It’s Hard Out Here For An Atheist (2014Aug31)

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Sunday, August 31, 2014              3:28 AM

Being an atheist is not easy, especially if you’ve been raised in a religious family. First of all you have to deal with this sense of lurking, just outside of your vision—that’s religion, waiting to enfold you back into its welcoming arms. Make no mistake, opting for faith is far more comforting than anything atheism has to offer. For some folks, that may even be the rational for faith—but I’m too stubborn to settle for that. I’m not going to believe in a religion as a form of intentional escapism—even if I did, the back of my mind would always be heckling me for sticking my head in the sand.

So, I began by facing the obvious—without religion, there are no rules. God is not in his heaven and all is not right with the world. If I do something wrong, no one will bother me about it, ever (unless I get arrested). But being arrested is beside the point—there’s plenty of wrong being done without breaking any laws—just as there are people being arrested, at times, who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s an unfair, tough old world—but it comes with civilization.

Civilization makes stability possible. Without our societal norms, the streets become a free-for-all. We prove this every time there’s a disaster—suddenly, a part of the people feel free to steal and fight and who knows what-all. Civilization is my friend—I depend on it to walk down the street in my town and not be afraid I’ll be attacked by a random gang of outlaws, or be afraid of getting shot in the head by one of my neighbors, just ‘cause they felt like it.

This is one of the very rare places on Earth where a self-declared atheist can do that—walk down the street free from fear—and that’s just one of the many things I love about America. Atheists are a bug in the system—if you don’t believe in one religion, you at least belong to some other faith—good people can disagree, so that’s alright. But opting out of the whole concept is a direct criticism, whether it’s meant to be or not.

I cannot disbelieve in traditional faiths, particularly Christianity, without implicitly insulting everyone I know. I accept that—it can’t be helped—truly, if I was capable of traditional faith, I’d be practicing it with gusto. I can’t do it. There’re all kinds of debating points this could lead to, but I’ve already written them all down and posted them, and they simply incite a post-modern, unfriendly debate with high emotions on both sides. The faithful have faith and I haven’t—that’s all I got.

But beyond that, I have no wish to insult the faithful. These New Atheists, with their angry, anti-Theism attitudes, are obviously suffering from a sense of betrayal—they often come from strictly religious families that have repressed their spirit—perhaps even physically harmed them. Their reaction to religion is not to simply turn away from it, as I did, but to turn on it and attack it for the remembered inflictions. Some of them are even activists because they sympathize for their siblings, still caught in what the New Atheist sees as a sort of mental prison.

I don’t know what to tell someone in that position. For me, it’s a matter of letting go of things, out of deference to peoples’ feelings. But a real dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist is more than a match for the New Atheist—neither of them care to look at the other side of the issue. This is a futile activity and I avoid it. I might get curt once in a while with an annoying bible-thumper—but that’s because of their personality, not their faith.

The biggest problem with the New Atheists is that they bring threats and hate to the party, not realizing how badly that can backfire. They may be just talking tough, but their targets, those with strictly-held beliefs, have gone to war throughout history at the slightest provocation. And no river of blood is deep enough for a man on a mission from god. So I see little good in taunting them, even if I was inclined that way.

I’ve been through some stuff, though. Back in the seventies, with the Born Again revivalists, there was one group from Maine that had snagged some friends I’d known for years. I went to a meeting on Holly Hill Lane once. I came into a room full of people, many of them my friends—they told me they loved me and would pray for me; they started praying in unison. I was very uncomfortable but I managed to say, over the noise, “Don’t pray for me. I don’t believe in God.” There was some back and forth, but once I’d managed to spit it out, the rest was easy. They told me they were sorry, but they couldn’t associate with me, or even talk with me, any more. Two of my brothers would join the same group and neither of them spoke to me for over a year.

But it was a passing fad for many of the young people who had been swept up in the first excitement of it—the daily reality was far less glamorous and most of them were soon back hanging out, their faith still intact, but their fervor substantially cooled. People deigned to speak with me once again, but no apologies were offered. I’m still nervous about public speaking, but not so much, since I can’t imagine a tougher room than those Born Agains.

Besides the adversarial aspects of atheism, there’s also the question of creation. The universe is too big for us to comprehend, too complex for us to decode, and had to come from somewhere. I accept this—it’s common sense. But I don’t look at it as proof of any institutional religion, just proof that there’s a lot we don’t know—and may never know—and may not even be capable of knowing. We are tiny specks on a huge planet, and the planet is just the beginning of all the hugeness.

