So I had this miniature crisis of faith a few weeks ago — “crisis of faithlessness” would maybe be more accurate — and I’m wondering if any other atheist activists have experienced anything like this, and if so, how you’ve dealt with it.
It wasn’t about the atheism per se. It wasn’t about thinking atheism wasn’t correct and maybe God was real. Not even a little. I haven’t had a serious moment of doubt about my atheism in quite a while. In my last four years as an atheist activist, I’ve engaged more with religious believers, and have thought more about religious belief, than I have in the forty-five years before… and it’s done nothing to make me change my mind about my atheism. Quite the opposite. Years of seeing the same terrible arguments for God again and again and again; years of seeing religious believers slip and dodge and evade when asked what exactly they believe and why; years of seeing believers try to shut atheists up and stop our arguments before we’ve even begun them; years of seeing believers get hostile and combative at the mere fact of atheists saying out loud, “We’re atheists”; years of seeing believers say, out loud, in actual words, that it doesn’t matter whether the things they believe are true as long as it makes them feel good… these years have made me more certain about my atheism than ever. They have given me a vivid image of religion as a massive fortress protecting a house of cards: the ideas themselves weak and flimsy to the point of being pathetic, all the power of it lying in protecting the ideas from any sort of careful attention.
The crisis wasn’t about my atheism. It was about my atheist activism.
My crisis of faithlessness happened during that awful, awful week. You know. The one with the earthquake in Japan, and the union-busting in Wisconsin, and the war in Libya, and absolutely everything stupid and horrible in Congress.
I was reeling under that week like everyone else… and part of me was thinking, “With all this horrible shit going on in the world, why do I care whether people believe in God? So much so that I’m devoting the bulk of my professional life to trying to talk them out of it?” I spent that terrible week reading about war, and tsunamis, and possible nuclear meltdowns, and Planned Parenthood maybe getting defunded, and the erosion of one of the last remaining weapons working people have against the increasingly powerful and corrupt plutocracy, and on and on and on and on and on… and it made it kind of hard to get seriously worked up about Pascal’s Wager.
I don’t want to alarm you. It’s not like I was seriously contemplating an immediate change of career, or even an eventual one. I was just having a momentary moment of being overwhelmed by the suckage of the world, and feeling helpless about it, and wondering if I was putting my limited energy where it could do the most good.
I realize, of course, that no matter what cause I devoted my life to, there would still be eighty thousand other causes demanding my attention, and making my one little cause feel trivial. If I devoted my life to, say, unionizing and labor rights instead of atheism, I still might have been spending that terrible week wondering, “Shouldn’t I be fighting to save birth control? Fighting against aggressive imperialist wars in volatile regions? Fighting against unsafe nuclear power plants being built on, for fuck’s sake, earthquake fault lines?” No matter what path we take, it means not taking eighty thousand other paths… and sometimes one of those eighty thousand paths can suddenly seem extremely important, or even just really interesting. That doesn’t mean we should suddenly switch gears. Of course we should be willing to re-think our choices in life — but if we keep hopping from path to path depending on the flare-up of the moment, we’ll never get anywhere.
When it comes to picking our battles, I think that, to some extent, we have to do what we’re inspired to do, and what we’re good at, and what we think is fun. I mean, it’s not like I think that people in the labor movement are dilettantes for not working on reproductive rights, or that people in the reproductive rights movement are dilettantes for not working on poverty in Africa, or that people in the anti-poverty movement are dilettantes for not working on global climate change. And I don’t think I’m a dilettante for working on atheism. Atheism has caught my imagination. I’m not sure I entirely understand why (although I have some ideas), but it has. I’m inspired to work in this movement; I’m good at it; I think it’s so far beyond fun that I sometimes just burst with excitement about it and have to get up from my computer to do a little happy-dance. I don’t entirely understand why… but I don’t feel that way about other political movements. Awesomely important though they are. And getting involved in a movement that isn’t fun and exciting for you is a sure recipe for burnout.
What’s more, atheism is a fight where I can make a difference. In a way that I can’t do nearly as much in other fights. If for no other reason: I’m already in this movement, and I already have a respected voice in it. And the fact that I care so much about this movement, the fact that I find it so inspiring and fun, is of course a huge part of why I’m good at it… and the fact that I’m good at it is a huge part of why I can make an impact in it.
And maybe most importantly? This is a fight that, in the long run, I think has potential — maybe a seriously large potential — to help with these other fights.
I mean — if we win? If in a hundred years, even half the world population has stopped believing in religion? If in two hundred years, almost nobody does? If in three or four or five hundred years, historians are writing about religion as a fascinating relic of human history, the way we now write about geocentrism or the theory of the four bodily humours?
How much of a game-changer would that be?
How different would the world be… not just about religion, but about sexism and science education and same-sex marriage and reproductive rights and eighty thousand other areas of life that religion fucks up?
It’s not like I think the spread of atheism will bring the dawn of a Utopia, a new age of reason in which critical thinking is king and humanist values are treasured by all. Human nature is what it is, and even if religion completely disappeared from the human mindset and became a historical relic, people will still be wired with cognitive errors we evolved a hundred thousand years ago to help us find food and escape from predators, and we’ll still believe silly things for no good reason. Atheism isn’t going to make that go away. (There are way too many atheists who believe silly things for me to convince myself of that.)
But I do think that a huge number of the world’s greatest ills are made far worse, and in some cases are directly caused, by religion. I think religious belief, by its very nature, is a bad influence on humanity, one that does significantly more harm than good. I don’t think the world would be perfect without religion… but I do think it would be better.
And to get back to my specific point: I think that, without religion in the world, or even with less religion in the world, a lot of these other fights I’m talking about would be a whole lot easier. In some cases, they might not need to be happening at all. Without religion, homophobia would be a lot less rampant. Without religion, sexism would be a lot less rampant. Without religion, the U.S. wouldn’t be freaking out over government funding of birth control. Without religion, the Middle East wouldn’t be such a freaking mess. Without religion, we might even be less vulnerable to manipulation of irrational fears and false hopes by disgustingly rich fuckers trying to get even richer. I think the atheist movement has the potential, in the long run and maybe even the medium run, to make a serious dent in all these other issues I care about, and to be a positive force for the human race.
So no. I’m not going anywhere. I just need to question these things now and then, is all. After all, when I do this work, I’m asking other people to question some of their most fundamental ideas and assumptions about their lives and the world. I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I wasn’t willing to periodically question my own.