Posts Tagged ‘atheist’

Is Evolution To Blame For Our Denial?

A recent Newsweek article (March 29, 2010), Their Own Worst Enemies proposes that there is something “peculiarly American about the rejection of science.”  The article tells us what we probably already know: Americans seem to embrace or “believe in” scientific ideas less than other developed countries. In particular, a recent Gallup poll found that we are 33rd out of 34 countries in the percentage of our people who accept that species have evolved.

The title of the article references the scientists who are “lousy communicators.” They bring the message of the truth and expect that it will be absorbed, but take little responsibility for its acceptance. Lets say this really was a problem – as if finding fossils and genes, etc. were not enough of a job. Do European and Japanese scientists take courses in marketing and communication? Why are we so resistant?

I have lived in this country all of my life. I have lived in Amish country, Chocolate Country, Citrus Country, Mountain Country and Tree-Hugging Country. So perhaps I should be more desensitized to the lack of interest and education about the most basic workings of our universe. But I continue to be dumbfounded when people cling to the rejection of concepts proven by objective science.

I don’t think that all these people flat out reject the science either. The reality is even worse than this. A fair number of people just do not care. They do not look for the information and when faced with what could be illuminating discoveries and analysis, their eyes glaze over.

Since I really need an explanation – a scientific explanation – for the mass denial in my country, I suggest that its just evolution.

Yes, that would be perfect symmetry!

We are a young country. As Newsweek points out, the first White Americans came from ancestors trying to buck the system only a couple hundred years ago. They didn’t take well to those in charge in England and maybe shrugging off scientific authority is part of our makeup.  Of course, not all of us are descendants of those who came off the first boats. Many of us came from much later “boats” and shouldn’t be beholden to any reasoning that blames our current ignorance on the old White people in wigs with accents.  

However, as I play out this theory for argument’s sake, the people with authority who have ruled our institutions and built our media, are generally made from the same bones as those who were bold and arrogant enough to leave the royal hierarchy in search of  “religious freedom,” only to kill off the natives because they didn’t fit with their own ideas of what was “right” and “civilized.”  These same descendants (though not exclusively)  tend to be arrogant enough to claim expert on topics through the Bible.  It is put forth in the same Newsweek article that our current lack of enlightenment is a symptom of the Reformation – the idea that everyone can have direct access to the Divine. Everyone can know The Truth through the Bible (or google and Wikipedia) – why bother with complicated topics like archeology, biology and chemistry?

Perhaps the current state of our public interest and education around science, not to mention outright obtuse denial, is just part of societal evolution, if not genetic mutation.  In terms of our species a few hundred years barely allows for hair color to change in a family. We have time to redeem ourselves if our genetic stock has left us disadvantaged.

Maybe, given a few hundred more years we will be open to new discoveries by people who are smarter than us. My guess is that we will also legalize pot and Gay marriage, while banning guns, after we’ve had a little more time to evolve.

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Who’s The Better Atheist?

 Lately my husband and I have debated about which of us is a better Atheist.

He is from a country where religion is less central to society and there is little pressure to have any belief. Many people there probably walk around their whole lives without ever having to think about or discuss their beliefs concerning a deity. He has always been an Atheist, although he never felt the need to label himself until coming to America, where the assumption of belief is part of the dominant culture. 

I however, am deconverted from a devout belief in god. I also grew up in rather conservative parts of America.

We often discuss the extent that religion is institutionalized in American society. The differences in our previous programming are evident. He doesn’t fully appreciate how most Americans view non-belief. He is proud of our non-belief and does not hide in any closet. He sees it as the most normal thing in the world.  On the other hand, I, the VisibleAtheist, am more cautious.

Visible is a notion I aspire to, not one that I have accomplished. I walk more gently when I am on “hallowed” ground. I know that some people WILL be uncomfortable if I inject the ‘A’ word into a conversation. And sometimes, I just need to get some work done, need to advocate for my child in a delicate situation or don’t feel like watching others squirm when I am trying to make friends. He is perplexed by my relative timidity in such situations.

