For the past year I have been trolling blogs and websites trying to wrap my brain around religion in general and evolution denial in particular. This ironically enough ties into the post you just made. A good friend of mine whom I fell out of touch with for a few years suddenly stumbled back into my life about a year ago. We had spent most of our early twenties together and I considered him an intelligent and thoughtful person.When we got to catching up I found out he out of nowhere believed that evolution was a “great lie” designed to undermine faith in Jesus and that the earth is in fact 6000 years old (every scientific proof of an old earth is completely wrong). This revelation completely floored me and I spent the next several days arguing with him over coffee in a attempt to find holes in his logic. I quickly realized I was over my head, logic was countered by “facts” to which I was sorely ignorant of a rebuke. So I then spent weeks researching every angle of the debate to prepare myself for a “throwdown” on the subject. You cannot win with these people; and even when you win, you lose. I lost a good friend, had a major crisis of faith, and left Christianity myself shortly after.
So the point is that to me this opinion he held so dear was an intellectual vice, I tried so hard to come to terms with it and I could not. My faith was eventually lost as well because I could not resolve the “sins” of a christian worldview with my personal relationship with Jesus.
I still talk to this guy often but he is now more of an aquaintence than a friend; we now talk out of ritual rather than regard. I am as atheistic now as I believe I can be, becoming more so every day. I still find myself reach into the religious vocabulary; referencing fables, myths, dogma.
The hardest habit to break is finding meaning in simple things that truly have no meaning. Like running into a friend you haven’t seen in years.
I totally empathize with your experience and agree with your interpretations of it—especially when you put your finger on the problem being one of intellectual vice. That’s exactly it. Faith is an intellectual vice. And part of the problem with an intellectual vice is that it corrupts the very intellect to which we are inclined to appeal. We want to reason with people and yet they flagrantly advocate their supposed intellectual right not to have reasons, their supposed to right to show outward hostility to the demands of reason and to adopt prejudices.
So when you are dealing with a corrupted intellect which not only has different reasons than you (which would be rationally just fine) but instead wants to attack reason itself, merely reasoning with such an intellect is not enough. And this is incredibly frustrating for a rationalist who does not believe in emotionally twisting people into changing their minds!
So what is most important to me is that we understand where people are coming from and engage them individually, in the terms of their own psychological, emotional journey—to use the convenient self-help language.
I think it’s crucial that we be relentlessly logical and informed. Especially since, faith makes people endlessly unscrupulous rationalizers. No matter how many fundamentally irrational beliefs you expose or contradictions you highlight, reality will be further distorted to accommodate them. So, the challenge is to keep building more precise accounts of epistemology to more clearly zero in on the flaw of believing on faith. And then the other challenge is to stay patient with the fact that disagreement will remain in most cases and resolution will be impossible.
To your other points thought: I am not sure though that I would say that events like running into old friends have no meaning. In fact—I’m just guessing and don’t presume to know of course—I would imagine that you don’t want to think it had meaning because the outcome was painful. But it was painful and had this major effect on your life and thinking precisely because it was a meaningful thing. The myth that “meaning” is something that only exists in a divinely guided universe is a relic of a Christian attack on atheism that’s only a couple centuries old and is not grounded in truth, no matter how many atheists internalize the claim and feel like they’ve lost meaning.
There is most certainly meaning apart from transcendent meaning conferral by a deity and the attempt to convince us otherwise is the attempt to deny the very meaning soaked existence in which we live. There is not intention behind coincidences. You didn’t bump into your old friend because God scheduled a meeting for you two without your knowing it. But that also does not mean that when you bump into him you, it is not an event with inherent connotations to it which are meaningfully structured both by the structures of psychological and sociological factors and by the idiosyncrasies of your own personal psychology.
Two other quick points to note: to this day some of my closest friends are devout believers. Some of them have remained close friends since my believing days and some have been made in the intervening time since I left the faith. One’s views on God are not the whole of people’s lives—even for devout Christians and outspoken atheists—and there is hope for reasonable people to overcome their abstract disagreements to have deep and meaningful inter-personal bonds with each other. It’s possible when you put people above the need to be right all the time.
