Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Chris Stedman: Faitheist

June 2, 2014

imagesChris Stedman’s career is in “interfaith work,” but his book, Faitheist, is addressed mainly to his fellow atheists, urging them to lighten up.

It centers upon his own story. His Minnesota family was nonreligious, but at age 11, he experienced a crisis by reading “heavy” books that exposed him to the world’s injustice and cruelty. Also, his parents divorced. Chris found refuge in his school’s Christian group, which welcomed him and assuaged his social justice discomforts.

But there was one wee problem. Christianity seemed obsessively homophobic. And Chris was starting to realize this applied to him. UnknownHis Teen Study Bible labeled him an abomination in God’s eyes, and his resulting inner struggle drove him close to suicide.

At last his mother stumbled upon his personal journal and brought him to a different kind of Christian minister – who took one look at the relevant Teen Study Bible page, drew a big red X across it, and said, “This is dehumanizing garbage.”

So Chris found a different path within Christianity, and went on to a Christian college, studying religion, headed for the ministry.

But there was another wee problem. He no longer believed in God. The book, after many pages chronicling Chris’s agony over faith versus sexuality, has relatively few about faith versus non-faith. That seemed fairly easy for him. But he completed his degree, as the class atheist, and even proceeded to divinity school, winding up as Harvard’s Assistant Humanist Chaplain. (He recently went to Yale.)

His “interfaith work” seeks to bridge religious divides by finding common ground and ways to work together and understand each other better. Stedman classifies the religious as either “totalitarians” or “pluralists,” with the latter actually having more affinities with nonbelievers than with the totalitarians.

But as noted the book is aimed mainly at atheists, who are also divided. Stedman disparages the belligerence of the so-called “New Atheism.” (He singles out PZ Myers, whose book I’ve also reviewed.) With some atheists seeing their goal as eradicating religion, Stedman is unsurprised at the religious push-back. After all, he notes in comparison, the gay rights movement hasn’t sought to end heterosexuality. He doesn’t like a “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude.

images-1I’m guilty of some of that myself. Obviously if you believe something, you believe people thinking differently are wrong. But I draw the line at “we’re right, they’re insane,” and I’ve criticized writers like Charlie Pierce for that. It might be different if religion were practiced only by an eccentric minority; but in a country where most folks are religious, that must be considered normal and sane. And I’m all for greater mutual understanding, working together, and apple pie; and I do try to avoid personal insults, calling people crazy or stupid. Yet religion should not enjoy some special exemption from critical scrutiny; its ideas should be subjected to vigorous public debate like any others. That’s what the “New Atheism” is about.

Furthermore, it would also be different were this just a matter of personal beliefs, kept personal. But most atheists would like to see the end of religion not only because it’s false but because they consider it harmful. Religion’s defenders can’t deny some very bad things, but of course claim the good outweighs the bad. As I see it, the good works ascribed to faith are things people could, and mostly would, do even without religion,

Faith in action

Faith in action

because we are in fact more good than bad (societies like Denmark’s or Norway’s where religion has almost disappeared are some of the world’s nicest); while the bad things (9/11; Boko Haram) are uniquely products of religious belief and would be hard to imagine absent that factor.

Religionists will of course retort that some of the worst crimes have been committed by atheistic regimes (though Hitler’s at least wasn’t atheist). But those crimes were not committed in service to atheism; not motivated by disbelief in God; the concept of God was simply irrelevant. In contrast, many bloody crimes throughout history were of course motivated by religious belief.

Believers will also say such crimes are perversions of proper faith. But the problem is that religion has an unavoidable tendency to inspire absolutism (Stedman’s “totalitarianism”) – the “one truth” so powerful that it can justify almost anything in service to it. Disbelief doesn’t come close to having such inspirational power – a very good thing. In fact nobody kills for atheism.

images-2This is why we would like to see religion disappear. But it bears emphasizing that – so unlike religion throughout most of history – atheists wield the pen, not the sword; words, not violence. And, given its long history of burning people at the stake, it’s a bit rich for religion to be telling atheists to dial it back.

And Chris Stedman, of all people, should know the harm of religion. An inhumane religious dogma drove him to the brink of suicide. Just one more reason why atheists believe the world would be a better place without religion.

How I Got Irreligion

May 11, 2014

imagesAt around age six, I was sent to a Jewish “Sunday school,” featuring Bible stories: Daniel and the lions, Noah’s ark, etc. I was fine with them, as stories. But then I realized adults took them seriously; troubled by this, I confided in my mother.

No theologian, she. But I distinctly remember her ending the discussion by saying, “Well, you do believe in God, don’t you?” I said yes. And I knew I was lying.images-1

I was no rebellious kid; in fact, a meek, go-with-the-program, clueless kid. But even at six, I saw right through religion.

Odd, this common locution, “believe in God.” We don’t say we “believe in fire,” or upholsterers, or aardvarks. Few have actually seen that beast, but an aardvark nonbeliever would be pretty weird. images-2For reality, “belief” simply doesn’t enter into it. Talk of belief in God implicitly bespeaks something other than reality.

