Today, November 14, 2010, is the 12th anniversary of the Liberal Ironist becoming an atheist. On November 14, 1998–at 2:00 pm in the back of my 9th grade math class–I suddenly concluded that there was no basis for belief in God and that monotheistic religion was transparently a series of superstitions designed to bring people together on the basis of habit and encourage certain good works. The reason I’m raising this subject now is to draw a contrast on an increasingly-fundamental distinction for me–that between one’s beliefs and the motives favoring conversion to those beliefs.
The Liberal Ironist immediately feels the need to draw 1 more distinction: The point of this post is not to absolve religious believers for any naivete or dogmatism simply because they may do good deeds for others; I am in no way a party to a long tradition of non-religious conservative political theorists (among them Plato, Thomas Hobbes and Alexis de Tocqueville) commending religion for having a salutary effect upon society. Correspondingly, “atheism” (which is just an absence of a particular “-ism”) doesn’t deserve blame for a lack of charity among many atheists–nor should it necessarily reflect poorly on individual atheists if they happen to appear outwardly-intolerant. The Liberal Ironist doesn’t mean to split hairs here, but merely to make an unusual distinction: Beliefs we think to be false should be accorded more or less respect in consideration of the purposes they catalyze in an individual’s life. The reason for conversion and the behavioral change observed in its wake are more validly-linked than either is to the belief itself.
Is it unclear what the difference is between that and actually advocating beliefs that seem to encourage good behavior? I am saying that a person embraces a set of beliefs out of need for a narrative to explain something they already wanted to do rather than that their beliefs directed them to act a certain way. I’ll make a stronger claim: Neither the “New Atheist” critics of religion nor the many defenders of religion in Conservative political theory make a compelling or even a particularly enlightening case that religious belief independently causes violence or good works.
The point isn’t that beliefs don’t matter, but merely that they are probably adopted more to give us the words to describe our motives (and thus to pursue them in refined form) rather than to actually give us a fixed, logically-successive set of ideas that will somehow transform our motives to the “right” ones. Sometimes religious conversion (or in my case, the loss of religion) does accompany real changes in a person’s attitudes and actions; in my own case, I can say that this was certainly because I wanted to say and do different things, and even to have a different reputation because of it. (I was in adolescence, after all.)
Gore Vidal‘s inflammatory 1992 essay “Monotheism and Its Discontents” set the disposition for my atheism for years afterward. After years of embracing the old assumption that monotheistic religious beliefs no doubt sufficiently cause violence between and among adherents of different religions (from the Arab wars of conquest to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 30 Years’ War, the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed 1 million during India’s partition and the like), I eventually got around to what should be the self-evident fact that Islam has existed for about 1,400 years, Christianity in some recognizable form for about 1,900 years. That these religious beliefs straightforwardly cause these acts of oppression or violence that occur on just 1 day, or 1 month, or for 3 years, or for 30 years, or over generations but only within a single country, is not a proposition that a social scientist or political theorist should take seriously.
Everyone with a religious perspective–atheist and believer alike–embraces such partly from what it does for their identity. These concerns are inevitable in the face of our often-confusing freedom of choice, but some forms of identity give us a sense of direction while others are simply parasitic on the beliefs of others. The Liberal Ironist’s atheism initially was–though it predated the publication of these books and was never really shaped by them–quite similar to the atheism of the headline-grabbing “New Atheists”–in particular Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris–who began writing their inflammatory bestsellers over the following decade. While I have always liked the sometimes-belligerent but always-fascinating Hitchens, David Hart published a marvelous criticism of the New Atheists’ lack of philosophical rigor and profundity last May. Today, I have a casual approach to my own atheism: I’m happy to discuss it, but I recognize that people tend to believe what they believe because of how it furthers and tempers their aims–and that a belief encountered and embraced at the right time can make us creative and courageous and compassionate, or it can deaden us into an alienated destroyer.
An anecdote from several weeks ago can highlight how beliefs can embody the good in a person–and sadly go unrecognized by others. A few weeks ago a friend said that she had found a group of Christians she had seen praying on the Mall “creepy.” She had twisted her ankle and was walking with a foot brace and a cane. About a block down from this group, she heard a girl call out behind her; one of the people from the Mall had followed her. The girl claimed that while praying on the Mall, she had felt a sudden pain in her foot and that when she looked up she saw my friend limping along. She offered to pray for her. My friend said she only had a twisted ankle, “but thanks anyway,” and went on her way. She has readily volunteered since that she found both the event on the Mall and the particular encounter “creepy;” one of her friends reassured her that she would “get the chance to blow them away on Saturday,” referring to the upcoming Rally to Restore Sanity as though it were meant to be a partisan gesture repudiating cultural expressions associated with the Right.
I thought this reaction to be both normal and very unfortunate, almost tragic. In 2 different ways I think my friend has internalized a common approach that contributes to our spiritual impoverishment. First, and more-specifically, here we have a stranger trying to express concern for her in public, and my friend sees only her beliefs. In a sense this is ordinary prejudice. An ironist (in believing that there is no meaning transcending human experience and creativity) is almost self-evidently an atheist, so I would agree that this girl’s beliefs are silly, but her beliefs are not all that she is–and she proved this when she approached and offered to pray for my friend. The other tragic feature about this episode is more-general: We are disturbed by the thought that people who don’t fit into our plans for the day may encounter us and express feelings of interest in and care for us. (We are disturbed by their presence and their sincerity.) My friend comes from a background of liberal sentiment, but when confronted with a stranger who has the self-mastery and courage to approach her and express concern for her–innocently and without ulterior motive or reasons of personal convenience–she can’t accept this gesture in the spirit in which it was given. The Liberal Ironist might agree there is something “crazy” about Christianity, about gathering to pray on the Mall, and about claiming to feel pain in one’s foot or offering to pray for someone who has suffered injury; but if in our “enlightened age” we cannot recognize and appreciate the Good Samaritan when we see her, it strikes me just how little our more-accurate ideas have done for us.