I also have a profound respect for the few positive roles that religion plays in culture. I don’t know whether this sympathy is rooted in my personality or my religious past. Maybe it comes from a bit of both. However, my husband is more in line with the New Atheists in that he believes all religion is harmful, even in the context of culture. Perhaps this is part of his personality or comes from never being part of the “The Fold”.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both for him too.

On The A-Unicornist a fellow blogger referred to “Cultural Atheists.”  Adding this term to my lexicon gave me a framework for deconstructing our tension on the issue.  The definition of a Cultural Atheist according to The A-Unicornist is a person:

“who hails from a place where there is far less (if any) sociocultural pressure to accept supernatural magic as infallible truth. Thus, they tend to treat theistic claims about reality the same way they treat any other claim about reality – as claims whose credibility is contingent upon evidence

It reminds me of the different ways that Atheists often incorporate or claim Atheism as part of their identity. In my research I found that those who deconverted generally held their atheism very dear, were sensitive to societal exclusions and defended non-belief with passion. Anecdotally, I find that those who have always been Atheist are less connected to their non-belief as a part of their identity.  In short, I am more sensitive to just about anything having to do with religion and he is much more matter of fact in his knowledge that this is the way and the truth.

When we got married almost a decade ago I expected some cultural adjustments for each of us, but I never expected we would argue about who was a better Atheist. I guess it could be worse.


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Death Of An Afterlife

One of the greatest lures of religion is the ability to achieve the magical – an afterlife.  As a species we have imagined our superiority to include a fate beyond what the rest of the animal kingdom faces. Many people would be paralyzed if they did not get to believe in their version of eternity, instead of having to face the banal finality of death.

 For those who have deconverted from believing in a personal god, the death of an afterlife is a right of passage. Whether it is mourned like the loss of a close friend or celebrated like the death of a villain in the theatre, there is no denying it has a place in the process. Some find release and some struggle with losing the compelling picture of an afterlife constructed during belief.

I have been encouraged to believe in god, simply on the possibility of an afterlife.  The “What if you are wrong? Are you willing to take that risk?” argument makes me sigh with futility, although there was a time when I gave it some space.

During my deconversion I suffered a protracted phase of denial simply because I didn’t want to risk being wrong. In the end, I argued (with myself) that denying the giant tsunami-size force of logic in my own head was not going to fool the Christian god anyway – as he was all-knowing. I might as well stop fighting it. I was using a lot of energy trying NOT to THINK so that I could still “believe” in god and an afterlife.

* I’ve heard statements from deconverts who feel wonderfully liberated from the idea of eternity. The pressures to perform in order to get into heaven are heavy, and the consequences of not getting the formula right (fire, brimstone and gnashing of teeth) can be terrifying. And every religion has a different prescription to get there – some include arbitrary tasks like baptism, confession, saying a prayer correctly or joining just the right denomination.

* Others tell me that life is richer now that they can focus on this life and stop delaying gratification to some unknown eternity.

* And still others tell me they are relieved that there is no eternity because it’s just to long anyway!

Personally, when I look at my children, I still miss the comfort of thinking something could be there when we die. Just being honest here.  But yes, I also know that we have all gained much more in non-belief.

My mourning of an afterlife may have been born of my religious past. In my family we went through various Christian religions including: fundamentalism, Jehovah’s Witness and Catholicism. These traditions offer very vivid descriptions of what awaits you after death. They are not metaphoric either. People who practice these faiths really believe that streets will be gold, there will be gates to heaven, a big book with your name, etc. And Hell really does resemble Dante’s Inferno. It’s very important to be on “god’s side” if you want to enjoy true happiness. To my child-self, this was more than I could process, and like any foolish excess it left a big hangover. 

In my research study, the participants widely suggested that losing the afterlife was a point of discomfort and contributed to their want to “make religion fit”. But like myself, they got over it eventually and moved  on to the things we can control about life. I haven’t met an Atheist yet who is not happier without religion, despite or because of the death of an afterlife.

