Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodbye to some of my readers, sadly

This was always going to be a difficult blog post. I’ve spent several weeks editing, adding, subtracting, rewording and agonising over the content as I wanted this to be exactly right. You see, the subject of this post is atheism and I am aware that some of my regular blogging chums are people of faith. I’ve been trying to ensure that what follows is a meaningful, intelligent and sober exposition of my views and not anything that could be construed as insulting or in any way unfriendly. On the other hand, I am not going to be apologetic in any way. I’m happy and comfortable with my atheism … and therein lies the core of why I wrote this post in the first place.

It’s not easy being an atheist in a world where my beliefs – or, more accurately, my lack of beliefs – are seen as somehow less important than other people’s beliefs. I feel sometimes as if I’m constantly walking on egg shells. I want the freedom to express my views without people assuming that I’m on the attack. I just want to be treated fairly. Despite this, I may, sadly, lose a reader or two because of this post. That would be a huge shame but it will demonstrate precisely what I’m on about.

I’ve never been a religious person. It’s just never been a part of my life and nor was it a part of my parents’ lives. I didn’t go to church as a kid except for community-oriented events, like Harvest Festival, or family events like weddings, christenings and funerals. The latter were mostly for us to show solidarity as a family and respect for those involved in the event. I was always fascinated by religion (RE was one of my top-scoring subjects at school and I got an A at O Level Grade) and I still am, but it was only ever as an observer. It is part of a much wider interest that I have in what I would term 'mythology'.

Cornwall, in the 1960s and 70s was a Christian county with Methodism and Anglicanism being the primary branches. Even towards the end of the 1970s, religious sentiment was still sufficiently strong among town councils that they universally banned the showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in Cornish cinemas – despite the fact that most of these censorial councillors could not possibly have seen the film. Several of my teachers were ordained ministers. The band I played in regularly rehearsed in a basement under the vicarage. Church services were well-attended and TV series like Songs of Praise and Stars on Sunday were regular visitors (although the gorgeous Cornish scenery no doubt helped). It was a Cornish vicar – Robert Hawker – who invented the (now) world-wide phenomenon of Harvest Festival and this same man also provided the Cornish with their ‘national’ anthem; Song of the Western Men (better known as Trelawny). So it wasn’t as if I was living in some Godless state where I lacked knowledge or understanding of what faith is. I just didn’t get it. Religion made no sense to me and it still doesn’t. But I’m happy with who I am. I’ve remained, I believe, a fundamentally good person at heart who loves his family and friends dearly and who has – at least for the past 29 years – spent a major chunk of his life helping others less fortunate than himself. And I’ve done all this without the need for a god or any other form of spirituality.

There have been people of faith who’ve told me that I really should reconsider my position. But any arguments that they’ve put forward to try to persuade me away from atheism have simply ‘disappeared in a puff of logic’, as Douglas Adams would have said. There has never been any weight to any of their arguments and I unashamedly remain a heathen. Religion just doesn’t make any kind of sense to me. I will try to explain why:

1. Faith is not enough

As a police officer, I have always been told that truth and justice rests upon the burden of proof. A person is innocent until proven – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they are otherwise. So when I look at religion, I look for proof – beyond any reasonable doubt – for God’s existence. And I don’t find any. Not even the tiniest of scraps. Yes, it’s easy to fall back to the position of ‘God is faith’ but that still doesn’t provide me with anything more concrete than the speaker’s conviction. If I ardently, fervently 100% believed in the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas or some giant purple fish that orbits the Moon, that doesn’t automatically make them real. So why is God any different? Faith without proof is not enough.

Meanwhile, what I do see is a world of evidence against the notion of God. Again I return to my police career in which I’ve seen or met people who have been killed, maimed, raped, abused, wounded and abandoned. I’ve seen babies killed by their parents, women tortured by people they trusted to protect them. I’ve seen sexual and physical abuse and degradation on a scale that many outside the police service are lucky that they will never have to see. I don’t see any evidence of God or our own divinity in this. What possible greater purpose or plan can there be in allowing an adult to throw a mewling infant against a wall until it is dead or to starve a kindergarten-aged child to death? These are innocents; so innocent that they cannot even yet conceive of the idea of a deity. How can this be right?

