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April, 2001, Volume 8 Nr. 8, Issue 92


AN ATHEIST ANSWERS

 by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

Lately, I have been asked questions and presented with assumptions about atheism. So many misconceptions were apparent in these that I decided it was prudent to respond to some of them here. As usual, I hope to create at least as many questions as I answer. A FAQ format seems simplest, in case you wish to scan for YOUR query, but I hope you read this in order, because my case for atheism builds throughout. Since this is a conversation that has been as unending as my life so far, a few thousand words will be insufficient to the topic. I am not trying to "convert" anyone, by the way. Your responsibility to your integrity and your intellect is yours alone.

You deny the existence of God.

You believe there is no God.

I know that God is real, and you can’t prove I’m wrong.

Atheism means "without belief in god(s)". That’s it, plain and simple. A shocking number of assumptions are made about atheism, and so it has become a sort of inkblot test of a word, with folks unthinkingly projecting interpretations on to it. And as in an inkblot test, the impressions well up from the places in the brain passively informed by culture, structure and personal history.

I do not "deny God". To do so is to assume a first premise that there is a god to deny. I make no such assumption. Invariably this one has been presented to me with a capital-G. Therefore, I am being told I deny a particular god, one called "God". This "God" is the favored deity of the one attempting to define me. My stock responses include "Which god? Define it for me and I’ll tell you what I think." Few people are asked to actually define their god; even those evangelical Christians who feel compelled to defend God to me do not first define it. There is an assumption that I know – that everyone knows – whom he or she means by "God". This when Christians argue, sometimes viciously, about what "Christian" means. And there’s solid evidence for the existence of Christians (and Muslims and Democrats and Atheists) but none for gods.

I do not believe there are gods, that is, any supernatural conscious beings that run the show called reality. No creator, lawgiver, higher power, prime mover or cosmic consciousness do I believe in. There may be gods, but I have no reason to think so. There may be invisible, intangible unicorns in your pocket, and I can’t prove otherwise. But I am not the one making the assertion for the existence of gods (or unicorns, if you are of the faithful of the Church of the One True Horn). Lack of belief in god/s is not the same as belief that there are no god/s. This is not a clever word game. The first is a negative assertion, but the latter is a positive assertion, "there is/are no god/s". I do not hold such a position because it is indefensible. I cannot prove the non-existence of a thing. When a theist tells me I can’t prove there is no God, I agree. Then I let them know that it is their job to prove that God is, because they are making the positive assertion.

I am atheist and agnostic. Agnostic means "without knowledge", in this case, without knowledge of god/s. Since many definitions of gods include "unknowable", and separate from the phenomenal world, I cannot be said to know gods, but nor can the theist in that case. When someone tells me they know God is real, I ask for the evidence. What I am offered have run the gamut from biblical quotations to a flower to pity that I "know Him not" to tales of "miracles", but I am never given evidence. I have been told that those things ARE evidence, but I challenge the presenters that they themselves are unlikely to accept such shoddy evidences if the topic is different than God. Hearsay and emotional appeals and wishful thinking are good enough for much of our day to day choices, even big ones. I am in love. Can I prove it to you? No, but it is good enough for me. I can wish god-lovers would limit themselves thus, and not insist that I agree with their beliefs, but wishing (or praying) doesn’t make anything so.

You don’t know what you’re missing!

I have noticed an interesting pattern. For two decades we had no television. Because our culture is so bound with the box, it was not uncommon for our viddylessness to be casually exposed in conversation. When someone used TV references and I didn’t get it, I would explain that my cluelessness comes honestly:

"I don’t have a television." A simple statement. Yet the reactions were fascinating:

"I only watch PBS."
"I use TV to zone out when I’m really tired."
"There are some very good programs on the   History Channel, very educational."
"Oh, you’re missing some good stuff."
"What do you DO?"
"Can’t you afford a TV?"
"What are you trying to prove?"
"What a Luddite!"
"How can you deprive/isolate your kids?"

I have found that reactions to "I don’t have a television" and "I don’t believe in god/s" are quite similar. Folks get defensive about their television habits, and they get defensive about their god habits. Why is this? I did not attack anyone else’s way of dealing with these two icons of culture, yet the reaction was swift and often surly. I have been accused of denying my children of something of great importance, isolating them and causing social stigma, cultural deprivation, eternal wrath. I am pitied for missing out on the wonderfulness of the Mass and the mass media. And the equation of both public television and church with "It’s good for you" is about as appealing as cod liver oil. Neither atheism nor an avideo status are value judgements of themselves. I am a critic of the form and content of most incarnations of both television and theistic religion, however.

