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Coming to terms with atheism

April 6, 2009

In another satisfying (thanks to Tim from Existential Christianity and Mormon Heretic from Mormon Heretic) post at Irresistible (Dis)Grace, I discussed about coming to terms with certain injustices seemingly conducted in the name of religion. I guess I don’t speak for every ex-Mormon or ex-(insert religion here) or atheist, but I think that what happens in a lot of cases is that people may be resentful of the injustices they see in the religions.

And in a way, who can blame them? As Mormon Heretic wrote, the idea that God would command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac gets at our senses and sensibilities. So it seems that even with a Christian existentialist argument of this being an example of the ethical being transcended by a leap to faith…we generally like to keep to the ethical anyway, in many cases.

For me though, I mentioned in my article that it wasn’t so much the sacrifice that got me, because I came to terms with a realization that I shouldn’t expect overriding and obvious Truths, the smaller truths that people construct may in fact seem very strange. But then, the game becomes one of narrative fallacies. So, I recognize that I find the sacrifice a terrible thing, but to expect something better is unrealistic, because it’s not like goodness is a Truth that runs through the universe. Or even if it is, it is not so readily apparent like gravity.

This kind of philosophy has permeated throughout my thinking…and it’s given me an appreciation for some of the unlikeliest things. And so Mormon Heretic wondered about this:

Have you ever posted about your “conversion” to atheism? I’m just curious why you find it appealing. Obviously, it works for you (or should I say, it is your truth.)

So, I realized that I hadn’t really done so…so why not?

I’ve probably mentioned before (or maybe I haven’t) that all throughout my childhood, I never had anything that could be considered a confirmation of the Spirit. I didn’t really believe in spiritual tenets, and I didn’t have any such experience with such things. So, in fact, when I hear about people who have had spiritual experiences but have later deconverted from whatever church they were a part of (even to move to a different church), this has been strange to me because it wasn’t my position.

I didn’t feel like a true believer (because, well, I wasn’t.) When I was a stupid kid, though, I heard about agnosticism and ran with it, calling atheism ‘as extreme as theism’ (I cringe when I read this line). I fell into the trap I now speak out against on atheism and agnosticism.

Regardless, that doesn’t mean I was a total heathen sinner. I think I was a good child (or at least, better than some of the professed believers in my wards who are now trying to clean up their acts and go on missions), and in fact, I liked a lot of what I saw as the practical aspects of the church even though I didn’t like the idea of spirituality.

And so…one day…I think that’s what I asked: “Couldn’t I just live the practical aspects without the spirituality? Is there a church that would do that?”

This was the question that changed everything. It made me come to grips with what a religion actually signified. And it’s not practical living. Trying to have a church without the spirituality is no church at all, regardless of what kind of name it has.

So, at about 16 or 17, I also came to terms with what it might mean to not believe. Where I could easily give a testimony about practical aspects of the church (I think it is excellent for raising professionals, business people, clean cut citizens, etc.,)…I could never feel comfortable testifying about the spirit, because I didn’t believe in the spirit, in God, and the like. I didn’t experience any of those things.

I realized eventually how simple and clear this conclusion was. This was the mereness of atheism, and really, I had been atheist all the time, even if I had been ignorant. I began to realize the distinction between questions about knowledge and questions about belief.

I wasn’t fully liberated though. It was only when I could truly come to terms with atheism that that happened.

While I didn’t believe in God, I still paid undue deference to that worldview. I worried about how I would be seen and how I should act, not because I thought this would figure into an eternal scheme of things, but because I paid too much respect to these constructs. Imagine disagreeing with a parent on an issue. You might want to move your own way, but you may feel guilty for doing so because you feel you should pay some kind of respect to your parent simply because they are your parent. To move past, you have to realize that if you’re going to go your own path, you must be solid enough to do it completely.

The liberating thing about atheism was that I didn’t have to feel like everything was accounted for. It seems like if you have such an acute theology on God and the universe (as churches do), then you are responsible for all of these points. When I identified with the church, I wanted to defend the Book of Mormon (even though I didn’t believe in its historicity), precisely because I paid that deference to the church. As an atheist, I realized that I had no such obligation. I could treat it however I wanted, praising some aspects and criticizing others. In the church, I wanted to find out why I couldn’t have the spiritual experiences that others were having…I assumed that I must be in the wrong. But as an atheist, I dropped such depressing assumptions.

Atheism is so alluring because it doesn’t offer much, not in spite of that. I’m not bound to particular packages of why there are problems with the world or why there are good things in the world, because my worldview doesn’t suggest an absolute on how these things came to be. I’m unconvinced, so my nonbelief is a way to avoid binding myself unecessarily.

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3 Comments
  1. Thanks for posting about this. I must say I can really identify with your teenage years, when you talked about not really feeling the spirit, because that’s usually how I feel. I can remember being in the MTC, and hearing all the missionaries rave about how wonderful the spirit was there, and I thought to myself, “I don’t feel any different than I usually do.” It made me wonder what was wrong with me.

    On the other hand, I have had some spiritual feelings both before and after that MTC experience, though never any “lightning-bolt” experiences. I guess we’re a little different in that aspect.

    I was hoping to better understand why atheism works for you, but I still don’t feel I understand that answer. The best I can come up with is that it seems like you’re an intensely logical person, and your brand of atheism is intensely logical. As I said before, you certainly think outside my box.

    I would guess that when someone relates a profoundly spiritual experience, that their experience would be outside your box as well. Is that accurate?

    One other thing–I’d love to get an avatar, but I can’t figure out how. I use wordpress too.

  2. I guess I had another super long post that ended up not hitting the mark it needed to.

    I’m not necessarily saying I’m intensely logical, so my brand of atheism is not necessarily intensely logical or whatever. (Maybe it is, but not on purpose).

    My idea is simply this: I recognize that there are others that have profoundly spiritual experiences, so for them, I think that this kind of subjective experience gives them what they may need to believe. So, even though I don’t share those experiences, I don’t think it’s impossible that someone could have such an experience.

    But…what about people who don’t have such experiences? As long as it’s possible to conceive such a person existing (which some people will not concede even that much), then I think there’s always a justification for not believing. This shouldn’t be “outside of the box.” I mean, you might think: there is something in the world that someone else has a “profound experience” towards, but which you do not. So, couldn’t you apply this as well to the realm of the spirit?

    The only further conclusion I’d possibly make is that because of this interesting situation (some people have spiritual experiences…some people don’t, and even worse — the spiritual experiences people are having aren’t even for the same religion!), I think that gives me more reason not to believe that these experiences are indicative of a big Truth rather than just a personal truth to the individuals who have them.

    Keep in mind throughout all of this that I speak about not believing…rather than believing not. Nonbelief is a lack of belief…it is about not being convinced (rather than of being convinced of the opposite conclusion [e.g., my "I don't believe in x" is not "I believe x does not exist."])

    As for avatars…lemme see…I did it through my wordpress profile by clicking on the part in the upper right hand screen of my admin panel that says, “Howdy, (name)!”…when it sends me to my profile, it gives me an option to change my gravatar (globally recognized avatar)…so I’d try that. or en.gravatar.com

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