Friday, September 4, 2009

please help me find my way home

(Note: the theories I give voice to here are not endorsed, nor particularly agreed with, by members of the atheist community. I felt I had to point that out. Do carry on.)

Still I remain, floating in limbo, featureless and annoying. Though I am closer to leaving, even as I write this, I am yet here, stuck in the grey. It is somewhat damning to be so close, and yet denied.
But in my absence, tales from the grid have reached me, growing controversy in odd concurrency with the world beyond.

I speak, of course, of rising dissension regarding atheism on the grid--or mayhap, atheism at all.

Now, I will fully grant, this news surprised me. The grid I know and love--and more than occasionally loathe--has ever been mixed. Mixed faiths. Mixed styles of worship. Mixed sexualities. Mixed species.

Why, now, is anyone choosing to battle between atheism and theism, in any of its myriad forms? Aren't there enough problems already dividing us?

Atheism as a belief system goes back a long way--to the ninth century in Asia, some say, and to the sixth in Greece and Rome. There's controversy on exactly when, and to what degree, atheism was ever fully embraced, but most scholars agree on one point: by the 1600s, in Western thought at least, atheism was beginning to be established as a practice.

There have always been minds who are comforted by faith, as well as minds which are more comforted by the stark definitions of reality. And I am very much on the theist side of the equation. I am also one of those--and I have argued this belief with atheist friends--who is sure to a certainty that atheism is a belief system. Just as theism evidences belief in a godform, or forms, atheism advocates the utter lack of any godform responsible for anything--that chemicals, hormones, physics, science, and the artifacts of the natural world are the guideposts for who we are and how we should live.

It takes a tremendous amount of will, a strong set of personal convictions, to stand up to the universe and proclaim it bound by physics alone. Even agnostics believe that there may be something, they're just not sure what, precisely, there is.

Atheists, by definition, believe differently. But they believe nonetheless. And they believe something contrary to most world cultures, and that alone is everything from inspiring to fanatic, depending on the strength of the belief, and the opposition in regards to it. I admit to admiring anyone willing to face down nearly everyone surrounding them in the pursuit of what they hold as true, and valuable, to life is discrete individuals.

I have been there, pagan to the Christians; I have been there, bisexual to the lesbians. And it is a cold and bitter, harsh and unforgiving place at times. It takes courage, will, strength, resolve; it is the definition of not easy to continue to abide by one personal doctrine when nearly everyone else is pulled to another.

That having been said, I also feel that if one is bound to bring it up, then one must accept the controversy that comes. Understand that religion, for most people, is fed along with milk and bread to the forming mind, from the earliest ages. Acknowledge that speaking against religion isn't just expressing one's opinion, but can easily be seen as actively decrying another's choice of faith.

Above all, hold the courage of those convictions. Speaking to atheism in any mixed group of people, who, by that extension and definition, will be mixed both in choice of faiths, as well as levels of devotion, is beginning a religious debate. It cannot be other, in any sense.

One must remember, above all else, that fear, anger, hurt and defensiveness, if not outright offensiveness, are bound to follow such discussions.

Trying to dismiss such conversations as being rooted in scientific debate alone, instead of discussing religion, faith, and science, then complaining that people don't understand? Just makes the one starting such conversations look deluded, at best, and an utter prattling fool, at worst.

"We need, therefore, to see what we fight and why. We need not direct our main assault against the Bible or the Koran. We need not argue endlessly about the historicity of Jesus. We should look past trinities and angels and other theological blind alleys. We must look to materialistic philosophy which alone enables men to understand reality and to know how to deal with it." (from an address given in 1962 by Margaret Murray O'Hair)


Dale Innis said...

What sort of controversy? We want links! :)

Like the man said, I'm an atheist in the same sense that I'm an aunicornist. Sure there *might* be a deity in the JudeoXtian sense, but until I see good evidence for it my working hypothesis is Nope.

And no one gives me any trouble over it. Fortunately for them. :)

Emilly Orr said...

See, maybe I come from a weird place. To me, that means you're agnostic, not atheist.

Agnostic is the maybe camp. Whether it's 'maybe, I don't know what it is' or 'maybe, but I really don't think so'--there's still the maybe. It's allowing the possibility, even if it's slim and probably never going to happen.

Atheists, on the other hand--at least the ones I've known and read--disbelieve fervently. There is no deity of any kind. We are an organic universe run by physics and chemistry. Move along.

Got into a long debate over this one with one of the loves, actually. He maintains your position--that what all atheists really are is agnostic atheists.

To my thinking, that makes about as much sense as pescevegetarians, or lesbians who like guys--but on the other hand, unfortunately, we've seen enough of both.

Dale Innis said...