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Flailing About – Atheist Parenthood in A Time of God and War

As I am driving my kids to school today my 6yr old asks me the simple question about whether airplanes have guns. Of course, I leave nothing unexplained in my household and it never ceases to get me in trouble. This simple question leads to war planes, which may seem fair, then to Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Then my older daughter gets afraid that war could happen in the US.  She wants to confirm that war can’t happen here because “California is the best place”. Not wanting to promote blind  nationalism (or state-ism), I don’t feel ok letting this go. I get myself in deeper as I explain that “we are such a strong country and people don’t usually mess with us on our own turf”. The topics are  getting very jumbled up here and I am swerving in and out of traffic aware that I am confusing their minds even more and still feeling like I have an important opportunity to make an impression here. Of what, I don’t know.

And as I am giving a Kindergarten explanation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I find myself spouting rationale that is way to conservative (think how Bush used to explain things, as if to a two year old…) and my sensibilities won’t allow me to leave them with this either. So I get into the whole Twin Tower disaster and try to explain what happened afterwards which led us into a war that Mama and Daddy didn’t agree with. I mentioned Muslim extremists here and of course their eyes really glazed over.

So, my sweet 7 yr old asks why anyone has to go to war. With my limited capacity to recall  history I think of a few recent examples. l tell them that with so many people believing in god in so many different ways, people often get upset and even go to war. I use the examples of Christians, Muslims and Jews, who all believe in the same god differently.

A lightbulb turns on for me and I seize on the point that I am going to try to salvage out of the past 25 minutes. I point out, “Isn’t it silly to go to war over god, something that isn’t even real?”  Such a good point but apparently a miss. The next thing I know they are saying so and so “doesn’t look Muslim, they are nice” and “I know a boy who believes in god, but no way is he a Christian!” 

Ah geez, now we are running late for the bell, climbing out of the car with our multitude of bags, jackets and lunches, and I have my kid thinking that a girl  in her class is a bad person because she wears a head scarf. So, I kiss them on the cheek and I try to sum it all up:

Just remember that lots of people believe in god – most of them are nice, even if they are wrong.  I point out a few of their favorite people who happen to be Muslim or Christian and watch as their eyes turn into saucers. No Way!! The bell rings and I send them on their way.

 Now, I am reminded that well-intentioned people always make things worse with their big mouths (think Harry Reid).  I have some back pedaling to do over dinner tonight. Next time perhaps I will take a page from my husband’s approach around topics like family dysfunction and pedophiles and just say, you don’t need to know about this yet…But probably not.

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Atheist Babies

I have no intention of blogging about my kids as if the whole world appreciates their antics. Like the time my two year locked herself in the bathroom and proceeded to…oops, almost got carried away in the world of baby blogging.

However, I would like to discuss the idea of raising children in the absence of religion, and even more specifically as Atheists. Why wouldn’t Atheists raise Atheists? Just like Christians certainly wouldn’t go out of their way to raise Muslim children or Jews to raise Christian children. I reiterate to my kids often that when they are old enough to make their own decisions, I will respect whatever they choose in terms of belief systems. Just so we’re clear, I respect thoughtfully made decisions, even if I think they are wrong. And by respect, I mean I will refrain from personal attacks or derision to your face or behind your back.

I am met with great shock or quiet amazement when I tell others that all children are Atheists. Yes, by definition ALL children ARE Atheists. Age parameters may vary here depending on your child’s critical thinking skills. The definition of Atheism is cited in many places as a strict denial of god, but really it is just an absence of belief in a god. Some Atheists may be staunch in their denial and some may simply not believe. The commitment to Atheism runs a vast spectrum. 

What young child really has the ability to BELIEVE in a god? I mean believe in a way they don’t believe in fairies and Cinderella. They may pray on their knees at bed time, but children are great imitators and prone to do what gets them praise. You can baptize an infant at birth but they still won’t believe in anything other than their milk, and will be in the club with Atheists, at least for a while.

As an Atheist parent, I am often faced with explaining religion and belief. As I have experiences through my children’s eyes, eyes without filters, religion encroaches on my life more frequently. I have created personal filters for when god is mentioned on television, when a friend innocently says “Thank God for that!” or “What a blessing” or even “God Bless You” when I sneeze. When the news speaks of religious wars I can analyze these things. When adult friends speak of going to church I certainly don’t feel left out, like my children may when their friends spend Sunday mornings in this elusive place called church.

