Friday, November 29, 2013


The worst thing is when people try to talk me out of it, as if it’s just something soft I’ve gotten stuck in. "Stalin was an atheist," they say. Okay. And? What do they expect to me say? "Stalin was an atheist? I had no idea. In that case, I do believe in God." And yes, I’ve heard of Pascal's Wager, and Paley’s pocket watch on the heath, and every other variation of the argument from design. These things do tend to enter your consciousness after three decades of daily study and reflection.

And yet my personal progress towards disbelief involved no turning points, revelations, or eureka moments. It simply began with a gradual realization, in boyhood, that my school’s daily prayers and Bible readings were just white noise to me. I stopped believing in God by the time I was about twelve and this early, intuitive disbelief has been buttressed by three subsequent decades of study, all of which has deepened my conviction that there isn’t enough evidence to support the God hypothesis.

There’s no reason to get all uppity about it, but people tend to. This was the second or third column I wrote for Measure of Doubt, nearly five years ago, but it’s the 109th that I’ve actually posted. I keep hesitating for a simple reason. I've found it’s best to keep quiet about my disbelief because it’s a stigma. I'll say that again: disbelief is a stigma. I almost never discuss it with family or friends. This is the first time I’ve unequivocally professed my atheism in public, and I raise the issue now with serious trepidation. 

Oh, I know that some believers think of themselves as the persecuted minority, huddled around the flickering candle of faith in the encroaching darkness.  Well, maybe. But it must be crowded around that candle, what with ninety percent of the population elbowing for room. The assertion, made by some conservative believers, that atheists aggressively dominate the public discourse on religion is based on the worst sort of hyperbolic selection bias. 

And I really don’t see what the problem is. Why would anyone be bothered by my skepticism, let alone offended by it? I don’t think believers are delusional, I think they’re wrong. Why would anyone be offended by this? It's precisely what they think about me.  Moreover, I assume that most Christians reject most non-Christian beliefs. Presumably they don’t believe that God has taken human form on many occasions, that First Nations have occupied the Great Plains since the beginning of time, that we’re bound to an endless cycle of reincarnation unless we follow the Eightfold Noble Path, or that the Qu'ran is the final and perfect revelation of God. That being the case, they too are atheists – about other peoples' religions. Again, I fail to see what the problem is.

Admittedly some people are faithful in a more amorphous way, arguing that all religions are just different versions of the same truth. When they consider such things at all, they say that they believe in some sort of "divine spirit" a warm and fuzzy though sometimes disapproving God: a celestial Oprah. Confess your sins. Jump on the living room set sofa forever and ever.

 "Maybe God is just the word we give to love," I heard a liberal theologian say on TV one time.  "Oh, please!" I shouted. I nearly dropped my copy of The Satanic Verses. And yet the amazing thing was that this purveyor superficially conceived, cloyingly sophomoric ooze got a free pass from the fundamentalist on the same show. "At least she believes in something," he said. By contrast, the atheist on the panel, who professed a thoroughly considered, rigorously examined, and continuously re-evaluated disbelief was told he was going to Hell. The fundamentalist described how he himself had always suffered persecution for his faith. Incredible: he goes around telling people they’re going to be tortured for eternity but says he’s being persecuted when they defend themselves. Incredible.

Well, I don’t think anybody’s going to Hell. In fact, nothing follows automatically from my atheism, and certainly not any conclusions about religion as a social institution. I don’t believe that it "poisons everything" as the title of a recent book put it. Personally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve taken far more interest in religious studies and my respect for certain aspects of religious institutions has grown, even as my atheistic convictions have solidified. I was very irritated not long ago to hear someone remark with pride, "I’m an atheist and I’ve never been in a church in my life." That’s a shame: he’s missed out on some great architecture and a pile of history. Comparative religion is one of the cornerstones of a good liberal education and I insist that my students know something about it. But people often mistake the meaning of all this.  A few years ago, on a teaching evaluation, one student wrote, "Prof. Broad seems very religious." I should have framed it.

Moreover, I teach at an institution with a religious affiliation.  Why?  Well, for many reasons, not the least of which is because it is an excellent liberal arts college with a superb faculty.  But it is also because that institution is actually far more amendable to the serious discussion of religion than the secular university I graduated from, where legions of the self-righteously politically correct maintain that the critical discussion of religion is the exact equivalent of racism. Their position – that ideas have rights – is both insipid and insidious, and is one that, moreover, they do not themselves believe, as they are perfectly willing to hurl stones in the direction of the Catholic Church, for example, when its precepts on matters concerning abortion, the ordination of women, and same sex marriage differ from their own.  Let us be very clear about this: you hear that academe is dominated by atheists. It isn’t. I can count on my fingers the number of real ones I’ve met. It’s dominated by moderately secular liberals, most of them positively popping with New Age spiritual beliefs. They're just mad about organized Christianity. Criticize other religions and they’ll haul you before a human rights tribunal. I tremble slightly to type those words.

Friends among the faithful, it's not the nonbelievers you should worry about. They just think you’re wrong. It's the devout of certain other religions and denominations that should concern you. They think you're wrong and that you're going to Hell for it. Some of them even believe that they are retribution's earthly instruments.  And since even the largest single denomination can claim no more than a fifth of the world's population as even nominal adherents, it is undeniably the case that, regardless of what faith you profess, the majority of the world's population thinks you’re wrong, that you’re guilty of some degree of theological or liturgical malpractice, and indeed from countless thousands of temples, mosques, and churches there emerges an even stronger claim from millions of truly devout believers.  They know in their hearts that you are not just wrong, but are wicked, sinful, and destined to spend eternity in damnation.

 So I'll see you there


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by a slight burning sensation.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that closet. I was worried it was something more sinister.