I find it amusing that some hierophants will claim they know what it’s all about. The world around us is full of secrets. The universe beyond our world is full of mysteries. We’ve discovered some basics, but they are just a handful of tricks called science—science is far from finished, if it ever can be. I believe that theorizing is beneficial and that reproducible results are worthy of note and study. But I don’t believe science has all the answers—no one who truly understands science believes that—the whole point of science is to keep going, to keep trying to learn a new handful of tricks from the universe.

Kurt Vonnegut had some very funny theories about the purpose of humanity—one possibility was that we were meant to rise up to a technological height that would allow us to manufacture a special wrench that some stranded alien needed—to fix his spaceship. It’s as hard a theory to disprove as any other, and it’s funny—that’s why I like Vonnegut. ‘So it goes’, as he used to say. He also theorized that all language boiled down to one message: “I’m here. Hello. Look at me.” That’s it. As the years go by, I understand him better and better. We don’t want to merely exist; we want to be seen to exist. We want to be noticed—otherwise, we don’t fully exist.

One way to fix that is to have an imaginary someone watching all of us, all the time. But I will settle for other people, whom I see exist, as they see me exist. It’s enough. I learned there’s a name for people like me—apparently, I’m an ‘ethical humanist’, but I was what I was before I’d ever heard of them, so it’s mostly a coincidence (although, I must say, it’s nice to know I’m not completely on my own out here). Besides, they’re city folks and, while I once lived there, I learned that I can’t take the roaches—so they’re too far away for me to participate.

There is one thing atheism doesn’t change—Sundays are still boring. If only I was a football fan.

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Oh, Come On, All Ye Faithful

Oh, Come On, All Ye Faithful

The world is full of sad, suffering, bitter, frightened people—so much so that there are even those who have been ‘broken’. We once had an unspoken agreement in our society that anyone who was obviously psychotic or deeply stupid would be nudged away from any responsible role in civics or business. Not that we didn’t like them—just that we could see their behavior as problematic in any ‘position of authority’, where the broken may not see such a problem within themselves. I guess Bush, Jr. put an end to that tradition—if not his election then, certainly, his re-election—and now the floodgates of ‘stupid and mean’ have opened wide.

Additionally, we now have evangelical politicians (that used to be an oxymoron in this country) who disregard all the serious people who, for generations, kept their religion on simmer—just to avoid that all-too-easily-approached position wherein a person may choose their faith’s dogma over common sense. Not to mention this unspoken Neo-Con campaign to change America from the ‘land of religious freedom’ to the ‘land of Christian theocracy’. And how the public figures dance around this issue, being coy and arch and never coming out and saying the thing they truly believe—because they know the real world will take their bald admission of their loyalty to the church and hold it up as the childish bedtime story it really is.

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Admittedly, this issue is skewed, publicly, due to the fact that morons will shout their stupidity to the mountain-tops, but reasonable people of faith will allow for the give and take of scientific reality and mathematical truth and, more importantly, are too busy leading productive lives to make nearly as much hullabaloo as the extremists they far outnumber. But it remains a major point of cognitive dissonance in politics. While science professors in top colleges would not be reluctant to admit they’re Atheists, politicians must still keep to the establishmentarian position of ‘morals by religion’ and no other avenue of ‘understanding good and evil’.

The evangi-lantees  (you like that? I just made it up.) take advantage of this virtual strait-jacket whenever they imply that ‘godlessness’ is synonymous with ‘evil’. Most of my friends and acquaintances would scruple (I certainly hope) at describing me as Evil. Yet the holy-rolling, bible-thumper set would have me, an Atheist, be seen as a threat to my country, my community, and my family. No national candidate for high office has as yet proclaimed their atheism (not to my knowledge, anyway) yet the greatest horrors of our times—9/11, genocide, warring and bloody revolutions in the Mid-East—all these violent upheavals were perpetrated by certain people claiming religious motives or religious authority for their behavior.

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Shouldn’t the Atheists be preferred as being more objective about religious dogmas and the different cultures and life-styles of different religious groups? If we only accept some sort of Christianity in our political candidates, aren’t we enabling the evangelicals’ “Freedom of Belief as Long as its Christian” agenda. Why should we accept different views in our teachers and scientists than the views we expect from politicians? It’s a conundrum. Here’s another: Why don’t Europeans see this happening in their countries? Why is the USA the only country that sees the rise of evangelism and pseudo-Christian extremism? Is it because they’d already gotten over their Reformation by shipping all the crazies over here?

The fundamental divide between Atheists and Christians (or Theists in general) is in our ‘reality’s. True believers live in a reality where God is real. Atheists live in a reality that excludes specific faiths and precise dogmas—we see civilization as the progress (or evolution, if you will) of humanity from ignorance to enlightenment. We see the churches of today as vestiges of a time when the world had no better solution to the riddle of existence than myths. We see the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as a movement from very primitive, multi-divinity traditions into a monotheistic paradigm. This gives us a perspective in which today’s major faiths are only different from Greek Mythology in that there are still people that take their ‘myths’ seriously.

