My Life as an Atheist Outcast

Nice Atheist GirlI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Andrea has become quite the atheist. She is now going by Nice Atheist Girl. It all started with a conversation we had. I mention it mostly because it is so rare that Andrea finds any idea I have compelling. This is in stark contrast to the way I feel about her, which is basically that if she just decided to work on even her weakest ideas, she would quickly become an internet phenom. Anyway, we were talking about her son who is seeing a Catholic girl. And I made a joke that she ought to be like a Jewish mother, “Why can’t you meet a nice atheist girl?” Before you know it, I’m in charge of making every conceivable change to her new website, which is admittedly really good.

The thing about Andrea’s atheism is that it is so much more pure than mine. For me, atheism is a very complicated thing that is deeply related to what most people would call spiritualism. And indeed, I think that I commune far more profoundly with “God” than almost any Christian I know. Andrea has no tolerance for this kind of nonsense. To her, I think, atheism isn’t so much a rejection of God as it is a rejection of Christianity. And if I could look at it that way, I would be completely on board. Because Christianity is a laughable religion. (Sorry all my Christian friends!) But I feel just as strongly that the nature of existence is a paradox. So my mind reels.

What this means is that most atheists think I’m a squishy kind of proto-agnostic. And that’s not true at all! As far as I’m concerned, most of them are very much like the Christians I talk about. They don’t really engage in the debate at a serious level. But at least such atheists understand that they aren’t engaging. They know that they are simply defining God out of the realm of what is knowable. (Quite rightly!) Christians and other theists think of God as some super powerful friend or father figure in the sky. But the main thing is that atheists don’t much care of my form of atheism. They think of it the way that Baptists think of Unitarians.

To be honest, I feel a lot like the Terry Eagleton of atheism. I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere. (Except probably with Eagleton who considers himself a Christian while no one else does!) So I was encouraged this evening when Andrea sent me a a link to an Abby Ohlheiser article, A Short History of Richard Dawkins vs The Internet. It came along with a text, “It seems that Richard Dawkins is a bit of an asshole.” Being the ever faithful friend, I texted back, “I told you that!” But she said she didn’t know how bad he was. Well, it turns out that I didn’t either.

But here’s the ironic part. I actually kind of agree with Dawkins on his major point. I just don’t think he was making the point well. So I’m going to give it a try here. Religion really isn’t a problem. The key is that you can’t take it that seriously. In the Middle Ages, Islam was an incredibly liberal religion. Now, it is very conservative, by and large. The fundamentalists are in control. That’s a problem. And it’s a problem that hurts all Muslims.

Where I differ from Dawkins is in his focus. It’s true that Islam is coming out of a period of fundamentalism. But I actually think the trend is really good. The Mulsims are becoming more liberal and in another hundred years, I think it will be a force for good. Christianity (maybe with the exception of Catholicism—we’ll see) is moving in the opposite direction. In the United States, 36% of the population thinks that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and doesn’t believe in evolution. In the United Kingdom, the number is only 25%, but another 20% believe in Intelligent Design. Now I understand that there are are a lot of scary Muslims in the world. But shouldn’t Dawkins be more concerned about the bad trends at home?

The article itself gets much worse, with stuff that is an outgrowth of my long held negative opinions about Richard Dawkins. He is very much a man of his social class. And I very much understand: Skepchick is outside his comfort zone. And, most sadly, outside the comfort zone of most male (which is to say simple “most”) “new” atheists. As I discussed a few weeks ago, CJ Werleman quite accurately described the atheist movement as “white, middle class, intellectually smug and mostly apolitical.” But that apolitical part of it is based on the fact that the status quo benefits them. And the idea that women might have a few complaints of their own rankles them.

Of course, Dawkins argument is way beyond the pale. Basically, he claims that western women have nothing to complain about because their clitorises have not been cut off. I’m serious! All I can think is that he was drunk. Because even I don’t think that lowly of him.

Regardless of all this, I continue to find that I mostly agree with atheists. By this I mean “there is no God” and not “you can only complain after an honor killing.” But I still feel very much on the margins of the movement—a man who doesn’t believe in God but understands why people would. There is something good about my position. I’m kind of like the interfaith atheist, or the “intertheist,” if you prefer. And I think the atheist movement could learn a few things from me. Not as much as the theists could. But still.

