On Atheism

As I see it, here are the options:

  • Gods exist.
  • One true God exists.
  • There is no God.

Have I left anything out?  If so, please advise.

The range of beliefs within those possibilities is broad and I cannot speak to a large swath of that range.  I know that some civilizations have professed official belief in multiple gods, each with defined realms, but I don’t have personal experience in actually believing in such a system, so I can’t speak with authority on that.  (… unless you count the Trinity, but that’s not the way non-Unitarian Christians view it.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the triune nature of the same God, not three different gods.  …  Ahh, never mind.)  Similarly, I can’t relate to the concept of the afterlife belief in reincarnation except to make jokes about it.  It’s not very respectful of me, I know, but reverence has seldom been a priority of mine.  If you are offended, I am sorry.  That’s not necessarily to say I’m sorry to say what I have said, but rather I’m sorry you are the kind of person who is offended by what I say.  That is truly regrettable.

At the same time, I don’t personally relate to other monotheistic religions.  I was raised as a Christian and remain one to this day.  I do not know what it is like to believe what a Jew believes or what a Muslim believes.  I might be more able to relate to Jews than Muslims seeing as how Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew (a liberal Jew, as you well know), but the divinity of Christ is sort of a big deal for Christians.  But here’s the thing:  If each of the Abrahamic religions, or any other monotheistic religion, operates on the premise that there is but one true God, it stands to reason that we are all worshipping the same God.  There are not multiple gods; there are not any false gods, save for human-created concepts that we put ahead of God (e.g., money, power, football, sex).  There is just one God but multiple names for that God and multiple understandings and interpretations of the nature of that God.  Yahweh (unless it’s Jehovah) and Allah: the same God.  Yahweh and Allah cannot really be in competition with each other since only one God exists according to monotheistic faiths.  What I don’t relate to, then, is not the concept of one true God, but rather the varying interpretations of said God.

Similarly, I do not relate to all interpretations of the nature of God within Christianity.  I believe I have clearly declared that fundamentalism causes me to bristle.  Claims of literal interpretation or inerrancy of scripture are untenable.  I do not embrace the practices of speaking in tongues or snake handling.  I have never been Roman Catholic, so things like transubstantiation and infallibility and salvation through good works (as opposed to salvation by grace) are foreign to me.  To my way of thinking, a pope is plenty fallible!

For that matter, the notion that half the population should be excluded from the clergy has become nothing short of ludicrous to me.  If women should not be pastors (or priests, rabbis, imams, etc.), why are so many women gifted preachers and ministers?  How did God screw that up by gifting members of the wrong gender?  How is it possible — in this millennium — that possession of male genitalia and the capacity to grow facial hair are prerequisite to speaking from a pulpit or comforting a grieving widow?  I would argue that having male genitals could be downright detrimental to effective ministry.  Need I name names?

But I digress.  My point is that my perspective on God is shaped and limited by my upbringing and experiences.  Accordingly, I claim no expertise in matters of faith outside my own, if that.  Which, at long last, brings me to atheism.

I have not embraced atheism, but I sometimes find it tempting.  I sometimes think it would be easier to be an atheist, to train my understanding purely on reason and logic.  In all honesty, I don’t fathom any religion able to exist or operate strictly within those bounds.  Religion requires departure from reason at some basic level.

Now, when I say that I think it would be easier to be an atheist, that is not to say or imply that atheism is in any way equated with intellectual laziness.  Far from it!  Atheists I know tend to be on the upper end of the intelligence spectrum.  Furthermore, I understand and respect their outlook.  I presume that they have all followed the paths of their own lives, used their own experiences and thought processes, weighed the idea of the existence of God versus the non-existence of God, and come down on the side of non-existence.  Some believers may find that to be baffling or even threatening, but I don’t.  In fact, I think I understand it.

For me, God is sometimes problematic.  Things have happened in my life, in the lives of people I love, and in the lives of others, that make me wonder what could possibly be God’s purpose.  When I was fifteen, I was visiting my same-age cousin when he died in front of me.  One moment he was sniffing a non-stick pan spray from a plastic bag and the next moment he was convulsing and turning blue, and I was running to get help.  Why?

My younger brother died in my home.  One morning he was getting prepared for going to work, and later I was pushing open a door against which his body was propped, only to find him non-responsive, discolored, and stiffened.  Back when he was born, he was the joy of my life.  I finally, finally had a brother instead of a fourth sister.  As an adult, he was my fellow liberal in our family of origin.  Now he is gone.  Why?

