Respecting believers

The saying goes that an agnostic is just an atheist who lacks the courage of her convictions. Often, though, an agnostic is just an atheist who doesn’t want to offend her religious friends, family, or colleagues.

Atheism as a rhetorical stance is particularly, though not uniquely, hard to smooth over. Most of our everyday interactions with others involve conversational feints, pulled punches, half truths, and any number of other methods of lessening interpersonal friction. Some kinds of disagreement don’t threaten relationships (did you know the Brits call spaghetti bolognese “spag bol”?), some are even fun (supporting different college basketball teams). But other disagreements, when voiced, imply some cognitive or moral defect on the part of one party or the other. “Oh, you thought The Departed actually deserved Best Picture?”

Atheism in our culture is one of these more serious types of disagreements. Maybe because arguments for atheism have always been couched in very serious terms: the demands of reason, the overthrow of oppression. Maybe because the response from religious institutions has typically been even more serious: inquisition, execution, exile, at best a decree of damnation. Maybe, these days, because the United States remains overwhelmingly religious, so much so that in many places voicing disbelief in God is simply rare enough to cause surprise.

In any case, those who take their unbelief seriously often end up in a similar position to those who take their religion seriously. By simply stating their beliefs, atheists risk implicitly calling religious believers stupid, just as believers call unbelievers sinners, either wicked or simply foolish for not seeing the truth of God.

(I don’t believe this parallel in rhetorical situation indicates a parallel in belief structure, that atheism and theism are both “simply beliefs” between which we are unequipped to judge. But that issue will have to wait for another post, or maybe the comments section.)

And I admit, I find some beliefs more ridiculous that others, and sometimes shake my head in amazement that someone holds a particularly far-fetched notion. That some people hold certain outlandish beliefs is prima facie evidence that they’re lacking education, intelligence, or sound judgment. (This sounds harsh, but admit it: You’ve thought worse of Beck since his involvement with Scientology became more widely known.)

But what about those people who give plenty of indications of education, intelligence, and good judgment, but who hold on to theism or other odd notions (Trotskyism, for example)? Must an atheist “respect” their beliefs? What does respect mean in this context? Or should an atheist somehow respect the person, not the belief? (Shades of a particularly odious religious formulation, I know.) The hard cases here are friends or family members or colleagues, not abstractions, who are wonderful in every way but happen to believe a few strange things about water turning into wine or an unseen intelligence that somehow guides our destinies and gives meaning to existence.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin, the hyper-excitable child of Marx and Coca-Cola, Paul, says in a voice over, “I realize we can control our ideas, which are nothing, but not our emotions, which are everything.” We can choose what we believe, he claims, but not whom we love.

But can we even choose what we believe? We think we can. But we should know one thing by now, learned from Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, et al., if not from hard experience: that we are not transparent to ourselves.

Think back to four or five years ago, when Bush and his buddies were pushing war by claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Officials offered various pieces of evidence for this claim and we each had the chance to make up our minds (not that our opinions carried any weight whatsoever). Many reasonable people believed the administration — perhaps, most importantly, because other people in the national-security establishment seemed to believe the administration, and it’s usually reasonable to accept the judgments of experts. Many others didn’t believe the claims, and they too had powerful reasons on their side.

I like to think that I weighed the evidence and came to a reasonable conclusion, and to a certain extent that’s what happened. But how much of my thinking was influenced by my politics? To what extent are my politics something I chose, as defensible as I think they are? And when it came down to specific questions in the debate, such as whether to believe Colin Powell rather than Hans Blix or Scott Ritter, how much of my own decision process depended on ineffable, irrational factors like the speaker’s personal style and demeanor? The process of belief formation is complex and not fully understood by any of us, even the best psychologists and cognitive scientists.

In fact, my own evolution from a believer to an atheist was a complicated mix of rational and irrational factors. I had been on the way out of the Mormon church for years, increasingly skeptical about its historical and theological claims. As a philosophy student, I was becoming aware of other systems of explanation and was losing the fear that so many fundamentalist kids have that if you leave the faith, you’ll suddenly be alone in an incomprehensibly chaotic void. And as a young gay man learning to be honest with myself about my sexuality, I knew I had to make a decision, either to stick with Mormonism and face a future devoid of romantic and sexual prospects but remain true to the beliefs I’d been raised with, or to leave Mormonism, date and have sex and fall in love, but violate what I’d been taught were important moral laws and leave behind a close religious community.

