A few weeks ago I engaged on another blog with the author regarding whether or not it was necessary to believe that our freedom and rights came from a deity. Being an atheist, I naturally disagreed. Anyway, I enjoyed the debate, so I decided to prattle on a bit here about some things about atheists you may not have known. But, first, what we in the blogosphere call biographical crap:
I realize I rarely write about atheism (although my second post ever was Do atheists feel spiritual? published on 9/10/06), but I am actually thinking of my dear readers in not doing so (as they normally believe everything I say without question and I don't want to corrupt them). I honestly can’t think of one time in my life where I began a debate on the subject, although being at the half century mark, I have to concede there may have been some occasion in my youth which I forget. But, it strikes me as unlikely. I have always recognized, but only recently formulated into a pithy saying, that people are more attached to a-rational or irrational beliefs than they are their rational ones. I am not sure why this is so, but I suspect it comes from a desire to defend their beliefs with more passion when where they can’t be defended with evidence.
My atheistic beliefs arose in the second grade, and although I do not remember the first time it occurred to me, I can remember sitting in Mrs. Granite’s class (she seemed really old to me then, but might even have been in her 30s or even 20s) and thinking that it was an important belief that most people didn’t share and that I should remember the moment. In fact, and keep in mind I was about 7 or so, my concern was that there was a hoax of world-wide proportions in which “they” were fooling people into believing that there was a creator and that he (yeah, or she or it) intervened in our lives. It’s not that I’ve changed my mind so much, but later on I would replace the word “hoax” or “fooled” to something more sociological.
But, I kept it for myself for a little while. I recall my mother being concerned that I understand at some point that the Greek gods were not real. I was obsessed with them from infancy, but maybe, Mom, if you didn’t raise me on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, you wouldn’t have had to deal with it. Anyway, I was always a little put out when some adult thought I believed in some fantasy character (I was really embarrassed when she tried to explain to me that there was no Santa Claus at age 4, but I’m pretty sure that was because our family was Jewish) and to torment her, I said that I didn't believe the Greek gods were real - except for gods like Eos (dawn) because those were part of nature. She really looked worried. It is amazing how young one can be and still tease your mom (who was pretty nice to me) about things like that, but there you have it. Even when I came to a firm conclusion about it, I recognized that non-belief in God upset people and I didn’t talk about it a lot. But, I did think about it quite a bit, as everyone else seemed to take the whole God thing very seriously. At some point, and I don’t remember when, I naturally realized you could get killed over it, and that millions of people had died because of something I felt was quite untrue.
When it came time to get bar mitzvahed (is that a verb? – it is now) I refused, which quite upset my mother. My best guess was that she thought the usual - what would the neighbors think - and wasn’t worried about my soul or anything of that ilk. Ironically, my father, usually the less reasonable of the two, spoke his mind that I should make my own decision and got his way (that was gonna happen anyway, folks - no way I would have done it), but I was forced to go through all of the lessons as if I might do it, and when I told mom that I couldn’t go through it, she froze me with a disappointed look that remains one of the most upsetting moments of my young life. In fact, on her death bed, she told me it was the only thing for which she couldn’t forgive me. I sat there, and, because she was dying, did not say, 1) your fault for raising your children to be so independent minded, 2) thanks, I’ll have such uplifting memories of your death (actually, she was very brave and I do).
By the time I was in junior high and high school though, I was certainly discussing it with friends. I recall a bike ride with two young buddies (I must have been about 13 or 14 as the bar mitzvah episode had already occurred). Both of my friends told me that I was immoral for not doing it. I argued with them about it, but didn’t make a dent. Pissed me off too, I seem to recall, as I had a high falutin’ view of my morality. But, rather than disagree vehemently, I just let it slide (possibly because I didn’t have that many friends).
Later on in 11th or 12th grade the idiot who published the student writing journal at the end of the year chose to publish the one thing I had written for class which was atheistic, nearly resulting in my ass getting kicked by angry students and possibly some equally angry teachers (I was already somewhat disliked by some teachers for being a slacker and laying down on the radiator during the pledge of allegiance and by students for being a generally weird guy). Miss Hayes, who I had a ferocious crush on, was heard to say that they should not have published it. That disappointed me, but had little effect on my fantasies either -she had a mohair dress that made me wild - and no one actually attacked me because of it. Less than a handful of students came up to me and thanked me for saying what they would like to have said and a couple told me that it was widely discussed and either liked or despised. I actually had no idea it was being published. The teacher had asked me if he could use a bunch of stuff I wrote and I always said yes.
