Why Study Religion?

I am an atheist. You may have noticed this from some previous posts. I know I keep it pretty subtle, but you kids are quick. You probably picked up on it. However despite being an atheist, I majored in religion in college. This confuses some people. Some people in the atheist movement seem to think that we need to get rid of religious education altogether. This confuses me.

I don’t think that anyone should have to defend what they find interesting to study, but I do think that it’s important for everyone to recognize what it is that we can learn from religious studies and what skills they give us. Religious studies are hugely important to our understanding of the world and our place in it. While an atheist may not need a deep understanding of theology to feel that they understand their world and their self, there are BILLIONS of other human beings on this planet who do believe in a god, and that if I can’t make some attempt to understand this important aspect of their life, then I am not only being self-centered, I’m also shooting myself in the foot in terms of my ability to make relationships and find opportunities with these people.

Religion is often heavily integrated into culture. If you want to be able to seamlessly interact with people from a variety of backgrounds, then having a basic understanding of a variety religions is integral. This will allow you not to step on toes inadvertently, to understand where someone might be coming from, and to even “speak their language” as it were. In addition, religion is a huge motivator for a lot of people. I may not agree with extreme evangelicals who preach gender complementarity, however I have done a LOT of reading about their positions, and I can at least understand where they’re coming from and why they espouse the beliefs they do and act in the ways that they do. By understanding where they’re coming from, it’s a lot easier for me to engage them.

If we are to be educated citizens of the world, it’s important for us to have some basic familiarity with the major backgrounds that people can come from, and with the different assumptions that those people will have that are different from our own. Sociology and anthropology are important for just these reasons, as are the humanities, which give us a glimpse into lives different from our own. But this includes religious beliefs, because these inform politics, culture, personal actions, human rights, and just about every other facet of human life that you can imagine. If an atheist feels that they don’t need to know about religion because they don’t believe in it, they clearly are not looking at the real world and the role that religion plays in the real world. You don’t have to agree with something to recognize how important it is in the lives of others and how much more effective you will be at navigating the world if you have a basic understanding of it.

Because of my background in religion, I am more easily able to converse with religious individuals about their beliefs. I like to think I’m less judgmental than I would be otherwise. I’ve thought deeply about the motivations that people have for holding the beliefs they do and what benefits religion brings. I can be a more compassionate individual because of my background in religious studies, as well as understand what’s happening around me more thoroughly. Who wouldn’t want this?

 

Written by Olivia James

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.

Ask An Atheist Day

I am sick as balls. So I am going to let you guys do my blog work for me: It is ask an atheist day today. ASK ME THINGS!! Here, on facebook, on twitter, any ol’ where. I’ll try to compile them by this afternoon and get them up in one nice big post. Otherwise it will go up tomorrow. Ask me about why I lost my religion, how I get through my days, what’s my purpose, my social security number (haha, not), who my favorite actor is…ANYTHING. I will try to answer EVERY question you ask.