Anyway, I went on to Hebrew school, Bar-mitzvah lessons, and the Bar-mitzvah itself, on stage in the synogogue, chanting the memorized gobblydegook. It never occurred to me to say no to any of this; again, I was a go-with-the-program kid. I actually did well in Hebrew school, if only to avoid humiliation when called on in class. UnknownBut I drew the line at anything optional, to the despair of my religious teachers.

Through it all, my disbelief felt like a shameful, guilty secret, a personal failing. Performing at my Bar-mitzvah, I considered myself a fraud. The sanctimony all around me evoked virtue, propriety, right-thinking. It seemed universal – with the sole exclusion of pitiful me. Never, anywhere, was I exposed to a dissenting viewpoint. This was the ’50s, with no Dawkins or Hitchens. Nothing to suggest I was not alone, or to provide any validation for my unbelief. What was wrong with me?

In that sense, I can understand how being gay must have felt – with no validation for that either. (So underground was gayness that not till my twenties did I actually understand what it was.)

Unknown-1Yet I never agonized; never made an effort to get with the program of religion. Notwithstanding how admirable faith might appear, to me it seemed just fundamentally false. The Emperor had no clothes.

Some believers imagine atheists will eventually “see the light,” if only on their deathbeds (or in the proverbial foxholes). Human psychology varies endlessly, so it does happen, but quite rarely in fact. None of the many atheists I’ve known has ever lapsed. My own conviction has only grown stronger over time. What was at first a “simple faith” (or lack thereof) has profoundly deepened as I have learned ever more about the history of religions, the human psychology behind them, and all their spectacular philosophical contradictions. And I long ago stopped wondering “what’s wrong with me?”

My humanist atheism is indeed the essence of what’s right with me. Believers feel their faith is what gives their lives meaning. Unknown-2And if that’s really true for a person, fine. But for all the consolation claimed for religion, many are tortured by doubt. Wrestling with doubt might be portrayed, by intellectualist apologists, as part of a wholesome experience of faith. But I’m not attracted by a hopeless effort to reconcile the irreconcilable. I don’t feel it’s possible to make proper sense of anything while laboring under so basic a mistake about reality.

I have never been afflicted by doubt about my most fundamental perceptions. There’s much about life and the cosmos I don’t yet truly understand (quantum mechanics; why there’s something rather than nothing; the minds of priests who rape children); but my pursuit of such understanding is not hobbled by a need to reconcile it with preconceived dogmas that can never be squared with reality. Being thusly free to see the world as it really is, I feel, enables me to fit properly into that reality, and to make a life of authentic (not illusory) meaning.

Anyhow, that’s me. If it’s not you, I won’t try to get you burned at the stake.

Proof that Heaven is Real?

October 19, 2012

Long atop the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list has been Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real. Burpo is an evangelical pastor whose book tells of his four-year-old son emerging from unconsciousness during surgery with a tale of visiting Heaven, meeting deceased relatives, and seeing angels, Jesus and God, etc. (This is “nonfiction”?!)

Now Newsweek — yes, Newsweek! — similarly headlines “Heaven Is Real,” with no question mark, and the subtitle, “A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon, who spent a week in a coma, during which he says he too visited Heaven. He saw “transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky,” trailing streamers, with whom he communicated by a method transcending language. They told him, “You are loved and cherished, you have nothing to fear,” and suchlike treacle. Then he traveled to an infinite dark void, infinitely comforting, which he believes is the home of God. All this he labels a glimpse of a “reality” which left him a different person. (This is “news”?!)

Of course, religious faith means belief regardless of evidence, yet believers eat up any seeming scrap of supportive “evidence,” especially for that all-important fantasy of life after death. And, like Burpo’s publisher, Newsweek shamelessly panders to that, to boost sales.  

As my wife put it, these people had near-death, not post-death experiences. It was not an “afterlife.” Reports from many who survived similar episodes are pretty consistent about how the brain hallucinates in a particular way when deprived of oxygen and in the throes of what it construes as demise. Often there is some sort of tunnel, and bright light.

We know how the mind can play tricks even during normal consciousness. It’s hardly news that it happens when the brain is undergoing the extreme trauma of the death process. There must be something in the brain’s wiring that, in such circumstances, defaults to hallucinations of the general type so often reported. And of course prior religious belief might cause one to fill in details consonant with that religion.

Thus, in the Burpo case, even if you charitably accept it’s really the kid’s story (unembellished by Dad), with a father like that he’d have been powerfully pre-programmed to imagine just what he imagined. Dr. Alexander says that before his coma, he was a Christian, but not “deeply religious.” Whatever – but it’s neither coincidental nor surprising that his dream or hallucination conformed generally to notions pumped into his brain all his life in church. What would be surprising is if he came back with, for example, a Hindu-like story.

If he wants to believe, like the four-year-old, that his Heavenly tour was reality and not a mere dream or coma-induced hallucination, fine, but the only thing it proves is that even a self-described “man of science” can be deluded. This is no indictment of science. The population of scientists is very large, they are human, and inevitably a few eccentric beliefs will occur. But grown-ups should not treat silly stories like Burpo’s and Alexander’s as though they merit serious attention, let alone Newsweek covers. We all experience wacky dreams, but most of us have the sense not to confuse them with reality.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just learned that Newsweek’s print edition will cease publication, going to web-only. They insist this is not the magazine’s demise. Apparently Newsweek really does believe in an afterlife!


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