So I’d done a lot of intellectual and emotional work to get to the point of leaving. But the moment of leaving happened in an embarrassingly Mormon way: I was thinking over the problem and decided to pray about it. Mormons are big on praying about important decisions, citing the example of founder Joseph Smith, who prayed to God about which church to join and was told to hold on a bit as God had chosen him to start the One True Church.

So there I was, praying to God about whether it was okay to leave the Mormon church in favor of “the gay lifestyle.” And I decided I should do it, that is, leave, so I told God about my decision. And of course I felt the “burning in the bosom,” the peaceful, “spiritual” feeling that Mormons take as a sign from the Holy Ghost that the decision is correct. I was tremendously relieved.

A week or so later I was thinking over my decision to leave Mormonism, which still seemed to be a great decision. I asked myself what I really believed, and realized that I no longer believed in an afterlife or in God. Those beliefs that had been with me for more than twenty years were suddenly gone, fallen down like a collapsed building. I no longer had an obligation to believe, and I found that I didn’t.

My own loss of faith, then, is something I worked for, but also something that just happened. I don’t fully understand why. If I were a Calvinist sort of atheist, I might ascribe my unbelief to a special grace. It makes sense when I tell the story, but I have to admit there’s an element of mystery to it. And I will also admit there have been times since then when I have wanted to believe, when I have been in such distress that I’ve reached for the idea of God to save me. It hasn’t ever stuck, though.

William James’s point in Varieties of Religious Experince is that people have the kinds of religious experiences they need. I had the kind of religious experience I needed: the kind that let me let go of God. And the friends of mine who have had their own religious experiences have their own needs and are making their own way through this confusing existence; they are certainly entitled to my respect and my support for their journeys.

With colleagues and acquaintances, though, I think my obligations are different. Not to be an asshole, first of all. But there are certain political considerations. If you believe as I do that religion is on balance a bad thing for our society, you ought to do something to shake up the status quo. In discussions about God and religion, it’s important to me to state my position clearly: it’s not that I’m “not especially religious” or am “not really into it at this point in my life,” both lines I’ve used many times when really getting into the topic wouldn’t be appropriate. No, I’m an atheist, and I can tell you why I don’t believe and answer back when you tell me why I should believe. In situations where this discussion can take place without offense, it indicates respect rather than disrespect: respect for rational persons capable of changing their minds based on reasons and evidence, even if that’s only part of the real story of why we believe what we believe.

34 responses to “Respecting believers”

  1. Scotty says:

    Dave, thank you so much for your story. I have admired the courage of all the Jack Mormons I have recently come in contact with. This isn’t to say that faith doesn’t require its own kind of courage; I’m not trying to cast any stones here.

    As a former Catholic, my journey doesn’t feel quite so heroic; it seemed that the whole structure of the church was set up to dare one to leave, sort of like some really bad relationship: If you walk out that door, you’re never coming back! You understand?!

    Maybe this same rule applies to Mormonism, but with Catholics, perhaps because we tend to be a little more “ethnic,” the dare to leave seems a little more personal, a little more provocative.

    For me, the decision was made the way one might get up from the table at a bad date. I just threw the glass of wine in the bastard’s face and stormed out. Of course when I got outside, there were plenty of friends and family still around. My social circle didn’t need to change the way is does for Jacks. Again, I admire your courage; I really don’t think I would have had it.

    Do you guys ever sit around and wonder about the people you know who were never Mormon, and wonder if they would’ve stayed in the church? Like: “Scotty, that guy is a total follower. There’s no way he could have left!”

  2. Marleyfan says:

    Looks like we have a front-runner for the ’07 Whatsies. This post has so many issues on several levels. And although I’d like to share my ideas on many of the subjects you raised, I’d rather validate your feelings. And while we’ve never met in person, my heart goes out to you. It’s hard for me to imagine what it must have felt like to be so torn between the feelings of your “spiritual” side, and having them conflict with your “physical” side (even as I write this, I realize that the spiritual is not all spiritual nor the physical all physical). I sympathize with the deleterious information that was presented to you which invalidated many of your thoughts and feelings. And while our society has made it into the boat, and cast off the lines, we still have cross the sea of acceptance, understanding, and embracing.

