I had a lovely and rather weird conversation with the man sat next to me on the plane.
He was intrigued by my atheism, mainly because he couldn’t understand how our morality works. When he asked how progress was perverted by Islam, rather than terrorism, I pointed out the damage caused to science and the adherence of Islamic Principle and the applied theology that has crippled many an Inquisitive Muslim.
But it’s weird seeing the Huffington Post’s Hunter Roberts depict atheists as fundamentalists. The description under her name may make me guffaw but that’s the thing.
There are people out there who think their lives are out of their control and who will place faith on a complete stranger who offers to sacrifice a bird and read the entrails to divine the reason for such bad luck. It may not be entrails but may involve crystals, chakras or some other form of divinity. But it’s basically tripe. It’s some person justifying their choice of flouncy sleeves or robes by pretending to be a wizard and what is worse, we buy into that. Spirituality may be harmless but it is simply incorrect and paves the way to all sorts of faulty thinking that leaves a person open to being conned and controlled.
And these people may claim that I have a soul to save, but the truth is my soul is entirely an illusion created by the idea that human beings have a divine spark that makes the unique. We are ultimately very intelligent chemistry. Our cells have structures dictated by biochemistry and their function is intricately linked to that. This includes every single thought.
Every single feeling of love, hate, jealousy, rage, kindness, joy and peace? Every single emotion you have had has been chemistry in action. If you think this is bleak then you don’t see the point. You want to be told your emotions are magic not because it’s true but because you fear the realisation that every single thing you feel can be altered by an external force. Oh this may mean that you can also fall out of love based on chemistry, but also means that diseases such as depression and seizures and schizophrenia are no longer divine afflictions of your soul but treatable diseases.
What terrible chemistry is involved in the feeling of love alone? That pain and joy and irrational bonding? Do you think the eye is less beautiful because it’s mechanics are physical rather than unknown? Same applies to the soul. Your soul can be biologically defined as the neurological state that defines you as an individual. That unique chemistry of the brain that makes you, you. Your love of sushi is entirely down to some chemical switches in your skull that rewards you when you eat sushi and the ability to recall that you like that.
So let’s get our souls aligned to our chakras and delve into this.
“I don’t believe in God,” he said looking up from the menu. Was he challenging me because he knows I’m a Christian minister, I wondered?
It’s weird, maybe atheists like this exist, but I have rarely judged people who sit next to me on public transit. In fact my atheism is more puzzling to those around me because I don’t appear to be an untrustworthy knave who eats babies. It’s generally been religious people behaving like this.
Why do I need to challenge you? You have a belief that I consider irrational. You believe in something I don’t. You challenge the Hindu and the Muslim with your faith and they won’t believe in it either. Your gods are no more irrational than a many handed blue one, your stories no more real than that of those you deride to worship the myriad false and dead gods of other religions.
Peter was the husband of a close friend, who had kindly done me a favor. To show my appreciation I was taking him to lunch. Was he intentionally being aggressive? I didn’t want to argue. I smiled. “Well, I’m not in the business of conversion,” I said, “but for the record, I probably don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in,” I was hoping to avert hostility and maybe open a dialogue about our understanding of the divine, since he brought it up. He wasn’t having it.
“No,” he said leaning forward, “I mean I don’t believe in any God!” His words pierced the atmosphere. I conciliated. “I’m not attached to the word. ‘God’ is just a placeholder for the ineffable, call it what you will,” I said, trying to find common ground.
Sure, you could place a god as a placeholder, but our issue with your gods is not that they are placeholders but are entities that tell you to tell us how to live our lives.
“I don’t believe in any of that!” He was becoming openly belligerent. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. His wife also called herself an atheist, but we’d had a great discussion about theology as well as sex, love, and our life stories on a bus trip all the way from Budapest to Prague. Before I could respond he threw down the gauntlet, “I’m a scientist. I believe in science.”
Should I tell him I believed in science, too, just like I didn’t believe in the tooth fairy? That I have a healthy respect for scientific method and discoveries, including the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which infers a more fluid universe than ever we imagined? That I detest Biblical literalism and recognize evolution as going back billions of years, but also see it as the embodiment of a God immanent in and not separate from creation? It seemed he was more interested in shooting me down like some sort of straw man. I wondered if he had ever met a minister up close and personal. I took a breath and began.
