Monday, 30 April 2012

Interview with an Atheist: Part Two

How does it feel to be an atheist?

My own answer: "This is an awkward question because it sort of has two answers, one personal and one in relation to the rest of the world.

Going about my business in everyday life, my non-belief in gods affects me in exactly the same way that your non-belief in the Loch Ness Monster or aliens that probe people in Nevada affects you; not at all. It doesn't take any effort on your part to disbelieve in Odin, Ba'al or Antevorta; it's even possible you haven't heard of all of these, and even if you're familiar with them there'll be thousands of other gods and deities you've never come across. How does it feel to not believe in them?
In this sense, asking what it feels like to be an atheist is almost a moot question, because the answer's the same as how it feels to not believe in magic or fairies or astrology; you don't believe it's real so it doesn't matter to you. However, the reality of being an atheist in this age is that you're a minority and that people form all sorts of strange opinions of you based on a non-belief that – to you – is no more significant than their disbelief in ghosts or voodoo curses or unicorns is to them.

Reactions I get when I tell people I'm an atheist vary hugely, but complete acceptance is rare.  Even among other non-believers, my open declaration of disbelief can be seen as reckless, aggressive, unnecessary or undiplomatic - although most arguments I've had about religion have been with believers, a fair few have been with atheists who think I'm being obdurate or disrespectful just by stating, in effect, that I think religion's a load of rubbish.   In a weird sort of way, some religious people can actually be more accepting than other non-believers; I'd love to think that's because they feel less patronised by an atheist willing to have the discussion than by an atheist who thinks their position so foolish it would be mean to examine it, but in truth I don't really know what causes this disparity; it could simply be a personality thing.

There are more negative reactions from believers, though, and those can range from defensive and outraged to outright hostile.  I've been called everything from "whore" to "murderer" just for stating I don't believe in gods - sometimes without even getting into a discussion about it at all.  Some religious people think I'm inherently evil, unfeeling, joyless, loveless, nihilistic, even dangerous - and they get all that from the word "atheist".

Unfortunately, religious people are still a majority over non-religious people, which means that in some ways the rationale of my position doesn't matter; it doesn't matter how intellectually and factually defensible atheism is, it's still unusual and therefore weird.  The best way for me to sum up how it "feels" to be an atheist - at least in relation to such matters as politics, ethics, education etc. - is an unattributed quote I read on facebook a little while ago; being an atheist feels like being the only sober one in the car, and no one will let you drive."

Tim's Answer: "I guess I've always been a little mistrustful and skeptical of religion, and I HATED religious classes as a child. Then again, I hated school, period. In first grade (catholic school) the nun told us we had to squeeze ourselves over in our chairs to make room for our "guardian angels." That was the beginning of a long, drawn out, fall from grace.

Realizing that I was gay years later did little to endear me to this "god" concept, but I never really declared myself an atheist outright until I was well into my thirties. Before that I would have called myself "spiritual" and left it at that.

I can't really say it FEELS anything at all. It aggravates me when people - either in my family or in public - say stupid shit that I feel obliged NOT to comment on. It's also good to know I don't have to worry about an afterlife.

Sometimes it aggravates me to get into arguments between atheists and theists where the theists have the stronger point. I feel almost obligated to support the atheist even when they're wrong.

Also, sometimes I get tired of the so-called debates. I spend months at a time wishing people would discuss anything BUT religion."

Sunday, 29 April 2012

A New Series: Interview with an Atheist

As some of you know, I've been working for a while now on what I thought was going to be a long blog post about the more common questions and objections atheists from believers - obviously I've been compiling my own thoughts on the matters, but I've been asking for contributions from other atheists as well because it's always valuable to have other insights.  And as we all must get sick of saying, all atheists have in common is a single unbelief - one can no more speak for another than one unbeliever in pink unicorns can speak for another unbeliever in pink unicorns.  It's become clear that this project is going to be a lot longer than anticipated, so rather than leave my blog for any longer than I already have (I am ashamed), I'm going to post it in stages.  Comments, as always, are welcome, and if there's a question or objection you get all the time that I haven't covered yet, feel free to mention it; I can either move it up the list for inclusion, or write it if it's a new one, or repost your own take on answering it.

I'll start with a simple one, but will add more in days to come.

Questions for Atheists: Part One: "How did you become an atheist?"
My own answer: "This is a question that will elicit a different answer from every atheist you ask, and some might not even understand the question as they may simply never have been otherwise. Very shortly I'll pass on a couple of accounts I got from other non-believers, but for the time being here's a brief outline of my personal experience so that's out of the way and you know where I'm coming from.

