It never took

Several of you replied to Julian’s claims about atheists’ deafness to religion by pointing out that most atheists were raised theist by theists so we’re not deaf at all, we’re familiar with the music. It’s a good point, but at the same time – I’m not sure it’s always true. I’m not sure that being raised theist is enough to make one not deaf to religion.

I was nominally raised as a theist, sort of, but it never took. I think I probably am deaf to religion in the sense that Julian had in mind – I think that’s what “it never took” means. I should add that I’m glad to be that kind of deaf, but still – I think Julian is probably right that people like me don’t “get” whatever it is that real believers do get.

I never really believed any of it. I can’t remember the faintest trace of feelings of love for or trust in “God.” Nothing. All sorts of tv cowboys and characters in novels were far more real to me than “God” ever was. This means that I don’t know what it’s like to really believe it. I probably can’t even properly imagine it, because the awareness that I don’t believe it gets in the way, like a filter.

If I’m right about that, though, it could be argued that what Julian is really talking about is credulity. I know, his point was that there’s more to religion than what-is-believed and that it’s the “more” that we’re deaf to – but I don’t think that works. I think if you don’t have the requisite credulity about god then the “more” doesn’t hook you in that way – that intense, felt way whose opposite is deafness.

That looks as if I’m paying myself a compliment for not having credulity, but I’m not, really. It may have been sheer shallowness that saved me. I just preferred the tv cowboys. I’m serious about that: my childhood was made up of pretending to be either tv heroes or characters from for instance The Secret Garden; fantasy all the way.

I did at least know it was fantasy though.


  1. Steve says

    Same here. My indoctrination never worked. I believed some of the stories in a historical sense, but that’s about it. I always had a curiosity for natural sciences and was very interested in astronomy and paleontology as a kid. That caused a conflict with some of the stories (though I was never bombarded with Creationism or anything severe).

    In any case, I never understood any of the supernatural stuff. I just went through the motions and the rituals because that’s what people expected

  2. Timothy (TRiG) says

    After I left the Witnesses, I spent some time trying to work out, “Did I ever actually believe it?” And, do you know, I’m not sure. I certainly acted as if I believed it, and gave intellectual assent to it, but I never really felt it to be true. Prayer would certainly never have been my default reaction in times of trouble. I never had the “relationship with God” that some people talk about. I’m not sure I even understand the concept. I suspect that’s what you’re talking about here.


  3. says

    I do remember feeling some anxiety, on and off, about the fact that I couldn’t feel it. And what in retrospect looks a lot to me like not-so-subtle pressure just to say I did anyway.

    So I still wonder just how many people might just fake it until they talk ’emselves into it. And how much the game at large might rely on such a mechanism. Would be pretty painful, methinks, to have to face that you’re lying about such a thing. And so easy never to have to admit it. Ain’t like it’s the sort of thing that’s real easy to be caught out at, after all.

    Side topic. And one I do bang on about, fair enough.

    More to the point: I note also ‘there are those who just can’t feel it (and clearly, that’s their loss; being resistant or immune to the manipulation is clearly a bad thing, see)’ has been an explanatory tactic of religion in the face of incredulity for quite some time. Muslims got that one in there, as do the Christians, as I recall. The god can harden your heart, see, so you don’t believe in him, and that’s all that’s really going on, here, nothing to see, move along…

    Yep. Really. See, he’s all-powerful. So, if you disbelieve, that was The Plan too.

    … which, I might add, would probably be one more fun way for dealing with would-be missionaries. ‘Sorry. Apparently my mocking is also part of your deity’s plan. You dare oppose his will? What, are you, working for Satan!? Anyway, pass me the megaphone… Gotta get this apparent plan of his moving along, babe…’

  4. eric says

    What Bruce said. If Julian means tone deafness to equate to belief, he’s being tautological. For the tone deafness argument to work in a non-circular way at all, its got to mean something independent of belief. Like ‘a good understanding’ or ‘a choice which is well-informed.’ But in this case, there is no reason to claim atheists are tone deaf.

    As Homer told Lisa – awww honey, just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand.

  5. baal says

    I’ve been convinced for a while now that our brains are busy modeling the world and the brains are very happy to fill in bits and pieces here and there on that internal reality model. We sort of need to work that way or we’d be very limited.

    Our beliefs and what we’ve learned is consistent about the world strongly influence the model in our heads. For the longest time, I thought I could see through walls as a 4 year old because I had a memory of seeing outside from my parents room at the time.* Thanks to this and other errors I’d noticed in my thinking later, I had the idea that other people must also be making similar types of mistakes and from time to time, I do see it.**

    I’d be happier if folks were better about recognizing that they have wrong ideas in their heads and it screws up their perceptions and interactions with reality.

    *Later in life I saw a picture of the room at it has a glass sliding door that I never knew was there.
    **I don’t think it’s just confirmation bias. Cultural ‘truths’ are a great example. Traveling can be a huge eye opener.

  6. Patrick says

    When I was young, I had a friend who was a Jehovah’s Witness. He told me that, officially, he wasn’t supposed plan to get married, or to go to college, because the world was expected to end before that.

    Then he kind of shrugged.

    When we eventually went to college, 10 years later, he didn’t seem surprised. And I think he’s married now, though we’ve lost touch.

    Not everyone experiences a given religion the same way. I’m sure the way my friend experiences being a Jehovah’s Witness is not the same as every other member of his church. There’s a conflict in the mind of the religious believer between what they’re expected to profess, and what they know, and not everyone resolves it the same way. So even if you’ve been part of it, you won’t necessarily understand the “rhythm” of religious life the same way that other members of your religious community did… because they’re experiencing a different rhythm. They’ve negotiated a different compromise between the real world and the demands of their “belief” system.

    That being said, there’s no reason to uniquely pick on atheists for this. Every time a religious person tells you that you’ve misunderstood their faith, and that members of their religion don’t believe in things the way you think they do, and you KNOW that at least some members of their faith believe exactly the way you think they do because you used to be part of it… if you’re guilty of a tone deafness, its the same as theirs, and for the same reasons.

  7. anne says

    Same here. It never took. I wasn’t pressured at home, but many of my schoolfriends’ families were devout. They were decent people whom I liked and respected, so I tried to see what it was they valued above and beyond the moral code. I never found it. We were lucky at school to have a broad RE curriculum which covered all the major religions in a fairly even-handed way, and a combative RE teacher who enjoyed winding us up into debate. Can’t recommend highly enough a wide RE programme! It’s similar to studying zoological taxonomy, should cure most people of a sense of exceptionalism. It may have left some schoolmates with a sense that there’s something vaguely Goddish out there that no one religion has properly grasped, but not me. I tried, for years I tried because I thought I was young and ignorant and had to try, but I’ve never begun to grasp it.

  8. says

    The posts of Steve and Timothy (#s 1 & 2) I think illustrate the triangular relationship between belief, belonging, and loyalty. It is important to realise that valued membership of a kin or tribal group (family, religious congregation, sports club…) is commonly conditional on acceptance of, or aquiescence to, some body of ‘beliefs’. I put the word ‘beliefs’ in parentheses because often the adherents have no idea of the full compass of the system they are agreeing to support.

    To cease believing is commonly seen as a act of disloyalty to ancestry, family and community, and even beyond them to nation and even ‘race’.

    Powerful forces are in play here.

  9. Kevin says

    I didn’t know I had so many fellows in never-belief.

    I sussed out the fact that the stories told weren’t real when I was about age 8 and at “vacation bible school”. The summer after I figured out Santa wasn’t real.

    Thankfully, I only had to endure VBS once in my life — but it was enough. Before that, I don’t think I had enough “real” awareness of the god concept to even tell you what it was about. Jesus loves me — OK, then why doesn’t he give me presents on my birthday?

    I was a concrete thinker even back then.

  10. Wowbagger, Madman of Insleyfarne says

    Ian MacDougall wrote:

    To cease believing is commonly seen as a act of disloyalty to ancestry, family and community, and even beyond them to nation and even ‘race’.

    Yep. I suspect the vast majority of people in the world who claim a religious affiliation do so more because for sociocultural reasons than for any serious belief in the supernatural being at its centre or the teachings of the church – all ones need do is look at the birth rates of first-world countries with large/predominately Catholic populations to see that.

  11. Stacy says

    We could just as easily claim that Julian has it backwards, and believers are simply tone-deaf to the Magic of Reality.

    Of course, in many cases they’re not deaf, they’re just holding their hands over their ears and chanting “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

  12. sailor1031 says

    As a little catholic kid I believed it. I wouldn’t have believed that they were just all telling lies – my parents, my relatives, the nuns, the priests. No I was a believer. Some of my relatives are still believers (some are not). I know what they get out of it. I see it. I just don’t believe that fairy-tale crap myself; that’s the only difference

  13. Steve says

    One thing in particular I never understood was the Holy Ghost/Spirit (Catholic background here). The whole Jesus story – as a historical narrative and glossing over how unnecessary the whole thing is – all made sense until you got to the resurrection and suddenly some kind of spirit flies down and possesses everyone. I could have understood if people were filled with awe and suddenly remembered Jesus’s teachings or something, but I was supposed to believe in it as some kind of real, distinct entity. Not as a metaphor. That was just absurd. And don’t get me started on the Trinity. That’s what really killed the whole thing for me

  14. says

    I was raised by agnostics — religion was self-inflicted starting in my teen years and lasting until my 40s. I think I did too “get it” — across the whole fundementalist-to-liberal spectrum — as much as my temperament is capable thereof. As I commented on Eric’s blog a little while back:

    ….seeing one’s life as a subplot in a grand narrative, and to draw strength and joy from gathering together with like-minded others to celebrate our joint participation in that narrative. That’s a powerfully attractive way to see oneself in relation to the universe.

    But in the end, I realized there was no Story-Teller, and thus no narrative — at least not one that is coherent on a human scale of value.

  15. says

    It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it. I can see others think so too! It’s odd that it didn’t take, at least for awhile. Maybe it did and I just don’t remember, but I do remember some things that point the other way – hating the damn Lord’s prayer which for a time I said every night at bedtime. I sort of liked the ritual I think, I liked my mother hearing me and turning off the light and so on, but I hated “if I should die before I wake” and the rest of it was just…noise. A chant. I remember hating church and Sunday school – and not one instant of liking them. I remember conversations with my mother, in which she always said she didn’t know, wasn’t sure it was true etc – and nothing at all that was overtly devout. When I say “nominally” I really mean it. And yet my brother was a committed choir boy for a time. (He’s the one who went to the Cranston school board meetings to support Jessica. He got over the choir boy thing!) My sister took religion seriously in some way although I have no idea what if anything she actually believed. But I – I seem to have been stone cold dead to the whole thing, always. Until I got pissed off, of course.

  16. says

    I’m trying to remember what it was like to believe. I know I did, at one time. But I can’t remember the feeling of it. I was atheist for most of my teen years, then believed in some sort of New Age-y God that we were really all one with, and we were all just playing the roles that we decided to play before we incarnated as individuals (read “Conversations With God” by Neale Donald Walsh, especially book 3, and you might see where I got the idea). I remember the first deconversion in my early teens, in a fuzzy kind of way. Not the day or anything, but the thought process that got me there. I don’t remember the second. I think it just wasn’t as big a deal the second time, and was more gradual.

    But I can’t remember the *feeling* of belief either from childhood, or those few years in my early twenties. I remember comfort of some sort in my twenties, but also frustration because the beliefs I had meant my individuality would someday be subsumed into the God-Nirvana thing, but apparently by the time that happened, I was supposed to have gone through several more lifetimes, and become more enlightened, and would accept it and look forward to becoming one with God again. So that was all right. Or something.

    But what it felt like to believe all that (and yes, that was an all-loving God, with a sense of humor and a desire to be your friend), I can’t really remember.

  17. Cluisanna says

    I remember that I had a lot of doubts about Christianity when I was a young child, but then my faith came back when I was 12 and stayed until I was around 16… (which was 2 years ago). I distinctly remember that I told someone that I just had this feeling knowing that someone was there, listening, and I’m pretty sure I prayed. I even have diary entries interpreting bible lines and what they might mean for my life.
    I can’t for the life of me recall how my faith left me. It just went away gradually, I think, and only recently I realized how extremely weird it was that I actually believed in all of that – especially since I was raised in a very secular, academic environment and learned about lots of other religions. I still don’t understand how I never noticed that it made absolutely no sense to see all religions as just manifestations of the same god, but that’s how I understood it. Maybe it was all because I never really read the bible or any other holy book.

