One of these things is not like the others…

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 9.18.25 PMI’ve had multiple conversations in the last year about whether atheism is a religion. I don’t self-identify as atheist for both political and ideological reasons, but most of the critiques I see of atheism—which are usually critiques of atheists, and usually about how mean they are—only shallowly engage the ideas they critique and beg the very questions atheists are asking.

A way to get behind the question is to ask what function atheism-as-religion has for the parties who make that claim. It’s easier to deal first with those who self-identify as atheist. The closest thing I know to religious atheism is the Sunday Assembly, whose recent split seems to have been over just how much to explicitly cater to atheists as opposed to a more general humanism. (As a side note, it doesn’t seem the best tactic to argue that a “split” is evidence that atheism is a religion). They meet together, sing songs, tell stories, and enjoy each other’s company. If you want to call atheism a religion in a colloquial sense based on groups like these, so be it.

I’ve found, however, that those who claim atheism is a religion are usually members of a “rival” religious tradition. The argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Christianity is defined by a belief in God (Jesus).
  2. Atheism is defined by a belief that there is no God.
  3. These are both beliefs.
  4. Therefore, an atheist critique of Christianity is invalid because the two are both belief systems.

There are many problems with this argument. Beginning with the end, if it were the case that all belief systems are structurally the same and they therefore have no ground to critique each other, this would undercut any criticism of another institution. This might be helpful if we judged systems solely on the basis of structure or organization without any evaluation of content, but we don’t, and that leads to the next point.

There is a gap between points three and four implying that all beliefs are qualitatively the same. This is a disingenuous argument because it separates belief as a thing out in the world separate from believers, those who create belief through acting in the world. Sure, a belief is a belief, just as a law is a law, but we wouldn’t likely argue that all laws are qualitatively the same. They pertain to different aspects of existence and we judge some of them effective and others not-as-effective.

What the argument is saying is that the act of believing is equivalent in both cases. Again, this is technically true, but it is disingenuous because it negates the content of the belief. It partakes in the sociological idea of rational choice, which suggests that we pick our way of being in the world as if picking a value meal at McDonalds. In truth, we are already enveloped in a world that disposes us to prefer some ways of being over others. Sincere adherents to a tradition prefer their traditions. They think their tradition is better for them than others for a variety of reasons. It may be because of potential theological consequences; it may be because of social preference. One is deceiving one’s self, however, if one both claims to be a member of a tradition and claims that his or her tradition is no better that any others. (Of course, one other option is to being to realize you don’t prefer a tradition as much as you thought you did, that realization becoming a catalyst for change. Such was my experience.)

If we look at the specific beliefs (assuming that the defining belief here is the presence or absence of God), no better case can be made. A monotheist affirms that there exists a supernatural being of higher order that interacts with humanity in some way. Those who are not monotheists do not necessarily believe that there is no God (although they may); they simply lack a belief that monotheists have. These are not the same thing. The first implies the existence of a divine being and suggests that one’s decision is whether to affirm its existence. The second denotes the presence of belief in one case, and an absence in the next.

The reason the argument is not usually made this way is, in part, because the presumption of divine beings has been prevalent in Western society for all of written history. (We may be even genetically predisposed to affirm a higher power, anthropomorphizing what we cannot explain.) The existence of God has been normalized to such an extent that is the starting point for all discussions about religion. Thus the absence of belief is characterized as a belief in itself, which from a normative stance is also seen as an attack on existing belief. This is not to say that atheists do not attack “believers.” It is to say that “believing differently” is a poor way of conceptualizing an absence of belief.

So what is a better way of conceptualizing those who, from the perspective of religious traditions, do not believe? A better way might be to look at what they affirm. Far be it from me to speak for atheism; rather I want to suggest that all ways of viewing the world are not belief systems. Or, more precisely, all are not faith systems. In discussions such as these, there is slippage between the two ideas. It is possible to justify belief, but it is not possible to justify faith. Faith is belief in the absence of—or because of the absence of—justification. Its primary criteria is not being subject to falsification. Other epistemologies are defined by their being subject to refinement, criticism, and inquiry. The substance of faith cannot be changed, and this is why it cannot be considered as an equivalent form of knowledge to any other that is subject to such falsification. One might even try to argue that faith is better than other forms of belief, but it cannot be the same.

We come full circle here. The faithful can argue, “Well I can’t prove that God exists, but you can’t prove that he doesn’t!” That is indeed the case. I can neither prove that unicorns exist. Luckily I don’t need to because very few if any think they do. The point is that when other epistemologies come to the fringes of their systemic ability, they may speculate, but they do not assume or create other forms of knowledge to compensate. This certainly does not mean a lack of desire to know the unknown. It entails a humility about our systems and abilities of perception that is in keeping with the history of humanity.

I’d be interested to hear if I am missing possibilities. Is it possible to both identify with a particular tradition and yet not think that it is qualitatively better for them to be in that tradition than others? Is it possible to view faith as an epistemology like any other?


Fear and Faith: Faking Conversion?

