Hubris

RMS TitanicLately, I’ve been pondering whether atheist is a label that truly fits me. I’ve identified as an atheist for nearly twenty years and yet, when I experience contemporary expressions of atheism that grace the internet, bookstores, and talk shows, I am lead to question whether I fit in with the larger crowd. The conclusion that I keep on reaching is in the general neighborhood of “no.” I am struck by the intolerant tenor that has arisen within contemporary atheism and I am left wondering if I should set sail for calmer oceans. As I ponder this quandary, I’m not certain if there is a label or a movement that I am truly willing to embrace.

This uncertainty rests upon far more than simple discomfort with intemperate voices. You see, I am a deeply spiritual person. I have been for many years now, in spite of my godless ways. My spirituality is an important part of my life. At its core, my spirituality registers as a bone-deep sense of connection with that which is: people, nature, the universe, and everything. Some might wonder how an atheist managed to embrace such airy-fairy, “New-Age” sentiments. Well, as a human being, I am a deeply social creature and as an outgrowth of my social nature, it is only natural for me to seek out a sense of connection with all that surrounds me. Why should I not embrace this? It is in my nature to do so and it hurts no one. On the contrary, it has been a crucial part the process of finding care and compassion for the people in my life and the world that surrounds me.

I don’t think this sense of connection has to fit into a single, prepackaged, secular format. Different people will express this sense of connection in different ways. Some symbolize this connection as a god or a goddess, some conceive of it as a collective soul, some call it nirvana, and some call it the bond of common humanity. I’m going to say something that is almost sacrilegious among many atheists: it doesn’t matter to me how a person perceives this sense of connection. If you want to call it a god, go right ahead. I prefer not to, but that’s my taste and my taste alone. I like my coffee black. You like it with milk. So be it.

Now, I’m familiar with the standard refrain of contemporary atheists: this sense of deep, reverent connection is a byproduct of evolution… an illusion of the brain. Well, that’s fine, but you know what? I don’t care. No, it’s not rational. It’s not logical. Nor is it empirical. However, it is very much a part of my being. I would not trade it for the world. It guides me. It has helped me through some of the worst of times. It gives me a reason to live my life. I rather like this sense of connection.

I think one of contemporary atheism’s problems is that it fails to take into consideration the emotional needs of actual human beings and in the long run, this hampers the effectiveness of the movement. Lying at the heart of this issue is the problem that atheism fails to offer a viable substitute for the fulfilling sense of connection provided by spirituality and religion. Because of human kind’s highly social nature, I strongly suspect that this desire for connectedness is a basic human need. Consequently, if atheism leaves this emotional need unaddressed, the movement will fail to generate the level of public interest necessary to broaden its appeal. Thus, dismissing people’s source of emotional connection as a foolish delusion will only take the movement so far. You might convert those whose faith is on the brink of collapse, but you’ll inspire nothing but invective from those of deeper faith. In fact, equating this sense of connection with things like a belief in Santa Claus or unicorns ultimately makes atheists look mean spirited and emotionally stunted. This is a public relations disaster in the making, folks. You can do far better than this.

While I’m critical of contemporary atheists’ response to religion and spirituality, I do not trust organized religion. I see the deep connectedness of spirituality as beautiful, and yet, I fear that it can be twisted and warped into a tool of social control. Spirituality cuts to the core of our being and if some organization or group gains control over this aspect of self, we open ourselves to the social machinations of group politics, power, and conformity. In our vulnerability, we open our selves to deep emotional manipulation by the collective and its leaders. Sadly, a mechanism that can serve to create connection between people is distorted by some religions into a tool that serves the needs of one group—and its leaders—to the exclusion of all other groups. In the process, that which might serve to create bonds between human beings is used instead, to create prejudice and division. That which might serve to foster love and trust is used instead, to generate fear and hatred of those with different religions, beliefs, and ways of living.

While we are on the topic of prejudice and division, I will state that which is obvious to most atheists and agnostics: organized religion has a remarkably poor track record with minority rights. So often, religion’s function in society is to preserve the status quo. It serves as a means of passing on the traditions of one generation to the next and as such, it actively resists social change. Unfortunately, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual repression, and the oppression of minority faiths are very much a part of various cultural traditions across the globe. One need not look far to find a priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam who is calling for the continued oppression of women, LGBT people, and members of less popular faiths. One need not look far to find a religious figurehead calling for restrictions on sexuality that completely defy human nature. Until organized religion cleans up its misogyny, its hatred of LGBT people, and its profoundly repressive views of sexuality, I shall question the humanitarian worth of many forms of organized religion. Similarly, until organized religion cleans up its sectarian bigotry against other religions, I shall question religion’s ability to foster peace and understanding.

