Atheism: Part One of Many

I’ve been an atheist for almost all my life. At least since fourth grade I have positively disbelieved in any god, and I can’t recall any time when I’ve positively believed in one. My reasons for my beliefs can be summarized no more eloquently than by Greta Christina, whose terrific blog I’ve gotten lost on for hours, crying my secular electronic amen. There’s definitely more than one post I could write on this topic; we’ll see how far I get today. I don’t particularly want to spark a debate here about god or atheism, because in truth I’m pretty over it (though I suppose if you really just feel like you have to, and you were kind enough to read my blog in the first place, then do what you feel).

I suppose I should begin by relating my notions, in brief:

  1. Religion’s explanations for why the universe is the way it is are completely unsatisfactory to me.
  2. Human motives for inventing religion seem all too clear.
  3. Religion’s own evidence for its own veracity is dubious (to put it charitably) and only seems to reinforce point #2.
  4. There are indeed inexplicable phenomena in our world and our human experience that seem to hint at something supernatural or divine, but
    • We don’t need to invent explanations for what we don’t yet and might never understand; wonder and inquisitiveness are adequate and satisfying responses;
    • also, see point #1;
    • these phenomena are often documented only through intense, and highly subjective, personal experience. This does not invalidate the account outright, but many equally credible individuals can have mutually contradictory personal experiences. Thus, I contend that personal experiences, however intense, can only reveal personal truth, not universal truth. To contend that one’s own revelation is more profound than someone else’s is downright solipsistic.
  5. Most importantly, I believe (as Adam once put it in conversation) that religion has had, and continues to have, a net negative effect on the world.

There are also a number of ways in which I stray from a sort of atheist orthodoxy that exists. For one thing, I do see my atheism as a belief and therefore fallible. This isn’t me wavering, it’s me being intellectual humble, recognizing the limits of my own reason and senses but still feeling quite comfortable drawing a rational conclusion. For another, I do not join in the cry for “the end of faith”, which strikes me as foolishly absolute. A majority of the world’s population continues to believe in some sort of god, even after five hundred years of scientific thought. While I believe this has led more people to embrace atheism bravely, and hope this will continue, I’m not about to rely on winning over believers to solve all our problems stemming from religion, any more than I would advocate abstinence-only sex ed for teens, or ‘defeating evil‘ as a foreign policy.

What strikes me as more realistic, civil and generally more effective is to forge natural alliances with progressive voices in communities of faith, so that they might be empowered to transform their institutions into ones that are less oppressive, divisive, exclusionary and/or destructive. My progressive Christian friend Tom Ryberg argued quite persuasively that he didn’t feel that his ilk should concede the entirety of Christian tradition and legacy to its ugliest elements, which I found very valid; I felt similarly about this country when Bush was in office.

Just as Point #5 above is the most important guiding principle in my own search for truth, it’s also critical to my politics in regards to believers and other atheists. I am an opponent of religion because of the harm it’s caused, which I believe (not without sadness) outweighs the positive effects (while still being grateful for those cases). But aside from preventing or relieving suffering and serving justice, I really couldn’t care less what you believe about the universe. This will come back when I write about the intersection of atheism activism and anti-Muslim/anti-Arab racism and oppression.

But I think I’m about done for the day. Eventually I’m going to write something about the role of god and religion in songwriting (tying this whole discourse into this blog’s theme a little better); how and why I still enjoy religious art and music; the false dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural; and the intersection of atheism activism and anti-Muslim/anti-Arab racism and oppression.

My first non-music related blog post! That was kind of fun.

4 thoughts on “Atheism: Part One of Many

  1. Hey Shareef,

    This is shaping into a great conversation, one which I deeply appreciate! Keep your thoughts coming, please. Here are a couple of mine:

    As a Christian, I welcome the friendship and partnership of like-minded and like-hearted people of faith and atheists alike, whether over beer or on the front lines. Specifically, I gladly align myself with you to the cause of building a just world, even and especially insofar as that means resisting oppression caused by people of faith.
    You affirm that religion need not be stamped out altogether. I want to celebrate that (or “add my Amen,” if you will)! It seems a uniquely “white” and “Western” method of problem-solving to cram all the diversity of the world’s religious beliefs and practices into the “hogwash” box and advocate the singular, universal “solution” of ending all religion. But that is another rant for another time.
    Nonetheless, as per #5, you seem to find it important to think in terms of religions as having been a “net negative” in the history of the world. Since you presumably don’t conclude that religion should be stamped out, why is it important to try to evaluate the net worth of religion overall (which seems a very subjective and contestable task)? From my vantage point, this outlook is more divisive than useful, given that even if it were true, the reality of a “net negative” when it comes to religion wouldn’t seem to have much bearing on on the beliefs and practices of individuals. Or does it?

    Thanks, friend. I hope the coming new year is finding you well.


    • Tom,

      I’ve said as much before, but I’ll say it again: if more people of faith were as open-minded and open-hearted as you, I’d feel better about the state of things. I’m quite glad and proud to be allied with folks like you. As I wrote, there’ll be more entries on this topic to follow (but maybe not right away, because I do kind of want to have music be a semi-constant theme here). But, a brief response.

      First, I would like to hear more of what you have to say about the privileged position of those who would advocate the end of faith; I think there’s some truth to that at least globally, even as I feel that in this country atheists are certainly marginalized, especially in the political sphere. This is why, despite the fact that folks like Sam Harris (or in a less intellectual context, Bill Maher) are often perceived as jerks, I am glad that ‘atheist’ is emerging as a more visible and acceptable identity in the public arena; I do believe there are quite a lot of us ‘in the closet’ or calling themselves agnostic when truly they believe something stronger.

      I guess I should say that it’s not so much that I don’t think religion should be stamped out; I just think it’s unlikely that it could. I do hope that the widespread acceptance of scientific thought (by which I mean not simply the findings of science, but the means of understanding the world through testable and falsifiable hypotheses) will over time help people feel less need for religion. Because at the end of the day, I do think religion does our intellect a disservice (though as I intend to elaborate in a future post, that’s far from my main concern on the topic).

      As far as evaluating the net effect of religion, the most immediate and useful reason I can give for handing down this judgment is that its inverse (“religion has a net positive effect on the world”) is one of the most common defenses of religion, and one frequently used to stifle and silence atheists and our ideas in the public conversation. It often comes in the form of “Why do you care, religion helps people feel good / deal with hardship / become better people” coupled with a quasi-civil “shut up, that’s why” statement. The first statement of course holds some truth, and it also has an answer/alternative from our side; there are many ways people can improve their lives and those of others without religion and all the intellectual and ethical problems that accompany it. But because most religious people are not as non-judgmental, conscientious, and brave enough to hear criticism as you are, Tom, I believe it matters very much that I offer an answer to this evaluative question.

      Thanks, as always, for participating in the debate, and doing so with kindness.


  2. Pingback: Why I love (some) religious music. « No Gods Before Music

  3. Pingback: Atheist Activism and the Broader Fight for Global Social Justice « No Gods Before Music

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