A coworker and I recently had a conversation in which she said, "Well, you don't have to hold on to your atheism, do you?" I found myself without a good answer. It doesn't matter what answer I gave to her - I could not immediately come up with a satisfactory response for myself.
I think I eventually said something like, "No, I don't have to. It is where I am though. I can't be where I'm not at." She didn't seem to care one way or the other but I thought it was a very interesting question. I asked myself, “What kind of a hold do I have on my atheism? How much of my identity is wrapped up in not believing?” I like to think my mind is at least open enough to recognize a deity's existence if incontrovertible proof comes my way.
In the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, some dwarfs, animals and men are tossed into a stable at the end of the battle. The men and animals generally find themselves on the other side of a doorway into a new, more real Narnia. The Narnia they had known before was a shadow of this paradise. The dwarfs find themselves inside the stable, unable to see the new Narnia because they don’t believe in it. The talking lion-lord Aslan and some of the other main characters try to get the dwarfs to sense Narnia instead of the stable, but the dwarfs maintain they are in reality while the others are insane. Their lack of being convinced of something they cannot take on faith is their doom. They are eventually destroyed when the door closes on the old Narnia forever.
I wonder sometimes if theists view us atheists similarly. Do they feel they try to tell us what it is like to be in their world but since we cannot sense it we deny it? I am thinking here about people who say they “know” God in the here and now. They must be so frustrated with us atheists who, like the dwarfs, will not take their word for it.
They say we need to have faith in order to experience the joy they have found. I personally have been told my intellect gets in the way of having faith, that it is something so simple I can’t grasp it. Yet, confusingly, many intelligent people are believers. I have been told that I am being stubborn and rebellious by not believing. Here’s the important part though: I still don’t believe.
I have been told I need to ask for faith since I don’t have any. To them, the willingness to do that could seem like having the door open just a little to what they believe is real. I am wondering how open-minded it is safe to be? Being led toward believing in imaginary things scares me. I have opened that door before and indeed I saw what I wanted to see. I felt what they told me I would feel. I began to believe there really was a supreme being who, mostly, could protect me.
I was spending more and more time with evangelical Christians when I was at a very vulnerable and pivotal point in my life. I was praying and wearing a crucifix and I began to think that the crucifix had some kind of magical power, like a talisman. My sister, seeing this unfolding, told me, “Stay away from them. They are nuts.” And that was that. The spell was broken and I came to my senses again. Since then I have become very protective of myself and others. Like the dwarfs, I have become skeptical, but I hope not to the point where I refuse to even begin to believe in a deity when there is evidence of one.
When theists accuse me of being close-minded, they usually have no idea how open-minded I have been and what has happened as a result of it. I have had to find a balance between being open-minded and gullible. I have learned and lived so much since then. In not being willing to ask for the faith to begin to believe in God, I am not simply being defiant. My knowledge and experience prevent me from having faith in something that I know to be a colossal mind game. I have been willing, however, to go to the edge of reason again in an attempt to make sure I’m not missing something. I think that is good enough. If I am doomed because of it, so be it. Until and unless something happens that actually convinces me, I am satisfied with my level of open-mindedness. I do not have a death grip on my atheism, but I do hold it close.