I took part in a questionnaire a while ago concerning religious beliefs. I thought I’d share this as it sums up my position on religion.
Were you raised atheist or did you have a religious upbringing of some sort? In other words, to what degree (if any) was religion or atheism part of your family life while growing up.
I‘ve discussed this elsewhere, but briefly, I was baptised into the Church of England and had an Anglican upbringing, though my family also had Methodist roots. I attended church each week as a child, despite the fact that neither of my parents was particularly religious. I stopped attending as a teenager for no particular reason other than apathy and finding the experience somewhat boring.
If raised religious – When and why did you become an atheist? What was this transition from religion like for you, for your family, etc.? Was this a quick transition or a slow one? Was it easy for you or difficult?
I became an atheist during my first year of university (c. late 1999). More accurately, I didn’t really ‘become’ an atheist as simply acknowledge that I already was and had been for some time. It’s hard to say when exactly it ‘started.’ My family weren’t affected by this whatsoever although I think they may have seen it as part of a wider transformational process happening at that time. The transition was gradual and virtually invisible during my teenage years and it involved no real difficulty I’m happy to say. I didn’t have any specific ‘crisis of faith’ or moment of deconversion, merely a gradual realisation that I no longer took the beliefs of religion seriously. Once I admitted that to myself, the rest followed.
Do you identify yourself as an atheist? If so, what does being an atheist mean to you? Also, how does it feel to be an atheist . . . optimistic / pessimistic, hopeful / cynical, happy / sad, connected to / isolated from other people, etc.?
These days, yes, I do identify as an atheist. I see it as a positive thing in that I embrace rational thinking and skepticism. In the past I felt very hollow as a result of my ideas as they were tied to a wider process of questioning which I undertook at that time. It resulted in a lack of faith in many things, but I have learned over the years that a lack of god does not mean a lack of purpose – we can do that for ourselves. And that is a very liberating idea. I am somewhat cynical and sarcastic and often roll my eyes at human stupidity (in a wide sense). But ultimately I think we can, and should, use our reason to make the world as good a place as we can and to put compassion at the heart of all we do. That for me is very life-affirming and beautiful.
Why do you think most people in the United States believe in God, practice some form of religion, and do not identify themselves as atheists?
When people do hold religious beliefs, they tend to adopt those of their parents. That’s a simple explanation. If you are living in a society where a particular strain of ideology is being pushed, most people will end up accepting it at face-value. As to why America, a country supposedly founded upon 18th Century Enlightenment ideals should have undergone such a depressing regression in its national consciousness – I have no idea. I’m not enough of a social anthropologist to decide. However, I suspect religion serves the interests of many powerful social groups and serves to justify things like oppression and social stratification, so that’s probably got something to do with it.
Do most people who know you – family, friends, co-workers, etc. – also know that you’re an atheist? Why or why not?
Anyone who knows me well, sure.
Have you ever been treated differently by people because you’re an atheist? If so, please describe this in detail.
No, I don’t think so. Treated differently for other reasons yes, but not for my lack of faith in a god or gods.
Overall, would you say that other people’s belief in God is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?
I’m with Bertrand Russell on this, in that I believe the best reason to hold a belief is because you believe it to be true, not because it’s convenient. People may find it useful to cling to faith to help them through the bad times, but if the thing they believe in is false, then it’s hardly good practice to believe in it. The fact is, we don’t ‘know’ whether there is a god or not. But based on the lack of evidence for there being one, I don’t believe having ‘faith’ is in itself a virtue. It’s no different in practice from gullibility.
Overall, would you say that organised religion is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?
A – If you weighed up all the ‘bad’ things that have been done in the name of organised religion across the centuries they would, I am sure, outweigh the ‘good.’ Regardless of whether you think your belief is ‘true’ or not, waging wars, burning heretics, launching inquisitions and persecutions, burning books and so on is obviously deplorable – and that’s putting it mildly. I love the great architecture and music created in the name of Christianity for example, but it hardly makes me glad we’ve got it in the world. If we could be rid of all dogma and the price to pay was an end to the monuments created in its name, then it’s a price I would gladly pay. But of course, there’s no reason why secular causes could not have equally inspired the splendours the equal of, say, Allegri or Tallis.
If not a religious person, do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Why or why not?
Not in a literal sense of believing in ‘a spirit.’ Perhaps in a figurative sense of believing in an aesthetic element to life, or the appreciation of the intellect and the senses. But no actual ‘soul’ unless you mean the music – or the food!
Many people say that belief in God provides a foundation for their morality. As an atheist, on what do you base your morality? How do you decide what things are good or bad, whether you (or others) are behaving rightly or wrongly, etc.?
My own, human reason and an honest desire to do all the ‘good’ I can and by that, I mean avoiding things which promote harm and suffering to others. A sense of being inter-connected to others and a sense that treating people with respect, courtesy and consideration is generally better than failing to do so. Apart from anything else, it creates a happier and more stable society. Also the fact that goodness must surely be its own reward, as opposed to a mercenary desire for eternal reward or the horrible threat of eternal suffering. If the arguments of Christianity were anywhere near cogent they would not need such threats to support them.
Many people consider belief in God and religious practice to be essential for raising well-rounded children with a connection to a tradition that helps them to see meaning in the world. What’s your opinion about this viewpoint?
I am all in favour of young people being shown the broad spectrum of human thought and experience – and letting them make up their own minds. Many are raised in religious environments and abandon the dogmas at a later stage. I have faith in young people that their minds can grow of their own accord if they are given a fair and balanced view of the world which avoids preaching at them and attempting to fill their heads with claptrap.
For many people, belief in God purportedly provides an explanation of how the world came into existence and why we’re here. As an atheist, do you need or have answers or insights pertaining to these questions? If so, what are they?
I have no idea how the world ‘got’ here and while cosmology is interesting, it’s not really my field. But as I’ve often said, the forces required to build the universe were undoubtedly collossal in human terms. Why do we need to imbue them with consciousness? And if sentient, why would it crave constant praise and devotion? Surely an all-powerful god would be far less petty and tyrannical? I can only conclude that whatever the cause of the universe, it was either a) Entirely natural in nature – it involved forces and so on, rather than a conscious design or b) If there was a ‘designer’ he / she / it is nothing like the depictions in the Bronze Age mythology people call the Bible. There is no need for a ‘God of the gaps’ just because we don’t have all the answers.
For many people, belief in God is said to provide hope or comfort with respect to suffering in the world and to the inevitability of death. As an atheist, how, if at all, do you think through or come to terms with these things?
I’m not sure religion does provide comfort to those who are suffering – in some cases it may encourage suffering as desirable in the medieval fashion. Think Christopher Hitchens’ critique of Mother Theresa’s orphanages for example. As for death, the concept of ceasing to exist is not appealing, but the thought of living forever is far worse. I have no desire for my consciousness to continue on its path indefinitely singing praises or living in some kind of never-land. If this life is the only one we have it’s all the more reason to use it wisely and treat others well.