If not now, when?


My blog isn’t popular among atheists. I  can think of many reasons why this might be so, but perhaps the main one is that, while I’m terribly critical of religion, I’m far from being enamored of atheism. Most of the atheists whom I have known considered their loss of religion as an occasion for celebration (like being cured of a disease) rather than of grief. When it comes to the secularization of the public sphere, I would agree, but in my private life, my loss of belief in God was—and still remains—the greatest trauma I’ve experienced, even though the God in whom I was brought up to believe is not a God in whom I would even want to believe (given the immense suffering in the world, I can’t imagine that there even could exist a God in whom I would want to believe).

In summary, I’m not a “happy atheist” kind of person, but that’s the image that the atheist community is trying to push on society in order to win acceptance. While I’m very much a real atheist intellectually, I can’t rid myself of the emotional need to believe that life has an objective meaning, that is a meaning that can only come from God, because to think of it as a mere flash of awareness punctuated at either end by infinite nothingness makes it absurd (this isn’t a view that most atheists appear to share). Also, I don’t agree that most of the world’s problems would disappear if everyone became "rational" (that is, atheistic) because, people being people, we would still be violent and oppressive. As theists like to point out, Stalin and Pol Pot were mass murderers, and while I consider it significant that they didn’t murder in the name of atheism, neither did their freedom from religious superstition make them better people. I’ve also noticed that a great many lesser known atheists are intolerant and abusive. Given what we have endured at the hands of theists, I am sympathetic, but I am also frightened and ashamed that so many of my fellows seem consumed by anger (for one thing, it seems so irrational).

I’ve been talking here of those atheists who join atheist organizations because they constitute most of the nonbelievers I’ve known, and I would guess that they’re the ones who are most likely to see non-belief as central to their identity. As my readers well know, it’s central to my identity too, but not in the same laudatory way. While most atheists like to think of themselves as exemplars of rationality, I consider them as nutty as anyone else except, perhaps, in the area of religion, although I must admit that religion is a big area and a major cause of nuttiness. Still, it’s not a person’s entire being, and what really matters isn’t what one professes, but how one behaves. Too many atheists are haters, and this means that their ascendancy to political power might not mark an end to religious intolerance but simply a reversal of whom is dishing it out. For example, if militant atheists ran the country, I’ve no doubt but what religion would be classified as a mental illness, religious people would be discriminated against socially and in the workforce, and the children of religious people might conceivably be taken from their homes. No matter which end of the spectrum they occupy, the reign of fanatics is always the same.

Tallies of the membership of atheist organizations indicate that most atheists are non-joiners (at least of such organizations), so I don’t know how the majority feel about their non-belief, but I would make the following guesses: Some are in the closet because they fear ostracism if not overt persecution. Others consider the effects of religion on society to be salutary, and to this end, a small number belong to churches. Others are pantheists whose main difference with atheists is nomenclature rather than content. Still others are like my wife, Peggy, in that the religion/atheism dichotomy is of no interest to them (if you want to see someone go to sleep in three-minutes flat, try talking about these things with Peggy). Various others view atheist organizations as having a negative focus (I would argue with this), and choose to put their energy into other things. 

As to how many are like myself in that they view their atheism as an inescapable fact rather than a cause for celebration, I have no idea, but, surely, there are many such people who either never join an atheist organization, or else join only to feel that they lack the required boosterism. No doubt some are also—as am I—offended by the open mockery that many members of such organizations express for theists. However much I fail, I try to avoid this. For one thing, contempt alienates rather than instructs. For another, when I show contempt, it’s like when I openly curse someone—something which I have sometimes done—in that however satisfying it might seem in the moment, I later feel degraded.

I wish I had it in me to write a book because books about atheism are popular now, yet few of them are written for people such as myself, people who are sincere in their denial of religion/spirituality but who also find it impossible to be okay with life without God because life without God means life without divine guidance, life without immortality, life without ordained meaning, and life without the assurance that everything will eventually work out for the best. As hateful and contradictory as the fundamentalist God of my childhood appeared, he at least offered the promise of these things. By contrast, the atheistic view is that we owe our existence to unreasoning natural processes and then we die. Period. Finis. Deader than a doorknob. 

It’s popular among non-believers to deride as selfish and egotistical those who say this isn’t enough. Maybe such atheists are like frightened children whistling in the dark, or maybe they believe what they say. Damned if I know. I just know that if I were given a cake with a bit too much salt only to have it thrown in the garbage after I had but tasted it, I would consider it a pretty paltry gift, and so do I regard life without God, i.e. I came from eternal nothingness into a world that is marred by cruelty and injustice, and in less than a moment, I and everything I love will go back into that nothingness. For this I am supposed to celebrate atheism? I don’t think so. However grand the cosmos and however wonderful life can be at times, it doesn’t atone for what it lacks. But I should end on a positive note.

If you were to ask me what I admire most about my species, it is simply that we as individuals endure so much without killing ourselves. Maybe the reason is what Schopenhauer called blind will. I say this because it’s hard to make a case against suicide, yet relatively few of us go that route, and many of those who do are in horrible shape and nearing the end of their lives anyway. Whatever the cause, we humans are tough and adaptable, and while the same can be said for a lot of other animals, we’re the only ones who appear to have a choice. I see in myself a tenacity that I can’t explain, and which seems to come largely from my desire to keep learning and simply to see what happens next. I want my life to have a conclusion, and I don’t just mean death, but a conclusion in terms of wisdom. I’m aware that life doesn’t usually work this way. People die at age 20 in war, or at age 50 of a heart attack, or at age 80 of a stroke without appearing to have learned much or concluded much. They’re alive one moment and dead the next, and their lives resemble nothing so much as a novel with an unsatisfactory ending. This, to me, might very well constitute the ultimate tragedy, and so I say with Thoreau:


“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”



This—along with my curiosity and my obligation to Peggy—is what keeps me going. My best guess is that there’s really very little left for me to learn, and that how one regards one’s life is a matter of disposition rather than either philosophy or what I will call spirituality for the lack of a better word. Yet, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a loser in the disposition category, so all this leaves for me is knowledge of whatever kind and however obtained. In this regard, maybe, for me at least, the search is the destination, but whether this is true or not, I can’t help but think that I was made to be the person I am, and that I am not a mistake. I am actually much more disappointed in the shallowness that I find in other people than in the angst that I find within myself because it seems to me that most people walk through life like so many mules with blinders. I believe that much of the evil we do is the result of our shallowness because who can contemplate life deeply without making a determined effort to act wisely in the short time that is left? After all, if not now, when?

