Talking about God (Or not)

5 Dec

I tend to the opinion that debating whether or not god exists is pretty pointless. In my experience the debate tends to get bogged down in entrenched positions and very quickly becomes acrimonious.

I suspect that the reason for this is that for some   people it’s perfectly obvious that God exists and for others it’s equally obvious that God does not exist and I think people on both sides of the debate tend to get frustrated because  people on the other side just don’t seem to get it. This can be especially infuriating when ‘it’ seems to be so blindingly obvious.

So I have no intention of rehearsing, yet again, the arguments for and against the existence of God. If you’re interested in the debate, you’ll find plenty of other opportunities to follow or participate in the debate elsewhere.

Having said this, there are a few comments that often seem to be made about atheists that I would like to address. The reason for this is that I have come across these comments (yet again) in fairly quick succession and I didn’t have an opportunity to respond directly to the people who made them.

So here we go.

1/ Everyone really knows that God exists, when people claim to be atheists, they’re just being difficult (or ungrateful).

I can’t speak for everyone who claims to be an atheist. All I can really say is that I genuinely believe that there is no God, and that to me the idea that God exists really doesn’t make any sense.

(I’m perfectly well aware that to other people the existence of God appears to make perfect sense and that to them, my understanding of how things work would make no sense, but that isn’t the point I’m dealing with here. All I’m really saying at this point is that some people genuinely don’t believe in God and it’s just plain wrong to suggest anything else).

2/ Everyone is born with a belief in God and it’s something that has to be educated out of them if they’re going to become atheists.

I can’t speak to what everyone believes at birth. I don’t even recall what I believed when I was newly born. (This is always assuming that I had any beliefs at all at the time). If you think about it you’ll probably find that you can’t remember anything before the age of three, (and probably not much before the age of five), and if you can think of a way to ask a newborn baby about his or her religious opinions then you’re a lot more ingenious than I am.

So all I can really say is that I have no recollection of ever having had any faith in God. As for having a belief in God educated out of me, this is simply absurd. My mother was a devout, if idiosyncratic, Christian and my father was completely enigmatic on the subject of religion. All I know is that he insisted on other people’s religious beliefs being treated with respect. So no one had any interest in ‘making’ me an atheist. My mother would have preferred me to be a Christian and my father never expressed a preference on the subject.

I should probably add that I’m not convinced that anyone can be educated either into or out of genuine religious belief. (As opposed to religious practice, which is easier, although still not easy, to enforce or suppress).

3/ Atheists are uncomfortable with their atheism and therefore seek to convert everyone else to their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Again, I can only speak for myself here, but I’m perfectly comfortable as an atheist.

I have a world view that makes sense to me and seems to be fairly coherent and consistent with the observable facts. I do recall having experienced a certain degree of angst as a teenager, but I think teenagers are entitled to be a bit angsty and anyway, all this angst probably had more to do with hormones than any doubts about my atheism.

I should also point out that I don’t proselytize. I dislike it when other people try to push their ideas on me and to me it just seems like good manners to respect other people’s right to form their own opinions and beliefs.

4/ There are no atheists in foxholes.

I could be terribly literal-minded here and ask if anyone’s ever done any comprehensive research into the beliefs of people while they’re occupying foxholes, but I won’t bother.

The thing that irritates me about this cliché is the assumption that seems to lie behind it. IE that atheists are simply people who haven’t really been tested and that in the face of death or some similar ordeal they would inevitably give up their foolish opinions and fall back on the comfort and solace of religious faith.

It would be disingenuous of me to cite CS Lewis at this point. (His account of his religious experience indicates that he was raised as a Christian, but lost his faith following the death of his mother when he was a boy. He goes on to relate that he was an atheist during his service in WWI on the Western Front. He was in a trench rather than a foxhole, but this point doesn’t seem to be significant to me. Finally CS Lewis, according to his own account, returned to his Christian faith following a series of discussions with his friend JRR Tolkien).

The reason why it would be disingenuous to cite this example (although it does seem to support my position) is because I’m a little sceptical of what CS Lewis is saying here. (I fully acknowledge that I’ve offered a very abbreviated version of his story here and I am also aware of the fact that I have no way of knowing what was happening in the mind of CS Lewis, and that it is therefore impertinent of me to question his version of events). But the fact remains, I’m simply not convinced that anyone becomes a Christian, or indeed an atheist, on the basis of reasoned argument. (I may come back to this at a later date).

So again, I will simply fall back on my own experience. I have never been in a foxhole or a trench and I have never faced any imminent risk of death (Or at least not since I stopped driving anyway). Having said that, I have not led a particularly sheltered life and so far nothing that’s happened to me has even come close to making me believe (or even to want to believe in God).

Of course you could argue that if I ever did find myself in a foxhole, or some similar predicament, then things would be very different.

Well, there’s no real way of knowing that for sure, but if I did turn to belief in God as the result of extreme duress, then any such belief would certainly be salutary and almost certainly transient and therefore, of no lasting significance in my overall world view.

I should probably acknowledge at this point that the above views are not necessarily held by everyone who believes in God. And I suppose I could go further in admitting that some, or all, of the above views may apply to some atheists some of the time.

To conclude, I certainly don’t hold that atheists are necessarily better, more intelligent, more rational or more tolerant than religious people. In point of fact I would suggest that knowing what someone believes, or claims to believe, about religion tells you nothing about their intelligence, integrity, amenability to reason or indeed the morality of their conduct.


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