Sure however most atheists realise that science is not accepted by religion explicitly but grudgingly. To many Muslims science is a way of glorifying god. Rather than opt for the evidence they contort science to fit their religious view. The issue here is that you may agree with the modern view of science, but if science crosses a line which you hold sacred then you then science will be held wrong. Your line is just further than the creationists and various luddites you deride.
“You know,” I sighed, “There have been so many developments in theology in the past fifty years, it’s unfortunate they haven’t reached the informed general public. It’s like we’re still talking about an outmoded version of God who requires checking your brain at the door, which few intelligent people are willing to do–a God who is like a puppet master pulling strings, controlling life, saying, ‘A billion dollars for you, Mr. Romney, but nothing for this guy in Africa. That’s nutty. That’s not God, at least not the God I worship.”
And none of these developments in theology are supported by any rigorous evidence, we are in fact tap dancing around the major issue in that the original premise for a god is faulty. Developments in theology are in effect dragging a philosophical idea to a new destination. This is not a discovery on par with a scientific discovery. In effect this is an attempt to hide your gods behind the next unknown.
He broke in. “I told you–I don’t believe in ANY God!”
“Yes,” I persisted, assuming him to be an interested and open-minded conversation partner, “but you must have some version of what you don’t believe in. Everyone does, and most people have the same version or understanding of God that they had in approximately the third grade-I call it the third grade catechism version-and it never gets upgraded. God as a thing. It remains their definition of God, never questioned or amended, and then when they’re older, maybe in college, they decide to either ‘believe” or ‘not believe’ in that God. Imagine what it would be like if you never changed your understanding of sex or reproduction from when you first learned about it!” I laughed, having gotten it on the QT that he was pretty sophisticated in that realm. I thought the analogy would appeal, if only to make him curious. It didn’t.
So we are utilising the deist version of god rather than the Christian one?
This is like saying “Okay, you don’t believe in Jesus… what about Zeus? Krishna? The Smoking Mirror? Tlaloc? Surely Kali?”
The standard definition of a god is an entity that has created the universe and that may or may not have placed various requirements on humanity.
“Nothing,” he repeated. “I believe in none of that shit. I told you: I believe in Science!” He mentioned St. Christopher Hitchens. He was getting very intense. He started to itemize the many evils in the world. I listened. He raised the holocaust as well as his voice, along with some horrors of which I was unaware as proof of the nonexistence of God.
I nodded. “I agree there is great evil in the world.”
“It’s not evil, it’s just the way life is. But with such a world, how can there be a God?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question.
No, see the thing is we look at the holocaust quite simply forgetting that the great evil was perpetrated due to more than a Millenia of anti-semiticism. 200 years prior such a pogrom would not only have been common place but driven by the religious Christians of the day. The only difference is the utilisation of science. Zyklon B was a product of science, and by itself it is not an evil thing. What was evil, was the notion that Jews were responsible for all ills and this idea was a product of religious bigotry driving anti-semitism.
To me this cripples the claim of a kind and benevolent and all powerful god. And I do not have to invoke St. Christopher.
I still assumed I was talking to a liberal thinker, open to discussion. After all, I knew this to be true in other realms, like politics and sex. So I took a sip of my mineral water and plunged in, “Hmm, I might have something useful to say about this,” I offered. “I wrote a whole chapter in my dissertation on it called ‘The Changing of the God,’ about how serious theologians had to address those questions in the wake of the holocaust. Beginning with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who attempted to assassinate Hitler, these questions gave rise to new theologies and a new understanding of God.” He had not heard of any of this, of course, but I didn’t expect him to have. I told him about Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison disavowing the “God of Religion” and calling people to a more adult relationship with the divine, a challenge that theologians would grapple with for the next half-century. “You see, the question of how God can allow evil presupposes that old version of God–the puppet master God–the one pulling strings and ‘allowing’ some things and not others. That’s what I meant about… “
Yet we are discussing a single monotheistic god which in itself is a limiting concept since the notion of a singular god is entirely born out of the Abrahamic Faiths.
