Atheist != Anti-theist

I wrote about atheism on this blog 4 years ago, I’m going to try not to re-hash much of that post in the present one.

I was about 10 when I figured out that there wasn’t a god, I don’t recall a moment of doubt on that question in the 35 plus years since then. Still, I hold nothing against those with other views.  Fundamentalists on the other hand, irritate me to no end. Whether these fundies are Islamists flying planes into buildings or Christians shooting abortion doctors, I find them offensive.

In the same way I find anti-theist fundies just as annoying. (Although to my knowledge no atheist fundie has ever killed anyone to promote his/her beliefs.)  Much internet chatter concerning theism is anti-theistic hate speech. This is just as annoying as the religious fundamentalists.  And there is the rub, fundamentalism is the problem, not religion. The Hitchins and the Harriss’ of the world are just as fundamentalist in their atheism (which is really anti-theism) as the religious fundies are in theirs.

This post really has no other objective than to point out that atheism is not equal to anti-theism. The current debate makes me feel like the animals at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm, looking through the window, finding it increasingly difficult to tell the pigs from the humans.


Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton, a Swiss born philosopher, author and presenter first came to my attention in the early oughts when I happened across his Consolations of Philosophy.  I had at some time earlier read Boethius’ work of the same name, so my interest was piqued.  de Botton’s work did not disappoint.  I was immediately taken in by his ability to make complex ideas simple to understand.  And he accomplishes this not by watering the ideas down, but by its inverse, a process of distillation.  A rare trick indeed.  It was this same ability to distill ideas into a super concentrate that led me to devour Tolstoy’s religious writings.

de Botton has resurfaced due to his newest work, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.  Full disclosure, I haven’t yet read it.  Unfortunately, life’s situation being what it is, I can’t spare the $17.  Watching him interviewed on his latest work, it seems that he has become a much needed antidote to the fundamentalist atheism of Dawkins, Harris, etc.  I find fundamentalism to be disquieting and off-setting, irregardless of whatever belief system being espoused.  So it has been added to my reading list.

Learning that he had a new book out, I googled him to find what information was available.  I discovered there is a wealth of both audio and video available for free on the web.  I am writing this post to point out a few of the more interesting/enlightening pieces that I came across.

First a 20 minute Ted Talk on Atheism 2.0, then a list of links.

More Ted Talks are available here.

BBC has a dozen 10 minute audio clips.

An hour long video on focusing on ideas from his book: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

There is a 35 minute “sermon” on vimeo published by de Botton’s School of Life, this one On Religion for Atheists.

Alain de Botton On Religion for Atheists from The School of Life on Vimeo.

A simple search of vimeo or youtube also turns up a host of videos.

Try to get away from the latest Reality TV for even one evening per month (or better, one evening per week), there are worse choices than choosing to spend some of that time taking in the simple (yet profound) ideas that Alain de Botton has to offer.

Edit: It would be remiss to not offer a link to de Botton’s personal site and his School of Life.

Also a 6 part TV series based on Consolations of Philosophy. (The order is off…it should be Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzche.)

Thinking About God…

At the local Barnes and Noble book store, they have a new section on Atheism.  They’ve hacked together the space by shrinking the philosophy section.  Two full aisles, front and back for religion, a small section for philosophy a few feet across.  Then they go and shrink the section further.  What can really be said about atheism that hasn’t already been said?  Is it really necessary to get rid of Epictetus to make room for the newest Dawkins book?

I was about 10 years old when I first decided that I was an atheist, not that I then knew what that meant.  You see my grandmother was a severe fundamentalist, the kind that thinks that having fun is an afront to god.  I listened to her tales of fire and brimstone, revenge, and intrigue with wild eyed wonder.  I was fairly young when I decided that I really did not like god, at least not the god of retribution and punishment that she described.  So at about the age of 8 I started wondering if I might be a satanist, obviously I had no truck with god.  This phase did not last long, I learned quickly that I wasn’t evil, or at least I did not feel evil.  So I chalked up these fanciful tales as Just So Stories (not that I knew what that meant at the time).

I don’t remember how old I was when grandma dragged me to church, or was it prayer meeting?  When they called for all the sinners to repent and ask Jesus for forgiveness she forced me to the front of the church to kneel at the alter amongst all the other sinners (my younger brother included).  I got on my knees at the alter and went through the motions of thinking/praying for Jesus to forgive me for whatever it was that made god so mad at me that he might condemn me to hell forever.

So a dozen or so sinners kneeled to beg forgiveness and the rest of the congregants gathered behind them, praying and crying and carrying on.    As things should have been winding down, the other (former) sinners were rising, crying and hugging the others.  But I only grew more frustrated, I felt nothing.  My grandma asked me if I felt Jesus, and I replied that I felt nothing.  More people gathered behind me, they prayed louder, they shed more tears and I grew fearful.  I quit trying to commune with god and started wracking my brain for what I should be feeling so that I could lie my way out of there.  The problem was that I did not know what I was supposed to be feeling, I did not know the answer that would get me out of there, so I stuck to my statements that I felt nothing.  They gathered closer, clutching at me, raining tears on me, supplicating themselves to god to please save my sinner soul.  I don’t know how long this all went on, it seemed an eternity, but was probably minutes.

The fable was that Jesus was knocking on my heart and all I had to do was let him in.  I tried, I really tried.  My young mind visualized this, trying to hear a knock, but all I heard was silence.  Silence and the mad men and women braying over me.  I didn’t give in and I guess I wore them down, they let me out of there with a shy promise to keep trying on my own.

When I told grandma about the dinosaurs I learned of in school and how they dug up bones from tar pits, she told me that god had hidden those bones there to tempt our faith.  When my parents dumped me at grandma’s while they were out of town, I was told I was going to go to hell for having a Santa coloring book.

I really wanted to believe, I tried hard to believe.  I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to believe, but there was nothing.  I could hear the pounding of my heart, but I recognized it as the pounding of my heart.  Was this what they had mistaken for Jesus’ knocking?  I did not have the words or the courage to question them.

My mind, not fully developed, attempted to figure these things out, surely I must be missing something…but what?  I thought god must have abandoned me because of something that I had done, but I couldn’t make things right as I did not know what I might have done.

Not being able to figure things out, I chalked god up as tales to tell children.  And while adults didn’t believe in Santa, some of them kept their belief in god into old age.  I feared these people, yet I also pitied them.  This mixture of fear and pity formed a sort of revulsion in my mind.  I was still made to pray and ask forgiveness, but I only went through the motions.  When asked if I felt something, I would look them in the eyes and lie.

Still, 35 years after the fact, it makes me mad that they would remove Foucault to make room for another book by Hitchins or Harris.

Current Reading: Breaking the Spell

by Daniel Dennett

Breaking the Spell is a natural history of religion by an avowed atheist. I am not too far into the book yet, but it is an interesting read. More accessible than many of Dennett’s writings, the book is highly recommended.

I especially like the concept of calling atheists, non-deists, agnostics, and other non-believers “brights”. Not because these people are any more bright than believers, in the same way that gays are not happier than non-gays. It is just a term that is not negative and can be co-opted by those who are tired of being tread upon for their beliefs (or non-beliefs in this case).

Have you read the book? What is your take, leave a comment.