In March 2006, the City of the Lord Church in Gayaza, Uganda collapsed killing 26 worshippers. In September 2007, the San Clemente Church, Pisco, Peru collapsed killing 140 people attending a funeral mass. In February this year, an earthquake in Rwanda, Africa caused a church to collapse killing 39 people. These are just a few of the church tragedies that have happened in the past three years. If you search the papers and the internet, you’ll find similar stories going back to the 10th and 11th centuries of people being killed while worshipping their god. Then there are the earthquakes and tsunamis, tornados and typhoons, hurricanes and volcanoes; natural disasters that regularly kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people a year and always, it seems to me, in the most devout countries. Yellowstone National Park sits in the cone of a huge supervolcano that may erupt one day. Maybe even one day soon. When it does, the impact upon America will be as great as any Biblical flood or plague. Some have suggested that it could create a nuclear winter effect that could wipe out most forms of life on this planet. When it does, will this be God rewarding the faithful?

I know many, many people of faith who, despite their good and honest lives have been afflicted by disease and illness; pious, generous people suffering in pain or cut down in their prime while murderers, fascists and dictators grow old and fat. I’ve been told that these are challenges set for us in this life so that we can earn our place in some kind of glorious afterlife. That’s all fine I guess but I come back to the three week old baby I once saw that had been thrown against a wall. How did it ‘earn’ its place in Heaven? What challenge did it face other than to cling to its tiny life? Most of the people I’ve met with terminal illnesses would rather have had the chance to see out their short time on this planet with those they love.

And while we’re having this discussion, let’s not forget that if God does exist, he (I’ll stick with ‘he’ for the sake of easier reading) also created Bubonic Plague, Influenza, Malaria, Bilharzia, AIDS, Tuberculosis, Cancer in all its various forms, Leprosy, Alzheimers, Sickle Cell Anemia and all of the rest. Why? Why would any sane being do such a thing?

This is just one reason why I am an atheist. I can see no substance in the arguments for God. I can see no evidence of a divine hand shaping our destinies. If I’m honest, if I did believe in some higher being, I would find it hard not to see him as cruel, vindictive, uncaring and possibly mad.

2. Religion doesn’t always practice what it preaches

Religion seems to me to be a mass of contradictions. The Bible and other holy books contain manifestly simple rules by which to live our lives. The rules were supposedly laid down by God himself. And yet, people choose to ignore them when it suits. ‘It’s all about interpretation,’ say the scholars. So, God can apparently create the universe and everything in it … but cannot create a set of rules that are unambiguous and easy to follow? Come on …

The laws which govern the UK and America, to take two countries I know quite well, are based upon some of the oldest cultural taboos, one of which is ‘You shall not murder’ – one of the Ten Commandments of course (When I was a child it was ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Ah, interpretation again). Murder, by definition, is killing. It’s the premeditated and deliberate killing of a person by another. If the Bible is to be believed, the Decalogue is the word and law of God handed directly to Moses, and one of those Commandments – the sixth - says that murder is wrong. Therefore it follows that God-fearing people should not kill another person in any kind of premeditated and deliberate way. Yet history is drenched in blood spilled in God’s name. The Crusades. The ‘troubles’ in Ireland. Witch hunts. Heretic burnings. Goodness knows how many holy wars. And now we have young Muslim boys blowing themselves and innocent bystanders to pieces with bombs. Like the Bible, the Qur'an makes it quite clear that murder is wrong.

If deliberate killing is wrong and against God’s own law, why is it tolerated by people of faith? How can religious people square this with being a soldier or a fighter pilot or a gun-carrying cop? Killing isn’t just about extremism. In many supposedly religious countries, state-sanctioned executions still take place. Apart from the inherent barbarism of mistaking revenge for justice, the death penalty means deliberately taking a life when God has expressly forbidden it. How does that work? And how can anyone – religious or otherwise – justify taking another’s life when we all know how fallible criminal justice systems can be? I don’t recall the part in Exodus or Deuteronomy where Moses discovers the small print that says ‘… except when you feel it’s justified’. I am an atheist but I am completely opposed to the death penalty. I believe that no one has the right to take another’s life.

Almost every religion, faith, belief and philosophy has, at its heart, a version of the Golden Rule or 'Ethics of Reciprocity': Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. (Many of them can be seen here). It’s a wonderful concept. I live my life by it. It seems to me that I put more credence in ‘the rules’ than many religious people do.

That's just one example of the contradictions that keep me from going anywhere near a church. It seems to me that religion is something that is bent and moulded and bashed into a shape that suits the user. It’s why there are so many different versions of religion. Some religions have one god, some have many. Some religions have even died. How can that be? Surely the worshippers of the Greek and Roman and Norse gods were just as pious as modern day believers. If faith is enough proof for a deity's existence then they were all as real as the gods people worship today. If so, what's happened to Apollo and Neptune and Odin? It also begs the question 'why are older religions that pre-date Christianity not taken seriously?' The followers of these religions are also believers - people with faith. But you try getting concessions at your workplace, such as changed working hours or prayer rooms, if you label yourself as a pagan or Wiccan.

