Why I am not an Atheist

(I had a poli-sci professor who once compared me to my namesake: slow and meandering. Other students in this seminar years ago wondered how I could take such an insult, but I was acing the writing-intensive course so I didn’t see it that way. This 900 word post grew out of a FB conversation I had once a few years ago brought about by a group reading of The Atheist Reader. I’ve cut some throat-clearing about how New Atheists often come off as jerks about both theistic belief and religion.)
Putting the truth of the existence of a god or gods to one side for a moment (an admittedly strange starting point for a post on atheism), religion itself isn’t really a theistic or atheistic thing. It is the case that certain religions do make truth claims about their theologies, but what religions actually are isn’t about theology. What religions are actually about is organizing human society by making social structures of the individual’s religious impulse, and giving the individual a meaningful way of hanging onto an otherwise ineffable experience. Liking or not liking the way a society is organized (say, along the principles of particular religious teachings) isn’t an argument about the theistic truth claims. In the West, we have demoted religion from the only way to legitimately organize society to being one contender in a political process.

The argument that the scientific worldview has developed the most comprehensive, falsifiable method for understanding the truth value of claims–and that it doesn’t require the support of a theistic component–is a powerful one in favor of atheism. I suspect there are a lot of atheists in the world because the scientific worldview argument is so powerful, maybe even plenty of reluctant atheists.  (Parenthetically, let me observe that neither the atheists in the collection nor I are presenting anything like an original argument.) 

Natural processes can account for anything you’d care to point to in the world. If humans have a religious impulse, then it got there in response to stimulus in the world. If humans attribute the religious feeling to a god or gods, then natural processes say that the propensity evolved, and evolved independently of whether or not there are gods or even just one. Did the religious impulse evolve because there is a supernatural something-or-other, or did the religious impulse evolve as a by-product of some other evolutionary advantage, or under some other pressure? I suppose someone out there can point to research on the subject, and I’d welcome the reading. Regardless of the answer, the religious impulse is there–part of the human condition.

A number of the atheists in the collection consider the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling an actual evil in the world. I wasn’t aware that evolutionary biology made value judgements about evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling are side effects of evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps. An evolutionary adaptation which is harmful to the survival of the species (which, if the evil claim coming from a materialist means anything, is what it must mean) should not survive. (Maybe it arose in just the last couple of hundred of thousands of years, and will die off as a maladaption. Maybe atheists are themselves, biologically, an evolutionary adaptation.) An evolutionary adaptation (or side effect) with neutral survival implications might hang on for ever. An adaptation which improves survival will tend to solidify its position. It will improve survival if it confers some advantage over real world challenges. This isn’t a theistic truth claim, nor it is not an atheistic truth claim.

Anyway, “I don’t like religion (or god),” and, “I don’t need religion (or god),” aren’t really arguments. They’re assertions which ultimately don’t persuade me. 

And that’s really why I’m not an atheist. What atheism offers isn’t enough of an explanation of my subjective experience of the world. 
And, really, all I’ve got is my subjective experience of the world. I believe there is an  objective reality, that my subjective experience of it isn’t all there is to reality, that my subjective will has (at most) very little impact on the world unless I take affirmative action. I believe the scientific worldview has done a lot of good in the world. I think it’s done a lot of harm in the world, too. Germ theory has probably been an unalloyed good in the world. Nuclear science probably has a ton more to answer for than it’s been good for even when things like radiation treatments and smoke detectors are factored in. 
My subjective experience has included experience of the religious impulse and of the religious feeling. I believe those impulses and feelings are a part of me because they respond to something real in the world. I haven’t read much Dawkins, and I’m sure he’s got something to say about this experience on my part (I’m lazy, maybe someone can point me to it). If his explanation doesn’t allow my experience to inform my opinion, then that’s a pretty anti-humanist position.

Not being an atheist doesn’t make me a Catholic, nor a Sunni Muslim, nor a Hindu, nor a pagan, nor an anything. (I might be a Taoist, though… and I’ve had some experiences I’m pretty sure need more than scientific materialism to comprehend) Not wanting to be slotted into a religious social organization doesn’t mean I’m a godless heathen, nor does it mean that I cannot take comfort in certain religious developments as part of my human heritage.

As strange as this may sound to some religious believers, some theists, some atheists, some materialists and some others who are both smart and rigorous, being intellectually honest about one’s beliefs does not entail accepting the logical conclusions of them no matter what. Intellectual honesty does not demand finding what lies behind every belief. Intellectual honesty does not require that all one’s beliefs be examined and any that conflict with one or another be scrutinized for the permanent dismissal of one or another. Intellectual honesty merely requires that one be able to consider one’s beliefs, determine what they really are, and live accordingly.

I think.

Making of a Religious Naturalist: Reader Response

Here’s a weak opening. Chet Raymo gives readers a personal tour of how he came to claim the mantle of religious naturalism from his foundations as a Roman Catholic.

