An Atheist on Religion

The title of this post undoubtedly prepared you for some sort of inflammatory battle, because that’s the way interactions between people without a faith and people with a faith are framed. The word “Atheist” currently conjures up Richard Dawkins, an elderly biologist driven to unpleasant sniping in public forums by a lifetime of interacting with creationists and fundamentalists of several stripes rattling his metaphorical office door while he was trying to teach; a man who no more represents atheism and atheists than said creationists and fundamentalists represent their respective faiths. Of course there are people who will be swayed by a militantly anti-theist message, just as there are those who will be swayed by calls to hatred and biogtry within their chosen faith.

The primary difference there is that while there is a vague structure of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism etc to make these malcontents adhere to in order to genuinely claim themselves to be of that faith, the only requirement for someone to call themselves an atheist is for them to have no belief in any form of divine: as long as you have no god or gods, you are an atheist. Despite what humanist groups may try to push, there is no organisation of the faithless, no single uniting cause, no figurehead, no one to speak for everyone who looks into the universe and sees the hand of nothing but complex physics: “atheist” is in all courts barring “do you believe in a god or gods?” a term neutral by intent. An atheist is not automatically a wicked person or a good person, an intelligent person or a stupid person, an argumentative person or an entirely compliant one, any more than any person of faith is, and it’s counterproductive for movements of individual atheists to try to tar a broad variety of people with a narrow brush, and say “atheists are this” or “atheists are that”. Atheists are people who have no gods, and that is all.

But this isn’t a post called “An Atheist on Atheism”.

Recently I have been reading a book called The Lucifer Effect, which is despite the title absolutely nothing to do with religion, and in fact to do with social psychology: specifically the idea of situational evil and dehumanisation, both ideas which interested me when I was introduced to them in GCSE Sociology a million years ago. The idea of dehumanising and othering people on the basis of their faith bothers me, especially as there are plenty of explanations for the role that religion plays in societies and its continued popularity: I may not have any great use for faith and I may wish for a less judgemental and more sceptical populace, but I don’t think that’s going to be achieved by attacking the things people hold dear.

So I considered the things that are related to religion that I personally enjoy: not the things which are purported to serve societies or communities, not the things which benefit people involved in faith and faith’s structures within a society, but the parts of any given religion which I enjoy, as an atheist.

Positives

  • Singing in groups. There’s some sort of evolutionary or neurological reason for this, which escapes my mind, but while I’m normally highly averse to group activities and find them more alienating than bonding, singing the same song with a lot of other people who are also enjoying singing that song is a very uplifting experience. Of course, this is hardly restricted to religion: one only has to attend a football match, or a gig, or occasionally the top deck of a night bus to get the experience of communal singing.
  • Quiet contemplation. A principal tenet in many faiths is prayer or meditation, a time when the individual descends into silence to commune with their god or with their soul, typically in some place where this is recognised as the foremost activity. Calm and isolation, even within the crowd, or calm and isolation on one’s own in an environment conducive to that allows a break from the rush of daily concerns and also sometimes turns up solutions to problems by giving time to get to the bottom of them. Again, this is not restricted purely to religion: there are plenty of people of no specific faith who meditate, and moments of quiet contemplation frequently occur in museums, graveyards, art galleries, and spots of breath-taking natural beauty without the infraction of God or Gods.
  • Art in praise of a person or concept that one has great admiration for. Some of the most beautiful and stirring works of art in a variety of media – especially music – have been created in praise of various gods, the works of those gods, their intermediaries, or depicting moments from the lives of gods or their intermediaries. Even the admonition to withhold iconography of prophets and the creations of deities can cause creative praise to be channelled into areas exquisite delight, geometric and calligraphic. But of course these things are again not the sole province of faith: works of brutal beauty have been created in praise of mortal lovers, of the power of the sun, of the concept of charity, even in praise of military leaders.
  • Architecture. Religious architecture results in some of the finest buildings ever created by mankind. It would be impossible to look on Notre Dame, St Peter’s, Al Masjid Al-Haram, the Swaminarayan Akshardham, or Belz Beit HaMidrash HaGadol and not come away with some sense of awe at the magnificence and ingenuity of these imposing monuments, and the dedication off their builders and designers. The remnants of extinct religions too throw up miraculous structures in praise of their near-forgotten gods. But this fantastical array of buildings is also augmented by more secular entries: great halls for the feasting of kings, stadia for sports and theatre, markets, and in recent years even residential complexes all make their mark in terms of imposing and impressive architecture.
  • Emphasis on kindness towards others and provision for the needy. Many major faiths consider charity and support of the ill, poor, elderly, or otherwise worse-off than the powerful parts of the society to be a holy activity, one which enlivens the soul in the eyes of a God or Gods. It is considered beneficial to the self to behave in ways which are selfless, which is a beautiful but demonstrably accurate paradox. The thing about that is that empathy and charity particularly from powerful members of the group – ie, those with most to give – are built in to social primate groups: it’s not even “human” behaviour, it’s “social ape behaviour”, as outlined by Frans de Waal in Age of Empathy. The idea that these notions need codifying is slightly frightening.
  • Free food. Look, I’m easily won over, okay? Although advertising agencies and everyone from car companies to insurance brokers will also win me over with free food, so that’s not really specific to religion either.

