Atheism has evolved over the centuries from a passive philosophical idea into an active movement which seeks to challenge, not only the foundations of religious belief, but every aspect of religious influence, especially in regard to how it affects society.
There are a number of reasons why a person comes to call themselves an Atheist, but there do seem to be a few common trends. I want to be very clear that what follows is a generalization and is in no way meant to describe all Atheists. A generalization is often used to show commonalities in any group of people, but we must also understand that there are exceptions.
However, once having called myself an Atheist and having spoken with many others, as well as reading and listening to various de-conversion testimonies, I have observed some notable similarities.
Most people are brought up in a religious family or culture, and often this is enough for someone to identify with that religion. The reality is that no one is born a Christian or Muslim, Hindu and so forth. Religion is something we chose. It may be, however, that we choose the religion that we are most familiar with.
Until recently it was very rare for anyone to be raised in an Atheistic or Agnostic family. So Atheism has rarely been the result of cultural indoctrination. In fact, it is usually the renunciation of indoctrination.
Many atheists recall growing up in a religious family (or culture) and later becoming disillusioned by it. This disillusionment may occur for any number of reasons. It may be that they observe others engaging in seemingly empty ritual, rather superstitiously, without really understanding why they do it. Another reason may be that they observe hypocritical behavior in the religious community, and throughout history, or find inconsistencies and contradictions within scripture. Still another reason may be that they have deep paradoxical questions which the religious community seems unable or unwilling to answer, especially in regard to human suffering. Or it may be that the beliefs of the community seem to be in contradiction with current scientific knowledge or even just basic personal observation.
It can be any number of factors, alone or in combination, which causes one to lose their faith in religion. Even if a person is not raised in a religious family, such as the case with myself, there is still a great deal of exposure to religion within the immediate surrounding society.
There are also emotional and psychological factors to consider. It’s often fashionable for Atheists to present their position as being purely logical, but they are human after all, and are in no way exempt from psychological influences. A common criticism of religious belief is that it’s based heavily upon emotional factors, while lacking in reason. We find many beliefs comforting. They offer us a sense of meaning and purpose. And being a member of a group gives us a sense of belonging.
But what I want to suggest is that there may be similar emotional factors which might persuade a person toward Atheism; that Atheism is not always a purely rational conclusion. This is not to detract from the logical arguments, which are very well thought out, but to offer the possibility that there may be a combination of rational thought and emotional responses that, when combined, become a strong influence in the decision.
I’m also not suggesting that there are specific psychological issues which are unique to Atheists. I’m referring to issues that confront most of us, regardless of religion, culture and the like. These are common universal issues. I’m simply suggesting that in some cases these issues, in combination with a rational examination of religious belief and practice, may be what fuel the fire of skepticism. And while psychological factors may play an important part in initiating that process, it is ultimately the way in which religion is presented (or misrepresented) that makes for the defining moment in which a person considers himself an Atheist.
What I am trying to show here is that Atheism isn’t merely the passive absence of belief. It is, in many cases, an active rejection of organized religion and everything associated with it. And it isn’t necessarily religion in general, but often a specific tradition. I want to point out here that most Atheists come out of the Abrahamic religions. This isn’t to say that there aren’t Atheists who come from other religious backgrounds, but Atheism seems to occur in much greater capacity within Abrahamic cultures.
But if it were merely about the inadequacies and hypocrisies of religious organization, then perhaps people would simply reject the organization, while still retaining some belief in a Supreme Being. That isn’t the case with Atheists, who reject not only the religious system by also the belief in God. The Atheist, as it were, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
The baby represents God, or in some cases the personal experience of what we call ‘God’. The bathwater represents all of the conventions that arise as a result of trying to organize that experience into an institution. These conventions include the accepted beliefs of the institution, the rituals, the structure, and of course all of the perversions, hypocrisies and atrocities committed in the name of religion.
If the Atheist is guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the religious fundamentalist is guilty of only throwing out the baby. And this is what has made religion seem so unappealing to many Atheists in the first place. Here you have all of this dirty water, but no essential truth.
But there is a third group of people who have sought to throw out the bathwater only. This would be the person who embraces spirituality while rejecting the external façade of organized religion. And I will come back to this later on. Right now I want to stay on point about Atheism.
So, what I’m trying to convey here is that Atheism isn’t something that seems to occur independently of religion. I think that if religion didn’t exist, we would invent it. And in fact, I this is exactly what we did. Even if religion is inspired by God, it is organized and maintained by human beings, who we know to be quite fallible. What I’m trying to say is that Atheism isn’t the mere absence of religion, but rather a reaction to religion. And this reaction has been long needed.