    The longer I live, the more I realize that life is about balance; the more one leans towards extremes, the more problems it presents. Pope John Paul II said that “Man always travels along precipices. His truest obligation is to keep his balance”. And while we need to trust both reason and evidence, we need to trust our feelings and emotions.

  3. Stephanie Wells says:

    Another fascinating, provocative, and thoughtful post from you! No surprise–your last one had me all thunk up in knots. This issue is so interesting to me, particularly because of the many things in recent news urging away the previously PC position of “respecting others’ faith” even if we don’t have it ourselves; Sam Harris etc. (and even the guy who writes for the back page of the LA Times Sunday Mag, to my surprise, since it’s so mainstream) have argued that it’s NOT the politically correct or “tolerant” thing to do to respect religious beliefs when they cause so much discrimination and strife and overall negative impact on the world. As much as I resent the way religion allows unspeakable things to be perpetrated in the name of “faith,” it’s been hard for me to get my mind around embracing intolerance—but I’m starting to get my hippie liberal self there.

    Raised a garden-variety WASP, I didn’t have the dramatic break from the church that most of you Mormons were faced with, the “coming out”—it just began to feel more and more cultish to me to stand in a crowd droning “We worship you . . .” and eventually I felt too uncomfortable to continue “belonging.” But I will say I’m grateful for the religious education I grew up with (just Sunday-school, not my regular school) because it helps me constantly in my scholarly pursuits to have the sociohistorical context for so much religious allusion. You can’t really read a lot of Western texts with no religious understanding. I wouldn’t raise kids religious (not that I have any), but recently have had to admit it did help me out to have all that knowledge engrained from a young age—but of course, education is different from indoctrination, knowledge different from belief. It’s part of human history, but it would be great if it could be something we’re taught in schools as the belief systems of past cultures, not brainwashed from birth that this is the One Truth and all nonbelievers shall burn in hell. (Can you tell I just saw “Jesus Camp”?)

  4. Marleyfan says:

    Sure religion is has flaws (some of them major) but one must look beyond one extreme, and look towards the other to find the “balance”.

    If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it? Benjamin Franklin

    The purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts. Dalai Lama

  5. Dave says:

    I haven’t ever sat around wondering who would have left and who would have stayed. Sounds like a mean party game. I have wondered what I would have done in different circumstances, and, like I said above, I feel lucky I was able to get out.

    Also, Scotty, I’m reminded of something Octavio Paz said, that the Catholic Church is really like a mother who knows her children remain her children even when they’ve gone someplace else entirely. But I love your analogy of a bad relationship; it seems apt for many Catholics I know.

    Re: embracing intolerance, there’s a clear line for proper behavior in the public sphere. It’s important to take a stand on vital political issues, of which religion provides many. This is a type of intolerance, I guess, if you’re used to the nice-guy liberal line that respecting religious beliefs means never criticizing them or only voicing the most limited disagreement. (“Well, I’m not sure that works for me, but I’m sure you mean it in the best possible way.”) But we secular liberals shouldn’t (and usually don’t) go after believers in the same way believers have gone after unbelievers: angry mob, torches, that kind of thing. There are tricky cases on the border of speech and action (should devout Muslim women be allowed to wear veils for their driver’s license photos?), but for the most part I wouldn’t call vigorous debate a sign of intolerance.

    And MarleyFan, thanks for the kind words and for engaging the topic. In response to Ben Franklin, who barely if at all believed in God, I tend to agree with those who say that only religion can make a good person do evil things. And if the Dalai Lama is correct in the quote you give, I’d have to conclude that the major religious traditions have largely failed at their purpose, having created big temples and precious little goodness. (See, arguing about religion is fun!)

  6. W2 says:

    My life has sort of been your journey in reverse: I had no religion growing up, save for a very few Sunday mornings spent making macaroni Jesuses in a room above a church while mom struggled to find a way through her divorce at the altar below. A few years ago, I dated a guy that was raised one breath away from Orthodox. I went to an “Intro to Judaism” class that should’ve been called “Introduction to Conversion,” as it was full of shiksas with giant engagement rings preparing for a pre-wedding conversion. After the class and after the relationship, I kept on with the studies, enjoying Torah classes a lot. This is partly because of a rabbi who demands that everything be questioned, and partly because of a community that continues to inspire faith if not in God, in one another.

