My General Religious Views
What I believe
I am best described as philosophically Agnostic and pragmatically Atheist. That is to say, I don’t claim to Know with certainty whether there is or is not some intelligent supreme power ruling the universe. There could be, and if it chose to hide from me, I’d never know so the possibility is always there. But for all practical intents and purposes, I do not believe in or pay homage to any particular god.
Furthermore, I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural ideas either. I have only every experienced the world as I sense it, what I would call the natural world. It seems to operate by a set of rules that if explored can be discovered and which seem to have a kind of fixed consistency. I don’t see evidence that any power can reach beyond the natural world and superseded its function. There are plenty of such claims, but they never seem to pan out under close scrutiny and even those which remain “mysteries” either have reasonable practical explanations or can simply remain information we have not yet discovered. There is always more of the natural world waiting for us to comprehend it.
I find the best definition for god that fits most religious views is the idea of the supreme. The entity or force compared to which nothing is more powerful. Some older pantheon type religions don’t have a single supreme and the gods are much like super powerful men who vie with one another, and other cosmic forces for supremacy. But most modern faiths have a unifying supreme, even if it has multiple manifestations or parts. In that vein, I do accept a kind of idea that the natural world itself, and all parts of it is God for the natural laws are supreme and no part of nature can defy them. It is a whole that encompasses all information there is and thus omniscient as well. But this view of the universe leaves no room for the kind of personification that most human religions rely on. It promises no justice, no afterlife, no good or evil, just existence as we discover it.
Why I don’t have faith: part one
I think there are two things that fueled my lack of religious belief. First and foremost, I wasn’t raised in any particular faith and was warned by parents to be wary of those proselytizing religion. In those days, according to what I was told, some churches sent a van around to pick up kids and cart them off to Sunday school. And it may be apocryphal but I vaguely remember at least one occasion where I was invited while out playing with my friends when the bus picked them up for church. None of which is to say my parents were atheists or taught me not to believe. We just didn’t talk about it much. My grandparents were certainly all Christian and I was baptized as a child, but we rarely attended any church. I have a few vague memories of it but they are blurry things at best.
The second reason was that as I learned about Christianity, I also learned about other religions both real, imagined and ancient. I loved fairy tales and mythology both as a child and young adult and was exposed to quite a bit of it. Then as I got older I took up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy. Before long I invented my own mythologies and religions for the fantasy games I enjoyed. For me, Christianity very much appeared to be one of a great many supernatural beliefs that people had and not so different from the ones people invented in their imaginations when they created other worlds. None of them seemed any more or less plausible than any other and I saw no signs in the world around me that one was any more real than any other or more real than the ones I knew to be fiction.
Why I don’t have faith: part 2
As an adult, I’ve done a lot more thinking about religion and reflecting on my own views on it. It’s a subject I’ve debated since I was in my early 20s on old BBS systems and continue to the present day. I limit my arguments on religion to places where people actively seek to debate it, when proselytized to, or when faith is used as a justification for something I find immoral. Even in that last case, I will typically try to make a secular moral argument before questioning someone’s religious beliefs. They are often fundamental to someone’s identity and simply not open to challenge.
Now, my two reasons for maintaining an atheist view are two-fold. The first is simply that I have not had any personal experiences that would lead me to believe in the supernatural or divine. The world is an amazing and wondrous place, but it seems to yield up its mysteries to persistent inquiry along perfectly natural lines much better than by any kind of divination or magic. The second is more complicated.
Trusting only my own experiences has its weaknesses. Perception is flawed and one person’s experiences are limited. When I look to others I can certainly find a great deal of testimony as to the reality of religion. That said, there is also a huge swath of competing claims. In earnest conversation, I often try to get people to tell me why they believe and what their best case for their faith is. I don’t do this to rebut it, but to try and evaluate it for myself to see if I can find it compelling. Sometimes they offer logical explanations, other times they offer very personal experiences. The latter are the more common ones.
What I’ve found over the years is that people of all different faiths have very similar logical explanations and very similar types of personal experiences all of which validate what are radically different conclusions about the truths of God and the universe. To this, I’ve applied what I have learned to be called Abductive reasoning, the search for a best-fit explanation. My best fit is that human beings have some desires and experiences that are fairly common. These common desires such as fear of death, desire for justice, sense of wonder, a need for order, and others, leads them to seek and have faith in religious belief. What that exact belief is, will vary based on the culture in which they were raised, and their own specific desires for what kind of God best satisfies their desires.
