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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be godless

I saw this over on Kevin Drum's blog. Apparently, atheists are the most unpopular minority in America.

There's a longer entry in me about how much I loathe organized religion, and when I do it, I'll probably tie it to the current meme going around the lefty blogs about how important it is for the Democratic Party to let the voters know that they're all deeply religious too -- a sentiment that, frankly, fills me with revulsion and makes me wish I could pull up stakes for a more sensible, rational planet where the native race has long since conquered the need to use disciplined superstitious terror as a tool for the maintenance of socially acceptable behavior among the masses.

Having said that, I want to note that I myself am not an atheist; in fact, I regard atheism as being no less a religion than Islam or Catholicism. Implicit and inarguable belief in a negative presumption that cannot be proven like the non-existence of God is as much an article of faith as the holiness of Ramadan or the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit, and atheists are also pretty organized. And while they're people I'd be much more comfortable eating lunch with than, you know, the average Baptist, still, I suspect they'd stop being comfortable for me once they found out I had a few articles of faith of my own -- like my nebulous but firm belief in Intelligent Design (I think the reality we see around us is an artifact; I just don't claim any insight or knowledge at all as to Who, What, Why, When, or How it was created), my equally vague but firm belief in an immortal soul and life after death, and my insistence that there is some greater meaning to and reason for human existence. The atheists of my experience insist with fanatical vehemence that we're all just complex chemicals, the world is just a lot of crap thrown together at random, that there is nothing beyond materialism, there is no rhyme and no reason, that life, even self aware, sentient life, is the result of a random coincidence of physics, and worse, most of them seem to think (just like all their co-religionists) that anyone who disagrees with any of their articles of faith is a deluded child.

So I'm not an atheist myself. I'm not sure what I am; sort of a half assed agnostic with a few very personal beliefs I myself cannot support with logic or reason.

I'm rambling all over the place. I suppose, if I have a point to make, it's just how tired I get of living in a world that is one big hostile environment to anyone who doesn't believe in Jebus. And that very much includes the tireseome requirement of trying to discern which candidate is being more hypocritical about his or her mandatory profession of faith in Jebus, so I can vote for the bigger liar.

Which may, I'm realizing, be one big reason I responded with such hostility to Julia's very reasonable suggestion that I should work on someone's political campaign. I honestly don't think I could stomach working for someone who went to church every Sunday... and I'm pretty sure anyone who isn't in a Christian church every Sunday has no shot at getting elected anywhere in America.

Regardless of what many believe, there is no actual separation of Church and State in the Constitution. The Constitution's sum total on the subject of religion is found in the First Amendment -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". While I sincerely and avidly wish there was more, something that would actually force a legal separation of religious belief from civic duty, there really isn't.

This is typical of our Constitution, which was written for the express purpose of limiting governmental intrusion into the private sphere. In this case, however, I wish the founders had paid a bit more attention to protecting government from the intrusions of various sources of corruption and undue influence, like organized religion. I'm not sure how I'd specifically word that clause, but I might tack on the phrase "Religious faith shall be considered an entirely private matter, which government shall not intrude on, and which no government official or United States authority may profess or demonstrate a bias against or towards while executing the duties of their office, or seeking to attain such office".

I know, I know. What have I been smoking, and do I have any left over to share? Still, everybody has a dream.


At 1:15 PM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

We've had the discussion about atheism before, so we know we have different definitions for it. In the instances where I might call myself an atheist I am perfectly willing to admit that I have no definitive proof either way, but that empirically and rationally I am viewing the universe and have the operating presumption that there is no Supreme Being/Creator. When I apply "atheist" to myself I am simply saying I am without God; I see the concept of God as at best a philosophical placeholder. In all the years of discussions with people I have yet to conceive of a situation that would give me reason to change my mind on this view of the universe.

Looking over the official atheism site you linked I see that she did (in the 1962 speech by O'Hair) chose some unfortunate language that could be interpeted as pigheaded:

"We need to know upon what we base ourselves. Atheism is based upon a materialist philosophy, which holds that nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists. But there are those who deny this, who assert that only mind or idea or spirit is primary. This question of the relation of the human mind to material being is one of the fundamental questions dealt with by all philosophers, however satisfactorily."

Reading beyond that point, though, and then rolling back for a second look, we see that this can also easily and directly be interpreted as the statement that there is no supernatural because all phenomena are natural. We may not yet know mechanisms, but they're there to be discovered and mastered. This is the central, sole article of faith present in science.

This leaves us with an expandable envelope of "materialism" which can grow to encompass what currently seems immaterial. If one accepts this interpretation, then I could call myself an atheist. I'd simply never capitalize it unless it was the first word in a sentence, and no one had better expect me to put something in the collection plate.

Issues of origins of the matter and energy in the universe and the beginnings of life are huge ones we're not going to have definitive answers for.

