How Atheists Deal With God

Anne Rice tells it on the mountain:

On the afternoon in 1998 when faith returned, I experienced a sense of the limitless power and majesty of God that left me convinced that He knew all the answers to the theological and sociological questions that had tormented me for years. I saw, in one enduring moment, that the God who could make the Double Helix and the snow flake, the God who could make the Black holes in space, and the lilies of the field, could do absolutely anything and must know everything — even why good people suffer, why genocide and war plague our planet, and why Christians have lost, in America and in other lands, so much credibility as people who know how to love. I felt a trust in this all-knowing God; I felt a sudden release of all my doubts. Indeed, my questions became petty in the face of the greatness I beheld. I felt a deep and irreversible assurance that God knew and understood every single moment of every life that had ever been lived, or would be lived on Earth. I saw the universe as an immense and intricate tapestry, and I perceived that the Maker of the tapestry saw interwoven in that tapestry all our experiences in a way that we could not hope, on this Earth, to understand.

This was not a joyful moment for me. It wasn’t an easy moment. It was an admission that I loved and believed in God, and that my old atheism was a façade. I knew it was going to be difficult to return to the Maker, to give over my life to Him, and become a member of a huge quarreling religion that had broken into many denominations and factions and cults worldwide. But I knew that the Lord was going to help me with this return to Him. I trusted that He would help me. And that trust is what under girds my faith to this day.

Atheists and agnostics who have discarded the religious teachings that dominated their youth tend to be close, personal friends of mine. Many come from Catholicism and Judaism, walking away with a conflicted sense of relief and new burdens. They dropped the old prejudices and the blind faith, yet picked up a sense of guilt and disquiet. They love the old rituals, the artifacts of cultures borne of struggle, sacrifice, love and family through histories of persecution and perseverance; the teachings of love, forgiveness, tolerance and charity – and a commitment to social justice – influence their outlooks, dispositions and actions to this day. But they’re out of the group. They’re not going back to church or to synagogue, save for a family function (baptism, briss, wedding, funeral) where some aunt or uncle inquires about the state of their soul.

I come from no religion. My mother escaped the Southern Baptists and raised me on agnosticism and the more commercial trappings of the goyische holidays, with an occasional visit to a Jewish Passover or a Catholic Mass. My grandparents attempted to “rescue” me. They took me to church every Sunday morning and evening during month-long visits to their Tennessee home in the Summer. They sent me to a bible camp for a week in 1979 that left a deep, lasting impression on my psyche quite contrary to what they intended: no spiritual uplift, no awakening, no submission of faith; rather I came to view Christianity and all religion as fascistic enterprises of mind control, psychological abuse, ignorance, hate and fear. The place was run militarily, with sermons every morning, religious instruction classes right after, and sermons in the evening. It was like going to church every day, all day for a week. Yet for all the talk of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice, I saw no evidence of its influence on his follower’s behavior. Instead, I got my Yankee-talking ass kicked. I saw good ol’ boys ignore fights, yet punish errant invocations of the Lord’s name “in vain.” (It always seemed appropriate to me to call out to your deity during moments of pain, but hey, what do I know?)

This experience, among many others, inculcated a prejudice that I have since striven to outgrow. Nowadays I read theological studies, inquire about people’s religious beliefs without challenging them, and enjoy learning of new rituals people use to reaffirm their faith. But my interest is anthropological. Culture and ideology inform and arise from human ideas and behavior in response to complex sets of historical circumstances and existential conditions in ways that are beautiful, strange, fascinating and sometimes horrifying and dangerous, yet I think ultimately driven by deeper evolutionary instincts for survival. We create – and need – ideas to survive as much as we need food. Philosophy and theology are ideological tools of survival, ways in which we self-reflecting creatures justify our existences and places in the universe. Concepts of God, Goddess, or many such deities are negotiations individuals make between themselves and the world around them. For some, these negotiations are cheap and easy (the simple, unquestioning faith that either drives “good works” or suicide bombers); for others, the negotiation is never complete, as doubt and conviction barter with each other over the price and weight of the soul, the breadth and depth of divinity, the duties and rewards of the mortal, and so on.

