Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Atheism, and Why I Don't Much Care

I wanted to write a post about the interactions between atheism, secularism, naturalism and humanism, but after multiple tries in which the atheist paragraph just got far too long, I’ve decided to make that a post of its own.

So, atheism. I am an atheist; I have a profound lack of belief in the supernatural in general and god in particular. But what I kept finding myself wanting to talk about was how boring that was, which I realize is an odd topic for a blog post, but that’s the way it goes.

So, first off, I think atheism, qua atheism, is largely unimportant. Not irrelevant, and not worth making a fuss about, because I’ve certainly been known to do that, but just low on my list of priorities. I realize I’m likely saying this because I happen to be an atheist, but I think that for how important the potential for god’s existence could be, it really isn’t. The vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time as if god didn’t exist. We spend time eating, sleeping, working, talking, breathing. We have daily needs to fill, and no one, including god, is going to do it for us. Whatever your conception of god, that’s a lot of time in which he/she/it’s really just not that relevant. And I happen to care very deeply about all the things that go on in my and other people’s lives, and so to bring god into that discussion is to go off point.

Secondly, atheism isn’t a worldview; it’s a truth claim about the universe, and not a particularly interesting one at that. As I said, I think people spend most of their time as if go didn’t exist, and to be perfectly frank, the universe spends just about all of its time acting as if god didn’t exist. The god hypothesis is a truth claim that not only lacks evidence but is, in many cases, unfalsifiable. As a scientist, that gives me a reason to chuck it right out the window, even if it might be true. Following directly from those two facts, whether or not you believe in god is mostly up to what’s going on in your head.

This means that I generally find movies, books, blog posts and conversations about the existence of god boring at best and meaningless at worst. Generally, intelligent thinking people either believe in god, or they don’t. Anyone who’s spent time in the blogosphere has likely come across more arguments for and against god’s existence than they would ever like to, and even the great theologians don’t have ideas all that different from those you’re likely to find in any religious forum (see here). As a result, the question isn’t very exciting. You’ve either thought about it or you haven’t, and if you haven’t and you want to enter the atheist or religious community, you should, and if you have, you’ve probably made up your mind pretty firmly.

Even considering that, though, whether or not you’re an atheist doesn’t say a whole lot about you. Because it’s a negative, rather than a positive, at most, you might be a committed rationalist, but then again, you might not. Most qualities atheists have, theists have, too. I mean, obviously, as people, we all have a lot in common, but there’s even more than you might expect. I know fiercely rational believers (who I tend to believe aren’t applying their rationalism correctly, but whatever), and largely apathetic atheists. I know secularist activists in both camps. There are pro-life atheists and pro-choice theists. I still think that PEARLism (physical evidence and reasoned logic) ought to come about everything, but there’s really no simple dichotomy, and as a result, saying you’re an atheist just isn’t that descriptive. Nonetheless, because I am, in large part, the intersections of my attributes, and I am a committed rationalist, and I think visibility is important (see below), I do describe myself as one.

Even though it’s not that important to me, the atheist issues, even those that are specifically, narrowly, about god’s existence, still ought to be part of the public conversation. I’m not saying that those movies and blog posts and bus campaigns aren’t important and useful. At all. They are instrumental in a variety of ways. For example, though it’s not supposed to be polite dinner conversation, I’ve found that a lighthearted or even quite serious discussion with someone about their religious beliefs can have some extremely positive effects. I feel closer with them, having discussed something so meaningful (to them, anyway), I feel as though I may have broadened their horizons, and it’s also kind of fun, at least for someone like me, for whom the question doesn’t really matter. So on a personal level, those conversations are a lot like ones about whether evolution is true. Largely already decided by the general community and more importantly, the scientific community, but a potential source of conversation nonetheless. Also possibly fun to pointlessly debate on internet forums when bored.

I also think that visibility is very important. I was brought in a mostly secular household, though I did go through some measure of a deconversion process, and I’m mostly surrounded by people who are either atheist or know and accept that I am. So I realize I don’t have quite the perspective on the issue that those who have endured discrimination and the like as a result have. For those people, and for the atheist community at large, and to make waves in mainstream culture, the visibility that comes from the books and the blogs is very important.

My point is only that there are way more interesting and pertinent things to talk about. I know all of the statistics about how trusted atheists are in America, and I’ve read the George HW quote about atheists and I’ve seen the youtube videos about small town rural America and the discrimination that goes on there and I read about the political race between Elizabeth Dole and Kay Hagan, and I still think that atheists, as a whole, have it pretty well off. If you’re going to be marginalized, this is probably a good way to do it, especially as most atheists are white males. Now, this in and of itself is a problem, and I know that black atheists have a lot to contend with in the black community and all such things but still, overall, not the worst oppression in the world. So if we’re going to talk about religion, instead of talking about how hard it is to be an atheist, let’s talk about how the religious problems in America, and how those affect everyone. Freedom of speech issues as regard the Westboro Baptist Church. Prayer in schools. The appalling state of sex education in this country. Faith based funding. Religion in general as a social phenomenon, and how the institution affects everyone in the society. How much respect ought to be afforded religion versus faith versus religious figures in public and in private. Humanitarian work and missionaries. Condoms in Africa. The role of progressive religion in the progressive movement. These are all atheist issues, but they’re broader issues, too, and leave room for alliances that might not be made if we just think about the beliefs in our head and not how they work in practice.

Intellectually, too, I find broad, sweeping debates largely unsatisfying. Liberal vs conservative. Socialism vs. libertarianism. Relativism vs. realism. Those can all be fun and important, but the shades of gray and the need for abstraction and thought experiments is really where the meat of intellectualism lies. So whether or not god exists is way less interesting than, say, the role of free will in Christian and secular philosophy ( see: C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell). Whether or not theology is comparable to fairyology (as Dawkins once quipped), with proper suspension of disbelief in the name of sheer intellectual inquiry, it can be an illuminating discipline for people of all philosophical tendencies.

For all these reasons, and more, I find, for myself at least, that while I appreciate the need for the debate, and while I hope it remains in the public consciousness, unless I’m just looking for something to agree with, I think that atheism, as a description, is pretty low on my list.

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