Because of my distaste for religion’s tendency to generate prejudice and division, I support atheism’s opposition to the excesses of organized religion. I see atheism as a potentially useful force in opposing the oppressive actions of religion-based bigotry. However, I say potentially useful because I have seen evidence for a rising tide of intolerance, hatred, and prejudice in many corners of the atheist community. Calls for the complete abolition of religion and spiritual belief are now common among the most vocal portions of atheism. I can not help but see such sentiments as thinly disguised bigotry against all people of religious and spiritual persuasion. One need not search very long before one finds accusations of psychological dysfunction, stupidity, and general inferiority made within atheist writings, speeches, and internet discussions. This worries me and I can not abide such sentiments, regardless of who manifests these feelings. Religious or atheist: ultimately, your bigotry carries the same seeds of destruction. In a world filled with strife and violence, your hateful sentiments endanger us all.

In this din of conflict, I find myself needing to shift to a different mental and emotional space. I feel the need to look into my heart and find a place that resists the volleys of hateful rhetoric that are being slung from all directions. I refuse to look upon this as a war of words and concepts. I refuse to look upon this as yet another manifestation of “the eternal battle between good and evil” or more recently, “a battle between rational thinkers and deluded cultists.” I have grown bored by this drama and a I seek other quarters… a refuge from the intellectual and emotional posturing that so many sides of this conflict seem fond of.

While the rational part of my mind has great difficulty accepting the existence of a deity, in my heart, I am far more agnostic than atheist. Like it or not, I tend to be a person who listens to her heart. I value intuition as much as I value empiricism. My agnosticism ranges beyond notions of deities and instead, focuses upon the basic nature of reality. Deep within me, there is a whisper that says I am more than the atoms, flesh, and neurons that compose my body. I sense that there is something more to reality than a surface level that I can only touch, taste, see, smell, and hear. However, I do not know what that deeper level of reality is. As best I can tell, I do not have a reliable way of knowing. I am only one tiny human being, limited to her five senses, trying to understand a universe that transcends her limited faculties. I do not know that which is. I can only perceive, guess, and imagine.

And so, I do not see it as my place to challenge the spiritual or naturalistic beliefs of others. I place my feet upon neutral ground because I do not have the answers. Ultimately, I do not know how to unlock the riddle of existence. I make no claims to sacred belief. I make no claims of true knowledge. I possess only the meager tools of imagination, perception and thought, and within the bounds of my limited mortal existence, I approach this exploration with humbleness in my heart.

So, believe in what you will. It doesn’t matter to me so long as you harm no other in the process of exploring your relationship with this world. It is my right to guess and perceive and ponder, as it is your right. Believe in a goddess, if you find comfort there. Believe in a god, if that is more to your liking. Believe in the atoms and quarks that make us whole. If it brings you peace of mind, then so be it. I do not expect your tastes to conform to mine. So long as you do not allow our differences to divide us, I say, “go in peace.”

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~ by timberwraith on October 6, 2010.

22 Responses to “Hubris”

  1. I think these are good thoughts to have (especially thoughts relating to the emotional connection that people have and need).

    However, the one thing that really gets me is the semantic point that *always* gets me.

    Atheism is not a religion. It is not a movement. It is not a cause. It, like theism, is very minimal. It is a classifier for *one* belief or disbelief out of billions — namely, the one relating to deities.

    So, yes, you talk a lot about “contemporary atheism”…but the important thing to realize is that these people aren’t “owners” of the term atheism. These people do not define what atheism is, because atheism doesn’t work like that. These are atheists who just happen to be oriented in certain other ways. Criticize their hyper-rationalism, not their atheism. Criticize their hyper-scientism, not their atheism. And so on and so forth. Because it is these extraneous pieces that you are finding objectionable, *not* disbelief in deities.

  2. Andrew said:

    Atheism is not a religion. It is not a movement. It is not a cause. It, like theism, is very minimal. It is a classifier for *one* belief or disbelief out of billions — namely, the one relating to deities.

    To clarify, I have nothing against a disbelief in deities. That is, I have no qualms with “plain wrapper” atheism.