All you Jedi out there? Grow up. It's just a film.

How do you know which religion - or partition of a religion - is the one you should follow? They can’t all be right. Fundamentalists are able to justify their horrific actions by claiming that their interpretation is the right interpretation. And sometimes groups within a religion even fight amongst themselves. Madness! And yet, here I am, a liberal humanitarian I guess, and it seems to me that I am more consistent, balanced and open to new ideas than I ever would be following a particular religion. So why would I change that?

3. The idea that we are somehow ‘divine’ is just plain weird

We now know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that dinosaurs once roamed this Earth. We know when and where. In many cases we can identify how individual animals died and why. And we know that they were all wiped out some 65,000,000 years ago in a Mass Extinction Event. That MEE was one of several such events in the Earth’s long and rich history. Go back further and we find the fossils of the Burgess Shale in Canada and beasts so bizarrely different from anything alive today that they look like creatures from another world: worm-like forms with silicon spikes and tubular feet; five eyed shrimpish things with fanged mouths set at the ends of vacuum hose-like ‘arms’; things that look like living pinecones with rasping mouth plates that could cut through rock. These things all existed and now they don’t. Evolution is a constant re-evaluation of design, pitting survival against environment with the most suitable designs passing on their genes.

Evolution is now accepted by most religious groups. The concept is pretty much indisputable and the facts inescapable. The proof is there in the fossil record and in the shapes of those creatures – cattle, cats, dogs, chickens – whose genes we’ve manipulated for our own purposes through selective breeding. We can even see the process in the faces of those we love - we don't look exactly like our parents and our kids don't look exactly like us. People with faith who accept evolution as fact do so with a wry smile and the knowledge that ‘God created the universe … so he invented evolution too. QED’. But I’m not going to let them off quite that easily …

The questions I’ve asked myself begin with: Why would any god create something as hit and miss as evolution? Evolution is not an exact science. It makes mistakes. DNA is not an immutable system, which is why we have genetic diversity. It’s also why it sometimes goes wrong. Evolution is peppered with dead ends. Why create a system that evolves whole species over millions of years but then allows them to perish? The proponents of Intelligent Design never seem to have an answer for why trilobites – arguably the most successful animal species ever – are now extinct. Nor can they explain things like autism, deformity, conjoined twins, blindness or epilepsy. These things aren’t intelligently designed surely? Why does our reproductive system use the same equipment as our waste disposal? That's like building a playground in a sewage works. Why do we only have one of all the organs we most need to survive? Why can’t we re-grow limbs and appendages and organs when supposedly ‘simple’ ungodly organisms have no trouble? Intelligent design? Hardly.

I must just quickly state for the record that I have little time for Creationists, particularly those who display the deepest form of ignorance by blindly and deliberately ignoring the evidence before them. I read much Creationist literature and visit many websites. I keep an open mind but have found them to be universally preposterous, scandalously sloppy and full of unsupported claims. Almost any argument put forward can be shot down in flames by even an amateur scientist and thinker like myself and it saddens me that their … I can’t even bring myself to call it a ‘theory’ … version of events has gathered any kind of credence. Creationism seems to me to be a last desperate cry for recognition; a last-ditch attempt to find something special about us humans. I find that insulting. We are damned special. We are extraordinary!

Just think … for you to be reading this now means that every single one of your ancestors, right back to the primordial soup, survived and reproduced. There is an unbroken story of survival against indescribably huge odds that ends with you. Or doesn’t end with you if you’ve already passed your genes on to children. You are outrageously, mind-bogglingly unique; the universe has never before, and will never again, arrange several billion atoms in quite the same way. How much more special do you need to be? Anything beyond that is surely just hubris?

As a species we can manipulate environments. We can travel under water. We can cure our ailments. We can fly – even to our own Moon. We are amazing. Why do we have to be divine too? Creationism claims that we sprang fully-formed from the hand and mind of God (despite the very real and tangible fossil evidence to the contrary) and were made in His image. It will be interesting to see what happens when we eventually discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. If evolution has taught us one thing it is that life elsewhere won’t bear even the slightest resemblance to Man. It will be as different from us as we are from wasps. These beings may be far more advanced and intelligent and moral than we are. I wonder if they will have faith?