11 thoughts on “My Life as an Atheist Outcast

  1. We’d just discussed Sagan, and Dawkins has some mad skills as a scientific popularizer. I really enjoyed his "The Ancestor’s Tale," which just goes back and back in time and describes fascinating extinct creatures. The farther back it goes, the stranger and more amazing the creatures get.

    But — he can also be insufferably arrogant, even in his popular-science books. "The Blind Watchmaker" was good, yet had more than one passage which amounted to Dawkins saying, "oh, I forgot. You’re NOT an evolutionary biologist, you stone idiot." It was really condescending in parts. I remember thinking, "dude, I’m reading your book to learn more about your field. Don’t be such an ass because I don’t know more about your field!"

    He (and Harris) could easily avoid coming off as prejudiced in a very simple way. Every time you say something bad about modern Islamic fundamentalism, say something bad about current/historical Christian fundamentalism. This is really easy to do. I do it all the time. If someone mentions how awful fundamentalists treat women in Saudi Arabia, I agree and say "ye gods, it’s terrible. Just like the way idiots in America once thought women shouldn’t vote because the Bible said they were inferior. Thank goodness our smarter people won, and let’s all hope the smart people in Saudi Arabia will win in the end."

    I don’t say, "well, Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy which took power after the dissolution of European colonialism. That monarchy has been propped up by American financial and military support since the ’40s because of strategic and resource concerns." Because they would respond, "huh?" I’m no expert in political science, but I do have a degree in it, and many others don’t. They know lots of things I don’t know instead. No point being a dick. (I can’t say for sure, but I suspect I know a bit more about Mideast political history than Dr. Dawkins.)

    Islam in America is generally trending quite liberal, for the sensible reason that American Muslims don’t want to see race-baiting Republicans elected. (And no, Dr. Dawkins, religion is not race, but right-wing Islam hatred in our country is largely about stoking resentment towards immigrants, aka racism.) That’s to the immense credit of American Muslims, who are bending over backwards to try and fit in despite ferocious intolerance. The most backwater, regressive tendencies from any interest group tend to be heightened when that group feels its very identity to be under attack. (What would the world look like today if we hadn’t overthrown Mossadegh’s basically secular democracy in ’53?)

    To put it another way. My family background is mostly French-Canadian and Irish. Generally, I don’t think about it. I identify as Oregonian/Minnesotan. But let’s say a big Fox News propaganda movement started against people of French-Canadian descent. I’d probably start watching hockey obsessively, buy a bunch of T-shirts reading "Quebec Libre!" and cuss in French at rednecks just to piss them off.

    (Incidentally, know where the descriptor "Cajun" comes from? It’s from when the Louisiana area was largely French-Canadian, "Cajun" being local shortening of "Canadian." Now you know!)

    To wrap up, I find the "atheist" antagonism towards "agnostics" to be rather humorous. After all, we’re all on the same side, and we’re in a definitely minority position. Isn’t "agnostic" really the best scientific take on the matter? No evolutionary biologist would say, for certain, that there wasn’t a stage between homo sapiens and homo erectus that featured twenty arms and the ability to expertly juggle rutabagas. They’d say, that’s exceedingly unlikely, so we’ll continue our work with the data at hand.

    Personally? I can camp out in the desert, and look at mesas where the top layer is igneous rock, and the layers beneath are sedimentary rock thrust upward via millennia of unimaginably powerful forces, and my brain absolutely melts. "Frankly," I think there must be something to the universe that we are not remotely close to understanding. It may even be that the holy nutcases who founded our major religions managed to grasp .0000001% of it.

    I can guarantee that the petty-minded, insecure, anthropomorphic gods described by those major religions did not create all reality. They might be in charge of our corner of it, though, like regional flunkies. (Shades of "Star Trek" and "Small Gods.") In which case I’m in trouble, but I’m not kissing the ring of those jerks.