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.03.52 PMIn the past, citizens of Western societies had their religious beliefs affirmed directly through a  socio-cultural system that extended religion through most areas of public life. In the United States and Europe in the present, Christianity is treated—rhetorically speaking, at least—as a private affair. In my own experience, people who claim to be Christians do so on the foundation of a profound religious experience, be it that of a conversion, communication from God, an unexplainable series of events, etc. In other words, belief in God is founded first on an emotional understanding. This is important not because of the standard reasoning of naysayers that emotion is false and cognition true. Rather, because people know that society places a higher value on reason than emotion, they tend to privilege reasonable justifications of beliefs or world views over emotional ones, even when the latter have a greater sway.

I caught a TV show by British illusionist Derren Brown called Fear and Faith in which he shows by various means how religious belief can be reproduced through a series of psychological and emotional manipulations. The clip is forty-seven minutes long and worth watching in its entirety. Pete Rollins has a brief discussion on his blog about the very first portion of the show, when the vast majority of audience participants, even though they do not believe in the devil, were unwilling to participate in what they thought was a Satanic rite where they had to stab the picture of a family member. Brown suggests that we are “hardwired” to believe, to draw connections between our actions and some greater scheme of meaning. Rollins argues that, despite conscious disbelief, religious belief is still operative on a repressed level. This claim is particularly important in Western society where it is culturally normative to distance religious belief from public daily life; consequently we are encouraged to disassociate religious belief from our normal operation even when it is influential. This, as I’ve argued before, plays out in dangerous ways in the way we interact with other groups of people on a personal and international level.

What I found even more interesting, though, was the main focus of the show. Brown takes an avowed atheist and attempts to induce a religious conversion experience in her in order to show that religious experience can be manufactured and can occur outside our logical and volitional processes. In the course of a fifteen minute conversation, Brown speaks with a stem cell researcher named Natalie while sitting in the aisle of a large church. He first associates Natalie’s feelings about her father with the idea of an all-caring and loving father figure, and connects that idea with the tapping of his fingers on the table they are sitting at as an aural cue, much like a favorite song that helps one recall a significant event. He speaks with her about awe-inspiring experiences and subtly suggests the possibility of their orchestration for her personal benefit, like the idea of God or Jesus. Brown then gradually brings these two ideas together, both through hand gestures and his speaking to suggest to Natalie the possibility that a loving figure was arranging events in her life and watching out for her. Then, at nearly the end of the conversation, he says he has to leave the room for a moment, but reiterates the conversation by tapping on the table again to bring back the powerful feelings and suggesting that sometimes we may find “things” right in front of us that were with us all along. Brown then leaves the room and within less than a minute, Natalie has an emotional reaction as she takes in the conversation and the religious environment she sits in. She begins to sob and speak to God. When Brown comes back, she speaks of having an all-encompassing feeling of love. Only later on the show does he explain to her the cues he introduced to help manipulate her experience.

Watch the clip to get the full effect of this process, since it may seem staged on reading it. We are highly emotionally suggestive, naturally anthropocentric, and we want to make sense out of nonsense. Brown’s point is that we don’t need the supernatural to explain the scenario he created through a series of replicable manipulations. Though the emotional experiences are quite real, they come from within us and are not prompted by an outside force. It is interesting in that sense that many would rather attribute their actions as re-actions to a deity, rendering themselves automatons, rather than attribute to themselves the power to create experience. Even after explaining to Natalie the orchestration of the events, she still (understandably) could not immediately give up the reality of her emotional experience.

The point is not that the emotional experience is somehow fake because it doesn’t correspond to an outside object. That presumption begs the question of God’s existence we are trying to address. Rather, the point is that we are disposed to make meaning out of chaos, and religious belief is one of a number of ways to make meaning. It is not, however, the only way. Brown concludes that, insofar as religious belief makes people happy, there is nothing wrong with it, since we all just want to be happy. I cannot buy this argument because of its tendency to create collateral damage. As Brown suggests, after having a conversion experience, what one tends to do is find additional experiences, to discern additional patterns out of life events that confirm one’s beliefs. The supreme way of doing so is convincing others of your worldview and having them adopt it. The trouble comes when others have equally universal understandings that govern their lives and do not cohere with ours. Then conflict begins, and my happiness comes at the expense of yours. This is historically true with Christianity and with democracy.

It would be much too easy for me now, outside of a religious context, to say that I was always skeptical about God communicating with me. I did often have a sense of disappointment that it seemed to “happen” to others much more often than myself. I do recall one experience at a prayer meeting where I had what I thought was a mental picture from God. I had the picture of an empty ice cube tray being filled under a faucet. If you start in the corner and fill one cube, it begins to spill over and will gradually fill all the other cubes as well. In the context of a prayer meeting about how God was “working” in our community, I interpreted that image as God telling me that the work he was doing in our church was going to “spill over” into the surrounding areas and have a positive influence. I conveyed my image to the people who were present and it was validated by their approval. Our collective belief was affirmed. But, just like Brown’s experiment, it was highly controlled, not by one man, but through a tradition, which is even more efficacious because the responsibility is difficult to place anywhere but with God.

What do you think? Does the fact that we are highly suggestive, that spiritual experiences can be created, suggest the possibility that “supernatural” experiences don’t have to be supernatural?


Deconversion (or Disenchantment?)

Okay, so it’s not a real word…yet. Deconversion doesn’t even sound that great. It’s kind of clunky. I could not think of any better words that adequately describe my experience of leaving Christianity. Unconversion might be a possibility, but that sounds to me more like a complete and tidy reversal, and it is not so easy (nor possible, nor even necessarily desirable) to remove thirty years of enculturation. Deconversion implies to me a kind of excision, a forced or necessary removal of something that no longer has a place. I’m not sure whether in the metaphor I have excised something out of me or excised myself from the larger fabric.

The use of deconversion is not without precedent among former Christians. (See Camels with Hammers for another example) One problem is that deconversion implies a kind of instantaneousness that also accompanies the Protestant understanding of conversion. Change almost never happens that way. Christians particularly enjoy conversion narratives that are dramatic, representing a sharp turn of events, when real and lasting change is more gradual. Take the narrative of the average Christian’s conversion and it will not be hard to identify multiple factors that contributed over time to an individual’s receptiveness to consciously accepting Christianity. The same, of course, goes for many other changes as well. We like conversion, though, because it suggests the great power or will of the actor, be it God or individual. If I quit smoking, but it takes me two years of fits and starts to do so, and I still feel like I could use a cigarette, that doesn’t sound very permanent or appealing. If, on the other hand, I triumphantly announce that I quit smoking cold turkey and never wanted another cigarette again, it seems to attest to my amazing power of will.

In the same way, a quick and dramatic conversion story is a great testimony to the power of God, and these testimonies were once appealing to me. I was often disappointed that, since I had grown up in the church for as long as I remember, I had no great conversion story. No bad past filled with drugs, sex, and hard living; just a good kid who grew up with Christian parents and became a Christian at an early age. I wanted some drama. So I admit that using the term deconversion is a vague appeal to the same kind of story, suggesting a precise turning point. As I mentioned, though, I only recognized this turning point much later and superimposed it on the past for a clearer chronology. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this symbolic method, and we use it frequently to describe changes in our lives. This doesn’t mean the symbol should be used as a substitute for the thing itself. In other words, the story is not equivalent with the actual events; it is a representation of them, and representations can vary widely, between people and even in the same person over time.

There are many other words used to describe a change in religious affiliation, but they are almost exclusively the language of those who remain insiders. The early Christian church was very concerned with apostates (those who abandoned the faith), heretics (those who promoted an unorthodox faith), and the lapsed (those who betrayed the faith in a moment of weakness but have since come back). These all have a negative connotation in modern parlance.

Contemporary Protestantism uses more colloquial language, such as backsliding, leaving the faith, or abandoning the faith. It might speak in terms of belief, such as no longer believing, abandoning belief, etc. In the first examples, faith functions as a substitute for Christianity, implying that if you aren’t Christian, you don’t have faith. Period. Some people may have no problem with ceding the term to Christians; I am interested in what non-members using Christian terms to describe their relationship with Christianity implies for its influence on Western culture.

The same goes for belief. What I like about “not believing anymore” is that it suggests the ongoing social enchantment (support, what have you) necessary to best sustain religious affiliation. What I don’t like is that, like faith, it presumes that belief means belief in Christianity. The religion versus science debate common in the narratives of former Christians or New Atheists has to a certain extent democratized belief, but shares the implication that everyone has to believe in something. Each side accuses the other of denying the evidence. Maybe it is because of my resistance to Christian normativity, but I don’t think of my life in terms of a belief in something, and I don’t identify regularly with “unbeliever” or “nonbeliever.”

I do like the term disenchantment because it indicates the active effort that goes into sustaining religious community. It also resonates to a certain extent with my experience. My social and cultural environment produced an effect on me, encouraging me to view reality in a particular way. As some of the cracks in that version of reality began to show, the enchantment began to lose its hold. Of course, this happens all the time, which is why communities gather regularly to reaffirm their shared values and beliefs. Once I stopped attending church, however, I lost my source of re-enchantment, and since for a variety of reasons I was unwilling or unable to sustain it myself, I was, over time, disenchanted. Why do you think religious leaders try to get you into church?

This disenchantment is also applicable in many other areas. For example, I have also become somewhat disenchanted with Crossfit lately, although I would still consider myself a “Crossfitter.” It has gone through a cycle similar to that of a religion, and has now alienated some of its earlier members by attempting to extend its reach as broad as possible. I hear talk of breaking away and returning to the roots. Sounds a lot like religion, huh? Much more could be said, but I’ll save it for another post.

The point is that these terms are static and ultimately fail to capture a journey that is ongoing. Nothing is final; everything is in flux. I’ll probably continue to use the words deconversion or disenchantment while I continue to search for something more adequate.