What Atheists offer us is the opportunity to re-examine our religious beliefs and behavior, and in fact the whole structure of religious systems. They point out all of the contradictions and hypocrisies, as well as the conceptual flaws, by tearing everything apart and leaving us to sort out the mess. It’s interesting to note that most Atheists are better acquainted with scripture and religious history than the average religious person who often accepts everything on hearsay, without critical investigation. This is a challenge for us to examine not only what we believe, but why we believe it. It is a challenge to reject belief based merely upon authority, to be free and independent from institutional influences, and to take responsibility for ourselves.
The reality is that organized religion is severely flawed. It is polluted by egotism and greed and has been greatly misappropriated to serve these selfish ends. It often encourages blind obedience and discourages questioning. It also discourages direct communion with God, by setting itself up as intermediary. But when we look back at the lives of those self-realized masters around whom these systems were built, we find that they weren’t trying to build temples and churches or compose scriptures. They were trying to encourage us toward our own personal experience with the Divine.
If we look at the example of Jesus, who reminded his followers that “the Kingdom of God is within you”, we find that he was often persecuted by the religious authorities of his time, who, in the end, conspired to have him put to death. It wasn’t the Jews who killed him, nor Judaism, but the zealots of religious institutionalization, because they felt he was bad for business.
Whenever he spoke of them or was confronted by them directly he called them hypocrites. He made the point over and over again that their customs and costumes were empty of meaning. They had no personal relationship with God, and yet they made it their business to intercede in the spiritual matters of others. They were, as Jesus put it, the blind leading the blind.
This is important to understand because the legend of Jesus has become greatly perverted over time, and I wonder how many Atheists would truly reject him if they understood him in this light. Now I’m not suggesting that Atheists should consider believing in him in order that they be saved. This very idea is one of the perversions I’m referring to. There’s no record of Jesus ever making such claims. He never claimed to be the Messiah, and he never claimed to give his life so that “those who believe in him shall not parish but have everlasting life.” This is what others have said about him, long after his time. They are not his words.
In fact, the teachings of Jesus are quite contrary to the current beliefs of the Christian Church. What I find very interesting is that when we look at the church of today, it has in many ways grown to become that very same institution which Jesus had condemned. And while many Christians believe that he will soon return, I’m concerned that if he were to appear in our time, they would be the very ones to try and silence him.
I speak about Jesus here to offer an example of one who has thrown out the bathwater, but kept the baby. That is to say, he has thrown off the conventions of established religious tradition, while retaining the essence of spiritual experience and direct communion with the Divine.
This may still be a difficult thing to comprehend for an Atheist, because we have not yet gotten around the issue of God’s existence. We can agree that religion has been a blight on the body of humanity, but at the heart of religion is this thing called ‘God’, and that’s got to go as well.
I think that one of the greatest contributions that Atheists have offered us is a critical and unapologetic examination of the concept of God. Some Atheists will go in depth to expose every flaw and fallacy, while others make no such effort, because to them arguing the case that God does not exist is like arguing the case that Santa Claus isn’t real. It seems such an obvious fact that it doesn’t need to be argued. And if someone doesn’t see that, then we must assume that they’re a fool, and how can you even begin to reason with a fool?
And yet, the debate goes on. And what is more is that the nature of the arguments on both sides are highly rational and intelligent. Certainly there are ignorant people who believe in God, but to say that all believers are ignorant is ignorant itself. Conversely, to suggest that all Atheists are intelligent and rational is not only arrogant, but ignorant. It doesn’t matter which side of the argument you’re on, there are intelligent reasons that both support and oppose belief in God. In fact, the arguments are so intelligent that no one has offered the other any irrefutable proof. In the greater intellectual arena the question still remains unanswered.
But I think we can easily lose focus. And I think it’s pointless to argue over whether or not God exists. I don’t think that the existence of God can be absolutely known purely through intellectual reasoning. It has to be experienced, just in the way that love is experienced. And if you have never experienced love, no amount of reasoning can convince you that it exists.
I think the more important issue to look at, if we’re going to take an intellectual stance, is the very concept of God. It’s not about whether or not God exists, but rather is the concept of God reasonable? And what is also important to ask is whose concept are we talking about? Before you can even argue something you have to first agree on what it is you are arguing.
