As a conscientiously and philosophically serious atheist, I rather commonly have a deeper (or at least a special kind of) affinity with people with whom I talk intimately or argue extensively who are conscientiously and philosophically serious about their religious beliefs and practices than I do with nominal believers and even with some apatheists (atheists who don’t care about questions of gods, philosophy, ethics, or religion at all).
Of course, the devoutly believing and I can often have serious, substantive, and deeply entrenched disagreements which can just as often be extremely irritating and frustrating. But when it comes to the thoughtful among believers, in their more generous moments, I feel like they and I share a share a passion for the need to line up one’s beliefs and one’s values and one’s life. They understand why the philosophical and moral questions that drive me are so important because they are important to them too. They are not believers only due to apathetic, conformist, cognitively dissonant inertia like some of the nominal believers are.
Some merely nominal believers are maddeningly loyal to their religions out of sheer laziness. Their resistance to my arguments is not even a function of their own thoughts or opinions but because they’ve let someone else answer questions for them and tell them not to let anyone else tell them otherwise. And these spiritually and morally lackadaisical people will even sometimes infuriatingly insult atheists with surprising venom and support religious institutions, ideas, and authorities with surprising bursts of ignorant flailing defensiveness and passion when they perceive outsiders as attacking.
Not all theologically oblivious or religiously disobedient “cafeteria” believers are just a couple steps from atheism like the religiously devout contemptuously think. Many nominal believers may be close to atheism in practice and/or in thought. Many may be closet atheists even. But not all are. And some of these nominal believers are the hardest to get to change their minds since in religious matters their minds are not their own in the first place. They’ve been thoughtlessly given away already. They can’t even grasp the severity of some challenges to their beliefs sometimes because they don’t understand their beliefs or their supports well enough in the first place.
Whereas with those among the devoutly religious who are willing to think, I can at least find people who take already seriously the philosophical questions that matter to me. They have thought about their beliefs and know a lot about the supposed justifications for them and so can often feel the force of objections and have a sense for the fact that they have a lot of knowledge and don’t yet know an answer to this or that challenge. That makes them more potentially cognizant that there really might not be an answer than someone more thoroughly ignorant would be. They also don’t dismiss me as simply an extremist who takes things too seriously for caring. Some of them have a lot of respect for outright atheists for at least not being wishy-washy like the de facto secular people within their faith using it for what they want and ignoring, without good explicit reasons, whatever they find inconvenient. Some of the devout prefer an honest atheist by comparison.
I imagine (but have no way of knowing) that nominal believers are morally conscientious people as much as anyone else, despite their lack of intellectual or religious conscientiousness. And some of them may be only nominally believing because of a still budding consciousness about the limits of religion and skepticism about following along completely with it.
But I can identify with the devout’s existing willingness to bind up their moral conscientiousness with what they take to be the truth and what they think is incumbent on them religiously. I can identify with their robust interest in, and engagement with, the content of their beliefs. Again, since our substantive disagreements about truth, values, and the best religious practice can differ extremely in substance, this can lead to great frustration. But there are definitely times when I can connect with them on the level of sheer conscientiousness and sheer concern for the same kinds of philosophical matters and find a special kind of kindred spirit in spite of it all.
It also helps that I used to be devoutly religious and a theist from an Abrahamic faith. It helps that my seriousness about these moral and philosophical and religious issues was shaped by devout religiosity in the first place. My heart was forged in a furnace like theirs. My apostasy was a religious act.
It is also helpful to remember that as occupying the opposite ends of a certain spectrum, both we and our religiously theistic counterparts are seen as freaks by many of the nominal believers. Much as identity atheists feel alienated from the larger culture because of the prevalence of (and institutionalization of) religious identities, the seriously devout believers often feel alienated from what is still, in any first world country, a predominantly secular culture in most aspects of life. To many of the devoutly religious most nominal believers feel more distantly secular and closer to being atheists than they feel like true fellow believers. It is easy for adamant atheists to lose sight of just how secularized most religious people are and for devoutly religious people to appreciate just how religious even their highly secularized brethren can be. And it’s hard for highly secularized, nominal believers to understand why either end of the spectrum demands so much of them in order to be acceptable.
In short, this is another instance of that general truth that sometimes you have more in common with your enemies than with some of your friends and that in some ways your enemies are your best friends. We adamant atheists would do well to keep this in mind when dealing with the devout and see what we can do about connecting with our enemies as people on this shared common ground when it seems like we have no other to start from.
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