So what are the things I, personally, dislike about religion?

Negatives

  • Abuse of power. Religions typically create hierarchies which are unquestioned, and in situations like that – as demonstrated in The Lucifer Effect and the keynote Stanford Prison Experiment – power is frequently abused as a matter of course. But that’s hardly unique to religion: military forces, academia, governments, commercial companies, hell even families form automatic hierarchies and within each of those examples abuses of power can and do regularly occur. Religions aren’t tainting hierarchies with power abuses, human nature taints any situation which is allowed a hierarchy with the possibility of abuse of power, and human nature imposes a hierarchy onto almost everything because that is simply how we’ve been wired for millennia.
  • Unquestioning acceptance of “facts” doled out by the appropriate authority figure. One frustrating side-effect of training people from young ages to accept the word of whichever God or Gods they follow as absolute and their earthly intermediaries as powerful is that this opens people up for exploitation from anyone hawking any old snake oil – because they don’t have the instinct or mental processes in place to question the validity of such claims. Personally I would be happier if people cited sources more, talked about biases more, asked for better, more deeply-examined answers to their questions. But that kind of acceptance isn’t the sole province of faith. Any situation where people are raised into unquestioning acceptance of answers – including most family environments – is going to leave them a little vulnerable to future exploitation. Liars and manipulators come in many stripes, and by no means all of them are Faithful (and indeed to say “most” of them are is presumably only because “most” people are still people of Faith).  Every individual has their own responsibility to learn to be more cautious and sceptical: that’s part of growing up.
  • Encouragement of tribalism and exclusion of/attacks on “the Other”. The word “infidel”, the word “heretic”, the countless holy wars, the ongoing demonisation of homosexuality by certain churches, the Crusades, the persecution of the Jews repeatedly throughout European history, the Proddy/Catholic divisions… religion seems like an endless engine of bigotry and tribalism, of manufacturing peace within at the cost of hatred without. It draws firm lines and places the label “good” on one side of the line and “evil” on the other, even when those lines are only national boundaries. Except: a good proportion of holy wars were fought over land and resources, with religion only providing a useful motivating tool (which as we can see in several 20th century conflicts regarding Communism is not the sole form of persuasive ideology); us and them is an ancient form of human interaction as natural to the species as forming automatic hierarchies, or taking care of our sick and elderly. It can be subverted, as can the desire to protect the weak. Non-religious ideologies have also been used to drive bigotry: as scientific explanations for the vagrancies of the human condition gained popularity, they were used to condemn the same people that “demonic possession” had previously served for; and yet scientific explanations for human variety and religious calls to tolerance can both be used to alleviate the fear of The Other. My grandmother, a retired priest of the United Reform Church, still pursues her interfaith outreach work, writing to various imams regarding their common ground and their shared desire to see the world become a better place.

Both the positive and negative factors of faith are elements of human instinct, nature, and ideals which exist independently of belief in a deity.

I am not an atheist because I had a terrible experience with religion and am angry with a god; I am not an atheist because of the damaging aspects of religions within various cultures; I am not even an atheist because of the rhetorical might of the non-theist debaters or the body of evidence in favour of the non-existence of at the very least any kind of interventionist God (although both have proven a happy confirmation of my pre-existing beliefs); I am an atheist because at no time in my life when I have looked into myself or out at the world have I found anything that required a god to explain it or anything that resembled an entity that might be deemed a god. I am a sceptic because I require evidence to be convinced of ideas, but not wholly sceptical (I have ideals, and theories, and notions I would like to see enacted to determine if they would work); I am a materialist because I do not believe in the existence of a soul or a consciousness that does not derive directly from the functioning of the human body and brain or a Monist because I do not believe there is any difference between “the mind” and “the brain”; and I am a Nihilist because I believe that it is impossible to impose a human concept of “meaning” onto the greater complex clockwork of the universe, that “meaning” is derived from and determined by the cultures of humanity and will vanish with those cultures or change as they change, and that one man’s “meaning” is another’s irrelevance.

What I do not believe is that any of these beliefs makes me a better or worse person than someone who does not share them. Only my actions can do that.

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