I was brought up to be a Christian; my parents weren't very devout but they sent me to a Church of England primary school because it was the best in the area. It was a small and slightly posh school, and we sung hymns and said prayers every morning at assembly as well as learning about Jahweh and Jesus in our lessons; to me, this stuff was simply fact just as I was learning that 2 + 2 = 4 was fact, it just wasn't in my makeup to question what adults were teaching me. We also had regular trips to the parish church, so although one thinks of the C of E as a rather moderate and undemanding organisation there was quite a lot to take in and a lot more saturation than you might think looking at it from the outside.

At home, my parents didn't exactly reinforce what I was learning at school but they didn't contradict it either; I was allowed to conclude that what my teachers and the vicar were telling me must be right. I was also, of course, exposed to the belief of my friends and their parents; these ranged from people who made no reference at all to Jesus or to the Bible in my presence through to one family in particular – the matriarch of which taught me to play the flute – that was so severely religious as to be genuinely very intimidating to me. The lady who taught me to play the flute troubled me especially. because from what I had been taught a Christian was inherently a good, kind person and the more Christian the better; this woman was the most devout Christian I had ever encountered, but she scared the crap out of me and not for no reason. Bluntly, she was not a kind or even a pleasant person, and I became thoroughly confused trying to reconcile this with the notion that because she prayed a lot and spent half her life in church she must be; I ended up trying desperately to ingratiate myself to her, probably only irritating her and making her more impatient and hectoring towards me.

Anyway, partly because I grew up in a small, almost exclusively white and Christian town in Yorkshire and partly because my memories of my childhood incline me to be astonished that I didn't bounce off walls through sheer doziness, I had not the smallest inkling until I was about halfway through primary school that there was any debate at all about the accuracy of Christianity – or, in fact, that there were any other options available or any other ways of thinking.
When I was in year three (that's seven to eight years old) we studied a module on the Hindu faith and on Diwali, the festival of light. As this was only primary school it was not, of course, a detailed or particularly nuanced examination of the topic, but nevertheless the revelation that other people in other countries (yah – that was how Olde Worlde this little town was) believed in other gods was to me a bolt from the blue. Even as a rather dopy and pitifully na├»ve child I was taken aback by the condescending tone with which my teachers taught us about this new and strange religion; there was a distinct air of “of course we know better because we're clever and educated, but we have to be nice to these backwards people who believe these things and not laugh at them”.* As any reasonable person would, I started to wonder why what I “knew” to be true was intrinsically any better or more true than what another person “knew” to be true. After all, until this point it had been my understanding that everything I'd been taught about Jahweh and about Jesus was simply empirical fact – and yet here I was learning that there were people in the world who didn't believe a word of it, and in fact who believed something completely different and contradictory.
My thoughts on the subject didn't progress much further at that point; this new idea that perhaps believing in Jesus wasn't quite as concrete and universal as I had thought just sort of lingered in the back of my mind, but I didn't have the intellectual capacity or the world knowledge to do much with it at that age.
When I was about nine something happened that was utterly trivial on the surface but which had mental and emotional effects on me that – eventually – changed everything. There was a game that my younger brothers and I liked to play in which one rolled a die and selected a piece of a cardboard fish according to which number came up (this sounds a lot stranger now I come to describe it than it did at the time). There were several fish of different colours, and each was made up of four parts; when all the parts had been chosen, the player with the most whole fish of one colour won. On the occasion in question, I was playing the game with my mum and the younger of my two brothers; the game was almost over and I needed just one more roll of a particular number – I can't remember which – to complete a fish and win the game. We were playing on the carpet and when it came to my turn, the die rolled under a cupboard; I chased after it and picked it up before anyone else had chance to see it. It hadn't landed on the number I wanted, but I lied and said it had; I've never been a good liar, and my mum obviously picked up on some “tell” I was displaying because she looked at me very closely and, after a moment's pause, asked if I swore to God that the number was as I said it was. I didn't know what that meant, so she explained that swearing to God was the same as making a promise to God, and that to lie or to break a promise to God was a terrible thing. Looking back I don't know quite what made me do it – given that at the time I still believed in Jahweh and all that – but after a brief moment of indecision I told mum that I was willing to swear to God that the number I rolled was the one I needed. She accepted this promise and I won the game.

That night, though, when I went to bed, I couldn't stop thinking about what I'd done. I was frantic with worry and guilt, and I remember praying so God would hear me and just apologising again and again and again. I couldn't even tell you exactly what I thought was going to happen to me, but as a child my imagination was both vivid and literal and the possibility of being burned alive forever and ever was definitely a concern. Looking back on the misery I felt that night and for some time afterwards, I cannot understand how religious people can know that a certain deed or activity – be it theft, or adultery, or drinking alcohol or eating certain foods – is against the rules laid down by the god/s in whom they believe, know that there are penalties for doing those things... and then do them anyway. To me, this seems no less unaccountable than knowing about gravity and then stepping off a tall building and expecting to hover or fly.