    Another great post, and I marvel at your ability to make Big Things digestible. Essays like this one, that combine your personal history and ongoing story, are for me especially powerful.

  7. brooke says:

    Dave, great post. My own immediate response to organized religion (esp. western religions) is usually hostility, and I think it’s because I don’t like being preached to or proselytized to. Proselytizing is plain annoying, and much (but clearly not all) of the harm that religion causes is because of this component. But I also see Atheism as another believe system not at all dissimilar to religion. Whether or not God exists in some form (maybe not the old bearded Cracker or whatever) is a moot argument because we don’t have empirical evidence one way or the other. So I’m firmly in the agnostic camp – not so that I won’t offend anyone, but because a definitive answer isn’t attainable. Granted, I wasn’t raised religious and the closest I ever got was growing dreads and listening to bob marley, so I didn’t have to reject anything to get where I am.

    There was an interesting article, which I’m sure you read, about this very topic in Wired a few months back called “The Church of the Non-Believers”. One of the key take aways from that article is that Richard Dawkins is kind of a dick. Some of his points are well taken, but I don’t think one needs to be an atheist to talk about how religion negatively effects society. The trick is probably to be able to have that conversation in a respectful way — which I suppose is the point of your post to begin with.

    At any rate, good stuff. You have my vote for a Whatsie ’07 award, and my respect for all the stuff you’ve had to do to get where you are.

  8. brooke says:

    And by the way, The Departed totally deserved it ;)

  9. Dave says:

    Richard Dawkins does seem like of a dick.

    You raise another point, Brooke, that I didn’t have space for, that religion is simply irrelevant (or at most marginally important) for many people. I view this as a good thing — there are more important things to worry about than ancient mythologies — but for better or worse my own life has forced me to pay a fair amount of attention to religion.

    On another point, I agree we don’t have empirical evidence of God’s nonexistence. It’s hard enough to prove that Elvis no longer exists. But I like Bertrand Russell’s teapot thought experiment: If I told you there was a teapot orbiting the sun, but that it’s too small too see though our telescopes, you would rightly demand some evidence before believing me; provisionally, you would say the teapot didn’t exist, but you would remain ready to be proved wrong if I could show you some data to confirm my claim. Similarly with God — that there’s no evidence for his existence is enough reason to disbelieve in him, but not enough reason to discount the possibility of his existence. It’s just as possible that Zeus exists as Yahweh, right? But most of us agree that it’s silly to be an agnostic regarding the existence of Zeus.

  10. Dave says:

    8: Actually, I haven’t seen it, so I’ll remain agnostic for now.

  11. Matt C says:

    Thanks Dave for a wonderful post. Your timing is perfect as these are issues I have been thinking about recently as well–although not with your insight or depth.

    I too prayed about being gay. My question, however, was why I was gay? Back when I was Mormon, God tended to speak in a voice in my head and I quite clearly heard him laugh and say, “How should I know?” I was left with the distinct image of myself standing at the last judgement all pure and celibate and God saying, “Nice work, but you know it would have been okay to be gay.” Imagining the horror of wasting my life to please others for no reason is what finally gave me the courage to come out.

    But one last question: Do you really feel the beliefs you spent 20 years building collapsed all at once? I know that I have declared myself “free” of Mormonism over and over again, only to find it come blazing back at awkward and embarrasing moments.

  12. Dave says:

    “like of a dick” in 9 s/b “like kind of a dick” or, I guess, “like unto a dick.”

    Matt: You’re right, I didn’t suddenly become free of all the beliefs and habits of Mormonism. What collapsed was my belief in God and an afterlife, specifically. And I think those beliefs had been secretly crumbling for several years, waiting for a sufficiently strong push to knock them down entirely. I still have loads of Mormon habits and patterns of behavior, but I like to think that at least my conscious beliefs are fairly free of Mormon content.

  13. that’s a lot of dick, dave.

