Sunday, March 31, 2013

The trouble with certainty

Have militant atheists created a new religion? Despite inaccurate and projective complaints from the religious right, I think they have.

A few years ago, my sister wrote a term paper that cited me as an atheist. She had me proofread the paper, and I stopped cold when I read that. I found something viscerally repulsive about the description, a feeling that surprised me in its force. I'm certainly not religious, but atheist? Is that how I came off? And why does this bother me, anyway?

I had my sister revise the description a bit, learning a little bit about myself in the process. Turns out, I'm not an atheist, at least in the most common societal definition. I'm friends with plenty of avowed atheists, and many of them are (as Frans de Waal describes in the above link) ironically dogmatic about it. They tend to have grown up in strictly religious environments, and have simply replaced belief in a godly system with belief in a godless system. The fervor, the evangelism and the certainty all remain. 

De Waal argues that such a mindset arises from trauma, and I'm inclined to agree. The most militant atheists I know all have some past rift with their indigent church. Even if it's something minor to outsiders, it shaped everything that has come after (and makes it just as likely that they'll change completely yet again in the future).

Such trauma never hit me, probably because church was always an outside experience. We went very occasionally, and for me it always felt like an obligation. I did pick up some Catholic-centric ideas about the nature of heaven, hell and sinning — mostly through reading on my own and imagining heaven as shown on funeral cards — but they were mostly harmless notions easily disposed as I got older. I lived in numerous fantasy lands as a child, and that was just another one of them.

So despite the lamentations of many a well-meaning relative or friend, I think I came out better because of it. I never rebelled because there was nothing to rebel against; my beliefs came about through education and consideration rather than any traumatic rift. That's likely why I rarely think about what I believe, talk even less about it and never try to convert anyone. Personal morals should be an evolutionary process, one not prone to the high-pressure sales tactics of extreme evangelists. Which is why I'm no more comfortable watching Bill Maher rip up a church figure than I am watching Kirk Cameron try to convert people in the Third World. It seems cheap either way.

As to what I believe: it basically boils down to, I just don't know. None of us do. The only certain things are that 1) we're all guessing and 2) that some have preyed on that guessing as a means of real-world control. 

Any other certitude is arrogance. And that's the worst dogma of all.

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