Gentle Reader, for an unknown reason my thoughts have turned toward the philosophy of religion and toward my own beliefs on the matter. My understanding of faith is belief in the absence of evidence. I obviously can’t prove that reading this entire post carefully is worth your time, but I ask it of you anyway. If we are close, long-time friends and any of this still comes as a surprise, I beg you to give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t feel offended: in the specific example of which I’m thinking, we’ve been friends longer than I have been able to say the words “I am an atheist” even to myself, and our friendship means more to me than keeping you posted on belief changes that I believed would strain that friendship for you, perhaps past the breaking point, at the relatively young age at which I got honest with myself about what I really believe.
I have raised my children to believe that there is nothing worse than lying, and it is vital for me to live by what I teach my children, and, conversely, to teach them by example. A lie of omission is no less a lie, and fear of how the hearer will respond to the truth is no justification.
Yes, this IS an odd time, but I hope that my friends know better than to think that my intent is to insult or offend.
Below is a communication I sent to a friend who I came to know relatively recently and whose friendship and wisdom I came to value immediately. In it, I refer to Pascal’s Wager and the high value I place on my own intellectual integrity. Allowing others to simply assume what they will about my beliefs on religion doesn’t seem like the action of someone who values his intellectual integrity so highly, does it?
I believe that all people have a spiritual side, and we have for thousands upon thousands of years…even prior to the Neolithic Revolution, back when our species still lived as hunter/gatherers, driven by the annual cycles by which our wild food crops became ripe and edible. In every era, that which cannot be explained by the practical knowledge of the day, which we’ll call “science” or “nature” for succinctness, was attributed to the supernatural (again, “gods” or “magic,” for brevity). Given that we as a species have existed for thousands and thousands of years, and that we did not develop the ability to directly see things that were much smaller or much larger than ourselves until about 500 years ago, it was natural that, to paraphrase badly, whatever could not be explained by science was attributed to magic and the gods. Many people whose spiritual nature is expressed through religion may look at the birth of a child or a majestic mountain view and see these as “proof” of the supernatural. My having the same experiences fills me with awe, too, even though I see it as “nature just doing its thing.” My unaccounted-for spiritual (for want of a better-understood, more precise word) feeling in these situations made me question everything else I believe about the way nature and logic work…until I remembered something unstated that I consider an axiom: regardless of what we BELIEVE, myself included, we don’t KNOW everything about ourselves or the universe. The honest among us will be the first to distinguish between our beliefs about the universe and our knowledge about it. Knowing the science and STILL being able to experience the sense of wonder is A Very Good Thing, I think.
For my Christian friends, with all my heart I wish you a wondrous and Merry Christmas.
For those looking around for the unfriend button, or on the ground for the first stone, please take a moment to read my message to my friend, in full.
Dear (my valued friend whose name I have omitted for your privacy),
You might have surmised that we don’t share the same religious belief. That doesn’t cause me any discomfort, and I want to humbly and respectfully take the initiative to ensure that it doesn’t cause you any, either.
I am an atheist, and I have been for as long as I can remember throughout my adult life. The word “atheist” is so over- and misused that it doesn’t convey any reliable meaning, so I shall elaborate. I am not what I call a “militant atheist” – a kid who mistakes belief for knowledge and thinks he knows better than the rest of the world…or who has suffered some tragedy and reacts by railing against his religious belief system. I was raised Baptist as a child, though I never believed that what I was told was literally (or even figuratively) true. It’s just that, prior to my late teens, I felt that I wasn’t free to assert what I DID believe. Part of that was apprehension about the ramifications with my family.
I explored other religions, particularly Buddhism, as a young adult, but ultimately I reached the same stumbling point – the supernatural element.
To summarize my worldview, when I look at physics and biology, I believe that everything that exists can be explained by the laws of nature and logic, without a need for some supernatural force. I also believe that the laws of nature and the laws of logic tend to rule out the existence of a being with the attributes of the Christian God. Of course, it is impossible to KNOW that God (or the enlightened Buddha, etc.) does not exist, known as proving a universal negative, because one cannot see every nook and cranny of existence at the same time.
I believe that the vast majority of those who believe in a religious worldview learned their beliefs from their parents and the culture in which they happen to be born. They never pause to question why they believe as they do. That’s understandable – religion is a great comfort, and its absence can get cold and lonely.
That sums up what I BELIEVE. I freely admit that I could be wrong and you could be right.
Pascal, in his famous Wager, would argue that I should conduct myself as though I am a Christian, because I have everything to gain and little to lose if Christianity is fact, and I have (in his view) lost nothing in life or death if atheism is fact.
If I could respond to Pascal, I would say that my intellectual integrity is a very high price to pay in order to go through the motions of being a Christian, and that doing so would be an affront, not only to my beliefs, but to yours, as well.
I live a life of integrity, as best I can. I strive to conduct myself in accordance with ETHICAL teachings that Jesus, Siddharta Gautama (the man who became the Buddha), and the Dalai Lama would recognize and, I believe, approve of.
Beyond that, I will take my chances, with my eyes open, if my beliefs turn out to be erroneous.
Finally, I don’t teach my beliefs to my children. I try to keep them from forming ANY beliefs about religion until they are old enough to think rationally, weigh evidence, and articulate why they believe what they believe.
I just want to be truly understood, and I want there to be no discomfort between us if the topic comes up. As I said publicly (and tell my grandmother repeatedly), it doesn’t bother me in the least if someone says they are praying for me. I take any well-wishes in the good faith in which they’re intended, and as damaged as I am, I’ll take all the help I can get!
And yes, when my son was gravely ill with meningitis as an infant, I prayed to God, Allah, Buddha, every benevolent Hindu, Greek, or Mayan god I could think of, along with the Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge!
I deeply hope I haven’t overstepped any bounds or your comfort level.
With love and respect,
“In the whole wide world there’s no magic place,
So you might as well rise and put on your bravest face.”
– Neil Peart/Rush, “Bravest Face”