  18. Nadeen says

    My path to becoming an atheist was not straight but I can honestly say I never got the religious experience either and I had plenty of exposure as a child. I also tried several times to join a “church family” as an adult only to have to face up to the inevitable truth that I though the virgin birth, the resurrection and the assorted miracles were awfully silly stories. I remember being puzzled at the idea of Jesus’s life being described as the greatest story ever told and positively loathed, and loath, most everything in the old testament. The Little Princes, The Secret Garden and (especially) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were way better stories and they still are.

    I always rather liked the “ . . . if I should die before I wake” prayer, but I tend to be slightly morbid. Rock-a-by baby bothered me however. Why would anyone put a baby in a treetop so that it would fall down and why were they okay with it?

    Having given you all something deep to ponder I shall now say my goodnight.

  19. Ken Pidcock says

    As a child? Oh, yeah, I got it. Actually, I loved my faith. Born in 1954, I thought of God’s grace, strengthening his people, as the primary weapon against war and social injustice. Liz and Phil and Dan remained my heroes even after I let go. And I didn’t let go easy. But honesty compelled me and, since, I’ve had trouble understanding why so many of my neighbors don’t feel that honesty compels them. As an adult, the historical origins of every religious tradition seem so obvious that embracing any of them as if they convey any truth must require an inexcusable degree of dishonesty. Why are so many compelled to lie? Or maybe it’s delusion, but that’s nothing to take pride in.

  20. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I believed. I was an altar boy (fortunately 80 year old Monseigneur Dames wasn’t that kind of priest), I said rosaries, did novenas, the whole shebang. I knew I was Jesus’ kid and he was pleased with me, except when I fucked up sinned but even then he forgave me after I confessed my fuck ups sins to the priest. I was emotionally attached to Catholicism.

    It was the intellectual parts of Catholicism which did me in. I was in Br. Louis’ 8th grade religion class. We were studying something called “the double effect,” which is Catholic-speak for situational ethics. Br. Louis asked if an abortion was unsinful if done to save the mother’s life. I stuck up my hand and said “yes.” I then got a ten minute screaming rant from Br. Louis, during which I was informed that I was “a heretic, damned by God.” He then severely whipped me with his favorite rattan cane (I still have scars on my buttocks from that beating).*

    After that I started to seriously question Catholicism, Christianity, and the whole concept of religion. This process took several years and included reading the Bible cover to cover three times. By the time I graduated from high school, I was an atheist.

    *Br. Louis never liked me because on the first day of class he was telling about what a dedicated teacher he was. He bragged how he came down with appendicitis but taught for three days until his appendix burst, putting him in hospital for a month and convalescing for six weeks. My hand shot up and I asked why he didn’t have his appendix out right away, because he’d only be in hospital for a few days and have a couple of weeks convalescence. He actually lost teaching time by teaching for those three days but then taking ten weeks to recover from the burst appendix. Br. Louis didn’t like a smart-ass kid pointing out his dedication story had a big hole in it.

  21. says

    I definitely get it. I definitely got it: the belief, the poetry, the (what I saw at the time as) beautiful, symmetrical connections between various theological and philosophical ideas. For a long time, these things along with social indoctrination hijacked my thoughts. There was a time when I would’ve told you that if I could just travel around reading prosaically and theologically beautiful passages of scriptures and religious writings and fictions, and contributing some of my own, that would have been a satisfying life. In fact, I still admire a lot of the things I did, purely aesthetically and prosaically speaking; like Richard Dawkins, I am a fan of Ecclesiastes, and like HItchens I find the KJV I Corinthians 13 to be lovely.

    Where I simply do not connect with Baggini is that somehow, this means I should be less critical of religion itself, Christianity in particular, or even religious people, when they say and do things I consider wrong. My deep, hard-won understanding of the religious inclination does not buy any respect from me in this regard. Since I’m a casual determinist, and I know indoctrination is a powerful tool, I don’t blame individual believers in the same way as I blame the religion, or its inventors. But the fact is: if I met my former self today, I would give him no quarter he did not earn. I would argue with him just as thoroughly as I’d argue with anyone else.

