Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/13

10

Those who can not see God

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Rod Dreher has an interesting post up at The American Conservative, The Lie Of Atheism (It’s Not What You Think). He relays a scourging of the New Atheists by Damon Linker. Rod has an interesting passage which I think highlights the difference between his psychology and that of my own:

…I have never understood why people would think of atheism as a liberation (aside from those who were raised in a traumatic religious situation, I mean). When I was at my point of greatest doubt about the existence of God, the loss of Him struck me as a thing to accept with fear and trembling. If it was true, I told myself, then I would have to accept it. But, as Linker avers, what a terrible truth!

This is probably the norm. I have talked to atheists and non-atheists who have recounted to me their moment of doubt. No matter whether the moment passed, or, it propelled them toward disbelief, it was emotionally fraught. The power of this moment, and the possible falseness of deep intuitions about a transcendent God, are genuinely affecting and I do not doubt the authenticity of these experiences. But one must be careful to generalize here, as there are some for whom God is not intuitive, and never has been. I speak from personal experience, as I have never had a deep intuitive belief in God, even when indoctrinated as a child. My wife is similar. This is why I think people need to be careful when asserting that a Nietzschean understanding of atheism is the only honest understanding of atheism. No matter your philosophical stance, the authenticity of the Nietzschean frame is contingent upon one’s own psychology. If the universe was banal and Godless, there is never not “reveal” of his death and the consequences of that event.

And obviously all the concerns about personal nihilism as a universal human conundrum faced by those who abandon God are moot in the case of individuals who never knew God in their bones to begin with and exhibit normal social and ethical mores. There may still be broader philosophical issues, but those do not have the same emotional valence. And, of course, one can still assert that for most people the Nietzschean model is relevant (I would dispute this, but this is a matter more subject to empirical investigation).

14 comments

  • Walter · March 10, 2013 at 2:55 am

    Sorry if my English isn’t flawless, I am not a native speaker.

    I have 2 questions. Atheism seems to be growing in popularity a lot, wouldn’t that contradict the idea of atheists being special people, born that way, different from the religious majority in some neurobiological way?

    These days in Latin America I have seen a lot of leftist atheists behaving with regards to the embalmed corpse of Hugo Chávez the same way a bronze age Egyptian would have done with his mummified Pharao. Perhaps many of the modern atheist are just worshipping something else instead of God.

  • John · March 10, 2013 at 5:32 am

    My arrival at disbelief was not too traumatic because it came in stages. I went from faith-based Christianity to reason-based Christianity to reason-based deism to reason-based atheism over a process of many years. My Platonism prevented me from going through any sort of existential angst. There was no Earth shattering moment of liberation or despair for me–just a very slow changing of my mind.

    The social and ceremonial aspects of religion never interested me much anyway. For me the appeal of religion was theology: the use of reason to arrive at truth. I am still interested in that, except now I call it philosophy and leave God out of it.

  • phanmo · March 10, 2013 at 9:57 am

    I have never believed in the existence of a god or gods. I suppose you could say that I was raised as an atheist, as my both my parents are, but the reality is that it never even came up. I remember being at summer camp when I was 7 and friends trying to convince me that there was a god; my reaction was not to argue back but simple incomprehension along the lines of “How could you possibly believe that?”. I have never understood religion and/or the belief in god/gods, so I just prefer to avoid the subject and treat it as if it’s a food preference or allergy or something else that I don’t share. I also don’t understand the idea of having an atheistic “revelation”, it just seems so obvious to me that there isn’t a god or gods.

  • Peter · March 10, 2013 at 10:10 am

    It’s worth recalling the three main pschological responses to the “death of God.” For Nietzsche it led to a kind of exhileration and euphoria. For Kierkegaard it (or at least the death of a certain form of God) led to fear and trembling. For Sartre it ended in nausia. The main issue for each is the new set of responsibilities that follow upon the death of God. Sartre was perhaps the most consistent and unflinching. Without God there is no human nature, general or otherwise. The is and can be no morality, no “normal social and ethical mores.” Everything is permitted. We are responsible not only for the making of ourselves, but for the fashioning of all humanity, a work in progress. Yet there can be no progress, because there is no goal, no direction, no way to measure advance. We are trapped against our wills in an absurd process. If one takes the responsibilities of atheism seriously, I’m not sure how one avoids these challenges. Moreover, in the face of them, I think “fear and trembling” comes closer to the resulting psychological experience than does Mr. Hume’s, which strikes me as a rather soft and superficial treatment of the human situation. For him the non-belief in God takes on the feel of social posturing rather than a honestly developed philosophical position. The reality of the human situation is not a function of personal psychology. It’s a fact. The trick is to figure out what that fact is and then determine ones stance before it. I think Mr. Dreher’s approaches is the more honest and honorable one. (For those who wish to explore the challenges of atheism, a good starting point would be a reading of Sartre’s “Existenialism and Human Emotions.”)