35 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

You most definitely are NOT a mistake. My life is richer for having found you, and your posts often make me think about things I haven't looked at before, or think in new directions. For which I thank you.
I am not a celebratory atheist but not having been brought up on a diet of God I don't miss it. And without the foundations it seems to give cannot accept it. And am comfortable with my very temporary existence. It does however mean that because this life is my only life I live it as best I can ethically speaking.

Helen said...

Unlike Ms. Elephant, I was brought up on a steady diet of God ... And do not miss it.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

I don't believe you are a mistake. And I too become frustrated with shallow people. I don't understand them and don't understand how they can got through life not questioning, not seeking more. Most people just seem happy enough to go on along... even when something traumatic happens, they don't question, learn ... they just move happily along. I liken them to the "sheeple"in line at Ikea on a weekend... where they just funnel you en masse toward... slaughter (the checkout) and folks are just moving bleary eyed along. For me, having a dear friend who I can discuss these things with has made a vast difference in my life.

lotta joy said...

I was a happy christian, because to believe there is a greater one who cares about my welfare is a beautiful story with a happy ending.

To be fronted with the truth of the matter took some getting used to. It also took years for me to come to grips with my "beliefs" clashing with Joe's. But when he convinced me how hurt he was - feeling defenseless of his beliefs in the massive abundance of my derision for his - I realized that in the newness of atheism I was being as repugnant as a newly baptized Pentecostal.

I've learned to have inner peace without outer enthusiasm. I've grown accustomed to being content in my own skin, brain, and beliefs.

To put it more succinctly, I've learned that "to each their own" would make a kinder world for ALL of us, whether christian or athiest.

Lee Johnson said...

I'm surprised at your use of the phrase "militant atheist", as the whole idea is largely a strawman invented by conservatives. I think very few atheists would support the idea of banning religion, should they happen to be in power. (Religion is not banned in Scandinavia, despite how irreligious they all are.) Humorously, nobody uses the term "militant religious", despite the fact that extreme views on the religious side are far more common.

I was also sold a bill of goods by my childhood religious indoctrination, but I don't feel that I suffer from this deception. I do remember the shock of realizing that I'd eventually die, but what is gained by endlessly mourning that which never existed in the first place?

Stephen Hayes said...

While reading your articulate post it occurred to me just how afraid most people are of atheism. People can't handle the notion that religion. or God, might not be real and no one wants to be proven wrong. I've said it before but I think atheists are incredibly courageous people. I haven't made a complete journey towards atheism but I'm on my way.

Charles Gramlich said...

Definitely this has said much of what my own thinking is like. I don't believe the abolishment of religion would accomplish what many atheists seem to think it would. Only the abolition of humanity would do that.

Snowbrush said...

First, I should clarify what I meant by my life not being a mistake. I was referring to my evaluation of the value of my life to mself. It is something that each of us must decide, and something about which other people's opinions are irrelevant.

"...because this life is my only life I live it as best I can ethically speaking."

This is the opposite of what many theists believe about atheists.

"...I was brought up on a steady diet of God ... And do not miss it."

Most atheists who were brought up in religious families would say the same, I think .

"Most people just seem happy enough to go on along... even when something traumatic happens, they don't question, learn ... they just move happily along."

If they are religious, they are discouraged from questioning because questioning suggests a lack of faith, the goal being to believe without evidence and therefore without questioning. If I say this in error, maybe one of my religious readers will be so kind as to point it out.

"when he convinced me how hurt he was - feeling defenseless of his beliefs in the massive abundance of my derision for his - I realized that in the newness of atheism I was being as repugnant as a newly baptized Pentecostal."

Yes, many of us go through that. Fortunately for me, Peggy never was religious to the depth that I was. She grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family and went to church three times a week, but when she went away to college, she immediately stopped going (her only F was for non-attendance of chapel at the Baptist college she attended). Yet, only within the last year has she used the word atheist to describe herself. It was clear to me for many years that that's what she was, but she held out on actually using the word. Like me, she would like to think that there is "something out there," but she doesn't dwell on it.

"To put it more succinctly, I've learned that "to each their own" would make a kinder world for ALL of us, whether christian or athiest."

I think that most atheists would agree.

"I'm surprised at your use of the phrase "militant atheist", as the whole idea is largely a strawman invented by conservatives."

When you have people who seriously believe that theism is a psychosis, it is surely reasonable to expect that they would oppress theists if they held political power, but I didn't mean to suggest that most atheists are that way. I mentioned the ones who are because they embarrass me inasmuch as they represent to many theists what it means to be an atheist. I spent years trying in vain to convince my sister that I'm not that way, but I failed because we atheists are type-cast in the minds of many; nothing we might say can alter our image; and those atheists who truly are haters only make things worse. As Lotta Joy pointed out, it's something a lot of us go through when we reach the point of realizing that religion is a lie and, by abandoning it, we face the contempt of society, friends, and, in your case, family, but, unfortunately, a lot of people get stuck in that place of resentment, and the resentment grows into hatred.

