Posted on Dec 13, 2012 by Tom Gilson
Last week I invited atheist and skeptical readers to tell their non-faith stories. The idea was that if we had some idea of the person behind the discussion, we might have a better shot at really treating one another as humans.
Ray Ingles sent me this. There are others, which I’ll post here at the rate of no more than two per week.
It should be obvious enough that Ray Ingles’ views do not represent mine, or Christianity in general.
My parents were both raised Catholic, but had decided they didn’t believe by adulthood. They were married in the Church, to please their families, but the priest was rather lenient – he finally accepted that they both at least believed in good and evil.
So I was raised without any faith in particular. I dimly recall spending a week or two with my aunt when I was very young, and being very confused (and, I think, unruly) when she took me to church for the first time. (I have reason to believe that aunt and grandmother baptized me as an infant, too, for what it’s worth.) I recall my mother trying to explain Jesus to me at one point, “God sacrificing himself to himself”, and just being puzzled why someone would believe that. Before high school, my exposure to churches involved the occasional wedding or funeral, and some Boy Scout activities. I joined the Scouts back before they made a big deal about atheism, and made it all the way to SPL and Eagle. (Since I didn’t think there was a God, as far as I was concerned my ‘duty to God’ was zero so I could make the Pledge in good conscience.)
I wasn’t raised without morals, of course. But it was a very practical morality. “What if everyone did that?” is a question even a five-year-old can grasp. Once my dad took me to a James Bond movie, when I was just old enough to begin wondering about girls. I asked him if he was ever tempted to act like Bond and bed a variety of women. He took me seriously, and said that while it might be fun to do something like that, it would hurt my mother terribly and he did not want to do that. That made a great deal of sense to me.
From a young age I read voraciously, mostly science fiction, though a lot of nonfiction science, too. I enjoyed playing with ideas and teasing out ramifications and possibilities. I suppose I picked up a general skepticism of authority – tempered with the recognition of the necessity of cooperation – an ethic of personal agency and responsibility, and a toleration of variety in part due to such influences.
My parents decided to send my brother and I to a private high school, and – despite my mother having not enjoyed her time in a Catholic boarding school – settled upon a Catholic school. At that point I had religious courses and attended the Masses they’d hold about once a month. Religious courses ranged from dull memorization to interesting philosophy, but never struck me as ultimately convincing. We did work through the Old and New Testament, though, so I have in fact read the majority of the Bible. I’ve continued to study religion, along with many other topics, since then.
In college, I took an intro philosophy course and read a lot. I like arguing, but only with people who care, so when I found USENET I was delighted. I hung out on alt.atheism and a few other newsgroups. (You can still find most of that stuff on Google Groups.) In the interest of fairness, I did try praying and so forth, in response to prompts from interlocutors on newsgroups. I never received any intelligible answers.
So in terms of upbringing and lifestyle, I’m thoroughly secular. I’m atheist in specific (I haven’t run into a description of a God or pantheon I found convincing) and a non-gnostic in the broad sense. (An agnostic thinks questions like ‘Is there a God?’ are unanswerable. A ‘non-gnostic’ thinks such questions just haven’t been answered… yet.)
I always found religion to be irrational and unsupported. But I never thought of religion as the ‘source of all evil’, nor have I ever thought that the world would be perfect without religion. (And it’s worth noting, BTW, that I’ve never run into an atheist that did think that.) I think religion does directly cause some problems – e.g. when Zionism was first getting started around the turn of the last century, there were serious proposals to locate a new Jewish homeland on land purchased in South America. But religion dictated the Palestine region, and, well… we see how well that turned out. Most often, though, religion acts like a catalyst. (A catalyst affects chemical reactions, speeding them up or slowing them down, without being consumed itself.) For example, with war. The Irish Troubles were for the most part a political and territorial dispute – religion didn’t cause the conflict. But the religious differences amplified and exacerbated the Troubles. For another example, I think religion has been a contributing factor to the the depressed social position and limited freedom of women in history, and through to today.
As time has gone on, though, and I’ve studied more history and learned more about life, I’ve come to see religion as wrong, but quite human. I no longer think of the religious as partly insane in a compartmentalized way. I can think of religious people as mistaken, but not willfully so, nor evil because of religion. But I think dogmatism is a besetting vice of religion. Not that atheists are immune to dogmatism – see Stalin, Mao, etc. for counterexamples – but believing that an infallible oracle gave you The Answers is a high risk factor for dogmatism.
I can see that religion often performs, and has performed in the past, a civilizing and reforming influence, too. But that said, I have a couple reservations. I can see, from my own example and that of many friends and family members, that it’s not necessary for such things; I’ve seen the trick worked without recourse to religion. And even if it were necessary for some people – if the people who don’t need religion have “minds of peculiar structure”, to use George Washington’s term – that wouldn’t make it true. It would just imply some form of Plato’s Republic, a rather depressing proposition. Once upon a time, the notion of universal literacy was a fantasy; but we’ve come awfully close to it in many places today, switching from an oral culture to a written one. I think a similar transition in moral conceptions is possible, without requiring religion as a useful fiction to ‘keep the masses in line’.
I get along fine with the religious people in my life, and I’m not at all ‘evangelical’ about my atheism. I’m married to a Christian woman, and our biggest arguments haven’t been about religion, but about Santa Claus. I’ve got no problem with her enrolling our kids in catechism, and I help drive the kids to and from. I’ve attended church in the past and I’m sure I’ll do so again. Our kids know what I believe, and what my wife believes, and we sometimes talk about why, when they ask.
We agree on what morals to teach our kids, though we come to our conclusions from different directions – not unlike how a geocentrist and a heliocentrist can agree about astronomical predictions. Indeed, I think of morals as something akin to ‘social engineering’, finding better ways for us all to live together for mutual benefit. The history of social progress (what Dawkins called the ‘zeitgeist'; e.g. the progression from ‘kill all your enemies’ to ‘slavery for captured opponents’ to ‘the Geneva Conventions’) seems to fit up with an engineering timeline. But for that reason, I think a lot of faith traditions have a lot of practical moral experience, even if their theory about why the ‘tricks’ work can be flawed. For example, taking time to reflect on and recognize the good things in your life is a very healthy thing to do – but being thankful is only appropriate for the good things people do. One can appreciate rather than be thankful for good fortune.
Anyway, that’s probably more than enough.
When I made this invitation to non-theistic readers, I included this in the OP and in a later comment:
Suppose the point of it all was mutual understanding, and suppose there was a strict moratorium on judgmentalism in response.
Would you be interested?
Once your story is posted, I’m going to strongly encourage others to ask questions, and I’m going to enforce the above-mentioned moratorium on judgmentalism… The questions people ask you should be for the purpose of understanding you for who the writer is, rather than something like, “How could an educated person like you come to such irrational conclusions?” which is really just judgmentalism in thin disguise. Of course if the writer brings philosophical/atheist apologetical topics into your story, those things are open for people to ask about.
So the floor is open for discussion for the sake of mutual understanding.