19 November, 2008

Progress Report: Want Sleep


Trying to debunk Christian confusions about atheists without sounding like a list of "thou shalt nots" is rather harder than it sounds. But we're giving it ye olde college try:


Whether an atheist has given up their faith or never had it to begin with, a common reaction from believers is pity. You feel that we've lost something vital, and you feel sad for us. You feel so sad for us, in fact, that you constantly pester us about being sad.

"Aren't you lonely without God?" "Doesn't it make you sad to think that there's no life after death?" "How awful it must be not to believe in anything." Those are some common variations on the theme. Every time we're a little blue, you take the opportunity to remind us that if we believed in God, we'd have someone to pray to for relief.

And it seems to really flummox you when we refuse your pity. You mean well, but your pity isn't necessary, and it's really annoying.

I try not to pity you. I could pester you right back with questions just as valid. "Isn't it horrible to believe that your loving God's going to torture your heathen friends for all eternity?" "Doesn't it make you sad to think God's punishing you with ill health/natural disaster/financial hardship?" "It must be exhausting to try to reconcile all those contradictions in the Bible."

Irritiated yet? I thought as much. Look, if you're happy being a Christian, and I'm happy being an atheist, let's just try to be happy we're happy. Let's put the pity in a box and leave it gathering dust on a shelf.

We can certainly explore those questions. For instance, the big one, eternal life. It makes you happy. Knowing death is the end makes me happy, oddly enough. We could talk about the reasons why we feel that way. We could discuss why God makes you less lonely, while the idea of having a god underfoot all the time leaves me cold. But if we go spelunking through each other's philosophies, pity isn't going to be of any use.
I've also hit upon CONFUSION #2: ATHEISTS ARE EVIL... BUT YOU'RE AN ATHEIST, AND YOU'RE NICE! and CONFUSION #3: YOU'RE NOT REALLY AN ATHEIST! If you all have some confusions you'd like me to cover, now would be an ideal time to say so.

The cat is snoring. I want to emulate my cat. Therefore, I am going to bed.

We are now officially at the "NaNo is kicking my ass" stage, but it's still fun. Hope all my fellow sufferers are, too!


Woozle said...

If I've already said this, I apologize... did a quick search of the comments and couldn't find it.

More myths:
* Atheists don't believe in anything. Wrong.

We believe in all kinds of stuff -- usually with good reason, but we can be as irrational as the next person; we just don't go around insisting that everyone else share our wishful thinking.

More to the point, we aren't followers of some group or leader who tells us what is true or helpfully "interprets" things for us; we decide what to believe, and consequently we know why we believe what we believe and are generally always looking for more evidence for or against (in case we are wrong, or in case someone else believes something different and we need to present the case for what we believe).

This is what it means to be "open-minded": not the willingness to believe essentially anything someone tells you (as many Christians do of their authoritarian leaders), but the ability to defend the beliefs you do have with arguments based on objectively-verifiable information -- and consequently the willingness to examine someone else's ideas critically, and possibly acquire new information thereby, rather than unilaterally rejecting them because they go against what you've been taught.

* Atheism is the act of denying a specific religion. (See Propagandapedia, for example: "What God or gods does the atheist deny?")

Uh, no. Atheism says "I don't have to believe that any gods exist at all, because I don't see the evidence." Atheism may find itself in conflict with particular religions at particular times in particular places (e.g. now in the US, various evangelical and literalist factions of Christianity are doing their best to paint atheists as evil perverts), but this does not mean that atheists accept other forms of deity. They don't. That's the "a" in "atheist": it means "none".

Hope that's useful...

Dana Hunter said...

Useful indeed!

Question for you on the belief part. Since Christians so often see belief as something you don't need evidence for, I've tried to stay away from saying "atheists believe." It can be misconstrued. I have a section where I try to explain this, and I said something along the lines of "we don't believe in things."

So do you as a fellow atheist think that's a fair statement? It's not like we don't believe, we just don't have beliefs that aren't backed up by evidence and subject to change should better evidence comes along.... so, to a Christian, it doesn't look like we believe in anything...

Argh. Wish I had access to the book right now. I think I had less of a word salad going on.

Anyway, thank you for the help and insight (and links!). You've been my rock!

Woozle said...

Belatedly found it here (my 2nd comment). FWIW.

Woozle said...

Belated response to your excellent question...

To paraphrase Mr. Clinton, it all depends on what you mean by the word "believe".

You could argue that "I have no need to believe in [any] God unless I am given adequate evidence" is a "belief" -- as in "I believe that I don't need to believe in God."

However, since that "belief" is relating to the lack of need for belief of a different sort, it's a different kind of beast -- for which, unfortunately, the same word can be used.

How about let's call them something like binding beliefs ("I believe [it necessary to believe] in X, and therefore I must act in certain ways") and unbinding beliefs ("I believe it unnecessary to believe X, although the option to change my mind remains open to me").

A binding belief limits your options, while an unbinding belief is just an affirmation that you don't feel compelled to accept binding beliefs in some area (in this case, deities).

Atheists have an unbinding belief that it isn't necessary to believe in God. (A subset of atheists believe that the evidence is against God to varying degrees, while some are open to the idea that there might well be one -- you'd probably get a bell curve if you graphed "probability that God exists" from 0% to 100% vs. "number of atheists who agree with this probability".)

I think it's understood that when we say "atheists don't have beliefs", we're talking about binding beliefs. I think this is probably what you're trying to indicate by adding the word "in" -- binding beliefs tend to be beliefs "in" something, while unbinding beliefs do not. They're more likely to get you "out" of things. In fact, that might be another way to say it:

People of faith believe "in" things; atheists believe themselves "out" of things. (For that matter, I feel pretty out of it myself this morning... probably God's retribution. Who does God think he is anyway, with his holier-than-thou attitude? Okay, I need that on a t-shirt now...)

Our unbinding beliefs free us to choose our own binding beliefs (e.g. "I believe that science is a better way to study reality than interpreting scripture") rather than having to accept them.

Which gets down to what I see as the key difference between religionists and atheists: authoritarianism versus individualism.

Does that answer your question? ;-)



Woozle said...

Oh oh, instead of "unbinding belief", how about just "unbelief" or "disbelief"? As in Atheists have an unbelief in gods.

Then again, this might all too easily let the words get twisted around into more familiar shapes in people's minds... a "disbelief" is just a belief that something isn't so, which is of course "just as likely" as saying it is so (it isn't, but too many people seem to accept that claim unskeptically)... maybe something unfamiliar like "unbinding belief" is necessary in order to get past people's automatic word-boxing filters.

(What, me obsessively reloading this page to see if there are any further comments? I don't know what you're talking about! <quickly switches to a different tab in the browser>)

The non-religion.™

Dana Hunter said...

Woozle. I adore you.

If I had a coherent thought left, I'd give it to you. For now, love the trademark - t-shirt time! - love this: 'People of faith believe "in" things; atheists believe themselves "out" of things.' And I love the idea of unbinding beliefs.

I'm going to chew this over in my mind. After some sleep. Thank you!