  2. I probably shouldn’t respond while jangled on my morning coffee which makes me wee bit irritable, but fuck it. I know you aren’t [i]trying[/i] to be non-holier than thou, but I guess you’re a natural.

    "Regardless of all this, I continue to find that I mostly agree with atheists…[b]ut I still feel very much on the margins of the movement—[i]a man who doesn’t believe in God but understands why people would[/i]. There is something good about my position. I’m kind of like the interfaith atheist, or the "intertheist," if you prefer. And I think the atheist movement could learn a few things from me. Not as much as the theists could. But still."

    What makes you think I have no understanding of why people would believe in God? I DO. I believed in God for nearly half of my life! There was a time when I [i]did[/i] find comfort in the belief that there was a god who cared for me, probably more than my own father did. A time when I [i]did[/i] feel special because certain verses of the Bible told me so, that my relationship with God gave me worth.

    It’s true: I have never been as curious as you are. I am very comfortable not knowing the "why" of every fucking thing in the universe, however, being an atheist does not mean I lack the capacity for spiritual feelings. My atheism did not come from a simplistic, painless about-face from Christianity. That I don’t [i]need[/i] to know everything takes nothing away from my appreciation of the wonder and beauty in the universe, any more than it numbs me from the knowledge of the suffering of others.

  3. @Andrea – First, I wasn’t talking about [i]you[/i]. But you are kind of making my point. I am [i]not[/i] talking about that kind of "my invisible best friend" form of religion. I am talking about an intellectually justifiable form of pseudo-theism. In the atheist community there is a belief that religious people are all a bunch of dolts who believe in a man in the sky or something similar. And I admit, 99% of them do. Even priests I’ve talked to believe in some of the silliest things imaginable. But there are some people who think as clearly and cogently as the best atheist thinkers.

    Both sides of the discussion tend to talk past each other because most people on both sides are idiots who wouldn’t recognize a real religious idea if it bit them on the nose. (Yes, real religious ideas have teeth.) The best atheist thinkers look at my beliefs and say, "Well you’re just an atheist who refuses to give up the questions." To which I replay, "Exactly!"

    But most atheists have an attitude that the questions are invalid. If they find them personally useless, that’s fine. But it is wrong to dismiss others who can’t or won’t abandon these unanswerable questions or leverage them into some kind of belief. That’s what I was getting at.

  4. @Andrea — Yikes! Never a bad thing, though, to take a blogger’s ego down a peg or two. It’s probably a necessary correction. When all the responses are fawning (like mine), bloggers tend to behave — well — like small gods.

    There’s a lot of antagonism self-identified atheists have towards self-identified agnostics, and I simply don’t understand it. (I’d be curious to hear your perspective, if you’re willing to share.) Is it anger at the harm religion does that makes atheists think agnostics are cop-out wussies?

    I didn’t have a "simplistic, painless about-face" from Christianity either. I agonized over it; I talked to my priest, to my Episcopal school counselors, I wanted more than anything for someone to give me a reason to keep believing. (They tried.)

    And I’ve seen first-hand what evil religion does. My father went from Catholicism to fundamentalism once his small-business dreams ended up in debt and despair. Crazed fundamentalists told him this wasn’t his fault (which it wasn’t), but the work of the devil (which it wasn’t), and fundamentalism drove him mad. The poor man actually had to be taken away in handcuffs from our home, because he threatened to kill his rebellious children and wife with an axe.

    Self-described agnostics aren’t wimp versions of atheists. I hate every established religion with the full of my being; however, I don’t hate their followers. Most of those religions have done some good things, amidst the way more crummy things they’ve done. Most of their followers don’t think of religion as an intellectual system of belief, but a cultural identity. (And cultural identities have their own flaws, but can you blame anyone for having them?)

    Maybe atheists and agnostics are coming to the same conclusion via very different paths, but I think the conclusion is what’s important. Don’t pass stupid laws that harm people because you think passing those laws will make God happy. (Really, if God was all that bothered by secular schools and abortion, you’d think He might choose a means of retribution more potent than stagnant fourth-quarter housing starts and the occasional terrorist attack. How about a giant ball of flame that incinerated every sinner? I guess he’s getting lazy in his old age.)

