Ask An Atheist Answers!

So I got a couple of questions from people, but if you still have anything you want to ask go right ahead! My first two questions are from John 🙂

What aspects of a religious community do you most miss, if any?

So this is an interesting question for me because although I grew up in a Catholic school, I don’t know if I would say I ever felt like part of a religious community. My family was never part of a church, and my parents never participated in church functions, so I’m not sure if I got the full benefits of being in a “church community”. I didn’t do Sunday school, I didn’t have church friends, none of that. That being said, there are elements of church that I miss. I miss singing. A lot. I miss there being songs that all my friends knew and hated or loved, and all could sing that weren’t whatever pop music we obviously didn’t have the vocal talent to reproduce. I miss being in churches. As much as I don’t necessarily like the waste of creating gigantic buildings for the sake of a being that doesn’t exist, I do think that there is an art in beautiful buildings, in large, majestic buildings that try to capture space and grandeur without being overly ostentatious. I think that art is largely lost right now, or at least it isn’t held up a whole lot. I love the feeling of being small in a church. I love the feeling of breathing more air. So I miss the buildings, even though I could just go back and sit in a church and reflect if I felt like it now, I miss being in them on a regular basis.

Do you think humanity would lose an important part of its identity if faith, as a concept, were ever to disappear? If so, what aspects of faith are important?

I’m going to divide this question up a bit, because I don’t think faith has to be relegated to religion. Many atheists really hate the concept of faith and think that it’s making a value out of trusting things you don’t know. In many cases I agree with that. However I believe that we also have faith in many other things, things that we don’t necessarily have empirical evidence or certainty of, but which we need to trust anyway: I have faith that my boyfriend loves me. I’m trying to have faith in my therapists when they tell me that my life will be more worth living if I do the things they ask me to do (they don’t have empirical evidence that it will work). I have faith that the system of government I live in will live up to my expectations of it (which I have SOME evidence for, but not a whole lot). So there are a whole lot of places in which we use an element of faith to move from inadequate evidence to what we hope are good and positive actions. Religion absolutely does not have a monopoly on that. I don’t think those aspects of faith should disappear and I don’t think they ever will disappear because we simply need some of them to continue to function (without some element of faith it’s nearly impossible to have relationships).

I think faith is important when interacting with other people, because you will never entirely know what they think or feel. I think faith that takes us from some limited amount of information to necessary action is good (trusting that we’re acting in the best possible way without KNOWING). But there’s a really big difference between these kinds of faith and religious faith, which asks us to believe WITHOUT or with CONTRARY evidence. I see faith as an extra bump to action when you just don’t have the knowledge.

Now if the question is whether I think we will lose out on something if we lose our religious faith, I would say no. I think that all of the things that religion provides can be found in other places, plus MORE can be provided. I think that humanists need to work to create ethical communities that give support and philosophical discussion, and care, and psychological counseling if necessary, that help to support their members in the same ways that churches do without faith. But that can also provide things like sex-positive teachings, or actual licensed therapists, or advocacy for good medicine and healthcare, things that churches don’t currently provide. I think that science and poetry and art, and all the other human pursuits can give us just as much wonder and joy as religion. There may be a sense of comfort and safety that religious faith gives us that we can’t find anywhere else: I’m not totally sure. But at the same time, I think that a false sense of comfort and safety isn’t worth much and doesn’t allow us to move forward in our lives and as a species. I think that when we rely on each other, on our minds, and on our skills in a way that is in synch with reality and as much truth as we can get at, the certainty and safety we get is a lot better.

And my third question is from my dear from Barrett: Question! Preceded by a long ramble. I, as you know, grew up in a fairly similar situation to yourself, as far as religion/religious education goes. I have memories of praying as a very young child, but since probably the age of twelve or thirteen, I have been fairly ‘meh’ about the whole thing. *Religions* I have opinions on, sometimes vociferous ones, and find theology fascinating, but in terms of having any kind of personal faith, I simply don’t find it to be… necessary, I guess, to me. There’s no gap in my life that I need faith to fill. I don’t really have much of on opinion on the existence, or not, of a higher power(s). If I had to stick a label on it, I suppose I’d go with apathetically agnostic.

So, my question is, how did you find your way to firm, outspoken atheism, as opposed to my ‘meh’? At what point did you go, There is no god, and this fact is *important* to me?

