Effect Measure

Atheism is certainly a phenomenon in the book market. I can’t remember when books about godlessness made so much news and sold so well, although of course I wasn’t around when The Great Agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll lectured to huge audiences in the late nineteenth century. Whatever. I’m happy to have the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett making strong intellectual arguments for atheism.

The popularity of these books is sometimes ascribed to a backlash against the forced intrusion of religion into American political life in the regime of George Bush. Whatever the reason, they are also creating the expected counter reaction, some of which reflects the same unease of the faithful at religion’s engagement with power politics.

Dr. Timothy Larsen, professor of theology at Wheaton College in Illinois, says any growth in interest in atheism is a reflection of the strength of religion — the former being a parasite that feeds off the latter.

That happened late in the 19th century America when an era of intense religious conviction gave rise to voices like famed agnostic Robert Ingersoll, he said.

For Christianity, he said, “It’s very important for people of faith to realize how unsettling and threatening their posture and rhetoric and practice can feel to others. So it’s an opportunity for the church to look at itself and say ‘we have done things … That make other people uncomfortable.’ It is an opportunity for dialogue.”

Larsen, author of the soon-to-be-published Crisis of Doubt, added that in some sense atheism is “a disappointment with God and with the church. Some of these are people we wounded that we should be handling pastorally rather than with aggressive knockdown debate.” (Zeenews)

This made me laugh. Atheism is the parasite and religion is the host? Or should I say Host? Well, each to his own. But the intuition that the posture and rhetoric and practice of religion has made non-believers feel threatened is dead on accurate. We’ve not forgotten history and don’t want it to be our destiny to repeat it.

What many theists don’t understand is that many of us don’t define our religious views in terms of religion (not true of all atheists, but a goodly proportion). If there were no religion we wouldn’t have to invent one. For me, God is just not part of the equation. He, She, It, They, Whatever — are not part of my mental furniture, so God is not a presence in my life, as I grant He or It or Whatever is for some other people. My life is full of many ordinary, wonderful and terrible things, but God is not one of them. He or She doesn’t exist for me, in the same way that Yum Kimil, a Maya personification of disaster and darkness, doesn’t exist for me. I know nothing about this Mayan deity, care nothing about him, don’t define myself in relation to him (I am not a Yum Kimil denier), and never even heard of this thing until I randomly found it on a list of mythological gods and goddesses on the internet.

I’m sure to plenty of Mayans he was a presence in their lives. He isn’t in mine and probably isn’t to any currently living person. Is it not possible that in the future the same will be said of the various gods of Jews, Christians and Muslims?

Comments

  1. #1 Corkscrew
    October 29, 2006

    Atheism is the parasite and religion is the host? Or should I say Host? Well, each to his own.

    I think he’s saying more that the fervency of atheism is in response to a corresponding fervency of religion. Which is bang-on accurate IMO. It’s true in other areas too – we’d make no more noise about accepting evolution than we do about accepting the periodic table if there weren’t creationists loudly pushing the converse.

  2. #2 Carl
    October 29, 2006

    This was interesting. If science and its methods is the sole or primary lens through which one views the universe then there is not a place for god or gods (or, presumably, Yum Kimil). I think one has to acknowledge that the scientific lens is limited. Limited in some seneses, by language itself in that if a reality cannot be articulated in a linguistic form (to create testible hypothesis) it cannot be understood. Therefore science (at least in a logo-centric form) it is not infinite and it is at least possible that there are realities beyond the ability of the method to articulate and understand. That does not create a positive argument for God but it does allow for a poosibility of God (as well as infinite other possibilities). One, I think, is left to say that the existence of God remains possible (as least for our understanding)and would remain so as long as science cannot articulate all realities. Those realities (God or non-God) would exist whether we understood them or not. The difficulty for my possition (God) would be to argue for God’s involvement with (and manifestations of such) in human affairs.

  3. #3 The Ridger
    October 29, 2006

    I remember hearing that BBC reporter, Tara Gadomsky, saying that the Amish “don’t believe in” helicopters, cell phones, or ambulances. Well, that’s ridiculous, because they certainly know they exist. What they don’t “believe” is that such things are useful, sanctioned, or moral.

    Many theists have a hard time with “I don’t believe in God.” They think it must be this use of “don’t believe in” – the “reject” use – rather than the “don’t think it exists” use.

    Now that I’ve realized this, I’m trying not say “I don’t believe in god” any more. I’m being more explicit. I don’t want people to think I refuse to worship a god I know exists for some bizarre reason of my own.