It is only through a long, long series of chance events that we have evolved to the extent that we can look at the world around us and ask ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ If we hadn’t evolved and had those questions never been asked, what point would there have been in God creating the world at all? Dolphins don’t have a god. Nor do apes who share more than 99% of our DNA. And we think of them as the smart animals. If God is merely faith, could God have existed on a planet of non-sapient animals?

All of which rambling leads me back to why I wrote this post in the first place. In recent years, the political correctness lobby has slapped me a number of times for simply stating my viewpoint. In one recent instance I'd used the phrase 'There is no god' during a conversation and was politely told that I shouldn't say things like that because I'd cause offence. Really? Are people of faith really so insecure about their beliefs that me expressing my opinion is seen as challenging? Did they think I'd infect people with my heathen ways? I'm sorry but this is simply unacceptable. Christians explain all of the horror in the world, and the fact that God does nothing to stop it, by saying that God gave Man free will. If that's the case then even within their own philosophy I am free to choose my own path. I'm not out to convert anyone (unlike the suited men and ladies who bother me on my doorstep every Sunday). I'm not interested in changing your beliefs or challenging your faith. You have free will too.

I know that the intelligent, reasonable and moderate readers of this blog will read this and take it for what it is. It's not polemic or an attempt to undermine religion. It's simply an explanation of why I think the way I do. But I know, with some sadness, that there will be others who will take this as an affront on their deeply-held beliefs. As I said right at the start, I won't apologise if this is the case. It says more about your insecurity than it does about me.

It's not enough for me to say that 'I don't believe in God'. The truth is that, as far as I am concerned, there is no god to believe in. I don’t say this as some rabid anti-religious zealot. I say this as a moderately intelligent, normal, average Joe. In my life I try to be ethical, altruistic, kind, loving, generous, moral and, above all else, honest (hence this long rambling post) ... but not religious. I am entitled to express my personal view. And I will, despite the frequent rebukes I recieve.

There. Now back to the funny stuff.


Debby said...

Stevyn: Do you think that I have not looked at thw world and raged, "Why, God?". Everyone does. I did not believe. Now I believe. And in the end, my friend, the truth will be what the truth will be. What you and I believe is not going to change that fact. You are a good person. I know this. I am a good person. I know this. So I vote that we just let it go at that. And some day, if I ever find myself in London, we'll knock back a drink, and enjoy the things that we do agree on.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - You are a sane, balanced intelligent lady and if everyone was like you, wouldn't the world be a great place? As for that drink, I'll be first at the bar. x

Persephone said...

Good grief, Colgan, you scared the stuffing out of me with the title and first line of your post! I thought you were shutting the blog down. Then I re-read the heading; "some of my readers". Ohhhkay.

I had to smile a little when you described your sense that somehow your beliefs are less important than others' beliefs. I think a helluva a lot of people feel that way no matter where their faith (or lack thereof) leaves them in the religious (or lack thereof) spectrum. I'm a theist within the Unitarian community; I feel like hiding out in the catacombs sometimes. (Too bad there's a serious lack of them in Ottawa, comes from living in a river valley, I think.)

You don't owe me or anyone an explanation about why you're an atheist, anymore then I need to explain to you why I'm theist. You've heard all my arguments (not from me personally, but believe me, you have), and yep, I've heard all yours. Are we going to think the less of each other for believing the way we do? Not unless you use your atheism and I use my theism to bludgeon others, figuratively or literally. If your atheism makes you a better person, then I have no problem with it. I hope my theism does the same for me, 'cause believe me, I'd make a lousy atheist.

Stuart Peel said...

Quite agreed. Until we, as a species, get past this superstitious nonsense, we can´t grow and develop. We of course respect the right of others to believe, but they must in turn learn to respect our decision to disbelieve.

Protege said...

Stevyn, I agree with Persephone - you do not own anyone an explanation, nor do you need to defend your belief structure to anyone.
We all choose to believe in something, whether it is divine, or just simply an universal power of love and goodness in people. Or nothing at all.
The righteous people will respect you the way you are and judge you by your actions more than anything you say or believe.
With that said, I still find this post very well thought through and applaud your courage to venture into this kind of subject.
And I will keep reading your blog.;)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Persephone - Ditto my comments to Debby. It's so nice to feel I'm among reasoning, intelligent company - theist or atheist - and that we can all talk freely about whatever we want. I for one would never censor or shy away from any comments people left on my blog regardless of whether I share that person's views or beliefs. That's what democracy, freedom and choice is all about.

Stu - It seems to me that you share my views. I like the fact that you're not afraid to say what you believe while respecting everyone else's right to do the same. I salute you, Sir.