How do we explain to children what we really think, without telling them what to think?  Just as being a Visible Atheist is important for society and all of us non-believers, it is important for us to be visible to our children. To help them learn to think about the world as confusing messages assault them left and right. 

Even I was so well programmed in religion as a child that I often feel guilty and blasphemous when I explain the concept of religion to my children – equating fairy tales and diverse cultural beliefs to that of the trinity. I can’t help but feel a slight sting when my 6yr old says “but people in church are wrong, god is not real” and “when I grow up I will choose no god”.  I think the sting comes from the idea of tacitly holding a view that is programmed, like I once did with Christianity. While I smile at my words in her cute little voice, I will feel truly proud when she comes to these thoughts because her mind is ready to understand. 

I once was trying to explain my position on raising Atheist children to my dear sister, who is a devout Christian. My then 4yr old daughter told her that she didn’t believe in god. My sister cried. This was the very worst thing she could imagine. For these small children to already have written off a life she thought led to salvation seemed to her a tragedy. I understood the passion and sadness in her heart, since I had once believed and feared for the soul of my mother (who did happen to be Christian, just not very good at it).  At the time my sister told me that she thought I should raise them with an access to a belief in god. I don’t think she was able to see how impossible this would be for me. I would no more be able to do that than raise my children as shoplifters or reality TV personalities. I just think its wrong.

This past Christmas my oldest child started putting logical thoughts together. I often use stories from the bible to illustrate how similar fairy tales and christianity really are. Like Noah and the Ark or Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve, etc. They just adore these stories, by the way. She asked me how it could be that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are real but god is not. It threw me for a loop because I adore the magic that Christmas and fairies are for my children, but I was also very proud of her and will have to tell her how she has unlocked the magic box with her clever mind.

I know all parents are probably a little saddened by this passage in childhood – when magic is slightly less sparkly and common sense starts to prevail – but I have to admit I blame religion a little bit for taking one more thing from me while children of Christians can equate seasonal fantasy with the rational behind fairy dust for a bit longer.
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Making Atheism Visible

The dialogue around Atheism hasn’t quite tapped into what goes on in my life experience. I am an Atheist. A deconverted Atheist, meaning I once lived a very religious life, with beliefs and convictions that matched.  I am a fan of living the “examined life” and like many Atheists I am pretty convinced that I have managed to navigate a minefield of institutionalized superstition that has most people completely duped.  However, now that I am living the life of an Everyday Atheist I find that I want to make my Atheism something positive. I want to raise my children as happy Atheists who’s thoughtful approach to life brings them true happiness and success.

Much of the discourse on Atheism seems to take a couple different tones: 1) Self-righteous and vindicated in the fact that we know the facts and that others are trapped in fairyland or 2) Quiet and capitulating to the more powerful majority. I don’t think either of these approaches is helpful to the Atheist cause (if there is one).

The self-righteous, often caustic approach is great when your preaching to the choir. I enjoy a good humorous jab at religion and pointing out the ludicrousy of it all. I enjoy being in company where the Atheist dialogue makes me roll with the laughter that only those in the “club” could appreciate. And I am the first to admit that I love living in the San Francisco Bay Area because I love the thinking, liberal bubble I can operate within.  

However, if I am looking for new thoughts or hope to make a decent argument to believers, this approach loses its utility. I am looking for a new dialogue about the experience of being Atheist, not just about the validity of Atheism.  I am looking for visibility, recognition, public office (not for me but for the like-minded), a place of inclusion for my children, and to encourage others to think before they follow like cattle.  

And I looking to help change the second tone of the Atheist dialogue, because the quiet, change -the-conversation, pretend-its-not-important approach to NOT talking about Atheism has got to go down into the distant past, fast. 

So, I begin this blog with the minimum goal of articulating my experience as an Atheist, through all the many complexities as it relates to society, the world, politics, economy, family, etc. But really I write with the not-so-humble goal of destimigtizing thoughtful nonbelievers and making us more visible in politics, family, society, community and the world.