Or Why I Am an Agnostic Atheist
For the first 35 years of my life, I assumed that my philosophy/religious attitude was pretty much the same as that of most other people so therefore it would be neither interesting nor a surprise to anyone. I (seriously!) believed that most people like me, raised within a Christian denomination, considered the Biblical god to be part of the Judeo-Christian mythos pointing toward some greater meaning and not literally true. Actually, I still believe that this is true, although I know that most people either do not recognize this in themselves or they deny it.
Christianity, as I understood it, had room for a great diversity of interpretations (look how many sects there are!), and my interpretation of Christian theology was as valid as the next person's. I would wager quite a large sum that this is actually how many Christians unconsciously feel, especially moderates. I also believed (wrongly, I have discovered) that most other people would be as tolerant of different interpretations as I like to think I am.
The discovery that some people feel that only their own personal tinkering with Christian theology is OK but the tinkering of others is not OK was quite a shock to me. I grew up in a smaller world where people kept their religious convictions private, while respecting those of other, equally private, religions. Challenging another's religious beliefs was unheard of in my little world of a very free-thinking family in a largely free-thinking community. Because of this politeness and respect for privacy with which I was raised, I was usually not privy to what others privately thought or believed beyond some broad strokes, so I was simply able to respect most people I met and to assume that most people I met would respect me in return.
With the rise of fundamentalism, the internet and the daily barrage of global communication, I am no longer able to politely ignore beliefs with which I do not agree or which actually offend me. Some fundamentalists will not allow people to ignore them and some actually try to offend, believing that arousing the anger of others (and subsequently imagining themselves to be persecuted) will bring them closer to Christ. And then there is the small, but real, danger that if I ignore fundamentalism, I may one day find myself living in a fundamentalist country!
One of the hallmarks of this most recent surge of religiosity is the very public and passionate declaration of a narrow, certain, religious dogma, combined with the assertion that anyone who does not share belief in the absolute correctness of this dogma is 1) a minion of Satan and 2) doomed to an eternity burning in hell. The followers of this theology insist upon challenging the beliefs of others through proselytizing, something which is anathema to me. Some well-organized and powerful groups are working seriously to have these beliefs enshrined (by law!) into our public lives so that everyone will be compelled to worship their god and to abide by their social rules.
With this message being pushed so hard in every corner of society, it is impossible to continue to believe anymore that other Christians are tolerant and accepting of different interpretations of the religion. What is more, it has became impossible for me to allow myself to possibly be identified as one of that more extreme group, whose methods and theology are abhorrent to me.
The sad truth is that fundamentalism in this country and elsewhere actually confronts us with the ugly underbelly of religion which I had previously managed to convince myself went away with the dark ages. I don't believe in any devils and I don't believe in demons or evil spirits; it is the nature of humanity at this early stage in our moral and intellectual evolution to misapply competitive survival instincts to non-survival situations, and ugly, even "evil" behavior can result.
This is how I see fundamentalism: obsessed with evil, death, and sin, it is a dark product of this primitive core of human nature. If we ignore it, we do so at our peril, and to go along with it and even defend it in order to protect our own dearly-held beliefs would be foolish. Yet, this is the most often-repeated mistake of moderates throughout recent history; self-interest drives us to allow extremists to hide their intentions behind the protection of moderate toleration. Not only do moderates invite wolves into the peaceful pasture with this behavior, but they do not seem to realize (or refuse to accept) that their own dearly-held theology will be suppressed in due course when the wolves they've let into the pasture devour them along with everything else.
This is strong imagery, but I am trying to get a point across. Moderates fear that if they criticize fellow "religious" people (fundamentalists) even for extremism, that somehow some imaginary secular power group might take away their own freedom to believe in their own theology. Heated discussions about "holiday trees" and so forth shed light on exactly this fear, and the anger fed by that fear.
There is no secular power waiting in the wings to remove religious rights. This is an overwhelmingly Christian country and even the secularist Founding Fathers pushed for religious freedom for all. What could happen instead, however, is that moderates may protect fundamentalist extremists long enough to allow this movement to infiltrate the offices of government all over the land, and then they (moderates) as well as non-religious people could lose their freedom to think and worship as they please. Make no mistake: fundamentalists believe with all their might that theirs is the only way to salvation and they will try to impose that belief system onto others, believing they are doing it for our own good.
Even moderates sometimes fall into this coercive thinking; thinking back to a discussion about "public prayer" that I had last winter, I am reminded of this fact. The discussion was sparked by this scenario: the owners of a small business decided it was appropriate to lead their employees (a groups of mixed religious backgrounds) in a group prayer session at the company Holiday party. The debate was around whether or not what the owners did was appropriate. Many moderates, who happily participate in public prayer themselves, were unsympathetic to the objections of the non-religious to something which they think is a harmless, even "good for everyone" thing. Some people seemed to be completely unable to see that being forced to participate in what seems "good" to religious people is coercion to others and an assault on their freedom. And because they couldn't seem to see the larger threat to their own freedoms inherent in this type of coercion, they sided with the fundamentalists in saying that the non-religious had no right to object and should just bow their heads and sit respectfully in silence.
Using little steps like this, fundamentalists can use moderate ambivalence and protection to chip away at public freedom from religion. Freedom of religion will be the next thing to fall.
I've had to reconsider the plan that I could join other moderate Christians in trying to ameliorate the damage that these fundamentalists are causing to the religion (and IMO, to society). I do think we believe essentially the same thing about an overarching positive force for good, but discussions like the above-mentioned one on public prayer forced me to accept that joining forces is probably not possible.
I believed that what I think of as the transcendentally human potential for good, most other moderate Christians call God; just two different ways of interpreting the Christian mythos which reaches toward a greater, universal good - or so I thought. It turns out that No, actually, when faced with a choice, most moderates will link hands with fundamentalists and claim to believe literally in a Biblical being called God, even as they deny literal belief in the Bible/New Testament, itself.
I have to admit, this has really puzzled me, because it is apparent to me that most moderates follow some sort of self-created theology like I do. Indeed, I believe that most moderates who consider themselves religious believers in the Biblical god, actually do not believe in that god at all, but in a far more just, universal and all-loving creation of their own imaginations which fits with their own personal theology. Even if they acknowledge that Biblical scripture describes a cruel, capricious and vengeful god figure, they deny that this is the nature of the God that they worship. “My God, “ they declare, “is a loving and forgiving god!”. Just as I once ignored the disconnect between my theology and actual Christian theology, so these moderates ignore the same disconnect between their beliefs and actual Biblical and New Testament dogma.
The truth about the Bible and New Testament is that it is not about a loving, forgiving and tolerant God. Anyone who wishes to know the truth about the Bible can gain an education about this unpopular fact through unbiased, independent Bible/New Testament study (not church-led group study). Yes, the Biblical god does punish the innocent, torture the righteous and cause horrible suffering to the good as well as to the wicked. Yes, New Testament theology does say that billions of innocents who do not know about Jesus of Nazareth will spend eternity in hell for something they could not control. Yes, even good people who give up every comfort their whole lives to help the sick, feed the hungry and comfort the poor will go to hell. The Bible does, undeniably, tell us so. Moderate Christians have been giving "God" a gradual makeover for most of the last century or two, and while they insist that their God is still the Biblical god, the Bible and the New Testament do not support this assertion.
The Biblical and New Testament god is just one part of the mythos of ancient people who were oppressed, struggling to survive, yearning for freedom from pain and suffering, and with no way out of their misery except to visualize a second life where all their pains would be relieved and (significantly) where all their enemies would be punished. They established a theology which would exclude their enemies from the eternal bliss they needed to visualize to get through each day, by inventing a god who favored them above all peoples and, in their writings, setting out exclusionary conditions for entry into this second life of bliss (conditions which, of course, only they would be able to meet); essentially - membership in the "elite" club. This is the theology of a people whose lives were so miserable and stressful that, in order to survive the reality of their actual lives, psychologically, they had to imagine a "do-over" afterlife where all their hopes could be realized, especially the punishment of others.
Christians today continue this competition for exclusive status, (dividing and sub-dividing into antagonistic sects) and many don't take kindly to those whom they regard as excluded laying any claim at all to the mythos and traditions of Christianity or (more properly) the mythos and traditions of all humanity which have been co-opted by Christianity. There is far more complexity contained in the mythos of the Bible: including many positive and inspiring things: but, regarding the literal belief in the Biblical being called God - if full "belief" is claimed - those positive aspects of the God mythos cannot be taken alone and the unpleasant traits of the Biblical god simply discarded. The fundamentalists insist on it, and perhaps they are right about that. However, since fundamentalists also discard the parts of the Bible that do not fit their own theology, they cannot claim a more pure or literal belief in it, either.
Moderate Christians try to ignore these awkward facts about the Biblical god they want to both believe in and make over. We want our religious traditions, but we reject the cruel foundations upon which primitive people in crisis built those traditions. So, we cobble together a gentler, kinder theology of our own, reinventing Christianity and creating a new god mythos. “My God” wouldn’t punish good people for not knowing or accepting Him; “My God” wouldn’t punish innocent people along with the wicked.
“My God” may not do those things, but the Biblical god would. “My God” is a just, transcendental, universal figure, but it is not, therefore, the narrowly-conceived god of ancient Christianity nor of the Bible. Modern, moderate Christians are evolving their own mythos around a new God. How cool is that!
And so, I am atheist; I do not believe literally in any gods, including the Biblical god. I believe in that newly-conceived concept of "God", which is, to me, just another way of describing the wonderful, the transcendental, the amazing potential for moral growth within all of us, not a literal Being. As Jesus himself is believed to have said, "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21), and I believe that, symbolically and literally.
I think that evolving a new, more universal and justice-oriented mythos is perfectly normal and a wonderful stride forward for humanity, so I admit I am surprised by the vehemence of some moderates' insistence that they do, in fact, believe in the Biblical god. Clearly, they do not, but just as clearly they are adamant about insisting that they do. I can respect that people choose to structure their beliefs as they see fit, but I have to admit, I do wonder - Why? Why profess belief in a universal, just and loving God, and then limit Him to the confines of an ancient and primitive god of retribution?
Last fall, I started a religion and spirituality discussion on an appropriate website forum to enable people to talk about their own beliefs and to show others that the diversity of thinking among people, even among those who think they share the same religion, is varied and wonderful. A few participants, who seemed to be aware of the literal Biblical god/ moderate God disconnect yet were working with it themselves while still managing to respect and tolerate others’ diverse beliefs, were kind and respectful and helped to move the discussion forward. Many people simply read the thread tolerantly and with interest in the beliefs of others. A couple of others showed how people who consider themselves tolerant and open-minded can suddenly transform into religious bigots. ☹
I think that some moderates experience an uncomfortable ambivalence about their own relationships with God, their churches and a greater philosophy. When I posted openly about my awareness of a disconnect between personal theology and literal belief in the Biblical god, it seemed to strike a nerve. I think the discussion got people thinking about their awareness of their own disconnect with professed belief and actual Christian dogma. When I posted that I participated in religion, joyfully and enthusiastically without any literal belief in a being called God, and while openly recognising the social shortcomings of the church, but remaining optimistic about its potential to change for the better, my post brought out some interesting reactions in a few people! I was accused of a lot of ugly personality flaws (to say the least) and essentially told that I had no right to participate in any of my cherished cultural traditions because I refuse to say that I "believe" literally in the Biblical god. Either talk the "right" talk, or take a walk. Hmm. Interesting. A lot of that came from people who every day make declarations which unequivocally show that they do not agree with or support their own church's doctrines completely, but, as I said earlier, most people seem blind and deaf to their own tinkering with theology and practice of faith, while being hyper-sensitive to (not to mention disapproving of) the tinkering of others.
So, the tiny window that opened there has convinced me that many moderates claim a belief in the Biblical god because they somehow believe that if they do not express that belief, then they might lose the right to participate in the religions which they love and which is so much a part of their cultural heritage. The swiftness of some to reject others' rights to the same participation based upon disbelief in a literal Biblical god seems to bear this hypothesis out. If nothing else, it confirmed my belief that we are very much a still-evolving species, and the reaction of most humans is still to compete with and try to subdue those who frighten or threaten them.
I use the label “agnostic atheist” because it’s the only label I know of which other people will recognize as shorthand for the main things about my philosophy which seem to matter to other people; that I disbelieve in the literal existence of any gods described in human mythology, but I am no absolutist: I believe that many things are possible, and I try to leave room for them. The problem with that label is that many people interpret “atheist” to mean “anti-religion”. While it may be true that some atheists are anti-religion, I am not one of them. I happen to find religion both fascinating and wonderful, in a purely cultural and anthropological sense. To me the evolution of humanity is fantastic to study and the rising of religion - like the discovery of fire, the development of tools, the evolution of language and social orders- is amazing and endlessly interesting to me. Religion is the most interesting of all because it is the tip of the arrow pointing beyond the limitations of our still-primitive brains and imaginations, to the future potential of humanity.