Come, come ye unbelievers

A friend has long remarked that “an agnostic is an atheist who lacks conviction.” As he and I have discussed that matter he has convinced me that I am indeed an atheist.

But I’m writing this to be more specific, and nuanced. In conversation I prefer the sound of A-theist, with the emphasis on the first hard A. To me this represents a particular emphasis on questioning the need for religion rather than holding a specific answer as to a god’s existence.

In the American vernacular, atheism carries with it a note of secure knowledge. And perhaps the threat of propaganda, advocacy, or evangelism. And in fact I have known a few evangelical atheists, but in my experience they have been the exception. However, in this society of increasing Christian fundamentalism, in conjunction with global religious fanaticism of all types, it is necessary to chart the contours, and kindly advocate for unbelief.

So in response to my friend I would say, “An evangelical atheist is a humanist who lacks compassion.”

The cold realization that there is no redemption is not really anything to celebrate. Thus the persistence of religion, the theater of the celebration of life. But it is theater, and while it has its appeal, too much of a good thing, anything, turns bad.

So might I suggest a more balanced approach. Maybe there is a force that sustains all living things and will preserve our individual identities after death, or redeem our toil. But maybe there isn’t.

In my experience, believing or not doesn’t really change the quality of my life. Last fall we had the unexpected pleasure of a dinner guest from Oregon. She was sorting through the collapse of her faith (guess which one!?!) and she remarked: “You know, it’s just such a relief to let go of that conviction that you MUST believe, it feels so nice to just to be, and to not worry about what you do, or don’t believe.” I second that.

But I remain deeply sympathetic to religious people. Partly because my upbringing was so religious, it’s slightly nostalgic, but more critically, it is the function of religion to comfort people with the deep, cruel, perplexing unfairness of life.

We’ve just finished watching the two-part Frontline documentary “The Mormons” on PBS. Near the end of the second episode, Harold Bloom makes some observations about religion in general and Mormonism in particular. His comments are made in the last ten minutes of the film. Bloom is among the keenest observers of religion in the American academy. His remarks on “The Mormonism of the Prophet, Seer and Revelator, Joseph Smith” are astonishing in their clarity, pith, and beauty. You can find them here.

In general, I found the documentary wonderful. It is the religion of my family, and I don’t just mean my four birth siblings. Mormonism provided me with a family that extends from Canada to Mexico through the Intermountain corridor. But over the last few years I have come to see the limitations of my provincial upbringing and the small town boosterism that was so much a part of it. Sadly, I’ve come to understand, Salt Lake City is not the center of the universe.

We truly are alone here on earth. If the Gods put us here she and he expect us to grow up and take care of ourselves. And part of that is taking care of the planet and each other. And perhaps that means softening the sting of death. And politely tolerating the means by which others do.

I have no immediate answers in encouraging this conversation surrounding religion. In evening the temperature of this culture in regards to religion I would encourage every humanist to internalize the core of the healing arts and “do no harm” but speak up none the less.

38 responses to “Come, come ye unbelievers”

  1. joseph smith says:

    All I have to say about that PBS special is that Terryl Givens is the Grima Wormtongue of Mormonism.

  2. Dave says:

    Very interesting thoughts.

    Lane implies that being a believer makes life better, and that it’s unkind to disabuse people of religious faith. Is that right? Is it ever kinder to help someone leave their faith behind? I’m not talking about telling orphans they’ll never see their parents again. But aren’t most adults better off not suffering under an illusion?

  3. Jeremy says:

    “an agnostic is an atheist who lacks conviction”–hmmm… sounds like a compliment to me…

    i’ve often wondered how my jack-mormon friends, especially those who’ve been on missions, feel now about the people they’ve converted–guilty for getting people to believe in something they no longer believe themselves? or satisfied that they might’ve helped someone in “softening the sting of death”? or some combination of these feelings?

  4. ssw says:

    Lane, I really appreciated your post (I wondered if anyone would mention The Mormons) and particulary was touched by your comment towards the very end about growing up and realizing you have to grow up, take care of yourself and each other. It’s such a fundamental set of processes, but so complicated. Unraveling those basic expectations and figuring out how to do that is actually a lot of work (for me at least).
    Um, I just wanted to also say that did anyone happen to notice that Bryan was on tv.? You can see his pix on the pbs website–inconveniently NOT under dissenters and exiles, but rather under “disciplinary actions.” If you hover over the section (which you can also watch of course) his pix pops up. This brought back a lot of memories.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    BW, rockin’ the bullhorn! Wow.

