In case you are a Christian wondering why one atheist doesn't have faith.....

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.

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Comment by Doug Reardon on August 3, 2013 at 9:56pm

As Tim Minchin says:  "Don't be so open minded that your brains fall out!"

Comment by Physeter on August 3, 2013 at 11:56pm

So many atheists were once Christians, though. You can know the Bible cover to cover, and go through conversion and baptism and speaking in tongues and being led by the Holy Spirit and still wind up believing it was all a hoax. Dan Barker talks about how he used to do this in his books.  If Narnia is real, and the stable is a hoax, how could you ever go from seeing the beautiful, sweet, clear truth and then switch back to the self-delusion of the darkness and mess of the stable?

Comment by Ed on August 4, 2013 at 2:12am

""Well, you don't have to hold on to your atheism, do you?" 

I may be slightly off base but maybe you're co-worker was referring to the aspect of her religion offering her hope that something better awaited her. She clings to that life preserver called salvation and that promise gives her strength to continue on. It's a crutch to deal with the finite quality of life. Some need it, some don't. 

Comment by Ray R. on August 4, 2013 at 5:37am
There is nothing admirable about faith . It is interchangeable with gullibility . Most believers use reason and evidence to make decisions every day . Yet when it comes to the big , important questions , they abandon their reasoning , their intellect and any semblance of evidence in favor of " faith " . It is absolutely vexing to me .
Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on August 4, 2013 at 7:56am

Let’s take it as a given that the majority of Theists do not understand Atheism. They see it as a choice people make “not to believe” or that we are denying the existence of (their) God out of hand. This is not a subject that they give any serious or rational consideration to. The word “Atheist” is usually used as if it is something that they need to be ever vigilant against.

Really though I think the problem is that they don’t understand the word “Faith”. I (we) understand religious “Faith” to mean holding a belief in a God without evidence. This is not how the majority of Theists understand its meaning to be.

Faith for most of them is their complete system of belief. It is the ethos of their communication with their God on a very personal level. Faith is being able to say “I have a personal relationship with Allah or with Jesus” or whichever God it is that they have a belief in. It is how they communicate with God and how He answers them. It is that “spiritual” sensation they get from praying or singing in Church.

It is not even that they needed Faith to find God in the first place. Most of them believe not because they found God by themselves but because they believe what other people believe. They became indoctrinated through familiarity with it. They are surrounded by people who already believe and eventually they get the virus. A person growing up in Alabama does not suddenly find Allah. No, he “finds” the same God that everyone else believes in and it turns out this God also has many of the same beliefs about the same issues in life as he does.

They no longer feel they believe without evidence. It has become obvious to them that God exists. You cannot reason them away from that mental state or delusion. Now “Faith” takes on a different meaning and becomes a synonym for “religion”. Even though everyone else has exactly the same belief as they do none of them feel that they belong to a religion. The all have a personal relationship which is based upon their Faith. They feel privileged to have such a wonderful gift (delusion).

So we hear lines like “My faith is important to me”. What they hear is “My life with my belief system is important to me” and what I as an Atheist hears is “You have an irrational belief system based upon no evidence”.

I have often been told that my lack of belief is due to me being close-minded and arrogant. This was recently said to my face in my own house by two Baptists I let in. Apparently they had some great news to share.  They started to tell me about the immorality of Atheists and how “we” need to be of strong faith in defending against them. One was very pleased to see a KJV on the coffee table :-). When I told them I was not a believer in their God they were stunned. (I did not use the “A” word). They continued to tell me how wrong and mistaken I was. Apparently all I needed was to have some Faith and all would be well. When I asked where I could get this Faith I was told I just had to open my heart to the Lord and he will fill the emptiness in it with his love. If I was close-minded it would not happen. “So you are telling me to have an open mind in order to get my heart filled with Faith by your God so I can then have Faith to believe in him?” They asked me if they could pray for me. I answered in the affirmative and they fell to their knees like Mormons and asked their God to give me a sign that would lessen my arrogance so that I too could have the gift of faith.