I think this explanation of religion both satisfies the similarities in religions and the differences. It also explains the ever evolving nature of religions that branch and change as the needs of their respective members do. I think it also fits well with the way people adopt or abandon religion as adults. I am fascinated by people who make these changes. Often what I observe is that some life event happens that makes it so that what they used to believe no longer fits with their life experience or no longer satisfies their needs. As a result, they change their beliefs to something that fits better. It is incredibly rare for some outside agent to persuade them through when they are ready for the change, they become open to someone ready to teach something that is a better fit.
My sympathy with faith
Thus it seems most likely to me that all religions are human invention rather than human discovery and so, along with my own lack of religious experience, I don’t follow any religion or worship any gods. That is not to say I don’t feel the desire for religion at times. Despite having no faith, I have been known to pray, mostly for other people I feel powerless to help myself. It gives me a sense of release and that I am doing something helpful even if intellectually I don’t think it will have any impact. But of course, I see no harm in it either. I’ve also had my share of fantasies about life after death. Since I don’t have any given faith, I’m free to imagine all kinds of possibilities from reincarnation to ascension as an angelic being. They all sound pretty cool, but I don’t really think any of them will happen.
I’m also attracted to religion for many other reasons. I find the faith and dedication people have inspiring. The architecture and art produced by religions around the world is breathtaking and wonderful. I find the religious stories and mythology fascinating and fun. There are so many amazing characters and ideas and stories in the faiths of the world. I also admire many of the ideas embodies by various religions. Not only do they satisfy human desires but they have been the foundation of moral teaching in many societies so they have been codified with people’s best attempts to try and formulate moral and social behavior. While I don’t think they are divine, that doesn’t mean I discount them. They are in my thinking, the product of human beings and I respect other human beings and their thoughts.
My antipathy with faith
But there is a dark side for me where I come into conflict with people of religious faith. In civil society, there are always people that are so certain of their truth that they seek to persecute any who don’t believe and to force their religious belief’s onto other people’s behaviors using only their religion as justification. I have my own moral compass and if it does not align with someone else’s religion, I’m still going to stand my own ground. And if someone comes railing at me that I am evil, then I will rail against them right back. Anyone who says to me, “It’s true because it is written” is not going to get anywhere. As a nonbeliever, it is near meaningless to me without some other type of human justification to back it up.
I can get pretty wound up on it in fact because of the things I’ve seen people do in the name of religion. There is something extra evil to me when someone tries to claim the moral high ground while being cruel and cowardly. Pure selfishness at least is honest about its intent. But so often I see people use religion for satisfying their basest desires, so clearly at odds with the tenants of the faith as most understand it. Most of the time I see people justifying good acts in the name of their religion, and I am very content for them to justify kindness and honor any way they like.
Likewise, but to a lesser extent, I can be roused to debate by elements in a religious teaching I see as immoral. The story of exodus in the old testament is one of those that can get me going. God wreaks terrible havoc on the people of Egypt while at the same time doing nothing to their ruler but preventing him from backing down so that the punishment of people with no political control over that ruler’s actions can continue to suffer, all to demonstrate the might of this supposedly all merciful and loving god. I don’t see anything just or moral at play there. That people can tell me with a straight face that if God did it, it must be good. I am appalled that they can abdicate the idea of personal responsibility and innocence because acknowledging it would challenge their faith in some tiny way. I typically keep these to myself except when someone wants to convince me someone else’s religion is evil while theirs is all rainbows and sunshine or to tell me that as an atheist I can’t possibly have a moral compass.
My role in interfaith dialog
I’ll admit, I like it when people come around to my way of thinking on religion and feel solidarity with other nonbelievers due to a shared worldview. But I don’t really want to be responsible for changing people’s faiths. While I see some evil done in the name of religion, I see a lot more good done in the name of religion. For many, it is a way to build community and find comfort and confidence. I’d be a real jerk if I wanted to take any of that away just for the self-satisfaction of being “right” about a topic I cannot honestly say I Know the truth of with absolute certainty or can prove beyond any doubt. While I am happy to share my view, I don’t want anyone to adopt it on my say so. That is always for them to choose or reject freely.
If I do have a goal in religious debate, it tends to be to persuade people that they should not be absolutely certain about every piece of dogma they profess. That they should always keep a possibility open that some given scripture they think calls for an act I find morally problematic is misunderstood or has more than one interpretation. I want them to have the possibility of using their own reason and heart in making decisions and that doing so is in no way a betrayal fo their faith but an act of seeking a truth no one can ever be 100% certain of. Because I see people constantly shifting their views on religious subjects, I know this is possible.