The other day I was having a discussion about "beliefs" and such with a long time friend and co-worker. He has always listened to me ramble on about what I believe and has never, until now, said anything in response. He said that he had a challenge for me. I was shocked because he never really "participated" in any of my "ramblings" so I was curious as to what it might be. This man has been my friend for over 15 years and is someone who taught me a thing or two about electrical work ( I am an electrician). He has children and is a Christian. His challenge was this: You're in Afghanistan, you're being overrun by the enemy and you know this is the end. You know you will never see your wife or family ever again. If you have no faith, what will you cling to in that moment? Will I be able to remain an atheist, or will I revert back to what I was before? A christian. I had to stop for a moment and think about this. Humans will do and say crazy and things when faced with injury or death. I remember shortly after my "conversion" to atheism, this same friend was in a serious electrical accident that burned his face and hands. After he was taken to the hospital, myself and another electrician had to restore the power to the building. During this time, as I was "suiting up" in my arc flash gear, I remember thinking, "Please let him be okay and please don't let me or anyone else get hurt when we re-energize the power". After things calmed down, I thought to myself, "Who were you talking to?". Was I praying? I think I was! I was upset with myself because I never want to be hypocritical with what I believe. I have thought long and hard about who I am. I did not become an atheist overnight. It took many years. From Christian to agnosticism to atheism. I told myself that some habits are hard to break. I used to "pray" all the time. This is something I needed to work through.
So, my answer to the challenge? I truly hope that I will remain true to myself if ever faced with another situation like that or the situation he described. Hopefully I'll never have to find out the answer! Let me know what you think.
Only you know who (if anyone) you were talking to. I think we frequently express hopes and wishes to ourselves in critical situations. It's part of "psyching" yourself,.
I would like to add here that I have written a rather in depth article on why we 'call out' in times of need, whether it be begging our car to start or for the wind to stop blowing. It all comes down to our 'Theory of Mind', the most powerful cognitive construct we have, but one which we often misapply when we, out of instinct, begin to think of non-conscious entities as other minds with which we can communicate.
For those interested: http://www.thinkatheist.com/profiles/blogs/theory-of-mind
Fascinating article Heather, and well-written.
Thanks, Arch. :D
Go back and challenge your friend. Give him this scenario. You're going into battle, you're choosing your gear, you've got your rifle, your water, everything except... do you take body armor? Its a perfect outline of the paradox of believing in God. You know that God has a plan and when its your time to go meet him, he'll take you no matter what. And yet, you still wear body armor. As if God couldn't stop all those bullets on his own.
is this petty, probably, does it prove their isn't a god, no, but it does entertain me. That, after all, is the spice of life.
Indeed, since God has a plan for everyone, why bother picking up your rifle? Go have a beer and let don't interfere with the plan. In fact, aren't you risking Hell if you get in His Way?
Let's see - a bullet in the brain now, vs the remote possibility of a hell later - well now, I'll have to think on that a spell and get back to you --
A favorite quote of mine by Marcus Aurelius admonishes us to live good, noble lives, because if there are Gods, and they are just, then they won't care who you worshiped, only that you were a good and honorable person. If they care more about who you worshiped than how you lived, they're not just, but petty and cruel; therefore, why would you bother worshiping them? I resolved a long time ago to live as good a life as I could, and not give a rat's ass about what comes after death. It may be the arrogance of youth talking, but I have firmly resolved to die, fully expecting it to be the End. Final, Finis. However if it turns out that I'm wrong, and heaven and hell are real, and the God in charge is a petty dick, then at least I'll be going to hell honestly.
Wouldn't you just be clinging on to your life?
Answer with this line from 'The African Queen', an old 1951 movie about the military/evangelical efforts of a priest's sister in East Africa during WWI:
"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."
I came across this line, and thus the movie, in a book by Stephen Pinker in which he argues (as part of a larger point) that the fact that we are predisposed towards certain actions, beliefs, tendencies, conditions etc. does not mean we are fated to those things, or that those things are in any sense correct, or that we don't have a responsibility to choose otherwise.
It may be true (in fact, it certainly seems to be true) that people have a natural inclination towards religiosity. My favored explanation for this fact is that humans have evolved their explanatory style in a fundamentally social setting, with tendencies to explain things couched in concepts of intentional agents. This explains a wide variety of religious phenomena, from animist cults to judeo-christian monotheisms, as well things like seeing Jesus' face on a piece of fabric, toast etc., or the natural assumption that 'someone' is directing the misfortunes that seem to be intended just for you. The fact that this is man's natural way of thinking about the world does not lend any credence either to the factuality of the supernatural or to the idea that such thinking is the 'proper' manner of explanatory style for humans (this equation of natural with proper is known as the naturallistic fallacy). Such thinking precludes the kind of rigorous scientific exploration of the world that gave us the heliocentric theory of the solar system, the germ theory of disease, and the evolutionary theory of life. The movement of planets, the occurence of disease, and the existance of life was all 'explained' to the satisfaction of many people before the modern theories I mention came around; they simply relied on our natural tendency to assume an intentional agent behind any event. In sum: the fact that there may be no atheists in foxholes says nothing about the accuracy of the beliefs we invent to comfort ourselves.
There is certainly nothing reprehensible, from an atheist's point of view, about giving into the natural mode of thinking about the world, for a brief moment, in your own mind. What makes this acceptable is that you have not crossed the line drawn by Pascal, i.e. you have not cynically accepted your subservience to such impulses at the expense of your reason, just on the chance that there may be a god who's watching and judging you. As long as you keep 'renewing your faith' in atheism (by which I mean examining your own beliefs and prejudices from an unbiased viewpoint and jettisoning those that have no foundation), there is nothing that can be said against your comittment atheism as a worldview.
Great response, Brian. Thank you!