Monday, August 30, 2010

Atheist, Obviously-by Julian Baggini

This is an essay by Julian Baggini. He is the author of numerous books about philosophy written for a general audience. He is the co-founder and editor of The Philosopher's Magazine. He frequently writes for newspapers and magazines such as the Gurdian, the New Statesman and the Financial Times, and often speaks of BBC radio.

This is a great essay that combines Baggini's personal story with clear, objective thoughts.

Atheist, Obviously-by Julian Baggini

Although I can’t say I was enveloped in a flash of darkness on the road back from Damascus, there was a pivotal moment in my move from belief to unbelief which I remember very vividly indeed. Although in some ways it was a very particular, personal experience, in others I think it reflects something about why I’m an atheist, and why I’m the kind of atheist that I am.

As a child, I took belief in God for granted. I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but it certainly wasn’t an atheist one. In any case, I was sent to a Catholic primary school, which gently indoctrinated us all day long. We paraded into morning assembly with out hands clasped in front of us, ready for prayer, and every meal started and finished with grace.

What strikes me most, looking back, is how little our elders seemed to care whether we understood what we were doing. We must have said the Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer every day, yet phrases like “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus” and “Hallowed be thy name” made absolutely no sense at all. Does Mary have a womb – whatever that is – called Jesus, and what is a womb anyway? Is God called Howard?

More seriously, perhaps, we were encouraged to lie by ending each lunch with the prayer “Thank you God for a lovely dinner.” I can see why we should have been encouraged to be thankful for our food, but it was rarely lovely, and pedants would insist it was never dinner.
At the time, however, all this worked to create the desired sense that of course God existed and, of course, Catholicism was the only way to him. When I went to secondary school, however, religion was suddenly much less important. Most of my classmates were Protestants, and seemed to be as godless as somehow I had come to imagine they would be. Still, I thought that God did exist, and, if he did, this must matter a great deal, so almost privately, I continued to take my religion seriously. I even voluntarily got confirmed a Catholic, although I didn’t keep up my churchgoing.

Then I started going to a Methodist youth club and, through that, to the church. The congregation was a fairly bookish, liberal lot. I’m not sure how many of them realized, however, that the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs was quite evangelical. Its main annual event was the London weekend, were thousands of kids from all over the country would sleep on church hall floors and attend concerts, a rally, and a Sunday worship at the Royal Albert Hall.

The worship was always an emotional event. Thousands of teenagers singing “Jesus is the answer” in such an impressive space packed a punch, as did the testimonies of people who had been lost and miserable in various ways, before Christ came into their lives and made them the happy people we saw before us. The services even had a “come on down” moment, a staple of evangelical rallies, where those who felt moved to pledge their lives to Christ could come to the front and have a little prayer with a volunteer.

I never really bought into the excesses of the evangelical approach. At ecumenical services, for example, my friend and I would always laugh at the “hand raisers,” who would close their eyes and lift their palms heavenward every time the Baptist church’s Christian rock band led them in song. Nevertheless, I must have taken on a few of the core ideas, namely that you can have a personal relationship with Christ and that your emotions are some kind of indicator of the reality of the Holy Spirit.
I had been to a few of these weekends, but by the time of the last one before I went to university, my faith had already started to recede. It wasn’t that I thought God didn’t exist, but that I couldn’t buy into all the specifics of Christianity, or any other religion. I was in the “There’s probably something but it’s not the Christian God” phase.

I wasn’t ready to give up yet, though. As I had learned over the years, faith regularly flags and is tested. Doubts are an opportunity to make your faith even stronger, not a reason to give it up. So it was that I headed off to the London in the hope that I might be a belief booster.

However, no sooner had we arrived than I started throwing up. A lot. The Saturday was pretty much a write-off. Come Sunday, however, I was feeling a little better, but still not entirely convinced I had heaved my last. So instead of sitting with everyone else, I got to take part in the worship from the first aid area, which was, ironically it would turn out, somewhere up in the gods. So there I was, not feeling 100 percent, observing more than participating in the worship, detached, not involved, It was a revelation.

Suddenly, the central fact about the worship became blindingly, transparently obvious. The Holy Spirit was not at work at all: this was all people’s doing. You could see how the emotion was built up, reaching a crescendo at the key point where people were asked to commit or renew their commitment to Christ. To call it mass hysteria may be a little over the top, but not much.

Although I’m sure that some evangelists are con artists, this is certainly not how I saw the M AYC. I believe that the organizers genuinely thought that all they were doing was creating the right environment for the Holy Spirit to do its work. (In the same way, some “psychics” use cold-reading techniques to dupe their hapless victims, while others come sincerely to use what are essentially the same techniques and are so impressed by the results that they really believe they have special powers.)

My detailed study of John’s Gospel for my A-levels had already made it pretty clear that the Bible was the work of men, not God. The London weekend helped convince me that the same was true of every other aspect of my religion too. A mental switch had been flipped: God was made man, more fully than Christianity understood.

What I think is of more than just autobiographical interest is that once this cognitive corner is turned, it doesn’t take long before the human-made nature of religion becomes not just something one believes to be true, but something that is obviously true. This obviousness, however, is problematic. If it is indeed obvious, why did I ever believe otherwise? Why do intelligent people continue to believe? And isn’t the category of the obvious dangerously subjective in the first place?

Intelligent believers and nonbelievers alike do not generally say things like “It’s obvious,” except to people who share their basic commitments. It is as though we understand that this is an intellectually disreputable way of talking, like referring to common sense. Yet there is a kind of dishonesty in this, because many people do indeed find core elements of their faith, or lack of it, obvious. I’d go further and suggest that the obvious is usually what is most powerful in determining what fundamental beliefs people have about God and spirituality. Academics in particular maintain the illusion that, on the contrary, things like the complex details of the latest revision of the ontological argument might actually matter when it comes to determining whether or not God exists. If they did, we might see more regular changes of mind. As it is, philosophers of religion seem to be at least as consistent in their fundamental commitments as anyone else.