This is a FANTASTIC question and one that I’m not entirely certain I have a concrete answer for. Part of the reason that atheism has become important to me is because I do feel a deep yearning for something solid in my life. I NEVER believed in a God, and I always felt a bit ostracized for it or at least a little odd or like something was wrong with me because of it. Only as I got older did I begin to realize that it really wasn’t a problem with ME it was an intolerance on the part of others. So in part it became a way of identifying myself against others from a young age. It was a way of bonding with certain peers in high school. And I ABSOLUTELY hated having religion shoved down my throat in high school and was definitely bothered by the expectation that I should participate even though I was only at the school for the education, not the religion. It was a reaction of frustration. For a long time in high school I was an angry atheist and I felt some amount of contempt for the people who acted like they knew so much better than I did.

When I get to college I very much turned to a “meh” attitude. No one was bothering me about it anymore, so it didn’t seem to matter. In the back of my mind I still identified as atheist, and I was still incredibly interested in questions of religion because I didn’t understand it and I HATE not understanding things. So it always gnawed at the back of my mind, and the fact that I felt very depressed and uncertain about my life also gnawed at the back of my mind and made me wonder if religion could have helped.

Like you, I have always been against particular actions of religions, and have never really felt that religious institutions are very helpful. But I wasn’t vehemently atheist. I’m still not sure I’d say I am. But I think the tipping point for me was that sort of on a whim I went to a student atheist/nonreligious group, and got kind of interested in what they were doing, and started reading a variety of atheist blogs. The more I read, the more I realized that what I had experienced when I was younger wasn’t just individuals being frustrating and condescending, but it was actually a societal attitude of prejudice against atheists. I realized that atheists are one of the least trusted groups in America. I realized that huge numbers of public schools are still forcing prayer on their students. I realized that religious opinions hugely affect politics in a way that I consider negative. And I realized that atheists are a largely invisible minority. And so it became important for me to openly and loudly identify as atheist because I wanted others to know ‘this is what an atheist looks like and I’m not crazy and horrible’.

The longer I’ve been part of the movement, the more I realize how patriarchy and racism and a lot of other negative things in our society are wrapped up in religion, and the more I realize that the logic that brought me to atheism is the exact same logic that requires me to reject stupid bigoted beliefs. And I thought that the intersectionality of all of that is SO important. And as someone with a mental illness, religion is one of the sources of the most stigma against me and science and atheism and logic are my best sources of hope and care. And so it became more and more important for me to do advocacy for skepticism and logical thinking. So while I still identify vocally as an atheist because I do think it’s important for me to show that atheists can be great awesome people, and that religious freedom includes freedom FROM religion, and that religious organizations are not inherently great and neither is faith, but my focus as an atheist has shifted more to skepticism. I want most to be an advocate of rational and logical thinking. And for me that involves atheism, but it also involves feminism and mental health advocacy, and intersectionality, and GLBT advocacy…I’m still deciding whether atheism is the arena in which I want to put my efforts, but I think the atheist community is primarily one of people with lots of privilege, who have a fair amount of influence in academia, and I’d love to bring some of the other concerns that I listed to that community.

And then in addition to all of this, I found an AMAZING group of friends through the atheist community. I mean seriously, I have never spontaneously loved a huge group of people more than the atheists. All the people I write with on teenskepchick are like a little family to me, and they are SUPER supportive if people start getting bitchy and harassy. I have met some incredibly intelligent people who I see as role models and have been given some amazing opportunities because it’s a small, internet driven community that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So I do think that Atheism has filled a void that was somewhat created because of my atheism: I got the equivalent of a church community in many ways, with career benefits and personal benefits and political benefits.

So WOW that was a long answer. Short answer: I never MEANT to make atheism a part of my identity but it happened through anger, then through frustration, then through community, then through intellect.

Staying Calm in a Debate

I’m having a rough day today. I’ve gotten in a number of heated arguments on facebook. These are not my favorite forum. I have a hard time disconnecting, and a hard time not getting emotional about things that mean a lot to me. Like the fact that sexism and racism are institutional things, not individual actions (dumbasses. Figure it out. Calling someone a dick is not the same as years of disenfranchisement, discrimination, beating, and abuse). I’m upset right now because people are playing on my emotions purposefully, while I have always tried to argue in all good faith. I don’t appreciate when people try to fuck with me just to make a point.

