Are You a Closet Atheist too?

The atheist Stephen F Roberts is credited as responsible for the following: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
It is initially hard to argue with the notion that we are all technically atheists in that, for all of us, there are versions of God in which we do not believe – and it may well be it is just that we differ on which ones. However there is a weakness in the implication that therefore all God-type beliefs are either equally helpful or alternately equally fatuous. There are two parts to a positive attitude to belief in God. The first is the requirement that the belief should stand for something that has some degree of correspondence with reality. The reality will inevitably be distorted by human thought since we are hardly in a position to understand the nature of the Universe, our own much smaller planet and how it got the way it is. People sometimes forget that science, as well as faith, is inextricably bound up with human constructs.

The second requirement of a positive faith is that it should lead to positive outcomes. Since many of the conventions and institutions of our society are traced back to faith communities, it is also hard to be certain how much of the beneficial activity is due to the principles embedded in the faith and how much is simply due to the need to have a functioning society as a means of providing a form of social insurance. While some claimed Christian beliefs lead to extreme selfish and anti-social activity, other Christian beliefs seem to inspire thoughtful, cooperative and compassionate behaviour.

It is also probably inevitable that others will look at the behaviour patterns of self-declared believers and use these to assess the desirability of holding their claimed beliefs. Historically many who claim Christian beliefs have failed to demonstrate the sort of behaviour one might normally associate with the principles taught by Christ. For example Mahatma Gandhi was doing no more than reflecting what he had noticed in the observed behaviour of South African Christians when he explained why for him he was unable to be a Christian. Although he made it clear that he had admired Christ, remember he had once been turned away from a service of worship because of his race and had observed a Church apparently uncaring about apartheid. Christianity was therefore inappropriate for him to follow. If he had still been around to see Bishop Desmond Tutu in action he may well have come to a different conclusion. Similarly the Muslims experiencing the ruthless and murderous behaviour of King Richard the Lion-heart as a leader of the Crusades would have found nothing there to attract them to Christianity, just as the witnesses of the Muslim suicide bombers today are repelled by militant Islam. Again observing Mother Teresa or the Islamic version of the Red Cross – the Red Crescent would lead to an opposite view.

It is very difficult to stand off one’s own behaviour and see how we must appear to others who do not share our beliefs. I have for example, been assured by Bible belt conservative Christians from the US that those holding beliefs other than those of conservative Christians are to be considered heretics. For many of the same conservatives, gun ownership is seen an unalienable right, capital punishment is essential, and for many I have enountered, a strong stand required against homosexuality. There is also in the Bible belt a reluctance to offer welfare assistance to the poor and implacable opposition to abortion is often claimed to be an essential consequence of the belief system. The mental image of what liberals might see to be a Conservative self righteous and intolerant individualism is therefore associated in many observers’ minds with conservative Christianity. On the other hand I have encountered other Christians who appear to have a genuine servant-hood approach. There are those who oppose racism intolerance and injustice, those who support assistance for the poor, and those who believe chasing status and wealth is in opposition to the ideas of faith.

Some beliefs appear inconsistent with observation – eg wrong predictions for the end of the world and observed examples of faith healing bordering on fraud. Some beliefs are seen by many as opposed to the reality as it seems to emerge from scientific observation. Yet I would argue that just because people may have immature understandings by virtue of incomplete understanding of the Bible, a lack of knowledge of the findings of science and ignorance about reasonable faith, I don’t think it follows they should have their belief dismissed out of hand. While maybe truth is measured by establishing how well it corresponds to reality no-one is in a position to fully comprehend the truth and for each of us it is also something that evolves. If for example we have a belief in a young Earth as described by Genesis, an initial view of Biblical inerrancy, and a Sunday school view of theology, we still presumably need to learn more before we should be expected to change what we believe. Since everyone starts with a lack of knowledge and the haziest of notions about what corresponds to some form of truth, it is rational to wait till we encounter and test information and have been convinced by its validity before altering our belief system.

Strangely there is no apparent direct correlation between the logic of a belief and behavioural outcomes. For example the members of the Church of Latter Day Saints follow the teaching of Joseph Smith whose initial encounters with the angels and golden plates later taken back up to heaven sound totally fanciful in the retelling, yet the LDS members (popularly called Mormons) enjoy wonderful health and family stability statistics – as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses – despite the JW repeated failures in prophecies for end times. Nor do the proportions following a faith appear to have much to do with the level of scientific logic. The most popular of the Christian Churches, the Roman Catholics claim belief in the actual transformation of the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ for their communion celebration, and some of their claimed miracles do not have much support from science eg the Shroud of Turin, statues of Mary weeping blood etc.

