by Z.S. Roe
As a self-proclaimed atheist, I sometimes take pride in pointing out the logical missteps many believers seem committed to ignoring in pursuit of their faith.
Take that! I say.
Beware my profound knowledge!
Kirk Cameron ain’t got nothing on me!
And so on.
These days, the atheist stereotype paints us non believers as angry trolls committed to nihilism and moral decay. The temptation to be angry is real and, to go just one step further, entirely justifiable in many circumstances. To be clear, this blog post is not about that, but here’s a dandy list of things to get angry about … you know, just in case.
Nevertheless, getting angry can sometimes be just as hurtful as helpful, especially when it becomes the default position. In fact, getting angry, while sometimes appropriate, is not always the wisest and most effective approach. And here, my atheist and believer friends, are four very good reasons why:
1. WE MIGHT BE WRONG
When I was twelve, I had an epiphany (of sorts). On the same weekend, I saw both a Christian and a Muslim ecstatic with religious conviction, fervor, and belief. Both of them were overcome by their feelings of God’s presence in their lives. As both Christianity and Islam are exclusive religions (meaning, for them, there is only their way to salvation), it was impossible for both of them to be right. Separately, each of them believed with all of their heart that they were right. Trouble was, at least one of them was certainly wrong, despite equal level of conviction. I realized that weekend that belief alone had no bearing on truth, which in turn led to the realization that if I was going to actually believe in God then I needed to find a reason for that belief outside of my own personal feelings.
In my searches since then, I’ve been compelled to religious belief exactly zero times. I studied religion while pursuing an undergraduate degree in university and have continued to study it since graduating. Yet here I am, still entirely unconvinced.
To which you might rightly reply: “Yeah, okay, but so what?”
The fact that I’m unconvinced doesn’t make it any less possible for a God figure to exist. Sure, believers may believe for what seems completely illogical reasons, but that doesn’t make them necessarily wrong (of course, if God does exist, the real problem is determining which interpretation of Him/Her is the correct one, if any).
At the very least, us atheists must accept that, as with anything else in life, we might be wrong. Just like the Christian and Muslim above, our sureness that we are right means very little.
2. WE MIGHT CHANGE OUR MINDS
There are two kinds of atheists: those who never believed, and those like me who left their beliefs. Unfortunately, many of us former believing atheists are the angry ones, and I suspect that we lash out because we’re still struggling with how we feel religion has hurt us (via the church, family, etc.).
While I am envious of the Always Atheist (who never had to experience the difficulties inherent in leaving their religion), I appreciate the perspective my experience has afforded me, namely my awareness of changing thought.
Whether you like it or not, life will change you. Sometimes that change is for the better, and sometimes for the worse. The important thing, though, is that we acknowledge that change, and that we try and understand why and how it happened.
Most important is that we realize we may change again, and that nothing is for certain. So, by all means, stand firm in your beliefs (be they religious or atheistic), but do so humbly.
3. EVEN IF WE’RE RIGHT, SHOUTING FACTS AND FIGURES NEVER WORKS
I like to rant about religion, and I manage to convince (or convert) my listeners … well, almost never. Why? Quite simply, most adherents of religious belief don’t subscribe to those beliefs because of well reasoned proof. Duh! Religious belief isn’t a science experiment. On the contrary, as computational biologist John C. Wathey details in The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing, most believers believe because of “their personal experience of the presence of God.”
In other words, religious belief is predominantly founded upon an emotional understanding of the divine rather than a logical one. So appealing to logic is already a misstep. It’s like trying to drive a car across the ocean and expecting not to sink.
What makes matters worse is the widespread phenomenon known as the “backfire effect,” wherein someone given evidence against their beliefs rejects the evidence and believes even more strongly (read about it here). And you’ve definitely seen this in action – just think back to any online debate about abortion, gay rights, circumcision, Obama being a Muslim, etc. Did you ever see any side eventually give into reason and admit defeat? Of course not. Both sides became more and more convinced of their rightness until everyone just gave up out of sheer exhaustion.
No matter what the belief is, trying to convince someone they’re wrong is a war you’ll never win.
4. BELIEVERS ARE PEOPLE JUST LIKE YOU AND ME
This probably sounds patronizing, but it’s worth taking the time to say: believers are people, too. Actually, believers are more representative of what it means to be human than non-believers – there’s simply far more of them than us. We atheists are the minority. Fact.
And yet we sometimes dismiss believers as if they are the aberration. After all, anyone who believes such fairy tales must be a few pages short of a devotional. Right?
As someone who grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family, I’ve met all types of Christians. And that’s the point – there are all types. Yes, some of them are very radically insane – a kind of barking mad that you’d think could only exist in made up stories. But notice how I said some. Most, however, are just average people like the rest of us. And then there are those Christians who are vastly more intelligent than I’ll ever be.
It would make things a whole lot easier for me if I could just write them all off as childish fools, but doing so would prove only that I was the biggest fool of all.
IN THE END
The truth is that we are all more alike than we are different, and while it’s tempting to emphasize those differences, only by focusing on our similarities will we ever make meaningful progress toward calm and meaningful interactions with each other.
Plus, getting angry is exhausting. Life is too short – we don’t have time for that shit.
Opinion is a sometimes column of just that, my opinion. While opinions are like noses and everyone has one, mine are especially snotty. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.