  14. Marleyfan says:

    Re: “I’d have to conclude that the major religious traditions have largely failed at their purpose, having created big temples and precious little goodness”.

    Unless you have an control group, there is no way to *conclude* that religion has given little good.

    Referring to my response the other day, religion has helped me have some hope, so it’s done some good.

    I considered engaging more fully, but I’m going to to my Scientology meeting instead.

  15. Dave says:

    Okay, “precious little goodness” was unfair. I take you at your word that religion has been a positive thing in your life, and I know it has been positive on balance in the lives of many people I know. That’s what makes religion so tricky — it does a lot of good for some people, a lot of bad for others.

    You have to concede religions spend a lot of time and money building big temples, though.

  16. MARLEYfan says:

    I concede. But you really gotta check out this Scientology thing. L.Ron’s gott it goin’ on.

  17. LP says:

    Dave, I love the vision of you praying to God, asking if it’s okay to follow the gay lifestyle. That is poignant and fantastic on so many levels.

    I never thought to pray about whether it was okay to be gay; I just kind of decided it had to be, because it was the most natural thing I’d experienced to that point. The domino effect came when I realized that, despite the fact that I’d always believed in and trusted all the things I’d been taught (having been lucky enough to have a wonderful childhood and two loving parents, I’d never had reason to question anything), something I’d grown up believing was wrong. And if that was wrong, what was to stop anything else I’d learned from being wrong? So it was that I ended up rejecting most everything I’d learned and been happy following — heterosexuality, political conservatism, Christianity — all in the span of about 18 months. It was bizarre, a total, unexpected transformation. That’s why I skipped so many classes in college.

  18. MARLEYfan says:

    Oh I almost forgot, John and Tom told me to tell you hello.

  19. brooke says:

    I realized while I was at the gym that there must be a way to work this guy into this conversation (not Kenneth Starr, who is a jackass and looks stupid in that hat), but the high school student who saw fit to unfurl a 14′ banner with the words “Bong Hits for Jesus” on it across the street from his high school.

    And if we’re talking about bongs (and we are now), we need some guidance from Mrs. Garrett from Facts of Life. And no conversation about Mrs. Garrett can be had without watching this.

    And that’s my comment!

  20. Stephanie Wells says:

    Re. building big churches: my mom refers to the giant, illuminated, pointy-steepled, gilded Mormon church in her neighborhood (in San Diego) as “Rocket to God.”

  21. Miller says:

    I love this site because I can read a post one morning and spend the entire day contemplating American Idol, only to read a post the next morning that sparks introspection about my (non)religious background and obligation to take a stand regarding religion itself; the best part is that both posts are equally well-done and a joy to read.

    Dave, as I stated in my comment to your last post, I was raised by atheist parents. As I got older, I think they became a little anxious about shaping my moral principles, so they gave me Zen Buddhist texts to read with the very adament preface that these should be taken as philosphical guidance, not for religious purposes. Not that these texts aren’t fascinating and didactic, but what strikes me now is that my parents felt the need to look outside their own beliefs to find morality, as if they had given in to the absurd stereotype that to be raised an atheist is to be raised without ethical awareness or the ability to be empathetic.

    Ironically, my sister converted to Mormonism (she’s older than me by 14 years and wasn’t raised with the strong atheist convictions I was, but definietly without religion) when she started her own family. She continues to tell my parents and I that she prays for us every night and puts us on some prayer list at her church (do Mormons have those, or am I making that up?) so that we will be saved when we die, even though she knows how strongly we believe in what we do; I usually respond with (in my best sarcastic-little-sister voice) “Great, and I just want you to know that every night I contemplate how your God doesn’t really exist and that you’re totally wrong, and then I tell my friends how wrong you are and we all contemplate your wrongness together.” Of course, we have the kind of relationship where this is taken in the spirit for which it was intended and we laugh about it, but if this were heard by an outsider I’m pretty sure I would be regarded as an intolerant ass, while she would be viewed as a compassionate person who is just looking out for my well-being. Though these extremes are problematic, I think they reflect one of the unfair consequences of being an atheist — you run the risk of being offensive to others, when the “parallel,” as you put it, for a religious person seemingly warrants tolerance and respect.

    I also have to say that the descritption of you praying about leaving your religion is one of the most touching scenes I’ve read in a while.

