With even the title of this blog I wonder how many people will bother to read it. It’s still not popular today and can even leave a bad taste in the mouth of some people that I know to be quite intellectual given the pomposity of many atheists today. However, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about atheists and I also wanted to sort of describe my personal journey, and then in two additional posts talk about what annoys me about what people think about atheists and also even make some complaints about atheists that are often seen on public forums and social media. So for anyone who chooses to read this, I thank you.
I tend to start with the bare bones, but I think this time I would like to start more personally. Nevertheless I think it is worth starting out by simply defining the term atheist as I see it and will refer back to this definition later. Theism is belief in the existence of a deity or deities. The dictionary definition also adds in things like someone who believes in a god or gods as being responsible for the universe and also having a personal relationship with his/her creation. The last part is arguable, as many might say that someone who believes in a god who sort of just passively watches is also a theist. The word atheism thus simply put is the lack of a belief in a god or gods. The best analogy that I think can be used to describe theism vs. atheism is to say it is the same as between symmetry and asymmetry. Something is symmetrical or it isn’t. Someone believes in a god, or they don’t. Now on with the story.
As I have told many friends in the past, my questioning of religion happened well before my questioning about God. So I’ll start with religion since this tends to be tied with the concept of a God, but certainly doesn’t have to be. As a biracial child I am fortunate to have both sides of my family love and respect me. And it is this love and respect that first raised doubts in me that religion had some problems. Not that I could think intellectually about it as a child, but I remember thinking:
“Here are two sides of my family from completely different cultures and they were born into two very different stories about spirituality and God (Christianity and Sikhism), and they both seem to love me very much. I saw them all as good people.”
When from the very outset of your life you know good people of two different faiths it tells you that goodness is not something contingent upon a particular faith. And as I grew older and learned more about the faiths in particular, it seemed clear to me that since both stories can’t be right, then both stories must be wrong.
Certainly also having an impact on me is when I gave my heart to Jesus Christ, because I was told that if you prayed hard enough it will happen. Not sure why they tell kids that, but in retrospect I think it is quite cruel. So what did I want? I wanted my alcoholic dad to not drink. I think we can all agree that this is something pretty normal and somewhat virtuous for a kid to pray for. On top of that it’s something that I kid will pray for pretty hard; really hard actually. I was in lock, stock, and barrel. I was 12 at the time so I can remember pretty vividly what I was like. Still being a kid, when the heart of a child decides to do something there is no hesitation, no doubt. He believes. Kids believe with so much more certainty and of course that is how a kid’s brain is designed; to take in information regardless of its truth and believe it. So for a good year, I prayed and I prayed. Well I am sure you can guess the outcome. When the religious people you know tell you that something is true and it is not, it feels like a betrayal and it is hard to believe them again. And when you ask them why it doesn’t work, either they have no answer or they tell you “just to keep having faith” or in the worst case they tell you “it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough” or “God only listens to boys who are being good Christians”. This is a terrific message isn’t it? Now it’s somehow your fault that your dad is still drinking. Children of alcoholics already internalize their parent’s drinking and this reinforces it at the spiritual level.
At this point I am going to skip over a lot, because it would require going over all that I have learned in school and in life, and it’s a long story. I simply wanted to explain the things that I thought were important in sending me on my path towards atheism. It was a long journey and for most of my 20’s I still believed in God but sort of formed my own definition that I was comfortable with. It was peaceful in some ways to believe in a God because it was helpful when things were out of my control I could simply say to myself “It is in God’s hands”. At some point though you realize you are using God as a tool for your own peace of mind and so I had to say to myself, “Well Swarn, what does all that you’ve learned about the world and its history really tell you? There is no god.”
With that being said I knew that I was in a very unpopular spiritual position in this world. It’s not something that I cared to share because I didn’t even feel intellectually equipped for the possible confrontations with people who were worried about my soul. I felt I needed to get even better educated. Since then I have delved into more books about anthropology, evolution, history, psychology in trying to understand the nature of belief, and also trying to understand how the brain works in general. When I add this to my formal education that is steeped in physics I can say for certainty that no particular religion had all the answers even if there was a god. I came out as an atheist around the time that I read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion as he inspired me to brave. We fortunately live in a society now where one can be an atheist and not get burned at the stake so I feel quite grateful for that. Moreover there is a lot of discrimination against atheists and while atheists feel no need to preach and thus keep to themselves, there is value in organizing and being vocal. I’ll let you look that up if you like, but suffice to say there are 6 states still in this nation who explicitly state in their constitution that an atheist cannot hold government office. I even came out to my mother who is a devout Christian. She has always given me freedom to by my own person and I thought it was better she know who I truly am than to think of me as illusion. I also do not want to try to imply that as atheist I face the type of discrimination that homosexuals face for who they are, so when I say “came out” I make an analogy only in terminology not in circumstance.
Stay tuned for Part II
10 thoughts on “Atheism Part I”
I, too, am slowly transitioning towards atheism. This excerpt from your post summarizes why I have given up on theism, “It was peaceful in some ways to believe in a God because it was helpful when things were out of my control I could simply say to myself “It is in God’s hands”. At some point though you realize you are using God as a tool for your own peace of mind . . .” In short, I find it as a tool of ignorance to lean on a deity when in fact, I am still uncertain if it was God or just myself that made it work. I am not implying that I am a God, but I would not be surprised if studies found that there is some sort of psychological edge knowing that God is on your side, so to speak.
I recently argued with my friends wife (who is a bible toting holy roller, in my opinion) and she attributes everything that happens, everything she does, and everything that will happen to God’s love and everlasting mercy. I simply believe ignorance is bliss when it comes to religion!