My perspective remains that were I to say this requires a Creator it would be the equivalent of saying "I give up," in which case I may as well start believing that one or more of the top magicians in the world really do have supernatural powers since I can't explain how they accomplish some of what they do. That's my choice, and it's one that leaves a big Unknown in place -- but I'm comfortable with that. If there's a Creator behind this he's no Supreme Being, which still leaves open the question of where our creator came from. I don't have a reason to go down the path of floating the Earth in a water-filled basin resting on the back of a turtle swimming in a sea residing in a huge, golden chalice... Something, ultimately, has to exist and function simply because it exists and functions.

Mechanisms of self-organization in the nature of living chemistry are one of the many things science is in the pursuit of understanding. The derisive use of the word "random" is solely that, intended to deride. It's not an infinite number of monkeys pounding away at an infinite number of typewriters. Those are better seen as word processors, because the universe is composed of things with distinct properties; some things fit together, some don't. Some better than others. It's a natural, self-correcting grammar, and it works because it works.

Some sit in wonder of how the proportions of elements on Earth, distance from and properties of Sol, etc. are so vital to life being here and see the hand of God. Some of us look at it from the other end and note that where such things didn't come together in the universe there's no one to sit in wonder of why it didn't work there.

Issues of "greater meaning" are largely irrelevant to me, as I don't see where it's going to make a difference. I do appreciate you're putting it in those terms rather than simply leaving it at Meaning, the way many do, as a universal absolute. Either way, though, even if there is some higher power's design we're a part of, I have no interest in the work of art He wishes me to be a pixel in. If we're part of a vast, sentient universe, then like a tiny cell in a vast body that suddenly, somehow gained self awareness, I am interested in my own wellbeing, not in sacrificing myself for the benefit of some larger body. I don't care about the wellbeing of the body beyond what affects me. The interests of the body are not mine. I suppose that makes me cancer.

Meaning is our own decision. Our own creation. The issue of Meaning brings us back to the issue of God, and, like God, Meaning is a matter of human comfort. God is a creation of man (and probably other sentient life somewhere in the universe) because God validates our existence (Meaning) and gives those who Have something to invoke to keep those who Have Not in line. Ultimately, man would create God as an act of self-aggrandizement. To give himself Meaning.

All such decisions are for each of us to make, likely several times over and often with different results over the course of a lifetime. The debates concerning them are with few exceptions, at best, recreational. At their worst they lead to harm. My appetites for them are small and infrequent these days, so especially since this is your blog I won't be returning to the issue in this thread. I've had my say.

Certainly, with respect to the more specific issue you've raised concerning a distaste for the de facto links between government and religion in this country, that's something we're both bothered by.

At 4:12 PM , Anonymous Nate said...

Dangerous waters we brave, for friends and acquaintances...

I have to say that I do respect anyone courageous enough to say 'I don't know.' Admitting where we fall short is the beginning of wisdom, and therefore acknowledged agnostics will always have my respect and understanding.

Most atheists (and I am aware that I just declared a generalization, so I do so accepting and understanding that it will not apply to everyone in the category of atheist) base their beliefs about the universe on lines of reasoning very similar if not identical to "...empirically and rationally I am viewing the universe and have the operating presumption that there is no Supreme Being/Creator." What they, but obviously not Mike, fail to realise is that they are presuming. Mike realises that he has "no definitive proof either way", and that that makes his assumptions about the universe nothing more than assumptions. That's pretty much the definition of agnostic: 'I don't know.'

Mike is an agnostic, a really good one too. It's just that the terms have been so muddied by use by people with poor understanding of them that wrong connotations have been associated with them, that agnostic has been confused with organized faith, and atheist has been confused with total lack of faith. 'Atheist' is incorrectly viewed as 'without faith', rather than as 'faith in the non-existence of a god or gods'.

Me, I go the other way. I'm a Christian by belief. When I was a child, I would have proudly identified myself as a Jehovah's Witness. Today, I just view myself as a fundamentalist Christian, not in the erroneous connotation of fundamentalist as a raving fanatic, but rather as one who views organized religion as a corrupt human institution and believes that only in personal study and contemplation can a rapport with Jehovah be established through His Son's intervention.

I can completely understand why perfectly sane and rational people can reject something I regard as an obvious truth. So much is being done, and has been done, in the last two millennia of history to discredit Christ's teachings. The most visible self-proclaimed proponents of his teachings are visibly corrupt and wicked. Many charlatans openly prey upon the gullible in his and his Father's names. Corrupt religious leaders have whipped (and do whip) their followers into frenzies against others with bloody results.

