Monday, August 06, 2012

On atheism

On Saturday the 17th February 2001, I realised I had no faith in women's magazines or God. 

I was at the hospital - I wasn't sick - I was visiting my best friend (she'll be known as Betsy for the purposes of this post). I was in the waiting room, and was flicking through a Cosmopolitain with Cameron Diaz on the cover.* I don't think I had ever really believed in Cosmo - but I had got pleasure from reading it. But that day, when as I turned the pages I got angrier and angrier. It wasn't just that I was too young, too fat, too poor, too un-stylish, too un-cordinated, and too apathetic to have that life – none of it was real. There wasn't a word of truth in the scores of glossy pages. 

God was less sudden, maybe more cliched. The argument against God from the existence of evil was covered in my first year philosophy class. However, that day and the ones that followed I knew something I had never really bothered to think about before - that a sort of lazy agnosticism was not enough. I was opposed to the image of God that I knew, a good and powerful God, because a good and powerful God would not have let this happen. 


I think of myself as a relaxed atheist. A while back following Britain's lead, a group have put billboards up around Wellington "There's probably no God, so Relax and enjoy life." And I don't really understand them. Why bother? Is God that big a deal? Is the idea of God stopping people relaxing and enjoying life? I have never had any bad experiences with organised religion myself (and extremely limited experiences of organised religion at all). So this idea that religion is ruining people's life has little resonance for me. 

I also think it’s important to be careful about the politics of atheism, particularly when you live on colonised land. There are atheists who are perfectly happy with focusing their critical anti-spiritual energy on those with least social power.

And even leaving aside the politics, as a historian I think the ways people have understood and made meaning from the world is incredibly important. I read this article by Douglas Adams when I was quite young, and I have always remembered it.## I don't dismiss the role of religion in the world. Religious and spiritual practices can be a way of storing knowledge, and understanding of the world. I've also studied enough history to know that resistance movements have found strength and solace in organised religion. 

On the smaller scale, I can see that some religious practices can be a useful to some people. I can see the value of meeting with people every week, of marking seasons (albiet in a topsy turvey way down this part of the world), of doing whatever people do in their religious practices (OK I actually don't understand organised religion at all, but this means that I have no problem believing that some of it is useful). 

I can even believe that sometimes spiritual stuff (lack of knowledge again breeds vagueness) is a good survival strategy for people. My aunt is an alcoholic who has found spiritual practice useful for her. I can see that some spiritual rituals can create space that some people need. I also know that the mind is a powerful thing, and beliefs can give us strengths in all sorts of ways (Dr Ben Goldacre is great for that). 

Obviously, I'm aware of the harm that organised religion can do as well: the homophobia, the misogyny and the extortion just for starters. But I don't see any of those as necessary features of organised religions - just common ones. Most of what happens in the name of religion doesn't bother me because it happens in the name of religion - most of what happen in the name of religion happens with other justifications - and it bothers me just as much. 


Someone I used to know has turned towards faith of a sort, and wrote about it here in a zine called "Radicle". This was the passage I couldn’t forget: 

Fortunately, the world is not a generally shitty place. There are amazing people, and forces for good deeper than I can make sense of, that often reward our faith. I want to defend faith, define it and make it less threatening, but the whole point that it cannot be fully explained or logically justified. It requires a leap into the unknown 
I don't know if other readers will catch the bit I object to. The bit where I stop being a relaxed atheist and start being an angry materialist atheist. 

Betsy (now out of hopsital) ran into Tracey - someone we both went to school with. After that awkward chit-chat with someone you don't actually know, Betsy turned to leave. Tracey said "can I pray for you?" Betsy said "Uh sure" to facilitate the leaving process. 

Tracey grabbed Betsy, would not go, and shouted: "Jesus Christ, please show Betsy your love and strength so she can let you into her heart and you can heal her." 

Forces for good that reward our faith. 


In form, Tracey's statement about the non-material forces in the world couldn't be more different from the article in Radicle. It's in a zine that you don't have to read if you don't want to, it's generalised and it even contains a qualifier. Tracey’s statement of faith was a full on assault, directed at an individual that targeted the ways she was already marginalised. 

But in content the statements were disturbingly familiar. Each present a view in the world that contains spiritual forces with some kind of agency. There is a huge difference with "faith is often rewarding" (which I don't disagree with - I would say there is a prima facie case that anything that large numbers of people do on a regular basis is often rewarding in some sense of the world) and "forces for good often reward our faith". In the second, the forces for good are rewarding faith - therefore they're not rewarding not faith.** Like Tracey's God, these forces are selective about what they reward. 

But to me the most grotesque idea, in both formulations, is that a God, or spiritual forces, that are so selective in their rewards are good, or loving. The Greek and Roman Gods (as far as I'm familiar with them) with their limited powers, petty feuds, and complete lack of morality - I can actually see them mapping on to the way I understand the world. I can understand appeasing a God, or spiritual forces, that reward faith, but not believing they are good. 


Another friend of mine was thinking about sending her child to Catholic school (she's not Catholic). She was talking about why she didn't mind the religion part of Catholic school: "When I went to school there was Religious Education and it terrified me. The God I learned about there was an angry smiting God, and I was scared he was going to smite me. But this is different - they're all about how God loves you and looks after you." 

And what happens when God doesn't look after him? Horrible things happen, and a belief in a loving caring God in the face of the world we live in is as scary as a smiting one.


On the macro level there are reasons why things happen - why some people get cancer and others don't, and some live in poverty and others don't. As a historian, nothing interests me more than the reasons things happen. 

