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April 11, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Dilemma of Disbelief: Learning to forget about atheism and getting on with life

At high school, I had an archenemy— a proper schoolyard nemesis. Man, did we not get on. We locked horns on every single possible issue conceivable; our minds just didn’t want to work together.

Although our intense dislike for each other was palpable and ever-present, we were alike on quite a few levels: we were both argumentative, geeky and precocious. If we’d bothered to ask, we’d have probably found that we shared a great deal of things in common. But we never did, because differing views on one deep-seated philosophical issue kept us at each other’s throats for five long years.

You see, my nemesis was a fundamentalist Christian. And not one of those contemporary nice ones—this guy was an acolyte of the fire and brimstone variety, no easy feat for a student at a Catholic boys’ school, but he sure could pull it off. When it came to religion he refused to give any ground, not even to the few mild-mannered priests who taught us. With him being perpetually irate at doctrinal disputes, me hiding deep in my homosexual chrysalis, and neither of us being Catholics, I’m still not quite sure who was having the worse time.

Our shared disquiet stemmed from opposite ends of the theistic spectrum. I’ve never been religious, not even at an early age, as no-one in my family really is: with a scientist for a father, religion was a subject that just didn’t feature. To be fair, though, neither did Newtonian maths (although I was forced by the threat of disinheritance into taking seventh form calculus). My upbringing was as secular as a civil union. God’s existence, or lack of, was outside the ambit of my childish brain. Such a question simply did not need to be asked.

High school changed all that. After spending five years fighting off what I thought was the personification of all that was illogical, I had developed a fundamentalism of my own. To counter my arch-enemy in all things religious, I had grabbed what I thought was the sword and shield of reason, and had safely positioned myself on the battlements of atheism’s angrier sibling: anti-theism.

My conviction that religious belief was not only incorrect but actively harmful was only entrenched by my early University years—those heady times in first- and second- year where the wine is flowing, you’re always right and everyone else is wrong. I read the classics voraciously. I churned through Dawkins like he was going out of fashion. I consumed Hitchens and his ferociously eloquent defenestrations. For light relief I skimmed through Russell, Epicurus and Nietzsche. I was convinced all of them were right, and that without fail they provided surgical arguments for my one-man war on religion. I would literally throw books at the ill-informed, demanding that they too enjoy the rational delights of a life well-reasoned.

But you do a lot of growing up between 18 and 23. As time evolved, my views did too. Over time, I realised that in exercising my own fundamentalism, I was exhibiting the doctrinal arrogance that I so vocally denigrated. Additionally, I had developed a greater appreciation and respect for pluralism and rights, for everyone—not just the ‘enlightened’. So, as the years went on, I relaxed my views. I’m still an atheist—the philosophical arguments for the paucity of God’s existence I still find personally overwhelming (this short piece is not the place to expand on the philosophy of disbelief, but if you’re interested, just Google “the problem of evil”), but I no longer consider myself a crusader for the voice of reason. I am what the British director Jonathan Miller has called a “reluctant atheist”. My reluctance is attributed not to a subscription of non-belief, but a reluctance to call my non-belief “atheism”.

The reason for this is by using the term atheist or anti-theist or heathen, non-believer, heretic or whatever, there is an implicit surrender of the exercise of belief to form and presentation. And that is inherently problematic. Polarised politics clearly tells us that fundamentalist derision of your polar opposite does nothing to advance rational debate—if it did, I would be able to state that the Tea Party has contributed to democracy while keeping a straight face.

It is this problem that creates an aversion to the rabidity of atheists like Dawkins. And it is this problem that drowns out the reasonable theological and philosophical inquires of the questioning centre. Atheists do not need to identify as atheists to be powerful proponents of rational world views. Is it not simpler, and more elegant to hold a laconic indifference? Perhaps an analogy can be drawn with racism: one is not a non-racist, they are simply… not racist.

In fact, the position of indifference may pose a more troubling conundrum for the fundamentalist theist. Atheists (or non-believers) may have more traction by simply denying the premise of the question in its entirety. A debate about the existence of God presupposes that there is an entity like God capable of existing. Subsequently, the questions being asked are bound up within a dialogical paradigm whereby the parties to the debate are asking, as Marx famously said, “only such questions as can be answered”. Indifference avoids this.

But being indifferent instead of opposed is important for two more reasons. The first is that atheism is no longer required as a force for philosophical good in the way it once was. What I mean by this is that there was a time—a time when religious institutions wielded a considered amount of control and force—that radical forms of atheism played an important role in changing societies for the better. Now, I do recognise that religious institutionalism still exists, and can be the site for legitimate criticism. The Pope’s refusal to advocate for condom use in Africa and American churches’ active support of Uganda’s violent oppression of homosexuals are both examples of the abhorrence of institutionalism run amok. But these issues can now be combated using a far wider range of political and social forces, some of which (like human rights) have far superseded what simple atheism could have achieved. This is not to suggest that atheism is no longer relevant—but it is now just one mechanism by which hearts and minds can be mended.

The second reason goes to the core of the theological question that belief addresses. Even atheists and anti-theists must, as the Cambridge theologian Denys Turner argues, address the question “why is there anything at all?”. Atheists must work very hard to deal with the constant re-emergence of this question, while indifference has more room
to accept the unknown more elegantly. Now, again, this is not to suggest that the answer to this question supposes a deity one way or the other. For the record, I think the theist response necessarily results in an infinite regression of deities and therefore is wholly unconvincing, but that’s beside the point. My argument is instead that by advocating a fundamentalist atheism, proponents like Dawkins or Hitchens place themselves into a self imposed, and unnecessarily constrained philosophical box. Indifference neatly side-steps this, not out of philosophical cowardice, but out of honesty. It also gracefully pirouettes around the overbearing limits placed one places on their imagination if they are convinced that everything hangs on the question of whether God exists, or does not.

The flow on benefits of my slightly more relaxed approach to non-belief are numerous. For one, it’s a more consistent way of recognising religious pluralism. If people want to believe in the supreme power of concepts and constructs then, as long as they do no harm, we as a society should be accommodating of their wishes.

It’s hard to conclusively draw a difference between a strong conviction that there is a man in the sky, and a deep seated confidence that humans are innately altruistic. The point is
that until all the available evidence is in (assuming that’s even possible) they are judgement calls. And part of being human is being wrong.

Another is that by subscribing to a position of indifference, individuals who are secure in their own non-belief inherently de-escalate the culture war that harmfully surrounds the issue. This is important firstly because violent clashes of belief have often led to physical and emotional harm, and reducing this is a laudable goal. But secondly, because it gives added strength and power to non-belief protestations against aggressive fundamentalism. By demonstrating that aggressive fundamentalism is an infringement of the norm, rather than an opposition to one, indifferent non-believers instantly come from a more defendable position when they choose to speak out. Simply put, it is far easier for a quiet person to point out that another is shouting, than it is for two people to shout each other silent.

For an issue with as much emotional baggage as the one above, I’d be aghast if you felt like I was telling you what to do. Belief is a personal thing, but the personal is the political. I personally think non-belief is the most ‘correct’ answer to this theological question. But part of non-believing is continually questioning the manner of one’s own position. For me, this very idea encapsulates the fundamental beauty of rational thought.

It took me a while to get here, but now I feel much more secure in my lack of religious belief and in the strange comfort that brings. It’s comforting because it’s cogent, defensible and beneficial. Because now, if my high school nemesis was to ask me if I believed in God, I would not attempt to scream him down. Instead I would tilt my head ever so slightly, softly smile and say with all sincerity: I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.


About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

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