I have a real problem with Atheists. It doesn’t faze me that they don’t believe in God – everyone experiences the world differently and, as far as I’m concerned, there’s about an equal chance that there is a God as there isn’t or that there are many. I respect the Atheist point of view because I understand it, and the recent surge of hard-core atheism promoted by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins seems like a rational answer to the atrocities committed in the name of a god.
But, just as I hate being pushed in a corner by some doe-eyed Evangelical insisting that I need to be “saved”, I’m sick and tired of being talked down to by Atheists, as if a belief in a religion is a mental deficiency. I’m thinking of the advertisements that went up on buses in and around London recently (I heard about them on Boing Boing).
I’ve never been overly religious – as I said above, different people view the world differently and your interpretation is ultimately as valid as mine, so I have no problem with the different belief systems out there, so long as they’re ultimately compatible with a peaceful society. I have had experiences in my life and been exposed to things that I can not easily explain through simple science that are, in some ways, compatible with many of the religious beliefs out there. I believe in the power of prayer, even if I do have a scientific, psychology-based reason for it. At the end of the day, I like the idea of some ethereal force that connects us all and guides us when we call on it. I like the idea of God and, therefore, am a believer because it makes my life a little easier to comprehend.
In college, a good friend of mine had just finished reading Ayn Rand and was, therefore, going through the post-Rand douchebag phase of unjustified superiority. Among other things, reading Rand had convinced him that Atheism was the right belief and it somehow became his duty to promote it. He expounded on the philosophy of Objectivism over and over, of how self-interest is the highest virtue, etc. etc. When we got to talking about religion, though, he dismissed my beliefs and my experiences out of hand. I told him when I was very young, an angel appeared in my room. I wasn’t sick and I wasn’t asleep. She stood before me, beautiful, radiant, just smiling down on me. It was such a jarring experience I can still see it in my mind’s eye clear as day. I called to my mother, who was just across the hall, to come in and see. As soon as my mother crossed through my doorway, the angel was gone. Mom hadn’t seen a thing.
My friend immediately dismissed it as a child’s overactive imagination, or that I was actually asleep and didn’t realize it or I was hallucinating. I said that all were possible, but it had such a profound effect on me in my life and has affected the way I choose to live. It gave me some sense of hope and made me feel special. Any explanation one could give for the experience could be considered valid, but only one explanation gave the experience meaning, and that was the one I chose to believe. He, of course, dismissed me as being willfully ignorant.
I asked him if he had ever experienced anything like that. He could not in all honesty say yes. And here is where I think the biggest failing in Atheism lies – an inability to relate to another’s experience does not invalidate their experience. A more pedestrian example: I love hamburgers made out of ostrich meat – they’re REALLY delicious. But, if you’re weirded out by eating an ostrich or are just not into eating animals, you may think ostrich burgers are absolutely disgusting, even if you’ve never tasted one. You may even go so far as to think I’m an idiot for enjoying them, though you have absolutely no basis for making such an irrational judgement on me. Until you’ve eaten an ostrich burger yourself, you have no right to judge me. And, if even after you’ve eaten that burger you think I’m crazy, the most you should be able to rationally say about me is that I have weird tastes, but it doesn’t make me a bad person.
If you have had no experiences in your life that equal the ones that have convinced me there’s something more going on out there than science alone can explain, you have no rational basis on which to judge me as an idiot or mentally deficient. A belief in God or the beyond is not the enemy of rational thought, nor necessarily is religion. Intolerance and a willingness to follow only those parts of a belief system that fit your narrow-minded world view are the real enemies, which is why I have such a problem with most fundamentalists who believe in the Bible as infallible truth. The Bible is full of contradictions, sometimes within the same passages. If you believe it is infallible, you must also believe that, in Genesis, God placed an upper limit on human life as 120 years, but a chapter later he allowed Noah and some of his kin to live for 600 years plus. In that same story, God admits his own fallibility – he destroys all life on Earth with a massive flood, then apologizes, regrets his decision and promises never to do it again. Therefore, God makes mistakes and, if you believe that God made the Bible, the Bible could contain more mistakes and is, therefore, not infallible.
But religious fundamentalists aren’t the only enemies of rational thought – fundamental atheists are just as bad. Atheists have no right to dismiss the beliefs of others as wrong. While there is no tangible evidence in the existence of God, neither is there any evidence to disprove such an existence. The absence of proof is not proof of the opposite and, therefore, Atheists stand on the same shaky ground as believers when it comes to defending their position. Both are valid points of view worthy of debate, but neither are absolutely right or wrong.
Now, there are folks who will call me a lousy Christian. Christ told us to go forth and spread the Gospel. By allowing Atheists to exist and not trying to convert them, I’m, therefore, doing some harm against Christ.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Gospel of Christ is his teachings, which can ultimately be boiled down to “Be good to each other, respect each other, respect yourselves and strive for peace and justice for all people.” Christ condemned a lot of people in the Gospels, but he condemned them for the way they treated other people. One famous example is the parable of the rich man, whose likelihood of getting into Heaven is that of a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. The moral of that tale is not that rich people are bad, but people who make their riches by subjugating others and looking out only for themselves are. And, sadly, it’s difficult to become extremely wealthy without compromising your morals.
Christ’s message is ultimately one of love, tolerance and inclusion. This is, after all, the guy who told us to turn the other cheek should someone smack us on the face. It’s a message shared by Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even socially-conscious Atheists, even if the source of the message is not the same. Christ’s message has been perverted by zealous followers, many of whom see an opportunity for self-aggrandizement in their public acts of piety. The shame in the pro-Christian, anti-Christian debate is that far too much argument has been made over improper readings of the teachings of Christ. Improper in the sense that many of the folks arguing have never actually read the teachings. The Bible itself has been famously censored and altered over the years – the Council of Nicea determining the ultimate codex 1500 years ago, the various reinterpretations deemed true by groups of cardinals at the Vatican summits – so arguing its infallibility is really a fruitless effort. Which is not to say that the messages in the Bible are irrelevant – speaking of Noah again, if you get too caught up in the inconsistencies of Noah’s age and the practicality of fitting two of every species on a boat, you miss the message of God’s passion and compassion for His creation and how his regret over killing off so much of his creation affects our relationship with him.
Go ahead and be Atheist if you want. If you fervently believe there’s no God, nothing beyond what science can tell you of the world, that’s a perfectly valid point of view. I tend to think it’s a rather unimaginative view of the world, however, which is why I’ll continue to content myself with the belief in something beyond what can be directly observed and measured, and I’ll expect you to continue to respect me for it. Together, we can rise up against those people who use their faith as a sword to punish those they disagree with, who close their minds to the boundless possibilities of the world so that they can feel safer in an artificial, controlled life that shuts out all things that bring them conflict. Religion is not the enemy of reason. A closed mind is.