Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

When I hear fundamentalists preaching hate and atheists ranting against organized religion, I am proud to be agnostic. It seems the only intellectual and moral position with any integrity. It seems the simplest position to take – the only one that avoids obsession and allows me to appreciate the Christian culture of the past while neither overvaluing it nor repudiating it. In fact, agnosticism has a sub-culture of its own that is more satisfyingly complex — and therefore closer to the real state of humanity — than fervent belief or unbelief.

When I call myself an agnostic, I mean that I take no position on the question of whether a deity exists. Given the existing evidence, I tend to doubt it. However, I reserve the right to change my mind if any evidence worth considering comes along.

I suppose that if you define deity as the underlying structure of the universe, I might grudgingly call myself a pantheist. But, while that structure deserves my admiration, I see no reason to worship it, or to think that it is sentient and would receive or want my worship. So, on the whole, I remain an agnostic.

One of the major advantages of this position is that I can put aside all questions about religion and get on with my life. This is something that neither the religious or atheistic can manage to do. On the one hand, the religious obsess over what their creed would have them to, abdicating personal responsibility for their morality, as if they are overgrown children.

On the other hand, most of the atheists I know obsess over religion at least as much as the faithful — and often more. Like alcoholics, they are pre-occupied about what they have given up, so much so that the average atheist could be described in the language of addiction as a recovering Christian or a recovering Buddhist.

By contrast, as an agnostic I no longer concern myself with faith or lack of it. Both are equally irrelevant so far as I am concerned, and if I am somewhat closer in outlook to an atheist than to a believer, unlike both I let go.

That is not to say that religion holds no interest to me. Nothing that occupied so much of humanity’s attention for so many centuries can be unimportant if you are interested in history. Over the years, I have read a variety of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish texts as well as some Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi and Zen texts. But I approach them from a scholarly perspective. For the most part, they are not instructions about how to live and think, but rather a record of how people believed they should live and think in the past.

Encountering these beliefs can be fascinating, but I have no more urge to imitate them than I do to wear a toga or carry an assegai.

The same is true of art and history. Although religion has clearly inspired great art, I do not look for prove of my convictions in that inspiration. Nor do I expect archeology or newly discovered documents to confirm the truth of what is presented in the Bible or any other religious text.

Yet, at the same time, I feel no need to repudiate my culture’s religious past. I accept and appreciate it as an interesting example of the varieties of human experience, recognizing that it has probably shaped my thoughts to an extent – even in a post-Christian era – and see no need to dismiss the outlooks of my ancestors. As an agnostic, I have not repudiated my past so much as repositioned myself in relation to it.

To others, I know, this perspective is intolerable. Nor, in fact, is it always easy. But I have concluded that my two-way doubt is an accurate perception – or at least a more accurate one that faith or non-faith. There is a terrible certainty about faith or non-faith alike that too easily becomes strident and simplistic.

What I appreciate about agnosticism is that it encourages perception and acceptance of ambiguity. That is why, I suspect, that the English language novel did not manage to come into its own until the skepticism of the nineteenth century set in. Strong convictions make effective polemics, but they discourage observation and meditation. That is why there is such a rich sub-culture of agnosticism in the works of writers like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. In such writers, the uncertainty of belief leads to a closer examination of people and their habitual behavior – and, ultimately, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, to psychology.

Agnosticism has no grand statements about human existence. If it did, then by definition it would not be agnosticism. But as a perspective, as a stance in relation to the rest of the world, it seems less self-deceiving and more self-correcting than either faith or atheism can ever hope to be. Agnosticism has no pre-conceived perspective, which makes it the philosophical position of choice for those who prefer to know the world as it is rather than how they would like it to be.

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I don’t know quite how it happened, but I was born into a Christian culture that has transformed into a post-Christian one. This change is a basic fact of my time, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about it.

I am too young to remember fully Christian times. However, from what those a few years older than me say, when I was born, Christianity – or Protestantism, to be exact – was considered the default. Shortly before I was old enough to take an interest in such matters, the expectation was that any respectable man or woman would go to church on Sunday. If anyone wanted to succeed in business in a recognizable community, they made sure they attended regularly, and, if they were really ambitious, they became involved in their local church. Naturally, too, everybody was married in a church. Everybody knew the bible, too, or at least the stories in it.