For a long time after this (my memory of the experience suggests it was months, but common sense tells me that I was a child and it was probably mere weeks at most – the truth is that I can't be sure) I prayed a lot more than had been my habit, and eventually my apologies and self-recrimination changed to agonised pleas to God just to give me some sign that he was there and that he could see my suffering. For a while I thought the lack of response meant that God had seen what I'd done and abandoned me, then I thought that maybe he just didn't care, but gradually this changed and I began to think that maybe he wasn't answering me because he just wasn't there despite what I'd been taught.

Over this same period I was, as you might expect, thinking a great deal more about Jahweh and Jesus and heaven and hell than I had in the past. I also tried to ask some of the adults I trusted about it, although I never dared confess to anyone the lie I had told to God. At this point my faith was seriously crumbling and I felt like a complete freak, like there was something wrong with me; I honestly thought I was the only person in the world who had ever experienced this, it was the loneliest feeling imaginable. It seemed from my perspective at the time – and it's a difficult concept to put into words – that what I had been taught was no less true just because I was struggling to believe it and that the problem was with me, that there was something wrong with me; my own thoughts had turned traitor against me, and there were moments when I felt I was going mad. On one occasion I worked up the courage to speak to the Vicar when he was visiting the school – a very bold act on my part, as he appeared in my eyes a terribly revered and important person. I tried to explain that I didn't understand how everyone was so sure about Jesus and God, and although he listened patiently enough I cannot imagine what would compel an adult to give the reply he did to a frightened child. He told me that if I didn't believe what I'd been told, I would be separated from my parents and from my brothers, that I would be cast into hell all alone and that I would never see any of them again. He didn't specify that this would happen when I died, and I managed to get the impression – which I assume he didn't mean to create – that this exile was imminent, that I might be torn away from my family at any moment if I continued to let my faith waver. Here, again, was someone telling me that to believe was a simple act of will, that I could simply choose to believe what I'd been told regardless of whether it made sense to me – and now I knew the punishment for failing to do so, because the vicar of all people ought to know how God would punish me for my disloyalty.

Not long after all this happened, my family moved to another part of the country and I spent my final year of primary education in a new and far less religious school. In retrospect this was a good thing for me as it provided a distraction; I was quite a shy child, and this bashfulness combined with my funny accent and general failure to be in any way cool meant that I had a lot of trouble fitting in – it wasn't pleasant at the time, but I wouldn't change it because it taught me a lot. After a year at my new primary school I went onto a very large and almost totally secular secondary school, and without the daily ritual Christianity finally lost its hold on me and I stopped worrying about it.

For many years after this – well into my teens – I was, I suppose, agnostic; I no longer believed in the Christian god but I sort of thought there might be a god of some sort out there somewhere, although I didn't feel the need to worship it or even try to understand it. I couldn't tell you when this finally changed to outright atheism because I don't know myself; as I got older though, and more inclined to look around the world and think about how things are, I've found that more and more bad stuff and less and less good stuff can be attributed to religion. If you're religious as I once was, the positive or negative effects of religion on the world are almost of secondary importance because they don't change what you perceive as the fact of God's existence; but to me, because I no longer believe anything in religious scripture has any basis in fact, it can be difficult at times not to become depressed by the amount of influence those scriptures have on our lives, even on those of us who don't share the beliefs."

*Incidentally, I feel this is a good time to mention that I am not old and we're not talking about a “different era” here. I left school in 2002.

David's answer: I came out of an evangelical Christan upbringing, and was a pretty strong believer until around my late 20's or early 30's. But there were always things about it that I was either not comfortable with, or that I felt were flat-out wrong. In retrospect, I think that I was almost destined to end up as an atheist eventually.
I think the fact that I was never all that emotionally attached to Christianity probably made me a lot more receptive to new ideas and realizations as they came along. I was one of those more "logical" Christians who felt that their beliefs had a solid rational basis. And since I thought it was all true, I followed it as best I could (which was not terribly well.)
At some point, as my new realizations began to pile up, I decided that I would settle the matter and I bought and read tons of books about science and religion in order to educate myself. And I came out an atheist about 4 or 5 years ago.”

Mike's answer: “If there was a “Eureka!” moment that started the ball rolling it was around 5th grade in parochial school when the religion teacher drew a circle on the board to illustrate the continuity and eternity of god. For some reason it just did not make sense. I asked her why what she drew was supposed to be continuous when she clearly had a start and end point in drawing a circle on the board. Rather than a satisfactory answer and after some discussion this earned me a trip to the principal’s office and a meeting with the paddle.
The lecture on how scientists buried fossils in order to fool the masses and test the faith of believers did not help much. Particularly since it came shortly after my first trip to the Smithsonian of Natural History with my parents. I had a rather jaundiced eye toward religion from there on out. I don’t really have a moment when I finally said “I’m an atheist” but rather a confluence of events that left that as the only intellectually honest position.”