While I’m an outspoken atheist, I don’t make a habit of arguing with people of faith, I don’t believe that arguing serves any purpose when no one is open to having their mind changed, myself included. I’ve reflected and made my decisions, I’m not looking to be convinced otherwise. I assume the same of people of faith and tend to keep my mouth shut.
However, when a person of faith in my social circle makes claims about what it must be like to be an atheist, I attempt to inform them, with the assumption that they are genuinely curious. If it turns out they aren’t curious, but rather just looking for an opportunity to garner statements of solidarity from their camp, I tend to let it go.
Recently one such person of faith in my circle posted the following to Facebook:
Oh what despair must consume the heart of an atheist.
Initially, I did not perceive this as a genuine curiosity about the nature of being atheist. With its assumption of despair, it seemed to lie firmly in the category of garnering solidarity. But another common friend who is also a person of faith chimed in:
They have the religion of science.
And then the following exchange between some people of faith and some Atheists occurred:
Religious Person A: Yes, science is pretty epic, though it isn’t a gift to atheists alone.
Religious person B: But it is their religion.
Atheist A: I wouldn’t call it that, but it’s given me far better answers than religion ever could.
Religious Person A: Aha, I can understand that. What kind of questions have you asked?
Religious Person B: Science provides hope for the future for them and when it comes to the unexplained they can simply say “it’s outside our understanding, science will explain it some day”. Much the same way faith in God does it. Atheists have a god – they just call it science. And religion of God can provide awesome answers – you just haven’t found the right one yet.
Atheist A: I guess that’s one way of looking at it, but I never liked the idea of an omnipotent being creating us all. And I never really asked too crazy questions, just the stuff you’d expect like why are we here and nonsense like that.
Religious Person A: That is a great question to ask, very cool! How has science answered that question, “why are we here?”
At this point, I came to a few conclusions. Despite the tone of the original post, Religious Person A seemed genuinely interested in the internal experience of an atheist. Additionally, Religious Person B had his own perspective of what atheism is and, while not necessarily offensive or defamatory, it did run contrary to what I have come to know of most people who have decided to be atheist. As much as I know arguing on the internet is fruitless, these were people I interact with offline, as well as online, and it felt appropriate to try to inform them of my own experience and perspective.
I told Religious Person B that his perception of atheists is what I would expect from a religious person. I had no intention of being derogatory, I simply understood the inclination people have to take things they don’t understand and put them in terms that they do, to help them get their head around a foreign concept. I do this myself, and teachers do it all the time when attempting to generate understanding in students. We create analogies to mentally map a concept to a familiar structure.
Still, I took issue with his perception that science is simply another form of faith. It’s not that we have faith science will give us answers to questions we don’t know. We hope it does, but we are also comfortable knowing that there are some things science won’t ever be able to answer for us. I referenced an example from Dawkins, the question being how many birds are in flight at a given moment versus how many are grounded. We’ll never know that answer, and more importantly, we’re OK with not knowing. No, science is not about having faith that it will give us answers, but rather the simple choice to reject a statement or claim that does not come with a valid set of evidence that leads to a logical conclusion.
To Religious Person A, the original poster who questioned both the state of despair in the heart of an Atheist, as well as whether science could tell us why we are here, I explained that science isn’t trying to answer why are we here, it’s trying to answer how we got here. How did the universe around us come together to generate the conditions that allowed us to develop, thrive and survive. The why is not up to science, the why is up to the individual to determine for themselves: what is it that makes their life worth living for them? The Why is a personal and highly subjective question. If religion helps a person to that answer, then great, but the answer he comes to (nor anyone’s answers to that question) will not come from an objective perspective on the human condition. It will not conclusively answer for the world why any of us are here.
And with regard to despair, those of us who do not believe in supernatural abilities or entities (souls, gods, spirits, ghosts, etc.) have no despair over it, on the contrary, we are very aware that there are no eternal rewards, no afterlife, and thus any reward we are to have for our actions must be sought after in this life. For me, it gives me the ability appreciate the world for what it is, as I see it, perceive it, and experience it.
Atheist A was appreciative of my perspective, but the truth of it is that Atheist A is a teenager and most likely wrestling with these questions. Fortunately a more mature, more settled Atheist contributed her opinion at this point.
Atheist B: I also take issue with saying that science is a god because I can’t figure out how to parse that in a way that it makes sense to me. Science is not an entity (and certainly not an infallible/omniscient entity), it’s a methodology for observing and understanding measurable phenomena.
And giving Religious Person B the benefit of the doubt, I responded to Atheist B by pointing out that while he did, in fact, call science a god, I think his intention was to make more parallels to science being a faith, rather than an entity, and while I can see how he could draw such parallels, it is actually quite the opposite of faith.
Bearing in mind that it was not my intention to start an argument, but rather to inform the curious of my perspective, I also added to the conversation my understanding that a lot of disagreement between people of faith and atheists comes from not understanding what each actually believes. Among many other beliefs, there are people of faith who believe in god as an conscious entity, while others believe it to be a thing within themselves, or even an outside power that has no consciousness. I believe it’s important to be clear about what each party believes before you can actually debate the validity of any one belief. Coming to a common understanding of what one means by god or faith is a prerequisite for a discourse on the subject.
At that point, a new voice offered their opinion. This friend of Religious Person A was only known to him, she had never before interacted with the rest of us, and had never personally met anyone involved:
Religious Person C: I think everyone deep down inside believes that there has to be a ‘higher power’ sort of speak…but if they commit, that means they would have to change their lifestyle and live a better life. So, instead they say, I’m a atheist…it’s easier.
