Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

My Problem With Religion, 2

with 6 comments

Okay, let me say a couple of things up front, just to make sure everybody knows where I’m coming from.

First,  I’m an atheist–and always have been one, as far as I know.  I came from a family with little or no religious belief and never found the religious position plausible since.

Second, I am not a moral relativist.  I do not think that morality is a “human invention,” or that it is subjective.  I think that the reason John’s philosophers were so lame is not that there is no objective basis for morality, but that they didn’t want to find one.  They’re like children wanting to believe that unicorns are not impossible–if the only way to do it is to refuse to even know the existence of physics, so be it.

But all that is another discussion, and right now I want to go back to this thing, which is not a lament about our lost morals or a wish for a heightened religious sense, but a description of something actual.

Whether the world of the accidental atheist is pleasing to us or not, whether it portends good or ill for the future, it is here.

And it is a specific kind of thing.

First, it’s atheism, not Deism.  Deists–people who believe in the clockmaker God–have never had the least trouble founding their morality on that God.  Thomas Jefferson would have said that God estabished the laws of the universe, both natural and moral, and tha our job is to discover and conform ourselves to them.

Deists are highly moralistic people, if we can believe the examples that have come down to us from the American Revolution, and there’s nothing illogical in the assumption that a God who made laws of motion also made laws of morality and expected us to discover them both.

But although accidental atheists are atheists, they’re soft atheists, not hard ones.  A hard atheist believes that God does not exist.

A soft atheist only doesn’t believe that God does exist.

Think of it this way.

You tell me that there is a giant blue ox living in the Great Plains.  I find that implausible, and I see no evidence of it–no pictures, no substantiated reports of gorings, no museum exhibits of droppings–so  I assume you’re wrong, and I don’t agree that such an ox exists.

But I also am not sure that it does not exist.   Maybe the lack of evidence is circumstantial, a matter of our not going about trying to find it systematically or in the right way, and such evidence might arise at some later date. 

In the meantime, though, with no positive evidence of the blue ox’s existence, I see no reason to assume its existence when I, say, pack for my road trip across Kansas.

And–to head something else off at the pass–this is not agnosticism, either.  When  I pack for Kansas, I don’t assume that the existence of the blue ox is unknown and then act accordingly, I assume it’s not proved and act on that–that is, act as if the ox were not there. 

Second, this kind of atheism is accidental–that is, it is not thought out.  John’s philosophers were not accidental atheists.  However they arrived at their atheism, they were actively engaged in thinking through its implications.

Deliberate atheists may or may not have arrived at their atheism through reason, but they defintely go to the trouble of articulating reasons.

Deliberate atheists have as many arguments for the nonexistence of God as believers have arguments for His existence.

Personally, I don’t think either side is actually able to prove a damned thing, but that’s a part of the discussion to come later.

In the meantime, what’s important to note is that the accidental atheist could not tell you why he doesn’t believe in  God.  He may not even know he doesn’t believe until you call his attention to it. 

He doesn’t believe because he doesn’t believe.  Nothing convinced him to move from belief to disbelief.  

In a way, the accidental atheist is more secure in his atheism than a deliberate atheist ever could be.  The deliberate atheist believes in reason and argument.   Give him reason and argument for belief that he cannot deny, and he’ll begin to sitch, just as a deliberate believer given reason and argument in the other direction that he can’t deny will also begin to switch.

The accidental atheist, however, hasn’t arrived at his position through reason and argument.  He doesn’t believe because–well, not to put too fine a point on it, because the story no longer sounded plausible to him.

His is responding to the existence of God not the way a scientist responds to data or a philosopher responds to logic, but the way a reader responds to a story. 

And the story just doesn’t sound real to him any more.

I think that this describes, better than what I’ve seen so far, the rising tide of secularization in the West since the early nineteenth century–I think it best describes the nature of that secularization.

Russia may have deliberately gone out to destroy religion, but England and France and Holland did not, and yet they are probably at least as secularized as Russia is today.  I do think it is a different kind of secularization–a matter of drift and not of choice.

What’s more, the only way in which the typical accidental atheist differs from Arnold and Stevens is in the fact that they recognize their accidental atheism and try to think through the ramifications of it. 

The average accidental atheist may not even be awware that he has ceased to believe.  He drifts through life on moral habit and moral custom and just doesn’t think about any of this.

What Arnold and Stevens saw, however, is that once you do recognize the problem, you do have to come to some conclusions about it. 

And that lead me to my last point for the day.

I think that what a society secularizes away from matters as much as the fact of the secularization itself. 

There was a fair amount of secularization at the end of the Greek hegemony and the end of the Roman Empire both, but that secularization did not exhibit the same signs this one has, and did not go in the same directions.

The issue is not simply that most of us no longer believe in God, but that we don’t believe in the particularly Christian God.

That is, what we’ve walked away from is not some generic idea of the supernatural, but a specific set of assumptions and characteristics.  Those assumptions and characteristics permeated even areas we have long though of as secular anyway–they are social and cultural as well as religious.

And that means that this particular secularization has problems that are peculiar to it, and that have not existed in any other secularizing age in history. What is in the midst of collapsing here is not just a set of religious doctrines.  Secularized Greeks weren’t worried about finding meaning in their lives, and the late Romans bemoaned the loss of civilization to religion, not because of the lack of it.

And that’s where I want to start tomorrow, so I’d probably better get off and get something done with the day.

Written by janeh

August 7th, 2009 at 8:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 2'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'My Problem With Religion, 2'.

  1. I’ve read this over several times, but I don’t see what you’re getting at. I don’t think I understand what you mean by “secularization,” but I also think you are wrong about your generalization.