Protege - What you say makes perfect sense.I'm glad you'll keep reading. I'd miss you.

I'd miss you all in fact. I'm lucky to be part of such a supportive, entertaining and clever community. Long may we all blog. x

chris hale said...

Just to lighten things a little...

A.J.Jacobs, a non-practising Jew, decided to spend a year adhering strictly to all the rules in the Old Testament, not cherry-picking the ones that suited him. This is his website.

I think he had a bit of a problem with the stoning of adulterers, but did find a way to deal with it!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - I read his book 'The year of living Biblically' earlier this year. Very amusing. But there was a serious undertone in that it was impossible to follow the Bible literally. To me, it simply reinforced my views on Creationism. But, very funny book! I'd recommend it.

Planet Me said...

I applaud this.

Debby said...

Sorry to say, it looks like you're stuck with all of us Stevyn.

Mary Paddock said...

I think the only time atheists offend me is when they imply that "truly intelligent, enlightened" people have no need for a God and they're looking at me when they say it.

Stuart Peel said...

Saluting you right back Mr. Colgan, at the foot of your huge post about atheism.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Planet Me - I thank you. It was a necessary evil as far as i was concerned.

Debby - That's good isn't it?

Mary - I can only apologise for them. It's all about choice at the end of the day. Many brilliant people somehow manage to keep God in their lives; I have no idea how but I respect their right to do so. Regardless of my views, I would never be so crass as to say something like that to someone's face.

Stu - Cheers m'dear! It was a bit huge wasn't it? Don't worry ... it's all downhill from here ...

doctawho42 said...

Well, I do get a bit angry about Religion, mainly for the points that you so eloquently stated. Most of all, I just don't get it.
Anyway, I think Mr Colgan, that its dying out, well, I hope it's dying out. At least I think I hope it's dying out. Oh, science, let me explain.
There are only two openly religious people in my class, and I wish I could say they're sheeple and ignorant, but they're not. Those two are possibly the nicest in my home class, considerate and friendly and dutiful and intelligent, blah di blah di blah.

I find less to admire in the more rabid athiests or the thoughtless agnostics, who's response to everything 'spiritual' is to say "Well, I dunno." or just to shout loudly about having no God and there being NO EVIDENCE, and they AIN'T NEED NO GOD! DAMNIT.

Ooh ahhh, rebel.

I would say, that the average member of my generation, when probed, has no real thoughts about relgion. Except the uneasyness that comes from overt displays of emotion, which bursts forth from relgion like water from a water melon.

In a recent psych class some girl said "I hate emotional people. When you, like, ask them how they are, they just give you their whole damn life story". The class tittered in general agreement. Do they have no inner life whatsoever?

It could just be my socio-economic group, or my country, or even the small catholic school at which I attend, but its bloody weird.

It seems, from where I stand, that religion is being nothing in particular. Nothing but social pressure and the dying whims of capitalism. It makes me want to retire to the outback, efore I've even begun to work.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Docta - Wow. You really are a deep and serious thinker. I mean,when I was that age I still harboured ridiculous ambitions of rock stardom. Science has replaced religion for many people because science provides more concrete answers. In the past, God was an excellent way to explain why things are they way they are. The late Douglas Adams explained it (not word-perfect here) that once Man started to make things and understood the process of creation, he looked around at the world and asked 'So who made all this then?' The logical conclusion back then was 'A bigger and cleverer and more powerful man'. Science has removed the need for that kind of explanation ... if you choose to follow scientific interpretations.

I know what you mean about rabid atheists. I have a great deal of time for Richard Dawkins and met him a few years ago at the first Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture. He's a charming and erudite man. But, in some ways, he's now become as evangelical as those religious people he attacks. That's not the way. Well, not for me anyway. I'm happy to say that I agree with him about there being no God. I'm also happy to say that I honestly believe that the world would be a better, more enlightened and safer world without religion. Morality depends on liberal humanitarianism not adherence to some form of mythology. But religion is not going to go away for a long time yet, if ever. And, if there's one thing about human nature we can be sure of, it's that the more you attack someone's beliefs, the more defences they'll put up. Dawkins and his ilk simply make the hard-liners harder.

I agree with you in that I suspect religious belief will slowly peter out over time as science makes more and more revelations. But in the meantime, why not respect everyone's right to believe whatever they want and let's all get on, eh?

punk in writing said...

Well done for posting your thoughts on a difficult subject.

I've had almost the opposite experience as a Christian Protestant. I was an agnostic for many years, which was actually encouraged by mother who is a Minister.