    And I agree with Corkscrew – nothing will get someone more vocal than the realization that he’s under attack. If theists weren’t being so obnoxious about forcing their way of life on everyone else, then atheists wouldn’t feel the need to be so activist.

  4. #4 writerdd
    October 29, 2006

    The Ridger said:
    Now that I’ve realized this, I’m trying not say “I don’t believe in god” any more. I’m being more explicit. I don’t want people to think I refuse to worship a god I know exists for some bizarre reason of my own.

    That’s an excellent point. Many people cannot even fathom that we don’t believe in God any more than we believe in Santa Claus. That doesn’t mean we hate God. I love Santa. I just know he is make believe.

    That said, I do hate the idea of God. And I make sure to tell people I would not worship the Bible God even if I did believe he was real and would send me to hell for being an infidel. To me that would be tantamount to following Hitler to stay out of Auschwitz and I sure as hell hope I would have the spine not to do that!

  5. #5 christian
    October 29, 2006

    It’s like quitting smoking: you’re not free from it as long as you keep on talking about it.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 29, 2006

    I remember hearing that BBC reporter, Tara Gadomsky, saying that the Amish “don’t believe in” helicopters, cell phones, or ambulances.

    That reminds me of a new joke. In a Baptist town, the new guy has been hanging around the church on a regular basis, and now they are quizzing him on doctrine before consenting to baptising him into their congregation.

    Q. Do you believe in infant baptism?

    A. Believe in it? I’ve seen it!

  7. #7 MarkP
    October 29, 2006

    Saying “science is limited” is fine and dandy as long as one realizes that it amounts to saying “there are limits to what we can know”. Science is the epistemological champ, and there are no serious contenders.

    I always find it interesting when the pious ry to make atheism out to be something directly in relation to them. They just cannot seem to grasp that atheism is a lack of a belief, the same as their lack of belief in Thor. I literally do not think about gods ever unless someone else raises the issue, and I’ve had more than one Christian essentially call me a liar when so notified. They just don’t get it.

  8. #8 tympanachus
    October 29, 2006

    That old misogynist, racist and foremost among the altruistically challenged reprobates, Nietzsche, has long been a booger on atheism.

    Yet, in another example of the truth showing little respect for its vessel:

    “Has the famous story that stands at the beginning of the Bible really been understood? The story of God’s hellish fear of science? [...] Only from woman did man learn to taste the tree of knowledge. What had happened? The old God was seized with hellish fear. Man himself had turned out to be his greatest mistake; he had created a rival for himself; science makes godlike – it is all over with priests and gods when man becomes scientific. Moral: science is the forbidden as such – it alone is forbidden. Science is the first sin, the seed of all sin, the original sin. This alone is morality. ‘Thou shalt not know’ – the rest follows.”
    –Friedrich Nietzsche Der Antichrist [1888/1895]

  9. #9 Edmund
    October 29, 2006

    The Ridger made a good point about definitional ambiguity, but I don’t think that it is the meaning of belief that is central to the misunderstanding of atheism.

    See, another word with such ambiguity is atheism. It appears that most non-atheists equate atheism with declaring there is no god. That so-called strong atheistic position is quite different from what is called weak atheism: simply not believing in god without asserting god doesn’t exist.

    A substantial number (I suspect a majority) of atheists–including myself and most atheists I encounter–are not strong atheists. Weak atheism often follows from an agnostic position that the existence of god is unknown. It’s the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it stance on god. Hence, agnostic atheism is sometimes used as a synonym.

    But it’s strong atheism (more precisely, a straw man of strong atheism) that I observe the religious using as a kind of straw man against atheism in general. It’s certainly clear what the meaning of belief is in the context of strong atheism. Therefore, I don’t think it’s the meaning of belief that is the main problem in ambiguity; instead, it’s the meaning of atheism.

  10. #10 ssal
    October 29, 2006

    revere -

    Like most atheists I’ve met, you seem to be a genuinely decent human being much more decent than a lot of “Christians” I’ve known. My guess is you’re going to go to Heaven whether you like it or not.

  11. #11 tympanachus
    October 29, 2006

    reveres: Have you seen The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson?

    Your kinda tale and a good story at Salon to boot re Johnson

  12. #12 Dylan
    October 29, 2006

    revere -

    Like most atheists I’ve met, you seem to be a genuinely decent human being much more decent than a lot of “Christians” I’ve known. My guess is you’re going to go to Heaven whether you like it or not. – ssal.

    I can attest to the fact that Revere is a genuinely decent human being…which is why he does not seek Heaven. He does not need it.

  13. #13 ssal
    October 30, 2006

    Dylan

    I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying there are no genuinely decent human beings who seek Heaven?