Saturday, August 13, 2005

I have been buried in libraries for half the week and riveted by the cricket for the remainder, so must apologise for the continuing infrequency of these entries. Here's some controversy to make up for it.

I have a good friend who is very intelligent and an atheist. He has moved through many beliefs in his time and has now decided that he has no choice but to buy into the whole naturalistic caboodle. He takes no great pleasure from this but feels he has been compelled into his position by the evidence presented to him. He is a fully consistent atheist and materialist who also denies freewill and thinks that the 'self' is an illusionary epiphenomenum of brain states. No matter that I find all this deeply implausible, that is where he stands. However, he is not particularly pleased by this and agrees that it is a pretty grim philosophy for life. He has no desire to convert people to his views (beyond the entertainment value of a good argument) and generally thinks religion is a good thing. He does not make the mistake of confusing certain elements of religious belief or practice with which he has problems with the whole thing.

My point is this. I can see why someone might be an atheist (although I'd disagree with them) but I cannot for the life of me see why any knowledgeable and mature adult should want to be an atheist or want other people to be.

The first reason for wanting reject God is that it might give a sense of liberation. I'd expect this from adolescents chaffing at the bit and wanting to go out and have sex with anything that moves. However, I would also expect them to grow out of it once they have finished growing up and realised that there is more to life than sex, drugs and libertarianism. As an adult, perhaps, having a lot of money and wanting to make more of it might also make someone want God out the picture. We often hear from individuals who think they have been 'damaged' by a religious upbringing and have hence rejected religion. Ironically, science (as we learn from Steven Pinker and others) would say that these people are sad cases due to their genes and that their upbringing was irrelevant. The fact that most people who have had religious upbringings are perfectly well adjusted and often religious themselves rather kills the 'damage' argument as well.

A second reason for wanting to be an atheist is a confused idea of history. If you have bought into the various anti-clerical myths you might see religion as a bad thing and hence reject it. The trouble is that the way people cling so tenuously to these myths when their errors are pointed out suggests these are just providing ballast for an already existing idea.

Thirdly, there is politics. In the US in particular, the defence of secularism has become a battle against Bush by proxy. I do not want to get mixed up in a foreign dispute but I do fail to see why disagreeing with Republican policies or even the religious right should encourage anyone to reject religion altogether. That said, American activist atheism is a minority sport more deserving of pity than contempt. It is also built on the huge misconception that church/state separation is bad for church. In fact, as the UK's state religion shows, it is the best thing ever to happen to US Christians. They should be guarding it assiduously.

Fourth, I suppose, is the feeling that religion just gets in the way of sex and shopping, the two major concerns of our society. But most of these people do not want to be atheists, they just don't want to think too hard about hard questions. When they do, many find themselves drawn to Alpha Courses and realising they do want more from life than endless distractions.

So, why would anyone want to be an atheist? Why does anyone want to spread atheism? Is it all just teenage foolishness, historical ignorance and lefties with a bee in their bonnet? Frankly, I have no idea and would welcome suggestions.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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