If you watch the you tube video I post in the second part, he refers to a 2009 study that actually shows that when asked questions about divine views and their own views, the very same area of the brain was activated. This study is also referenced in the book The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.
When I get around to reading parts 2 and 3, I will comment accordingly!!
Haha…no worries. I just wanted to let you know that there are actually studies describing the very problem you described in your comment. 🙂
“There is nothing more irreligious than self-absorbed religion.” ― J.I. Packer, Knowing God
No doubt, religion is a big obstacle for those who want to know God.
To be pedantic, I would argue atheism is the belief in a lack of gods rather than a lack of belief in a god or gods, which I think most people would consider agnostic.
Lastly, although you realized that since what your parents believed was mutually exclusive, they couldn’t both be right, that doesn’t mean that they must both be wrong. That being said, I remember a talk that I think was given by Richard Dawkins, and his answer to anyone who asked how he couldn’t believe in the existence of God was, “I just believe in one less than you.” Of course, that doesn’t work with Hindus, but Richard Dawkins is no theologian, so I won’t hold him to too high a standard of accuracy. I think he makes a good point, however. Anyone who chooses a god, (Hindus, pantheists, and polytheists notwithstanding) does so at the exclusion of all other gods, past and present. Considering many of us inherit that choice from our parents, it looks a lot like roulette. The great roulette circle of life. I made that up. You can use it if you like.
It’s true that they can’t both be wrong on the existence of God, but I was more talking about the religion itself. As you pointed out it is a roulette wheel as belief systems are often inherited by the parents or culture in which one grows up. When you add that to the history of religions itself and see that many stories from each religion are borrowed from older belief systems the idea that any one religion has got the entire story right sort of defeats the purpose of an all loving God. Now my cousin on my dad’s side said once that he saw that religions are just different paths to God which means than any individual story is not meant to be taken literally but inspirationally. I can accept that to a certain point. It seems interesting to me though that God in any particular religion sort of seems to prefer the people in that area, seem to think how the people think, of the world and events described only seem related to a particular geographic region. If there is a God that God is not only for the Earth but universal. Thus no religion can be literally right. If you rewound evolution to before our species developed you would find that all the scientific principles we have discovered up to this point would eventually come about again, religions would have also developed, but the stories, places, characters would be completely different. There maybe natural reasons for believing in a supernatural being, but the particulars of any religion are a creation of man. The nature of God, even within the bible changes from sort of a mean vengeful God, to a peaceful. No religion can even agree on God’s nature so to even suggest that there is a God, at least to me, requires some agreed definition of what God is.
I still disagree that atheism is a belief in the lack of Gods. Not that there aren’t some atheists who might depend on belief to support their position. I however do not. It’s part of the reason that I simply doubt young atheists at least from an intellectual standpoint to have learned enough about how the world works to evaluate the evidence regarding beliefs. I’ve read a lot about how atheism and agnosticism have been defined in literature and the best definition that I think both fits with historical definitions and also the literal definition of the word is that atheism is a behavioral position and that agnosticism is an intellectual position. Behaviorally, as I said, I live my life as if there was no God. Intellectually I am agnostic in that I cannot not disprove the existence of a God. I think that I am pretty well equipped, however, to disprove the idea of a personal God who takes a vested interest in the personal lives of people, but philosophically one can never prove a negative. As many atheist scholars have argued the onus is not on me to disprove the existence of God. The onus on theists to prove the existence of God. If belief is the only way that God can exist (which currently that is the only way God exists) then I can throw anything into the world and say I believe it is true and therefore it is. That is the idea behind the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nobody can disprove that such a being does not exist and more for the same reason nobody can disprove God’s existence. For me to conclude through inductive reasoning that either of those being exists evidence has to be presented. I am fully willing to entertain the idea that a God created the universe, but if it’s not a personal God then my belief is not requirement for God’s existence. There is no proof of additional planes of existence, heaven, hell, or an afterlife. The only existence we can be sure of is this one, and a personal relationship with God is not contingent on the universe continuing to function and physical laws behaving, it is not contingent upon morality which also evolves and changes. Most arguments for God involve deductive reasoning which means that God’s existence is assumed a priori. And any argument for a supernatural being that I have heard doesn’t necessarily imply it’s the Christian one, the Jewish one, that it’s only one God or that it’s a personal God. Again going back to the wide disagreement both today and historically on the very nature of God. On the whole I find the idea of God to be a fascinating one and one that teaches us a lot about the nature of humanity.
Interestingly, by your definition of atheism, a lot of self-professed Christians could be considered atheists.
I don’t disagree with that at all. But the last thing I want to do is go around to a bunch of Christians and tell them they are more atheist than Christian. Although I do quite enjoy pointing out when someone acts or says something in a way that isn’t very Jesus-like when the claim to be Christian. 😉 In the U.S. that is most republicans who are heavily Christian and most of the fundamental Christians and yet still don’t really want to help the poor or the sick.
Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend that. I’ve never understood why in most areas of life fundamentalism is the removal of the extraneous and non-essential and focusing on the core, but when it comes to religion the opposite is understood. It doesn’t leave much room for someone who really is a fundamental Christian. No doubt this mislabelling is some ploy perpetrated by the liberal media.
Haha…that’s true. I actually prefer the term extremist over fundamentalist. Although I guess it’s a bit more of a confusing picture for religion. The old testament advocates things like slavery. Is that a fundamental part of Christianity? I’m not sure, but it certainly was at some point.