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, the Making of a Religious Naturalist is part memoir, part history of science, part history of near-science. I won’t get too much into religious naturalism as such. (Start here or here.) Briefly, it’s a … well… wikipedia has a pretty good summary, “an approach to spirituality that is devoid of supernaturalism.” That’s a pretty good way to go with it, at least as far as it goes.

It’s a well-written book, and I came to it through a sermon by Donald Miller at First Parish in Concord. Perhaps I’ll have more to say after reading the other book mentioned in the sermon, Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, by William R. Murry.

For now, I can say it resonated. It’s very personal to Raymo, so there’s not really a lot to say. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this iteration of it.

A Hundred Acre Carol, Stave I

STAVE I:  Tigger Bounces By

TIGGER had long since bounced his last bounce: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his bounding was signed by the bouncyman, the clerk, the underbouncer, and the chief bouncer. Pooh signed it: and Pooh’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Tigger was as bouncy as a door-nail, and half as fun-fun-fun-fun-fun.

Pooh knew he was unsprung? Of course he did.  How could it be otherwise? Pooh and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Pooh was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, so long as there was a bit of hunny to be had, and maybe a bit of a ham sandwich on a potato roll with a dollop of mustard.

Pooh never painted out Old Tigger’s name.  There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Pooh and Tigger. The firm was known as Pooh and Tigger. Sometimes people new to the business called Pooh Pooh, and sometimes Tigger, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him, he just asked for a small pot of hunny.

Oh! But he was a lump-fisted hand at the hunny-pot, Pooh! a weezing, drenching, gasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old snacker! Soft and puffy as cotton batting, through which no steel had ever run up except to defend a bite to eat; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as a boiled oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his roundy black nose, fuzzied up his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes shine, his thin lips nearly invisible amid his trim and twisty whiskers; and spoke out shrewdly in his gentle raspy voice.

External heat and cold had little influence on Pooh, his stuffing, or his cravings. No blustery day was less concerned than he, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. “Might you have a little smackeral of something?”  Foul weather didn’t know where to have him, and fog rolled in round about him.

“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” came a lowing voice. It was the voice of Pooh’s ass of a nephew, who came upon him so slowly and quietly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Oh!” said Pooh, “Bother!”

He had so exposed himself with careful walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Pooh’s, that he was all in a colorless deep pallor; his face was grey and long; his eyes drooped, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas a bother, uncle!” said Pooh’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Pooh. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re miserable enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew plaintively. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re tubby little chubby enough.”

Pooh having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Oh!” again; and followed it up with “Bother.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“If I could work my will,” said Pooh indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled in his own hunny-pot, and stuck in a rabbit hole till Spring. He should!”

“There are many things by which I have not profited, as usual,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; or so I hear from passers-by since no-one talks to me. And therefore, I say, God bless it!  So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Pooh.

“And A Happy New Year!”  Eeyore moved to let himself out.

“Good afternoon!” said Pooh.

This lunatic ass of a nephew, in letting himself out, had let two other people in, a Woozle and a Wizzle.  “Pooh and Tigger’s, I believe,” said one of the two, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Pooh, or Mr. Tigger?”

“Mr. Tigger sprung away these seven years,” Pooh replied. “This very night.”

“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Pooh frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.  “Liberality” did not sound like these two had brought him any hunny.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Pooh,” said the Wizzle, or the Woozle, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“What?” asked Pooh.  “Oh, bother.  Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons,” said the Woozle, or the Wizzle, laying down the pen again.

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Pooh. “I’m very glad to hear it.  Will they have hunny, do you suppose?”

“What shall I put you down for?”

“At least two pots!” Pooh replied.

“You wish to donate two pots?”

“Oh, no, I wish to have a little smackeral of hunny for myself,” said Pooh. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, at least two hunny-pots is my answer.”  The Woozle and Wizzle, seeing no contributions forthcoming, departed into the ever-thickening fog.

At length the hour of shutting up the counting-house arrived. With an ill-will Pooh dismounted from his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk in the Tank, who instantly snuffed his candle out, and put on his hat over his round head, wedged between ears like bellows flaps.  The heffalump seemed to have four left feet and no hands to wipe his yard-long nose.

“You’ll want all day to-morrow, I suppose?” said Pooh to the Heffalump.

“If quite convenient, sir.”

“It’s not convenient,” said Pooh, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown, or a small cake and tea for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound?”  and Bob the Heffalump scurried away as fast as his kneeless stumps of legs could carry him.

Pooh took his melancholy hunny spoon in his usual melancholy tavern; and having wiped his melancholy mouth with all the melancholy newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with tallying his store of melancholy hunny-pots, went home to bed.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Pooh had not bestowed one thought on Tigger, since that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Pooh, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change–not a knocker, but Tigger’s face.

Tigger’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.

He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Tigger’s spring-loaded tail sticking out into the hall.  But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said “Oh, Pooh, pooh!  You silly old bear!” and closed it with a bang.