However, I work with several atheists and while I am open to discussing religion (as a concept, not the beliefs of individuals) I often find myself being asked to explain or answer for the actions of Christians in general. But being open about what I believe in has also resulted in one of my co-workers saying that she now feels that she can be open about her faith.

I respect your beliefs. Live and let live.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Punky - That's the secret! Respect each other and be tolerant. Don't see other peope's views as an attack on yours. Perfect. x

Fastfingers said...

Marvelously well written (of course) and very well put, exactly how I feel. Religion, politics and sexuality are private things and you shouldn't have to explain what they are to anyone. I don't care if my friends believe in God or not, as long as they're nice people (and they make me laugh). Some believe in a higher being, some don't, and that diversity is what makes the world go round. I respect their beliefs and opinions if they respect mine.

The only bad thing about being an athiest is when something good happens, you have no one to thank.

Hope this doesn't sound trite, I'm ill - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Oh, and when you and Debby meet up for a pint, can I come too? I'd even come to London to partake!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Fastfingers - Thanks for the kind words. Let's all get on ... It's not rocket science is it (note to self: I must come up with a new phrase to replace this outmoded cliche!). Get well soon! X

Lump said...

Wow. I finally had time to read this post. Extremely well written and mind-opening, I do say.

I have had quite a few bad experiences in regards to religion, church, and God. I think due to my family as well as experience has led me to not believe in God. I have also learned from experience that sexuality, religion and politics are dangerous subjects to discuss with anyone. It really is a no win situation. Many comment to me that I am "confused" and "don't know any better." SIGH. Why can't we all accept each other for what is inside and how we treat others? That's all I look for.

Thanks for this.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lump - And thanks for your comments as always. Rational, sensible discussion can only ever be a good thing surely?

doctawho42 said...

Oh, I harbour ridiculous ambitions of rock stardom, but that also competes with ridiculous ambitions of being Stephen Fry, so I have to be well read.
Is the Douglas quote from that "Artificial God" lecture he gave? once? Because I remember that explanation, I do really. Nice and simple.
Oh, and thanks for replying like you did, all long and well thought out. With proper punctuation no less! And thanks for being kind.

Yeah, I'm one of those people as well...with the little whiney voice inside my head saying "Aww, can't we just get along?". I get that, I really do, that voice is very strong, but it isn't enough.

Religion, in my view (just one view!), is nessisary in a point of human evolution. But what it isn't, is nessisary any longer.

Now, I'm all for non-nessisary things. Most things I love aren't nessisary, but Religion is also harmfull. Bit like cigarettes I spose, thats a nice analogy.

Infexibility of thought and irrationality of thought are both dangerous things. George W as prime example, Extremists on both sides as the other. If you can justify the extistance of an ever-present guiding hand over your life, you can justify the existanace of weapons of mass destruction, both with no evidence.
You can also justify non-political things as well, I'm just making a point.

Children growing up under the ever-present guiding hand of Goddykins are effectively under a facist dictatorship. "Do this, don't do that." "Ahh, your not doing what I said, well, burn in hell." It doesn't matter if it's not real, it doesn't have to be real. Its emotionally scaring growing up with that, if you have different thoughts. Most kids don't have different thoughts though, and grow up to be those mindless, rigid, anti-creative people we can do without, and don't advance society one jolt.
Its good and fine to say "respect other people's beliefs", "people have the right to smoke", but if people's smoke effects you, or you grow up with it, with secondhand smoke blowing in your face all day long, thats not respect. Its not freedom at all.

You said somewhere "Rational, sensible discussion" is good. YES! YES! IT IS! But its impossible to have with religious people, belive you me, I've tried. Just like I've tried to have discussions with my Mum, or with anyone. Both apply double standards to Religion, and give pithy, useless responses like "I don't think its as simple as all that, Hannah".

But we can't be mad about all of this. Persecuting people aint cool. And we can't get all uptight and self righteous, I really hate it when athiests become like that. Belive me when I say I don't hate religious people, not at all. "In fact, some of my best friends are gay peo...I mean, Religious." Gosh. Glad thats over.

