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Why I am an atheist – mjr

I’m an atheist because I grew up in an environment free of the notion that religious teachings were true, in any sense. Whenever atheists who’ve recovered from religion talk about it, they seem to have had to sometimes struggle to reject the claims of faith – imagine how easy it was, for me, growing up with the opposite assumption: that it was a historical artifact and belonged with times gone by. When I was a kid I learned about the ancient Greeks and Zeus and Olympus, the Romans and Poseidon, the Vikings and Odin, the Jews and Yahweh, and the Egyptians and Bast – and it’s blindingly obvious that these myths are just stories to tell around the fire. For most of my life I largely ignored religion, until I started to study political philosophy and became uncomfortably aware of religion’s long role as a technique for political control. It was Seneca’s quip: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” that made me realize that if you’re going to engage in a political dialogue with another person, you will often need to address religious indoctrination just as you sometimes need to overcome national or tribal indoctrination. Since I realized that, I now am willing to engage in frank dialogue with another person regarding their religious beliefs in much the same way as I would with a person I encountered who held repugnant racist ideologies, xenophobic politics, or a counterproductive political philosophy. So, I’ve always been an atheist but now I am “strident” about it because I’ve realized that religion is one of the things that exacerbates ‘normal’ conflict and therefore needs to be argued against.

mjr
United States

Comments

  1. eclectabotanics says

    I vote we allow mjr to hold office on the atheist board of directors – as parliamentarian,or perhaps vice-speaker. All in favor?

  2. jentokulano says

    …often need to address religious indoctrination…

    It’d be useful to me to hear some of the practical applications.

  3. stevegray says

    “Since I realized that, I now am willing to engage in frank dialogue with another person regarding their religious beliefs in much the same way as I would with a person I encountered who held repugnant racist ideologies, xenophobic politics, or a counterproductive political philosophy.”

    Anybody else reading feel like this was a me too moment?

  4. says

    jentokulano writes:

    It’d be useful to me to hear some of the practical applications

    Hi – I’m the “mjr” who wrote that. :)

    I was specifically thinking about foreign policy issues such as Israel/Palestine/Jerusalem – in which progress is impossible without addressing the role of religion in maintaining that conflict. It has always seemed to me that a crucial, missing, piece of that discussion needs to be an exposition of the religious underpinnings of the situation – allowing someone to assert that “god gave us title to this land” makes for some shaky geopolitics because it removes one of the crucial parties (“god”) from the negotiation. A whole great cataclysmic swath of nonsense follows from that little mental trick. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to confront it head-on because most of the other players in the game also believe in similar fairy tales of one sort or another. So, we need to be saying, “Listen – we understand that religion is a technique for political control and maintaining group identity. And in your case it’s worked so well that you’ve confused a myth with a title for a parcel of land.”

    The other thing I was thinking about when I wrote that sentence was that many, many aspects of public policy are rooted in religious ideas whether we want to recognize that or not. And I find it’s very useful to attack those topics simply by exposing those roots. I’ve found that asking a homophobe, “other than any religious justification, do you feel you have any reason to be involved in another person’s love/sex life?” tends to have the conversational effect of forking someone’s rook and queen: they are left either arguing the truth of their religion (in which case you can ask them whether they’d be comfortable being dictated to by hindus or buddhists or one of the set of all other religions which are untrue) or complaining that they’re squicked out (in which case you can ask them what other personal habits they feel they should be allowed to dictate in other people’s lives)?

    Studying skepticism and epistemology is where most of this comes from, for me. The ancient skeptics were able to successfully derail philosophy(*) So what I try to engage in is a blended attack based on Socrates’ method of asking innocuous-seeming questions designed to fix the opponent’s goal-posts, then attacking the basis for their epistemology. You want to nail down the crucial basis for their reasoning: are they a homophobe because “god hates fags” or because they’re squicked out? And the skeptical enquiry down either of those branches proceeds based on the assumption causing the branch to fork.

    (* That’s how philosophers like Will Durant put it… Personally I see skepticism’s role in philosophy as more akin to Godel’s role in math: he showed that complete systems are very hard or impossible to build. The skeptics – Empiricus and later Hume showed that systems of knowledge in general are prone to problems of infinite regress because they can’t be made to rest on something unknowable outside themselves)

  5. jimmauch says

    Without every having a god to tell you what to do how do you have any moral bearing? You need a god to tell you that you should be concerned about what your neighbors are doing in their bedrooms.

  6. says

    You need a god to tell you that you should be concerned about what your neighbors are doing in their bedrooms.