    I caught the first half of this program and probably will watch the rest on line when I can. It’s fascinating stuff, really. Talking to my father about it, I was reminded by him that I, too, have my Mormon ancestry. My grandmother (his mother) was excommunicated when she was 17. Her grandmother trekked out of Nauvoo with a handcart . For all we know, I’m distant cousins of distant cousins of some of you Jack Mormon GWers.

  6. Dave says:

    Wow, excommunicated at 17. That’s badass. Also, w00t for protesting Bryan!

    Jeremy, your question is an interesting way to approach the issue. I did a mission in Ukraine and converted my share of people. My general line on this is that the people we interacted with had many different needs, and we only had one thing we were offering. Sometimes (rarely) what we were offering was what people needed. More often, our programmatic commitment to a very specific way of preaching Mormonism kept us from truly seeing and responding to very serious suffering.

    Ukraine in the early to mid ’90s was in economic, social, and political turmoil. People didn’t have jobs, or weren’t getting paid enough to support themselves, and had to resort to stealing from their employers or engaging in black-market trading to get by. Communism had collapsed, but in Ukraine there wasn’t the kind of Western-oriented optimism about democracy that there was in places like Czechoslovakia or Poland, and there was tremendous uncertainty about what lay ahead.

    Mostly, in the cases where I feel our preaching did some good, the people who converted were in need of structure, meaning, and most of all community. Mormon congregations are tight-knit, and the tiny, new congregations in Ukraine could be very supportive for some people. On the other hand, many new converts did not fit in (for various reasons). Church activity made a lot of demands on people and strained many family relationships. Some people became convinced that Mormonism was true but couldn’t live up to its strict rules and ended up sometimes in some pretty destructive guilt. So very mixed outcomes, I’d say.

    And as always, you have to look at opportunity costs of this kind of thing. I believe I helped some people, but I would have done more good by spending two years in the Peace Corps or some other secular and more effective work. And many of those who were helped by Mormonism would also have been aided by some non-religious activities, and maybe would have been even better off.

  7. James says:

    An author friend of mine once commented on the fact that I seemed to participate far less in activities at my church (Mormon) than my wife. He asked why that was.

    I thought about it a moment, and replied that it was because I was more inclined to be spiritual, while she was more inclined to be religious.

    I think the distinction comes in part because I had to be religious to discover the distinction, and to then find my way to being spiritual – without relying on being religious.

  8. James says:

    And speaking of bringing back some memories…

    I chose NOT to serve a mission, which was a shock to my mostly-Mormon community, because I was the quintessential ‘good Mormon boy’, in every other extreme.

    The problem was, I’d decided on my career several years earlier, and believed that I was already on the path that was meant for me. And I had (at nineteen) NO conviction in my heart for spending two years as a missionary. So I didn’t go. And I paid a heavy (societal and cultural and emotional) price for years for that choice.

    The funny thing was, among the friends who DIDN’T judge me for that decision was one returning from his mission at the time – and I ended up being the first one at the airport to meet him getting off the plane. This was because his family got stuck in traffic…

    Bryan’s mom was happy for YEARS that I (and one other friend) were there so SOMEONE would be able to say “welcome home…”!

  9. Lane says:

    WOw that Grima womtouge comment is perfect

    I kept saying to Adriana ” Gosh this guy is going for the Gene England gold star, famous mormon, tenure at UVCC, best seller at Deseret Book, good freind of . . . that wilderness author that teaches at the U. Award”


  10. Lane says:

    God the more I think about that analogy the better it is,

    When Ms, Whitney was on Lenord Lopate on WNYC she kept quoting that guy.

    Who the hell is he? Ah Adriana tells me he teaches in VIRGINA! perfect! and that the author is Terry TEMPEST WILDERNESS!

    Oh my god what a hoot!@

  11. Adriana says:

    But aren’t most adults better off not suffering under an illusion?

    Dave, some people have serious issues (e.g. severe physical disabilities) that are better soothed by hopes for a better life in the beyond than by enlightenment.

