December 11, 2015

Reflections on Identifying as an Atheist: A Response

I have a variety of Google Alerts set up on topics, including Atheism. I like to think of it as kind of my version of the Bat-Signal--it's a great light, reflecting through my inbox, driving me to subjects that need my attention.

Today, it directed me to a piece in the Cougar Chronicle, an independent student newspaper run out of California State University San Marcos, written by a young man named Michael Tran.


Mr. Tran wrote a piece titled "reflecting on identifying as an atheist", and all in all, it was pretty depressing. I'd like a chance to respond to some of his points, and I hope that he'll take this in the best possible way, from an atheist all the way out in the bo-dunks of South Carolina.


When I was an atheist, my life was really depressing. I would try, try and try again to believe in anything, but I was unable to believe.

I truly identify with this point.

As I was leaving my religious faith, I struggled to hold on to whatever handhold I could. We often call this behavior "moving the goalposts", and chuckle to ourselves about how it shows the weakness of our opponent's argument, but in truth, at least for me, it was a desperate attempt to cling to what had been a major aspect of my life for decades. It wasn't that I was trying to move the arguments back; I was simply trying to get into the lifeboat while my faith was quickly sinking.

As an atheist you learn some things about this world that not a lot of people know, or are willing to know. For one, all religions are human constructs—usually created by patriarchal societies. Second, many scientists in previous eras of history were burned at the stake for simply proving a hypothesis. And third, all religious leaders are merely human—they aren’t messiahs, the resurrection of Christ or Buddha; they’re human and humans aren’t perfect.

This really depends on who you are talking to and what you are reading.

Religion is beyond a doubt a human construct--even many theists believe this--but not everyone agrees that it's a function of patriarchy. Indeed, it's entirely possible that we naturally evolved religion (socially, of course), and that patriarchal forces only used what was already there. It's entirely possible that these natural religions were perverted for the cause of maintaining a hierarchal system.

We see an example of this when we talk to theists about slavery and how the Bible condones it. Many times, the response is that it was a different time or that such ideas were a perversion of the natural order. If it is possible to accept that as perhaps a function of religion that was perverted, it's easy to apply the idea in other realms.

As far as many scientists being burned of the stake, it may very well be true, but we really only have one example--Giordano Bruno was burned, along with all of his works, because he theorized about the possibility of an infinite universe, and this was contrary to church teachings at the time.

There are other famous scientists who were sanctioned or didn't publish because they feared sanction. We know Galileo was placed under house arrest; Copernicus himself didn't publish until his death bed and even then was careful to maintain that his heliocentric model was just a mathematical model. And yes, all of this was because of church persecution.

But in truth--and I think most atheists knowledgeable in this area would agree with me--the academic side was far less likely to be burned than religious adherents who violated the widely held doctrines of the time. If you look at lists of victims, you find that the majority of them were not scientists, but people who had different ideas about religion. They were believers.

This isn't to say in the slightest that the Church's suppression of science should be brushed off. It's an important footnote in our social history. Who knows how many scientists were afraid to publish for fear of retribution? Who knows how many of them went to their deaths with knowledge that was permanently lost to the ages?

Much like the discussion today regarding Islamic theo-political radicalism, in which we'd be remiss not to acknowledge that the majority of victims of this type of terrorism are, in fact, Muslims themselves, we'd also be remiss not to acknowledge that the majority of folks who were injured by these church policies were in fact believers themselves--they just believed the wrong way.

As far as religious leaders, Tran's final point, yes, we acknowledge that they are human and thus fallible. Some religious leaders are not afraid to acknowledge this themselves, notably the Dalai Lama.

Although I highly disagree with human religions (animal ones are okay), I strongly agree with Marx that religion is the opium for the masses—religion serves as a way to keep the common people under control. Let’s face it, religion brings hope to this slowly dying rock we live on. If all the religious people in the world today were to lose their religion right this instant, then how safe would we be walking the down the street?

There are several assumptions here that I'd like to deal with in particular.

The first is this quote by Marx. Tran's related to us here a paraphrase of the quote itself, so I'd like to start by first looking at the entire context. Bear with me:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. 
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

This quote, taken out of context, implies that Marx believed that religion was used to control the masses; however, this isn't supported by the full context.

Indeed, Marx believed--and this is supported by some of his other writings--that religion was a function of the conditions people lived in. He didn't believe that it was a tool that was used to oppress but rather that it was a coping mechanism for dealing with that oppression. He believed that criticizing religion--as the latter part of the quote I have shared demonstrates--was actually a form of criticizing the system at large.