    Regardless of my reasons for being so, I was wrong. It is that simple.

  22. says

    I was in deep well into my teens. If you had asked me then if I believed I would have said a resounding yes and I would have believed I was telling the truth. That’s one of the problems with trying to analyze yourself in hindsight. Too much of you in the present tends to reflect back. Our memories of the past, especially of how we felt in the past are constantly being recolored by the present or the more recent past. I was writing something personal recently and I tried to get back into the mindset of myself when I had faith. I have read the bible a dozen times. I can parrot doctrine from multiple denominations like I am some kind of revolving multipreacher but I wanted to get in touch with the genuine me from back then, the me with faith. Problem was I couldn’t do it.

    It took me a while to realize why I couldn’t connect. I actually understood it better now than I did then. I realized that if I had actually understood what I believed and truly believed it I would have been banging on doors and studying non-stop and bugging the hell out of everyone I could find in an effort to spare them the torments of Hell. I realized that to truly have faith in that worldview and do anything short of devoting every waking moment to spreading the message and convincing people would make no sense at all unless you really didn’t care. This one realization, along with some interesting studies I read, convinced me that there is much less faith going on than we are led to believe. I think most people who come out of religion to a place of reason will look back and question their faith from day one.

  23. Kiwi Dave says

    I believed for some time that Bible stories were true and there really was a god, but in my teenage years these truths seemed more and more detached, if not from reality, then certainly from me – I was very shallow and self-centred. Knowing that God existed was like knowing that the principal export in 1673 of a small, distant, no longer existant country which I couldn’t find on any map was sisal. Hmmm, yes, that may well be true but but how does that relate to my life?

    And yet, I could easily and intensely imagine characters and scenes from literature and history. Perhaps the difference was that they made human sense, whereas I never understood how God loved the world, or how Christ’s death upon the cross saved me from my sins.

  24. Musical Atheist says

    Tone-deaf? I’ve just been reading Karen Armstrong’s ‘A Short History of Myth’, in which she quietly accuses not just atheists, but the whole of modern Western society of being insensitive to the cohering and humanizing nature of the myths which supposedly made pre-modern societies such meaningful and nurturing environments.

    I’m certainly not tone-deaf to the rather subtle way she denigrates ‘logos’ at the expense of ‘mythos’, while ostensibly claiming that both are necessary ways of conceptualizing. Throughout the book people in myth-using societies ‘come to understand’ truths about their nature and the world. Scientists don’t ‘come to understand’, they only ‘come to believe’. See what she did there?

    I grew up atheist/agnostic in a non-religious household, and my dive into alternative spirituality came in my teens. Myth and allegory (and poetry and fiction) have always held a compelling charm for me, especially the mystical Christian poetry of George Herbert or the passionate love songs to God of John Donne. I’m far from tone-deaf to the pleasures of ritual and the experience of accessing and assimilating psychological truths through stories and rituals, and like Sam Harris, I now get practical value from a regular meditative practice, though stripped of its ideological attachments. But my adolescent walk through alternative spirituality was an attempt to experience being more deeply acquainted with myself and the world. What Armstrong and all the ‘shut up Gnu’s’ crowd fail to understand is that an interest in science and in truth may be a more mature, rewarding and honest version of that quest.

  25. Musical Atheist says

    On the other hand, while obviously being susceptible to certain aspects of religious thought in general, I never found any aspect of Christianity remotely credible. Not even when I sang in a church choir (for the unparalleled practical training in 900 years of music history that you get when you do this). Despite my love of the poetry and music that have arisen around Christianity, and my respect for some of the moral thought, the beliefs always seemed silly. Sillier than nature spirits and crystal healing! Maybe I’m selectively tone-deaf. Tone-deaf to the discords and false notes in spiritualities that appeal to me and sensitive to them in spiritualities that don’t.

  26. says

    Well, you don’t see tone-deaf people complaining about the existence of music, do you? So can we agree that it’s simply a dumb comparison that is based on nothing and move on?

