Jason, a Christian and former visitor to this blog, has asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions for atheists for a class project. Having reviewed his questions, I am happy to answer them. Below his questions will appear in bold text while my answers will appear in italics.
1) Have you always been skeptical towards religious beliefs? If not, would you mind describing the definitive moment or gradual process that led you to an atheistic worldview?
No, I have not always been skeptical towards religious beliefs. Having been raised Catholic, I grew up with the assumption that the Bible was the word of God. During the middle of 9th grade, I became deeply religious. I went to church freely and willingly every Sunday, I read the Bible from start to finish three times in a row, and I even slept with the Bible in my bed.
My skepticism and erosion of faith set in about twenty years ago, and so many precise details are obscured by the mists of time and the cob webs in my head. I don't believe it was any one thing. Part of it was that I didn't see my religious faith improving my life. But a major factor in the erosion and loss of my faith was that I began to read the Bible with a critical eye rather than just assuming it was true. I also read the texts of other religious faiths and was particularly impressed with the Buddhist Dhammapadda and portions of the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. I saw similar moral teachings in all of them, and I drew the conclusion that certain morals were universal and spanned all of the religions. With that, I no longer believed that Christianity represented the one and only truth.
But, rather than abandoning belief in God, I posited a god that transcended human attempts to categorize such a being of immense power into a single religion. I reasoned that a universal creator wanted us to be good in our actions and that churches and rituals were just empty trappings. If two people behaved the same, but one went to church and the other did not, then what really made the church-goer better than the one who did not go to church? However, as time went by, I became further disillusioned. Rather than feeling empowered, I was still the same flawed and unhappy person I was before. I began to realize that there was nobody there. Letting go of my belief in a creator was more difficult than abandoning Christianity. I made the leap from believing that I was god's special servant on Earth to just being an ordinary person whose happiness or sadness was of his own making.
2) What do you find to be the greatest obstacle to religious belief? Please feel free to write more than one.
For me, the greatest obstacle is that religious belief clashes with my sense of reason. It just seems bizarre that I should be expected to believe that the universe is created by a being of immense power and that the most important thing for this creator is that you believe it caused a virgin in the Middle East some 2,000 years ago to become pregnant and that her son performed miracles and rose from the dead. For me, it belongs in the same category as the belief that who I am as a person is determined by my zodiac sign.
3) Do you believe there is any intellectual merit to a theistic worldview?
A qualified yes. While I am an unabashed atheist, I do not consider myself to be anti-religious. It is my impression that for many religious people, their religious beliefs serve as a guidepost for how to conduct themselves. Churches definitely have a positive role to play in reaching and directing large numbers of people to further the cause of social justice. The black churches, for example, were vital to the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's. I have no problem with acknowledging that. If religious beliefs encourage people to be better human beings and to want to effect positive change in society, then yes, I believe that is a good thing.
4) Although you may not find them to be ultimately convincing, what arguments/assertions, if any, are most compelling for belief in a deity? How has this argument for theism ultimately been inadequate for you?
I would say that the most compelling argument for belief in a deity is how did the universe come about? And the reason for that is that since we are dealing with an event that happened so many billions of years ago, science does not possess enough information at present to adequately answer the question, at least that I have seen. That being the case, what makes the argument inadequate for me is that when you consider how vast the universe is, then a creator would have to be even greater than that. And that raises questions such as where did the creator come from, or even more, why should anything exist at all, including a creator? Furthermore, the increase of scientific knowledge over the last few centuries has pushed back the veil of ignorance about the universe in which we live. We have gone from believing in a geocentric universe in which everything revolved around the Earth up to a nearly infinite universe in which ours is just one solar system in a galaxy comprised of billions of stars in a universe comprised of millions of galaxies.
5) Is the worldview you possess today the result of an inconsistency in religious belief alone? If not, what do you find most compelling about atheism?
In his book "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins humorously mentions a self-described atheist in Northern Ireland being asked, "Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"
It should come as no surprise that atheists who were once religious can still have a worldview that is influenced at least to some degree by their religious upbringing. If I were an atheist in India I imagine I would be quite different culturally from the atheist in suburban New York that I am.
Atheism is simply the absence of belief in a deity. What becoming an atheist did for me was that it made me think about why certain things should be good or bad or beneficial or harmful on their own merits rather than just letting the Bible do my thinking for me. Take the issue of homosexuality. When I was a religious person, I had a rather bigoted attitude towards gays. Growing up in the 1980's, with the advent of AIDS, I shared the cultural attitude common at the time that gays were getting what they deserved. After I became an atheist and I actually met and became friends with openly gay people when I volunteered at a crisis hotline in the early 1990's, my bigotry towards gays evaporated. The Christian belief regarding gays was that intimate contact between two people of the same gender was a terrible sin in the eyes of god. But as an atheist, it struck me as absurd that Adam kissing Steve instead of Eve would cause a creator to throw a temper tantrum. As far as I was concerned, there was no comparison between two men in a loving, long-term monogamous relationship and a man who engages in risky unprotected sex with multiple partners in a bathhouse. Acts should be judged by the harm they do to the individual and/or society, rather than just being the subject of blanket condemnation based on what some ancient religious text says.
6) Please describe your experience with theists who attempt to persuade you towards religious beliefs.
There has not been much in the way of face to face attempts to persuade me. The one time I clearly recall, it ended when I told the person that I no longer wanted to discuss it as he was not going to change me mind and vice versa.
7) Is there any advice you would give to theists who seek to convince the world of their beliefs?
Yes. First off, I believe in being an exemplar instead of a crusader. I believe in being a living affirmation of my values. While I am happy to offer advice if asked, I know I do not have all the answers and that my time is better spent trying to better myself rather than trying to get other people to be like me. Theists should spend more time making sure their own lives are in order instead of worrying that their atheist friend, neighbor or co-worker is going to burn in hell for all eternity if we don't accept Jesus Christ as our lord and savior.
Second, while theists labor under the mistaken belief that atheists are not moral, we do in fact have coherent and well thought out value systems. Being the father of two small children, I want a world where they have the opportunity to be safe from violence, disease, and hunger just as much as Christian parents desire the same things for their children. Theists should not assume that atheists do not share the same apprehension and loathing of aspects of our culture that promote vulgarity and materialism.
Third, theists, no matter what their religion, are just going to have to accept that they will never convert 100% of the human race to their particular religion. If one values a pluralistic and free society, than one must learn that tolerance is crucial to the maintenance of such a society. The problem with more fundamentalist followers of religions is that they come into conflict with others in society who openly do not abide by the religious beliefs of the fundamentalists. For example, take a Muslim man in America who believes that all women should be veiled. The fact that he must exist in a population where the overwhelming majority of women are not veiled is a daily rebuke to him whenever he ventures outdoors. Won't his wife's piety be weakened by living in a society where the veil is scorned.
And with that I shall have to call it a night as it is getting late and I can barely keep my eyes open. I hope my answers to your questions have been adequate, Jason.