I have opened my heart to God/ I know God…

The argument of direct experience is a source of comfort for many. Unfortunately, an emotional, internal, subjective experience not only proves nothing, but what is a person to do with such "revelation"? Usually one wants to fit it into an existing paradigm. The most available and advertised paradigm in our culture for such experiences is the supernatural. And among the supernatural paradigms, the most common in America are monotheistic religions. When one tries to wedge a personal religious/ecstatic/conversion experience into a predigested subculture that has been designed by and for such things, there is a comforting "click" as it locks into place. This is quite validating to the individual, and a relief, since humans have evolved as social animals.

Even without a dramatic, subjective, Road-to-Damascus event, people easily convince themselves that they have a personal link to a god. Since most of us have been swimming in the sea of a culture which equates godliness with goodness, and where the existence of a god is presumed, it is a rare person who does not claim such status almost as default, fitting many feelings and events into the pervasive myth of God.

"I know God" is a conceit based upon love and curiosity and the intense desire to know, whether it is about God or dead relatives. The feelings are often the same ones that lead others to science, but science does not have the emotional social community that religion promises. This is not to say folks who use science and intellect to understand the world are asocial or antisocial. After all, most professional scientists profess some type of theism. But they may not need such an all-encompassing social construct as religions often provide; some religions are so complete that people find no need to go outside that cocoon, but submission exacts a high price.

You hate God
You are angry at God

When one has no belief in any god, this is a non sequitur. There is a common myth, a favorite among evangelical Christians, that atheists are angry at and/or hate God. Well, this is just silly, but it is an article of faith among the faithful. As I wrote in these pages recently, a good and kind man, upon hearing I am an atheist, had an immediate comeback, "An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God and hates his guts." This is nonsense in the precise sense of the word. (Besides, does his god actually have "guts"?)

If you only knew the gospel…

As if you are about to tell me something new, as if I haven’t heard/read/studied the Bible; I don’t live under a rock, and like many atheists, I was raised Christian. Bible study has led many a Christian to question their assumptions. The same goes for any fabulous doctrines that are taught as literal truth, rather than metaphor or poetry. I think Biblical literalists are denying themselves some of the beauty available in that generally sloppy and silly document. And I think that only conscious intellectual dishonesty can lead one of the few who actually read the entire book to claim it as comprehensible and internally consistent. A lot of other books share those same flaws, but few claim to be divine and perfect.

By the way, if I seem to focus on Christianity, it is because I am rarely asked any of these questions by non-Christian theists. And, yes, we have exposed our children to many religious teachings and ideas. In a house with 4000 books, hundreds deal with religion, mythology, spirituality and philosophy. Also science, psychology, sociology, politics and lots of novels, plays and poetry.

You’re not really an atheist; you’re too nice/loving.

Another non sequitur, which seems to be based on some nasty assumptions about atheism. A glance at some on-line English dictionaries reveals how the term has been used: "infidelity", "wickedness" and "immorality"! I am too nice to be an atheist if it means those. This "Oh, but you’re too nice to be an atheist" is said with good intentions, and I always say "Thank you" before I gently correct the assumptions.

 Why are you so close-minded?

I would argue that the believer is close-minded rather than me. By subscribing to one belief, or set of beliefs, about the god-idea, a theist is closed to other possibilities. Since the most successful memeplexes often include punishment for not believing or even for questioning dogma, a closed mind is the theist’s safety net. Skepticism is the human open-mindedness and questioning that has led to science. The supernatural is a cheap and unsatisfying answer, which never answers anything, and, in fact, closes doors to real knowledge. (See Metaphoria, http://www.metaphoria.org/ac4t9510.html, "Skepticism and Cynicism", and http://www.metaphoria.org/ac4t9603.html, "Faith and Fraud")

You worship Science. (And the false prophet, Darwin)

Everyone believes in something! You believe in the air you’re breathing, right?

And if I didn’t, would I asphyxiate? The existence of air doesn’t depend on my belief. Does the existence of your God depend on yours, or mine or anyone’s? If there is a god, my lack of belief makes no difference.

I was at the Vermont State Fair, wandering around among the display and vendor booths. One vendor, seeing my Darwin Fish lapel pin, asked me, "So you believe in evolution?"

I found it an odd question. I told him so, and said evolution was not a matter of belief. Evolution simply occurs, and has for millennia, which is why we can stand here and talk about it. He could not understand how I could possibly believe "that all this - trees, birds, humans - could just come from chance". I cringed inside, and wondered how he could be a college grad and have such a wrong notion of such a simple and important theory as evolution by natural selection.

As we talked about the products he and his wife were selling, I became more dismayed at their lack of knowledge about the most basic principles of how the world works: they were distributors for a super-oxygenated bottled water. Of course there was some "proprietary process" by which this water contained, and maintained even after opening, hundreds of times more oxygen than regular water, so when you drank it, your cells would get more of what they need: oxygen. My simple questions, "How can it be that this stuff is bottled in regular poly bottles, not under pressure?" and "Wouldn’t you get much more usable oxygen to your cells simply by taking a few deep breaths?" were answered unsatisfactorily. I was told that the "scientists" who designed the product understood all that, the vendors only knew that "it works".

