November 14, 2014

The Power of Belief: Why would an atheist wish they believed in God?

My very dear partner brought me The Portable Atheist last weekend, and so far, I love it (surprised, anyone?). Hitchens really picked a great selection of works.

I ran across a passage that made me really think, and that made me blog, and we are!

Hitchens wrote in his introduction:

However, the original form of tyranny of man over man, and of man over the mind of man (sometimes called totalitarianism) was certainly theocratic, and no overcoming of the absolutist or of the arbitrary is complete unless it includes a clear-eyed rejection of any dictator whose rule is founded on the supernatural. I myself have tried to formulate a position I call "anti-theist." There are, after all, atheists who say that they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or have relinquished belief only with regret. To this I reply: who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis. And how grateful we should be to those of our predecessors who repudiated this utter negation of human freedom. There were many people long before Darwin or Einstein or even Galileo who saw through the claims of the rabbis and priests and imams. In earlier times, such repudiation often involved extraordinary courage.

Personally, I probably fall within the scope of atheists he is addressing.

I did not come joyously to my lack of belief. My faith did not die painlessly. I've blogged about this a time or two or three.

One objection to my nonbelief that I've talked about in the past is that I wasn't necessarily a very good Christian, and I attribute this to my inability to accept the beliefs. From a young age, I was constantly facing an internal battle between my innate doubts and the beliefs that I believed I should be able to readily accept on faith.

It wasn't so much the concept of God--the "permanent, unalterable celestial despotism"--that I was concerned about losing.

Rather, there was an expectation, one that was pushed by my family and community, that you either believed or you weren't strong enough to believe. Being unable to believe was an inherent weakness, a fatal flaw.

That's a pretty damaging concept for a young child to absorb.

The option to belief was Hell, for eternity. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Again, a fairly damaging concept for a young child to be subjected to, multiple times a week, year after year after year.

All of my friends were Christians, and none of them doubted. Or if they did doubt, they did so in private, like I did. We never talked about it, and so, my doubt existed in isolation.

I didn't have the luxury of access to books or websites that promoted other forms of belief. I can distinctly remember mentioning to my mother when I was in high school that I wanted to take up yoga--and being told that I wasn't allowed to, because yoga was a form of Eastern religious practice. That actually happened. My mother is an incredibly intelligent, compassionate, wonderful, college-educated, successful-in-her-field-and-well-respected woman, and that was her reasoning.

My point: Belief is powerful. It's a powerful force.

I don't know that I would ever describe myself as wanting to believe, or wishing that I could. I am happier and more confident without belief, and my mental health and outlook have improved dramatically.

But this was not a position that I came to lightly, and I most certainly feel nothing but compassion for those that have also had a painful departure from faith.

For me, it represented the loss of a community that I had grown up in. It meant the loss of a built-in place where I was accepted and supported. I lost a major piece of my identity, and I have had to invest significant effort into overcoming that early indoctrination.

I had memories of homecomings, dinners, gatherings, weddings, baptisms, dedications, salvations, shared triumph and losses, lock-ins, missions trips--the list goes on and on. A shared experience with a group of like-minded people.

We're social creatures, at the end of the day. And those social experiences were incredibly powerful and moving.

I'm glad to be where I am. I can see how I got here, and I am thankful for the experiences because I like the person they've made me into. It's almost a type of personal evolution, and I find it nearly poetic.

But I can't say that I don't understand people who say, "I wish I could believe," because sometimes, I wish that too.

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