Snowbrush said...

"I do remember the shock of realizing that I'd eventually die, but what is gained by endlessly mourning that which never existed in the first place?"

In the words of Epicurus: "Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist," yet I haven't found that the rational approach has the least power to address the depth of the concern. There's a Buddhist parable about a monk who falls from a cliff and grabs a shrub on the way down. When the shrub starts to come loose, the monk faces certain death. At that moment, he sees a berry in the shrub, picks the berry and eats it while thinking to himself that it's the most delicious berry he has ever eaten. Surely, you will agree that, since he was completely without options to save himself was therefore going to be dead in a few moments anyway, his act was rational, but could you do it? Death is almost as present for me as if I were that monk hanging from the shrub, only I lack his clarity. Whereas you see mine as an unfortunate mental state to be addressed through rationality, I see it as the guiding force in my life, and when I said that "I am not a mistake," this is partly what I had reference to. I don't want to take a rosy view, but rather to follow the path that I am on which, I believe, is the only path open to me, given who I am. I not only believe that it is a valid path, I think it is an admirable path. Maybe someday it will lead me to have the mental state of that monk, but in any case, I find within myself depths that I wouldn't reach if I didn't live with the thought of death.
"While reading your articulate post it occurred to me just how afraid most people are of atheism."

It scares me even now, but when I was an adolescent theist, I was attracted to it, at least to the extent of wanting to meet a "real atheist" and hear what he or she had to say. The more I heard preachers condemn atheists, the more my curiosity grew about all manner of people whom my preachers condemned.

"People can't handle the notion that religion. or God, might not be real and no one wants to be proven wrong."

Of course. They don't want to end up like I, but what they fail to understand is that most atheists aren't like I am, at least in my experience.

"I don't believe the abolishment of religion would accomplish what many atheists seem to think it would."

Well, it is true that the parts of the world--and of America--that have the highest standard of living tend to be the ones that are the least religious. You might argue that this could be a coincidence, and I have no proof otherwise except to say that religion does appear to constrict rather than to open. Some might point out that people have starved to death under various atheistic regimes, but I would argue that those regimes typically made Communism their religion.

Joe Pereira said...

Snow, you are a rational atheist with no axe to grind. I too despair at times with the vitriol spat out by some atheists but also understand their frustration. Extremists are a danger to society, and extremist non-theists an even greater danger. Anyway, your blog is popular at least with one atheist :)

All Consuming said...

I think there's every chance that a purpose of kinds may be there, though why it would have to be the 'God' based one I really cannot fathom, because it could be aliens, or something far beyond our comprehension. I cannot possibly know if this is the case, but I like to think it may be so, and it doesn't matter if I am wrong because I'll only find out when I'm dead. Or not if you get me. I get my peace from those I surround myself with, and my purpose has always been clear and just keeps getting clearer; I'm supposed to make people happy, and they may, in return reciprocate. A friend once told me, not so long ago that she believes I, like herself and many others, am an angel of sorts, just awakening and realising that I am a higher being, and eventually everyone will transcend from where and who they are now, but some kind of awakening needs to occur for this to happen. Or that's as much as I understood from it. It sounds lovely and it might be true. If so then I am definitely a plausible angel let's face it, and if not, then I'll not be terribly disappointed because I have no deep feelings invested within the idea. We create our own private hells on top of the unfortunate miseries we encounter it seems, and I believe that if there's anyone out there looking down upon us theyre smart enough to know the good folks from the bad without taking into account who sings the loudest in church. I wish religion didn't pain you so, but I know there's not much I can do about that but try and lighten your day occasionally with distractions and love.

TJH said...

"and extremist non-theists an even greater danger. "

Define "extremist non theist", and provide examples of this "danger", please.

Snowbrush said...

" Extremists are a danger to society, and extremist non-theists an even greater danger."

Joe, I'm curious as to why you think that people with no unifying belief would behave worse than those who think it's God's will that they oppress anyone who disagrees with them.

"your blog is popular at least with one atheist :)"

I would guess that, at this point, most of my active readers are either atheists or people for whom religion doesn't matter, but I was speaking of the atheist online community, such as it is. Perhaps, I don't network enough, or I'm not left-brain enough, or I don't blog exclusively about atheism/religion, or I don't focus enough on current events. Whatever the reason, I lack popularity, yet I see myself as being unique whereas I see most atheist bloggers as offering pretty much the same left-brain arguments and viewpoints as other atheist bloggers--arguments and viewpoints that have been around for decades if not centuries. Maybe it's my uniqueness that isn't considered desirable. That said, I don't really want to be an atheist blogger who only writes for atheist bloggers. I very much want to attract and feel connected to religious people too. To this end, I sometimes visit blogs that are critical of atheism, but when I comment, no matter how tactfully, it soon becomes clear that the blogger doesn't want to hear my views because his goal is to portray atheists as evil through and through, and to hear anything that conflicts with that goal makes his furious. One recently told me that he knows more about atheists and atheism than I do (he had implied that all atheists are Communists, and I had dared to disagree based upon the fact that I've never met an atheist who was a Communist). I find this sentiment common. When I ask myself who is more hateful, atheist bloggers or religious bloggers, I must say that I think it is the latter because whereas I have visited atheist blogs in which the blog owner and his (it's always a he) readers tried to engage a religious commenter with interest and respect, I've never seen this with religious bloggers. They either ignore atheists completely or they slam them. I'm always shocked by how articulate, rational, and goodwilled some of them seem, right up until someone disagrees with them. I find the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde scary, and it goes a long way to heighten my mistrust of those on the other side of the atheism/theism argument.

"I think there's every chance that a purpose of kinds may be there, though why it would have to be the 'God' based one I really cannot fathom, because it could be aliens, or something far beyond our comprehension."

