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The subjective perception of atheism

April 30, 2019

Over the past few days, people have asked me why I still pay attention to all this religious stuff if I’m an atheist. I think that some of them believe that maybe it’s just that God-shaped hole in my heart and really, deep down, I’m a believer.

I don’t see it that way. I don’t experience it that way. It doesn’t feel that way. I think they are likely to be disappointed.

But I have come to a certain position that, I dunno, doesn’t seem like the typical atheist position?

The tentative answer I’m coming up with is because I want to understand. The Enneagram 5 within me craves knowledge, seeks knowledge, is utterly avaricious to possess and hoard knowledge. And one of the things that escapes my grasp is the experience of people who do believe.

In my own way of experiencing the world, the world does not feel enchanted at all. It feels mundane. I have had theists talk to me about the beauty of the world and how it denotes to them God’s creative hand, and I’m just like, meh, good for you. This doesn’t mean I don’t see beauty…it just doesn’t feel to me like dots that connect into the words “God was here” or anything like that.

So, in my life, nonbelief seems like an obvious conclusion. It doesn’t feel like I have any compelling reasons to believe.

And I get that this is all subjective. I have to live with my experiences, my feelings. I certainly hope that my perceptions align with reality, that I am not making too many logical missteps, but at the end of the day, I have to live with my feelings, my experiences.

So, where is the problem?

The problem is in the edge cases when my secular, mundane explanations don’t seem to explain everything. It’s in the people. I know a lot of nonbelievers who account for the behavior of certain believes with reductive, maybe condescending explanations. Delusion. Confirmation bias. Mental gymnastics. Self-repression. And so on.

But this feels too easy.

People have told me that they think I have a strength for stepping into the shoes of other people’s worldviews, of being able to present arguments from other people in a charitable way. I’m not so sure how far that goes, but I think it relates to wanting to understand. It relates to not wanting to stop at easy answers if I feel that they don’t capture the full story.

No, I allow that some people act and believe the way they do because they experience the world differently. They say they believe in an enchanted world because that is what they actually experience.

As a nonbeliever, I am still inclined to try to come up with other ways of explaining why they feel the way they do. Secular, mundane ways. But still, even this doesn’t always feel right. (it’s kinda like when I talk with people who are doxastic voluntarists. I always try to recast their experience of how they came to their beliefs in involuntarist language — in the hopes that at the end of the conversation, they’ll agree that we are really talking about the same sort of experiences when it comes to belief formation. But, shockingly, surprisingly, they just keep on resisting that! Some people, no matter how much I try to summarize otherwise, really do experience their beliefs as things they choose. This is not just a different way of explaining the same processes…it seems that they experience something different. Something very foreign from my own experience, where my beliefs are the product of a wide variety of factors, some things I can choose, and others I can’t.)

So, I have gotten to this point where in my own life, I don’t experience anything I would feel inclined to call God (or to attribute to God), and yet, I can tentatively acknowledge that others do experience such things…and I can even accept others’ attributions as sincere for them.

This puts me in this weird place where I don’t believe in God, yet paradoxically, I allow that God exists for other people.

The analogy is something more like: God is like a person I don’t know (oh man, i know all my Catholic readers are up in arms about this theistic personalism), have never met, never talked to, etc., but which other people know, have talked to, etc.,

There are 7+ billion people in the world, not counting all the ones who lived in the past and are already gone. If you gave me a name and asked me if I believed that person existed somewhere in the world, how could I respond positively out of personal ignorance? (I mean, if you give me George Washington and describe the first president of the United States, it seems reasonable enough to take his existence as a historical fact. I’m not a total skeptic here…but…)

Before we dive into God as a person, i want to take a detour on God not as a person. Back before I went on super hiatus on this blog, I would talk with Catholics who would point out about how narrow or distorted they thought my view of God was having been raised Mormon. I protested: “no, I know enough to know how God differs between Mormonism and other denominations.”

After being out of Mormonism and learning more about other denominations, whew! How wrong I was. I learned that even my comparisons and contrasts were to other personalist constructions of God (e.g., protestant versions.)

As I’ve learned more about classical theism, I realize that a lot of the things I’m writing about here don’t really apply there. And yet, to me, saying I “believe” in even that sort of deity feels like a lie. It certainly feels like less of a lie than saying I believe in a personalist God, but still feels like I’m not being honest about my own internal state. I’ll need to address that in a different post.

For now, let’s get back to personalism.

The challenge is that with regular folks, it’s possible to introduce someone to someone else. It’s possible to get corroborating data on how that person affected (and affects?) the world. This doesn’t seem to work the same for God — at least, not in my experience…you either know him or you don’t. You either can reach him or you can’t. You can either hear him or you can’t. He either speaks to you or he doesn’t. Maybe this changes over your life — I can certainly acknowledge that many people have conversion experiences — but is that a voluntary choice..? Is that contact something people can unilaterally choose to have if they just try hard enough?

…ah, we’re getting back into the doxastic voluntarism question, and I have enough experience to know that conversation won’t go anywhere.

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2 Comments
  1. Personally, I don’t believe in choice – either for God, or Atheism, and I think that any one who claims that they “chose” (or someone else did) is deluded, or a liar. We are convinced of our beliefs by a happening, or a series of them – indoctrination, brainwashing.
    Wannabe-Christians, about-to-be-Christians, anxious for justification and social approval, can have a mental moment. On the inside, to them, it seems that “God” spoke to them. On the outside, to many of the rest of us, it appears that they need psychological counselling and Lithium. 😯 😦

  2. I’ve been in enough conversations with enough people who understand their own beliefs as being chosen that I would have to start believing a LOT of people are deluded or liars if that were the only explanation.

    And that just doesn’t seem like an acceptable way to live life.

    Justification and social approval don’t make sense in all cases, IMO. Because again, I know enough believers for whom their experiences with belief or their experiences they attribute to God are not socially convenient or helpful. However, these experiences do make them stronger, more driven people. Again, saying they need psychological counseling and lithium is too dismissive, too reductionist to me.

    I grant that there are nevertheless a lot of people whose experiences push them toward beliefs I would find harmful, but still.

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