  12. Dave says:

    11 — Yes, I agree. But the flip side of it is that when you see the cosmos as something that’s governed by an all-powerful force, as something that is imbued with meaning and purpose, your own misfortunes can appear as injustices. Lane refers to “the deep, cruel, perplexing unfairness of life,” but this way of talking still assumes that there’s a standard of fairness outside of what humans have come up with. By eliminating the idea of cosmic justice, many people are able to eliminate a sense that they are victims of injustice. This doesn’t work for everyone, for many reasons, and by all means people should feel free to believe whatever gets them through the night. But I think there are positive aspects to atheism even for people whose lives involve significant suffering.

  13. WailerFan says:

    Maybe instead of X or Y, the answer is X and Y depending on your perspective.

  14. Adriana says:

    yes exactly, what also needs to enter this discussion are expressions of gratitude of the non-belief.

    Kind of a “Pillars of My Doubt” kind of thing.

  15. lane says:

    that was Lane.

  16. Adriana says:

    Yeah, I guess so. But people like my sister see the cruelties of life as a test rather than an unjustice — we are all individuals so we all have our unique tests, etc.. And if she can maintain her hope and faith through her particular trials she will be rewarded in the next life — she will be able to marry and have a family, something she is highly unlikely to do in this life. I think if my sister saw her disability as a random act of chance rather than a divine test she’d want us to propel her wheelchair off a cliff.

    I suppose it depends on which cruelties life has dealt you and how easily they are addressed by various belief systems.

  17. Adriana says:

    I don’t know why I’m still thinking about this…

    But how about this idea: the intellectual enlightenment of atheism is a luxury few people in this world can afford.

    Would most of us be better off if we let go of religion? Sure — but only if we also had all had the use of all our limbs, proper healthcare, a solid education, supportive communities, meaningful roles in society, enough to eat, good housing, etc. etc. Faith in a higher being is the easiest bandage to apply to the world’s wounds — maybe not the best, but the easiest.

  18. Miller says:

    Adriana, I like your last comment — perhaps religion is the easiest bandage, not the best. But the whole “unjustice” vs. “a test” dichotomy is what, I think, Dave was trying to disrupt: it’s hard to consider something an injustice if you believe there’s not an almighty judge up there to hand out the sentence. I know a man who was curbed (this action is much too horrific to describe here; if you don’t know what is is, I suggest watching American History X) by some skinheads when he was only 14, and was paralysed from the waist down — he also happens to be an atheist. From what he tells me, not believing in God is what gets him through the day; otherwise, he wouldn’t know how to deal with a God who made him go through such incomprehensible situations just to be tested. I have no way of knowing where my friend or your sister is coming from, so I don’t believe I can judge either of their beliefs, but I think it’s interesting to note that these opposing views of the world can come from two people who are disadvantaged in a way that many of us will never know.

    This whole debate reminds me of a Miguel de Unamuno short story, “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr.” Don Manuel is a priest who, we find as the story progresses, doesn’t believe in God. He defends his apparent hypocricy as follows: “Let them live. That is what the Church does, it lets them live. As for true religion, all religions are true as long as they give spiritual life to the people who profess them, as long as they console them for having been born only to die. And for each people the truest religion is their own, the religion that made them.” Here, he appears to be defending religion for its practical purposes, yet he admits that “religion is the opium of life,” then goes on to chant “Opium… Opium… Yes, opium it is. We should give them opium, and help them sleep, and dream. I, myself, with my mad activity, give myself opium.” This passage has always struck me because Unamuno seems to be implying that nonbelief can become as much of a crutch — an obsession — as belief. There is also a suggestion that nonbelievers can assume that those whom are less fortunate than them need religion, when that may not always be the case. I think both of these passages represent the complexities and appeal of religion/nonreligion, and also suggest that perhaps these binaries are more connected than many of us would like to admit. I do consider myself an atheist, but the postmodernist in me is not writing this to come to any solid conclusion or truth; I just find the intricacies of these debates to be quite fascinating.

  19. Lane says:

    Miller, thanks for this interesting response.

    This was the kind of conversation I was trying to elicit. When Dave and I were once talking about A- theism he made the comment “well sure, there could be a giant turtle holding up the earth, but I don’t think so.” That is to say, the hugely unlikelyness that there is spiritual, let alone bodily, salvation, leads me to say, “yeah well god probably doesn’t exist” and from that then what I’m trying to do is chart the advantages of such a position, and think about how to pass this on to my son.