I do not think these were deliberate snake oil charlatans, I think they were multi-level marketing dupes, hopeful and helpful and sincere. They were not unintelligent, but their critical faculties were probably undernourished, a common malady in our culture. Alas, their friendliness and belief did not validate the product; it was still snake oil, or snake water. I don’t "believe in" evolution, and a couple hundred years ago, no one had understood or named it, yet evolution occurred. The vendors do "believe in" the efficacy and uniqueness of the fancy water they sell.

At issue, then is the "leap of faith". I can make intellectual and poetic leaps. I am a versatile singer and can make vocal leaps. Such leaping is part of an agile creative mind. Provisional leaps, temporary assumptions to guide the development of hypotheses, are an intellectual tool of great value. A leap of faith, however, implies that one is willing to forgo critical thinking for wishful thinking. To some, faith in unproven and/or unprovable assertions is easier, and psychologically safer, than saying "I don’t know." When you have an economic and emotional investment, as the snake water vendors do, then the leap of faith may reinforce your sense of integrity. The cognitive dissonance that would be created by holding two mutually exclusive assumptions, "I am an honest person" and "I am peddling overpriced water by dishonesty", can be eliminated by just changing one of the assumptions. Some folks are consistent scoundrels, classic snake oil salesmen, "I am a dishonest person and I am peddling overpriced water by dishonesty". More folks in the pseudoscience distribution business are not scoundrels, but true believers, "I am an honest person and I am honestly offering this wonderful stuff."

This issue of cognitive dissonance is significant in the study of meme theory as it relates to human beliefs. Perhaps a future essay will explore memetics. For now, I encourage interested readers to go to Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett. As for evolution, which only a small, loud, minority of theists disputes in its entirety, I suggest Richard Dawkins’ "River Out of Eden"; short and elegant, and beautifully illustrated by Lalla Ward, this is my offering to all those theists over the years that have suggested C.S. Lewis’ "Mere Christianity". Lewis’ Oxford cred and various logic-based arguments are supposed to open the eyes of egghead atheists. Alas, he builds his arguments on undefended premises throughout, and it is an awkward apologetic. The clever Lewis should have stuck to lit crit, observances of Oxford’s unique sub-culture, and Narnia. And, no, I did not like his plodding science fiction trilogy, either, though I never bothered to actually finish it.

Why be open about your atheism?

(Isn’t that dangerous? Doesn’t your car get vandalized? Isn’t it harder on your kids in school?)

It is a sad commentary on our culture that it is considered dangerous to be an open atheist. Who would physically threaten us? In my experience, the same small, violent group that shoots abortion providers, beats GLBTQ folks, Blacks, Asians and anyone else they perceive as subhuman. For the most part, atheists are not at physical risk (yet), but the risk of being verbally abused, disowned and isolated for their atheism is still high in the U.S. I personally have no fears on this issue; if someone is going to assault me for my atheism, they are still more likely to do so for my other identities and notions, such as queer rights and pro-choice. I have a family who loves me, and even if a couple of folks in my extended family still think I am going to hell, most of my relatives are atheist, agnostic and/or theists of a kinder god.

My car has lots of bumper stickers, including:

"CU (Civil Union) in VT"

"Civil Union: Strengthening ALL Vermont Families"

"People Before Profits"

"God is Just Pretend"

"Atheism: It’s Not What You Believe"

"Support the Theory of Evolution: 400 Billion Amphibians Can’t Be Wrong"

"No Gods, No Masters" (classic anarchist slogan)

"Vermont Veterans for Peace"

(and both a Darwin fish and a Phish fish)

If someone were to vandalize my car based on bumper stickers, how would I know which one set them off?

Of course our children’s welfare is important to us. So is their integrity. They will not learn to deal honestly with the world, where some people will hate or fear them for who/what they are, (be it atheist, pacifist, queer, vegetarian, female, intelligent, short, strong, whatever), unless we, their parents, deal honestly and openly with who we are.

Schools in this country are a socially conformist, artificial environment. Some kids thrive in this odd culture, some simply survive it and some do neither. Being an individual within a culture that brutally enforces conformity, as do too many of our adolescent school societies is not easy. Our children and we have, each on his/her own, chosen the freedom of being intellectually open, and where we see injustice, active dissenters. Raising our children in a home where "What will people think?" is a very minor consideration, where debate and discussion and reading and thinking are expected, and where we love each other, they have blossomed as happy, complex, distinct people.

They have stood up to discrimination in their high schools in both formal and informal ways, leading to safer environments for the entire school community. There is still a long way to go.

  2001 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

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