When you look at the various religious traditions you find many different and seemingly contradictory descriptions of God. What this suggests is that there is no single way of looking at it. Everyone has a different idea based upon their own unique and limited perspective. This is even true within any given tradition. Just because two people belong to the same religion doesn’t mean that their personal concept of God is going to match up.
The fact that we don’t all have the same concept of God seems to be problematic in and of itself. Since we don’t all agree on the same concept, we tend to hold to our version of God while rejecting everyone else’s. We say things like, “Our God is the one true God and yours is a false God.” We are quick to assume that not everyone can be right, since everyone’s concept contradicts someone else’s. The Atheist will simply suggest that everyone is mistaken. But I would make another suggestion. What would I suggest is that everyone is right in some regards and mistaken in others, and this includes even the Atheist.
So we need to look at all of these various concepts and try to find the commonalities. And if there is one thing that all spiritual traditions agree upon it is that God is infinite. If we consider this, then we must also consider that any idea that places a limitation upon God in inaccurate. I’m not saying that the idea is false, but simply inadequate. To give an example, in the Hindu traditions there is a great deal of argument over whether God is personal or impersonal, or whether God is with or without form. I’ve studied both schools of thought and have come to the conclusion that they’re both correct, but the reason they have not found agreement is because they are looking at the same thing from different angles and not seeing the full picture.
If we consider that God is infinite than we are talking about something that cannot be confined to any particular form. But if God is infinite then to say that God cannot inhabit a form is also a limitation. The problem with most concepts of God is that they are far too limiting. And it’s very easy for someone to call themselves an Atheist if they hold to a limited concept of God.
We also have to understand why we have such limiting concepts. We have to remember that we are limited to our material experience and to our particular perspective of that experience, as well as by a language which is based upon these material limitations. So when we talk about the infinite, we are forced to use finite terms. How can we comprehend the incomprehensible, at least in terms of intellect? The answer is we can’t. Sometimes the best we can do is say what God is like, by making comparisons to what we already understand.
And so we might think of God as the Cosmic Mother or Father because we are created, nurtured and provided for much like a child. In fact we often project parental and authoritarian qualities onto God. We confuse God’s Law with the unjust and unforgiving rules of human society, and we imagine him doling out punishments and rewards, rather than seeing everything as natural consequence. What I mean is that if you touch a hot stove and your hand is burned, rather than seeing it as the consequence of a natural law, we might think that God is punishing us because touching stoves is somehow immoral. It’s really all about how we choose to look at it.
As I said before, trying to understand God from our limited material perspective is very difficult for many people, and relating to a God that transcends all material qualities is equally challenging. And so in order to foster a relationship with the Divine, we often invite that Spirit to come and meet us half way, by projecting onto it many human characteristics. When we imagine God as something anthropomorphic it is easier to approach and communicate with. What is important to understand that God is ultimately something far greater than we can ever imagine with our limited intellects and that we must be careful not to mistake our projections as unmalleable fact.
What is interesting about Hinduism is that there are so many different representations of God, each with their own personality and characteristics, but you rarely hear of Hindus arguing over which one is the true God. We might be drawn to one form more than another, due to our own temperaments and understanding, but there is an understanding that they are all different expressions of that One Absolute.
The point I am trying to make is that we can’t get stuck on these analogies. If there is one concept that works well for us, that’s fine. But even so, we have to see beyond it at some point.
Now, what we often see is this ongoing debate as to whether or not God exists. It is one thing to have an open discussion in which everyone is intent on trying to better understand one another’s perspective. And along with this there is the willingness to be flexible in our beliefs and even to change our beliefs in light of new information. But it is something altogether different to engage in argument. When we argue, we both come to the table with unwavering convictions, intent only on converting one another, and when we walk away we find our convictions strengthened in spite of the evidence we have been presented. Arguing like this is a waste of time and energy.
If we are truly intent on seeking truth, we must have some humility. We must be willing to acknowledge our own perceptual and intellectual limitations. And when we are faced with the Atheistic position, we mustn’t be defensive. We should listen intently. We should consider what is being said. Because the Atheist is not attacking God, and even if he were, God is omnipotent and doesn’t need our protection. The real reason we get so defensive is because we feel that our personal beliefs are under attack, and maybe it scares us because deep down we have some uncertainty regarding those beliefs. If we can be mature about it, we can see as a challenge to re-examine those beliefs for the purpose of clarity.
The true seeker doesn’t hold to hardened convictions, but allows for flexibility. It is only by embracing our uncertainty that we can remain open to new discoveries.
For more information, please see my article entitled Belief, Doubt, Uncertainty & Skepticism.