At graduation, I refused to stand up for the religious figures speaking (our beloved commenter Bear as well) but was a little concerned I was going to upset other people. Big surprise, no one noticed other than the kids sitting right next to or behind me and none really cared.
After that, well, pretty much nothing. Lots of kids in college go through atheist phases – I sneered at their pseudo-intellectual non-belief as a fad - and after that it really ceased to be a topic of conversation because not too many people really cared enough to even argue it. There have been some kind souls over the decades who thought that they could persuade me to believe by telling me how religion saved them when they were depressed or poverty stricken, but I've warned them before they started that they might be sorry. I’ve been thinking and talking about this for roughly 43 years, so I’m at least hard to pin down on it, if I can’t persuade anyone either. But, I can see that after their arguments don’t work, some of them are frustrated, whereas I am perfectly happy if they fervently believe, as long as they are tolerant. I would not debate it with anyone I thought might get angry in the first place, but like with abortion, it is a perilous thing to do, as you never know who is going to wig out about it.
Here are ten things you might not have known about atheists:
10. Atheists can be spiritual. But, I already wrote that whole damn (no pun intended) post on that, so go read it if you care. Here’s the short version. In my view, feelings of spirituality are emotions related to being connected to the universe which most people associate with a deity. But, you can have that feeling without the deity. All I can tell you is that I feel that way whenever I go outside, look at the stars or the mountains, float down a river, or read an ancient text. Now, you can argue with me that you are feeling something I can’t, I’m not going to argue it because short of attaching us to an fMRI machine to see what neurons are firing, we aren’t going to know.
9. Atheists can have morals. That might seem like an obvious thing to say, but, not everyone thinks that way. Forget religious militants who think I deserve to burn at the stake or be beheaded (if you are thinking about it, I prefer the latter). And forget my young friends on their bikes. Even forget my self-appraisal of my morality, because most people think they are moral regardless of what others think. Many people still believe that if you don’t believe in God you can’t be moral.
Obviously, there is no measure of this. The few people I know who are or were atheists, certainly didn’t seem to lie, cheat, steal, murder, rape anymore than the general public. It was my impression, in fact, that they were among the more moral people I knew, but, again, this is of course subjective.
Back in the 90s, a little before Columbine, a student down south murdered some classmates. There was a big uproar when it came out he was – gasp – an atheist. The media went crazy with it and it seemed to explain to a lot of people why he did the heinous deed. And then, oops, it turned out he was an ardent Lutheran. Somehow, that did not explain to people why he did it. I have no doubt the same feeling would be had today, and debated on television, when the next murderer turns out to be the rare atheist.
Even on occasion when I disagree on some moral ground with someone I have been told that I feel the way I do because I am an atheist and can’t have a moral position. I’m not sure what my beliefs in whether an intelligent being created the universe has to do with my moral beliefs, which is, after all, based on the same culture as theirs, but, you can’t get away from it. People are comfortable with it.
And, of course, I had fun a few weeks ago quoting a very religious fellow from his speeches and book, going on about God this and God that, but that turned out to be Hitler. So, feh on you.
8. People really are still prejudiced against atheists. No really. I know this from blog comments – go ahead, write you are an atheist in a blog comment (especially a conservative one) and see if someone doesn’t question you with incredulity and maybe say an unkind things. Sometimes you don't need to say anything - they just say atheists the way I say lima beans.
A few years ago I saw Ann Coulter on a show debating an atheist. She mocked him (she is good at that – almost always makes me laugh) for playing the victim card, which, I didn’t see, but, she’s not famous for being fair either. The truth is, he was right. Years of Pew polls show that most Americans would vote for a black (now, obvious), a Jew (90 something %) and to a lesser extent a gay person (70 something %) but far less, nearly half, would not vote for an atheist. Only one of a million reasons I don't run.
According to one reporter (at least, he was trying to be one), George H. W. Bush told him that atheists do not deserve the right to the benefits of our beloved country. And I had always liked the guy. He has never commented on the accusation, which gives me the feeling . . . .
7. It is not anti-American to not like the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. You might be aware, the phrase was never in there until the early 50s and was stuck in during the cold war to sort of say – hah, you commies, we are going to win because we worship God. We did win, and we could pointlessly debate if that had anything to do with it. I tend to think it was because we had far more freedom and consequently a far superior economic system. Of course, it appears to me that the losing side in wars has often been quite pious people (the Taliban were pious, but I guess they haven’t quite lost yet), but who wants to listen to the losers whine. Obviously, they were praying in the wrong way.
