Why Would I Not Want To Believe?

A discussion I had on twitter the other day went along the lines of me taking my usual stance, that I am unable rather than unwilling to believe in god while my opposer was adamant that I had actively chosen to reject god out of some sort of spite or bitterness based on my previous experiences. It can be difficult to argue against someone who supposes they know what you think and why, not only because their opinions of how you formed your views have already been decided but also because they almost always seem to patronisingly put your views down to negligence during your upbringing or teenage rebellion that you never grew out of. Without knowing someone personally, one cannot truly know anything about someone and it is very difficult to see another’s position without using the murky glasses that cloud one’s own judgement.

The debate continued and he again accused me of knowing the truth of god deep down but asserted that I was choosing to suppress my inner beliefs, again some sort of extended teenage rebellion, to which I responded that I could not think a single valid motive for suppressing that belief. Why would anyone make a conscious decision to not believe? I can’t think of one. Some of you may be reading this and thinking ‘I chose to be an atheist/believer on ….’ and to that I would respond by telling you that may be the day you realised your feelings but it was no more a choice than it is was for you to choose that stealing is wrong. One can certainly make a choice (I don’t believe in free-will either but that’s an entirely different argument) to learn more about a religion, one can choose to act in a pious manner and one can choose to profess a belief in any divinity (or political point of view) but actually believing what you say you do is not purely a matter of choice. Think about it, when did any of you choose to reject Vishnu? You’ve probably never been a Hindu because you know very little about Hinduism but even if you do, it’s never been presented to you in a way that is eminently believable to the point of relegating all other belief systems to the incredible (sorry to any of you who are Hindu but I could substitute any other god/religion in its place and the argument still stands).

“What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite” – Bertrand Russell

The point remains as to why anyone would choose to reject a religion they actually believe in. I can understand why a person would decide that the way their church or congregation was practising was wrong or incorrect and would change denominations as a result but this is a different point. To reject the entire notion of a god you actually believe in while in full knowledge of the consequences would seem to be a quite ridiculous position to take, surely only a sufferer of mental illness would condemn themselves to eternal damnation willingly? Of course many believers will insist that this is exactly what I and others like me are doing by refusing to acknowledge the divine inspiration contained within their holy texts but this is clearly not the case. Nobody who believes to the point of ‘knowing’ rejects god.

This goes back to my point in the first paragraph, the believer can only see my point of view through their own eyes. In order for them to openly reject the notion of god, they would have to be acting in rebellion, whatever they may say or do they would never actually stop believing, that would be unthinkable. Any worldview that doesn’t include an inbuilt presumption of god’s existence is incomprehensible to anyone with a strong, unwavering faith in god. They may be able to understand the frustrations felt by oppressed minorities around the world and the violence this can generate, they may be able to appreciate the ‘good intentions’ of people who worship in a way they find idolatrous but they cannot understand how anyone can live their life without any input and guidance from god or gods messengers. Of course this is not true for all religious believers but I have had contact with many who do fall into this description, unable to fathom why I express the opinions I do about their beloved god. ‘Why don’t you just go around killing people then, if you don’t believe in god?’ Is one that I’ve heard several times, I’m not going to justify it with an in-depth answer here but I think we all know that dietary and other ritualistic laws aside, morality is not god-given.

Does any of this mean that I am sitting here in mental agony, yearning for my teenage faith in god to return so I can continue on my path to heaven? No, anyone who wanted to believe but was unable would have to consider why it was what they wanted. Why would one want to believe something that was by definition unbelievable (to them)? Is it a fear of death or Hell that causes a desire for faith? If a person truly fears what will happen to them when they die, they have not lost faith in god per se but are just worried that they may be worshipping the wrong one. This fear is wholly understandable when considered through the mindset outlined in the last paragraph but is not compatible with actual atheism. Any of the reasons that are sometimes given to explain the consoling and comforting nature of religious belief in times of mental hardship can work equally well with any delusional mindset, there’s no reason to choose a religion for mental support. I have found that it is learning about religions and their history rather than any specific atheistic texts that have brought me to and reinforced my current belief system. The more one learns of the facts, the closer one gets to the truth, at last that’s how it’s supposed to work.