    I don’t agree that “most of us don’t believe in God.” In your environment that might be true. But polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe in God –up to 94 percent. The percentage of people who don’t believe in God is between 8 and 16%. In the Northeast only about 24 percent attend church, but in the Bible Belt it’s around 60 percent and up to almost 80 percent for older women. Overall, the number of people who identify themselves as being part of a religious group has dropped only about 10 percent since 1990. The polls vary on how they ask questions and their samples, so it’s hard to say how many people believe in “a universal entity” and how many believe in a “church” God, but I still think you are vastly overstating the trend. More people overall might not know Bible references than 100 years ago, but in some parts of the country they can still quote chapter and verse. Apparently huge percentages of Americans believe in angels, too. That might be a function of TV – which is not secular as far as angels go.

    If you are talking about secularization as the number of people who have church as the central part of their life after work – then yes, America is becoming more secularized. 100 or 150 years ago there wasn’t much in people’s lives after work and church. Sunday was a day of rest. Now it’s prime shopping day. But again – it depends on where you live.

    But maybe you don’t mean that and I’ve gone off on a tangent. What do you mean by “secularization?”


    7 Aug 09 at 1:17 pm

  2. I dunno about the moving away from church and/or God. About 3 miles away from my house, the “Cornerstone Church” just finished a vast new complex built on a former 18 hole golf course. Enormous church, large school, various outbuildings and a parking lot that probably holds 20,000 cars, as it fills the entire space of the old golf course. This is in what might be seen as godless S. California, remember. I can tell you, though, there is no shortage of churches small and large around us. People are just a little more low-key about it in their daily life.

    I hear in the South that one may start a conversation with “what church do you attend?”, here, not so much. But somebody is attending, and a good large number of somebodies financed that hunormous new church.


    7 Aug 09 at 1:48 pm

  3. I’m not quite sure where you’re going with this. I think it may be a terminology issue. I love the term ‘accidental atheists’ I’m not sure how many of these people would consider themselves atheists. They don’t seem to think much about the issues; I mostly think that they are because, well, if you believe something, your behaviour changes as a result, and if you believe in a God (that is, a personal-type god as found in the major western religions) you might worship quietly and privately, but you do it. But as soon as I decide that these people are atheists, but a bit low-key about it, they announce that they’re getting married in a church, which is rather like posting a lookout for Babe the Blue Ox as you cross the prairies. Unless they just like a place that looks good in the photos, or want to placate grannie, or are what a priest called ‘cultural Catholics’ – engaging in cultural practices without much consideration of the underlying beliefs. So are they atheists or aren’t they? I suspect that quite a large part of the population have always gone along more or less happily with whatever the current dominant ideas were, without thinking about it much, and they are probably atheist today in the same way that their ancestors were Christian (or Jewish or other) – they go along with what most other people are doing.

    Lymaree, I think the evangelical Protestants, those of the mega-churches, and the traditionalist Catholics are sort of in uneasy (and, in some places growing) companionship where the Christian religious spectrum has curved to almost meet, while a lot of the more mainstream groups are increasingly appealing to the Cultural Christians who haven’t quite left their religion entirely, but want a religion that refects secular beliefs.

    I thought it was a bit odd when I first heard home, as in ‘What is your church home?’, but I’ve now heard the ecumenical version – ‘Do you follow a faith tradition?’



    7 Aug 09 at 4:56 pm

  4. “Deliberate atheists have as many arguments for the nonexistence of God as believers have arguments for His existence.

    Personally, I don’t think either side is actually able to prove a damned thing”

    That pretty much summarizes the conclusion that Philosophers have reached. I no longer read the journals, but when I was studying philosophy, religion and God were mostly confined to textbooks and were not in the research journals.


    7 Aug 09 at 4:56 pm

  5. Well, I actually agree that you can’t prove God – or any god – exists. I don’t think you can prove most of them don’t exist, either. Most of the attempts to disprove the existence of God assume that God is or acts like a human, only more powerful. But Christianity, Judaism or Islam, at least, believe God is far beyond human, not even in the same category of being, beyond space and time.

    But most people don’t get that far. If they think about God or religion at all, they think of boring meaningless ceremonies and childish irrelevant beliefs. Whether they’d list themselves as athiests, I don’t know. They often get married in church. A lot of them seem to have a vague idea that there’s Something Out There, and might well say ‘Yes, I believe in God’ when asked on a survey. But they don’t let the possibility affect their lives in major ways.


    8 Aug 09 at 7:15 am

  6. Cheryl, there is a great deal of truth in what you say. “Church” is a compartmentalized part of people’s lives, to be taken out when needed, used, and then put away and not thought about again. Ask the average church goer to explain (or even name) four doctrines of his/her denomination, and he/she would be stuck for an answer.

    The whole thing boils down to faith. I can’t prove to Jane the existence of the God in whom I put my trust anymore than she can prove to me that God does not exist. I believe by faith, not by proof. But if all church is is a mega-structure the size of a golf course to serve the social needs of the community and to salve the consciences of those who feel that they should do “something” for god so he will think well of them (as if we can do anything at all for God!), then religion is missing its mark. Faith in God has nothing to do with earthly destiny — that is so tainted by sin that nothing can cure it, and all we can do is put a finger in the dike, so to speak. Faith is God is about heavenly destiny, and that’s a whole different issue.

    I’m somewhat amused that so much time and effort is spent on either proving or disproving the existence of God, on countless theories of why and how and what and when, on endless surveys that typically say nothing at all (especially since you don’t know the wording of the survey). Surely we have better things to do with our time.


    8 Aug 09 at 8:51 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.