Monday, May 20, 2013

When did atheism become a religion?

Yesterday, I went out shopping in the morning, walking up past the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. There must have been a major religious festival, for the church was just emptyingP1000249(1). I didn't have my camera, so I couldn't take a crowd shot. But here is an earlier shot of the Cathedral.

My area in Sydney was the location of Greek settlement in Sydney after the Second World War. Many Greeks have died or moved on, but it remains a centre.

There is an old Greek woman, I think that she is Greek, She has lost her English, that's often a problem with our older migrants, but we always say hello. Tuesday night on my way to tennis, I said hello. She pressed a number of sweets into my hand, said goodbye in heavily accented English, and then walked on.

looking at the crowd thronging the pavement outside the Cathedral, I thought how nice it was. There were old woman alone in their black, older couples talking to their friends, young people with their families. An older man, well he was certainly older than me!,  hugged his daughters and then, cupping his granddaughter's face in his hands, gave her a kiss on the top of the head. I smiled, but it took my thoughts in a different direction.

When did atheism become a religion? That may sound an odd question in the circumstances, but let me explain.

I have noticed through the feeds I get and some of the blogs I read, an increasing an increasing stridency in atheist propaganda. The following is an example of what I mean.Atheism  Now its perfectly rational to conclude, on the balance of probabilities, that God doesn't exist and that, consequently, you are an atheist. However, when you use images such as the above, you have adopted an especially unpleasant faith that were you anyone other than an atheist would be roundly and rightly condemned.

The existence or otherwise of God or Gods, of a divine being or beings, cannot be proved or disproved. That is why it is a faith. When atheists concluded that god does not exist and seek to persuade others, they too have accepted a faith, a belief in the non-existence of the divine. That's fine, but when they use images such as the above in the attempt to discredit the views of others, when they selectively point to all the evils created in the name of religion. they have entered a new religious domain much loved by those they criticise. I am right, therefore you must believe.

Now the actual theological issue captured in that image has been much debated. How can an all knowing, all powerful god allow evil or indeed natural disasters to exist?, There isn't an easy answer. In the Christian tradition, it comes back to the question of nature and free will. Man has the freedom to make his choices and must suffer the consequences. That's actually very hard, for the innocent suffer.

Would the world be better off nobody believed? I don't know. I suspect not. The evidence of human history is that we all have a deep need to believe in something beyond ourselves, something that might help explain, to make sense of. the apparently unexplainable, 

As knowledge has expanded, the domain of the unexplainable has shrunk. And yet, we still feel the need to believe. That need has created some of the worst moments in human history, but also some of the best, the finest. I don't think that we should lose sight of that.        


Anonymous said...

It's not 'religion' per se which is the problem. I think it's the incessant intrusive need some folk feel to proselytize. And that can be for any cause, not just a god.

But if you are talking spiritual, then I'm in favour of anything which helps you get through each night - so long as it doesn't disturb my sleep.


Jim Belshaw said...

I don't know, kvd. It smells, sounds and acts like a religion to me. Religion doesn't have to mean a belief in a divine being. I wouldn't want to disturb your sleep! Or would I? Now that's an interesting question.

Rummuser said...

"My favorite definition of religion is 'a misinterpretation of mythology.' And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which are properly spiritual in their reference. What a mythic talks about is not something that happened somewhere or will happen somewhere at some time or another; it refers to what is now, and was yesterday, and will be tomorrow, and his forever."

~ Joseph Campbell.

JC also quotes Heinrich Zimmer who once said: "The best things can't be told; the second best are misunderstood; the third best have to do with history."

Atheism is also part of our myths!

Anonymous said...

From the logical point of view to prove the existence of something is always possible but it's impossible to prove the inexistence of something else. So the hope that atheists can prove that they are right is desperatly null. I know that it's not your subject, Jim, but I've found amazing to point it. The problem is why someone needs to belive in a God existence and someone else rejects the idea of a God. Have you noted that the idea of a God is more widespread among senior's population and not popular among the youth. I think that the young thinks that he's all powerful himself and he can obtain everything, he can control everything thanks to the science, to the technolgy, to his young body and his smile. The older one has his deceptions, his lost battles, his body's betrays despite of his own efforts and wills. And than he looks for an explanation; - what is the reason: - a luck, a destiny, a God,...? It's the old generation which tries to pass the idea of the God to the younger one as the insurance of all misfortunes that the live can bring. And the younger one try to destry it up to the moment when it's the last remaining hope.
Old Dumbledore

PS. Sorry for my poor English.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi both. Responses tonight.

Evan said...

The alternative to the 'god of the gaps' (to explain the unexplained - which means god is ever diminishing and sometimes hostile to truth) it is possible to realise that when people say "god" they are labelling their experience.

This is why the attacks on 'belief' simply leave most believers untouched - it doesn't address their experience.

As to the hostility to 'the enemy' and unwillingness to acknowledge faults in your own position. This is hardly unusual - but probably a reason why the 'new atheists' aren't taken seriously.

I'd be more impressed if the 'new atheists' denounced the modern god - money and work - instead of reiterating the anti-clerical agenda of the French Enlightenment.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. On a tangent, I went through a "mystical" period. In the end, it was too mystical! I don't know that I would say that atheism is one of our myths, but it does make the same point.

OD, I see your broad point, although I'm not sure that I agree. Sometimes it is easier to prove the non-existence of something, although proof can be a slippery concept; and I'm not so sure about the young and old. Isn't it the people in the middle? I think your point that the problem is why someone needs to believe, others to deny, is an interesting one in a general sense.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, I need to think about your comment. I actually agree and disagree all at the same time!

Anonymous said...

Jim, before you leave the irrational for the unresolvable, next time you pass that lovely cathedral please ask somebody why the central tall window has no semicircular infill, as do the windows either side.

It spoils the whole look of what is otherwise quite a beautiful building, and from a practical point of view it is that particular arch which appears to need the most support imo.


Jim Belshaw said...

Again you opening words made me laugh, kvd. I'm not sure that I can do that, ask I mean, but I will try to get some closer photos for you!

Anonymous said...

That really is a fascinating building. I found a different picture here

And there's a brilliant flikr set of maybe a dozen internal pictures beginning here

Hope those links work. I'd love the chance to sit and contemplate sometime in that church.


and I kid you not! The word verify for this comment is "GREEK NeWssF"

Rummuser said...

Just to add some amusement to the discussion

Anonymous said...

Ramana, in military terms, that's known as having a Plan B - i.e. a fallback position.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the links, kvd. I must look inside. And Ramana, you may not believe, but you may still be uncomfortable saying things that others might seem as nasty. Still, I like the idea of a plan B.