My daughter, at age twenty, was diagnosed with brain cancer.  She was a poised, charming, intelligent, socially conscious young woman with a versatile and beautiful singing voice, and she had just completed her sophomore year of college.  She habitually got in the last words, “love you,” whenever parting company with someone dear to her.  She was widely adored and had many, many people praying for her.  But after a five-year battle punctuated with incremental decline, she died.  Why?

Does God have a purpose for these deaths that can only be perceived as too young?  I understand that God’s ways are beyond our mortal comprehension and we cannot know what they are, but that is far from comforting.  And that does not reconcile easily with a compassionate, merciful, loving God, a God in control of all things, or even a God that grieves with us.

So it is tempting to believe that the significant too-soon deaths that have affected my life are random godless events.  There is no significant meaning to them, these things just happen, and there is no God for whom they have purpose.  It is tempting, indeed, to let go of God.  But I cannot.  If I let go of God, then I let go of the idea of Heaven and the afterlife.  If I let go of Heaven, then I let go of those who have died before me; they are gone and I will never be with them again.  How can I let go of my daughter?  I’d sooner sell my soul.

I enjoy the humor of comedian/political commentator Bill Maher.  I have attended tapings of his show on HBO and enjoyed the program for years.  If you know nothing else about Maher, he is an avowed non-believer.  He even produced and starred in a documentary, “Religulous,” which set about questioning (even mocking) religion.  Many people of faith find the views he expresses to be disrespectful and insulting.  And so, they respond in kind.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  Maybe it’s Maher who is reacting to the disrespect and insults of the believers toward his non-belief.

Earlier this month (February 2012), a conservative guest panelist on the show asked Maher why he had to be insulting toward people’s beliefs.  It occurred to me that the question could have been stood on its head:  Why do many conservative Christians define religious freedom as the freedom only to believe as they do?  Why are so many averse to extending religious freedom to, say, Muslims?  Does freedom of religion (or from religion) only extend so far?

Maher bristles at those who say that atheism is a religion.  “No, it’s not,” he says.  “It’s the opposite of religion.”  He is correct.  By definition, religion relies on the belief in God or of gods.  How does one go about worshipping a not-God in whose existence you do not believe?  What atheism and religion have in common is that they are beliefs.  Also, my belief in the existence of God and Maher’s belief in the non-existence of God are equally irrelevant to the fact of God’s existence or lack thereof.  Neither of us can prove whether or not God exists.  Whatever evidence we think we have proving or disproving, no volume of evidence amounts to proof.  We can only believe; we cannot know.  And it matters not how many others take one side or the other, or whether the number is growing or shrinking.  I think whoever might, one day, succeed in proving or disproving the existence of God would become one of the most celebrated persons in all of history.

Further in Maher’s defense (as if he needs my defense), he does not come to his position from a dearth of exposure to or knowledge of religion.  He is well- versed in the Roman Catholic Christian faith.  It’s simply that, on balance, he has rejected it.

Also this month, presidential candidate and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) said that President Barack Obama’s beliefs were based on “some phony theology, not a theology based on the bible, a different theology.”  By a reasonably sane extrapolation, I can presume that Santorum would similarly find my theology suspect.  Fair enough, I’m not a Roman Catholic.  I feel unbound by official teachings of the Catholic Church.  (For that matter, I am not particularly bound by the official positions of my own church.)  So Santorum called Obama’s theology bullshit.  Back atcha, Rick!  For that matter, many Christians consider Mormonism, Judaism, and Islam to be bullshit.  (Especially Islam!)   And vice-versa.  We people of faith are capable of speaking respectfully of other faiths or of other sects within our respective faiths, but deep down we tend to reject competing theologies, doctrines, dogmas, and orthodoxies as bullshit.  So how is Maher’s characterization of all religions as bullshit more insulting than Santorum’s slam on President Obama’s?  And why, weighing one against the other, should Santorum’s win the day?  Shall we suspend the First Amendment of the Constitution for this particular instance?

Personally, I don’t want Santorum imposing his religious and/or moral views on me or anyone I know.  Likewise, I do not seek to impose my religious views on anyone.  I will not try to persuade a non-believer to become a believer.  I will not proselytize, in accordance with the Golden Rule, any more than I invite Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries to come knock on my door.