Wouldn't something "far beyond our comprehension" qualify as God? As for aliens, which seems more unlikely, aliens or God? I suppose God, yet positing a God would answer a lot more questions than positing aliens. Also, aliens would certainly be much more advanced than we, but they still wouldn't rise to the level of a deity. My main problems with a deity are (1) the complete lack of evidence, and (2) the existence of suffering. I'm somewhat impressed with the fact that nearly everyone who ever lived believed in God, yet the God(s) in whom they believed were so very, very different from one another that such beliefs seem more likely to be rooted in culture and psychology rather than fact.

"Define "extremist non theist", and provide examples of this "danger", please."

Let's hope Joe will address our questions. One of the things I dislike about blogging is that I sometimes spend a lot of time responding to a comment without knowing if the reader will ever see my response or my question.

All Consuming said...

Yes something far beyond our comprehension would qualify as God, it just seem very unlikely given, as you say yourself the lack of evidence for a God. The chances of intelligent life out there are enormous, it's nigh on impossible we are all that exists, and I don't see why God would answer more questions at all, I think quite the opposite. All the reasons that 'God' seems to be unlikely - the pain, misery, suffering, anger, cruelty, etc, make this God sound like a human. A really moody human who can be as cruel and he or she is benevolent. Therefore another form of intelligent life, something loving and breathing that could stand before us seems quite rational to me. If and when intelligent life from other planets is found or turns up, no one will have to 'believe' in them, because they'll be right there, or at least will be communicating with everyone. I'm guessing.

Snowbrush said...

"I don't see why God would answer more questions at all, I think quite the opposite. "

This is true in terms of such questions as how a perfect being could have created such a screwed-up world and continues to this day to remain mysteriously absent instead of doing something to fix it. However, what I had in mind was the purpose of the creation itself, something that beings from another world couldn't have done or accounted for. Of course, as I understand it, one of the contributions of Stephen Hawking was to show that no creative force was necessary, which would make at least one question moot.

"All the reasons that 'God' seems to be unlikely - the pain, misery, suffering, anger, cruelty, etc, make this God sound like a human. A really moody human who can be as cruel and he or she is benevolent."

In case you don't know (and why would you since you don't have much interest in the subject), theodicy is the theological term for the study of why an all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful creator did such an apparently bad job. I know of no answer that any theologian has ever provided that can pass the straight-face test for me, although most believers profess to think it makes perfect sense to blame it on the sins of Adam and Eve, or to claim that God has given us the means to make the world into a paradise if only we would put aside our hatred and selfishness, or even to say that suffering is nothing more than an illusion. As for God sounding like a human, indeed that is how he's (he IS a he) is portrayed in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Bible where he becomes jealous, helps his Chosen People win battles, throws tantrums and kills people only to later feel about it, regards women and Gentiles as inferior, covers his naked ass when revealing himself to Moses, and so forth. As with theodicy, there is nothing about this deity that allows him to pass the straight-face test where I am concerned, although millions upon millions of people the world over don't seem to have my problem. The fact that so many can so easily believe things which strike me as utterly irrational, contradictory, cruel, and bizarre, bothers me quite a bit. Indeed, they are a main reason that I have so little respect for my species, yet I'm fully aware that a lot of these believers are fine people in terms of virtue and intelligence.

"If and when intelligent life from other planets is found or turns up, no one will have to 'believe' in them, because they'll be right there, or at least will be communicating with everyone."

What! You don't think they're likely to only reveal themselves to people in ancient times and tell them to pass the word along, or else to communicate the information to some dude in New York state by way of writing on plates of gold, and then taking the plates back to space when he's done transferring everything to paper? God but you're hard to please. Talk to everyone? Let everyone know what they want rather than demanding that we believe without evidence on threat of everlasting torment in a lake of fire? I can't imagine.

PhilipH said...

I always try to listen to BBC Radio 4 from about 7.30 a.m. until 9 a.m. as it's one of the best and most informative radio programmes available.

But NOT on Sundays! Dammit.

At 8.10 a.m. on Sundays we are offered "Sunday Worship" with a lot of droning hymns and prayers and other mind-numbing noise. I always switch the radio off when this starts.

Wouldn't it be fair to have at least one Sunday broadcast of the opposite of religion?

How would that be done? Maybe a group of non-believers having a go at explaining the impossibility of 'ever-lasting' life? Or asking "who in their right mind would WANT such a thing?"

Just a silly thought of course but in the interest of 'balance' it could be justified perhaps.

Joe Pereira said...

Hi Snow, by extremist non-theists I was referring to people such as Stalin, Pol Pot and, to a degree, Hitler. It appears, and you may well disagree with me, that somehow those nasty characters are even nastier when they have no fear of divine retribution.I do however agree that non-believers in general are much less dangerous than believers, and incarceration stats available prove the point.

Myrna R. said...

You're an awesome writer Snow. Your writing is so utterly sincere and thought provoking. I admire the depth of your introspection. Today, you've led me to really think about how/what to do with the rest of my life. It is indeed so precious. Thank you.

Snowbrush said...

"At 8.10 a.m. on Sundays we are offered "Sunday Worship" with a lot of droning hymns and prayers and other mind-numbing noise."

But no special programming slots for atheists, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Wiccans, and Sabbath Day Adventists? So much for religious neutrality by the BBC. The Catholic-dominated Supreme Court here in America recently declared that it's acceptable to open government meetings with prayers to Jesus, a practice which likewise sends the message that the Christian religion is preferred over all others, and that non-Christians cannot therefore trust that they will receive equal treatment. I stopped thinking that my American citizenship meant much years ago largely because of Supreme Court decisions. The founders of this country envisioned a separation between church and state, but that vision is being increasingly lost.

"Wouldn't it be fair to have at least one Sunday broadcast of the opposite of religion?"