The sound resounded through the house like thunder.  Darkness is cheap, and Pooh liked it, but not as much as he liked a little smackeral of hunny, and that though lit his way to his room.  He made a bit of something to eat, and sat to watch the fire in the grate while munching.

The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

“Oh!  Oh, bother still!” said Pooh. “I won’t believe it.”

His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him; Tigger’s Ghost!” and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Tigger in his pigtail, usual black and orange striped waistcoat, striped tights and bare feet and the hair upon his head was bristling. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a second tail; and it was made (for Pooh observed it closely) of springs, rubber, hunny-pots, and heavy mirrors wrought in steel.  His body was transparent; so that Pooh, observing him, and looking through his belly, could see the orange and black stripes on his coat behind, as well as his bouncy flouncy innards.

Pooh had often heard it said that Tigger’s top was made out of rubber, and his bottom was made out of springs, but he had never believed how fun-fun-fun-fun-fun it was until now.

“How now!” said Pooh, confused and fuzzy as ever.  “What do you want with me?”

“Oh, plenty!”–Tigger’s voice, no doubt about it.

“Who are you?”

“Athsk me who I wath.”

“Who were you then?” said Pooh, raising his voice.

“In life I wath your partner, Tigger.  You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Pooh.

“Why do you doubt your thentheth?”

“Because,” said Pooh, “a little thing affects them.  A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested drop of hunny, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Pooh was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, and got distracted by his imagined menu.  At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Pooh held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast like a broken spring!

Pooh fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”

“It ith required of Tigger,” the Ghost returned, “to wander through the world–oh, woe ith me!–and witneth what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happineth! I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and now can no longer bounth! Ith the pattern sthrange to you?”

Pooh trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourthelf?  It wath full and heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since.  It is a ponderous chain, sticky with the emptied hunny potth and shandwiches of otherth you’ve burdened with your averith!”

Pooh glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself a little smackeral of something: but he could see nothing.

“Tigger,” he said, imploringly. “Old Tigger, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Tigger!”

“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “It cometh from other regions, Silly old Pooh, and is conveyed by other ministerth, to other kinds of bears.”

It was a habit with Pooh, whenever he became thoughtful, to put one hand under his elbow, and tap his temple with the other, and mutter “think, think think.”  Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees, still hoping some little pot of hunny might roll by.

“No retht, no peathe. Inthethant torture of remorthe.”

“But you were always a good Tigger of bouncing, Tigger,” faltered Pooh, who now began to apply this to himself, and got confused, and started to wonder about if the third hunny-pot over from the door knob was still half-full or simply half-empty.

“Bounthing!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Bounthing was never my buthineth. The common welfare was my buthineth; bounthing, flounthing, fun-fun-fun-fun-fun, and benevolence, were, all, my dowfall.”

Tigger held up his chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“At thith time of the bounthing year,” the spectre said, “I thuffer motht. Why did I bound through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned up, ready to pounth, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!”

Pooh was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time ith nearly gone.”

“I will,” said Pooh. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Tigger! Pray!”

“That ith no light part of my penanthe,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of ethcaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Pooh.”

“You were always a good friend to me,” said Pooh. “Thank’ee!”

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Thpirits.”

Pooh’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.

“I–I think I’d rather not,” said Pooh, again beginning to wonder when that pot of hunny might roll by.

“Without their visitth,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I bounth. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tollth One.”

“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Tigger?” hinted Pooh, looking around again for a small cake, thinking it might be nice to share a little bit of something with his unexpected guests.

“Expect the thecond on the nektht night at the thame hour. The third upon the nektht night when the latht stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to thee me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has pathed between uth!”

Pooh closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own thumbless hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say “Oh, bother!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; went straight to bed, without visiting the pantry to look at his hunny pots and maybe have a little bit of something sweet, and fell asleep upon the instant.

I really like this man’s sermons…

What’s wrong with church? There’s a noticeable amount of discussion on some of the blogs I follow about the problems with the traditional type of congregational life found in so many UU congregations. I have experience with 2 UU congregations, so I’m no judge. But…

Critiques from the point of view of congregational growth, Associational growth, the health of these along any sort of metric you might care to mention, and so on are all reasonable.

It seems every so often, maybe even fairly frequently, one of the blogs I follow has a post thinking there’s a problem with the way (or even the fact) that UU congregations do ‘church.’ By which I mean… getting together on Sunday morning, sitting in rows facing someone in charge, singing a song (maybe… probably… badly), clanging a chalice, lighting a candle, some sharing time, some kid time before they’re hustled off to RE, some sort of reading, a sermon, some more singing, a responsive reading, passing a basket to collect some loot, maybe a bit more singing, out goes the candle, and clang goes the bell.

It seems reasonable to want to see some changes in this form, since it’s largely habitual. But in broad strokes, as a lay member, I like the form. Any one or combination of these elements is ripe for the targeting, I’m sure.

Post Oct 7, 2011 at 7:12pm