Maybe when we die, as atheists believe, we will simply cease to exist.  Or maybe I will meet Bill Maher in Heaven!  Who knows?  Maybe Jesus died for all sins and sinners.  And if God wants Maher in, who am I to argue?  I am not God, so I don’t get to decide any more than you do who is in and who is out.  Therefore, I decline to speculate.

So does one true God exist?  That’s what I believe, and I will believe that until the day I die.  Or until the day I don’t believe it; whichever comes first.  And if I come not to believe, I reserve the right to change my mind back.  I guess the thing for me is that I hope God exists.  Like faith, hope exists outside the realm of reason.  I cannot make a logical case for it.  However, persons wiser than myself have put great stock in faith and hope, for whatever reason.

A Lesson Learned Later

Mary was, without doubt, the prettiest girl in my sixth grade class.  She sat at the front of the row nearest the classroom door far to my right.  She is not the main character in this story, however.

On one of the few memorable days of that school year, Mary had become upset.  A sexually suggestive note had been passed to her from behind, and she properly gave the note to the teacher.  Two boys who sat behind her in her row were identified as suspects for having written the note.  Each, of course, denied having done so and both were sent to the office to be questioned by the principal.

One boy was Craig.  Craig was a pal of mine, and while he was not such a close friend as to come visit me at my home, we did things together at school.  We played football at recess.  We both were in the band, he playing the trombone and I the trumpet.  Brass guys.  He was well-liked by others in the class, too.  He was just a good guy.  People liked Craig.  The other suspected boy, Terry, did not have the same popularity.  He was fairly new to the school and had not really hit it off with the other kids.  He was gangly, disheveled and, to be honest, unattractive.  He was often disruptive and in trouble.  He would do and say things in class that would make the rest of us roll our eyes and shake our heads.

The interrogation must have gone on for hours.  Much later in the day, Terry returned to class and we learned that Craig had been suspended for writing the note.  But we knew that had to be wrong!  Clearly that could not be so!  Craig must have been worn down from the questioning; he must have given a false confession just to put an end to it.  Terry, conversely, liar that we just knew him to be, must have held firm to his fabrication, causing Craig to feel pressure to take the fall for writing the note that had upset Mary so.

At late-afternoon recess, I joined a group of kids that ganged up on Terry.  We didn’t believe him.  We cursed him.  “We know that you wrote that note!  Why don’t you just admit it?”  Our friend, the good guy, Craig, was being punished for something that the villain, Terry, had done.  If Terry didn’t get the righteous consequence of a school suspension, we would make him pay the social price.  Thusly, Terry was shunned by his peers.

But as it turned out, Terry didn’t write the note; Craig did.  When Craig returned to school from his suspension, he told us so.

I wish I could say that upon hearing Craig’s confession, a flood of remorse came over me.  But that’s not true.  I was still angry with Terry.  I did not want my friend to be the guilty one.  Maybe today a lewd note would not shock and upset a girl as it had Mary.  Maybe sixth graders being suspended from school is no longer considered a big deal.  But it was back in 1968-69.  And, I was not ready to accept that Craig – my friend, the good guy – was the creep who had inflicted pain upon Mary.

Now, with the perspective of an adult, no longer a sixth-grade boy, I realize that the villain in the story was actually me.  I was the creep!  Mary was the innocent victim; the teacher took appropriate action, the principal suspended the right guy.  Terry had done nothing wrong, save perhaps having passed the offending note forward from Craig toward Mary without having looked at it.  Even Craig, though belatedly, eventually told the truth and accepted his righteous punishment.  But I judged.  I judged without mercy.  I judged falsely.  I discriminated.  What I did to Terry was wrong and unjust.  Terry did not deserve our scorn.  My scorn.  I wonder now how we made him feel.  How I made him feel.  I am so, so sorry.  It’s rather late for that now.

But hey, Terry was judged by a jury of his peers, after all.  And the too-tall, gangly, freckly, unkempt guy with crooked teeth, beady eyes, and odd behavior was probably the guy who wrote the nasty note.  Right?  Right?

No, not right.  And even today I have to guard against that way of thinking because it’s so easy to slip back into it.  It doesn’t serve the truth.  I wonder if there are other people out there who have been falsely accused of something because of the way they look or act.

Many years after the incident, the lesson I learned is this:  Just because I believe something — no matter how fervently and deeply I believe it, no matter how many other people also believe it – that’s not what makes it true.  Truly, I can believe something that is utterly false.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that I learned that lesson the hard way; someone else paid the price.

That’s what I learned in sixth grade, the lesson that took years to sink in.