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

Atheism Is Not A Religion

This week I have been trying to defend my lack of religious belief against an onslaught from various believers who seem to think it impossible to be without religion. I admit it, I usually start the discussions but it seems that the very concept of religious belief and all it entails are so ingrained in the psyche of some people that they cannot comprehend that non-belief in any divine power means anything other than just that. First you get all the one-liners (if atheism is a religion, abstinence is a sexual position etc) but they don’t really get to the heart of the matter or indeed explain the fundamental differences between belief and non-belief.

I think I need to define what is meant by religion, the dictionary I have to hand describes it as:

  1.  belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny
  2. any formal or institutionalized expression of such belief: the Christian religion
  3. the attitude and feeling of one who believes in a transcendent controlling power or powers
  4. chiefly RC Church the way of life determined by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience entered upon by monks, friars, and nuns: to enter religion
  5. something of overwhelming importance to a person: football is his religion
  6. the practice of sacred ritual observances
  7. sacred rites and ceremonies

Have a look at that list and I think you can discount 1,3,6 & 7 without any discussion, now for the others.

No. 2, is there a formal or institutionalised expression of disbelief? I’m not sure is that even makes sense as a sentence, let alone a concept. “I solemnly swear on this book which means nothing to me that I believe none of its contents” doesn’t really work, there is no basic or fundamental belief system lurking behind the facade of atheism, despite the similar opinions of those who call themselves atheists (more on that later).

No.4, I’m not aware of any way of life only open to those who reject any notion of a divine power. One may find that the ‘life scientific’ is more often chosen by those who have no religious belief but one is not excluded from any scientific position on the basis of religion, even if there is a clear conflict between the tasks of the scientist and the belief in question. It is up to the believer to decide what he or she can/will and/or  cannot/won’t do and whether or not the role is suitable for him or her, not the faculty or institution of employ. There have been cases in this country of registrars refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnerships and shop assistants refusing to sell alcohol, purely for religious reasons. Public opinion has very much been on the side of common sense in these cases. If you can’t or won’t do the job and all it entails for religious (or moral) reasons, don’t take it, it’s not up to your employer to be your moral compass, they’re there to assess if you are capable to fulfilling the role, not to check if you feel ok about it. Going back to original point however, I think it unlikely that a self-professed atheist (or indeed Muslim) would be able to find work as a vicar or imam, no matter what qualifications were held, or what previous experience acquired.

No.5 could really go in the category of quasi-religion, as it really qualifies its use when the subject in question is not really a religion at all but is being treated like one in a purely obsessive sense. One could make a case for come of the modern-day so-called ‘new’ atheists coming under this category but to say that ‘atheism is like a religion to me’, only shows that it clearly is not a religion and the term is only useful in explaining some of the behaviours exhibited around the atheist in question.

Thats the dictionary definitions out of the way, now on to the more abstract meanings. There is a sense in which all believers and non-believers are atheists, in that atheism in itself doesn’t distinguish between any particular god, gods or spirits. In believing one system to be true or real one must of course reject the validity of all others, one cannot be both a Christian while also believing in Zeus or Odin (despite our month & week names and our dating of religious festivals). The main reason the early Christian church was persecuted by the Roman empire was because of its apparent ‘atheism’ evidenced by its refusal to acknowledge the state-recognised gods of the classical world. This was also the reason why Judea was seen as a ‘troublesome province’ as opposed to the pagan tribes who had little difficulty reconciling their own beliefs with a system based upon similar lines.

Now on to the point I raised earlier and promised to return to. Any believer who has read this far may well be thinking something along the lines of: “yes, but you atheists all think abortion and gay rights are ok” or “every atheist I speak to sounds like a fundamentalist to me”. It may seem like that but it is certainly not the case. There is no fundamental or core system of beliefs that being an atheist requires. It may seem that there is a liberal bias in the atheist community but that is really rooted in the concept that empirical scientific evidence is required (not just anecdotal hearsay or opinion) before anything can be truly accepted as fact. Scientific data rarely back up bigoted opinions about race or sexual orientation and a rejection of any hypothesis that cannot be independently verified, rather than it ‘just feeling right’ is often at the heart of an atheist’s world view. Many atheists may come across in a condescending or patronising manner because there is as much evidence for and adult’s belief in god as for a child’s belief in the tooth fairy (tooth at night – money in the morning, all the other children in class have the same, parents tell of a tooth fairy, why would a child not believe?). Just as the child in class with the older sibling tells all his or her classmates of the fairy fiction espoused by all their parents, so too the atheist feels the need to explain his or her revelation to all the naive believers who will listen. It is not surprising that many believers will be offended by the certainty or persistence of the atheist but this should not be mistaken for fundamentalism. A fundamentalist will continue to believe whatever her or she believes no matter what opposing evidence or argument is presented to them, the term ‘blind faith’ becomes appropriate here. A questioning mindset is often what brought an atheist to their gnosis, hard evidence to the contrary should never be dismissed.

One may be able to infer certain character traits, opinions and behaviours from a person’s religion. Catholics don’t generally like condoms, Muslims aren’t too hot on homosexuals and Zen Buddhists aren’t inclined towards procrastination. These are not merely traits that are common among populations adhering to one set of beliefs or another, these are actually enshrined in the teachings of the religions themselves. This cannot be said of atheism, which has no teachings, sacred texts, belief system, tenet or dogma.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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