Since expressing my dissatisfaction with various -isms seems to have become one of my hobbies, let’s take a look at atheism.
Before getting started, I think it’s important to point out that I’m not what would generally be considered a religious person; I don’t believe in the literal truth of any supposedly sacred text (though there are probably some truths within them), and I am cool with science to the extent that I understand it (which is a caveat maybe more people should acknowledge.) I also don’t conceive of a traditional Godlike figure looking down from the sky, who is both omniscient and omnipotent, as part of my world view. I was raised Jewish and even went to Hebrew school, but the extent that I still practice the religion, if at all, is done out of a respect for my parents and my ancestors*; not a literal belief that the rituals actually function as advertised.
To put it another way, I sit around the table at the Passover Seder every year because my Dad gets a kick out of running a Seder and I need to be his Girl Friday to sing the Four Questions in Hebrew; I don’t really believe that Elijah is coming in and sipping our wine or that God (should he exist) really cares if we eat unleavened bread and whatnot. Frankly, I don’t think my Dad literally believes in any of that either, but the subject of his faith is probably even more complex than mine, and that’s another story.
So, if I’m a skeptical, pro-science person, prone to saying things like “Man those Christian fundamentalists sure are dummies!”, why not just be an atheist? After all, I already said I don’t believe in God “in the traditional sense,” so doesn’t that mean I’m most of the way there already?
The problem is that “Do you believe in God?” is a nonsensical question to me. It’s as nonsensical as “Do you architecture about cetaceans?”, only worse, because at least to the latter I can just say “No,” with a clear conscience. I mean…what does ‘believe’ mean? It’s not a clear-cut answer. ‘God,’ even less so.
“DO YOU BELIEVE–
Let’s start with believe. What does it mean to believe in something? I think it means that you viscerally feel that something is true, not just intellectually acknowledge that it’s probably true or could be true. Some people can believe things in the absence of proof due to faith, while others can only believe in things where the evidence supports belief in said thing. This is one way of dividing believers/nonbelievers, or theists/atheists: those who need proof to believe. However, do any of us ever have sufficient proof to believe something, no matter how logical we attempt to be?
For example, I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. Most would probably consider this a belief backed by scientific evidence, i.e., a belief that requires no faith. However, I don’t know for a fact that the sun will rise tomorrow; some interstellar explosion, involving factors far beyond the ken of our current astrophysicists, could take out the solar system within the next 24 hours. Maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow, because there won’t be a sun, or the planet will be in such a sorry state that there will be no forms of life still around who would classify seeing a ball of hot gas above the Earth as an occasion to muse, “The sun has risen.” I mean, chances are pretty good the sun will rise tomorrow, one would hope– but we just don’t know.
Yet, I viscerally believe the sun will rise tomorrow. Intellectually, I know that some kind of disaster beyond human understanding could make that not happen, but it doesn’t matter: I BELIEVE the sun will rise tomorrow. I can’t not believe it. It’s a kind of faith. A lot of our supposedly rock-solid, scientific beliefs– the ones that are supposedly nothing like illogical, faith-based beliefs– are like this. There may be oodles upon oodles of evidence, but there’s still that percentage that we take on faith; we know that there’s a ton we don’t understand about nature, so we know that our current predictions could be wrong due to some unforseen factor, but we believe nonetheless.
So when we talk about “belief” in God, what kind of belief are we talking about? Are we talking about the visceral feeling in the gut, which you can feel even when your intellect tells you otherwise? Are we talking about only the kind of belief where our gut feelings and our informed, intellectual opinion overlap, which is probably optimum, but often isn’t a 100% correlation? Or are we talking about belief in terms of deciding what we’d like to believe; choosing to believe only what we rationally feel is intellectually defensible, no matter what our gut says on the matter? I wonder: when people say “I choose to believe…”, how much control do they purport to have over that process?
For me personally, while I don’t believe in the God described in the Abrahamic religions specifically (or the God worshipped in any other religion that I’m aware of), I do have a gut feeling that there is something somehow divine in the universe. Whether that divinity has a separate consciousness, or is in any way engaged with the universe, I could not say. Sometimes I think that divine factor is simply nature itself, meaning that God has no other meaning besides what can be observed in physical phenomenon; sometimes otherwise. So for me to say “I don’t believe in God,” well, I don’t know what that means; does the thing my gut kind-of-sort-of-maybe believes in count as “God?” Can I specifically say I don’t believe in something, when even believing in something in the first place is a kind of nebulous proposition?
