidence (leprechauns, the tooth fairy, etc.). In that sense I would argue that atheism is not a faith position but, given the nature of my ability to "prove" things in this area, I utilize the faith language.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 9:00:00 AM  
Anonymous BobC said...

Drek, thanks for your reply. We pretty much agree about everything. I would like to point out that many Christians think atheism is a religion, which is like saying non-religious people are religious. These Christians say atheism requires faith.

I compare the sky fairy to the tooth fairy you talked about. I assert the sky fairy does not exist for the same reason I assert there are no tooth fairies. Both ideas are so ridiculous and childish no proof is necessary.

Many people who have become atheists, including myself, often take a long time to recover from the child abuse called religious indoctrination. I finally figured out that the god idea is the most idiotic invention in human history. If not for the fact there are so many mentally ill people who believe it, the god idea would not be worth talking about. Unfortunately, thanks to the daily suicide bombings for Allah, and thanks to the never ending attacks on science education for Jesus, it's difficult to ignore the god disease.

I like your blog and I will return to lurk occasionally.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 11:05:00 AM  

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