These norms were so pervasive that I attended Sunday School at the United Church until I was about twelve, even though my mother was only moderately religious and my father an agnostic or atheist, who probably only attended holiday church services as a family outing

By the time I quit attending, I had absorbed that Catholics were an odd, barely tolerated sort of Christian, no better than the Christian Scientists that I passed on my way to Sunday School. I had encountered only one family of Jews, but I often wondered what made them so different. As for Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims, they were mostly a distant rumor to my young ears, but I understood that any I encountered were to be trusted only to the extent that they acted like good Protestants.

Even my grandfather, who I rarely saw be impolite to anyone, belonged to the Orange Lodge. Admittedly, in British Columbia, this was a much watered-down version of the organization that had been involved with religious violence in Ontario and was still in the middle of the chaos in Ireland. Yet my kind and gentle grandfather apparently believed that the mostly theoretical Catholics of the neighborhood needed opposing, because their loyalty to the Pope meant that they were denied religious freedom.

Looking back, I realize that things were already changing when I was a child. The minister, a pale man who always did his best to sound earnest, talked about social service and good causes as much as about Jesus – and never about hell. But the remnants of a Christian culture were still strong enough that few questioned them openly.

And now? When polled, a majority still will say they still believe in God. In the United States, people are still reluctant to vote for anyone who is an open atheist. Yet despite such hypocrisy, church attendance has sinking for over two decades. When morality is discussed, it is rarely in terms of the bible or Christianity, or any other religion. Asked on a census, many still call themselves Christians, but by their actions and attitudes, clearly Christianity does not steer their actions, and very few would be considered Christians by the standards of fifty years ago.

But probably the greatest sign that we are in a post-Christian world is that religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter have become secular holidays, and governments are careful not to endorse even a generic Christianity over any other religion. A few of the remaining devout Christians complain about these changes, citing the occasional excessive zeal of non-denominationalists as proof, but what they really seem to object to is the loss of any special status in the culture.

My own beliefs parallel these changes, since I have been agnostic since I was a young teen and drifting towards atheism ever since. If anything, I am more at home in the culture of my middle-age than I was in that of my youth. Generations younger than me seem to have caught up with my thinking as a young man.

At the same time, while decidedly a non-Christian, I am glad that I was lucky enough to be educated in its basic tenets. After all, no matter what I think of Christianity today, at one time it was an undeniable creative force.

How, I wonder, do those brought up entirely non-Christian appreciate the cathedrals of Europe without the understanding that they were physical prayers to God? How can they listen to Handel’s Messiah and understand how it develops? Or read the works of Christina Rossetti or Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose styles and phrasings were where they worked out their relationships with their deity?: Even great agnostics like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy make little sense without a thorough knowledge of Christianity, because their passing references and analogies draw upon the common Christian mythology. I would only be short-sighted and false if I attempted to deny that Christianity was a major influence on much of our cultural history.

Knowing Christianity, I have a sense of the continuity in my culture that most people no longer have. But, as for the decline of Christianity as the foundation of the culture – for that, I feel nothing except relief, tempered by only a mild ambiguity stirred by the cultural accomplishments of the past.

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I am not a Christian. Nor am I follower of any other religion, or even a theist. For years, I have wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But I thought I had made my peace with being a non-believer in a culture whose origins were Christian, making myself tolerably familiar with the Bible and the history and philosophy of belief throughout European history.

Then, some years ago, I was blind-sided by a statement of the obvious.

Although I hadn’t been Christian since puberty, I had always thought that the most recent parts of the Bible had a historical background. Probably things hadn’t happened quite as described in the New Testament, but I assumed that the descriptions were roughly true. After all, the New Testament accounts mentioned historical figures like Pontius Pilatius and Herod Antipater.

So didn’t it follow that a historical Jesus had existed? Of course, he probably bore about the same relation to the stories as the historical King Arthur bore to the writings of Thomas Malory, but after you discarded the religion doctrine and traditions like the sacrificed god, there would be a core of truth.

Then, I read a book called The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. The book is poorly written, and has the obsessiveness that marks a crank, but it introduced me to the idea that the whole of Christianity was a neo-Platonic myth, most likely originating among the Jewish population of Alexandria that had started being taken literally.

I learned, too, that there were reasons to question external references to Christianity like those in Josephus, and that reputable references to Christianity did not occur until well into the second century of the common era. Even some of the references to the modern story of Christ in the later books of the New Testament were metrically suspect.

These ideas are not universally accepted. But the fact that they can be reasonably held at all shows how shaky the conventional views actually are. More importantly, they give reasons for some aspects of Christianity that I had never heard adequately explained, such as the neo-Platonism on the gospel of John, and some of the references to the Christ figure that seem strangely vague if they are supposed to be about a man who had lived. Although not proved, the ideas were at least plausible.