    And intuitively I like it. Jasper “sister’s” are these two girls that live in California, children of Stanford Anthropoligists (you can imagine) It’s so great to be with them and listen to thier seven year old talk about human origins, purpose, and joy, from a completely secular posistion.

    I agree with Adriana of course but and I think prehaps she would agree with this, that if I like your friend, suffered a massive trauma, I don’t know this of course, but I would like to think that secualr humanism would be more comforting than god.

    But even more to the point, in terms of my own religious experience. We had a yearlong flirtation with main line Christianity, the Dutch Reformed Church, and we decided no. (Don’t get me wrong I LOVE coffee after sevices and all but . . .) But comng away from that experience, with that congregation and that pastor, I realized how open to conversation that world is, as opposed to a more fundamentalist religion. One could be an open atheist there, and talk about it that way, if one were so inclined. Openly mix and mingle faith and doubt. It would be so lovely to see the youthful enthusiam and organization in Mormon congregations be channeled into faith communities with GOOD architecutre.

    I don’t think Mormonism makes as many people “happy” as it claims. In fact I think there are thousands of people in it that would love to join “The Church of the New York Times” (as we used to call it) That would be better off without it.

    Come Come ye fencesitters, be not afraid, there were no Nephites.

  20. Dave says:

    Miller, that was an interesting and nuanced comment.

    Your discussion of religion as opium made me reflect on how truly apt that metaphor is. Religion can numb pain, “take the edge off” consciousness — to the point of severely blunting reason, and be the source of pleasure or even ecstasy. But it also enslaves. Still, the bargain may be worth it — and certainly many people don’t have a choice, due to their history and circumstances.

    I’m inclined to agree with Freud’s view of religion as an illusion that should be dispelled if it gets in the way of personal development and thriving. I have this (perhaps unjustified, but I’m going with it for now) view that we’re better off trying free ourselves of self-deception whenever possible. In my personal life, this trumps the William James view, which is true enough descriptively and has much to recommend it normatively, that people have the kinds of religious experiences they need. When dealing with other people, I try to balance these two approaches.

  21. Marleyfan says:

    One of my very best friends lost a child who was one year old. Having a hope of one day being able to re-connect with him keeps he and his wife going. I cannot begin to fathom what it would be like to lose a child, spouse, or parent. My grandmother lost a son at age 22, and has never fully recovered emotionally. And if it gives me some hope, and I live a good life in order to re-connect with my family and friends, leave me alone (and leave my hope alone). If religion didn’t have the negative aspects to it, maybe it would change our perspectives. I’m not naiive enough to think that life is fair (although it should be), and I’m very aware that bad stuff happens to good people by accident (not an act of providence).

  22. James says:

    There’s a quote floating around a messageboard I frequent (if I can find it I’ll post the attribution, and also, I’m paraphrasing) which essentially says that an enlightened person is concerned with their own spiritual well-being and the physical well-being of everyone else on the planet; an unenlightened person is concerned with their own physical well-being and the spiritual well-being of everyone else on the planet.

    This was one of the reasons I didn’t serve a mission for the Mormon Church – I felt it would be (in part) going out to press something on people who didn’t necessarily want it. I DID want to be available for someone seeking specific answers, and to be as helpful as I could for THEIR individual spiritual journey – but I also didn’t believe that required a twelve-step plan.

    My greatest spiritual mentor (to this day) was a Presbyterian Minister, who invited my family to dinner when I was made a Deacon – because he wanted to celebrate my progression in my faith, regardless of the organization it had occurred within.

    I’ll support people in their own choices and growth – because their experiences are not mine, and I cannot fully understand what they need to feel whole (or perhaps to even just get through the day). What I lost faith in was someone telling me what I needed, whether I believed I did or not.

