Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Paula Kirby on Atheism

I couldn't resist reposting this essay from the  Hibernia Times (Ireland's newspaper)

Here is a link to the originals: part1 part2

Everything below this line is Paula's


By Paula Kirby

Until 2003 I was a devout Christian. And I mean devout. I believed absolutely, and my faith was central to my life at that time. Various clergy thought I had a calling to “the ministry”; one even suggested I might have a vocation to be a nun. Now I am an atheist: the kind of atheist who is predictably referred to by religious apologists as “outspoken” or “militant.” So what happened?
What happened was four little words: “How do I know?”

One of the things that had struck me during my Christian years was just how many different Christianities there are. Not just the vast number of different sects and denominations (over 38,000 by one reckoning), but the huge amount of difference between individual Christians of the same sect or denomination, too. 

The beliefs and attitudes of an evangelical, biblical, literalist Christian compared with a liberal Christian are so wildly different that we might almost be dealing with two completely different religions – as I discovered from personal experience when moving from a liberal church in the south of England to the Presbyterian depths of the Scottish Highlands back in 2000.

Like every other Christian I have ever known, I had clear ideas about the kind of God I believed in and, on the basis of those ideas, I accepted certain bits of Christian dogma while utterly rejecting others. Again, let me stress: this is par for the course. In practice faith is always a pick-and-mix affair: believers emphasise those bits that sit comfortably with them whilst mostly ignoring those bits that do not, or concocting elaborate interpretations to allow them to pretend they do not mean what they actually say. So this was the question I faced up to in 2003: What was there to suggest that the version of Christianity I believed in was actually real? Was there any better evidence for the version I accepted than there was for the versions I did not?

The Bible could not help me. Both kinds of Christian – the ultra-conservative and the ultra-liberal – find abundant support for their views in the Bible provided they cherry-pick enough (and, of course, they do just that, filing the bits that don’t suit their case under the convenient headings of “Metaphor” or “Mystery”). Tradition was not reliable, either: a false belief does not become true simply through having been held through many generations.

So what else was there? A Roman Catholic I was debating with once argued: “To those who say there is no proof, there is the question of the numinous. I know there is a God, I have a relationship with him and spend time in meditative prayer on a daily basis.” Perhaps that’s where the answer lay?

Well, of course, I thought I had a personal relationship with God, too. I, too, spent time with him in meditative prayer every day. And as a result, I not only “knew” there was a god; I “knew” what that god was like. I didn’t believe – I really thought I knew.

Just about all the Christians I came into contact with “knew” there was a god, too. They, too, spent time in meditative prayer with him on a daily basis. And as a result, they, too, “knew” what God was like. So what did that knowledge tell us about him? How reliable were these personal relationships when it came to establishing the truth about God?

Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.

Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.
Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.
Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.
Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.
Some of us knew that the devil was just a myth to explain the existence of evil; others knew that the devil was very real and a genuine threat to our souls.
Some of us knew that there was no way God could ever allow such a thing as hell; others knew that hell was very much a part of God’s ordained order.
We all knew we were right, and we all based that knowledge on the personal relationship we had with him. How could any of us possibly be wrong?
What was striking about these observations was that those of us whose personalities led us to embrace the world and other people in a spirit of openness, generosity, warmth and tolerance “knew” that God did the same. And those who lacked the confidence for that, and consequently saw the world as threatening and evil and bad, “knew” that God saw it that way, too.

This is why subjective experience cannot tell us anything about God. Knowing what kind of god someone believes in tells us a great deal about that person – but nothing whatsoever about the truth or otherwise of the existence of any god at all.

And this brings us to something very important about atheism. Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible. Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented. Atheism is not a faith: on the contrary, it is the refusal to accept claims on faith.

Atheists recognize that we need evidence in order to come to reliable conclusions about reality and that, so far, those who claim there is a god have signally failed to provide it. And atheists care about reality: not what it might be comforting to believe, or what has traditionally been believed, or what we have been instructed to believe. And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.

An atheist life, well lived, leads to the only kind of afterlife there is any evidence for whatsoever: the immortality of living on in the fond memories of those who loved us.


Many Christians don’t wish to question their beliefs, of course. Many genuinely feel to get something from their faith which they fear they would lose without it. For many believers, faith is a comfort: they find comfort in the thought of not really dying, of being reunited with loved ones in an afterlife, of a benign and powerful being watching over them and “working all things for the good.”

Someone who derives comfort from such thoughts may well prefer not to question the truth of them too closely. Besides, in a community where the majority are religious and censorious of non-belief, there is huge social pressure to conform.

