How to Ruin Atheism.

I was raised protestant by a catholic mother and a protestant father.  I went to church every Sunday, dressed in pretty dresses.  I went to bible study as a child, I read the bible, cover to cover, as a kid. I set it as a goal for myself, and I think I finished it when I was around ten or eleven… it was pre-puberty in any case.  I read the bible because I was missing something… I didn’t believe in God.  I felt the same way as a child about God as I did about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.  I thought that perhaps if I read through the bible, there would be something in that text that would bring faith to me, that would inspire me to belief.

What I took away from reading the bible was that there are some really beautiful stories in there, and that Jesus was a pretty great guy.  I still did not believe in God, or that Jesus was a prophet or the son of God.  I thought Jesus was a man full of both anger and compassion, who genuinely wanted people to live in a just way.  I just didn’t believe that he was magic; the immortal God-made-flesh who would cleanse the world of its sins.  I had questions about what was in the bible… and an inkling that my parents, who had chosen to raise me within the church, didn’t believe any of this as literal truth either.  I went to my dad one day, not my mother, for reasons that I may explain at a later date, and asked him about Genesis.  I wanted to know how one could reconcile the biblical creation story with what we know to be true about the age of the earth, and the evolution of the plants and animals, so I asked my father how he could believe that God created the world in seven days when we now know that it took a lot longer than that to create the earth and the seas and the skies and all of the plants and animals.

“Who’s to say what a day is to God?” my father asked in response.

This set the tone for my entire understanding of religion in the world… what I took from that simple question was that religion and science fill different roles; they have no correlation, either complementary or oppositional.

As a teenager I continued to explore the idea of religious faith.  I took courses on religion in high school.  I spent a brief time as a “pagan,” an admission that I now find a little embarrassing.  I read the Bhagavad Gita, I learned about some of the Hindu myth cycles (there are a LOT; Hinduism is an incredibly complex thing), and I read about Islam (though I have never read the Koran itself).  I learned about several forms of Buddhism, and about Sikhism.  I know now that in these studies I was searching for some explanation of God that would make sense to me, that would compel me to believe.  I hungered for faith, and I still envy people of faith in a lot of ways.  I imagine it must be an incredible and joyful thing to have faith in a God.

I know also that while I was studying religion, I was seeking a way to better understand humanity; this is something that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember.  People are fascinating because they are terrifying.

So now, as an adult, I have no faith; I don’t believe in Big-G-God.  I call myself an atheist on some days, and an agnostic on other days… because I don’t really know if God exists, and honestly I have very little interest in God for God’s sake; what fascinates me about the whole situation is how the God-concept is experienced by people.  I’m more likely to call myself an agnostic these days, or just to say that I’m not religious.  The reason for that is very simple.

Militant Atheism.

Militant Atheism is a word used to describe people who aren’t satisfied to simply not believe in God, but also insist that nobody should believe in God.  This is based in the belief that religion is the cause of a lot of evils and harm in the world.  This is true on the face of things, but the fact as I see it is that what we refer to as “evil” comes not from faith, but from people.  This includes the faithful and atheists as well.  We can run through a quick list of bad people who were also atheists… Mao tse Dong, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Jeffery Dahmer, Jim Jones… but people will often contend that religion as an institution is the source of evils.  Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were all areligious and were leaders of extremely bloody regimes, with death tolls of at least five million, ten million, and nearly two million, respectively.  People will seek power and abuse power regardless of religious affiliation.  People will rape, kill, oppress, and abuse regardless of religious affiliation.

Some will say that religious institutions suppress learning, reason, and science, and this is sometimes true, but it’s also sometimes true of non-religious institutions as well.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a horrifying thing to any intellectual or scholar.  I think the militant atheist often overlooks the very vital role that the church played in education and in preserving knowledge… in the medieval period, the church was responsible for maintaining and transmitting vast stores of human knowledge… the monks and priests were the only literate people in most of Europe.  Even afterward, in the Renaissance, learning and technology and art all flourished under the church.

Religion and faith have been the source of virtually all human culture.  Advances in architecture were made in the construction of beautiful cathedrals, mosques, and temples.  The beginnings of all music come from religious faith, even modern rock and roll.  Some of our finest works of art and greatest philosophical writings, even the roots of poetry come from religion.  All of our holidays are religious in origin and I have to admit if there’s an american tradition or custom that doesn’t find its origin in religion, I can’t think of it.  To differentiate between religion and culture is foolhardy; since ninety percent of the planet is religious, religion is a facet of culture and informs other cultural facets.  To remove religion from the world is to begin the process of homogenization of human kind.  I like us non-homogenized… different cultures have brought so many interesting things to my life, and the different faiths that I’ve had the opportunity to study are beautiful in and of themselves, with stories that intertwine with one another, and places where they overlap and shine through one another like two stained glass windows.  They tell the story of what it is to be human; how we deal with adversity and temptation, and what it is to be deeply and terribly flawed.  These stories, these acts of gods and goddesses and spirits and creatures and mythic figures are all retellings of the human story, and in hearing them, learning them, and repeating them, we learn something of what it is to be this unique and desperate animal.