But if the same thing can seem obviously true to one person, and obviously false to someone else, isn’t that reason enough to discard obviousness as an unhelpful category? I don’t think so, because the way in which belief is obvious is very different from the way in which nonbelief is.

Let me illustrate this with something the Christian and physicist Russell Stannard once said in an interview with my colleague Jeremy Stangroom. Stannard was being asked about how one could ever get evidence that prayer established contact with God. “I think that what you have to realize,” he said, “is that when you are talking to a religious person, they feel that they have such strong internal evidence. It’s like Jung said, I don’t have to believe in God, I know that God exists – that is how I feel.”

Up until that point Stannard had been talking quite dispassionately about evidence for belief in God, as though he were a hypothesis to be confirmed by a scientific method. This comment, however, revealed that that this was in a way a fa├žade, because the believer needs no third party verifiable evidence at all: inner conviction suffices.

I think this is typical of the kind of obviousness of belief. It is obvious because it feels or seems obvious, and no one other than the believer is required to verify its obviousness. Another example I have sometimes quoted is the last man on the moon, Eugene Cernan, who said: “No one in their right mind can look in the stars and the eternal blackness everywhere and deny the spirituality of the experience, nor the existence of s Supreme Being.” It is an appeal to the obvious, but without any evidential back-up. It is like saying, “If you felt what I felt you’d find it obvious too.”

The obviousness of belief that religion is a human construct is quite different. Here, one is not relying on a subjective feeling at all, but on the overwhelming evidence which is available to all. The sociology, history, and psychology of religions all point to their human rather than their divine origin. What makes this obvious is the overwhelming weight of evidence that points to this interpretation, rather than one which ascribes a divine cause.

The same is true of other obvious tenets of atheism. That we are biological organisms whose being and consciousness depends on a functioning body and brain is obvious because the evidence is clear and overwhelming, not because we feel it must be true.

Hence the obviousness that belief and nonbelief do not cancel each other out, leaving obviousness as an irrelevant factor. Rather, we can see that there are at least two kinds of obviousness, and belief tends to rest on the unreliable kind, nonbelief on the reliable kind. That much should be, well, obvious.

That certainly seems to capture the important shift in perspective I made at the Albert Hall. What I observed was a hall full of people all trusting their feelings when, if they would just once take an objective view of what was going on, they would see that what caused those feelings was not what it seemed.

The obviousness of atheism’s basic truths, however, also causes problems. If you think religion is obviously false, it makes it hard to understand sympathetically why often intelligent people still believe in it. As a result, improbably error theories are often proposed, such as the idea that believers are victims of some kind of mental virus.

In fact, many religious people know full well that a lot of what they do is the result of human, rather than divine, ingenuity. They may also reckon it silly to think of a god in heaven to whom souls float up after death. But take away what is obviously false about religion and you are not left with nothing. It is not obvious that human beings should abandon the search for transcendence in some form, or should recognize no higher moral authority than themselves. It is not obvious that one should orientate one’s life toward the finite rather than toward the eternal. Nor is it obvious that religions do not provide a good framework within which to live, irrespective of the literal truth of their metaphysical frameworks.

It might be objected that talking in these abstract terms about what religion can do is an evasion, because such non-literal understandings of what faith means are restricted to a liberal, intellectual elite. The vast majority of believers hold creeds literally which are obviously false.

I think this is probably true, but there are other less obvious facts which complicate the picture. First, our capacity to recognize the obvious depends on the wider framework of beliefs we hold. I wasn’t a stupid teenager, but I had become used to seeing the world against a background of belief in God, and the disconfirming evidence was not made apparent to me. It is not enough to show people “obvious” truths if everything else they believe tells them there are no such things.

Second, it is not clear that what people say they believe is actually most important for the fact that they do believe. There are plenty of fundamentalists who really do believe every word of the Bible to be true, for example. But a very large number of practicing Christians, at least, are unsure as to what precisely they do believe concerning Christ and God. Even those who would agree that Jesus is the son of God, for example, often admit a high degree of uncertainty as to what that really means.

It’s easy to scoff and say that such people are just confused. For instance, a large number of people seem genuinely to believe the reassuring but incoherent idea that all religions are equally valid routes to the divine. But such doctrinal vagueness is only terminal if doctrinal coherence is a precondition of living a religious life. I cannot see how this strong condition can be demanded. What matters a great deal to theologians and atheologians need not be of central concern to the ordinary worshiper.

What makes people live religiously may not be obvious, even to themselves. And if that is the case, it should not surprise us that people do not immediately give up religion when we show that many of the beliefs they are supposed to hold are obviously false.

Personally, I find myself in a state of some ambivalence when it comes to the obviousness of atheism. On the one hand, I find myself frequently dismayed to hear people maintaining what seem to me obviously silly views about God, his books, and his prophets. But, on the other, I find myself equally frustrated by some of my atheist colleagues, who seem unable to understand that there is much to religion which is not obviously false or valueless.

Remembering my own de-conversion helps me to manage this tension. It reminds me that if I could have believed relatively late in life, then I needn’t think others who continue to believe even later are necessarily stupid. It also reminds me that what is most obvious to me is not that there is nothing to religion at all, but that no religion or text is the product of the divine. And hence it also reminds me that, although what is obvious may in many ways be most central to what I fundamentally believe, understanding what is obvious to others, and what makes them believe what they do, is often a very complex matter indeed.

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