I always say I’m not unwilling to believe in god but am unable. I also think that both god’s existence and also our belief in him are unnecessary now that as a society we have matured enough to be able to take the first tentative steps on our own without the reassurance of our imaginary parent’s hand to guide us.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

On Blasphemy

I am regularly accused of blasphemy. Instead of trying to communicate my ideas through a comment box I thought it would be easier to explicate my understanding of the word here. Blasphemy is a term commonly used to describe an apparent crime that was originally outlined in the 10 commandments given by Moses to the Israelites but it seems to mean different things to different people and is taken far more seriously by some than others. It has, in the modern world, come to mean and unnecessary use of the word ‘God’, including the shorthand ‘OMG!’. In most Western countries this is not seen as either a crime or a social faux pas, although many people still find the mocking of religious figures offensive and distasteful despite the lack of criminality attached to it. However, in many conservative religious cultures, especially Islamic ones, any mocking or negative depiction of god can attract severe penalties, even death in some cases. Before criticising the notion of blasphemy I thought I’d try to define what it is by using the books from which the law is derived:

“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” – King James Bible
“Do not use my name for evil purposes, for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name” – Good News Bible
“Do not subject GOD’s name to your casual swearing, that you may appear righteous, pious, or to attain credibility among the people” – Qur’an
“You shall not take the Name of Adonai Your God in vain, for the Lord will not clear the guilt of one who takes his Name in vain” – Torah

Clearly I don’t speak Greek, Arabic or Hebrew and have relied on the translators involved for the veracity of their translations, the first two are ‘official’ translations that have been published, the latter two are reliant on the websites I used, please correct me if you are aware of a better translation of either. The Good News Bible is often criticised for its uniliteral translation used in order that its reader may find it easier to understand, the differences are clear here, with the emphasis on ‘evil purposes’ rather than simple everyday misuse.

In order that a notion of blasphemy be derived from these laws, one must first establish what is meant by ‘in vain’, is it to be equated with the ‘evil purposes’ of the Good New version or the ‘casual swearing’ of the Qur’an? The follow-up ‘that you may appear righteous, pious, or to attain credibility’ adds extra significance for me as it gives an indication of how the author of the text perceived the misuse of the name of god in the context of his environment. While many historically Christian societies have decided to define blasphemy as an unnecessary use of the name of god, a much broader definition is evident in the Qur’an and many Jews to this day refuse to utter the name of god in any context. Who is right in this matter? Aside from the fact that I don’t believe god exists so I couldn’t really care less if his name is used in vain or not, I’d like to say that all the books are pretty consistent while their interpretations may not be. However, the differences in interpretation are merely quantitative rather than qualitative, the essence or spirit is the same it is just the degree in which they differ.

Personally, by using the four texts quoted above, I would describe the notion of blasphemy as being one of using the name of god in order that your speech may be given added weight when its use is not needed or required for the point to be intelligible. This would of course include saying ‘Oh God!’ when you stub your toe, or texting ‘OMG! I can’t believe you got the job!’ – Most religious believers would be with me so far. I would also include anyone who attributes any apparent good fortune or luck to an act of god as being blasphemous. ‘God saved me from dying in that car crash’ and ‘God healed my cancer’ aren’t so far away from ‘OMG! I can’t believe you got the job!’ and there is no evidence of divine intervention in any of those statements despite the regularity with which one hears them (or similar). To be so vain as to purport to have knowledge of god’s will merely from observing the outcomes of events you have been unable to predict is, in my opinion, the very essence of the notion of blasphemy. This does not of course stop at positive events, we have all heard people saying things like ‘Aids is a punishment from God’, which is being presumptuous even for a fundamentalist. Anyone who describes themselves as a believer and/or member of one of the three Abrahamic/monotheistic religions of which the ten commandments are a part, should not be declaring their ability to describe any earthly (or cosmological) occurrence as an act of god without realising the hypocrisy of their declaration. I would extend this still further to those who extricate their own personal morality from the bible by quoting arbitrary verses that fit in with their own opinions. ‘Gays will go to hell’ is really just an extension of the above definition of blasphemy.

To deny the lay population the ability to use the name of their god in an anything but positive or praising manner is how blasphemy laws have been used to deny free expression or belief in all monotheistic cultures since the dark ages. If a person knows that they will be punished for merely expressing an opinion that some part of a holy text may be factually inaccurate or morally deviant, they will be far less likely to do so. To know that they cannot even utter the name of their god outside of prayer is oppressive the extreme and while the laws on blasphemy have been relaxed in much of the modern world, there is still an underlying, nagging feeling among many people that open criticism or mocking of not just the established church but of god himself is in some way taboo and should not be allowed. These are not feelings that have come about from an actual learning of the ‘sacred’ text the they feel needs protection, they are feelings left over from a childhood of loosely shrouded Christian (or Islamic/Judaic) indoctrination. A relic of being told that god and his words need to be treated in a different way to other things, that the normal societal rules need not apply.

I would not class myself as a blasphemer, even though I do not recognise it as a crime. To use a name in vain is one thing but I only ever use ‘god’ as a descriptive term to describe either a psychological phenomena or a character from a book (unless in quotes), I give the word no more import than any other in either my thought or my speech. If a word has no special significance attached to it and by using it one is not trying to add gravity to one’s argument, the word has not been used in vain, hence it is not blasphemous. That is not to say that some who do attach special significance to ‘god’ will not be offended by my views or will not think that what I have said is blasphemous but it is only blasphemous when seen through their eyes, not mine.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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