  23. Dave says:

    James, I think there’s something to that aphorism. It at least goes to something very attractive at the heart of liberalism (in the political theory sense, not the red state/blue state sense), which is that we ought to let people decide the important questions for themselves — things like what constitutes the good life — while also trying to alleviate suffering and enable people to realize their conception of the good life (to the extent that it’s compatible with like liberty for others, as the phrase goes). You can argue that good liberal (I would refrain from “enlightened”) will have little to no concern for the spiritual/religious choices that perfect strangers make, as long as those choices don’t interfere with other people making their own choices. (There’s another side to this, though, since a liberal can also argue that faith is part of the public sphere insofar as it motivates people’s political actions. This is where you get people like Christopher Hitchens caring quite a bit about what people believe, because they think people’s religious beliefs have a quite negative effect on political outcomes.)

    Liberalism, though, provides better guidance for dealing with strangers than with friends. When it comes to people close to you, I think the ethics of this are more complicated. I wouldn’t presume to tell Marleyfan not to believe whatever he believes, for example, because I only know him as a commenter on this site. (Though to the extent that any of us commenters brings up our own beliefs in comments or posts, they of course become fodder for discussion.) But in the case of close friends, I feel an obligation to balance my support for their personal journeys with openness about my own beliefs, including my belief that religion is a form of self deception. This of course has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But in general, I don’t believe in walking on eggshells when discussing religion. (Not that that’s news to regular readers.)

  24. James says:

    That’s all very well stated, Dave. Especially the latter part. (And I chose ‘enlightened’ because I couldn’t recall the precise term used, and thought ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would be way too judgmental in an, uh, enlightened quote.)

    I’m also in agreement with you regarding friends or family: it is an obligation to make it clear why I do the things I do, and make the choices I’ve made, so they can fully understand, and draw on both the knowledge and personal experience (or, ignore it, as it suits their needs). With strangers (and with younger acquaintances), I am certainly more reserved, because there may not be enough of a relationship, or common ground on which to base sharing that kind of information. I don’t want to convince someone because of the force of personality and my conviction in my own beliefs. I want to share with them the aspects of my experience that might be useful to their current experience.

    Again, that circles back to my choice about a mission – I wanted to share what I believed, but didn’t want to do it within a box.

  25. Marleyfan says:

    Interesting discussion by all, to which (for the most part) I agree; I have adopted similiar strategies in my dealings with friends, family and strangers.

    And now that this problem has been solved, would you fix the Iraq crisis and global warming as well? And maybe add some tips for my noon raquetball game? :)

  26. James says:

    Wear good protective gear, and dive when your instinct says you should. You’ll score more points when you aren’t as worried about your knees and elbows.

    Not sure what to advise regarding raquetball, though.

  27. Miller says:

    Lane, I definitely agree that the discussion becomes much more complicated when you enter children into it. I can only imagine the difficulty in passing one’s own beliefs to a child, while still allowing them the freedom to develop their own views. This is one of the reasons why being a parent scares the hell out of me.

    And Dave, I also agree with the sheding ourselves of self-deception theory, and I also struggle with how to apply this to other people. Is it my place to state when I think someone else is decieving themselves? I tend to think not, though I lean both ways. I consider myself a fairly mature 24 year old, but I’m also very aware of the fact that I don’t have much life experience to back up many of my beliefs. Who the hell wants to listen to a 24 year old talk to them like they’ve got it all figured out? I don’t. So I always struggle with how to balance the two views that you describe.

    Damn, there’s so much good stuff to flesh out and address here, with MarleyFan and James too, but I’m already late for school. Perhaps I’ll pick this up again this evening if the discussion is still forming.

  28. Lane says:

    I haven’t read all of this, but on a tiny cultural note, It’s so nice to hear James talk about NOT becoming part of God’s “Sales Force”. Agian, something which that birth culture never gives people the chance to do, say no.

    And along those lines, I just wrote my missionary nephew in Texas, spelled out our position but also encouragd him to write us. THAT also drives me crazy about these big loving Mormon families, you have to have a temple recommend to belong!

  29. James says:

    Lane –

    That aspect of it is part of what pushed me into taking a different stance. I had (at that particular time) an excellent Bishop (of the Mesa singles ward I attended). One of those who ‘gets it’ and knows how to deal with balancing the letter of the law with the spirit of it. And he told me, point blank, that he thought I shouldn’t go on a mission. That my personal belief that my time was better spent pursuing my own path, and being a ‘teacher’ through personal example, and through my work was also his.

    I was astonished. He said that he believed a percentage of young men WEREN’T meant to serve missions – but if that was discussed publicly, then EVERY young man would decide he was part of that percentage.