Conversely those like rationalists don’t seem to have better moral behaviour as a consequence of their freedom from religion. Rationalists may argue that Christianity is not necessary yet apparently have nowhere near the same drive as the mainstream Churches to establish support for International aid organisations. Nor is the determination to remove the concept of mystery from nature necessarily a desirable notion for a base for scientific thinking. Albert Einstein placed high value in valuing mystery which he called listening to the music of the spheres.

Given the above, should Christians be a little more relaxed about the notion of atheism?

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7 Responses to Are You a Closet Atheist too?

  1. Andrew G says:

    I think there are large groups of Christians, and Christian leaders, that are quite relaxed with atheists and atheism. Another friend of mine, a UC of C minister in Ohio, has many atheist friends. Heck, he even has them in his congregation!

    You seem to bring up Einstein a lot here, Bill. Einstein’s way of thinking is shaping a lot of the new direction religions are heading in now, wouldn’t you say?

  2. peddiebill says:

    Yes, I am impressed by some aspects of Einstein’s thinking about religion. I probably give him undue emphasis because many people I encounter seem to assume he is an atheist and many of the more recent scientists are unknown to the general public. Unfortunately in this part of the world it is conservative Christianity rather than a more open minded approach which appears to be on the rise. I suspect that many do not distinguish between what is present in religion by virtue of tradition and culture – and what is there because it helps us see things as they really are.

  3. Andrew G says:

    “seem to assume he is an atheist”
    hehe, I kind of figure if two different “camps” on different sides of an argument claim you’re on their side, you must be doing something right. Einstein was a genius at that, and with so many other things.

    Your comment here actually reminded me of an idea I was thinking of using for my next blog post — the minister as ‘bridge figure’. The gaps in society are becoming wider not just in financial classes, but in scientific awareness and in the political spectrum. Rather than just the spiritual role, I think ministers have a new duty – to bring new scientific ideas to congregations and make them understandable/accessible. Like TED talks, for instance. An amazing resource for innovative churches.

    Hope that makes sense. I haven’t flushed out the idea fully yet. But, see where I’m going with that?

  4. peddiebill says:

    I totally agree, but in practice there may be a catch. The training for many ministers is terrible for assuming this type of role if what the Bible belters tell me represents their understanding. Many go to a Bible College where the words like “liberal” or “Muslim” are anathema. According to a number of surveys I have read over the last year most are conservative.
    From my own academic study on the interface between science and religion I would suggest that for a majority of ministers their science is Intelligent design or worse and their Bible knowledge is naive. In the US their knowledge of economics is often nationalistic – as is their understanding of other faiths and cultures.
    The catch is that if you ask them, they are convinced that they are well-informed enough to adopt the role you suggest.

    • Andrew G says:

      That is the catch indeed, although more liberal faiths do struggle with this same problem too. Your point actually brings up something else though. I don’t think those particular congregations (or ministers) are terribly concerned about their naivety or isolationist behaviours. They have strong community cohesion and consistency. You say in your post above:

      “Strangely there is no apparent direct correlation between the logic of a belief and behavioural outcomes.”

      You then give some great examples of strange beliefs and how they have a hard time matching up to what we might call reality, and yet create some sort of social stability or strength. I think certain beliefs actually do give incredibly good predicting power. But I must stress it is not for predicting how reality will behave but instead how members of the group will behave. People care less about what reality actually is, I think, and are more interested in how to behave and belong in their group.

      If the congregation knows and likes how the minister acts and talks, and thus doesn’t have to face change or new ideas much, they’ll be happy to stick with what they know to be their reality. If the leadership forces them to face up to a lot of new information but they are unprepared, then all those walls come down and people don’t know how to behave and belong so much.

      I don’t mean to continue the conversation on too many tangents, but some things in this post really struck home for me. I come from a UC family myself, and I’ve seen how some of these things have played out in liberal churches too. The UC here has tried to face up to “reality” as you might put it, but has had a real decline in members since the 60s. I’m probably about as sympathetic as anyone can get when it comes to the church’s role in society. And they couldn’t even keep me in the pew…

  5. peddiebill says:

    This is an important distinction you make. Conservative theology is indeed very predictable in terms of claimed attitudes – and quite depressing in terms of behavioural outcome when it comes to dealing with those not of the faith. I wonder if social cohesion and group support which is great for the members who share the beliefs is actually quite blinkering when it comes to looking outside the faith.
    Ironic that the beliefs should include a notional acceptance of love for neighbours when non believing neighbours are thereby marginalised.

  6. Pingback: The New Minister as Bridge Figure? « godwillbegod

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