NPR woke me up this morning telling me tomorrow would be "Woodstock for Atheists," and my first thought was: "Who cares?"
Not "who cares?" because the event shouldn't be reported on, but "who cares?" because the entire raison d'etre of atheists, it seems to me, is to affirm among themselves that theism is something to be "a-" about. Which I've always thought was kinda funny. I mean, if it weren't for theism, what would you affirm you didn't believe in? Love? Beauty? Jumbo shrimp? And apparently, as I always suspected, it's because of us believers.
Mehta, who writes a blog called The Friendly Atheist, says openly dismissing God in the most religious country in the West requires courage: You risk losing friends, family and even jobs because of your nonbelief. In poll after poll, he says, people say they don't like atheists; one showed that people think an atheist is more likely to steal than a rapist.I guess. If an atheist doesn't get a job, or loses a job, because of their professed atheism, I would have a problem with that. I don't like that politicians are called on, more and more, to describe their religious beliefs in terms acceptable to the lowest common denominator, and to end every public utterance with "God bless you [as if we've all sneezed] and God Bless the United States of America" [as if we suffer from a national case of the sniffles]. I am fine, in other words, with fewer expressions of religious sentiment in public life, and don't confuse those sentiments with religious belief (which is why I'd prefer to see and hear fewer of them.) But what is atheism, that it should be celebrated at it's own "Woodstock"? Is it non-belief on steroids? Is it militant non-belief? Seems to me the valid theological stance, at least since Kierkegaard in the mid-19th century, is that non-belief is the human default setting, and belief is the activity. Isn't it their argument that atheism is simply the human default? If so, isn't "celebrating atheism" a bit like celebrating being a social animal, or walking upright?
I'm a bit confused by atheists who make it their identity to be, well: atheists. It's like the theists in the world somehow impinge on their sense of self, and they must push back against it. In that way they are most like conservative Christians who can't stand the idea that there are people in the world who don't think like they do. If atheists want to talk about putting up with annoying religious people, I could sympathize. I grew up around people like Dennis Terry, and they used to bug the hell out of me (no pun intended). Eventually, though, I realized my identity as a believer wasn't tied up with opposing their beliefs. If they want to deny that I'm a Christian, it's fine with me; there are some thing I can't do anything about. And if the rest of the world wants to move away from theism in all its forms (that's not really happening, but anyway...), it wouldn't really bother me either. Some atheists are openly hoping that will happen:
Silverman, of American Atheists, says atheists have time and momentum on their side. He says the fastest-growing segment of religion in the U.S. is no religion — people who identify as atheist, agnostic or secular. Just look at Canada and parts of Europe, Silverman says; religion there is going "extinct."But then they are like the dog chasing the car: what do they do if they catch it?
"I believe America is not far behind," he says. "I believe in two decades, we will be in a position where secularism is the norm."
I've just started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book set in contemporary Sweden. One character is described as Muslim, but as an adult he "of course" no longer believes in God. Oddly, this doesn't make him an atheist. He just lets the matter go, in other words. Another character, a young girl, tells her father she's started attending church. He's not exactly pleased, but he doesn't seem particularly offended by it. Is he an atheist? Or simply a non-believer?
Which is kind of where I'm going with this: if you are an a-theist, then you have tied yourself rather tightly to theism. If theism truly doesn't matter to you, why do you declare yourself an a-theist? Why not just drop the whole matter and go on about your business?
I mean, what would atheists do as atheists together? Discuss the non-existence of God?
[John] Gray [professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics] argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity."The Christianity of TV evangelists and mega-church preachers and pulpit thumpers, is not the Christianity of the world. And Christianity itself is not the only religion in the world. Christians are no more identified solely with people like Dennis Terry than Muslims are identified with the assassin recently shot to death by police in France. Most of us are anti-terrorist, for very good reasons. But we don't feel the need to gather and proclaim our anti-terrorism, and to insist that one day anti-terrorism will be the norm and terrorism will cease to exist. If only because, frankly, it won't.
And the only absurdity in that comparison is that religious belief is not to be equated with terrorism. Well, not by intelligent people, anyway.
I was looking for anything I'd written earlier about Christopher Hedges and his book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Instead, I found this. I flipped it open to where he made this point:
The atheists and the fundamentalists speak in slogans. Atheists ridicule magic, miracles, and an anthropomorphic God. They remind us that the world is not 6,000 years old, that prayer does not cure cancer, and that there is no heaven or hell. But these are not thoughts. They are self-evident tautologies. These two camps never step outside their narrow intellectual boundaries. The atheists believe they know religions' inadequacies, although they have never investigated religious thought. They delight in critiques that are, to any first year seminarian, shallow and stale. Hitchens assures us that "the unanswerable question of who...created the creator" has never been addressed by theologians. Theologians, he says, "have consistently failed to overcome" this conundrum.Christopher Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists, New York: Free Press, 2008. pp. 70-71.
This is the declaration of an illiterate. Aquinas, along with many other theologians, addressed at length the issue of who created the creator. God, Aquinas argues, is not an entity. God is not a thing or a being. Creation is not an act of handicraft. Creation is a condition there being something rather than nothing. Creation didn't happen long ago. Creation is constant in human existence. It is part of life. And this is why "creationism"--the belief in a single, definitive act of invention by an anthropomorphic god--is pseudoscience and pseudotheology. But stepping out of the cartoonish and childish taunting of religion to a discussion of the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr is beyond the capacity of these atheists. They haven't read them and they don't want to.
To be fair, this isn't necessarily the attitude of the people interviewed by NPR. But I doubt any of them could identify the major works of any of those writers, much less their major ideas. They are too busy being "against," and identifying themselves as such, to be for even the acquisition of knowledge. Which is where I really kind of wonder about such professed atheists, and their profession of reason and rationality: why do they bother?