  27. says

    Like several others here, I was an enthusiastic Christian growing up – an altar boy, a choir boy, a “Levite” in high school, I wanted to be a priest for quite some time – and I did genuinely believe. I even still like some of the music – though not so much the songs I now refer to as “James Blunt Christianity” (so named because I can’t quite tell if it’s about Jesus or the cute girl on the subway – see example below).

    And yet today I don’t think my impression of religion or its apologists – liberal/moderate or otherwise – differs much from your own.

    As the deer pants for the water,
    So my soul longs after you,
    You alone are my heart’s desire,
    And I long to worship you…

    I want you more than gold or silver,
    Only you can satisfy,
    You alone are the real joy giver,
    And the apple of my eye…

    Puking may now commence.

  28. John Morales says


    So, my mum hoped I’d become a priest, back in the day.

    I spent several years of my childhood at Catholic boarding-schools, in Spain in the 1960s.

    I went to Catholic primary schools, both in Spain and in Australia.

    I was an altar-boy from the ages of 11 to 15 (and an acknowledged artist with a thurible!). I even went on retreats.

    My mother, mother-in-law (their respective spouses are deceased) and my wife were (and are) are practising Catholics all of my life.

    I was married in a Church ceremony.

    (Such ignorance of religion, I have!)

  29. Timothy (TRiG) says

    On the other hand, C.S. Lewis once said that when he prayed, he sometimes felt that he was posting letters to a non-existant address. As I was losing my faith, I mentioned this to my mother. She said she understood the feeling.

    I suspect that feeling and belief, while certainly interconnected, are not entirely dependent on each other.


  30. Godless Heathen says

    This is an interesting discussion and something I’ve been thinking about recently.

    I was raised in a secular Jewish/Christian home. For a long time, I identified more strongly as Jewish than Christian. At the same time, I was never taught to believe in a god, so I didn’t. Since all my friends were Christian and believed in god, I assumed that the reason I didn’t was because I was Jewish. I even told a friend at one point that Jews don’t believe in god (I was about 7 or 8). Yeah, I didn’t have a strong grasp of theology at that point. 🙂

    Anyway, I went through a new-age, spiritual phase between ages 10 or 11 and 16 or 17. I claimed to believe in some sort of spirit that connected everything in the universe and I called that god. Like someone said up thread, it’s difficult to look back now and remember if I actually believed or not.

    At any rate, I never believed in god or jesus or heaven or hell or angels or anything like that in the way that most Christians believe in them. However, I attribute this almost 100% to never having been taught to believe in those things and to being half-Jewish (as I called myself as a child).

    I don’t know. I went through a period starting at the end of high school where I didn’t really care and didn’t really think about what I actually believed.

  31. says

    What Jarreg said @23 – “That’s one of the problems with trying to analyze yourself in hindsight. Too much of you in the present tends to reflect back.” I know. That’s why I keep poking at my hindsight, trying to dig out what’s hidden, and why I hedged everything I said, and why I said it’s possible that I did and just don’t remember.

    Still; I doubt it. I think if I had gotten it, something would have stuck. I remember other stuff I got – as I mentioned, stupid stuff from tv and the like – quite vividly. I remember the books I read over and over; I remember the top 40 songs; I remember my pretend games. If religion had ever gripped me at all surely I would remember something of that. That seems true pretty much by definition. I remember a whole slew of things that grabbed me, because they grabbed me; all I remember of religion is dislike – the boredom or worse of church and Sunday school.

  32. Poppy says

    Hmm. Perhaps I’m an exception. I believed. Really believed. Like, Rapture Ready Fundie believed.

    Yet now, nothing.

    Its funny that reading the bible from cover to cover can turn you into an atheist. I realized that my “God of Love” was a complete asshole based on his own ‘inspired’ scriptures.


    The sheer magnitude of cognitive dissonance just became too much to bear and it was either lobotomize myself or choose reality over religion. Reality won.

  33. says

    Very cool, Dave.

    Not quite gnosticism though is it? That’s two gods, only one of which is evil.

    A bit unfair to atheists in the third panel, too. I for one don’t say we’d better learn to live with it; I’m all for fighting back. I’m of Huck Finn’s party.

