Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's In A Name?

In a recent email, a person I know referred to me as an atheist. "I know you are an atheist," she wrote. "But..." For some reason I found the term jarring. It's not that I deny the characterization; it's that using the word like that makes it sound like a choice or something. Or the equivalent, on some level, of a religion. As if in the cafeteria of belief systems, I put a plateful of atheist on my tray, you picked up a little Christian, and the guy over there grabbed a cup 'o Buddha.

I can't say why I chafe at the label. Nowadays there seems to be a movement loosely (or not) referred to as "the new atheism," characterized by people aggressively arguing their case: Hitchens, Dawkins, Myers, Harris. I like reading them, I find myself mostly in agreement. But, for me anyway, it's not about a movement or feeling part of some sort of group. Atheist. Like a Shriner. It's simply that, having thought about it a lot, the idea of a creator -- especially one described (however inconsistently) in the big books, like the Bible (new and old models), the Koran, the Book of Mormon -- makes no sense to me. In a matter as large as that, the quest for meaning, it ought to be a leap of reason, not faith. (As I've said, I can dig what little I understand of Buddhism in many ways; but not the reincarnation stuff. I find the chaos of polytheism, like Hinduism or ancient Greeks or animists, more consistent with what we observe of life, were it ruled by superpeople; but I'm not buying them, either.)

It's a conclusion, not a category.

Call it skepticism, realism, a mind-set, the result of a process. It's not a club I joined, a group with which I identify any more than I'd consider myself a mathist, a photosynthetist. A cyclist (Krebs, that is). Those are things I know to be discoverable and true. The other -- religion -- is something I feel I know to be untrue. Or, at minimum, unproven, unprovable, unsupportable. So internally inconsistent as to be unacceptable. So I reject it like I reject young-earthism or that the sun revolves around that ancient earth. I can't help it, I didn't choose it. It's like solving an equation. You have to show your work. Like kittens, we're born with our eyes shut. Like most people, I was born into a family of believers (to some extent.) I went to Sunday School.

There's no point in denying -- while claiming no part of a movement -- that I've written much here about my views of religion, pointing out obvious inconsistencies inherent in the idea of miracles, prayer, an all-knowing all-powerful loving god. But, I think, I do it in a political context and, to a large extent, as an academic exercise. I say what makes sense to me, and what doesn't. Less an attempt to change minds, it's -- as we observe the Beckopalinization of our politics -- a cry for reason before it's too late: if you're going to believe stuff that has no coherence, fine; just recognize it for what it is. I write as a plea not to destroy our country with your beliefs. Keep them in your heart and home, where they belong. Consider that your religion has no more validity than that of someone else; they reject yours for the same reason you reject theirs. Live and let live. Solutions to our vast problems will come -- if they still can -- from hard work and cold reason, not untestable beliefs.

I'd not feel the need to show you mine, if you didn't constantly show me yours, and try to make it the law of the land. (And I don't mean you. I mean "you.")

Where this little tract seems to be heading is along a tightwire: because I guess I'm saying that my skepticism -- my "atheism," if that's the word -- is different from (and, yes, since I'm arguing for what's factual, more defensible than) your religion. My process of getting there is not really comparable to your getting to where you are. It is, in fact entirely different. That's, I think, why the term is discordant to me. It's the result of a process, of evaluation, of searching for truth and meaning while staying in contact with fact. I'll give you that I am an atheist in the same way that we are both round-earthers. I'm not an atheist in the same way you are a Christian, or a Muslim, or Hindu. On a certain level, I don't think the two are comparable; not in the same arena, maybe not the same conversation. It's like comparing being a vegetarian to being a swimmer.

I'm not anything. I'm just a guy who thinks in a certain way.

Does that make sense? (Of course if it did, we'd not be having the conversation in the first place.)


  1. I'm no Jesus-Freak/ and I haven't worn a Beanie since Cub Scout days butt.........
    When I see something really beautiful and awe inspiring, umm like a Sunset, a Cam Newton broken field run, Jessica Alba's Ass I know there's gotta be someone upstairs watching me...
    My Wife...
    And even Albert Einstein said "God doesn't play Canasta with the Universe"
    and if there WASN'T a Surpreme Being, why would Einstein refer to one???
    and if you missed "Dark Angel" check it out, just watch those ST segments...


  2. As long as we're quote-mining (and misquoting), there are these:

    "Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here involuntary and uninvited for a short stay, without knowing the whys and the wherefore. In our daily lives we only feel that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own." ... "The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is." Einstein's speech 'My Credo' to the German League of Human Rights, Berlin, autumn 1932, Einstein: A Life in Science, Michael White and John Gribbin, Page 262.

    And here's one that seems to speak from the grave:

    "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." - Albert Einstein in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas (Einstein's secretary) and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press.

    And, as I've said before, spirituality -- ie, finding inspiration and awe at a sunset, or a baby -- doesn't require making anything up.

    But, as usual, none of the above is my point.

  3. Well. Big A Atheists could do worse than adopt the fez as official headgear.

  4. Excellent suggestion, Sili. I used to have some curly-toed shoes I bought in Dubrovnik when doing medical research in Yugoslavia.

    Lost 'em, sadly, but they'd have looked great with a fez.

  5. I am awed and humbled by the majesty and immensity of the universe as well as the intricacy of the structure of matter. Atomic physics tells us that things as dense as stone and steel are 99.99999+% empty space. That's mind-blowing, as we used to say.

    Contemplating all of this creates a feeling of transcendence in me, so I describe myself as a sort of fuzzy pantheist, without giving the "theos" part any special powers. Call it reverent nonbelief, perhaps.


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