So I’ve gotten a bit emotional. I’m shaky. I can barely type straight because my hands are shaking. I don’t like it when people purposefully push me this far.

But I also think it’s important to try to come to some understanding of whatever a debate is about. I like closure. I did actually get to some points of understanding between myself and the people who were not agreeing with me. So despite being really upset, I don’t want to simply walk away from situations that upset me. I know that part of my inability to walk away is that I want to win. I want a conclusion. And I know that others want that too. I should stop. I really really should. It’s not accomplishing anything when I get upset. And it’s not accomplishing anything for me to “feed the trolls” as it were.

So how do I continue to advocate for my own position, defend myself, and stay calm? How do I continue to respect people (which is something I’ve been trying REALLY REALLY hard to do–Shawn, I really hope you feel I have, that’s always been my intent), while also respecting myself and bringing up controversial and critical points from the position of a minority group (either women or atheists?) How do I also listen to other people’s experiences and respect those?

I really don’t know. I think that I may be too sensitive to really engage in a lot of online debate. I think that every individual who wants to engage in activism needs to take a hard look at their own personality and decide what level of vitriol and anger they can take from others before deciding how far they want to engage in debate.

I’m starting to recognize that many times the greatest form of activism is taking care of myself and respecting myself. But oftentimes I don’t feel like that’s enough. I want to be able to pave the way for other people who are like myself have the space to express their opinions and their selves.

So what do you do when you get upset in online debates? I often find that talking to someone else and making sure I’m not crazy (because people love to gaslight me) helps a lot. I also find that having sources to back me up is really helpful so that I don’t have to do as much of the speaking myself. It helps to stay calm when I engage with something else at the same time as I am engaging in a debate, or if I self-soothe at the same time (pictures of kittens are good). What do you guys do to help calm yourself down in a debate? How do you deal with it when you become upset or frustrated? How do you continue to engage in activism or in debate when your fight or flight instincts start kicking in?

Staying calm is really important in my mind. I was spending some time defending the place of mockery in the atheist movement. I do believe that it’s ok to mock certain beliefs (transubstantiation anyone?) but I think there’s a time and a place for it. My family and I had a Holy Saturday celebration this past week in which we made pope hats to be silly about the new pope (some of us also chose pope names and dressed up in Argentinian garb). This was a private celebration that didn’t attack anyone, but did mock a bit of the ritual in the Catholic church. I think it was fine because it was a bonding activity, and it was highly enjoyable for us. When I’m trying to present myself as the face of an activist group or trying to understand another person’s beliefs or explain my own, I don’t find it helpful to use mockery (some people can do this to great effect. I personally don’t like it).

And so when I’m trying to engage in a discourse (which is different from personal and private enjoyment, or simply throwing something out there), I don’t want to get upset, get angry, personally attack people (which I never think is ok), or lose objectivity and clarity of thought. I want to be able to understand my emotions, use them as fuel for my arguments, but not necessarily let them skew my arguments: make sure that each of my arguments fits the facts, and proceed from the facts as best I can. It’s difficult because I exist in a realm of social justice understanding that many other people don’t inhabit. It’s hard to have to try to explain all of the assumptions that I come in with that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about and coming to conclusions about. It’s frustrating when people dismiss those assumptions despite the fact that I have read pages and pages about them. It’s hard to sum all of that up in a few sentences. It’s hard not to get frustrated when people bypass all of the thoughts that are going on in your brain, or assume that you haven’t already thought things through.

If and when I have time, I would like to start a series that addresses some of these assumptions that I hold: these include things like intersectionality, the nature of racism and sexism, how language changes, privilege and power, and other things. I suppose I could have linked to my privilege post already, but I’d like to have a ready set of them to send to people to give the background of my thought processes. Let me know what things you have a hard time explaining to others, and I’ll see if I can provide a cache of basic explanations of a number of social justice concepts that often get misunderstood or subject to ridicule.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to stay out of facebook debates, because it’s started to get triggering to me and I’ve begun to dissociate when they happen because I feel like I need to quash my emotions and that is really unhealthy for me. If people work purposefully to get me upset and I have to force myself to not react to direct attacks, that’s not healthy. It’s not the kind of activism I want to engage. I’m allowed to be angry about oppression that affects me.