I had such a strong reaction to this statement, I didn’t know where to begin. I was aware that this was a person I did not know, and the post was not mine to begin with. There was nothing to be gained by starting a fight, but in the interest of the audience now watching, it would be irresponsible to leave it alone, if only for the benefit of the teenager potentially wrestling with the issues. There were three major points of contention I thought worth standing up for:
- The idea that choosing to be Atheist was somehow an easy choice.
- The idea that having faith somehow equated to living a better life (being more moral) and that not having faith equated to not living a moral life.
- The ridiculous notion that atheists really do believe in a higher power if only they looked into themselves deep enough.
Again, I was more interested in getting the discussion back to the question of both inner despair and science as faith, and not wanting a fight on someone else’s Facebook page, I carefully stepped into item number 1.
I pointed out that it’s not at all easier to be atheist. First, from just the perspective of having made the choice to question the majority opinion, you’ve set yourself up for a lifetime of extra work. Once you’ve made that decision, you cannot in good conscience take anything any authority tells you at face value. If you truly want to be critical of any belief, then you can’t simply say, I don’t believe priests and I do believe scientists. Instead you have to research your beliefs carefully. And not just the ones that pertain to religion or science. As inconsequential as it may sound, I can’t assume that Casablanca is a good movie because the Academy Awards tell me so, no more than I can assume I have a soul because a priest told me. Instead I have to watch the movie or examine myself for the answers to those questions. Thus, every authority is subject to scrutiny. It’s not easy, it’s actually a lot of work.
While I was busy writing my response, Atheist B was busy writing her own response coincidentally addressing issue number 2:
Atheist B: Believing in a higher power is not what makes me donate to charity, spend time helping others, be kind as a general rule, or any other thing that might constitute a better lifestyle. Having a moral code and believing that people deserve kindness is what makes me do those things. I don’t need the threat of punishment or enticement of reward in the next life, and it’s short-sighted to say that people are atheists simply because it’s easier than being a good person.
Religious Person A, still reacting to my earlier post about definitions, stated his agreement with my opinion about it, further confirming for me that he did want to engage in some kind of thoughtful discourse. After stating that he agreed that a lot comes down to definitions, he asked, how do we define what is good, and why is it good, and even what is moral?
We were back on track to a reasonable discourse such that I was prepared to let item number 3 go, when Religious Person C responded to our reaction with religious dogma, none of which was germane to the discussion or related to her original statement, despite her claim that we missed her point:
Religious Person C: Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to be offensive to anyone. The point was…if one believes in God, one would love to please God and honor him. How does one do that? By following Jesus and his commandments. NOT out of fear of a punishment, but out of Love. To know Jesus is to Love Him.
Her claim of not wanting to offend, both suggested that she read our reactions as us being offended (we weren’t, simply debating the logic of it), as well as gave me an avenue to ignore her dogma and pursue item number three.
I told her that no one believes she meant to be offensive, but the suggestion that it’s easier for us or that we are somehow ignoring a deep down belief is dismissive of conclusions we have come to after lots of scrutiny and self-reflection. Many of us were raised in religious households, if we wanted easier, it would have been easier to just believe what we were told to believe. It would have caused less stress and required less deliberation at times in our lives when we probably didn’t need the stress. I might have gone too far when I asked:
Surely you can see how your suggestion is dismissive of all that?
If I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t really expect an apology or admission of error.
Her response was curt:
Religios Person C: Enough already…you don’t believe that’s your choice. God gives us free will. God Bless.
I simply clicked the Like button, letting her decide which part of her statement I was liking. Hint: It wasn’t the “God gives us free will” or “God Bless” part.
The rest of the conversation went as I’d hoped. Religious Person B reacted to my earlier post confirming that there are varied definitions of faith for people of faith. My statement about science providing answers, “We hope it does, but we are also comfortable knowing that there are some things science won’t ever be able to answer for us,” prompted this response:
Religious Person B: Sounds like a form of faith to me, if we are defining faith as being comfortable not knowing precise answers, which is what some who believe in God are like. Some would say that is what religion is all about anyway.
I responded by communicating that I was not surprised at all. I’ve met such individuals and talked to them, and it’s why I posted about coming to agreement about definitions before dispute. Clearly his definition of faith is different than mine. I view faith as believing in something that there is no evidence for, which is different from having faith in myself to accomplish a task, or faith in science to answer a question.
Atheist B said something similar:
Atheist B: I can agree that people have faith in things like, say, researchers someday figuring out a cure for diabetes. We don’t know that it’s going to happen, but it seems fairly likely. I don’t have faith in, say, the Krebs cycle, however, because that’s been directly observed and is a known phenomenon, not something that requires faith (unless you want to question whether or senses and instruments are actually observing anything at all or if we’re just a giant’s dream, which I don’t ).
After coming to the conclusion that our definitions of faith were different, and then accounting for the differences, it seemed to me that there was some common ground to be had. Seeing that some people of faith simply take the real world and label it differently, putting it into terms that mean more to them, I attempted to end the conversation with the following analogy:
As soon as two people realize the thing one calls granny smith and the other calls red delicious are in fact the same thing, it simply becomes a matter of taste.
This prompted a slew of comments about apple pie and then cake, but effectively it ended the discussion. The full transcript is below.