I have become so accustomed to viewing the world without any belief in the supernatural and to interacting, mostly but not exclusively online, with people who share the same perspective, that I feel a certain amount of surprise and disappointment whenever I hear an intelligent and educated person express belief in religion. I remind myself that I used to believe quite sincerely and I cannot expect the entire world to have adopted as skeptical an outlook as I have in just the last three years. Even so, it seems so strange that someone living in the twenty-first century in a first-world country can believe that an omnimax deity is watching over us as we slaughter each other and suffer other innumerable tragedies, that unbelievers will be punished forever for honest doubt, that you can magically obtain what you desire by talking to yourself, or any of the other absurdities taught by traditional religion. I will probably always view such belief as irrational and ridiculous, but like everything else in life, it can only seem truly bizarre if one only rarely encounters it.
When I was a Catholic, I almost never thought about the problem of evil. I must have encountered the philosophical argument at some point and resolved the issue in my mind by concluding that God must have a justifiable reason for allowing suffering in the world which I just didn't know, but I can't remember it ever being an issue afterward. Now that I'm an atheist, I very often reflect on this problem when I see someone addressing some source of suffering in the world specifically from a religious perspective; I see someone perform some charitable work out of a religious motivation and think to myself, “Why doesn't their god solve the problem itself if it's infinitely perfect? How can their god inflict such suffering knowing the pain it will cause and realizing that the majority of it simply cannot be relieved by human effort? Why can't they see how much more benevolently they act than their own master?” Believers never seem to ask themselves these questions and I know that I certainly didn't ask myself them during my twenty-five years as a Catholic. They seemed blinded by something, whether it be love, fear, ignorance, laziness or something else. In my own case, the predominant religious emotion I experienced was fear of eternal torture.
Posted at 12:30 PM
Is it truly possible for a devout believer to treat outsiders with complete equality? If a person honestly believes that their god will forever torture anyone who doesn't follow their religion, then it seems unrealistic to expect that person to treat them with any more respect or fairness than the deity they worship. If a person honestly believes that their god has specially chosen their ethnic group to receive special favors, then it again seems unrealistic to expect them to treat members of other groups with the same level of compassion as their own.
Social animals always treat outsiders differently than members of their own group and humans have more criteria than other animal upon which to mark divisions. Religion is one of those criteria along with location, ethnicity, language and culture, but it's unique among these in that it's irrational and, to a certain extent, can be moderated by education and social security. In order to build a more egalitarian society, the influence of religion must be diminished through these two means.
Posted at 9:00 PM
I have come to the conclusion that the negative perception of atheists by theists seems to result primarily from interaction with two distinct groups. The first group is what I here term militant atheists. I fully realize that this term has been greatly abused by theists, but sometimes it's a completely appropriate description of certain individuals who are aggressively antagonistic toward believers without provocation. This group is rather small, but I can attest from personal experience that they in fact do exist and that they create quite an impression on the believers whom they encounter. The second group is what I here term delinquents. It includes criminals, thugs, hoodlums, hooligans, vandals and every other variety of habitually selfish jerk. Delinquents can be theists or atheists, but they are not representative of either group because of their marked lack of empathy. Theists often wrongly interpret, however, the lack of religious piety among this group as atheism even though it indicates only that they don't really follow a moral code, religious or otherwise. I believe the reason for this problem is that moral behavior is an inherent part of the concept of religious piety in the minds of most people. A delinquent theist is often dismissed as “not really a Christian,” but no one says that a delinquent atheist is “not really an atheist” because of his immorality. In fact, I have heard the exact opposite, that someone cannot possibly be an atheist precisely because he's moral!
I think there are ways to address these two sources of misunderstanding about atheists. First, although we can't really do much to convince truly militant atheists to calm down and relax, regular atheists can make themselves known as atheists. A theist who only meets militant atheists and a theist who meets a dozen regular atheists for every militant atheist will have very different perceptions of atheists in general. Second, we need to cultivate an image of a thoughtful, considerate atheist to correspond to the thoughtful, considerate theist that people already call pious. In order to do this, I don't think we can content ourselves with just simple atheism. An atheist is anyone who doesn't believe in gods. The word atheist says absolutely nothing about their other beliefs or actions and is no more useful than the word theist when referring to individuals. We need to move beyond our lack of religion and formulate what we do believe and value. I personally prefer the philosophy of Humanism, as I have explained previously, and I identify as a Humanist rather than as just an atheist whenever I can. It distinguishes me from nihilists, from postmodernists, and most especially from delinquent atheists. It says something about my principles and it identifies me as someone who cares about reason and compassion rather than just saying that I don't believe in gods. I'm not suggesting that everyone necessarily adopt this particular label, but I think it's a good idea to indicate what you think beyond your opinion on the single issue of the existence of deities.
Perhaps some readers will disagree with my desire to see atheists and theists in the same category, but I encourage them to remember that it's only with respect to their thoughtfulness and consideration. There is still a world of difference to distinguish the two groups.
Posted at 5:00 PM
I consider myself a diligent and meticulous writer. I pay strong attention to detail, including proper spelling, capitalization, punctuation and various issues regarding formatting. I raise the topic because I want readers to be aware that my recent failure to capitalize the following words is a conscious decision, not a mistake made out of ignorance or carelessness:
I continue to capitalize God when it refers to an omnimax deity, such as that of most monotheistic religions, in order to contrast it with a god of polytheistic religions. This does not indicate any respect, only that is treated as a name.
Posted at 12:30 PM
The world is always changing, but sometimes exactly how it changes surprises me.
Although my family has always been practicing Catholics who never miss a Sunday mass, growing up none of them was particularly devout or interested in religion outside of those Sunday mornings. As described in my deconversion story, I myself started to become religious around age thirteen and this devotion gradually increased for a dozen years until my deconversion at age twenty-five, but I never noticed any of them change at all during this time. Since then, however, I have observed that several of them have become more involved in their faith.
My father, who had always seemed the least interested in religion of anyone in my family, has been participating for a few years in perpetual adoration of the eucharist by spending one hour late at night each week praying in the chapel of their church and has more recently begun reading a book about church history. My older sister's change has been less marked and is not really unexpected because she and her husband have two young children. My younger sister's change, however, is the most radical. She prays often, reads devotional books, attends daily mass on occasion, consults a spiritual advisor and is currently discerning a vocation to be a nun! I find it notable, however, that she has never really sat down and read the bible. I recommended this to her because doing that is more likely to create doubts in the mind of a believer than any skeptical book, which she would flatly refuse even to consider anyway. If she decides to enter a convent, I will respect her decision, but I think it should be an informed decision.
Throughout all of these changes, I am pleased to say that certain things have remained the same. My family still respects my atheism, never treats me any differently and never raises the topic around me. I occasionally find myself voicing criticism of religion around them, to which they don't respond, but generally try to avoid doing this. They are remarkably tolerant of my opinions, but it really bothers me that the only people who really love me also probably believe that I will burn in hell forever after I die.
Posted at 12:00 PM