Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism

I’ve been thinking a lot about atheism lately.  Why is it that some people become atheists?  Well, do a web search and you’ll find a plethora of sites where people discuss their own journey into atheism.   Some apparently had issues with authority as children.  Some had bad experiences with religion early in life.  Some experienced a cognitive dissonance between what they see in scripture and what they see in the hard facts of science.  The reasons for atheism are probably as many as there are those who deny the existence of deity.  

Back in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century, in those thrilling days of yesteryear, geneticist Dean Hamer of the US Cancer Institute, claimed to have identified a gene, the VMAT2 gene, that has an effect on one’s ability to experience the spiritual or transcendent.  This gene was called the “God gene”, and the hypothesis was attacked by atheists and believers alike.  Theologian John Polkinghorne said, “”The idea of a God gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can’t cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival.  It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking.”  Hamer responded to such criticism with, “Religious believers can point to the existence of God genes as one more sign of the creator’s ingenuity—a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence.”  Hamer also reiterates that the work and the hypothesis stress the existence and function of a God gene, not the existence of God.

The biological basis of openness to spirituality is intriguing.  At the most fundamental level, VMAT2 may make people more optimistic in outlook, which affects general health, and therefore improves survival and the likelihood of reproduction.  It would also give a concrete reason why some people can so readily believe in the supernatural, and why some can’t.  Consider the implications of a God gene:  If the VMAT2 gene, which affects the movement of certain neurotransmitters in the brain allows some people to believe in God and a defect or mutation prevents the same in others, then God would become somewhat of a respecter of persons (violating specific references in the book of Acts).  On the other hand, it would support the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, assuming that only those who are believers (let’s call them VMAT2+) would be saved, and those who are not (let’s call them VMAT2 -) would be lost.

I am not here to debate the points of Calvinism.  I am more interested in understanding about atheism. 

CNN’s Dan Merica summarized the 6 categories of atheism as proposed by University of Tennessee-Chattanooga student researchers, Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman.

“1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic:  This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism.  They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites…They’re also well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently.

2) Activist:  These kinds of atheists and agnostics are not content with just disbelieving in God; they want to tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise.  They tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals.

3) Seeker-agnostic:  This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.  Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”  That doesn’t mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

4) Anti-theist:  This group regularly speaks out against religion and religious beliefs, usually by positioning themselves as “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” Silver and Coleman wrote.  “Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”  Anti-theists are outspoken, devoted and – at times – confrontational about their disbelief. They believe that “obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another.”

5) Non-theist:  The smallest group among the six are the non-theists, people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion.  In many cases, this comes across as apathy or disinterest.  “A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “Religion plays no role or issue in one’s consciousness or worldview; nor does a Non- Theist have concern for the atheist or agnostic movement.”  They continue: “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religion in any form from their mental space.”

6) Ritual atheist:  They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.  “They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”  For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, it’s a personal connection to, or respect for, the “profound symbolism” inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.”

The doctoral student serving as principle investigator of this study, Christopher Silver, probably knows whereof he speaks:  he has served as a board member of the Chattanooga Free Thought Association, which according to their website, “welcome all freethinkers, atheists, brights, agnostics, and skeptics who wish to get together for fun and interesting conversation and the promotion of positive atheism through community service as well as peaceful activism.”

People of faith usually associate all atheists with types 2 and 4, the activists and anti-theists, who tend to be the most vocal.  Reading discussions and accounts of Christian “de-conversion,” it is easy to categorize many of these people into the mentioned categories.  However, a particular atheist may be a blend of types—for example, a type 1 intellectual who is also a type 4 anti-theist or type 2 activist.  This sort of blend is often encountered by freshmen in college, leading to the first real test of their nascent faith, leading to a cognitive dissonance that may result in either rejection of faith or a redoubling of it, depending on the individual, the popularity of the authority figure and the specific circumstance.  I have known people who are probably type 6 ritual atheists, who consider themselves to be “CEO Christians”, or “Christmas and Easter Only”.  They may enjoy the pageantry of religious celebrations, but do not really have a belief in the object of the celebration.       

So who are atheists?  Well, anyone may be.  But according to George Yancey, writing in a column in Christianity Today, “… data shows they are more likely to be white, male, educated and possibly wealthy than the general population, indicating they also tend to have more social power than others in society.  Additionally, in venues such as academia, atheists clearly have an advantage, while conservative Protestants are the minority.”  Yancey goes on to discuss a common theme among many atheists of feelings of logic (which is obviously tied to educational attainment and visibility in academia) and mistreatment.  “Atheists have good reason to feel this way. Surveys indicate that they are trusted less than most other social groups, and my earlier research indicates they experience more relative hostility than any religious group.”

Based on my own anecdotal observations, the world is comprised of a whole spectrum of positions on belief, from radical in-you-face fundamentalist Christians to radical back-at-you evangelical atheists.  Those on either extreme are objects of mistrust and derision from their polar opposites and perhaps some annoyance from those with cooler heads that may find themselves somewhere in between. 