As an atheist, I don’t – and cannot – rely on such concepts. Instead I look at the world around me and see several competing demands of my intellect, talents, and attention. This is not a self-centered view, however; it’s merely the subjective level of the individual. It’s there that I make choices, none of them easy, though perhaps easier than choices made by others who lead bolder, harder and more significant lives (e.g., I’m not running for public office or leading a rescue mission.) Rising to a higher level of the human species, I am driven by an ethical belief that I should leave the world better than it was when I walked in, but I have no sense of certitude – no progressive conviction – that I will. Indeed, if I succeed, I will eventually die, and who knows what future generations will do to our society, our culture or our planet? There are no guarantees. For all our best efforts, the species may bring on its own extinction. Or we may survive all possible calamities, yet still not make it off the earth before the Sun goes red giant and consumes the planet.

When I express these views, the faithful call me “cynical” or demand, “How can you or humanity could go on with such knowledge?” Which is a weird question. Life is good, it’s worth living for its own sake, and it’s a damn shame so many people do so much to shorten it for others for no better reason than greed, prejudice, ignorance and fear. Many of my fellow atheists blame religion, and the religious have taken to blaming atheism, for the violence and destruction humans bring to each other. They’re both right, much as the partisan sniping between Clinton and Obama supporters are right in their claims that the opposition is “going negative” in some way during the campaign. Of course, the scale is exponentially larger – as are the stakes; religion has been a powerful organizing force in human society, regulating actions, emotions and morals in ways beneficial to our survival, even as it motivates war, oppression and other horrible instances of inhumanity. Yet atheist societies have faired no better. It leaves me to conclude that regardless of ideology, humans can and will be guided by more primal forces, some empathetic and cooperative, others competitive and fearful. We’re still apes.

So I don’t take any comfort, as have some of my fellow “nonbelievers” in the comments to Rice’s column, in deriding her testimony to faith as the “loony” product of the “vampire author.” To be sure, she has another book on Jesus to sell. Yet her commercial interests don’t necessitate the emotional force of her words. I don’t agree with her. But I don’t doubt her. I’m not even sure she is trying to convince anyone but herself that her experience was real. Indeed, she may never be intellectually convinced, as moments of divine awakening are not rational experiences, but overwhelm the senses, overcoming the believer’s ability to process the stimuli with our normal cognitive tools. The scientific method won’t help her here. She’s left on her own to make the negotiation with what tools she has as a writer, just as I do here on this blog, responding to her testimony with my own reflections. I’m negotiating, too.

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7 responses to “How Atheists Deal With God

  1. Maybe Anne Rice’s re-conversion caused Katrina.

    But I kid, I kid.

    My dad went through the same process you did, only through the progressive incapacitation of my mother through multiple sclerosis.

    She was the faithful one; often fanatic in her going to weird Charismatic Catholic services while my dad and I watched football on Monday nights – and she was the one who was stricken and tortured by “God”.

    As a result, my dad is anti-theist; he thinks the Vatican could feed every poor person in the world if they just sold their artwork and riches.

    I have had *no* desire to go to Christianity. Christianity is just another wasteful expression of spirituality – if gods are so powerful, why is it important to “worship” them? They know full well you’re kissing their ass, and won’t listen to you – and what makes you such a special snowflake in their eyes anyway?

    I’m more attracted to cultural and Conservative to Reform Judaism – it’s a religion where people actively question and think through moral dilemmas.

  2. Suffering is often the cause of a turning away from the big G. I don’t know if that’s a sound reason or not. I first realized I was an atheist after reading Greek and Roman mythology, and concluded that the punishments threatened to those who didn’t provide the proper sacrifices never seemed to materialize, so Heaven and Hell are probably unrealistic threats, too.

    Nowadays, I think the universe is just too complicated and complex to allow for a divine creator, let alone a cosmic paternal figure who metes our rewards and penalties for all the petty crap we do.

    Still, I appreciate the mystical and philosophical traditions of all the old religions.

  3. Is it just me, or have there been an awful lot of people that, like Rice, made a bundle off porn only to embrace the mighty Jeebus when that pursuit turned stale and/or unprofitable ?