    Plato explored that question in the Euthyphro – namely, that if something is pleasing to the gods (“pious”) it still doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether it is right or wrong. I.e.: is it only pious behavior because the gods want it, or do the gods want it because it’s pious behavior and there’s some kind of standard of piety that even the gods adhere to, which did not come from them? If it’s only pious because the gods want it, then it’s arbitrary and isn’t right or wrong – it’s just what the gods dictate. All morality comes from the barrel of Zeus’ bolt-lobber and whatnot…

    As someone who grew up without religion, the philosophy of the ancient Greeks so glaringly obviously demolishes religion, over and over that you really understand why the christians struggled so hard to suppress Greek thinking. Epicurus demolished christianity in 300BC – hundreds of years before the religion even got started – the only way christianity took off was because education and literacy were limited. Religion’s long-standing process of trying to create a vacuum of ignorance to fill with bullshit began with the attempt to suppress Greek philosophy and continues to this day. You’ve sure gotta admire someone like Epicurus, who pwnd religions that hadn’t even been invented yet. “LOL! URE god is a newb!”

  7. says

    “You’ve sure gotta admire someone like Epicurus, who pwnd religions that hadn’t even been invented yet. “LOL! URE god is a newb!”

    Great entry, Marcus, although I wish the quote above had been included. Terrific post.

  8. allencdexter says

    Until the last six decades or so, resisting and exposing religion didn’t have the same profound urgency. With the advent of the atomic age, the ignorance and hate promoting aspects of religion became overwhelmingly important.

    There was plenty of hate and brutality thru the mullenia, but the entire human race was never before staring complete extinction in the face. Genocides were usually local and some percentage of populations would always escape.

    That comforting fact no longer is true. With nuclear weapons in the control of the right religious-minded group or individual, total extinction, or at least the end of civilization as we know it, is a distinct possibility.

    That’s why I am increasingly outspoken. The stakes are just to great to allow the purveyors of religious ignorance and hate to continue in control.

  9. says

    Can you point me to the Seneca quote in the original? Internet searches seem to suggest that it doesn’t exist, or must be from a rather obscure source.

    Thanks.

  10. says

    Can you point me to the Seneca quote in the original?

    Apparently I mis-attributed it!!!! I always remembered it as a quip from Seneca or Voltaire, so what I did was googled for “religion as useful seneca” and “religion as useful voltaire” and both searches pointed me to link-farms attributing the bon mot to Seneca. It appears that it’s a simplification of a bit by Gibbon (which I read once ~30 years ago) I’m now wondering if it was repeated in Will Durant (which I have read repeatedly) and how it got into my mind. It’s probably an atheist conspiracy, and I’m sorry for helping propagate misinformation!

  11. jamessweet says

    I haven’t been reading the “Why I am an atheist” series (there are so very many good reasons, unless it’s someone I already know and respect I’m not usually particularly interested… If there were a “Why I love my spouse” series, I would be very happy for every person that they felt that way, but I unless it was somebody I knew or admired, I wouldn’t actually care that much, sorry). However, I happened to skim this one, and I’m glad I did. LOVED this quote:

    [I]f you’re going to engage in a political dialogue with another person, you will often need to address religious indoctrination just as you sometimes need to overcome national or tribal indoctrination.

    Way to put it all in perspective! I love that!

  12. concernedjoe says

    Religion:

    “tells me all I need to tell others about how to live their lives”

    “makes me feel special and superior and a craven good for nothing sinner all within a breath – it’s better than good a scotch”

    “gives my intellectual laziness, fears, prejudices, and narrow-mindedness the cover of respectability”

    “gives me ‘I’m a good person’ pass card – 10 points up on the heathens to start regardless of evidence to contrary”

    “gives me a right to claim unearned authority in just about any theoretical discussion (not so useful when actual results must count though)”

    “gives me a vehicle to avoid really doing something worthwhile yet still collect gratitude” (you all guess the vehicle)

    and if I am really the delusional type “makes my hand steadier, my aim surer, my arms stronger, my mind clearer, my voice more resonate, my eyes sharper, my knowledge greater, my problems dissolve – even when it doesn’t!”

  13. jenniferallen says

    It’s easy for Atheists who grew up in secular homes to ignore the power of religion, not only over the population, but in politics as well. 9/11 changed that for a lot of secular people. My Atheism was born from the torment of my religious upbringing. I grew up in a Protestant home where religion was fed down my throat. I spent most of my hi9gh school years as a Evangelical, preaching to kids at my school with my religious friends. It was peer pressure. Forget drugs, religion was worse. My Atheism was part of a long battle against superstition which I fought alone. The Bible is what really hit the nail in the coffin. I didn’t have the help of people like Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris. My contempt was created by the intolerance and ignorance I saw pooling out of the churches. My Atheism is all the more “militant” because I knew the horrors religion could bring. I thank my own bravery in standing up against lies and holding on to the truth.

  14. RobertL says

    jamessweet @12: I also started off by thinking that these “Why I am an atheist” series would get repetitive, or that I wouldn’t care about them.

    I can happily say that I was wrong. They are all interesting, and different and pretty well-written.

    I’m really enjoying them, and add my voice to the call for PZ to publish them as a book.