Such tactics are often taken here by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. For instance, in towns where the local government allows nativity scenes on public property (sometimes in state capitols themselves), the FFRF demands (and usually receives under threat of lawsuit) equal space to erect secular displays. Of course, their displays are frequently vandalized, but they just put them back up again.

"Stalin, Pol Pot and, to a degree, Hitler. It appears, and you may well disagree with me, that somehow those nasty characters are even nastier when they have no fear of divine retribution."

Thanks for answering my question, Joe. You're right in that we disagree. Most theists seem to think that atheists are less moral because they don't fear hell, but I've seen no evidence of this because, after all, a Christian believer, for example, can do any lowdown thing, ask forgiveness "for Christ's sake," and be instantly cleared of all charges. The only risk they run is that they might have the misfortune to die before they can ask forgiveness, but given how quickly forgiveness can be asked for, it seems a small risk unless, of course, one must ask forgiveness from a priest. Yet, I haven't noted that such a lag makes Catholics behave better than Protestants. We must also consider how badly believers sometimes act because they think it WILL win divine approval (suicides bombings, the Inquisition, the oppression of atheists, Jews, women, etc.). As for the morality of atheists, I can't really say whether they are more moral than believers, but given the high standards of most of the atheists I've known, and the low standards of many believers, if I were to guess which, if either, group is more moral, I would vote for the atheists. I can only guess why this should be the case--and I could well be wrong--but it seems to me that the intellectual courage and integrity that goes into making people atheists in a religiously-dominated society also gives them a higher degree of moral courage and integrity.

"Today, you've led me to really think about how/what to do with the rest of my life."

Thank you, Myra. It means a lot to think that what I have to say is at least meaningful to a few people.

All Consuming said...

Another great post with thoughtful interesting discussions, none of which include name calling and some of which (you're in there) have some humour thrown in. I've enjoyed this. *smiles.

David said...

Hi Snow,
I have just found your blog, it was linked by another atheist blogger I read.
You said: "While I’m very much a real atheist intellectually, I can’t rid myself of the emotional need to believe that life has an objective meaning, that is a meaning that can only come from God, because to think of it as a mere flash of awareness punctuated at either end by infinite nothingness makes it absurd..."

I agree that on reflection, life is in fact absurd, but, it doesn't feel absurd to me; IOW, I don't really feel that it is absurd, even though I do agree that it is in fact absurd.

I think this is perhaps a matter of temperament, as you had noted, but, I think that there is something else here as well; I think that there is a mindset that can be cultivated that will remove that feeling of absurdity, even though it won't change the reality.
When I was a Christian, and was starting to question the religion, I alternated between feeling that our so-called purpose here on earth was either: a glorious battle, in which I played a part, or, completely absurd and empty; but in both situations, I believed in the truth of Christianity. This is difficult to put into words, but the idea that we are here as a test, and then we go to heaven, where we worship God non-stop, but where we also feel no sadness for our friends and relatives who are in hell, feels like a pretty paltry purpose. How grand is it really, if your mission is simply to believe in things that are difficult to believe in, tell others about them, and then go to heaven, where you just sit in God's presence(whatever that means) for eternity, and aren't the least bit bothered that people you loved are in hell?
This purpose is no less absurd than a "mere flash of awareness punctuated at either end by infinite nothingness"
Take the story of Adam and Eve, what was their objective purpose? They were designed to just exist for God's pleasure, that's it. Not so grand.

Now as an atheist, when I sometimes slip into that old mindset, and when I remember what it felt like to think I was part of a glorious battle, I feel that my life is empty and sad; but, when I remember how even the grandest promises of Christianity, even if they were true, are small and petty, I no longer miss them, and this seems to help me view this life I have as fun and precious.

I hope I made some sense here as I haven't tried to articulate this idea before.

kj said...

hi snow, i keep thinking god (small g) dwells within me as me and that is a helpful pathfinder.

i brought my daughter up with no religion. i don't think she has the interest or need to question anything from theology but i sometimes wonder what she does when she's in a jam. because i pray when my back's to the wall. habit, but it seems to infuse me with either hope or power. my jessica, i don't know how she handles the i-pray jams of life.

wishing you a good summer, snow.

love
kj

kylie said...

"If they are religious, they are discouraged from questioning because questioning suggests a lack of faith, the goal being to believe without evidence and therefore without questioning. If I say this in error, maybe one of my religious readers will be so kind as to point it out."
I guess you have worked out by now that I dont really follow all of the stereotypes of Christianity. I have often heard people in the church say that doubt has no place in a life of faith but as I see it, a good and generous God will understand the struggle of belief. may I also say that (in my opinion) a faith that has been questioned and struggled over and which one may never have complete confidence in but has remained is worth far more than a "faith" that is inherited and thoughtlessly accepted.
I am pretty sure my view is supported by theology but I have forgotten how i came to that conclusion.

ellen abbott said...

well, I'm guessing that since my comment hasn't shown up that Blogger ate it. It was a long comment too and impossible to reproduce. that's the second time that's happened to me on your blog.

Snowbrush said...

"I don't really feel that it is absurd, even though I do agree that it is in fact absurd."

I can understand how this might be so, but I also suspect that you stay busier than I, so you're better able to put aside your belief that life is absurd. I live with physical pain, and it has tended to isolate me over the years and to take away my ability to do certain types of work, and and has resulted in a moderate tendency toward moroseness becoming full-blown, which means that I dwell more on such issues than I would if I were caught up in a life of work and friends. I should also mention that I'm 65, which means that, according to the actuarial tables, I can expect to be dead in 16 years, which is almost like going to the doctor and being told that I have a terminal illness. This has also tended to make me more serious-minded. As I see it, we are all ruled by our dispositions, but the extent to which our dispositions gain or lose strength is large circumstantial.