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This accounts for the accusations of rudeness, crudeness, and anti-social tendencies that Christians will often make against Atheism. They think we are insulting an actual ‘being’. And we Atheists are trying to find a way to tell adults, “there is no Santy Claus” without being condescending—or going crazy ‘banging our heads against a wall’.

This is where the idea of religious freedom breaks down—two types of adults can try to discuss their differences, but in this case we are attempting to discuss our different underpinnings of our respective realities. Truly, it is easier for Muslims and Christians to discuss their differences than it is for either of them to debate Atheists. It’s kind of funny, in a way—if I told a Christian I didn’t believe in Islam, there wouldn’t be a problem; if I told a Muslim I didn’t believe in Christianity, again, no problem. There is an Atheist joke that points out how theists disbelieve in every other religion except their own, so Atheists are just off by one more religion. Funny, but true.

It doesn’t help that ‘enforced Atheism’ was a property of the old ‘Commies’ during the Cold War—the idea that people could be arrested because of their religious practices is the opposite of religious freedom. It was one of our main points of ‘superiority’ over the ‘Iron Curtain’ countries—in the Free World, we had no limits on religiosity. It seems ironic, now, what with Islam becoming a ‘suspect’ religious group—and not just for their being blamed for the fundamentalist extremists who flew the jetliners into the two towers, but also for their apparent misogyny and their concept of sharia law (pretty much the opposite of ‘separation of church and state’.)

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As always, the differences between theist and atheist are aggravated by the polymorphism of language. Fundamentalism, Extremism, Zealotry—words that once meant ‘deeply religious’ have been transformed by Terrorism into buzz-words denoting ‘random, delusional violence’. By the extremists’ insistence on hardline dogmatism, they make life difficult for the average believer in more ways than one. Being co-opted into implicit guilt of terrorist attacks is one way. Having their beliefs extended to the furthest extreme by the fundamentalists, thus highlighting the cognitive dissonance of any faith in the modern world, is another difficulty—in that it makes the majority of a faith’s believers begin to question their choice of outlook. In other words, terrorism (never a sane approach, for whatever objective, in the first place) may have the effect of driving away the majority of a faith’s more moderate and nominal adherents. Where the churches once created communities and connections, they are now in danger of being recognized as sources of conflict.

Atheists have their own problems—in my case, it is my reluctance to change my ethics to be in line with my discarding Catholicism. I’ve been consistently troubled by this issue for most of my life—if religion is false, what are the reasons for social behavior? I’ve always preferred to be a polite person, kind and sympathetic—and I hope that I have, by and large, been so—and I also know that, at times, I have not been what I hoped. But having given up any hope of taking any religion seriously ever again, I have never been changed in my feeling of the rightness in being the best person one can be.

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But, without any explanation or evidence, I have no formulation of logic that leads to my behavior—in the Atheist’s existence, there is no true rationale for anything, for being nice, for being helpful or having any care for others, not even for staying alive. And the closest I’ve come so far is this: There is no reason for anything, but there is likewise no reason not to care for anything. It’s not much, but I’ve used it for a long time and, frankly, I’m afraid it may be the only ‘answer’ to that particular issue. In other words, for me, ‘meaning’ is a subjective thing—but no less integral to happiness, and no more changeable than another’s faith, regardless of being my ‘choice’.

At ten years old, I announced my conviction that, having thought it all over, this God business was a crock. In my teen years, I tried out several other churches services in search of a believable faith—the Bahá’í seemed the closest—Quakerism was also pretty sensible, as was Unitarianism. These other faiths appeared to be far more humane than my childhood faith, but none could offer anything more sensible than Catholicism, in terms of logic and reason. In almost all cases, another religion would be far less silly than Catholicism—but that didn’t change the core concepts—unknowable being, constant surveillance from cradle to grave, life after death, souls—all the things that in a different context would be called ‘paranormal’, perhaps even ‘delirium’. In other words, if I had been shopping for a better religion, there were several contenders. But I was looking for a religion that was true—like science is true.

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Thus I became an agnostic, still willing to entertain new evidence and different perspectives. But then I ran across the archeology of religion. I learned that modern-day faiths were evolved from earlier forms, not set in stone from day one. I learned that many religious holidays were superimposed on dates that were held sacred by pagans prior to the intrusion of monotheism.