Well, I think that's why the "aunicornist" comparison is good. I'm *not* agnostic about unicorns: I'm pretty sure they don't exist, they're just a fun legend. In the same way I'm pretty sure that the JudeaoXtian-style God doesn't exist, he's just a meme complex.

In both cases, I admit that it's possible that I'm wrong about it, but that doesn't mean I'm uncertain, or that I don't know. I currently believe that there are no unicorns, and there is no J-C-style God.

An agnostic would say "I don't know"; I'm saying "It doesn't exist (although if you're nice about it I'd be glad to discuss the possibility that I'm wrong)". That's why I don't think I'm an agnostic.

The broader question of what it might mean to say that the universe is nothing but physics and chemistry, and whether or not that's true, would require a whole 'nother level of discussion. :) But in common Western usage, the theist / agnostic / atheist axis is all about the existence of something significantly similar to the Judeo-Christian notion of The One God, and that's what I'm talkin' about here.

I think "agnostic atheist" is an oxymoron; I'm not sure what that would mean. Can't really not have a belief one way of the other and also believe one particular way...

Emilly Orr said...

Ah, well, see, I'm a heathen infidel, I don't believe in the JudeoChristian version of God, anyway; I believe in a whole slew of other gods. :)

I'm beginning to think the atheist community is about as diverse as the pagan community, or the gay community--they're united by the fact that they do not believe there is anything in the heavens but air and condensation, but beyond that they're all over the map.

Me, I believe in unicorns, and faeries, and dragons, and vampires, and I see patterns in stones and dropped feathers and clouds, I use runes and Tarot decks for divination, I cast spells and celebrate religious holidays with devotion and intent.

But to be fair, some of my religious holidays center around Bill the Cat and chocolate, so hey. :D

Maybe that's what I'm missing in the whole debate--I'd always assumed an atheist didn't believe in any deity forms, and the way you sound, it's the God of Abraham that atheists don't believe in.

I mean, it's all faith, isn't it? I believe in a capering redhead with a razor-sharp sense of humor; my friend believes in a stern god of judgment and punishment; another friend still believes in a goddess of compassion and flowers. It's all paths to understanding, even atheism--it's what human minds do when confronted with the Immanent.

I do agree, though, I think "agnostic atheist" is an oxymoron. Pick one. Maybe it's me being dogmatic about something that's not my path, but...I don't think you can be both.

Dale Innis said...

Yeah, there's a huge amount of diversity among people that might call themselves atheists (especially if you include people who might be called that by someone else!).

As it's used in mundane society :) it means something like "someone who doesn't believe in either my God or one of His direct competitors". It's in that sense (said by someone who believes in the J-C God) that I'm an atheist. In the broader sense, I think the "there's nothing weird going on, it's just us and what our current science understands" view is almost certainly wrong also (and I imagine all good scientists would agree).

In terms of worship and broader spirituality, I'm a pantheist who just happens to personify the Universe in the form of a woman who sometimes calls herself Ariadne. But She isn't a direct competitor of ol' Jehovah (if He exists, He's part of Her, too), so I probably count as an atheist to most people who use the word, and if there's not time to explain the whole story I might even use the term about myself.

So atheists don't necessarily "not believe there is anything in the heavens but air and condensation", they just don't believe, for some at-the-time-salient notion of "God", that there are not a nonzero number of Gods.

I'm also not sure what "faith" means. :) I try not to believe is any truth-claims that I don't have good evidence for; but worshipping the Universe as a whole through the figure of a woman holding a sword and a spool of thread doesn't necessarily involve any truth-claims...

Dale Innis said...

haha agh! I meant "that there are not a nonzero number of Gods"; triple negatives are dangerous. :)

Dale Innis said...

aaahhhhgggg, I meant "that there are a nonzero number of Gods".

Emilly Orr said...

*brain caves in*

Ooookay, wait. To my way of thinking, pantheists are...pantheists. Atheists are...not pantheists.


Sphynx Soleil said...

Maybe that's what I'm missing in the whole debate--I'd always assumed an atheist didn't believe in any deity forms...

There was a Freefall comic, long time ago, that put it rather succinctly I think.

"Anything, no matter how far advanced, is magic to those who don't understand."

That's pretty much the core of my atheism. Whatever is what people see as a godform I see as being something more advanced - perhaps WAY more advanced - than we are. Possibly different lifespan, different mental abilities, or just plain different/more advanced tech.

Something like an iPod and it's wireless internet connection would be magic a couple centuries ago. :)

But, as you can imagine, this concept goes over about as well as a fart in church most of the time... *grins*

Dale Innis said...

Hee hee sorry about the brain there. :)

You can't expect words, especially in this field, to have simple and fixed meanings. I'm a pantheist because I think the Universe as a whole is the right thing for me to worship. But if I tell your average theist that I worship the universe as a whole, but I don't think there's this guy with a long white beard and a golden throne who created the whole thing and lives outside somewhere, they conclude that I'm an atheist because I don't, you know, Believe In God.

