Archive for August, 2011
Yes, I am a Christian atheist. Why a Christian atheist? It’s pretty much the only atheism I’ve had a chance to practice.
I started out as a loose Christian of sorts. Or as loose as you can if you’re born into the Bible belt, a belt that felt any thing but loose from early on.
I want to tell you the story of a boy we’ll call Jim.
Before he ever got to kindergarten, Jimmy found out people could die. It was that prayer he said every night that had the line, ‘if I should die before I wake,’ that gave him the idea.
“Mommy, how would I die?”
“It won’t be for a long time, Jimmy. Not ‘til you’re very old,” his mommy said. She pulled him to her chest, but he pulled his head away to see her face.
Jimmy’s brow wrinkled. “What’s it like if you die?”
“You become very quiet. You don’t breathe or talk anymore.”
Jimmy’s mouth gaped like a fish starving for air at the water’s surface.
“But why would I die?” Jimmy gasped for all the breath he could take in. How would death suffocate him? And no more talking! …how could he communicate with his mother then, with anyone? The chance to talk would be over with for ever.
His mother tried to keep her eyes from tearing. “Everybody dies,” she said.
Jimmy was inconsolable. He cried himself to sleep every night after his prayer. His mother didn’t know what to do. She didn’t think it was right to tell him to stop saying the prayer.
As time wore on, it wasn’t so much that Jimmy worked through his dread of death as he just wore himself out with it. Death remained a great monolith in Jimmy’s mind as the suffocating, stifling End. A school age Jimmy would draw from all this that if he had anything important to say he’d better say it. In order to keep his fear of death at bay, Jimmy vowed to determine what was important and true. This would be the standard he would bear.
Jimmy started his search for ultimate answers that would lead him to study science, philosophy, and even religion. And to try to develop a voice with which to say to those who came after, You’re not alone.
(There is some conjecture in this thesis or groups of theses. I can’t take credit for all these ideas. They’ve been garnered from many sources. I’m stringing them together which has probably been done by others before. I would especially like to cite The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. He is opposed on one point by Richard Dawkins: group level selection. Wade believes that the ubiquity of religion points to group level selection. That is, group, clan, troupe, tribe being “naturally” selected as an evolution adaptation.)
For the sake of argument I’d like to transport you to the Aurignation culture, one of the early European cultures of Cro-Magnon man. The culture of that troupe or tribe was their way of knowing the world and who they were. The need for identity, for the self and the group is very strong. It is inextricably intertwined, this group identity, with the group’s origin and leadership. Natural questions about self and group put to the test the alpha male (leadership), the group, and the self. Such questions as: Is the leader’s authority legitimate? Is the group fair and just? Am I in the right group?”
Cro-Magnon is a term that has been largely dropped. Anatomically modern humans is the more correct term. Consider them synonymous.
Religion was that interlocking puzzle piece that meshed with so many of the unknowns, the unanswerable questions of life, into one little black box. Religion said ‘this is who we are because this is how we answer these questions.’ Another way to put it, religion was a tool of man’s among very few tools because his mind was way ahead of his culture. At the Cro-Magnon point, those individuals had the rough equivalent of our minds… but their culture was just budding, wholly inadequate to their fears and concerns.
Cro-Magnon’s mind demanded answers, but he was the only one around who cared about his questions. So he could only reason from what he could see–with his limited understanding. He saw things that had visible effects in his world, sun, water, weather, animals, and so he reasoned backward via an anthropocentric apotheosis of those effects to some personified cause that must have intended them. ‘The great spirit was angry with us and flooded our camp.”
Religion can go to the root man’s sociopolitical nature because it offers God or his nominee as an overarching ‘alpha male.’ For the human troupe this is the ultimate or extreme legitimate leader. Maybe this is one reason that religion offers so much, as it evidently does, around the world to its followers—it locks into eons old primate evolutionary realities. If you’re unable to visualize the hierarchy in, say, a chimpanzee troupe, consider the feudal system—it shares a variation of the organizational structure of a primate (subsuming human as well) troupe: serfs, their lords, then kings with their divine right—authority validated by God. Just ask them, eh?