"I think that there is a mindset that can be cultivated that will remove that feeling of absurdity, even though it won't change the reality."

Based upon my experiences, I rather think that distraction is the key as noted in my previous sentences. If we're in good health, doing things that we enjoy, and spending time with people we care for, we can find fulfillment in the present even though we have no confidence that the overall picture has meaning. I think that we humans often give ourselves credit when credit really belongs to our circumstances rather than to our enlightenment.

I agree with everything you said--and it was indeed well said--about the absurdity of Christianity and the Christian view of heaven. It also portrays Gods in an appallingly unflattering light, and although it talks of universal love, it is really a form of tribalism.

I found it interesting that your choices seemed to come down to atheism or Christianity. I know that when my faith started sliding (at age 11 or 12--I remember the event, but not my exact age), I spent the next several years desperately praying for faith, opening my Bible at random looking for messages from God, etc. Then, I started reading Alan Watts, taking hallucinogenics, and exploring other religions as well as Christian views that were very different from the fundamentalist ones I had grown up with. In other words, I went full-tilt to hang onto some form of theism, and I'm wondering if you didn't do the same.

Snowbrush said...

"i keep thinking god (small g) dwells within me as me and that is a helpful pathfinder."

Jesus said the same, although the church as a whole seems to emphasize God's transcendence rather than his imminence. In your own life, do you try to articulate what it means when you say that God dwells within, and can you say what you gain from this that you wouldn't have if you believed otherwise?

"I have often heard people in the church say that doubt has no place in a life of faith but as I see it, a good and generous God will understand the struggle of belief."

Could it be that the church you attend is a lot more conservative than you are? I don't know that doubt is welcomed--much less embraced--by any church because the more that doubt gains a foothold, the less the likelihood that a person will overcome it. Yet, many people in liberal churches use their doubt as a pathway to another vision of God, whereas people in conservative churches tend to see as the greatest enemy of faith and a personal threat to their own faith.

"I'm guessing that since my comment hasn't shown up that Blogger ate it."

Ellen, I'm sick over this. As for it happening more on my blog, I have no knowledge of that, but I usually frame my responses in Word or even in Mail rather than on my blog. I do this partly so that I won't lose them, and partly because I don't like writing long responses in a tiny little box. If I write a long response on someone else's blog, I often do the same. It seems to me that Blogspot used to lose a lot more responses than it does at present because I remember a time when it happened to me a lot that whatever page I was commenting on would suddenly reload, and it now only happens rarely.

David W said...

@ Snowbrush
“"I think that there is a mindset that can be cultivated that will remove that feeling of absurdity, even though it won't change the reality."

Based upon my experiences, I rather think that distraction is the key as noted in my previous sentences. If we're in good health, doing things that we enjoy, and spending time with people we care for, we can find fulfillment in the present even though we have no confidence that the overall picture has meaning. I think that we humans often give ourselves credit when credit really belongs to our circumstances rather than to our enlightenment.”

Interesting, I think that you must be right on target here. I am busy, and am younger as well, 32 y.o., so death does seem to be safely in the distance for me.
I can’t disagree when you mention that our circumstances really deserve the credit, I suppose I can only hope that my end of life circumstances are positive, and that if they ever reach the level of causing me significantly more misery than joy, that I have the courage to opt for euthanasia.
“I found it interesting that your choices seemed to come down to atheism or Christianity. I know that when my faith started sliding (at age 11 or 12--I remember the event, but not my exact age), I spent the next several years desperately praying for faith, opening my Bible at random looking for messages from God, etc. Then, I started reading Alan Watts, taking hallucinogenics, and exploring other religions as well as Christian views that were very different from the fundamentalist ones I had grown up with. In other words, I went full-tilt to hang onto some form of theism, and I'm wondering if you didn't do the same.”
I began to really examine my beliefs as a Junior in college where I majored in philosophy.
In the required ‘philosophy of religion’ courses the arguments for and against god/s were critically examined, rather than the specific claims of an particular religion.
Rather than beginning to doubt just Christianity, I began to doubt the existence of god/s. I then began to doubt the existence of the supernatural.
I just really had nowhere else to go once I disbelieved in the god hypothesis.
My turn to atheism took some time however, as I somehow managed to hold on to some sort of ‘spiritual belief’ until the last 2 years.
During the last two years I have returned to school, and am attending a Christian university, where I am completing a degree in the medical field. Anyhow, the constant exposure to religion really rekindled my interest in philosophy of religion, and now, thanks to Christianity, and to this particular universities requirement that I attend chapel, I now call myself atheist. Ironic no?

kylie said...

my church is more conservative than me, yes. in every possible way. conservative Christianity and conservative politics frustrate me, esp when Christian people are right wing......
dont get me started

possum said...

Great post, as usual, Snow. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, maybe even scary to some folks. This is a good thing! But then, it took me a long time to realize that some folks just don’t have the brains to process some concepts and if, as a Buddhist, I had concern for their happiness, I had to accept that that was where they were in this lifetime and their limitations would keep them there… and I also had to accept that many of these people were indeed kind people, capable of love and compassion, and when they say they will pray for me and my salvation, today I just smile and thank them and say I will pray for them, too.
I tend to avoid those that actively try to get me “saved.” I went down that road as a teen. It didn’t take, apparently. I do work with some religious people with whom we have an agreement to not push our belief agendas on each other.
I remember being told in college that religions were only a form of crowd control and a means of making money to perpetuate that crowd control. It made sense to me, but it did not stop me from becoming an Episcopalian to please my lover and future spouse. Knowing a truth and acting on it takes more maturity than I had at 20, maybe even 30?
I do believe in higher-powers, but not as objects of worship. Gravity is surely a higher power, and not always a friendly one, right? Falling out of a tree or just tripping over a cat is a rather good example, yet the Great God Gravity keeps our cars on the road most of the time, and our furniture from floating away.
The Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying that kindness is his religion. That sounds like a good religion to me. Probably the only one I can’t find fault with. What will it bring me when I die? Guess I will have to wait and find out. At 70, that time is getting closer, and that is OK, too. I accept there are things that are beyond my knowing or understanding and I no longer beat myself up because of it. It is sort of comforting to know there are others out there that go thru the same searching.

