This blog post has been a few months in the making. You might have noticed, if you’ve been following me, that recently I’ve been a lot less harsh regarding religion and much more focused on social justice issues and politics. This is no accident. It is the result of the fact that several occurrences I’ve experienced have revealed tendencies in the tenor of anti-theist conversation that have given me pause.
To be sure, I am still an atheist. That hasn’t changed. I see no strong evidence for God, and I make my decisions without thinking that an all-powerful being is concerned about me. I see no logical way to argue any of the manifestations of God, and I think that concepts of God too often get in the way of our organization of society. Most people who believe in God seem to think that God has some authority over morality or over the way we should understand other people, and I think that does more harm than good. All that hasn’t changed.
What has changed is my realization that there are two aspects to God that often get confused. This is told well in the old rebuttal to the statement that there are no atheists in foxholes — the person jokingly admits, “I agree; last time I was in a foxhole I was terrified, and I promptly believed that Gay Marriage was a sin.” The funny aspect here is that the statement that there are no atheists in foxholes is made because the speaker thinks, however erroneously, that the atheist in the foxhole needs someone to hold onto in times of great stress. The stuff God says about Gay Marriage doesn’t really seem to occur to most Christians (yes, I’m using Christianity as an example of theism) because that’s in a separate realm.
Having been more-or-less on the front lines of anti-theism for a couple years, I can tell that most anti-theists take pride in a stoic view of a desolate existence. We are on this spinning ball of dust, alone in a vast universe. And this gives us a kind of Nietzschean strength and courage that makes us more powerful human beings than religious people.
One of the many reasons I stopped being an anti-theist is that I became uncomfortable with this pride. I couldn’t ever really embrace it. I mean, I’m a relatively comfortable individual who is privileged in a wide variety of ways. I’m not in a position to make fun of someone else’s weakness, their difficulty in facing the outside world. If you’re alone, and you’re destitute, and you’re struggling to make it through each day, and you don’t have a friend — maybe sometimes you have to make someone up. Who am I, in my position, to be proud that I’m not doing that?
It took me awhile to admit this, as an atheist. But I’ve seen and heard too many stories that indicate this is true. My mom, for example, could hardly move for months on end. She had a vibrant personality, but her disease suddenly confined her to a wheelchair for months. On top of that, she struggled with a cancer diagnosis. She didn’t know, from day to day, whether she would live or die. Most of the kids had moved out the house, so she (she lives 1000 miles away from me) often spent long hours by herself under conditions that might have crushed me.
How did she get through it? In her stronger moments, she put verses like Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” — all around her bedroom and the connected bathroom (walls, ceilings, mirrors — everywhere), so she could look at them and keep going. I was a Christian for a good part of the time, so she also wrote in a Bible that she dedicated to me after a year, and I could hear the life in her voice every time she called and told me what she wrote in it. She cried and prayed. She had hope.
I know the regular anti-theist message is that she is alone and could possibly find the strength to keep going in the desolate universe, but I could tell, even as an atheist, that my mother needs relationship and connection. So she hung on to God tightly. Maybe other people could have pride in their stoicism, but my mother, in those circumstances of often crippling desperation and weakness, couldn’t afford that pride.
And I’ve seen the same thing in Facebook friends who have clung to God in horrible illness, as I’ve imagined them struggling in their hospital beds. I’ve seen it in person in the eyes of people who have lived beautiful lives, over and over again. I’ve seen anti-theists — hell, I’ve been an anti-theist — who have insisted that these people would be stronger if they stood on their own two feet and were “weak” because they leaned on God.
But as I’ve studied religion and the motivations for why people believe in God, I became increasingly hesitant when it came to demeaning people who depend on God to get through hard times. Especially when, frankly, so many I’ve encountered over the last few months among atheists are people who take pride in demeaning the vulnerable. How can I tell them to leave a God they think loves them for a group of atheists who takes pride in showing how little they care about their concerns, who makes fun of every moment they need a tissue, who laughs at every attempt to beg them to care?
At the same time, God as a concept is problematic. It usually insulates really harmful views about other people in the believer’s mind. It often puts us in the wrong direction when it comes to helping each other and making the world a better place. It gives us a fundamentally false, deeply dangerous view of the world.