Anyway, now I'm all worked up. And now I have to go to Maths, where I have to be all subserviant and quiet. You know what really irritates me about Maths? Is that I know it could be brilliant and eye opening and universe explaining and eveything, but its so gut wrenchingly boring. And full of jargon. There should be a "Plain Maths Campaign" somewhere.
Thanks again for being depth. It's brilliant.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Who42 - And thank you for expressing yourself so eloquently and so candidly. Like most things in life, moderation is a good thing. Whether it's food, booze or fags, too much is bad for you. Religious belief and, to be fair, atheist non-belief should be similarly moderate. I no more want to preach the gospel of the Heathen or persuade people to change than I want the Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on my door trying to make me see something in their bizarre (to my mind) branch of Christianity. I can be trusted to look at the world around me and make choices. I'm happy to hear other people's views but I don't need attempted indoctrination. Closed minds are dangerous as they don't encourage balanced viewpoints. As you quite rightly say, rational sensible discussion is the way forward. Live and let live.

Plain Maths eh? I'd be up for that. I am rubbish with numbers. If anyone can explain to me why I needed to understand long division at school deserves my undying admiration. I've yet to use it and I'm approaching my half century.

casilingua said...

Brilliant, Steve. Wise, kind, temperate, sane and necessary. Be proud.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Casilingua - Praise indeed from someone like your good self (I wasn't a copper for 30 years for nothing ...). Thanks so much for popping by.

I'm pleased to report that I only seem to have lost a couple of regular readers.

Or maybe they're on holiday?

Dave Gorman said...

I'd be very surprised if you had lost any readers with this... it's all far to reasonably phrased and well put together for that.

You're bound to have some theist readers but I'd be very surprised if you had any who were so inflexible about the views of others as to storm out in protest at the revelation that you are an atheist.

In my experience such narrow minded people tend to have a narrow frame of reference too. As a result they tend to hang out in places where the discussion they want is already occurring.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Dave - Thanks for popping by. You get a frequent mention on this blog due to the occasional 'I see faces' features. Wise words and yes ... since posting this particular essay I don't seem to have lost anyone. Cheers m'dear!

Karen Redman said...

This is just SUCH a well thought out and well constructed post. I'm Jewish but have a problem with "God" ... I like the traditions of the religion but have given up struggling to believe. I just can't do it.
And if any of your readers leave you because of this post then it would say to me that their faith doesn't really include tolerance.
Am "following" you from here on in!

map_maker said...

Thank you for writing this. I was raised without religion, my parents never saw a need for religion and it was never really a large part of my life. I tried religions, as other kids might have tried drugs. I took Religious Studies 100 in university because I wanted to see if there was one out there that I was missing, one that made sense. Simply stated, there isn't. They don't make any sense at all.
Now my parents always raised me to be nice to people and so I never really brought my lack of religion up to people. They knew I didn't go to church, but never really thought anything of it. That is, until I started dating an atheist. He made me realize just how much damage religion does. I think I knew this but it is something that is hard to come to grips with. Religion isn't supposed to be evil, it's supposed to be good, it's just those little cults that are bad. Then I started doing my own research and realized that religions are killing people all over the world, every day. Sometimes it is with wars, sometimes it is by simply not allowing them condoms while AIDS tears through a community.
We've done the research for Canadian cities. As of 2001, almost every single city's non-religious population was growing. This is, obviously, a broad term. This is based off of 20% surveyed and is not necessarily a sign of the critical thinkers in the country. However, to see some cities' non-religious population grow by 500% was a pretty good feeling. The next survey on religion will be in 2011 and we are really looking forward to the results. It seems that the upcoming generations realize that religion isn't all that it's cracked up to be. They have the world at their fingertips and have the ability to read all of the compelling arguments, such as yours, to be turned one way or another. I just hope that the way they turn is a sane way.
Sorry for my rambles. I just am very glad that you wrote this. I believe that I will point people to this.
Oh, and as a last note. I am currently taking a post-graduate certificate. Most of the people that I have talked to about religion in the course (~10) are not religious. Some are as outspoken about it as I am, some are more along the lines of "well,I was raised X but I haven't been to church for a while". Finding other outspoken atheists really made me feel at home in a foreign city.
In any case, keep up the good work. Now following you here and on twitter.

Kat said...

WOW, came across this post through Twitter and I have to say you might need to change the title to say Hello to some new readers.

Personally, religion has just never been a factor for me, it never came up at home and I only entered a church for what my Mum called 'Hatches, Matches & Dispatches', the idea of a god pretty much appeared when I started school and disappeared hand in hand with Santa .

I only became aware of real believers, both decent and aggressive, in my adulthood and just avoided the subject, using the rule of thumb that other people can think what they like as long as they show me the same courtesy.

Happily, most have and those that haven't have usually vanished from my life pretty quick, which always left me feeling quite sad and slightly freakish because I somehow didn't fit, but I just couldn't bring myself to walk the walk and talk the talk just to be accepted.