When I was in school I refused to say the pledge and those words were precisely why. I didn’t have anything against the country. It was the idea that I should be required to stand up and recite what I considered a prayer. Even if I believed in God, I would not be comfortable with ritual public declarations. I kind of like the part in the New Testament where Jesus tells his followers to pray in a closet (in Matthew, I think). I actually have nothing against moments of silence, or, moments of silence or prayer at football games or public functions – let’s face it, the great majority seem to like it, but I don’t think prayer alone belongs in public school or at public functions. And though I am not as rebellious as I used to be and just like to please people or at least not make them too uncomfortable, I will stand during the pledge, but I won’t say it. Nope, not until they take that out.
6. Atheism is not a religion or a faith. I hear this, a lot. I think it is considered an intellectual argument. I’ve tried to figure that logic out but I can’t and I haven’t heard anyone give me a logical reason that it would be so. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that atheism is superior because I don’t believe it is faith based, nor would I care if someone could convince me that it is faith based.
In fact, like everyone, I believe in most things on faith. It's impossible to go through life otherwise. But, this is faith tempered with experience and what seems likely based on what I've observed in life. For example, I do not have real evidence that the earth revolves around the sun. It appears everyday to me to be revolving around us.
But, based on observations by others of the planets and stars through telescopes, and probably because everyone else believes it and it seems to make sense to me, I believe it too. That's one of the reasons I had severe doubts about unproven quantum physics and few doubts about relativity - the former neither makes sense to me nor is it true based on my experience, whereas the latter seems to make a lot of sense (and is now, essentially proven experimentally). Of course, like believing in God, there is no real punishment for believing one way or the other as it doesn’t change any thing.
But, the argument about atheism being based on faith just doesn’t follow for me. Suppose you believe in God. Now, unless you believe God has personally spoken to you (and I have met those who claim so), you know that there is not direct evidence of his existence and you believe in him on faith. All well and good. But, if I do not believe in God because I do not see sufficient evidence and still not believe in him on faith, then . . . it is sort of true by definition. It is not just not a logical argument, it is illogical.
I think, in all honestly, that it is an argument made by people who are very rational and proud of it. For a number of reasons they believe in God but may feel uncomfortable that they don't have evidence to support it, and feel embarrassed or diminished if they believe in something for which they can't. If that is so, they should lighten up. Go believe in God on faith and don’t feel embarrassed. Almost everyone else in this country and most of the world does too.
5. Most liberals are not atheists and atheists are not necessarily liberals. I really don’t know the stats here. I don’t consider myself a liberal, but many conservatives would, and it is part of the conservative creed that you have to believe in God (whether there is any real connection between that and many aspects of conservatism is a different question). But, I know I was a liberal when I was growing up and I was an atheist too. And, the majority of people I knew who were atheists (not many) were or are liberals. But, if I look at those who I now know are atheists - one is liberal, one is a moderate (me) and two are conservatives. Obviously, that is too small a sample to convince anyone, including me.
And, if you put a gun to my head, I would say more atheists are liberal or liberal leaning by a fair, if not large margin. After all, conservative theology doesn’t really approve of atheism and liberal theology is more accepting of it.
But, if you look at the percentage of people in America who don’t believe in God, and it’s small, it means most liberals seem to believe in God too. I welcome any group doing research on this.
4. Consequently, most atheists in this country are not communists. I see the two linked together so often, that I think some comment is required. First, I don't believe that all communists are atheists, even if the USSR was officially so (after communism, Russians flocked to religious groups) and it was and is in China, party doctrine. However, we also know that beneath the surface, many communists are believers. It is just safer to hide it.
Even back in my liberal days, I was not a communist, not by a long shot. I remember a class in college where I was the only one in the class to criticize Marx' Manifesto. I thought China and the Soviet Union were horrible places and we had to fight them, hopefully in a cold war.
None of the other atheists I have known are or were communists, and the one liberal I know now who claims to be sympathetic to the modern communist movement, believes in God.
So, there may be some truth to the fact that many communists are atheists (at least officially) but I don’t see any truth to the argument that most atheists are communists, at least not in America.
3. Atheists don't care what you believe. I hear sometimes that atheists want everyone to believe as they do. I actually don't know any atheist personally who tries to persuade people. There are a lot of believers trying to persuade people to join their team though. Sam Harris wrote a book recently arguing that even moderate religious belief is dangerous, and although I like a few of his arguments, I didn't, and I doubt most people, agree with him.