    While atheism is not a religion, it does entail an evolving system of commonly held attendant beliefs (empirical evidence is required, supernatural belief is invalid, evolution is true, etc.). Currently, antitheism has become a popular strain of thought among atheists. This subset of people is particularly vocal and via such widely know figures as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, has been elevated as the public face of atheism.

    It is this popularized antitheism that has lead me to reevaluate which aspect of my own beliefs I hold important, given current social trends. For me, the note of uncertainty that runs through my own beliefs and the humbleness that such uncertainty brings forth underlies the approach I wish to take in response to the growing ugliness I have delineated in the original post. Hence, I feel a far greater affinity for the label agnostic than I do atheist.

    As for atheism not being associated with a movement, I would argue that there are signs of atheism moving in that direction. Given the popularization of antithesim and a corresponding call for expanding non-belief and curtailing religion’s influence, I would argue that there is a distinct intent to bring forth social change. When you couple this intent to bring forth social change with a growing populace of non-believers and a growing presence in the media, you have the makings of a social movement. Given the size of the protests against the pope in Britain, there is evidence that enough opposition to the excesses of religion exists to provide a basis for a secular movement to flourish. The questions for me are whether people can continue this level of momentum, how widespread will it be, and which objectives will be emphasized by such a movement. Time will tell.

  3. it does entail an evolving system of commonly held attendant beliefs (empirical evidence is required, supernatural belief is invalid, evolution is true, etc.).

    Who says, timberwraith? And what’s his or her authority?

    …see where I’m going with this? If atheism is a non-prophet organization (pun not fully intended), then you will have problems saying who speaks for atheism and who determines what the attendant beliefs are.

    I would say that the “commonly held attendant beliefs” are has nothing to do with atheism, but instead far more to do with cultural setting, the spirit of the times, etc., BUT we do NOT need to “give in” and say that the cultural setting of the “New Atheists” (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens) is the legitimate voice of atheism.

    I for one think that your concerns are thoughtful and valid. I dislike the feeling that people have that they are “agnostic” concerns and not “atheist” concerns. I feel like that is a concession to “new atheists”.

    Please note: I think that the New Atheists (or as you say “contemporary atheists”) do have policy goals and espoused values that are easily codifiable (and just as easily questionable, as your post does adeptly). However, these do not define atheism any more than “Christian theism” defines theism on the whole. The prevalence of a particular kind of theist in a particular area, era, or setting does NOT delegitimize other kinds of theists. In the same way, the prevalence of particular kinds of atheists does not delegitimize other kinds.

    I for one think that the new atheism will have to temper itself (or will be constrained externally), especially for some of the reasons you mentioned. People are not robots (and they don’t need to *apologize* for this). We feel. We are squishy. So we need to have a philosophy that accommodates and accounts for squishiness and feely-ness.

  4. Who says, timberwraith? And what’s his or her authority?

    I’m not saying there is an authority handing out edicts from on high, but only that there are observable social trends. Nothing more. Trends shift and change with time.

    Please understand that I am not arguing that you or anyone else should shift how you label yourself. What I wrote is an opinion piece concerning where I wish to draw boundaries for myself and why I wish to draw them.

    Let me give you a little more personal context. If you haven’t already, please read this blog entry. Not so long ago, I could have easily become a New Atheist… and that really wasn’t all that long ago: a few years, at most. In fact, you might even say that I spent a good part of the 90s and early 2000s being a prototype for one. Andrew, I need to draw this kind of boundary for myself. It’s part of the process of relinquishing old prejudices and moving onward.

  5. The blog entry you posted was illuminative…I can see more of your point with this entry

  6. Cool. 🙂

  7. BTW Andrew, please know that I rather like your approach to atheism. I’ve been searching for writings by non-believers with an open-minded (and “open-hearted”), more pluralistic approach for a while, now. That’s why you wound up on my blogroll.

  8. It isn’t necessary to be 100% alike everyone else who calls him/herself an atheist.

  9. I would love to be part of an atheist community, but my experience with such groups is that they don’t have much in common beyond being atheists. They end up talking about religion all of the time and I don’t have an interest in that subject. So, I tend to be a “loner” as far as atheism goes.

  10. beforewisdom said:

    It isn’t necessary to be 100% alike everyone else who calls him/herself an atheist.

    No, its not necessary to be exactly like everyone else to embrace a label. Nevertheless, I’ve reached the threshold of difference where I feel it’s time to move on.