But back to my original question regarding why people become atheists, it is interesting to examine a few of the pros and cons, which actually work equally well for either side.  If atheists suggest that belief in God is wishful thinking, that a higher power is somehow in charge of life and destiny, the same can be said in reverse, i.e., some may become atheist because they wish to be free from imposed moral constraints.  But the universality of specific moral codes across time and cultures contrary to the obvious benefits of selfish behaviors suggests to believers that such laws were instilled, not evolved.  If atheists say that believers are looking for a father figure in a benevolent God, or in a more sinister, co-dependent sense,  an angry God, a similar observation can be made in reverse: an atheist may be looking to run away from a bad experience with an authority figure, thus reject any possibility of deity.  Some atheists may have been abused, either emotionally or physically, at the hands of some religious figure, and they flee from all association with that sort of violence.

Atheists may see God as a crutch, an easy way to explain gaps in our knowledge.  But on the other hand, God helps us to find comfort in the unknown, and by demonstrating a willingness to know more of God’s mind, we may actually be driven to learn more and unravel more of the mysteries of nature and life itself.

I am familiar with other arguments against God, such as the argument from suffering, and indeed some people do cite their inability to comprehend a benevolent God’s willingness to allow illness and suffering of their loved ones or violence against the innocent.  But I am also familiar with Thomas Aquinas’ Quinque Viae, the five proofs of God in his magnum opus, Summa Theologica.  His arguments of first cause, the argument of the unmoved mover, and the argument from contingency are hard to refute, especially in light of cosmological arguments involving the birth of the universe in the primordial Big Bang, or the universality of movement or change requiring an initial unmoved mover to set the movement or change in motion.            

As I have written in previous posts, I am the son of a preacher, raised in a family where religion was at the center, where faith was at the very core of family life.  I listened to Bible teaching, but I also observed.  I heard the sermons and attended the Bible classes, but I saw the dirty underside of church life, too: the back-stabbing, the power plays among members, the preacher often the unfortunate scapegoat in some plot of ecclesiastical intrigue.  I continued to be what census takers may call “an adherent” to the faith, regular in attendance but not a committed member of any church.  Using terminology similar to that of the Silver-Coleman study, I suppose I was close to being a “ritual agnostic.”  I did not reject deity completely, but until graduate school, I couldn’t grasp many of the doctrines and practices of the church.  I could not understand issues related to the apparently contradictory nature of a God.  Science told me one thing, religion told me another.  I spent many afternoons and evenings (when I probably should have been in the lab) in the Vanderbilt Theology stacks trying to disprove various elements of Christianity, and I was not able to.  It was during graduate school that I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and the armor cracked a bit.  Then, later when I came to understand that the central theme of the Bible is not reward vs. punishment (contrary to revivalist Jonathan Edwards’ view of God), but rather love, I was able to commit to a religious faith.  Like National Institutes for Health director, Francis Collins, I came to accept and understand that faith in a higher power, faith in God, accounts more for the intricacies of human nature than naturalistic explanations such as sociobiology, as fascinating as that field may be.  When I was able to accept that the Bible contains truth but, as many have observed, was not meant to be a comprehensive science book or encyclopedia of world history, its value to me as a guide greatly increased.     

I recount this not looking for anyone’s approval, but to demonstrate that others may do the same thing and come out on the other side.  My personal experience of faith has been largely positive when I focus on fellowship with others.  I continue to struggle with issues of legalism among the followers in my faith tradition, the unwillingness of many of my brothers and sisters in the church to admit to the power and effectiveness of grace.  But I continue to study as much as I can and teach whatever truths that I find whether in accordance with the accepted church dogmas or in spite of them, as long as it is truth. 

It is unfortunate that the term “free thinking” has been co-opted by atheists as code for atheism itself.  I believe that as Christians, we can and must be free thinkers, willing to question our beliefs if we are to grow and to really know and truly experience our faith.  As I recently read, doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is a part of it.  But to embrace only doubt, or let it lead to a closure of the mind against the possibility of the divine is hard to understand.  Maybe the belief that this is all there is to life is comforting and liberating to some.  But to me, it must be empty.  I can’t imagine not believing in God.  I can’t imagine not learning from the marvelous teachings and example of Jesus.  These are as real to me as anything in my life, and if they were not there, I would probably feel that lonely emptiness, that craving for something more.  Are there happy atheists?  Plenty, I’m sure.  But I’ve seen a lot more happy believers.  And in the end, even if I’m wrong and the atheists are right (which I would heartily dispute), I haven’t lost anything.  God calls us to a good life of service, love and happiness, not a sad existence of privation and misery.  What more could anyone ask for?   

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2 Responses to Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism

  1. Pingback: Science and God – Can they ever go together? | Rajkamal Mohanram's Blog

  2. Pingback: A Pause to Reflect on Reaching 100 Posts | the trail is the thing

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