I learned that witch hunts and burning people at the stake were as much part of the destruction of the older faiths’ perspective as they were a ‘Jihad against Satanists’. Witches were revered matriarchs in Pagan culture—they were experts in medical lore, botany, midwifery, and other important contributions to their communities. They were living demonstrations of a Goodness unconnected with the churches—and they were far more effective and successful than the newer, so-called Doctors. That made them unbearable members of society in the eyes of both the new leaders and the professionals of this new, Christian ‘way of things’.

Fraser’s “Golden Bough” was a ground-breaking book published at the turn of the last century. It cataloged the many threads that wound through civilization’s history, connecting our present day beliefs to traditions begun by far more primitive belief-systems. It is basically impossible to read that book and still take modern religious rituals as seriously as when one assumed one’s religion was ‘made from whole cloth’.

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Most troubling of all is that the book was archeological in nature—it didn’t defend or attack any specific faith. Fraser diligently searched out carvings, scrolls, parchments, temples, and historical documentation for what would become his conclusions. Worse yet, it wasn’t long afterwards that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered—an Archive of older versions of today’s Bible, displaying far-ranging variations on what was previously ‘known’ to be a single, full compendium of Christianity—the New Testament.

We may not see the excitement-factor in such musty scholarship, but to the Vatican these scrolls were a potential death-blow. They sprang into action, acquiring the majority of the ‘treasure’ and spending years in so-called translation of these bomb-shell documents. Eventually, serious people started getting impatient with this suppression of such important historical material, and the scrolls were released to public study. A library found at the Nag Hammadi (Nag Hammadi Scriptures and the Gnostic Gospels) added its own confusion to the pile-up—including one very surprising “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”!

So, maybe it’s just me but, after many years of digging to get to a truth of my own, I felt I had found it—religion was evolved from our earliest, most primitive thought-processes—our fear of death, our preference for an ordered life-style, and our curiosity about the big ‘Why’s—Why does the universe exist?; Why are we here?; Why do we live, only to die? The worship of the Sun, of nature, of animals, of father-figures in the sky—all these things were part of how human ratiocination operates. They seem natural and real, because they are the natural result of our thought-processes.

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And I had seen my own changes—as a boy, we Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays; Catholic priests celebrated the Mass in Latin; and the congregation remained silent throughout. By my tween years, the ‘no meat on Friday’ strictures were dropped—(a real blow to seafood restaurants); the Mass was performed in English; and we were suddenly being taught how to do antiphony—the ‘call and response’ portions of the Mass. It takes some strong faith, in God as well as in oneself, to make alterations to the rituals of one’s faith. To a youngster like myself, it seemed little different than saying all my study of the Catechism was just a joke. “We’re changing things around—we may change again—nothing is set in stone.”—that’s what I took away from the experience. And what is the good of belief if it isn’t set in stone? I asked myself—belief should have the same permanence as arithmetic.

That’s me all over—I took Catholicism too seriously as a kid, then I took their changes too seriously, then I took science too seriously. I have found, in my older, more recent years, that everything has a ‘balance’ to it—taking something too seriously has the effect of creating an ‘imbalance’. So I try to take things less seriously now—but it is my nature to be demanding, compulsive, and fussy, so I have little success in my attempts at sensibility.

I admit my life is worse for not having joined a faith—much of society is oriented around religion. But how lucky I was to be born in a time and place where my lack of faith wasn’t a death sentence. Society wasn’t always merely oriented around religion; it has been for most of our history as accepted-as-fact as arithmetic was—indeed, if there were to be a lack of agreement between arithmetic and the church, it would have been the arithmetic that would have been ignored.Image

The acceptance of Science as our baseline reality is a surprisingly recent change in civilization—so recent that many parts of the world still live their lives in thrall to dogmas, rituals, and mysticism. That their society and their religion are inseparable presents a problem when these far-off lands are negotiating with the developed countries—once again, the very foundations of their realities differ so much that points of contact are elusive and mercurial. And the many people in the developed world who retain their families’ faiths, but take them with a grain of salt, so to speak, are as repugnant to the true believers as Atheists like me.

In some ways, I side with the zealots on this issue—if I did truly believe in my religious precepts, I wouldn’t half-ass around about it, either. I have always had great respect for the Shakers—they believed that, if original sin was a sin, then they would never commit that sin. They lived in celibacy—the only new members of the Shaker faith were orphans and runaways adopted by the Shaker community. Still, there came a time when they were all gone—they had obeyed their God by never having children—now, that’s faith, bub! They had their own Rapture, by sheer commitment to their faith. We who remain on Earth today could well be waiting for a Second Coming that already came and went.

So, I can take the high ground here if you all are the type of church-folk who skip services during football season, or cheat on your taxes, or cheat at cards, whatever… And the rest of you—keep the faith, baby! (If that’s your thing.)

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