And he says here, pretty clearly, that he was for the abolition of religion. Nothing I've read personally indicates he advocated that this should be done forcefully, although some students of Marxism took it in that direction, but rather that he believed religion would naturally fade when the need for that illusory happiness no longer existed because the demand for happiness had been met--i.e., that Communism would, by its own nature, do away religion with no need for other interference.

I'm not sure if Mr. Tran intended this to come across as Marx supporting religion, but if so--Marx's own writings show differently.

Another assumption is that religion brings hope. I don't disagree with this. I've talked before about how I think some popular atheists often discount the pull of belief on the human psyche. However, it's a significant overreach to imply that religion is the only thing that brings hope to this planet.

We have science. We have compassion. We have passion itself, love, joy. We have the need for social change. All of these are motivators, and all of them can be immense sources of hope.

What brings hope to one person does not to another. Anecdotally, for me, despite growing up in a religious tradition, religion left me feeling hopeless and helpless. It confined my behaviors in arbitrary ways and rendered me to a socially-acceptable emotional range that meant, especially as a woman, I was expected to cheerfully serve at all times. No other emotion was acceptable except for sincere remorse and worthlessness in the face of my supposed savior. That was no hope.

As an atheist and a humanist, I find myself hopeful for the first time in ages. I believe in myself as an agent of change. I am not a broken creature. I am flawed but no more so than my fellow humans. I trust my fellow humans in a way that I could not as a believer--after all, if we're all just waiting for the next opportunity to sin, how can you trust anyone?

This isn't a function of every religion. My brand was just particularly virulent. But it makes the point well that you can't generalize that religion brings hope to the planet as if it's the only source of hope--so many people are oppressed by religion, so many people want to live without it, that you're devaluing the experiences of at the least millions of people.

And that brings me to the final assumption I'd like to touch on: If everyone on the planet lost religion, would I feel safe walking down the street?

 The answer is a resounding no, but probably not for the reasons that Mr. Tran is implying here. Instead, I'd like to point out that this a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. I'm not the first to point this out, but bear with me while I revisit it.

The implication here is that people would do whatever they wanted without religion. To an extent, I don't disagree. I do think that if we were to suddenly lose religion tomorrow--Richard Dawkins perhaps waves a magic and and poof! the whole thing is gone--we'd suffer dire social consequences from so many people losing the basis for their morality.

However, religion isn't the only basis for morality. So the real root of this problem is: would we have to be afraid because religion was gone, or would we have to be afraid because so many people had chosen (or been indoctrinated, if you prefer) to build their entire moral code based on religious principles?

The idea that religion is the only basis for morality is an idea we often face as nonbelievers in a heavily religious world, but it's not true. It can even be argued that religious morality is a lower form of moral development--the idea of doing things to gain reward or avoid punishment being an immature form of moral reasoning.

I'm not here to argue that point today, but I am here to point out that we would have nothing to fear from human beings lost their religion if their moral reasoning was based on something other than religious grounds. They would still be able to make moral decisions. If religion hadn't convinced them that it was the arbiter of morality in the first place...this simply wouldn't be an issue.

Spirituality is—to an atheist— just the superior prefrontal cortex of an ape-like creature trying to cope with this world—this pale blue dot on the outer edge of the galaxy.

This is, again, a bit of an overreach. I don't think Mr. Tran means any harm by this; I believe that this is his experience.

But there's far from a consensus on this subject among atheists. Atheism is no belief or lack of belief in a god or gods. It doesn't even mean that all atheists reject supernaturalism, let alone that they reject the idea of every form of spirituality.

It's true that this represents the view of some atheists--but not all.

For me, personally, I don't reject spirituality out of hand. I think we're each on this planet for a very short time, and that how we choose to find meaning is entirely up to us as individuals. If spirituality works for you, more power to you.

As you can all tell, I’m the life of the party. In all honesty, atheism was a very depressing thing for someone who has an above average intelligence. The average people follow trends. The new-atheist today, is most likely a trend-follower—most likely a hipster. Nowadays it’s so cool and edgy to call yourself an atheist, but ninety-years ago you could have been stoned to death, and two-hundred years ago you could have been burned alive.

Can I just say how flattering this is? As a nearly thirty year old married mom of two, I rarely get called a hipster anymore. I'm delighted!

This is the only part of this entire thing that leaves me a little miffed with Mr. Tran. I'm not applauding my own intelligence, but most of the atheists that I have in my circle are incredibly intelligent, thoughtful people, and it bothers me to see them maligned.