  34. says

    I was religious for a long time, though not evangelical, fundamentalist, or anything that people would consider too extreme. I was a moderate, and I made a point of remembering how it felt precisely so that people couldn’t tell me that I didn’t know what it was like. No, most of you don’t get it. And believe me, you don’t want it.

    To have faith is to be willing to entertain the possibility of the miraculous. If you have faith, you keep this door open in your mind; you have to because none of it makes sense otherwise. If you don’t have faith, you close it. It sounds so wonderful and open-minded to people who have faith, but there’s that whole problem of having your brain fall out. People who call themselves Christian and don’t keep this door open don’t actually have faith, which is actually the whole bloody point of the thing–they’ve come for the social, or out of habit, or because they think that’s what they should do. And keep in mind that not everyone who has faith calls the object of that faith God.

    It’s like being a little high all the time. It feels great. You don’t have to worry about your own problems, or the world’s, because, hey, anything can happen. God will make it all work out. Coincidences mean something. Maybe some people do have extraordinary powers! What the @^#% do we know, right?

    In other words, it affects ALL of your thinking, not just what you think about religion. Compartmentalization is possible, but it’s always there, like a slow gas leak. And to keep that door open, you have to close others. There are things you don’t want to know when you’ve got faith, things that will harsh your buzz. So when people try to tell you those things, you take comfort in the certainty that the check is in the mail; you may not have an answer right now, but you will. Or somebody does. The proof is left as an exercise for the reader. They really don’t understand. It’s ineffable. People who doubt just have another kind of religion… and so on and on. The faithful really do believe all this stuff, because you just sort of settle back into this comfortable cognitive haze. You don’t know why you’re right, you’re just sure that you are.

    I became an atheist the moment I closed a door, and I think I have to credit James Randi for that. I had no idea how much it would change me, but everything else followed after that. I was embarrassed to discover just how much nonsense I had been willing to believe, and not just about God.

    A friend of mine who has become a devout Catholic made the same journey in reverse. He isn’t stupid, but his mind is now a debris field of woo and nonsense: not only is he convinced that the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church is entirely manufactured by the enemies of the church, he has transformed into such a flake about matters not even connected to religion that we can hardly find any topic where we might agree.

    So, that’s what it’s like, and all the people who tell you it’s about sophisticated theology don’t get it either; it isn’t about anything like that. All that is a smoke screen. It’s about keeping that door open.

  35. Dave says

    I’m of Slippery Jim DiGriz’s party – all of us only get one life, and it’s only fair that we should all get a crack at living a good one.

    [If you don’t know who SJDG is, whooo, are you in for a treat.]

  36. says

    To have faith is to be willing to entertain the possibility of the miraculous. If you have faith, you keep this door open in your mind; you have to because none of it makes sense otherwise. If you don’t have faith, you close it.

    I love that.

  37. MosesZD says

    It took with me, but I’m structured to be rational and empirical in my world-view, so it died. The obvious inanity of religion was too contra-factual to the universe.

  38. Stewart says

    Nope, not for a moment, not even as far back as I can remember. At a certain age I realised there was at least a question about whether such a being existed, threw it a thought along the lines of “if you exist, you know what I’m thinking and can now take advantage of your one shot at making me believe in you.” Nothing happened and there’s never been a second thought, although said hypothetical being has since had decades to convince me otherwise. I’m no more certain than Dawkins is that no such being exists, but what I can be more than reasonably certain of is that if it does exist and has the powers claimed for it, it does not wish me to believe in it. I can’t think of any good arguments against that one.

  39. says

    Stewart – exactly. I think that point is the real killer, much more so than whether or not it exists. If it does exist but doesn’t make that clear to us – if it does exist but it hides and then expects us to ignore our own best faculties – then fuck it.

  40. Stewart says

    Well, it’s not even the hiding business (valid as it most certainly is) – it’s that I’ll be damned if I’m going to have a believer saying there’s something wrong with me for not believing when the responsibility for my belief or lack of it lies solidly with the god in question. It’s not passive, it’s active – a god who exists and is not believed in is (and I really don’t consider this an arguable point) the active agent of that disbelief. A god like that should get its act together and not come crying to me.