Snowbrush said...

"Another great post with thoughtful interesting discussions, none of which include name calling and some of which (you're in there) have some humour thrown in."

Thank you.

"I can only hope that my end of life circumstances are positive, and that if they ever reach the level of causing me significantly more misery than joy, that I have the courage to opt for euthanasia."

I assume that you're including self-euthanasia, i.e. suicide, since you wouldn't have any other option in most places. Here in Oregon, there's an assisted suicide law. Three doctors have to certify that you're within six months of death after which you're given a prescription for barbiturates that you have to be able to administer to yourself. A lot of people who might have very good reasons for wanting to die wouldn't qualify. I would guess that the major fear of those who are starting to get up in years is senility, so if I (for example) were diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I would have to kill myself in the best way I could before I was ready. Various physically disabling diseases leave people in the same situation.

"I just really had nowhere else to go once I disbelieved in the god hypothesis."

I see your point, but I can think of religions that don't have--or at least don't insist upon--the supernatural, most notably Buddhism. While a lot of Buddhists believe all sorts of woo-woo things, I've never seen evidence that the Buddha himself believed them (Possum can probably tell us). Rather Buddhism has evolved to be very different from one place to another. Even in the fold of Christianity, not everyone believes in the supernatural--Episcopal Bishop John Spong being a prominent modern representative of non-theistic Christianity. There's also the loosely theistic Unitarian Church, which has moved so far from its Christian roots that it no longer calls itself Christian. When I was a member of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis (they disavowed the word church), I never met a theistic member--including the minister. Some Quaker groups will also accept atheists. What I miss about church is social support and ritual, so if I knew of a body that had these but lacked the theistic requirement, I would attend if I liked it. As it is, there are such places here in Eugene, Oregon, but they're either Quaker, Unitarian or Buddhist, and I didn't care for any of the groups I've visited.

"my church is more conservative than me, yes. in every possible way."

It would make me crazy to ALWAYS feel like the odd man out.

"when they say they will pray for me and my salvation, today I just smile and thank them and say I will pray for them, too."

When people know I'm an atheist but continue to say they're praying for me despite my request that they not do so, I take it to mean that they either have a very bad memory, or they're passive-aggressive. After all, there are many ways ones can express caring, so when someone insists on choosing the very way that is the most meaningless to me, I don't think it's out of love. This doesn't mean that I shut the person out of my life, but that I regard them with less respect and affection.

"I tend to avoid those that actively try to get me “saved.'”

Now, this wouldn't bother me unless they kept it up to the point that it became the focal point of our relationship. I say this because I actually enjoy debating religion.

"The Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying that kindness is his religion."

Bertrand Russell said as much, but no matter who said it first, it's still something that both theists and atheists can surely agree would make the world a better place.

Possum, please read my response to David and tell me if I'm in error about the Buddha not expressing supernaturalist views.

David W said...

"What I miss about church is social support and ritual, so if I knew of a body that had these but lacked the theistic requirement, I would attend if I liked it."

I have gone back and forth on this front. I do miss parts of the Church experience, but for me, there was more negative than positive; not overwhelmingly more, just more.
I would be happy to add more social support to my life, I am just afraid that if I were to find that social support in any group that claimed the title of "church," that I would find that the same back-biting superficial people, who are only concerned with being seen, and having their children seen, attending, and acting in very particular ways, would show up and ruin the experience for me.
My biggest complaint with the church experience was that interesting philosophical/deep conversation was never had; you either fell in line with the expected behavior and question sets OR you were "not right with God" etc.
The pastor would give a straightforward sermon I had heard before, (there a limited number of sermons I have noticed), people would make sure they said "amen" a handful of times, and loudly enough to be heard by neighbors, and then everyone would just completely agree, and say things like "what a great service," "God really touched my heart," "I feel moved to give/pray/help/teach/learn/etc"(then they would go home and do nothing of the sort).

Anyhow, I think the bottom line is that as a Christian, in order to diminish cognitive dissonance, one can't study the Bible too carefully, or ask too many questions; it is safer to stick with the material the pastor has cherry-picked for his sermons, and the material your Bible-study group has laid out to study in their curriculum/Bible-study guide.
Also, there really just isn't that much to study; if one wants to focus on the positive parts of the Bible while minimizing cognitive bias, you are forced to ignore large parts of the Bible.
I suppose that some would consider apologetics to be of interest, however, for me, it just appears REALLY desperate; and boils down to "I am soo afraid of relying upon faith, and soo afraid of being wrong, that I am going to miss the forest, and look at this tiny little tree of Biblical historicity, and then pretend that the historicity of the Bible proves that: there is a supernatural real and that Jesus was the Son of the Christian God." All the while, ignoring that there is a complete lack of evidence of the supernatural of any stripe in our world today.

Anyhow, I suppose I am just taking a long time to say that I never found substantive discussion at any of the Church's that I attended, and I don't find it now at the Christian University I am attending. I do find plenty of assertions, which are then backed up with God's Word and which one must not question without risking being ostracized, but what fun is that?

Snowbrush said...