To my surprise, I found myself reacting as though I’d been tackled by someone I hadn’t seen. I suspect that belief in a historic Jesus is the last refuge of an agnostic or atheist who used to be a Christian, a minimal adjustment of their thought that allows them some continuity with their past and cultural history. Even in our disbelief, we cling to a sense that the stories of Christianity must have some degree of reliability. But, suddenly, even that minimum belief seemed questionable.

I realized, too, that I was angry. I’d been lied to, which always makes me self-righteously indignant, told false certainties were established fact. The fact that, on reflection, I realized that the liars had probably lied to themselves first did not make me any less angry.

If my reaction could be summarized in three words, those three words would have been: How dare they?

But the closer you look, the more dubious the founding legends of Judaeo-Christianity become. Despite the record keeping of the Egyptians, no evidence of anything remotely resembling the Exodus has ever been found. What evidence exists points to the Ancient Hebrews being offshoots of the Canaanites – locals rather than invaders. Similarly, no reference exists in any of the surrounding cultures of the empire of Saul, David, and Solomon. The few references to the kingdoms of ancient Israel that have been found suggest that, at best, for most of its history it was a satellite kingdom of the surrounding superpowers, a fact that should have been obvious from one look at a map.

Yet I remember seeing maps of Solomon’s empire when I was growing up, and other maps showing how the twelve tribes settled Palestine (in fact, look up Judea, and you can still find this map on Wikipedia). The maps, that are supposed to value accuracy, are works of fantasy, charting as certainties facts that are questionable and unsupported by the archaeological record. In fact, the more archeology that is done, the more the Biblical accounts look like fiction embellished with a few sprinkles of fact for verisimilitude.

Was anyone surprised when the James Ossuary, allegedly the container for the bones of Jesus’ brother, proved suspect? I wasn’t. It was exactly the same as every other effort to reconcile fact with the Bible: unproved, the product of wishful thinking at best, and of outright fraud at worst.

And when I consider that European culture is built on such foundations – well, don’t come trying to convert me is all that I can say. Because if you try, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.

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“There’re no atheists in foxholes,” religious people like to say. What they mean, of course, is that when you’re in trouble, the idea of a deity becomes more inviting. I’ve always thought the comment smug, to say nothing of beside the point, since belief does nothing to prove that a deity actually exists. So, while I can’t speak for atheists, I’m proud to say that I’m one agnostic who hasn’t found religion in the foxhole.

Mind you, I can see the attraction. Twenty months ago, I was abruptly widowed, and everything I expected about the rest of my life changed when I was still relatively young. Then, five months ago, just when I thought I found a group to identify with and maybe give me new direction, that was snatched from me, too. Under the circumstances, it would be reassuring to think that all the loneliness and existential angst had some purpose and that all had happened for the best.

The trouble is, I can’t reconcile these ideas with the senselessness of what I’ve lived through. If anything, my recent life seems evidence of randomness, of the stark fact that the only purpose is what I choose to adopt, and that even self-chosen purposes can be punctured by chance. To insist on an external purpose in the face of such evidence seems nothing more than wish-fulfillment.

Anyway, assuming that a deity exists, what would she/he/it/they think of my new-found belief? It wouldn’t be based on a sincere faith; it would be based on being frightened. Nor do I think much of a deity that used fear to gain followers.

The situation all comes down the familiar problem of pain. Endless pages have been written on this subject, but it amounts to one simple, unanswerable question: how can you reconcile the idea of a loving deity with all the hurt that’s in the world?

Suggesting everything is part of a larger plan doesn’t answer the question. Nor does the suggestion that, without suffering we could never appreciate happiness.

No matter what you answer, you’re still left with one of two situations, assuming that a deity exists. Either that deity has no control over how things operate, or that deity is amoral. In both cases, that deity is by definition unworthy of worship.

Instead of wrestling with such problems, it’s simpler – more logical, and more in accordance with my observations – to believe no one’s in charge. Far from encouraging me to find religion, if anything the last two years have nudged me from neutrality closer to outright atheism.

And if you suggest that the last two years were intended to teach me a lesson, all I can say is that I have more pride than to acquiesce to the machinations of a bully, no matter how powerful and no matter how badly I’ve been mugged.

You might call that perverse. Personally, I call it self-respect.

So, please, no smug talk about what happens in foxholes – especially if you’ve never been in one.

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