But the one thing that people who base their dismissal of Christianity upon these things are neglecting, is that every one of these acts is completely against the teachings of the Bible, and that therefore those practicing these things, are not Christians. The Bible states that wolves will come amongst the fold and do great harm, that those 'appearing as angels of light' will poison the waters of life, turning them to Wormwood. But it also says that even as a fine tree produces fine fruit, and will be kept by the gardener, a rotten tree produces rotten fruit, and will be cut down and cast upon the fire. Much like the natural processes that He set into being which have self-correcting measures, Christianity has an immune system too. Anyone with enough faith in God to follow it will see that corrupt religious leaders should not be followed, and abandon them. Those too weak to walk alone in righteousness will follow them to destruction. (Mind you, I'm not of the belief that I'm leading anyone anywhere. I got problems of my own...)

As far as religious intrusion into secular matters goes, well, I'll let Jesus sum up my opinion of that:

"My kingdom is no part of this earth."

Christians aren't supposed to involve themselves in the politics of this world. I don't think, therefore, that a profession of Christian faith by any putative political candidate should be viewed as anything but a reason to handle his section of the ballot with tongs and gloves. A 'Chistian politician' is a walking contradiction.

...and that's all I have to say about that.

At 4:36 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

Fucko, what a cage match! The Hardcore Atheist in this corner, the Devout Fundamentalist in that one! Step right up, plonk down your cash, get your tickets, lay your bets!

Say, anybody got a Buddhist we can lower in on a wire?

Beyond that, I said all I wanted to say in the entry. But I want a good, clean fight, and no baseball bats, guys.

At 10:20 PM , Anonymous Nate said...

SWEET LITTLE OLD LADY IN THE STANDS: "Give him the chair!! Give him the Chair!!"

"Say, anybody got a Buddhist we can lower in on a wire?"

Priceless. Why aren't you on Jay Leno's or David Letterman's writing staff again?

A cage match? That's not what I was looking for, and I hope Mike doesn't take what I said as some sort of insult or challenge. I meant it in an at the very least respectful, if not actualy complimentary (And I was going for complimentary!) way.

He himself admits he has a different definition of atheist than the typical one. I just happen to believe that his alternate definition fits agnostic rather nicely. Hardly fightin' woids.

At 10:25 AM , Blogger Opus P. Penguin said...

If something intelligent set this whole ball of wax into motion, I've yet to see proof.

Therefore I definitely stand up and say "I don't know."

But I'm still fascinated by creation myths, and that so many cultures' myths use common symbolism: the serpent, the tree of life, paradise...but then it could also be like a global game of telephone. Since we all climbed from the same ooze and went our separate ways, it could have developed out of out of our common need to explain the unexplained, like you alluded to, Highlander. Or developed out of the common roots, like languages, accents, cultural norms, etc.

What really made me bitter is that all my neighbors wanted the bunch of us to join the Moose lodge so we could get together at this cool club on the river and drink cheap beer on a Friday night, but according to the rules, you had to believe in order to be a member. And I'd never sell myself out for cheap beer.

At 12:24 AM , Blogger CalvinPitt said...

Religion has always been a difficult area for me. My parents raised me as some sort of Christian, though my grandmother was the only one taking me to church. I think after the first few visits, I stopped listening, because I felt I'd gotten the important parts of the religion. I felt you were supposed to try and help people, to be accepting of others, and if you couldn't do either, then at least don't antagonize them.

Unfortunately, by high school, I'd fallen into the "Religion is Stupid" Realm, and ridiculed it frequently. This included a 90 minute "discussion" of religion with my friend Jesse. I put discussion in quotes because he remained calm, and actually discussed. I tried to bait him, and generally made an idiot out of myself. Fortunately, he applied some of those Christian principles and forgave me. Even continued to help me with calculus.

As of now, I guess Calvin the graduate biology student is agnostic. I don't know whether any sort of higher power exists. I certainly can't explain how the universe was formed, or how exactly life began on Earth. I know that I'd prefer for there not to be a Guiding Hand, because once you accept that idea, where does one draw the line on that Greater Power's influence? I'm sure a better person would say "The Greater Power created the universe for us to live in it. HOW we live in it is up to us." Still, I have this sneaking suspicion I'd start trying to blame failure in my life on that power, like me wrecking my car was destined to occur. I doubt I'd believe it, but I might still try to say it. At the very least, I make it a point not to belittle others faiths now, to an extent. Occasionally, I see someone on TV, saying something that seems so monumentally stupid to me, I just have to poke fun at it. And I have a difficult time being tolerant of people who aren't tolerant of others.

My feeling on religion, or belief systems in general, is that as long as you aren't doing harm to others -primarily physical, but I'd include trying to ruin people's self-esteem, like I guess I was with my friend Jesse - then I'm fine with it. If being Baptist, or Orthodox Jew, or whatever helps you live a life where you help people, then more power to you. So really, a politician's religious beliefs are pretty irrelevant to me. The important thing is how they plan to use the power of their position to make the world, or at least the area they represent, a better place.

At 9:13 AM , Blogger AaA said...

Oh well, looks like I ruined a perfectly good cage match-in-the-making.



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