I actually love religion in its conceptual aspects and read frequently from the Bible and other religious texts. I am more interested in mythology than any other aspect of it, but I enjoy theological and ethical aspects too. I live in a little town with more churches than banks and restaurants put together, and love to see people dressed up walking to church on Sunday. One of my favorite pastimes when I travel is popping into churches for the architecture, but also the ambiance.
Now, I would hazard a guess that most atheists believe in a strong first amendment and that it includes a metaphorical wall between church and state. But, that is with respect to what government can and cannot do, not people.
Be as religious as you want. If you are tolerant of other’s beliefs (and everyone I personally know in our wonderful country is - at least outwardly) then I am all for you. I suspect most atheists are too. I’m sure there are exceptions, but there are exceptions for theists too.
2. Modern law is not based on the Ten Commandments. I know this topic is really not about atheism, but frankly, I ran out of items and I wanted to make it to ten. Besides, this is a pre-cursor for number 1.
So, you might be shocked when I argue that it is obvious that it is not so because you’ve been told it’s true your whole life in the Matrix and it is frequently repeated in the media and even more serious works. But, it’s not even remotely true.
Let’s start with the fact that we are really talking about a few commandments – murder, stealing, adultery, things like that. It is preposterous to claim that pre-Mosaic people did not have rules against it or that it spread from the commandments.
Additionally, if this is so, how do we explain that they have the same rules in Asian and African countries they have the same general rules – don’t kill, steal or sleep with someone else’s spouses. You can always find exceptions, but you can find lots of exceptions in the Western world too.
Of course, we also know that recognizable law existed in places long before little Moses was placed in a basket made of reeds. Indeed, much of our present law can be seen way back in ancient Sumeria – contracts, deeds, receipts, judicial decisions, immigration, family law, pardon power, the feudal system, police force, postal law, women’s rights, notary publics, oath taking, private property, estates, banks, drafts, bonds, and really almost everything we have was already well developed many centuries before any hypothetical Moses or even Abraham could have existed.
1. It is not necessary to believe that our rights came from God. This is the topic I had commented on at polisfactum.blogspot.com that inspired this whole post.
It is part of conservative theology that it is necessary to believe that our rights came from God, because that means they can’t be taken away. This is fraught with error for several reasons.
First, the truth is our rights can be taken away from us. If this is not so, why is everyone worried about it? In fact, there has been more time during the historical period when people existed without what we would think of as freedom.
Second, quite obviously, we did not always have them. That’s why we had a revolution. That’s why we had a bill of rights. That’s why we had some further amendments such the 13th – 15th. That’s why we have state constitutions and civil rights laws.
Third, you can believe you are should have rights without believing in God, or, if you do believe, that he gave them to you. To claim otherwise is to despise or minimize the hard work, sacrifices, determination and even death that have accompanied the cause of freedom over the centuries. Rights are won and then lost. No piety can give it to you. No lack of piety can take it from you (but other people can, whether they are pious or not).
If nothing else, I am proof that this is so. In order to disagree, you must prove to me that I don’t believe I have rights or should have rights, or that they are less important to me than yours are to you.
When I read Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, I was delighted. I actually said to myself, someone gets it. Someone who understood that tying rights and freedom to any a priori circumstances or conditions (he calls it historicism) is more dangerous to freedom than the belief that they are developed by legislation over time, that they are always ad hoc, and subject to change. He also castigated Plato, for which I was overjoyed as I honestly thought since college that I was just about the only one to think that the beloved Plato was an apologist for totalitarian government. The evidence is quite apparent, and I would think it would be harder to argue the opposite, that Plato (admirable for other reasons) is not a beacon of Democracy, which he despised. But, I digress.
The belief that God gave us our rights is far more dangerous than believing rights and freedom are a good idea for our society and we need to make them law for our own sakes. For one thing, someone with a different view of God might take them from you. One only has to look at English history, or the history of Europe and the schism between Catholics and Protestantism, just as example, to recognize this.
And someone might have quite a different view of freedom as well. Even the view from this country 50 years ago, never mind 150 years ago, was quite different. I posted an article - Perspective - studying a scholarly militant - Saffir Qtub on 9/26/08. People have very different ideas of freedom. To pretend they are written in stone might feel good, but it is really very culture bound. Another reason local representative government is a good thing.
Feel free to disagree with some or all of the above. I always appreciate actual reasons more than just - your wrong, but, I tend to get more of the latter.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .