I used to be a hostile atheist.
I used to be that kid who would actively try to convince others that science, and thus atheism, was the only true way to live life, and that the beliefs of religion were simply wrong
. “Look at all this evidence!” I would say. “We’ve proven this stuff! How can you still cling to that outdated nonsense?”
I used to enjoy mocking the Bible’s inconsistencies back when I wrote my first ever essay-style journal entry in early 2012, titled ‘My thoughts on religion’. While much of the material in it still applies, I detest that entry because it misses the point entirely – I argue the wrong points, the videos are inappropriate, and the writing style is a joke. You can forgive a first attempt, right? That journal is easy to find if you wish to read it, though I’d rather that it never existed.
Having met several religious people at university, my outlook has changed somewhat. These days I’m more... accepting? Tolerant? Indifferent? Perhaps all of the above. In order to understand it more, I have divided the concept of ‘religion’ into three parts, written in order of their position along the spectrum of belief.
The first is reason
; that is, rational explanation through proof, observation, and scientific rigour. It’s the best word that I can come up with to describe the opposite of faith, which is the belief of something in the absence of evidence.
Perhaps what I (and many other atheists) dislike most about a lot of religions is that they often present themselves as equivalents to or alternatives of science. They offer supposed answers to ‘the big questions’, like the origin of the universe, by interpreting their holy books as literal fact. This is what I used to think the whole point of religion was – science versus Christianity, evolution versus creationism, who is right and who is wrong. Nowadays I avoid that discussion on the grounds that the two are not even comparable, through something known as the burden of proof. There is a quote from the writer Douglas Adams which sums this up rather well: “I don't accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me, “Well, you haven't been there, have you? You haven't seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid”, then I can't even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of God, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we'd got, and we've now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don't think that being convinced that there is no God is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don't think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.”
Religion shouldn’t be about trying to explain the real world, just like how prayers shouldn’t be about obtaining tangible results (more on that later). If you say that the events in our daily lives happen through the influence of a higher power, you are taking credit away from the unbiased hand of natural probability, which doesn’t know the difference between miracle and misfortune. The trouble is that religion used
to be considered as fact, so its traditions and practices still linger in the current generation. I think it’s a terrible shame that many people today think that it and science are still on the same playing field.
The second topic on the spectrum of belief is morals
. Christianity advertises the fact that it teaches morals well: how you treat your fellow humans, understanding your role in the wider world, that sort of thing. That’s great as a premise, but I think it gets carried away a little. “Love your neighbours! Appreciate how fortunate you are!” Sounds grand, please continue. “Give away all of your riches to the poor! Forgive those who have betrayed you without question!” Uh, okay... I see where you’re getting at, but that does depend on the context... “Homosexuality is a sin! Contraception and abortion are wrong!” Woah, hold up. Putting aside my opinions about those subjects, is religion really in a position to dictate ethics like that? Is anyone
? This is breaching the deeper issue of human rights! While I appreciate the value of generic life lessons being taught from an early age, I think it’s wrong to try to enforce such specific morals onto other people – after all, homosexuality and contraception have no influence on how good you are as a person. This is why Buddhism appeals to me a lot; it focuses on morals and a general way of life whilst remaining tolerant of other religions and science alike.
And finally, we come to faith
. Ah, faith, the immovable object, the unquestionable shield, the decider of wars. It seems like every religious debate these days is a glorified version of “You have faith, and I don’t”. That’s the end of the argument because, by definition
, faith does not need to be justified. It’s a personal decision with no right or wrong, composed of all things intangible, undefined, and spiritual. Private faith is what I think religion should be about, and nothing else. It seems obvious to put it like that, but this is the only way in which I can pinpoint what I like about religion and what I don’t.
Let’s talk about the idea of the religious lifestyle for a bit here. First, some background: I was raised in a Catholic household, and when I’m not at university, I go to church with my parents every Sunday morning. As an atheist, my main reasoning for still attending mass these days isn’t to do with faith or obligation. Rather, it gives me time to get away from the constant stimulation of electronics; I like having some quiet me-time to be left alone in my thoughts, and if that means I have to wear the guise of a theist for an hour every week, then so be it. As an observer, though, it looks an awful lot like rote chanting and routine, neither of which sound very spiritual at all. While I have memorised many of the prayers that we recite, nowadays I remain silent, because to me it’s missing the point. Practising faith should be going out and being a good person, not something as materialistic and systematic as this, surely?
I mean, there’s nothing wrong
about religious practices like going to communal prayer or excluding certain meats from your diet. Until you go to the extremes of religious wars, they don’t hurt anybody. It’s just odd that such unusual activities are seen as a normal pastime, you know?
Religious or otherwise, I’d wager that everybody does irrational things from time to time, whether that be habits, rituals, or fears. Here’s an example: for every exam that I have taken in the past four years, I have always made sure that my shirt colour matches the ‘colour’ of that subject, whether that be the blue of my chemistry folder or the traditional grey of my maths books. I can’t explain why exactly - it just seems right to me (not unlike having a lucky number), and I guess it does make me feel more comfortable in the exam room. How is that different from seeking confidence in God? Surely God’s role isn’t to instil you with knowledge or fortune, but rather to give you emotional support so that you can succeed in doing things yourself?
To compare, I once asked a good friend of mine, a devout Christian, about his thoughts on ‘living for Christ’: “Living for Christ means that you accept him as your saviour and love him. You want to serve Jesus by spreading his word, and you maintain a relationship with him through prayer and reading the Bible. How can you love someone and not want to spend time in their presence?”
See, as far as I’m concerned, his living for Christ and my co-ordination of shirt colours are equally valid (or invalid) things to do. They’re both based on gut feelings of something being correct, and to a listener they sound ridiculous. Yes, both endeavours are arguably silly and pointless, but does that give you the right to try and convince them so? No, because again, faith is a personal decision! After relating those two, I resolved not to argue with theists regarding faith any more; not only is there no chance of ‘winning’, but it also takes the fun out of it.
The biggest difference between private belief and religion is that, as sociologist Émile Durkheim described it, religion is ‘something eminently social’. Religion thrives on being a community
of like-minded people, all of whom were brought up being told what to believe: wear these clothes, pray in that direction, and fast at these times. I dislike the fact that religions try to change other people’s beliefs; what happened to the whole personal aspect of faith? I wouldn’t dream of convincing my friends to wear green to the Structures exam because hey, it’s their life, their choice. The room should be full of people with their own favourite good luck charms, not a sea of monochrome.
To return to the theme of prayer again, I think you just have to be careful about correlation and causation. In the context of serious issues like poverty and dire illness, they say that a prayer is as useful as a Like on Facebook, and I agree – it raises awareness for a worthy cause, it’s free and easy to give, and it may well provide emotional support for the starving child or sick person on the other end. That’s great! But it’s foolish to claim that there’s an actual link between wishing for someone’s health and their subsequent recovery or decline, because that evidence is purely anecdotal. The human body is an amazing construct, and our research into treatments has gone to incredible lengths; if you have such strong belief that higher powers are the lone source of good health, then I’d be inclined to deny you of the drugs and painkillers that we’ve worked so hard to develop, and direct you instead to the services of homeopathy and alternative medicine. I may as well not bother doing any revision, saying that my red shirt will do the Mechanics exam for me! Praying is fine, but in respect for our progression as a human race, give credit where credit is due.
And so, in summary, I cannot bring myself to like religion. So many religions these days draw attention away from the individual
aspect of faith by promoting the idea of everyone performing the same rituals, enforcing irrelevant morals and ridiculous lifestyles, and wasting time arguing with scientists and rival theists about topics for which it is no longer required.
Faith, on the other hand, I do like. I may have more faith in my wardrobe than I do in any conventional God, but I still think that faith, as a premise, is good. As long as you are sensible in your attribution of it, faith is everything that science is not - the two may coexist without contradiction, and that idea appeals to the engineer in me. The fact that it is so imaginary makes it seem so delightfully personal; there is no reason for it to exist, but it does because we like it.
You may continue unobtrusively believing in your God while I don my black shirt. Unlike my previous self, I will not argue; after all, we’re only human.