    Language is important to me for I find that language shapes my perceptions of others and self in ways that go beyond everyday, conscious reckoning. I find that embracing labels tends to open me up to the influence of those who embrace the same labels. I’ve hit a point where I no longer feel comfortable with the kind of influence that comes with internalizing the label “atheism.” As I said above, this is very much about drawing boundaries.

    Perhaps, on some meta-level, I’m reaching a place where I find all labels to be an unsatisfying pain in the ass. 🙂

  11. beforewisdom said:

    I would love to be part of an atheist community, but my experience with such groups is that they don’t have much in common beyond being atheists. They end up talking about religion all of the time and I don’t have an interest in that subject. So, I tend to be a “loner” as far as atheism goes.

    I feel I’m part of something like an “atheist community” by default, since most of the people I’m close to here in MN are some variation of non-believer. We sometimes talk about religion, but mostly not.

    There are actual atheist groups you can join here in the Twin Cities, but I’ve never felt inspired to do so. Why bother when most of the folks you hang out with don’t believe in a god in the first place?

    When I’m in the mood to see what folks have to say about theism and religion, I simply bounce around from one non-believer’s blog to the next. They aren’t exactly hard to find, especially with the tag system of WordPress.


  12. I find that embracing labels tends to open me up to the influence of those who embrace the same labels. I’ve hit a point where I no longer feel comfortable with the kind of influence that comes with internalizing the label “atheism.”

    A very interesting thought. I don’t have a problem with labels. Like you, I do feel that *something* changes once you take a label.

    There are groups that I share a chunk of beliefs with, but I will not use their label. Some of it is that many who use that label have views that don’t reflect mine, though to be honest it is mostly due to me finding members of that group obnoxious.

    That isn’t rational.

    Yet, it is the way people work. I’ve seen people who share beliefs and desires with a group/cause give up on new behaviors because they found some people wearing the label to be obnoxious.

  13. […] then, I’ve felt that way in other areas. The atheist community? I understand people who want to distance themselves from such a community because of the social trends developing in who the more vocal atheists are. I’ve always […]

  14. The best radar we have is intuition, which is always personal. I like to test my intuitions through a rational filter–and to critique my reasoning by intuition. The comprehensive ideas of reality are invariably creative insights or expriences or both. Religions are the socialization of once creative insights or, some would say, inspirations. As these sink downward, they become organizaed and begin to try to compell people, whethere they genuinely sense something or not. It seems to me that organized religion and join-the-ranks-dogmatic atheism are both lower-level and therefore decayed manifestations of creativity. Your post is refreshingly comprehensive. Reality can’t be bottled and sold as patent medicine.

  15. The best radar we have is intuition, which is always personal. I like to test my intuitions through a rational filter–and to critique my reasoning by intuition. The comprehensive ideas of reality are invariably creative insights or expriences or both.

    Yes! I like how you illustrated a kind of feed-back loop between intuition and rational thought and that the two can be used to fine-tune each other. They can serve as complementary processes.

    I think that a good number atheists miss or perhaps, devalue this connection and consequently, downplay intuition as a valuable tool in figuring out what makes “life, the universe, and everything” tick. Intuitive suspicions about what might lie behind the veil of everyday reality are often dismissed as “woo”. Perhaps it is… or maybe it’s not.

    For instance, I’m willing to entertain the notion of a sense that there is more than meets the eye when one considers the nature of reality and that this could indicate a general direction of further exploration—as I indicated in my OP. In conversations with non-atheist acquaintances, I’ve found that I’m not alone in this perception. Alternatively, I’ve generally experienced a mildly annoyed roll of the eyes from several of my atheist acquaintances. Oh well. To each her or his own.

    In some ways, I think the conflict between those with faith and non-believers is a clash between two different ways of processing information: intuition-centered thinking vs. rational-centered thinking. If we could somehow decouple the politics and power plays from this whole mess, maybe we could reach a place where both ways of experiencing the world could be valued. Right now, it seems as though significant numbers in each camp want to annihilate the other. I think it would be quite sad—and potentially detrimental to society—if either camp managed to succeed.

    Religions are the socialization of once creative insights or, some would say, inspirations. As these sink downward, they become organizaed and begin to try to compell people, whethere they genuinely sense something or not. It seems to me that organized religion and join-the-ranks-dogmatic atheism are both lower-level and therefore decayed manifestations of creativity.

    That’s an interesting point. I’ve noticed that there often seems to be a kind of symmetry of reaction and counter-reaction that takes place between opposing groups of people. On both sides, there seems to be an expectation of bending society to conform to its respective means of seeing the world. Conformity: in many ways, it’s one of the consistent downfalls of our species.