Once they started talking directly to the creator of the Universe like that I called time out. I asked them if they considered it arrogant to call to a house and when invited in to tell their host that whatever he believed was wrong because they had the only “Truth”. Was it not close-minded of them to dismiss every counter argument or other opinion offered to them? Was it not close-minded of them to insist that what they were telling me was the Truth even though they could offer no evidence to support such fantastic claims about how the Universe and life on Earth began or about what happens when we die?

My Atheism does not define me. It has shaped my thinking and my worldview but I am not the sum of what I don’t believe in. I could be defined to some extent by my stance against superstitious and irrational beliefs or my stance against the indoctrination of children by “people of faith” or my views on freedom from religion in secular life. I openly contend that religion does not empower women and that it is used by people of faith to justify much of the dark age mentality that still pervades the world today.

They have faith in their Faith being true. The same way every other Theist of every other creed does. It is what defines them and gives their life meaning.

Remember Hitchens and “The Toys”. I use it sometimes when asked about my Atheism.

Comment by Diane on August 4, 2013 at 8:23am

I love the sound of Hitchens in the morning!

Comment by Dr. Bob on August 4, 2013 at 2:17pm

My knowledge and experience prevent me from having faith in something that I know to be a colossal mind game.

Do you actually know this, or is it something that you have some evidence for but are unsure about and still willing to look at new data or try new experiments?

I think that's the difference between being open minded or not.

There are a lot of relatively ill-informed Christians and other theists out there, just as there's a lot of pseudo-science and such out there.  You should stay rational, and hold your atheism close enough that you exercise some healthy skepticism about such things.  So long as you remain open to new ideas, of possibilities beyond your current worldview, and willing to explore and consider and test, that's enough.

Most of them believe not because they found God by themselves but because they believe what other people believe.  

Of course we do.  Almost all knowledge is socially constructed and passed on.  Most of us enjoy music because others created and passed along music.  Most of us understand evolution because others pursued it and cared enough to teach us through writing or in person.  That doesn't mean that evolution is wrong or that music must fail to bring us joy and pleasure.  It just means we're not egotistical idiots; we can learn from other people about society and the world.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on August 4, 2013 at 5:40pm

Yes Bob, but the point is that people only end up believing in the god they hear about.  They must be influenced and indoctrinated into it. The guy in Alabama does not find Allah and more than the girl in Yemen finds Jesus.  You are again pulling out analogies that do not work.

Evolution is not a matter of belief. It is only one of understanding. It is peer reviewed and falsifiable. You can have all the “knowledge” in the world about any one god or any one theology but that is meaningless because it is all based on an assumption – that the faith you have is only based on the faith of other people being correct. However it is all based on no evidence. Not a shred of it Bob, just blind faith as is not based on any testable knowledge. Do you really believe you have a relationship with the creator of the Universe that is based on actual knowledge?

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on August 4, 2013 at 5:49pm

Diane - what about the evening time for his dulcet tones.............Bob you might like this too. What you must believe if you are a Enjoy.

Comment by Diane on August 4, 2013 at 7:17pm

Do you actually know this, or is it something that you have some evidence for but are unsure about and still willing to look at new data or try new experiments?

See, Bob, that's the problem.  It seems that unless I go experimenting endlessly, I will not be considered open-minded.  When is enough enough?  When can I say that I have come as close to believing as I am comfortable with?  I feel that, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, I gave it one hell of a fair shake.

As far as knowing that faith is a huge mind game, I guess you've got me there.   I don't feel very unsure about it though.  I am not a fence-sitter.  I will look at new data when and if there is any actual data at which to look.   I will give theological data the same respect I give scientific data: if it is sufficiently supported and verifiable I will tend to give it fair consideration.  That has not been the case so far though.  


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