Certainly, today every person is a social critic and may be ‘hardwired’ to be one. Every primate troupe has a leader who is potentially subject to continual challenge, in a real way this is an ongoing quest for an authority that is beyond question. In reality, society is typically flawed, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Religion offers something of a utopia, a society perfected. To the extent that societies are less than perfect, religion, typically with a deity, offers the answers to the mysteries of the world by a personal embodiment of those mysteries in a caring entity who’s involved in the world and its being.
Believers may have gone for this package deal. That is, rather than accepting the idea that ‘there is a god’ as a first premise, they simply wanted the entire operational frame work of belief, reverence for the sacred, the favor of the satiated god, avoiding the wrath of unplacated gods, etc. In reality the individual’s culture presupposed a god’s existence before the individual was on the scene. Thus there was a tradition, and as far as the culture was concerned: ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, i.e., if you are going to partake in the culture, you accept it in its entirety, religious beliefs and all. Early on, the culture projected a god or gods; this Great Spirit was the apotheosis of nature. It was the existential equivalent of the question, ‘All right! Who’s in charge here?’ that mankind seems to have the burning need to know. Religion, then, was yet another aspect of how the banding together of the social tribe met the needs of the individual as well as the group: the culture had religious answers for the unfathomable mysteries of the world.
Later in prehistory, as cultures met, the possibility of abandoning one god and accepting another became feasible—though still not easy. If people liked the god-ideas of another culture, they may have imagined a god-message something like this: ‘Since you know there must be a god you should believe in me for I am He.’
The original dialogue between man and god carried over from pre-history into historical times. There had to be some feedback from the divine or else questions would arise: Weren’t the priests any good or was the religion false? And, lo, the word of god was invented. The priests learned to write in order to take divine dictation. After all it was their caste who would receive THE WORD.
Various tools were employed to facilitate communing with the divine. Fasting was cheap. Drugs were somewhat effective. Dreams were a source, and dreams under the influence of fasting or drugs also yielded some results. Really, anything that would produce altered states or hallucinations was viable. Great suffering was a theme in Christianity that nominated the sufferer for worthiness to receive the divine communication.
So the Written Words accumulated in sacred scrolls and texts and this body of work became revered. It was necessary for the viability of a god and his religion that this was a knowledge that subsumed all knowledge, all culture, that was eternal and transcendent. With a religion’s tradition, rituals, and integral place in the culture, it’s a wonder a believer would ever stray. Though I suppose if one’s own god seemed ineffective, as I expect occasionally they must, the believer might well see greener grass in another tribe’s beliefs, ‘Yeah, there must be a god. This guy’s myth from his culture says that God is Their Grand-High Mucky-Muck. He’s got a tradition and a lot of followers. He must know who he is. Therefore, he is GOD.’ ”
I prefaced these thoughts with Richard Dawkin’s opposition to group level natural selection. He has also said that religion is a group activity so natural selection at the individual level would have no effect. In other words, religion isn’t an evolutionary adaptation at the individual level either.
Dawkins is an authority, of course, but in logical arguments, an appeal to authority is a fallacy. Dawkins lock on his position is his statement that groups don’t have genes only individuals do. Meaning tht the natural selection of nonexistent genes mean no natural selection at all.
We all to often consider evolution as a driving force. With all that has been accomplished in the world around us, it certainly seems so. But the mechanism of evolution is as much a deletion of genes that have the less successful “survival strategy.”
Religion confers benefit on individual and the group of which they are a part. Some of those benefits have implication for survival. Sincere caring for each other, ministering to mind and body, a social network, food and other emergency aid, support for the family. The holier thou art, the more likely thou art to find a bride and ‘be fruitful and multiply.’
Group membership vs. group ostracism meant life and death up into the 1900’s. Is there any doubt about how effective being cast our of the group would have been a hundred thousand years ago?
These are first individual benefits, though. Religion’s presence in every human culture speaks for itself. Is there any doubt how much more strength and resolve a human tribe would have when bolstered by religion–bring that identity, that solidarity, that resolve into battle against a tribe that didn’t and, all other things being equal, the outcome can be anticipated.