  22. bryan says:

    19: in the running for best comment of 2007. how did i miss that episode when i was a kid?

    20: i believe that would be a big temple and not a “church.”

    21: i agree, miller. dave’s prayer scene was exactly what you said it was. i’m proud to say, though, that i was privy to dave’s coming out announcement, which was also tops: “i’m as gay as a ____.”

    can anyone guess the simile?

  23. Beth W says:

    Although raised by fairly non-religious parents, I did attend services and vacation Bible school at the local Baptist church with a cousin when I was around age 6. I loved church for the singing. I still love singing in church for the same reason – the spirit of “collective joy.” It’s the same feeling I get during the seventh inning stretch.

    I took a class in college called “The question of God.” The best and most approachable reading from the class was the book “The God We Never Knew” by Marcus J. Borg. As I recall, it asserts the existence of God can not be proven but there is substantial evidence of human experience of the existence of a spiritual being. Of course, those people could be nuts but maybe not. Some might see the presence of collective joy in church or at a baseball game as a sign of God. Others would see it as just some “good times.”

    I was doing phone surveys a couple of years ago about an election including how and why people voted on am anti-gay marriage measure. I was angered to speak with people who voted against gay marriage for religious reasons when they so often were ignorant of the history of their chosen religion (ex: yes, a Baptist is a Protestant, you idiot). We supposedly have a separation of church and state yet people are allowed to use their religious beliefs to make political decisions. But you can’t really change that, can you?

  24. LP says:

    22. Hey, I said it was “poignant and fantastic” first.

  25. Marleyfan says:

    As gay as a…
    Ok, we give.
    What was it?

  26. Dave says:

    Unfortunately, Bryan isn’t at liberty to give the answer. So the guessing game will have to continue.

  27. LP says:

    Gay as a fiesta?
    Gay as Fiestaware?
    Gay as a firecracker?
    Gay as a Knickerbocker?
    Gay as a pinwheel?

  28. Scotty says:

    Here are my top five guesses:

    As gay as a super-duper “curious” straight man
    As gay as a San Francisco realtor
    As gay as a SOHO gallery owner
    As gay as a WWF wrestling match
    As gay as a Gene Wilder-file

  29. Scotty says:

    LP, I love “pinwheel”

  30. Scotty says:

    Oh, jeez, that was supposed to be a “ph.” I just can’t crack the whole spelling thing.

  31. Rachel says:

    Oh, I know the answer and it’s killing me not to tell. In fact, I knew it before I knew Dave!

  32. bacon says:

    “The saying goes that an agnostic is just an atheist who lacks the courage of her convictions”


    Thanks for quoting me, but some credit would have been nice.

    Let’s finally acknowledge that in our culture, if the word is to have any meaning, “atheist” means you don’t believe in the god of the bible or the koran. And the “Oh yea, I think I might believe in some supernatural cosmic force” responise is NOT “agnostic”. (Edward O Wilson, shame on you).

    (my philospher friend defined “belief” as the willingness to get off the tracks if you “believed” a train were coming, even if you broke both your legs in the process. By that definition, very few of us conduct our lives as if we believe. We are all athiests.)

    The unspoken implication is everyone our culture respects (with the exception of George W Bush) is techincally an atheist. Jefferson, Washinton, Hamilton, Einstein, Edison…Clinton…Dave B…

    I would write more, but as CEO with 110,000 employees to oversee, I can’t possibly be responsible for every action, e-mail exchange, crafty political machination, or mere thought which goes on under my watch.

    (will Sampson burn in hell, or reach the highest level of Celestial Glory? Time for Greatwhatsit to weigh in.)

  33. bacon says:

    By the way, the new “lonliest number” is 110,000.

  34. Dave says:

    Bacon, shouldn’t you be drafting your letter of resignation instead of commenting on a lowly blog? Or at the very least preparing obfuscations for a Senate committee?

    Your comment reminded me of a view argued by an old professor of mine, Georges Rey, that he calls “meta-atheism” — the proposition that even people who claim to believe in God don’t really believe. A short version of his argument is here; his point #6 is similar to your point, and his point #7 is probably something I had in the back of my mind while writing this post. I don’t fully agree with Rey, but it’s an interesting thesis.