Welcome, new Patheos readers to Camels With Hammers! Welcome Camels With Hammers readers to our new home here at Patheos! Soon I will properly introduce myself to Patheos readers–including, specifically the religious believers who may be around here in slightly greater numbers than at Freethought Blogs. I also hope to share some of the many ideas I have for reimagining and reinvigorating this blog now that it has a fresh new start in a new home. But for now, I think it will be appropriate to relaunch the blog by republishing, for readers both new and old, the essay that I consider to be the most important for understanding me and how my religious background led to my atheism and informs it until today.
In “The Three Transformations of the Spirit” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra describes the human spirit as successively taking three different forms: the camel, the lion, and the child. The transformations begin with the spirit of the camel, which Nietzsche characterizes as consisting of obedient, self-sacrificing, reverential, principled, moralism. Essentially this is a religious animal, who pursues the truth at great pains to himself because it is, what we may infer to be, a religious requirement to be moral, and therefore truthful, in the utmost.
In Nietzsche’s mind such moralistic attachment to truth, though inspired by a religious and moral injunction that none shall lie, leads to the discovery of truths that undermine religion and moralism themselves—partly by showing that many religious and moral beliefs are rooted in falsehoods and partly by exposing the truth about some of the immoral and dishonest ways that religions and moralities actually propagate themselves as real world systems of domination and control.
Morality itself, in Nietzsche’s view, is deeply hypocritical according to its own standards. And any Christian who takes the commandment against lying seriously at all is going to have to leave Christianity on precisely that account.
I am like Nietzsche’s camel. While I am many miles away from morally perfect, I have been a generally conscientious person since I was a child and was devoutly, zealously, evangelically, self-sacrificially, and mildly puritanically religious until I was 21. And I am open to certain interpretations of my personality that see it as still fundamentally religious—as long as they do not confuse that for faith-based thinking or other forms of closed-mindedness, authoritarianism, or deference to unwarranted authorities of thought or practice. I think a fair accounting would acquit me of such charges, whatever the other inadequacies of my intellect and character.
What I am stressing here is something that both the faithful and the always-secular rarely seem to understand about at least some of us apostates. For some of us, our rejection of our faith is not merely the abandonment of our religious values but, at the same time, very much our fulfillment of them. It was Christianity that led me to reject Christianity.
Of course some people can reject Christianity, or any other religion, because secular values become more important than religious ones. But love of truth is not implanted, oriented, or motivated psychologically the same for everyone. While some might have that develop that love from the delight of love of learning, others might find it grows strongest out of fury over being deceived, or others might have it take root because of curiosity, wonder, fear, or the simple satisfaction and feeling of victory in exercising natural intellectual talents. Biographically, the love of truth was preached to me religiously, as a matter of absolute importance because of the religious stakes that rode on it. It mattered that people believed the truth and that they did the good because their very salvation hung on this.
And even in the wake of my rejection of faith (and, with it, the irrationalistic dogmas and habits of thought that were major parts of my Christianity), my supreme estimation of the value of truth might still be interpreted as having a religious, zealous, unmoderated character. I revere the truth, I am willing to suffer quite a bit for it, and still viscerally reject attempts to relativize its value.
I have a hard time accepting that some other values might override the value of truth in some cases. I do not accept easily that it is okay for some people to be deceived, or that in some people a multitude of other virtues might cover their sins of intellectual dishonesty. But even on these scores, my love of truth itself leads me to recognize and acknowledge and understand its limited value. The religious devotion to truth involves learning to not make an idol of truth since that would be to dishonor it.
But, nonetheless, out of concern for truth, I must admit that I am in many respects an evangelist of truthfulness. I am almost pathologically self-disclosing. I view intellectual honesty as a deeply moral matter and excellence of thought as a central human virtue and I only recognize its limits and needs to be balanced against other virtues insofar as it itself requires that I see and acknowledge this.
And, again, while there are many other routes to a love of truth which have no need of religion, ironically my love of truth was cultivated, as it has been for many others before and since me, in that den of manipulative lies that is the Christian church.
And, so, as Nietzsche thinks necessary, my “camel” spirit had to take the character of a lion’s spirit and proudly and defiantly say “no” to the false “thou shalts” of a dishonest and flawed religious value system and “no” to the false beliefs which propped it up. This was the outgrowth of my religious, moralistic, camel’s nature reaching its logical and practical conclusions. I rejected faith-based religion religiously, at least insofar as my rejection of faith grew out of my religious struggle.
I bring all of this up for a reason. Faithful religious people do not, in my experience, seem to understand that some of us apostates are not like other atheists. We are not total outsiders. Our critique is partly an internal critique of religion, out of religiousness. We are attacking the idols and falsehoods that are promulgated as Truth.
In practice, if no longer in belief, there is a continuity of our religiosity back to the days when it took a faith-based, God-fearing form rather than a faithless, godless one. In terms of spirit, some of us apostates, are still closer in temperament in numerous ways to our former brethren than to some of our fellow atheists. In some ways we are stillinescapably their brethren and, despite our explicit, rationally rigorous, and wholehearted rejection of the contents of their beliefs and some of their worse moral values, our rejection is what we see as the rightful conclusion of the values theythemselves have.
Of course, we get it that we are disowned. And we want to be–because we think the rot of false beliefs, regressive morals, and cultish practices pervert and ruin what is still intense and passionately alive about the religiosity we have from back in our faith-based days (regardless of whether we conceptualize it as “religiosity” any more now that we lack gods to worship). But we do not want our former brethren to deny that we were really among them and we really want them to get that we left not out of a failure of moral and religious seriousness but out of an abundance of it.
And maybe I speak only for me but it galls me when I see liberally minded people who were never at all religious bash apostates for attacking the religious beliefs that we ourselves once held. If such liberals are really so respectful of religion, then it would be nice if they respected the kind of religious experience that leads to apostasy. Apostates often have too few friends and sympathizers when they are going through one of the most alienating experiences of their lives.
If all religions that are not violent or hateful are valid, then appreciate that apostasy can be just as much a sincere expression of religiosity as faithful adherence to dogma is—and maybe even a purer and more admirable form. And the liberal-minded shouldn’t always assume that an atheist is attacking something he does not care to understand or appreciate in all its manifold colors. For many of us it was something deep in our bones that we now wrestle against—not because there is any temptation left to believe its nonsense, but because it was so deep and enduring a part of our personal formation.
For many of us, this is, in “spiritual” terms, a conflict with our former brethren. It’s a family feud and as outsiders to it, the never-religious really should not take sides and tell us atheists to leave the religious alone, if they are sincere about respecting people’s religious experience. Some of our atheisms represent the culmination and the final truth and interpretation of our religious experiences. And some of our religious natures areexpressed atheistically. Some of our pieties are to truth and the objective good, at the expense of faith and even at the expense of our very families when they are wrongheaded. It’s personal to us. Our experiences are valid and they count. Institutional religion does not want to acknowledge our experiences because they call them into question. Don’t attempt to exclude our voice from the discussion. Don’t silence our sides of the religious story.
It’s not truthful. It’s not fair. It’s not even religiously tolerant.
Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted: