Living with and without religion

Reposted from the Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

Every day I work with people who have an invisible friend. But being fond of many of them, talking about that is something I like to avoid. After all, it's not really relevant to what we do, and if their faith helps them to be more productive or feel better about what they're doing, it's no skin off my nose. That being so, I've been thinking lately about why religious (and more broadly, supernatural) ideas bother me, and whether it's important to speak up.

The truth is that it's not too hard to avoid awkward moments where I work, because religious and supernatural topics hardly ever come up. Most such dialogues I've had a part in have occurred online, and even those have become infrequent. Perhaps this is because I no longer find it worthwhile to engage in a dialogue with those who, without a moment's hesitation, would consider me condemned. But whatever the reason, I've become even more reserved than in the past. Does this mean I no longer care? Does it mean that I've made peace with religion?

Not exactly.

Like everyone else, I'm simply more interested in living day to day. Practically speaking, religion isn't the most important thing on my mind. It doesn't even rank in the top ten, so to speak. Indeed, if it weren't for the influence religious people try to exert over public life, I probably wouldn't give it a moment's thought. It would be just another silly idea, along with fairies, psychic powers, alternative medicine, or a Ralph Nader presidency.

In other words, I don't care what you believe. This doesn't always come through in what I've written here and elsewhere, because frankly the disproportionate amount of influence religion has with the string pullers is alarming and the ramifications potentially deadly. Or at least detrimental.

Belief itself is, of course, not necessarily harmful in and of itself. It might even have some positive effects. However, inasmuch as it has a negative impact on one's perception of other people, or one's actions toward them, it can cause a great deal of harm.

Take, for example, the Levitical admonition to "love thy neighbor as thyself." It has always seemed to me that the best result would be something similar to pity. After all, if one is taught to think of oneself as an unworthy sinner, then everyone else is an unworthy sinner too, deserving of death and therefore pitiful at best. Or, take the idea that "God is in control," which is also biblical. If God is in control, in one stroke free will is dispensed with and the problem of evil rests on God's shoulders. As a result, accountability becomes a meaningless concept.

We atheists will sometimes tell you that, in the absence of such beliefs, everything would be just dandy. If only it were that simple. No matter what idea is in vogue at any given time, our species will inevitably find a way to screw it up. Now, I would agree that, in principle, if no one believed in God there would be one less bad idea to contend with. Thus, I continue to share my thoughts when the opportunity arises, hoping that they might have some positive effect. But I am skeptical that atheism is itself the answer.

Too many people, atheist and theist alike, view atheism as being or possessing in some fashion a sort of ersatzphilosophie that answers (or dispenses with bad answers to) life's persistent questions. For example, Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists, in January urged us to "vote [your] atheism first" this November, as if "voting atheist" (whatever the hell that means) will solve our political problems.

Simplistic statements like Ms. Johnson's are as ubiquitous as mosquitoes, and just as annoying. Neither theists nor atheists have the inside track on the right way to live, vote, or think. We all muddle through life the best we can. Some of us just don't assign credit or blame to supernatural entities or forces. Experience teaches us that such fantasies almost always lead to misanthropic thinking.

But if atheism is devoid of a meaningful or consistent philosophy, why bother? The answer, in my opinion, is that one's philosophy or worldview doesn't result from any one idea or concept (or lack thereof). Rather, it results from one's culture and upbringing, and possibly biology or physiology to some degree. In that sense, atheists have little choice but to credit religion with having had at least some influence on their composite worldview and/or philosophy. The degree to which it has will depend on exposure. Similarly, however, Western theists have little choice but to credit the Enlightenment with having had an effect on their religion and, by extension, their own worldview.

Getting back to whether, as an atheist, I have any responsibility or reason to speak up, the answer remains yes. I feel a moral responsibility to speak up concerning matters that affect not only me, but also my loved ones and even society. With respect to those with whom I share an office (or a world), this doesn't mean trashing someone's personal beliefs. That approach simply doesn't work, in my experience. What does sometimes work is discussing specific issues, looking for points on which we might agree or compromise, and perhaps sharing knowledge or materials that might increase a person's understanding of that particular issue. In the long run a person's beliefs may remain intact, but perhaps their perspective will be broadened and their attitudes tempered.

The point of all this is simply to say that I remain committed to promoting Freethought and rationalism. To my mind, however, this doesn't mean subscribing to atheism as an ideological platform, or leaping on any bandwagon. What it means is that religion itself is not important except to the extent that it finds expression in public life. Therefore, I hope to address religion and atheism even less frequently than I have in the past (though readers might reasonably point to the dearth of posts since December as proof that I have another agenda - I don't). This doesn't mean I'll stop completely (morbid fascination and a sense of humor, you know), but I'd rather share a joke, educate each other, and build something together.

Wouldn't you?

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