    Your post is refreshingly comprehensive. Reality can’t be bottled and sold as patent medicine.

    Thanks for the kind words, Arsen.

  16. great post! i’m open-minded to open-atheists. i often describe myself as an agnostic-Christian or an irreligious-Christian. that means “while i believe in a God, i have no idea how that God operates.” it is an admission that i can’t box or control God through religion and my only job is to love and serve others. some would say that why believe in a God at all, you’re a humanist then! well, i get along with those type of people and philosophies. yet that loud segment of the new atheists are trying to close-ranks and define atheism as an ideology.

    i don’t find that helpful in the least.

    good post, i look forward to checking you out in the future!

  17. Yeah, as you can guess, I don’t find the closing of ranks very helpful, either. It’s pretty darned annoying, actually.

    …that means “while i believe in a God, i have no idea how that God operates.”

    Interesting. That’s kind of the theist version of my own brand of agnosticism. I’ve a question for you. Why do you choose to center your belief in a deity upon one particular religion? Why not a kind of non-denominational, non-religion based deity? An “open source” god, if you will?

    I’m not asking that question in the spirit of criticism, btw. I’m simply curious.

    Thanks for stopping by, zero1ghost.

  18. I think those are honest and good questions. i’ll try to answer them in some way that makes sense.

    “Why do you choose to center your belief in a deity upon one particular religion? Why not a kind of non-denominational, non-religion based deity? An “open source” god, if you will?”

    i do! i’m not an exclusivist, i’m a universalist (in the sense that if you’re living for something other than yourself and love your “neighbor” you’re living right regardless of belief). i’m also a Christian because i believe this is what the bible teaches us about God. i believe the bible to be a human document which was inspired by the divine. There’s this part in Exodus where Moses wants to see God and God says “Nope, sorry, no one can see my face and live… however, i’ll put you in this rock and put my hand over it and i’ll pass by and (what’s commonly translated is) You’ll see my behind. (But a closer translation is) You’ll see where i was.”

    even Jesus, in the gospel of John which has the highest Christology, states that “No one knows where the Spirit has come from, nor where it is going.”

    i think we can hang our hats on themes like justice and equality for all, open table fellowship, leaders who serve, humility, hope, and love. i think the Christian religion emphasizes this best but i’ve also been raised in it, so in a sense i’m cheering for the home team. i’ve also had some strange encounters with the divine, so that causes me not to be an agnostic. i just know i have no control over it, even while i seek to relate to it.

    hope that makes sense. sorry for the vomitorium of information i just unleashed on you. be well!

  19. No worries. I didn’t think that your comment was a vomitorium of information.

    i do! i’m not an exclusivist, i’m a universalist (in the sense that if you’re living for something other than yourself and love your “neighbor” you’re living right regardless of belief).

    It would be nice if the bulk of religious people and non-believers would adopt that attitude. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a wee bit too much tribalism on all sides of the equation.

    i think the Christian religion emphasizes this best but i’ve also been raised in it, so in a sense i’m cheering for the home team.

    Hmmm. But that’s just the thing: if you aren’t raised in a particular religion, then at first glance, you might miss the nuance and beauty that a person born into that faith knows intimately. Just a thought.

    Anyway, I like your take on theism/Christianity.

  20. “if you aren’t raised in a particular religion, then at first glance, you might miss the nuance and beauty that a person born into that faith knows intimately. Just a thought.”

    absolutely! we see the nuance and beauty in the things we like and can overcome their short-comings. we don’t give others the benefit of the doubt and miss the nuance and point out annoying things like “What about the crusades/inquisition/Pat Robertson/bombing abortion clinics/misogynous/homophobia?” or whatever evidence we can throw at the “other tribe” while exalting our own brand of whatever.

    looking forward to continuing talking with you! i think we’re off to a nice start.

  21. “What about the crusades/inquisition/Pat Robertson/bombing abortion clinics/misogynous/homophobia?”

    I’ve sat in the pews of a UCC church for a bit and I’ve known a Quaker or two. So, I know that Christianity can take a very healthy, non-oppressive format.

    I look forward to chatting with you too, zero1ghost.

  22. […] It reminds me of why I so often want to separate myself from the label atheist. The more I see things like this, the more I feel that agnosticism is my preferred home turf. Sometimes, I even find myself wanting to believe in a deity just to piss off some of my more obnoxious atheist compatriots. […]

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