Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reflections on 'What Atheists Want' by James Metzger

"What Atheists Want" by James Metzger, published on BeliefNet, is one of the best articles on atheism I've read in a while. At least, it happens to be one that closely tracks with and articulates my own position. The second paragraph, in particular, represents what I believe and feel:
"I am not yet convinced that atheism itself delivers good news of the caliber warranting an organized campaign of conversion. I simply find the suggestion that a benevolent deity presides over the cosmos implausible...I have many religious friends, and I really like them just as they are. To ask them to surrender their religious convictions is to ask them to change something fundamental about their very selves – and that, I think, would be a great loss, especially if it should also mean a diminution of their kindness, equanimity, or zest for life."

Theist and atheist beliefs can improve different people's characters and moods and can have these effects at different times in their lives. Belief systems serve complex purposes in our lives as we move toward them or away from them. Two people may express their worldviews in similar language but experience them in radically different ways; vice versa, they may articulate different worldviews, yet live similar lives. Of the people I most admire, some are religious, some are not, and, for some, "It's complicated." I certainly would not want everyone to reflect my own beliefs back at me, for then how would I grow, and how would I help them grow? Still less would I derive joy from imposing my beliefs on others. I enjoy sharing evidence and arguments, and if I have reason to think that one belief system is more correct or useful than another, I will promote and defend it. But I have little interest in telling others what to believe out of the mere desire to feel powerful or right or out of fear that my own mind might be changed. I rather enjoy acquiring new, significant information that leads me to change my mind, and I can appreciate people who are different from myself. I might negatively judge someone who I perceive to be stuck on a particular piece of disinformation or illogic and who I believe ought to be able to see through it and is simply not curious, brave or persistent enough to let go of it. I would not negatively judge someone simply because they use a different set of language, concepts and symbols to describe their understanding of the world.

There is one part of the article I would elaborate on to feel fully comfortable with it. The author writes:
"If Christians are entitled to trust their perception that God exists, then atheists are justified in trusting their perception that God does not exist...Of course, both experiences of reality can’t be correct. They are, in fact, fundamentally incompatible."

Since the article is about humility and admitting the limits of our knowledge, I would amend this statement to point out that, in this scenario, both The Christian and The Atheist might be incorrect. Yes, the same set of metaphysical beliefs can't be true and false at the same time. But what if the metaphysics in question haven't been described well or are beside the point? There are surely more than two possible worldviews. There are not only people who embrace Christianity and those who explicitly reject it. There are also those who were raised Jewish, or Hindu, or Jewish and Hindu, who wrestle with accepting or rejecting those cultural frameworks and assumptions. There are those whose theism and atheism is stable over time and those who change their minds frequently. Remembering the diversity of possible positions is key to maintaining humility. It is easy to see the shortcomings in someone else's worldview, but that does not mean that one's own worldview is any more perfect.

Vesper sparrows in the nest. Kati Fleming, 2013, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

So, yes, in a binary debate over the factual question of whether God exists, "both experiences of reality can't be correct." But who approves the definition of God within this debate, and who limits the methodologies of finding the answer to those created and lived out by only two human minds? When the field is opened up to diverse human experience, and when the nuance and metaphor of our language is revealed, we often find that our positions are, on some level, compatible with each other. That's how we end up with friends whose belief systems seem opposite to our own on the surface, but who we "really like...just as they are".

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