    Sometimes I meet some happy hedonist (and by that I mean somebody wayyyyy more skilled and focussed on hedonism than I’ve ever been or ever could be). The more Olympic-level they are at hedonism, the more likely it is that they came from some very, very religious and repressive background. I always find myself thinking of God as the ultimate repo man. Given time he’ll eventually come back to claim them again.

    Or am I the only one who’s ever noticed this ?

  4. It seems to me that the main problem with belief in a particular religion means that all other religions are wrong. Even small variences within the same religions cause followers to react with acts of violence up to and including death. To me this is exactly opposite of what religion is supposed to be about and is why I myself am an athiest.
    I have seen far too much violence in the world in the name of religion and far too many people killed because they believed in the wrong god or the wrong way to worship a god. At least athiests all believe in the same thing and have no need to fight among themselves.
    I have no desire or need to defend my belief in no god unless I am forced to, but will not be reluctant to do so if need be. I feel that the burden of proof rests with the believers more than it does with me, because reality is on my side.
    I also have to add that I am a good person in spite of no religion in my life. I do not lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, or knowingly cause harm to my fellow man and expect the same in return. Unfortunatly that is not always the case.

  5. It’s funny how “atheism” gets blamed for the murderous crap pulled off by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot – or go back further, the French Revolution – when atheism, unto itself, holds no belief system to motivate the kinds of struggle those movements represented. You need a much larger, more systematic schema to delineate the true believers from the defamers, the clean from the unwashed, the blessed from the damned, the Us from the Them. Stalin needed “party wreckers,” “counter-revolutionaries,” “saboteurs,” and various other threats to the State to rationalize the use of state terror and mass murder; yet, really, he was working with the same material handed down from the Church in its prime. ‘Specially the anti-semitism.

  6. if gods are so powerful, why is it important to “worship” them?

    the liberal pastor robert m. jeffries, at his Adventus blog, had something interesting to say about this: that nowhere in the gospels of jesus does he say “worship me”. instead, he says “feed my sheep.” strangely, this is an admonition that goes largely unheeded by people claiming to represent his teachings.

    I have no desire or need to defend my belief in no god unless I am forced to, but will not be reluctant to do so if need be. I feel that the burden of proof rests with the believers more than it does with me, because reality is on my side.

    while for the most part i agree with you, i would say that this extends to any belief – including the belief in any particular “reality”. sorry to get so phil. sci. on ya, but we need to be careful about our statements about what reality is – it depends on a whole lot of assumptions we may or may not share.

    kevin, i found this post to be moving and beautifully written. i can relate to a lot of what you say regarding a humanistic and anthropological interest in religion, although i have to confess i’ve had a couple of experiences in my life that sound like anne’s as well. my only divergence from her, and i guess it’s a big one, is that as far as i’m concerned the jury is hung on what it means.

    maybe i was hallucinating. in fact, i was probably hallucinating. but does the fact that these experiences, whatever they were, were personal and not reflected in any objective reality, render them meaningless?

    it’s one thing to say to people, “don’t impose your ideas about god on me” – that’s fair. it’s entirely another thing – and i’ve heard this said quite a few times, so please don’t say it’s a straw man – that “the experiences you describe are delusional and meaningless, and the very fact that you confess to having them indicates that you are mentally unstable and probably should be medicated.” and i have to say that even this may be true. but how can anyone be sure? how can i be sure for you what’s real about what is your experience, and the meaning you ascribe (or don’t ascribe) to it?

    all i can say for sure is that i’m not sure about anything, and that i’ve been wrong many times.

  7. Thanks for the compliments. I tend not to challenge people on their religious experiences – it’s way to subjective and personal. Maybe it’s irrational, delusional or even psychosis, but I’m no mental health professional – and I look back in horror at the histories of States using mental illness as a means of political suppression – so I don’t like to so easily dismiss people’s claims of supernatural experiences so easily. I know some folks who say they have experienced encounters with ghosts; they are reasonable and rational in all other aspects of their lives, so who am I to doubt them here? Rather, I chalk it up as one more reason for why my own belief system might be flawed. Everyone needs a little doubt in their lives.