Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What's the Difference?

When I first recognized I was an atheist, I hadn’t read any atheist literature. I studied and came to my own conclusions about god after being brought up as a fundamentalist (and for many years accepting the Bible as the inerrant word of god). After a few years as an atheist, visiting atheist forums and debating and dialoging with atheists and theists alike, I stumbled upon ACA in my community. I had already begun drawing Atheist Eve--a character who reflected my own perspective of what I saw as problems in my own past “logic” and who also voiced my assessment of current Christian doctrines and trends.

I was so ignorant of the atheist community and what it offered that I recall a discussion on the ACA list where someone quoted Richard Dawkins. I replied, “Who is Richard Dawkins? And why should I care what he says?” Interestingly, while I’m not proud of my ignorance, I am happy with my response. Here’s why:

As a Christian, I was always reading the Bible, attending Bible studies and reading commentaries that reinforced my fundamentalist beliefs about doctrine and interpretation. I wanted to be thoroughly informed about what I “believed” (although I have a lot of trouble calling something I have to learn and constantly reinforce _my_ “belief”).

With atheism, it didn’t work that way. I observed and studied all I could about the nature of existence around me, and concluded that god appeared to be a metaphor.

While I can’t claim that no one might read Dawkins and change their mind with regard to religious beliefs, I can claim that I never was “swayed” by Satan in the form of any atheist writer. No silky smooth sophistry confused me into atheism. No angry incident with my church or a preacher made me hate god. No rebellion against the Christian lifestyle or rules and regulations made Christianity impossible for me. No desire to sin with abandon drove my motives. (In fact, later, when I began to adopt a more Buddhist perspective, I was far more morally restricted than I ever had been as a Christian. Personal sacrifice has never been an impediment for me. I’m simply not a highly materialistic person). The truth is, believe it or don’t, I just put my mind to the task of considering the question and studied relevant data as much as I could, and I determined god is a metaphor.

What made me happy about my own ignorance, though, is that there is something to be said for being able to respond to apologetic criticisms that I’m being blindly led astray by the intellectual prowess of such as Dawkins, by pointing out that it can hardly be a valid criticism while it is aimed at someone who has never read any atheist author’s views on religion, and who doesn’t know who Dawkins is. So, even after discovering Dawkins, I never read more than one article. I didn’t want to “learn” arguments from him. I didn’t want to be accused of adopting the beliefs of others and simply labeling them as “my own,” in the same way I had done in my religious years. There is no atheist leader. There is nothing in atheism to follow. And if I disagree with Dawkins, it’s OK to say, “So what if Dawkins says it? I don’t agree.”

When is the last time a fundamentalist posted, “So what if the Bible says it? I don’t agree.”

That’s the difference. And it’s a biggie. And so, if there could ever be a positive result to ignorance, hopefully it was illustrated in my reply on the atheist list those years ago.

But Dawkins is a man, and the Bible, well, that’s god, isn’t it? That’s why you won’t hear that from a fundamentalist. That’s what I would have said as a fundamentalist in response to my own point above. After taking a course of Josh McDowell’s materials with my preacher at about 15 years old, I would have insisted it was inarguable. The Bible was the inerrant word of god. My church said it. My family said it. My school never disputed it. My community held to it. Everyone knew the Bible was the word of god. Everyone knew that if there was a god, then Christianity was the option. And none of us ever bothered to confirm any of our assumptions.

Now, after many years of avoiding reading books about atheists and atheism, I feel I’ve proven my point—mainly to myself, but perhaps to some others—that atheism is my fully informed choice and “my” belief based on “my” conclusions. I have not accepted the claim of atheism from someone else. I’ve given theists their opportunity. I’ve looked at the world and universe around me, and after crunching the data, god is a metaphor.

In celebrating my release from the feeling of obligation that I need to respond to those who would accuse me of succumbing to Satanic atheist dogma that presumably corrupted my brain, I now have begun reading atheist literature. I read some Bertrand Russell, some George Smith, some Dawkins, and now I’m reading Ehrman. I enjoy some of it. I enjoy some of it somewhat less. I find some of it hard to read. I find some of it easy to read. I agree with some of it. I disagree with some of it. But I am able to evaluate all of it and make up my own mind whether or not I deem it as valid based on what I know of the world around me and how it operates.

The Erhman book I’m reading currently reminded me very much of my own experiences with religion in my past. And I decided to write some notes about that to someone, and I’m going to share a portion of that correspondence (somewhat paraphrased) here for anyone who likes that sort of thing:

“…At 15, I still would not commit to Christianity, because I was too unsure if there was a god or not. Finally, a preacher invited me to attend a series based on the materials of Josh McDowell, who puts forward the inerrancy of scripture via historical ‘evidence.’

“I was so swayed by McDowell (back then there was no Internet, and local libraries in small towns weren't overflowing with controversial books that questioned mainstream ideas). It wasn't until college that I even met anyone who questioned whether or not the foundation of my beliefs (the Bible--and even the existence of god) was something I should probably think more about. [Because truth was important to me, I took their advice.]

“Outside of my normal course load and my part-time job, I made time to spend in the evenings at the university library, looking up religious history--especially regarding the production of the Bible. What I finally determined (much to my dismay) was that the criticisms of my fellow students (many of whom were taking history themselves) were well-founded. In the end, as a layman, sitting many nights at a table with my books all spread out, I was able to piece together the information--that is today put forward in the book ‘Misquoting Jesus’--from many different sources--some religious, some secular (none, however, which were atheistic or anti-religious). Once I recognized that the history of the Bible--even as presented by honest, god-fearing Christians promoting Christian doctrine--indicated a group of texts one should take with a heaping pile of grains of salt--my mind was finally freed to pursue honest truth.