(Yeah, yeah, bit of a parody of Western theism there, apologies an' all.)

Slippery things, words...

Sphynx: part of the usual theism is that not only is The Deity 'way better than us at things, e also created us and everything else in the universe, *and* e is the ultimate source of moral value. So is a little bit special. :)

Anonymous said...

Intolerance of atheism in Caledon? Maybe I've been present in all the wrong late-night discussions, but what I've been witnessing of late has been decidedly the other way around...

Emilly Orr said...

See, this is always shaky terrain for me. I am a theist, in the debate, polytheist for specifics. I am not unsure the gods exist, I've spoken with them. They've taken walks with me. They've been unable to drive my car. They've hugged me. They've driven me to fits of screaming distraction trying to figure out what they want.

They've walked up behind me and scared the living hell out of me at night. :)

But to me, atheism is the other end of things, the end that doesn't believe. Someone who believes in the universe? Believes in something. Someone who believes in advanced metarealities, wherein such things as "gods" and "spirit" will be explained? Believes in something.

Dale, Sphynx--to me, atheists? Believe--in no wise meaning religiously--but don't put their faith or their trust in gods, lower-case god-of-choce, or the One True. Maybe my definitions need updating...but it still doesn't quite make sense that one can believe, in any spiritual concept, and still say atheist is the defining term.

Miss Poindexter: Well, and true, I haven't been around much, both by circumstance and my own intransigence on certain issues. Maybe it was the presenter in that particular discussion, over the discussion itself?

Sphynx Soleil said...

My definition is likely a bit more odd than most people's, so don't necessarily base your revision on mine. I'm known to be....rather how definitions apply in many cases as it is. :)

Dale Innis said...

You just need to let words be flexible, 'cause they are, and not worry about it too much. :)

Atheists certainly aren't required not to believe in anything spiritual; that would presumably be an aspiritualist or something. Atheists don't believe in theos, which is Greek for God. They can still believe in powers, in forces, in inchoate and mysterious links between things, even in spirits.

Now of course lots of people who proudly proclaim themselves Atheists don't believe in any of that stuff *either*. :) But that doesn't mean that such disbelief is or should be required of anyone who wants to self-describe as atheist.

So I believe in the universe, but since I don't believe in God, I could still with reason be called an atheist. Since I also worship the universe, and identify the object of my worship with a humanoid sort of image, I could also be called a theist of a sort, and even a pantheist. Words are funny that way.

Since you call the beings that hugged you and were unable to drive your car (silly things!) "gods", your average Western theist would probably call you a polytheist, a pagan, whatever, rather than an atheist. But if you called them Spirits or something instead, and refused to use the word "god" for anything that exists, you might well get labelled an atheist.

Labels aren't really all that important. :) It's more what you actually believe...

Emilly Orr said...

Well, and that makes it an easy universe, Dale, but I am hellishly OCD. :p

But I am working on letting go the perception that words mean, and they mean only one thing. It's like not having hand sanitizer around. It's not like it's going to kill me.

I've never been described as an atheist. Baby-eating Satanist, yes. Atheist, no. :D

Sphynx: Yeah. I think this discussion--and some of the discussions that followed--proved how very inflexible I am with definitions. In more than a few ways I am a hidebound little pedant who adapts only when jolted with enough live current to make me move.

Anonymous said...

The crux of the matter is intolerance. One must have tolerance for the intolerant or risk becoming one of them, but this ugly development - which I didn't know about - makes me tired.

It seems that some part of human nature dictates this focus on our differences as representative of conflict rather than glorious and enriching diversity.

I have experienced ridicule, scorn and sarcasm over my belief system from those who don't even know what it is. :) Rather appalling, I always think, but equally appalling to criticise those who believe differently than I do. Further, I'm quite ashamed if anyone who believes as I do is criticising those who do not.

There are endless variations in all groups of spiritual belief or non-belief. There is so much to be learnt from those who have different beliefs from our own. Discussion either strengthens our foundations or causes us to question them and either is good!
Intolerance is sad, small and ignorant, in my opinion, and a terminal obstacle to growth.

On the up side, you've given me the basis of my sermon for Sunday. Thank you for that ... and for a most interesting (if somewhat distressing) post.


Emilly Orr said...

You're not wrong there--and in the course of this, I've learned that--while I am still stubbornly holding to the truth of my universe, that words *have* derivative meanings, based on their structure--that even insisting that where faith of any sort is involved is intolerance, of a kind.

I am still fascinated with faith of all kinds, the whys, the hows, the why nots. And discussion is *always* good, even if one ends up in a place one never expected to be.