So I want to get rid of that dangerous view in the world. I want to fight fiercely against the sense of religion that got Trump elected, for example. But over the last year I’ve seen, slowly, that getting rid of God doesn’t do the trick, because a lot of atheists voted for Trump or actively campaigned for him and his principles. Those same attitudes I thought were harmful were in atheists.
That showed me that convincing people not to believe in God alone would not necessarily make the world a more wholesome, loving place to live. The key wasn’t so much to get people to stop believing in God, as much as it is to nurture their connection to other people. And I found I could do that best through trying to advocate for other people. I mean, I still object to God now and then, and I’m down for a good debate. But my focus is on nurturing love for other people.
And I’m beginning to see — especially in the wake of a Trump presidency that was disturbingly supported by many anti-theists — that eradicating God doesn’t necessarily increase our love, care, and consideration for people. In some cases, people seem to see the deletion of God as the creation of a playground without rules, where (to put it plainly) they can treat people like shit. I’m not interested in being authoritarian but I do think loving people, in a reality-based world, carries some importance and value.
I’ve come to realize, over my time as an atheist, that I simply connect better with people — regardless of religious background — who are passionate about ensuring people are loved and cared for, more than I connect to atheists who makethose who have these needs punchlines to jokes. And I’m not comfortable telling vulnerable Christians to leave a God they believe loves them for a world in which many atheists simply don’t. I’m convinced that the most powerful and valuable way to end belief in God is to show people — regardless of religious background — that we will build relationships, that we will nurture love, and that we will strengthen the caring bonds of humanity where we can. This seems to be the best way to replace a love for God with a love for humanity, which has always been my real goal.
The difficult part of this is that there is a paradox in the contrast between a God who gives comfort that I have seen some people need (in some shape or form, even if it isn’t in the form of God) in very tough times, and that same God dictating hate or misunderstanding towards other people and stealing them of comfort. The fact that the God who strengthens the vulnerable also functions as the puppet of the powerful. That contrast is where my anger at God lies, and it’s why I may sometimes be in two minds when it comes to God — cursing out the God of the Catholic priest who molests the child, but sympathetic to the molested person’s newfound liberal Protestant faith that transforms a God who brought him shame into a God who brings Him love and confidence (even if I think that it would be better if he could find that love and confidence without God). There’s a difference between the God my mother needs for strength, through her tears, in the midst of her disease and cancer diagnosis in the privacy of her home, and the God who thinks gay people should be stoned to death. There are many differences between, as another example, God as a privately experienced source of meditation and personal strength, and God as a publicly enacted concept that has fueled control and domination.
I can say that because I believe that God is not real. It’s just a concept with a list of characteristics, and there are some characteristics that may help people in their lives, even as there are many characteristics that ruin lives. It’s just a concept. It’s not real. And it exists for reasons within the desire of many human beings within their environments. If we can locate those reasons, analyze them, and use the knowledge we get from doing so to not only deconstruct it, but to put something in its place that continues to make people happy without doing as much damage, then that’s valuable work. It’s hard work. It requires harder thinking than merely insisting God doesn’t exist. But it may be a more effective for enriching people’s lives while we’re here.
And the way to do that, for me, as it appears to me now, is to focus on loving humanity more than on loving or hating God. Not to wear myself out trying to eradicate God, although that may be a side project, as much as I concentrate on showing how human beings are so much more real and important that the concept of God doesn’t really matter.
This is a shift in focus. And I’m still trying to figure a lot of it out, because it’s complicated. Love is very complicated, because love requires the pursuit of often complex, contradictory understandings of people’s lives that is trying honestly and stridently to figure out how to accurately empathize with them, how to enrich their lives and the lives of their neighbors.
I think it’s important to say here that I’m not trying to tell you that you have to do this work. I’m saying that I’ve come to a point in my life where I have to do it. Atheism — the mere denial of God — was the entry, for me, into a life in which I cared about people more. It’s the Truth, but it matters, in my current perspective, only insofar as it can help me work towards a more understanding, loving world that enriches our lives. Perhaps that does, indeed, require getting rid of God. But if it does, I want to do it in a way that ensures people’s lives are enriched, that they are being understood and cared for, and that they have a home in the hearts of people who they know have given them reason to care about themselves and others.
I’ll be saying more about this in the future, but that’s the nuts and bolts of it for now. Thanks for reading.
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