  • Warren · March 10, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    I found that any belief I had as a child, slipped away,leaving me with a feeling of if there is a god fine, if not fine. No angst.

  • Mark in Spokane · March 11, 2013 at 12:24 am

    I wonder how much of the expectation for a kind of “natural religiosity” comes from a study of the classics. I am thinking here of both pagan authors like Cicero and Christian authors like St. Augustine. There seems to be a general assumption in much of classical literature that human beings naturally apprehend some kind of divine presence in the world, to quote Augustine, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”

    On a more modern note, I wonder what the lack of a perception of the divine, of the kind Mr. Hume describes, says about the theory that the human bring is wired for religious belief. Do some people lack that kind of wiring?

  • TStockmann · March 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Always good to check correlations with affinity/affiliation scores of individuals when making assertions about the universality of socialized emotions – or even the social constructs like theism that become attached to ineffable, individual experience.

  • Joseph W. · March 11, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Mark, I highly recommend this book – both informative and a very fast read. I don’t know whether older authors who wrote about a natural instinct for faith were relying on older writers or “justifying the ways of God to man” (see, God gave you a natural desire to seek Him out, so if you don’t do it it’s your fault and you deserve the Hell fire). But regardless of what motivated them, there are much better reasons for believing it now. (The chapters on !Kung Bushman and Andaman Islander religious practice are especially enlightening – to me even more so when one of my relatives joined an “ecstatic” church which sounded very familiar after reading that.)

    Knowing this makes it easier to be a non-angry atheist. Religion isn’t just a con-job that billions of fools have fallen for, no more than marriage is, but it satisfies instincts that are as natural as wanting sex and fidelity.

    Do some people lack that kind of wiring?

    Yes, just as some people lack empathy or ordinary moral instincts. And some atheists don’t lack that kind of wiring, and can have religious experiences, yet as a matter of conviction do not believe in God. Here is a colorful example.

  • The Monster from Polaris · March 11, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    For me too, getting rid of faith was a gradual process. And although one can pinpoint a certain time when I definitely abandoned it, that was no more traumatic than throwing away a bag of garbage.

  • Michael · March 11, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    I was raised in a Christian tradition and assumed myself to be a believer of sorts (even though I always hated going to church). When I became an adult, my attendance was–shall we say–sketchy. I finally stopped bothering and just didn’t even think about it. Several years later, a good friend (who happens to be a Catholic) described me as his ‘atheist friend’. It was a little jarring, but I thought about it and realized he was correct. Whatever bridge I crossed was completely without my knowledge: it just wasn’t even worth thinking about. There wasn’t any emotion to it at all.

  • Marco · March 11, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    I think that people who have ever believed in God, or still do, may not quite understand what the subject is like for those who have never believed. I come from an irreligious background where knowing *about* religion was considered part of being educated, and one was polite and discreet around believers, but there was never any question of actually taking these stories seriously. Maybe atheism is more fun if one comes to it after an internal struggle, and certainly any thoughtful person has to consider at some point that he may be wrong. Still, I really cannot empathize with the agonies described by some who have had crises of faith.

  • Narr · March 13, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    My experience tracks with what some have already described: raised in a lukewarm faith (mainstream Prot in my case) but never quite believing in it. Partly I suppose because in my family church and religion were mostly female things–the men were, with few exceptions, twice-a-year churchgoers.

    I was confirmed at 14, a reader of the great Mencken at 19, an agnostic by the time I married my Catholic-raised wife at 23, and an atheist by the time our son was born ten years later. But at no stage was there any trauma-drama.

  • Andrew Stuttaford · March 15, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Despite years of the then-customary English religious education as a child, I never spent much time thinking about this issue (let alone worrying about it). The existence of a god seemed unlikely to me, but then so was the prospect of proving that absence definitively. Unexcited by the thought of years of pointless speculation, I moved on to more interesting topics.

    And are many people hot-wired for religion? I think so, which may well suggest that it has some evolutionary purpose. Be that as it may, this does not appear to be an instinct I have. Then again, I am also red/green color blind…

  • SFG · March 18, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Y’all should get this easily. It’s a sliding scale. People differ in their natural level of religiosity, and so do societies. The same guy who would be believing in miracles if growing up in Pakistan might feel God’s presence once in a while if he grew up here and be a complete atheist if he grew up in Sweden. Some people will wind up being religious anywhere; others will never believe in God no matter what. Most people will be somewhere in between.

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