In certain forums and at certain times we must debate. But in others, we must remember the greater importance of love and friendship over the abstract truth. And in the context of such friendships, where there is genuine mutual respect and good faith between each other, debates about truth can wind up being their most productive—far more productive than would have been possible were we to have burned every bridge rather than consort with an enemy. Some people are intolerable to disagree with and so friendship will simply be impossible. I won’t dispute that such situations exist(and yours with your old friend may just be such a situation). But there are possibilities for friendships that are stronger than disagreement and my own life would be impoverished greatly were I to lose those bonds.
And, finally, I know what you mean about recurring back to religious vocabulary. A dear atheist friend once told me something to the effect that my language was more saturated with religious vocabulary and allusions than that of any one else he knew. And another close friend who is by most categorizations an atheist and anti-religious (though he would dispute such labels I think) teases me all the time that I’m still a Christian in some ways.
And I simply am still a Christian in my guts in many ways. Regardless of my vehement disagreement with its propositional claims about the world and with much of what it teaches about how we should habituate ourselves to think and act, Christianity nonetheless shaped and conditioned me over at least the first 21 years of my life in ways I will never completely shake. And some of those ways, I probably shouldn’t even want to shake.
I learned to treat the questions of what I thought about ultimate matters as crucially important from that Christian training. I learned to consider what other people think or what the good life was not to be matters of indifference but issues worth arguing about with them for the sake of truth from those days as a Christian. Of course, as a Christian it was a distorted view of what “truth” meant—a view which entailed assenting to my faith community’s arbitrary assertions about reality for which there were no rational justifications.
But nonetheless, I unapologetically still care enough to be willing to debate people and challenge their thinking. That was ingrained in me by my Evangelical upbringing and I think it’s a good thing. I don’t agree with the emotional manipulation, the conscienceless willingness to lie and rationalize to protect a faith, the commitment to irrationalist ethics, the group-think, or the hatred and slander of the body, reason, the world, and human nature, etc. that characterizes Evangelicalism (and other strains of Christianity).
But I’m grateful for the zeal it created in me and the ways that it taught me to believe that things like love, healing, reconciliation, kindness, hope, and community were real possibilities for people. While I think some of the Christian prescriptions for those things are actually poisonous, I retain the belief in these ideals when they are not wed to all the corrupting dogmas and narrowing of allegiances along dogmatic lines. For all its corrupting influences, there were these real trainings in real virtues of thought and heart that I got from Christianity.
Those virtues needed some correction of course, in that I needed to take down many of the Christian limtiations on what terms like truth and reconciliation and love meant. And I needed to limit its excesses of hope, etc. And of course other people can get these various virtues and habits of idealizing without Christianity and at the same time spare them all its vices and I hope that for everyone. But, in personal terms, I don’t need to entirely disavow everything I was or dualistically relegate everything from my Christian days to the bin of shame.
Christianity has indelibly affected my character for ill but also for good. And many of its myths and tropes—when properly recognized to be simply myths and tropes—can still have evocative literary power for me in certain contexts. So in that spirit, here is one of my very favorite songs of all time. It’s the song through which I discovered one of my very favorite artists, the incomparable Nick Cave.
His fusion of atheism, religious imagery, and passionate love resonates with me in a way that at least one of my lifelong atheist friends simply doesn’t get. And that’s okay, I’m not exactly like my lifelong atheist friends. I’m an apostate and my heart responds in a deeply ambivalent way to the Christian tradition in which it lived for so very long and so very passionately. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the affections of my heart never corrupt the inferences of my mind:
UPDATE: Only after posting this post just now did I remember that today is the 20th anniversary of my baptism as a born again Christian at 11 years old. A fitting day to air some of these personal ruminations of my complicated relationship to the formative faith of my youth. The end of October will mark 10 years since I rejected the faith as a matter of intellectual conscience. Expect a special post then too.