Another reason lies in the lamentable fact that even now, in 2011, lack of scientific understanding is the norm in many societies. Not only do most people not understand even the basics of science themselves; they often have no idea of the huge range of questions that science really has begun to shed light on. People unschooled in scientific knowledge or methodology may quite genuinely be baffled about why there is “something rather than nothing,” or how life could possibly have arisen from non-life and then developed into the vast array of forms we see around us, and be unable to conceive of any answer other than God.

So there are reasons for not questioning belief that many Christians may themselves be fully conscious of and even happy with. However, I would suggest that there are other reasons, too: reasons arising from the way Christianity actively manipulates its followers and suppresses the natural spirit of enquiry.

The first is Christianity’s emphasis on faith. Faith is the acceptance of claims for which there is no good evidence; when someone invites you to take something on faith, they are actively telling you not to challenge it, not to question it, not to enquire whether it is really true: they are telling you to simply accept it on their say-so. And this “accepting it on their say-so” is at the very heart of Christianity.

It is the only absolute requirement for salvation: that you accept — on faith —
that Jesus died for your sins and took the punishment for them on your behalf. Faith is incompatible with genuine questioning. The moment you begin to question faith-claims, you are told you must stop, that to continue will be to lose your faith. And this is a dire threat indeed, for in Christianity everything you hope for is dependent on faith — on simply taking someone’s word for it, on simply accepting a particular set of claims as true.

Churches certainly pay lip-service to asking questions, of course; but never doubt that there are limits to the questions that are acceptable. “Does this verse mean this or does it mean that?”: this kind of question — the unthreatening kind that stays within approved boundaries — is smiled upon. But be careful not to voice questions that suggest doubt! That question the truth of Christian dogma!

It is no coincidence, I would suggest, that Doubting Thomas is second only to Judas in the Recalcitrant Disciple stakes.

Closely linked with faith is authority. It is there in the structures of all churches, but explicitly so in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims infallibility for the pope when speaking on matters of dogma. (How does he know he’s infallible on these matters? How do you?) Authority reinforces the demand for blind faith, insists that you remain in your role of passive recipient of priestly wisdom. But these claims to authority are not always overt: they are also concealed within the very structure of church services. You are told when to sit, when to kneel, when to stand; when to pray, when to sing, when to say Amen, when to be silent. And you are told, in the creed, in the hymns, from the pulpit, what you are required to believe. There is no discussion, no Q&A, no opportunity to ask, “But how do you know?” Church services require congregations to be passive and unquestioning. (Have you ever wondered why the Church puts so much emphasis on obedience?)

All this is reinforced through ritual. When was the last time you actively stopped to think about how you drive? Unless you are newly qualified, the answer is almost certainly so long ago that you cannot remember it. After a while driving becomes automatic, reflexive, something you do without much conscious thought. This is what happens when we do something over and over again: we stop noticing the details. And churches — especially those, like the Roman Catholic Church, with set liturgies — exploit this to the full. In service after service there is the same rhythm, the same pattern, the same order of the individual components. The effect? We can switch our brains off; we don’t need to think; we are lulled into a state of passivity in which the words wash over us and we barely even register them. If you don’t believe me, see if you can recite — without looking! — the third verse of your favourite hymn. Or see how much you remember of the content of last Sunday’s sermon.

The combination of the insistence on faith, authority and endlessly repeated ritual all combine to lull our brains into unquestioning, passive acceptance. And as if this weren’t enough, believers’ confidence in their own judgement and ability to deal with life on their own is constantly undermined by the teaching that their every success is down to God’s goodness, their every failure firmly down to their own weakness.

Yet there still remains one more weapon in the Church’s armoury: a powerful weapon, a desperate weapon; you might even say a diabolical weapon. That weapon is hell. “Accept our authority; accept our claims on faith; believe and don’t doubt — or burn for all eternity.” How many generations of children have been psychologically scarred by this obscenity? How many adults still harbour lingering fears that this sadistic fabrication might just be true? How many cling to their faith for fear of eternal torment if they don’t? And how much must the Church fear the act of questioning, if it has to resort to such monstrous and perverted threats in order to deter you from doing it?

The forces arrayed against the believer who dares to question, dares to challenge, are formidable indeed. Small wonder that many believers never truly stop to reflect on their beliefs from the perspective of asking whether they are really true.

And yet an increasing number of us are doing just that. Increasingly we are shaking off the hobgoblins of belief, and in so doing we are discovering the joys of a life where no question is off-limits and where we no longer have to make do with pseudo-answers based in faith, authority or threats.

Abandoning religious faith is like waking after a deep sleep. Good morning! It’s a beautiful day…