They have scanned the brains of nuns praying, and of monks meditating, in order to get a visual understanding of how religion affects the brain, and they have found that several parts of the brain light up when processing religious experience, indicating that “… religion is not a special case of a belief system, but evolved along with other belief and social cognitive abilities,” according to Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.  And indeed, there is some evidence of an evolutionary driver for religion in humans as a way to form social and community bonds, and as a way to transmit culture, a mnemonic if you will, in a time before writing existed, or before it was widely available.  I’m not here to hate people because of things that happen in their brains, and though I’m not religious, I have felt the seemingly unexplained feelings that the religious describe while having religious experiences… I just never associated them with God.  I think attempting to eschew and remove something that is so thoroughly a part of human nature is ridiculous and I don’t understand the point of it.

Furthermore, if people are experiencing oppression based on the fact that they identify as atheist (I don’t think I ever have here, but I’m sure it happens in other parts of the country), then it pays to bear in mind that the people in modern history who were the most successful in combating oppression did so without hatred. Mohandas Gandhi freed the entire nation of India from colonial rule with non-violent strategies, and Martin Luther King, Jr made effective use of non-violence as well.  This even includes even Nelson Mandela, who once advocated armed insurrection against the apartheid government in South Africa, and Malcom X, who advocated violence in his early years.  Both men came to understand that hatred does not solve oppression.  Lest we forget, also, that both Gandhi and King were religious.

And none of this is even taking into account my personal objections to Militant Atheist posterboys like Dawkins and Hitchens, nor the bizarre correlation between militant atheism has to objectivism, libertarianism, misogyny, and racism that I haven’t puzzled out yet.

I feel that maintaining an association with a community that thinks that this kind of hate is sort of okay within their ranks is to implicitly condone such hate.  So I have no choice but to call myself an agnostic, or an “I’m not religious,” or an “other.”  Not an atheist.  Not anymore.

9 thoughts on “How to Ruin Atheism.

  1. Atomic Mutant says:

    The only people I know using the word “militant atheists” are believers (mainly Christians) who would like to go back to the old times, when atheists had to hide and keep the mouths shut. The word is used for really unfriendly people, true, but also simply for people who point out the shortcomings of religions or who simply admit that they don’t believe. Do not keep your mouth shut but speak out openly and chances are, someone will call you a militant atheist. Which is ironic, because militant christians bunker weapons, militant muslims behead people – and militant atheists simply will not stop talking. Well, in this case, unfriendly as they may be, I prefer the militant atheists, thank you.

    1. adrennan says:

      I am embarrassed by people small-minded enough to think that it has to be one or the other, just as I would be by the Falwells of the world if I were a Christian.

    2. adrennan says:

      It also bears mentioning that I have friends who are people of faith, with whom I discuss issues of faith and my own lack of faith, and I have never once been called a “Militant Atheist.”

      1. Atomic Mutant says:

        I also have religious friends. And no, they also don’t call me that way – but they wouldn’t be friends, if they did, would they? I think we both know that there are enough nice people out there – they are only part of the problem if they let bad things happen in their name.

      2. adrennan says:

        That’s the trouble though, isn’t it? What am I to do as an atheist when I see people saying that my religious friends are somehow dangerous because of their faith, and when I hear people saying that we need to stop practicing all religiously-based traditions and customs… these are bad things. When I hear Dawkins saying that the religious shouldn’t hold office, that’s a bad thing. What am I to do when I see bad things happening in the name of atheism?

      3. Atomic Mutant says:

        Same thing as what you should do as a Christian if you see bad things happening in the name of Christianity. Say something. Bad things can happen because good people say nothing.

  2. Weston Renoud says:

    I have struggled for a long time with my relationship with religion. At present I refer to myself as a negative atheist, a term I only learned of recently, which is to say I don’t particularly worry about the existence or non-existence of God in my day to day. There was a time that it was very important for me to know one way or the other.

    Much as you seem to express, I have also come to regard religion as an indicator of something of the human experience/nature. I have been very curious to find ways to engage in similar experiences without the pitfalls that I’ve perceived in religion. I have definitely felt profound moments that some might call a “religious experience,” but in my perception there was no religiosity to them.

    I recently learned about C.S. Lewis’ conversion to atheism, and then back to Christianity, and the literary group he was a member of called The Inklings on a CBC program ( In the program description is says of The Inklings, “They were united by a love of myth and the belief that it is through the imagination that reality is illuminated.” I very much appreciated how Lewis seemed to define his religious experience in terms that he could relate to and accept.

    1. adrennan says:

      Thanks for sharing that link, Weston. I have long thought that the artist cannot work without some kind of relationship to the God-concept,, even if that means the god-absent “religious experience.” The work of the artist requires him to be too human to eschew god entirely. This is not a popular opinion among other atheists, but it is my opinion.

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