"I am just afraid that if I were to find that social support in any group that claimed the title of "church," that I would find that the same back-biting superficial people"

One of my main complaints about Christianity is its shallowness. I have sought out, not churches, but church Sunday schools in the hope of learning more about Christian thought and engaging in interesting discussions, but I haven't found any such schools (the local Unitarians don't even have an adult Sunday school, and many other churches are the same way). I thought that, surely, in the more educated and liberal churches, there would be more depth, but, alas, there wasn't, belief coming down to blind acceptance just as much in liberal churches as in conservative ones. Toward the end of 2012, I started attending a mid-week Bible study at an Episcopal Church as an open atheist, my hope being that a dialogue might develop that would promote understanding on my part and theirs. Oddly, the other attendees were initially very warm and welcoming but showed zero interest in what my goals were or in my thoughts as an atheist. I later concluded that they probably thought I was there because I was wavering about religion, but I was far from it. In any event, by the time I left, I felt that they hated me, and since I hadn't been rude or argumentative, I concluded that their Christian love had been shallow if not insincere. I blogged about all this back in November and December of 2012 if you're interested. Obviously, there was more to the story than I can get into here.

Snowbrush said...

"My biggest complaint with the church experience was that interesting philosophical/deep conversation was never had; you either fell in line with the expected behavior and question sets OR you were "not right with God" etc."

Exactly. When I ask myself why things are as bad as they are, all I can come up is shallowness. Of course, one might ask if atheist groups (there being a few such groups in my area) are any different or even any less dogmatic, or if the problem isn't so much a religious problem as a human problem. I think that in large part it is, but I can't get away from the fact that nearly all theists avow a creed that includes universal love, whereas atheists do not, so for me to have such an experience as I did in that Episcopal Church where I put myself into the mouth of the lion to speak and was rewarded with hostile looks and open rudeness, couldn't help but make me wonder how much their creed of love meant to them. Christians say they're not perfect, and the truth of their statement is indeed obvious, but what I don't get is why persist in hatefulness and unethical behavior. It's not just that they make mistakes, and then catch themselves and behave differently, it's that they continue living shallow, hateful, hypocritical lives. I think it fair to ask how much of this is a problem with human nature and how much of it comes from the source of their religion. I know that Jesus spoke in terms of sheep and goats, of people being either with him or against him, of selling one's coat to buy a sword, of his disciples dusting their feet off after talking with people who refused to worship him, and so forth. All this makes me think that Jesus himself was as two-faced in his talk of love as are most of his followers, so one shouldn't be surprised that they are no better than their master.

" I think the bottom line is that as a Christian, in order to diminish cognitive dissonance, one can't study the Bible too carefully, or ask too many questions"

I agree completely. It's better to focus on the story of the Prodigal Son than on how God wiped out nearly living thing on earth in a flood. That said, not every church takes the Bible literally, or considers every part of the Bible inspired. Still, I think you're right even in regard to such liberal churches as I have reference to. It all comes down to faith, although for the life of me I can't tell the difference in unsubstantiated faith and wishful thinking.

"I suppose that some would consider apologetics to be of interest, however, for me, it just appears REALLY desperate;"

Again, I agree. One looks at the sheer multitude of religious bodies and believers, and the tremendous influence they have upon the lives of everyone in this land--not to mention this world--and then comes away confounded by how little they have to support their faith. I would even say that they have nothing to support their faith. Yet, they are in the vast majority. I've read that over 20% of Americans are now unaffiliated with a religion, but only about 4-6% of those are atheists or agnostics.

The Purple Assassin. said...

Faith is each's individual story.
What you believe in, and the way you perceive it is yours.

Even if you're an atheist, yet you can't deny the nature, the universe, the space, the miracles.

I believe we're all a part of a mystical reality, but instead of seeking out, the truth lies in seeking within, because the magic of the universe is imbibed in each of us, but only those who seek, find it.

Snowbrush said...

"Faith is each's individual story.
What you believe in, and the way you perceive it is yours."

I agree, but perhaps you will agree that not all faith is equal.

"Even if you're an atheist, yet you can't deny the nature, the universe, the space, the miracles."

I think it likely that all atheists deny the existence of miracles inasmuch as miracles are defined as events that transcend natural law--like levitation, for example. This means that any phenomenon that is called a miracle is a phenomenon that could be expected to occur within the normal course of things. The odds of it having happened might have been low, but they were still within the realm of possibility.

"the magic of the universe is imbibed in each of us, but only those who seek, find it."

This paints atheists--if not most theists--as people who refuse to look within, and therefore as people who lack openness, courage, or depth. It's an unsubstantiable position in that you cannot know what is in the hearts of other people or how hard many of us have tried to do the very thing that you claim will put us in touch with a mystical reality. The 19th century Transcendentalist held to the very position you do, yet they could not agree among themselves about what this mystical reality was and what lessons it had to teach, and this failure to find agreement was what led to the fragmentation of their movement. It's also the case that when someone claims to have mystical insights, if these insights are of any use to others, then surely it is that person's responsibility to tell those of us who lack such insights what they are--or at least give us directions as to how we can achieve them--so that we too can live better lives. Of course, you will also need to show us why we should prefer your insights over the insights of others, and why we should believe that your insights came from a mystical realm rather than from your own psychology. Religion/spirituality/mysticism invariably bogs down in that it amounts to a position of unsubstantiable faith. You know, I suppose, that much of what is called mysticism can be induced in a laboratory setting even in people who don't believe in mystical experiences. I find it interesting that nonbelievers who have such experiences still don't believe in a mystical realm when the experience is over because they attribute it to physical causes rather than to mystical causes. This is the case with me I because I think it likely that I have had similar experiences to the ones you've had, especially on hallucinogenics. For instance, I've seen numerous demons up close and personal, yet I no more believe in demons now than I did before I saw them. I've also felt the presence of spirits above my head, and I even heard them talking, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. Even without drugs, I once saw the physical embodiment of my dog so clearly that I spoke to her, only to learn that she was someplace else. And so forth. My conclusion from such things is that "mystical" experiences are probably common, my disagreement with you not being about whether they exist but to what they can be attributed.