I would also be lying if I didn't acknowledge that having my journey to atheism written off as following  a trend is insulting. For me, and let's be honest, for many of the atheists that I know, atheism wasn't a decision made to be cool or edgy. It wasn't quick. It wasn't easy. For me, it was the result of years of careful consideration of what I believed and why I believed it.

Perhaps the remainder of this paragraph is simply hyperbole. Ninety-nine years ago, you would not have been stoned for being an atheist. Indeed, 1912 saw the publication of The Problems of Philosophy, the work of notable nonbeliever Bertrand Russell. That was, by my reckoning, 103 years ago--so not exactly 99, but close.

As far as burning at the stake, it depends on where you are talking about geographically. In the United States, and even the colonies that it formed from, burning was never a punishment used for lack of belief. It was, however, often applied to slaves who dared to revolt in the Northeastern colonies. This doesn't fall into the 200 year timeline--the last recorded burning was in 1741, when thirteen people lost their lives.

If we expand to include subjugation of indigenous peoples in Mexico by the Spanish, the last recorded burning was in 1732. All of these are well over two hundred years ago.

This part of Mr. Tran's piece simultaneously over and under exaggerates the plight of atheists through the ages. Yes, there were many historical periods where it was dangerous to be an atheist--but for myself, as an American, I feel fortunate to live in a place that does not have a history of state-sanctioned violence against those with no religious belief.

On the other hand, that legacy of violence and suppression are not over for nonbelievers in many parts of the world. Bangladesh, for instance, has had an epidemic of violence against atheist bloggers this year. Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in jail for daring to write about progressive causes (like women's rights...) because they said it weakened religious belief in Saudi Arabia. In Badawi's case, he is "lucky" that he was not charged as an apostate, because that carries the death penalty. These are just a handful of cases, but they make it clear that there are many areas in the world where it is still incredibly unsafe to be an atheist today. Are these people also mindless followers?

What am I doing with my life now? Nowadays I’m no longer an atheist. I do believe in something, an origin point, a beginning—call it creator if you may. I don’t know; I don’t know what I am actually. I will leave you all with Albert Einstein’s words on religion: 
“I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws only dimly understand these laws.”

I am truly glad that Mr. Tran has found some peace with his beliefs. It does sound that his lived experience was depressing, and honestly, despite the fact that he kind of insulted all atheists, I feel nothing but compassion for that struggle. I've lived it too, even if it brought me to a different conclusion.

I'd also like to share with you all with some quotes from Einstein about religion, because his views on it have been studied extensively:

Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order... This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as "pantheistic" (Spinoza).

And:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. 

And:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal god is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

And:

I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. ... It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it, and that is all.

And:

My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.

If I could be bold for a moment, and offer Mr. Tran some advice, I would say this: You seem to have written off atheism without taking the time to explore it. I'm not sure if that's an accurate presentation, but the thoughts you've presented here do not lend themselves to a balanced view. They are simply too general and, in some cases, inaccurate. Rather, they read like you've decided against atheism because of atheists you've encountered, and you've looked for ways to justify that, throwing in a couple of quotes from intellectuals to make it seem more balanced than it is.

You don't need to. Atheism isn't for everyone. There are many who claim it is superior to other philosophies, especially religions, but for me, I can only say that I find it superior to my previous state as a religious believer. For others, it may not be an improvement at all.

I strongly encourage Mr. Tran to step outside of the realm of New Atheism and explore other avenues of thought within the philosophy. I know the struggle; New Atheism was my introduction to atheistic thought also, and it felt...abrasive. Even hostile at points. Matt Dilahuanty really summed this up well for me when he said (and I paraphrase), "I didn't suddenly become smarter by leaving religion." The me who believed was the same as the me who stopped believing.

There are many areas where being an atheist is dangerous. Even in our own nation, there are areas (like the one that I live in) where people who don't believe don't feel comfortable sharing that. My area is overwhelmingly Christian; there's a church ostensibly on every street corner. I worry that my atheism will affect my children--that they will be mocked or bullied in school, or ostracized by their friends. My spouse can't mention his lack of belief at work for fear it will hurt his career. This is the world we live in, right here, in the United States.

Don't write off our experiences, Mr. Tran, simply because they differ from yours.

My email signature is a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: "I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom." That's my wish for everyone. I hope Mr. Tran's exit from atheism has left him with that freedom. Best wishes.

Final note: I encourage everyone to not take my word for it--check out Mr. Tran's piece here and give The Cougar Chronicle some traffic, eh?

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