Thoughts on Anti-theism

I am a fan of the patheos atheist channel, which recently changed names to be patheos “nonreligious.”  Recently I’ve been noticing a conversation about anti-theism, mainly starting with a post on Barrier Breaker (for some of the posts I’ve read on patheos and other places, click here, here, or here; though there are many posts about anti-theism I’m finding now such as on Barrier Breaker and The Gaytheist Manifesto that I haven’t read yet).

To summarize, Martin Hughes of Barrier Breaker states that he is not anti-theist anymore.  He sees and acknowledges some of the harm religion does, but also sees the comfort it provides to people in times of stress.  I feel like the last paragraph sums up his point well (noting that “the work” he mentions is the work of figuring out how to best love and care for others):

I think it’s important to say here that I’m not trying to tell you that you have to do this work. I’m saying that I’ve come to a point in my life where I have to do it. Atheism — the mere denial of God — was the entry, for me, into a life in which I cared about people more. It’s the Truth, but it matters, in my current perspective, only insofar as it can help me work towards a more understanding, loving world that enriches our lives. Perhaps that does, indeed, require getting rid of God. But if it does, I want to do it in a way that ensures people’s lives are enriched, that they are being understood and cared for, and that they have a home in the hearts of people who they know have given them reason to care about themselves and others.

In other words, for him, being anti-theist can get in the way of the work towards a more understanding, loving world, and Martin doesn’t want to fight that anymore.  He takes a different direction in later posts, admitting that recently he prayed and found comfort in the idea of god, even while being an atheist, which I think is an interesting part of the conversation as well.

The “On the Margin of Error” blogger Kaveh Mousavi writes that this response is out of line, saying that the attitude is condescending (“I can see that you need God to get through the tough times, poor you”) and not a good solution.  Stephanie Zvan offers a good reason to stay in the anti-theist movement (the actions “like these” refer to discriminating against groups of people, and other unethical actions taken because “God said so”):

The reason I continue to speak up as an anti-theist is that it takes the ethical muddles many people face in situations like these and makes them crystal clear. We already believe religious belief isn’t an appropriate reason for actions like these. Explaining why requires us to tackle religion head-on. It requires us to undermine and deny its ultimate authority.

Add this to the thoughts stirring in my head from reading Faith vs. Fact, and I found that I wanted to determine my own position on the anti-theism scale.

Where Do I Stand?

Wikipedia states that in secular contexts, anti-theism “typically refers to direct opposition to organized religion or to the belief in any deity.”  I am not very educated in this matter, but it’s my impression that anti-theists often make several points:

  • religion is a net harm to societies and individuals
  • belief in god/gods in harmful
  • belief in god/gods can cause people to act in unethical ways when they otherwise would not

I keep going back to my thoughts about faith, and that what I really have a problem with is faith that causes people to deny facts and evidence, or believe things without evidence.

Also, I noticed Stephanie Zvan mentions in her article, “It’s fashionable these days to talk about “growing out of” anti-theism, as though that were a stage of leaving religion.”  I found that interesting because I feel like I am becoming more anti-theist as I further explore and understand my secular world-view.  When I first became an atheist, I was very much in a stage of “live and let live.”  I find myself becoming more critical of religion and faith as I read, question, and understand more about the world from a secular point of view.

I think that promoting belief in things unseen and un-testable is harmful.  I think that encouraging people to listen to and respect an ultimate authority is harmful.  I feel like to attack “religion” is too broad, and also too narrow.  It is too broad in that it’s difficult to evaluate all religions as they affect all societies.  It’s too narrow in that religion is not the only source of promotion of blind faith.

Attacking the belief in God is a more gray area for me personally.  In some ways, it is clear: churches promoting the belief in a God who sends people to hell, who ordered the genocide of thousands of people in ancient times, who stated that if you were raped you must marry your rapist or else be put to death – this is a huge problem.  This is a deplorable authority figure who should never be respected, much less worshiped. On the other hand, what about personal gods who accept you for who you are, who will guide you in the small ways, who ensures that there is a plan for your life?  My problem with that is that there really is no evidence for such a being (or, if there is, do you really want to be involved with a deity who only picks certain people to have happy lives, and lets other people die of cancer when they are children?).

And, how does this affect my interactions with my friends and family who believe in God?  Some of these people are people I have a lot of respect for.  My aunt who works with a Christian youth group and donates to support shelters for homeless LGBT+ youth.  My family members who are pastors in Christian churches that are welcoming and accepting, and who clearly show love and kindness to all they meet.  Even my mom, even though we have huge ideological differences, I respect that she makes time each week to volunteer at a homeless shelter for men in her community.

Where does that leave me?

I am anti-blind faith. Belief in energy, in homeopathic medicine, in an afterlife, in 7 day creationism, in souls – all of this is against current evidence, and not all of it falls under the umbrella of “religion.”

I am anti-unyielding respect for authority figures.  God, the president, policemen, parents – these people do not deserve respect just for their position, but rather for their character and capability of doing the job.  If you look at the world and evaluate how an all-powerful God is doing, you have to say there’s a lot he could do to improve conditions down here.  This could even extend to organizations, such as churches.  Churches do not deserve my respect just because they are churches.

But

I keep coming back to wanting to be a more loving, understanding, compassionate, and accepting person.  In my small way, I hope to make the world a better place.  I think that calling out harmful beliefs will help make the world better, but not if it’s at the expense of my close relationships.

This is why I acknowledge: religion can help with suffering.  Religious experiences, while I don’t think there is anything supernatural about them, are real human emotional experiences that matter.  Belief in god and prayer can help during the tough times.

I want to learn to acknowledge these experiences, and maybe, slowly and gently, to nudge in the direction of reason, logic, and non-supernatural solutions to life’s big emotional struggles.

There’s a time and place for the cold hard truth, but that’s not always what gets people.  In the end, acknowledgement of real experiences, validation of emotions, and gentle pushes are often what help people change their minds.

Does that make me anti-theist?  I’m not sure, and it’s not a big area of concern for me at the moment.  I think what is more important for me is to find the balance between calling out where religion and religious belief is being harmful, while also acknowledging the validity of individual’s experiences and spreading the good news that an atheist’s life can be full of comfort, happiness, joy, and rich emotional experiences.

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