“Thanks to books like Erhman’s and the Internet, there is today a place for fundamentalist youth (or even the aged) to go and find this information in a simpler fashion…for a layman, this information isn't really old hat, nor is it easy to necessarily even find and put together. But it is becoming more common and available, and that's because of the work of people like Erhman. At the time I was a teen, Josh McDowell's claims could stand completely unchallenged by schools, churches, and communities in America. There was no independent, unbiased source to go to, to see if what McDowell claimed was verifiable. Erhman is part of a structure that is slowly growing and finally making sure that all sides of the fundamentalist story are available to the public.

“Freedom of choice surely needs to be respected, but what is the difference between an uninformed choice and no choice at all? By keeping people ignorant, freedom of choice is clearly impeded. Books like Erhman’s open up real choice to people who might not otherwise realize they even have options. This is upsetting to some people…But they need to ask themselves what ‘truth’ should have to fear from facts. If my version of truth cannot withstand the full brunt of complete disclosure of facts, my version of truth requires re-examination…”

I’m not sure what else to say about it. I no longer have any dogma or doctrine that requires defense against reality or facts or data. I can accept whatever I observe and see how it fits into the rest of the facts and data. If it doesn’t fit, I can re-evaluate the whole enchilada if I have to. Nothing need be too sacred to examine. No question need remain unanswered merely because it’s a taboo of the highest order to even ask it. I have no stake in any “belief” any longer. It can now be purely about truth alone. I have nothing of value that requires me to reject data. In fact, I doubt I would today be capable of valuing anything that would require such a thing from me. I have no bias I’m aware of that causes me to deny what can be observed or to distort its meaning so that it force-fits within my preconceived framework of reality. But as a Christian, I could not have honestly claimed that.


  1. You make some good points. I was atheist (albeit without really realizing it) long before I'd heard of Dawkins, or Sagan, or any of the big-name scientists and freethinkers. Now I revel in reading what I consider to be a rational worldview by these writers, knowing that it wasn't them who swayed me from Catholicism, but my own rationality and curiosity.

  2. It's nice to base one's world view on an objective reality, isn't it? I pity those poor people who have to defend their beliefs from the real world.

  3. Clint:

    >Now I revel in reading what I consider to be a rational worldview by these writers

    I totally agree. I love to listen to Joseph Campbell as well. One particular scene I enjoyed was when Bill Moyers, during an interview, asked Campbell what he thought about Christians who read the Bible and take it as literal fact. Campbell said "that's a misread of the text." When Moyers restated and put the question to him again, he just repeated, "it's a misread."

    Because a majority of our population believes in god, we are very used to hearing and seeing programs and literature geared toward the idea that the existence of supernatural things is a fact. Certainly it's a common assumption in many minds; but it's certainly not a "fact." Just because a lot of people accept an idea doesn't make it correct.

    For me, as a female, it is the same issue when I read writers who use "she" as the personal pronoun of choice when talking about a generic person/human as a reference. I'm so used to "he" that "she" stands out.

    I just finished The God Delusion, and I was surprised that I didn't find it offensive to anyone. It is written from the perspective that there is no god. And I think that must be what freaks out some readers. But when I was in college, that was always the presumption in academic literature. When I took anthropology, only one instructor had any sort of supernatural beliefs. And he recognized (and often noted) how rare that is in his field.

    Thanks for sharing your perspetive.

  4. The methodology you took I find very comendable and astute. I've wondered on several occasions about how often it is that atheists do it for reasons other than, well, reason. It seems so natural to take sides and be contrary for the sake of it.

    I find these deconversion stories particularly interesting as it's completely foreign to me. Religion (and irreligion) was essentially never mentioned by my parents, so everything I took in from it was from external cultural sources. Imagine my surprise when I realised they seriously believed it!

  5. My first response to your post was going to be a little self-deprecating. Something like "ouch, I guess I'm not as hardcore as I thought" and then proceed to praise you on being a "totally old-school, kick-ass atheist." But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that my story is actually not that different from yours.

    I may not have been brought up as a fundamentalist Christian as much as a generic, Mexican Catholic(the thinking man's religion, not like those weird, Protestants, am I right, people?). And I've never spent more than a couple of hours inside a "lybery." My family never took kind to fancy book-larnin'. But other than that, my atheism was in no way influenced by them arrogant, dogmatic "secularistists" Bill'O keeps yapping about.

    I remember being in the 8th grade when I "came up" with a challenge to the special pleading fallacies, a.k.a. "The Zeus Rule." "Why is the Bible proof of god but the Odyssey is not proof of the Greek pantheon or the Book of the Dead proof of the Egyptan deities?." Not to mention "inventing" a semi-complete form of the "Problem of Evil" at a time when Aristotle, Plato and Socrates were the only Greek dead guys I knew. And I hadn't even read their stuff, I just thought they had written/said cool pithy sayings we now put behind calendar pages.

    I had never read Russell or Ingersoll or hell, even known an atheist in person and until 3-4 years ago, I didn't know who Dawkins was either, apart from him being "that famous evolution guy."

    Anyway, the points I wanted to make were these: One, thank you for reminding me that I actually became an atheist not by following a godless leader but through my own assesment of the evidence (i.e. I was an atheist before it was cool =D).

    And B) You're a totally old-school, kick-ass atheist. I wish more believers followed your example. Hopefully, the "New Atheism" will encourage people, not to just "convert" to atheism, but to question and research on their own the wild, unsupported claims religion makes.

  6. Thanks very much, Adrael. I appreciate your positive feedback and you sharing some of your personal input.


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