Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Discomfort in the Discussion Group

A week or so ago, I posted about a discussion group I'm in for which we're reading bell hooks' Where We Stand: Class Matters.  For this week's reading, we read chapters on African American community and race, and on religion.  It seemed to me that hooks was nostalgic about her religious upbringing as a time when the church was central to the community and belonging, and also worked against greed and racism.

In the discussion, pretty much every other woman talked about her church, or searching for the right church/religious community, or something similar.

Except me.  I pretty much kept my mouth shut except when I said that I thought hooks was being nostalgic, and that my sense was that the African American church (as much as one could use "the" there) has been historically unwelcoming of gays and lesbians.  I also added a response to someone's comment about how students go on missions to other countries to benefit the people there, more than to proselytize, by saying that I thought the students went for a number of reasons, including resume building and tourism.

Other than that, I didn't have much to say.

It strikes me that I'm really bad at discussing my atheism.  I don't think these women would have been mean about it or anything, but I'm bad at it, uncomfortable, and tend to avoid it.

Partly, I'm uncomfortable because I don't have a sense of religious feeling or spirituality.  I don't see evidence, and I'm pretty sure if there were a diety out there performing miracles, we'd see evidence.  But I don't.

And in the absence of good evidence, I don't see a need or have a desire for a deity. 

Partly, that has to do with the pain/evil thing.  Why would a benevolent deity give a dog cancer?  I mean, sure, if you really believe that pain and disease of humans are punishment for original sin, but dogs by definition can't commit sin, so why punish them with disease ?  (That goes for all the animals out there that get horrible diseases.  Cancer is not a circle of life thing.)  A deity that would treat dogs (or other animals) horribly is not a deity I would want to worship even if I believed that deity existed.  And if the deity were evil, again, I wouldn't want to worship it.  (And just to say: the idea that a benevolent deity would hold a parents' behavior against a child is abhorrent.)

At the same time, I recognize that a lot of people really feel a need or desire for a deity and are comforted by believing.  I'm not out to attack people for their needs and desires, but I also don't want them trying to attack me for my needs and desires.  But it sometimes seems that even acknowledging that I'm an atheist is seen as an attack on someone else's religious belief.

Sometimes, my atheism seems to be seen as an elitist attack on their beliefs in a way that I'm looking down on them or condescending.  And maybe I am in a way, because I just don't understand that particular sort of need/desire.

It was an interesting discussion, but uncomfortable, too.


  1. Well, I'll come in on your side, including the discomfort with owning atheism in what appears to be a theistic gathering.

  2. Anonymous4:25 AM

    I heard a really great theology discussion a couple of years ago on NPR about Jewish theology. It talked about the belief that God does not give pain/evil etc. Those things just happen. A dog will get cancer. God does not intervene because we have free-will and we have choice, and because of that free will and choice, it is our responsibility as agents of God to take the dog to the veterinarian and try to get treatment and to do the best we can to help the dog or ease its pain. That's the trade-off for original sin-- free-will and the ability to try to make things better rather than have problems solved automatically by God.

    That idea fits in really well with the emphasis on Good Works that I got growing up from the Catholic and Episcopal churches. I'm sad that the Catholic church is choosing to move away from the message of feeding, clothing, and housing the poor and towards the message of hate and intolerance (and not protecting children), because religion or not, it is good to help people and to be more tolerant of our own and other people's frailties.

    I'm also currently in the middle of Willpower (the authors both claim to be agnostic), and it's really interesting the positive benefits that religious believe has on one's own health and well-being. They claim that there are secular ways to duplicate some of the benefits as well.

  3. Since I work at a Catholic school, I have to walk a sort of fine line with religion a lot of the time. I mainly just tell people I grew up Catholic. If they press me further, I say, "I've since left the church for political reasons." It's very hard for me to say "I no longer believe in God." I think the reason why is because there's a big, long explanation for that, which is personal and I don't want to share with any ol' stranger. But like you, I just don't think that there's much evidence for the existence of God. I don't want to crush other people's faith, but I think that it's unnecessary to believe in something outside ourselves. I look at history and see all the horrible things that have been done in the name of faith, and I shudder. Sure, there are good things that have been done in the name of faith, too, and for the longest time I tried to hang on to the social justice and promotion of peace that the Catholic church seemed to promote. But the church is so medieval in its treatment of anyone who is not a straight man that I couldn't support it even if I did believe in God.

    Even when I was a fairly brainwashed kid, I didn't really believe in Jesus. I remember crying in bed one time after a particularly harrowing lecture about hell, and I said (aloud) to my teddy bear, "I wish I were alive when Jesus was alive," meaning so I could TRY to believe in him. I've just never "bought" the whole dying for sins, resurrection, savior thing. Hubby and I still celebrate Christmas in a secular sense -- giving gifts and putting up a tree -- but I also celebrate Shakespeare's birthday, so I don't have much reservation about that. Acknowledging important people in the history of the world isn't an issue for me, and there's no doubt that Jesus (whether real or fictional) was important to human history. But I'm not going to say he's god.

    Anyway - I totally understand your discomfort in talking about atheism. This is not something I had a problem with in California. Most people we knew, at minimum, didn't go to church, and I only had a couple of friends who believed in God. But in the Midwest, it seems like the church you go to is a big part of your identity. So a lot of people think I've got a black hole in my life. When they find out that I don't believe in God, most people say, "I'll pray for you," and I shrug and say, "Thanks." I know they mean well, even if I think they're misguided.

  4. Anonymous8:04 AM

    Also: the branch of the Episcopal church to which I belonged stressed the idea that it doesn't matter if you believe or not... the important thing is to be a good person and to do Good Works. Belief is not enough to get into Heaven (this is a bible quote), but Good Deeds are (this is where some branches of Protestantism differ from others... I got into a bizarre conversation with an Alaskan girl on a plane who was coming back from a bible competition about this quote... she was having a hard time reconciling the damnation of babies and those who have not heard the word of God with her belief system). Whether or not one believes in Heaven, if it exists it'll be a nice surprise for people who do the right thing even without believing that Jesus Christ is the son of God.

    My mom says she's a Pyrrhic Objector... prefers not to address the question.

  5. I think there's a lot of uncomfortableness whenever any kind of religion comes up, honestly. Atheists frequently get treated badly in groups where a more 'traditional', deistic belief system is the majority, but I've also seen it go the other way, where a group of atheists have been really disrespectful to a person who holds deistic beliefs. It goes both ways.

    We went searching for an open-minded, all-inclusive sort of congregation for the boys' sake; we wanted them to get a more well-rounded sort of religious education than we could give them and after a lot of looking around we finally settled on the Unitarian Universalists, for several reaosns: they accept all types of beliefs, including atheism, they have strong liberal leftist leanings, are LGBT supportive and accepting, and have a strong children's program that systematically goes through all the major religions (and included atheism) and teaches them the basics of each, with the underlying idea of keeping an open mind and having respect, and thinking for yourself.

    Turns out that actual respect for other forms of religion is really not an easy thing to do, when it comes right down to it- almost impossible for me, at least, when confronted with some crazy-making right-wing nutjobs.