Instead we have the god of Pullman, an emaciated and wasted thing. To which I must ask? Why must we pray to this frail man in a box who cannot do anything? This figurehead of heaven has less of a role in the lives of man than a single bee. Why worship him? Why believe in this entity?
“I already told you, I believe in science, not God,” he interrupted. In his mind they were mutually exclusive. I stopped. I wanted to ask what he thought about science and spirituality, the new physics, Einstein and Bohm, who operated with a sense of order and wonder at the universe itself as a great mystery of divine proportions. I wanted to, but I didn’t because I realized he didn’t want to engage with the questions; he already knew the answers. He wasn’t interested in a discussion. That’s when I got it.
Einstein spoke of Spinoza’s god which is an entirely different god to your Christian one. And I see Spinoza’s god as an engineering joke. A god who for “no fathomable purpose” fine tuned a set of laws to precipitate the universe then “bogged off for tea”. This again is not a god that can be prayed to or reasoned with since as we realise “he is off for tea”. The chance of such a god existing is also low and indeed there is no evidence for one either. In fact such a god is created only when we consider that the norm is to believe in a being who created the universe and that the notion that it could be an entirely natural phenomenon just like evolution or gravity has been widely regarded as blasphemous.
A lot of people ask why I don’t use philosophy to defend my atheism.
I don’t because I don’t really have time to be philosophical and I work in an intensely practical environment.
I was talking to a fundamentalist. What I was saying threatened his very identity and construct of life. My lunch companion knew who God was, and he didn’t believe in “him.” It was a Santa sort of God, the kind that a small child believes in and then is disappointed by when he doesn’t get a pony in his stocking. I remembered being told he was abused as a child. Clearly that God had failed him.
Sure, but then we would have to redefine the entire “Christian god” and claim that the MAJORITY of Christians have it wrong. And it was people that failed this man not the non-existent gods.
It wasn’t my first experience of trying to discuss religion a fundamentalist, but in the past they were of the Christian variety. The experience was eerily similar. I was talking to someone who claimed to know exactly how ‘it’ is, who believed in a fixed, finite, and disinterested universe made of mere matter (despite quantum physics calling into question matter itself and some pretty weird discoveries about waves and particles shape-shifting) and believed in it with a kind of scientific literalism as dogmatic as Biblical literalism.
Except scientific literalism makes airplanes fly. Aeronautical Engineers are fundamentalists when it comes to aerodynamics. I am a fundamentalist doctor and do not believe in the usage of alternative medicine or magic to cure my patients. We are assuming the scientist is the same as the priest when it comes to verified phenomenon and the evidence needed to hold said views.
A fundamentalist is unwilling to consider the unsettling possibility that the universe is more complex, mysterious, and multi-dimensional than anything our symbol systems, descriptions and analyses can apprehend. A fundamentalist systematically disregards anything that might contradict his worldview, be it carbon dating or mystical experience. A fundamentalist is unwilling to examine definitions and presuppositions, or hear about developments, scientific or otherwise, that might cast doubt or suggest seeing them in a new light—like the bumper sticker popular a decade or so ago with Biblical literalists, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s that.”
I am willing to accept that the universe is more complex and every single day we find more and more complexities about the universe, but none of those require a magical being to have created the Universe. The universe’s secrets are not revealed through prayer but through science. The mysteries of the universe are not just discovered by solved by science, not by prayer or meditation. Multi-Dimensional? Maybe, but there is unlikely to be a dimension called heaven ruled over by a god called Jehovah any more than there is a Naraka ruled over by Yama.
This is another theist hiding god behind the next theorem and the next law who tells us of the glories they see beyond our theorems if only we would reject them.
Beware those who seek first and last theorems, behind them lurks an angry god.
When did atheists become the new fundamentalists? I have known many atheists beginning with my wonderful dad, who insisted I not use the word “God” or pray at his funeral. But this new breed is different: closed-minded, entrenched, and bellicose, shouting and proselytizing their disbelief in the God of their fathers as determinedly and humorlessly as their forebears proselytized with such certainty for a definite, iron-clad system of punishments and rewards in a pie-in-the-sky afterlife. Why do these new atheists allow the Christian fundamentalists to define their reality? And why are they so angry?
Oh there are a lot of reasons, let Greta sing you the song of her people.