Victorious in battle leads to increasing population. Tribes split when they get too large. But who will be able to call for help when attacked. Those godless heathens on the attack or all the children of the Grand-High Mucky-Muck?
It is too easy to underestimate religion’s place in a lot of lives. True, that place has eroded some in modern society. The responsive cultures and social safety nets offer alternatives to being a member of a religion. The humanistic caring within a culture and even by one culture for another has been a source that has reached out to those in need.
Where will it go from here? The wish, the aspiration, the caring and the outreach of modern society is in flux. Humanity has made a tremenous upward climb. There have been some horrendous backslides, too. But the social and ethical progress of even that last few hundred years is impressive. Humankind is toying with the ability to direct its own future. The liberal believers and the nearly-believers and the humanists will be seen as a cooperative force for good. We should offer that level of cooperation openly. If we embrace it, it will embrace us. We can help believers keep the best their religions have to offer. We might all find happiness in that quasi-utopia.
The Pew Research Center can get you hopping around their website like a videophile seeking the energy nuggets of their computer games. They are the folks who come up with the percentages of the religious in America. How many are atheists? That sort of thing. We have hung our worldview on those numbers.
Haven’t you heard a few statistics being slung around? Perhaps we’ve all slung a few. “95% of Americans believe in God.” “12% of the US population are atheists.”
The Pew even has a website, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
I imagine they catch a lot of criticism–from all sides. If we reflect on how easy it is to misunderstand someone, then extend that through the population of a survey sample, unforseen ambiguity in the questions or the responses can become apparent only too late. I forget the exact number but the results of a survey “determined” that about 20% of the American people were identified as having no affiliation with a religion. The conclusion lept to, however, was that they were all atheists.
On the page, Belief in God, you will find this introduction to another survey:
“Not All Nonbelievers Call Themselves Atheists
According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 5% of American adults say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit, but only about a quarter (24%) of these nonbelievers actually call themselves atheists.”
Now that would seem to shave our numbers to 1.25% of the adult US population–an exceedingly razor thin number indeed.
From frustrating statistics–that we just can’t live without–I’d like to draw your attention to an article circulating “Atheist clergy in Dutch churches” I found it at Christian Concern, August 6, 2011(not the original source).
Paraphrasing, One in six clergy in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) and six other denominations is either an atheist or agnostic. “Klaas Hendrikse, who leads a PKN church wrote a book called Believing in a Non-Existant God which prompted the denomination to consider removing him. However, having found that his views were so widely shared amongst clergy in the denomination they decided not to single him out.” !!! (Exclamation points mine.)
Presumably, they must be pretty certain of their statistics. SO MANY directions to go from here!? Wake up call to the denomination– “OH! So that’s what we believe.” What a position to come out from! Can’t happen here. Although I don’t know a thing about this denomination in the Netherlands. I only know Europe is secularizing faster than we are. These events certainly fit that mold.
Along the denominational divides, I’ve attended a Unitarian Universalist church off and on over the years. The churchgoers there think each other are about all atheists. It’s still in the Bible Belt so one doesn’t shout it out. Still, the figurative question, “Are you one, too?” is above a whisper.
Above a Whisper
Still, religion is alive and well(?), at least in the U.S., and it takes some courage to come out atheist. I beleive the thesis has been afloat for a while that those who emigrated to the U.S. for religious freedom brought with them more than their share of the God gene–or some proclivity toward faith. The upshot is that being immersed in our gene pool is as good as being genetically baptized.
Whatever the realities that brought us and religion together, American Chritianity is imbedded in our culture. You can almost hear its background hum. It’s always there. Atheism, humanism, freethought–all need to start a chorus so that we are part of that culture, our culture, and raise our voices until there is a steady hum. Be here now for each other. This is the instant value of communties we create, even if only cyber communities. This counts! It’s immediate. The internet is immediate. Who would have thought So many middle easterners could have organized, even if impromptu, to challenge theocratic or despotic rule? If it can free them, it can free us.