  41. says

    But that is the hiding business – how dare this god character make itself undetectable and then demand that we believe it exists! It’s such a cheat. Very active indeed. (By hiding I mean “nyah nyah you can’t find me,” not quietly waiting while we hunt. But anyway it has no business doing even the latter if it’s what people claim it is.)

  42. says

    @45: ….which brings us to the second most noxious doctrine of evangelicalism (the first being eternal torment): that unbelief isn’t just, or even primarily, a cognitive/evidential issue, it’s a moral issue. Non-Christians are being willfully stubborn to not believe in Jesus* — It’s obvious! There has to be a Creator! And there has to be a Redeemer! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE!!!!

    Ergo, you deserve to get barbecued for eternity!!!

    I understand there’s a kind of abusive partner and/or parent who makes you guess at what they want, and then punishes you severely when you (inevitably) fail to guess right. But he loves you! The evangelical god is just that, writ cosmically large.

    * Granted, it may not be universally held among evangelicals.

  43. Stewart says

    Not arguing that. The problem isn’t with the god. If it exists, it can take care of itself. It’s all the intermediaries, the genuinely deluded – and the less genuinely deluded who seek and get all the temporal power they claim is so unimportant. They have invented entire theologies to justify the claim that failure to believe does not mean that there’s no god there, or that it doesn’t want one to believe or that it simply doesn’t care. No, it’s the non-believer’s fault, even though every atom of her/his being is entirely the way god decided it had to be. Hitchens’ “created sick, commanded to be well” comes to mind here. In the final analysis, no atheist believes her/himself to be in a struggle with god (“if you don’t believe in god, why do you hate him so much?,” as we’ve all heard). Our problem is 100% with other people, who have introduced an all-powerful imaginary character into all discussions we could ever have with them, one who is always on their side. And somehow, they all prefer those who play the same game with different imaginary characters to those who just say it’s all a silly game. Not only have I yet to hear any kind of explanation as to how a god responsible for everything could also create free will, I have yet to encounter a believer who admits there’s even a problem.

  44. says

    Eamon – my point exactly. How dare it demand that you believe it exists and torture you for not believing it exists when it doesn’t demonstrate that it exists! Xians say it does, of course, but that’s nonsense.

  45. daveau says

    I tried. I really tried. I prayed but God never answered me. I never felt Jesus’ love for me. I began to think something was wrong with me, or that God didn’t love me, and that was a horrible feeling for a child to have, believe me. So, I tried. I wanted to please my parents, so I tried. I had friends in Sunday School, so I tried.

    At some point I began asking the kind of questions that can’t be answered with “it’s an allegory”, and I realized that no one else really knew anything either.

    I went along with the program for a few more years, but by the time I went to college it was all over. So, sorry Rick Santorum, it wasn’t a liberal college education that destroyed my faith. Religion did that. And my late teens were the right time for my brain to mature, and for me to have enough self-confidence to take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions. College is just a coincidence.

    I would like to add that “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” just terrified me at the age of five. It still sounds horrifying. Since Ophelia brought it up.

  46. Stewart says

    Something I think I’ve mentioned before, though possibly not here: as a child, one reason I didn’t believe was that I had been handed nothing that convinced me it was justified. I was aware that all grown-ups I knew did believe (correction: that was my feeling, but I don’t think my mother ever did) and I did assume that there were reasons out there that were somehow not made accessible to children and even though I didn’t expect them to convince me, I thought I would one day learn what they were, for I thought it impossible that so many adults could believe on the strength of reasons that didn’t merit belief from myself, a mere child. And then I grew up and it turned out that nobody had a better reason to believe than anything I’d been told as a child (and found wanting).

    I also wonder to what extent the kind of atheists we are today correlates to the kind of believers we were or weren’t in the past. Does an evangelical believer turn into an evangelical atheist? Are those who were never forced into any kind of religious observance despite their disbelief any more moderate? Does anyone else find that kind of question as interesting as I do?

  47. avh1 says

    I’d better confess as well – I grew up in a non-religious household and never got it either. Until a couple of years ago I was just atheist or agnostic by default I guess. Oh Ophelia, btw and slightly off topic but I just finished reading the Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense and I loved it. I especially liked the description of my home, Edinburgh.


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