Its one of the joys of the internet that I have now found I am not somehow dis-functional because I don't get it.

A lovely post, Thanks

David said...

I was brought up as a Catholic, while my brother was a Protestant. It wasn't until I was in University that I was able to shake off the yoke of organized religion in general.

I agree with you that Faith is not enough and would go even further by saying that it often resembles a grotesque egotistical bloating. Thinking that your own view of the World is superior and / or absolute is egotistical to say the least and cowardly to put it bluntly. Doubt on the other hand shows courage and humility.

Also institutionalized religion has created so much harm historically and is riddled with so much corruption and self-interest that the damage it causes overwhelms any of the good in my opinion.

So far so good, but here is where I differ slightly from your view. I often find that when someone is resolutely atheist they suffer from the same self-delusions as the people with rock solid faith have. There is no way to scientifically prove that a God or superior consciousness does not exist. I think that the healthier path is to be agnostic and open to people's ideas and theories. Not all ideas have to be accepted equally, that is after all what reason is for, but ideas should not simply be discarded because they do not fit in with our current way of thinking.

I personally feel that most religions have positive elements to them that can be extracted. Similarly many philosophical arguments can appear to completely contradict one another on the surface, but can each contain fragments of a common truth.
Basically I reject dogma, whether it be religious or not. That doesn't mean that I have to be all things to all people, it just means that I am open.

There is a middle road where one can rely on reason and critical thinking, while accepting that there may be things beyond the scope of what we can currently comprehend or properly explain. That might sound like a cop-out, but is the only sane path in my opinion. Doubt does not equate to insecurity, quite the opposite in fact...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Karen, Kat, David and Map Maker - Thanks for popping by and leaving your intelligent and honest comments. As you know, this essay was written back in October (on Halloween night appropriately enough!) and has recently enjoyed a little surge of new interest. Any lively, smart and reasoned debate is a good debate in my books.

If I had to summarise my personal standpoint in a single sentence it would be this: We are possibly unique in the whole universe in that we have the capacity for imagination and belief. No one should therefore feel they have the right to tell another what they can or cannot believe.

Mandi M said...

An interesting, reasoned and well-thought out piece where I found myself nodding and going "yes, exactly!" over and over again.

It is refreshing to see more and more non-believers coming out of the closet, despite the assumption that faithless = amoral. (In my experience, many atheists are very moral, having reached that position by careful consideration and agonised thoughts on the meaning of life without a God to thank or blame it all on).

However, I am disturbed by the almost evangelical of some who feel the need to proclaim their faithlessness with every breath and every blog entry. I object to being cornered by Born Agains or Jehovah's Witnesses who want to convert me, so unless directly asked I don't make an issue of my own lack of belief.

Let's face it, when the mother of my son's best friend tells me that she believes it was Divine Intervention that saved him when he had emergency open-heart surgery three years ago, I can't turn round and tell her she's talking bollocks, can I? That would just be mean, wouldn't it?

I'm a Brit, but I live in Greece, where open atheism is about as common as an elephant in a sushi bar (even the most radical Communist politican go through the genuflecting motions - strange in a country which "officially" has no state religion).

Religion is woven into the very fabric of Greek society, and I do go along with a lot of the social aspects of it. But hubby learned long ago not to expect me to enter the church, kiss an icon or even wear a cross round my neck. And likewise I let him get on with it.

Fortunately, when we married I was not required to convert to Greek Orthodoxy (I would have refused on the grounds of hyprocrisy) but I was required to sign a paper stating that I would baptise any children in the church. I went along with that, believing that when any child of mine reached the age of reason, they would be able to make up their own mind. He's now 12, aware of my atheism, and seems to be thinking about it...

When asked, I will answer straight "I don't believe in God, but I DO believe in poeple". But I dare not declare my faithlessness loud and proud, for fear of making myself (and worse, my son) a social pariah. I already have a running battle with my Greek mother-in-law for refusing to cross myself at appropriate moments, and for 20 years she has not given up duabing me with Holy Water at regular intervals in the undying hope of bringing me to the "one true faith". I daren't tell her that I don't believe in ANY God, as I really don't fancy rushing her to the local emergency room.

But it is a sad state of affairs where despite society's declared tolerance and acceptance of a diversity of beliefs, someone with an equally valid set of Rules for Responsible & Ethical Living that just happens not to involve God has to watch their mouth.

Seems that we're not quite as right-on and accepting as we thought we were....


Love this post, Stevyn. It's wonderfully written. I appreciated your clear-headedness and honesty. Go you.