Now that we’re done with belief (and LOL we are so not done with belief, but let’s just say we are for the sake of argument), let’s move onto God. Conceptually, the idea of God is incredibly broad. If I believe that God is simply whatever created the universe, even if that means that God is merely whatever chemical reactions led to the Big Bang, the concept allows for that. If I believe that God is some kind of pompous, sadistic asshole (which, strangely, is what most major religions seem to conceive of God as), obviously that’s allowed as well. The concept also includes conceptions of God that I can’t understand; in other words, the definition is so broad that it even includes things I am physically incapable of thinking about, so I’m not capable of determining what they are and my feelings on the matter.
What I’ve observed is that most atheists aren’t really tackling God as a concept, because it’s too broad for that; they’re tackling other people’s limited, narrow conceptions of God, and pointing a finger to say “that conception is stupid.” Maybe it is, but that’s not proving you don’t believe in God; that’s proving you don’t agree with a particular interpretation of the God concept, of which there are countless. So much energy is spend debunking aspects of the Old and New Testaments, which is pointless; that’s not engaging the concept of God in the slightest. That’s engaging with the fact that some people are narrow, literal-minded and opportunistic, and you don’t like that about them.
Which is fine– hey, fundamentalists-types who cherry pick Biblical passages that suit their bigotry (and conveniently ignore all those passages about infinite love and forgiveness and being nice to each other and stuff) annoy me as much as the next reasonably logical person. But when you attack those people and their beliefs, what you’re attacking is self-serving stupidity; God has very little to do with it. As far as I can tell, a lot of atheists don’t so much disbelieve in God as they are against the continued dissemination of the ideas of the Abrahamic religions, and feel like that requires a default, stated disbelief in God; it does not.
Also, I feel like it’s a pretty intellectually dishonest thing to do to point out one particular aspect of religion– dogged adherence to millenia-old texts that never instruct the reader to take them literally in the first place– and then say “Religion is clearly stupid because THOSE people are clearly stupid.” What about the people who believe in God only insofar as they believe God is expressed through science? Are they stupid? What about those that believe that God is displayed in the human capacity for love, yet neither require nor desire any belief in the supernatural whatsoever? Is that kind of belief in God stupid? Or, are these people really atheists at heart because they’re logical– even if they don’t want to label themselves that way and think of the broad concept of God is a valid one, notwithstanding what some dudes wrote on parchment 3,000 years ago?
Lastly, I feel like if you try too hard to kick religion in the nuts, you end up doing pretty badly by humanism too. Yes, I think it’s silly and counterproductive to literally believe in texts cobbled together millennia ago that don’t even claim divine authorship.** However, when you think about it, on a humanistic level, those texts are a pretty impressive achievement. There were no computers in those days, or even spiral notebooks, you know? If you wanted to write something down, you had to literally go out and kill a goat or something and dry its skin out. Then this information could only be shared by painstakingly copying it over and over and over again; that’s a lot of copying, and a lot of goats.
These technologically limited folks went through an awful lot of effort to share this stuff; I think just calling it all stupid is both taking it out of the context of its time and mistaking literal truth for other forms of merit. You don’t have to literally believe a single word of the Old Testament to respect that these were the stories that these people struggled to share, and contemplate the reasons why they might have wanted to share them so badly.
So, I guess I’m not an atheist because I don’t know what “believe” means, I don’t know what “God” means, and I’m not comfortable saying whether or not I believe in something (with a value of belief in this case being n) that is both so broad it defies the imagination, and could even be beyond my understanding by its very definition. For these reasons, I find the decision to self-identify as an atheist to be, perhaps ironically, closed-minded and arrogant. If there’s any solid reason to identify as an atheist rather than a rough-and-ready-for-anything, keeping-all-your-options-open agnostic, I have yet to encounter it.
*”Secular Jews” is a term that primarily seems to be used by Anti-Semites, but I think there’s a large element of truth to the idea that Jews are becoming increasingly secular, with Jewish heritage being seen more as a set of values and cultural touchstones than a religion per se. Of course, there’s Orthodox Jews, who are very much about Judaism!As!Religion!, but my personal experience has been that most Jews don’t have a literal belief in the Old Testament, nor do they consider such a belief particularly important.
**Technically, only the Ten Commandments were supposedly dictated by God, which is what makes all those “The Bible: God Said It,” bumper stickers infuriating. Even if you are a dogmatic believer, you’re supposed to believe that the Testaments were compiled by humans, who by their nature are imperfect; the Essenes were discussing that very problem, among other things, in the Dead Sea Scrolls three thousand years ago. The fact that the Bible is imperfect, even in the view of its most ardent supporters, is very old news. The Koran, on the other hand, was supposedly dictated to humans by the divine and thus God DOES claim ownership, which makes Islam in particular a different kettle of fish, but I digress.