But on the micro level, that's not how the world works - there is no answer to why. We can talk about all the explanations that explain the prevalence of say meningitis - poverty, exchange of fluids, age-based vulnerability. But we will always reach the limit to our understanding. A point where the only answer is luck. And at that point we will be unable to answer Why me? Why not her? Why not me? Why him?***

At this point, the point of ignorance, and randomness, some people place an interventionist God or other spiritual power. A God who heals those who believe, or forces that reward faith. This allows them to control the uncontrollable and to give meaning to that which is meaningless. 

I understand that urge, and religion is certainly not the only way people in our society try and feel like they can control the uncontrollable. When Rod Donald died a friend said that he found it really scary if Rod Donald, cyclist, Greenie could of a disease that is so often associated with 'lifestyle' then anyone could die - which is, of course, the truth. 

But what I cannot understand is embracing a belief system that creates meaning from randomness by arguing that virtue is rewarded. We live in a bitterly unfair world, to claim that there are mysterious forces, or a God that produces your luck - I cannot understand how anyone who looks at the world with their eyes open can believe that. 


I was ranting about all this at a friend of mine, and she asked if it really mattered (beware I am probably caricaturing her beliefs to make a point of my own).  People say they believe in moral spiritual forces, but surely no-one actually believes that. Betsy’s chronic disease would be cured if she accepted Jesus into her heart. Why bother engaging with people who say things that imply that they do?

But Tracey was not the first person to harass my friend Betsy in that way, and has not been the last.  I’m not going to be harassed by people who believe that my body is a problem that God needs to solve.  I don’t have to deal with more polite people who aren’t rude enough to say that my body is a problem that God can solve, but obviously believe it.   The people who are most likely to suffer at the pointy end of belief – are people who are already facing massive amounts of unluck and calling bullshit is a way of standing in solidarity with them.

But I also think it’s more respectful to respond to people who say things that I believe are damaging and wrong with “I think that’s damaging and wrong” than with “I’m going to ignore that because I don’t believe you mean what you say.”  To me – the second response is patronising.

I don’t assume that religious people hold the sorts of spiritual beliefs I have criticised in this post.  I don’t assume that because someone has some sort of faith they give moral meaning to the luck and unluck that people experience.  But when people say things that imply that some sort of spiritual force could intervene to improve people’s lives if they behaved or believed in a certain way – I think there is a political value in challenging and unpacking the implications of those statements.


This is from a major news service’s**** coverage of the shootings in Aurora during the batman screenings:

[name redacted] told NBC television that when the carnage began she shouted at her friend: "We've got to get out of here." But when they started to move she saw people fall around her as the gunman began silently making his way up the aisle, shooting anyone who was trying to escape ahead of him.

"He shot people trying to go out the exits," she said.

At that moment, [name redacted] stared her own imminent death in the face. The shooter came towards her, saying nothing. The barrel of the gun was pointing directly at her face. "I was just a deer in headlights. I didn't know what to do."

A shot rang out, but it was aimed at the person sitting right behind her. "I have no idea why he didn't shoot me," [named redacted] said.

Later, when she was safe,  [named redacted]  told her mother: "Mom, God saved me. God still loves me."

Imagine if this were true.  Imagine if there was a God who had some power in that movie theatre, and he saved the lives of the people he loved. 

I was hesitant about commenting on this. The woman was speaking immediately after surviving horrific trauma. I have thought terrible things, under far less pressure.  This woman was dealing with her situation as best she could.  I don't want to draw attention to her as an individual who made those statements.

Religious beliefs that connect luck with morality are so normalised in our society that even their most horrific expressions stand without comment.


Turns out I am not a relaxed atheist, just a protected one. When people who win awards, reality shows, or sporting events thank God, I just find it amusing, because I don’t think winning awards, reality shows or sporting events really matters. And in my everyday life I very rarely run into people thanking God, or attributing their luck to any spiritual force that is rewarding their faith. But I don't think you can call yourself a relaxed athiest if you're OK as long as religion stays well away from spiritual explanations that involve virtue.

I am in fact, passionate about materialism,***** and think there's huge power and strength in understanding what we can about the world. I think it's even more important to accept the randomness of the universe; not to project meaning onto the unknown, but to acknowledge the role that luck and unluck play in our lives. 


I was taking a 10 year old for a walk with his dog. 

“Are you religious?” Later he would ask me who I voted for, he was obviously thinking about things a lot. 

“I’m an athiest.” 

“So’s Mum. Mum and Grandma had big argument over religion. Mum asked Grandma what she believed and Grandma said when she’d been little she had been really poor and had no school bag and everyone teased her. So she prayed for a new school bag. And then the next day someone from her church gave her one, so God listened to her prayers. And then Mum said that what about all the other children? why doesn’t God answer their prayers?” 

“Yeah, that’s what I would have said” 

Then we throw another stick for the dog. Apparently that’s all the questions for today. 


* There were two magazines with Cameron Diaz on the cover on the ward that month. Both had the same picture, but her top was a different colour. This was long before features exposing photoshop were common-place and seeing those two photos side by side with a different colour was disconcerting in a world that didn't feel particularly safe or stable. 

** I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again, understanding the difference between the active and the passive voice is a fundamental prerequistite for useful political thinking.

*** Somewhere around here Schroedinger's Cat and Quantum Physics comes in. 

**** I have not included the name of the person being quoted, or the site the quote is from (although google will verify my sources).   As I said, my point is not about her, but that such views are seen as normal.

***** I can't read that sentence without hearing 'passionate about materialism' in David Mitchell's voice - but it is true.

## I had a quote from the article here.  I've removed it as someone pointed out (and I agree) that the I used it was racist in exactly the kind of way I was trying to problematise and avoid.