    I had two problems with that – one public, one private.

    The private problem was that the method subverted free agency, which I believed was the primary right we’re supposed to have.

    The public problem was that missions and the expectation attached meant that not going painted an “Not an RM” stigma on my forehead. And it made being in a singles ward hell.

  30. Lane says:

    the funniest part of mormon missionary experience is how much time they waste. At least in the states so I’ve heard. I sure know we did. hours and hours of biking and driving around.

    all the rejection after like 6 weeks just makes you kind of give up. not everyone of couse, but a VAST majority. At least that’s what it was in D.C. South from 87 to 89.

    President J. L. Ward presided over the biggest bunch of goof off slackers the world had ever seen.


  31. Marleyfan says:

    I was asked by a close friend today why it is that when most people stay away, the more they self-validate the reasons to create distance. And the more people engage, the more feelings of support they find. This friend went on to ask that if it is truly a bad thing, if it really sucked, wouldn’t you suppose that people would become more disenfranchised the more they engage? I would pose two exceptions: women’s and gay issues.

  32. Lane says:

    true, as a social support system it can be a great force for community, but at times a closed community, which I suppose all communities are.

    But it’s not a social club, it is a religion that makes very specific claims about human history, and human destiny?

    I don’t know, Marley, when it gets down to the “but it’s still around because people like it” comment, that might get at the heart of the issue. People like religion.

  33. bryan says:

    wouldn’t you suppose that people would become more disenfranchised the more they engage?

    I think this actually describes my own experience, actually.

  34. James says:

    Hah! Bryan, that’s what I’ve referred to as my ‘Desert Island Reconversion’.

    As in, if I get to a point when participating in the organization is affecting my spiritual beliefs – I would (before losing my bearings completely) move to a desert island, where all that matters is what I believe personally.

    It’s hard to complicate a spiritual belief when you’re alone on a desert island.

  35. AW says:

    So many interesting things to respond to on TGW lately–religion questions, Bryan’s truly sucky job, some great embarrassing moments, treatments for all kinds of maladies, the fact that we are all going to die… The comments have been great too, and kept me company during some very long work hours. I’ll limit myself to these responses

    1) I am interested in Miller’s suggestion that both religion and atheism are constructs. This is an interesting post-modern argument that makes some sense to me. We tend to frame atheism as the antithesis of religion–as “other”–or the belief in nothing. But really, it is a belief in something, just something quite different from religion. As someone who has spent a long time studying both humanities and science, I have come to realize that both fields have their own grand narratives–narratives often unconsciously held as “true.” In this respect, I can see religion and atheism as narrative constructs as well.

    2) Which leads me to my second point, which is that if both are constructs, it behooves the thinking person to determine which construct suits them–and the contribution they wish to make to the world–the best. This is a choice not for or against religion, but a conscious choosing of which construct suits an individual best. Because individuals are constructs, too–products of the discourse community that formed them–it strikes me that a conscious evaluation of different narratives for the value they add to or take away from the planet can be a moral and ultimately freeing act. I also hold that the value of the act comes not in the choice that is made–in this case either for or against religion–but in the self-reflective process of determining the discourses that have shaped us and the additional discourses we choose to continue shaping our lives by.

  36. Lane says:

    Well yes atheism is a construct and people that get gung ho about it end up being just as fanatical as religious people -WELL MAYBE NOT, I mean we don’t have atheistic suicide bombers BUT we did have the Nazis and Stalin, SO maybe it is 50/50 on both accounts.

    In any event, it still feels wierd seeing a post, that can be seen publically, declaring that I’m an atheist, it’s not EXACTLY true, I really am an agnostic, but I go back to the friends comment, “Do you depend on god, or a relationship with god for your happiness” Well no, I don’t. By his definition that is A – theism. And I guess I agree with that.

    Thanks AW, nice comment.

  37. James says:

    In a Primary class, my daughter Sophie’s teacher asked if anyone knew what true happiness was. Soph raised her hand and said “It’s when we get to stay at a hotel with a pool, and have a big pile of new comic books and a box of strawberry Pocky.”

  38. Marleyfan says:

    Love it James. My nine year old son recently said that he learned in primary that it’s not the Ironic priesthood.