    For fun, you might look up some descriptions of Asberger’s syndrome. It’s a condition way, way down the autism scale, one people can have and be perfectly functional, and I suspect Mr. Frank has it, just a bit.

    Also don’t hate on agnostics! We’re on your side!

  5. @JMF – Asperger; really?! I assure you, the overflowing band of neuroses that is me does not contain that particular problem. I’ve even tested myself on it. Now, obsessive self-testing [i]is[/i] in the bag!

    But let’s leave that aside. [i]I am [b]not[/b] an agnostic![/i] An agnostic is someone who thinks that we can’t known of the existence God. That is literally everyone. Even Dawkins admits that he doesn’t [i]know[/i] that God doesn’t exists, just as he doesn’t [i]know[/i] that a teapot doesn’t orbit the Sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars. Similarly, only the dullest of theists (Okay, a majority!) have no doubts about the existence of God.

    So I [i]am[/i] an atheist. And my certainty that there isn’t (for example) a "loving" God is every bit as extreme as Dawkins.

    What I was getting at over on the [url=]NAG article[/url] is that ontology is essentially mathematical for me. Or philosophical, if you prefer. But an equation doesn’t have to solvable by you to be fascinating and ultimately solvable. My ultimate insight into the nature of the universe is that we are parochial creatures. But even yahoos deserve a bit of intellectual fun.

    But what do I know? I might be suffering from Asperger syndrome. Asperger. Asperger. A-A-Asperger. Asperger. Perger-perger-perger-as. [url=]Asperger![/url]

  6. I have no problem with agnosticism, my husband and son both consider themselves agnostic and I completely understand their perspective and openness to the idea of a higher power. I guess I’m just more comfortable not clinging to the skirts of a concept that I find fairly repugnant.

    I do have a problem with the insinuation that atheism precludes philosophical questioning, human compassion, or an appreciation of the [b]mind-blowing wonder[/b] that is mathematics. Maybe the universe [i]is[/i] one unfathomable equation that can never be solved, but that does not make me a "parochial creature" incapable of comprehending the possibility. It simply doesn’t matter to me.

    @JMF I will happily share more of my garden variety atheism once I’ve calmed down ;)

  7. @Andrea – I totally get that. But it is our parochial nature that stops us from understanding why the universe (or multiverse or whatever) exists. Do atheists generally admit to this? In my experience, they don’t. And they should. For one thing, it would give them something to talk about with the theists.

    I know you have no problem with agnosticism. You have a problem with my calling the atheist community a bunch of retards. But as a group, they are far better than the Christians. And as a group, I like them and feel that I am one of them. All I’m doing in this article is the same thing I do to the Democratic Party on a daily base. Again: they are a group of retards that I am part of.

    And I assume "the [b]mind-blowing wonder[/b] that is mathematics" is a bit of delightful sarcasm aimed right between my eyes. Well aimed madam, well aimed!

  8. I just have one question. If we were once monkeys and evolved and became humans WHY THE HELL ARE THERE STILL MONKYS? lol is it not their turn to change yet? What kills me is people will believe anything as long as its considered a "fact". The government/scientist has lied to us about countless things and hidden things for years but yet people still hang on to their every word. Faithful slave I see. God bless u.

  9. @Messenger – Your comment is confused, but as best I can tell it is that you are serious. If that’s so, you are just repeating something you heard. That’s not the way natural selection works. We didn’t evolve from any animal alive today. He was closest related to the chimp. About 5 million years ago, there was an animal and that animal eventually evolved into chimps [i]and[/i] to humans.

    Also: we are not the end result of evolution. And we are no more evolved than any other species. We just seem to be the smartest animals that have evolved on this planet. And we seem to be the animals with the greatest abilities to communicate. The invention of language has greatly helped humans because every good idea we have can be passed on.

    I hope you will think about these things. I try to be respectful of this kind of stuff. But I don’t appreciate your tone. First you assume I don’t have an answer to the most basic of evolution misconceptions. And then you call me a "faithful slave." I do have a PhD in Physics. I’m not taking this kind of stuff on faith. Theists and atheists won’t get anywhere if they aren’t respectful to each other.

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