Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Atheism is not a threat

I understand why atheists speak out against the dangers and injustices of religion. I firmly believe we should be standing there with them or, ideally, getting there first.

What I don't really understand - or perhaps more accurately don't agree with - is religious folks' fear of atheism.

When I was younger, probably sometime after high school or perhaps early college, I visited church on an Easter Sunday with my family. Our pastor was of the Veggie Tales Christianity variety, so I quite enjoyed going. Additionally, he was a huge proponent of delving into the context of the passages he covered, and of seeking out alternative sources so help supplement or augment biblical study.
The youth groups at that church were another matter entirely, but those are stories for another day.

It was a sunrise service, which is quite popular in the south where going out before dawn in early April won't result in being frozen to death. I had come down from university for the holiday, and felt terribly groggy. The sermon started with our pastor in somber, almost mournful tones--something very strange for him in general, and for an Easter sermon in specific. He announced news that evidence had been discovered proving the new testament was fabricated. Christ never existed, and there was irrefutable evidence that the gospels were simply made up.

He was really convincing, and I was really tired.

I sat there for a moment, falling for what he was saying. He said it with profound conviction, and I could tell the people around me were starting to get uncomfortable. I'd been learning quite a bit from an Old Testament professor at my university about a lot of the historical context and facts behind the scriptures, so I was already in the mindset to believe that everything was simply made up. I don't remember what metaphor he was trying to construct, or what the lesson might have been. I do remember sitting there, quietly, simply reacting to the information.

The bible wasn't true. It wasn't historical or scientific fact. So what now? What changes, for me?

By this point I'd completely lost track of anything being said in the sermon. I looked down at my bible, stuffed full of old sermon notes, the spine cracked, the cover warped and bent – and with some unidentifiable stain I really can’t place the origin of to this day. I looked around at the well cared for bibles around me. The men typically carried theirs in leather bound cases with zippers, while then women favored soft floral prints. Their copies certainly looked as though they were treated the way a holy book ought to be treated. Mine looked like a textbook the week before finals. I sat in this new reality, and thought “what now?”

And I realized – nothing. Nothing really changed.

I don't mean that I decided to simply ignore any and all evidence. Quite the contrary, I was in a frame of mind that made me accept this new reality as fact almost immediately. So I sat there, and I pondered the implications of this news while the people around me shifted in their seats, fidgeting in their dresses and slacks. The bible is made up, certainly not divinely inspired or infallible. Jesus wasn't the christ and isn't god.

And yet, again, nothing changed.

I shouldn't say nothing changed. Quite a bit changed, on an internal, spiritual level – but that’s a bit private for now. I suppose what I mean is, how would my behavior change? Would I reject the lessons I'd learned from my studies? No, not if they were independently valuable.

And there it is. If what you believe stands up on its own as Good and Truthful, then what threat does atheism pose? Your worldview, the structure by which you live your life, can only be undermined by change if it was vulnerable to begin with. New information should augment the foundation of your perspective, not destroy it or flip it on its head utterly. If reason and evidence cause you to question what you know, this is wonderful. Lashing out at reality only inches you closer to that breaking point in which you’ve distorted it so far beyond recognition that it shatters, and you’re left to try to assemble the pieces. Or, you know, they give you a television show on a certain right wing news network. It depends on whether your twisted reality is marketable, I suppose.

People of faith, I think, need this moment. Whether it leads them to a purely secular worldview, causes them to "convert" to another religion, augments what they believe to basic theism or agnosticism, it's a significant moment. Strip away the authority and look critically at what's left. Take away the strange, inward twisting undercurrent of "it says because it says." What remains valuable based on your experience in the world? What's still standing on the foundation of love, generosity, kindness, acceptance, curiosity, and joy? Hold onto that, whatever it is. Abandon the rest, as it's created a wall between you and whatever relationship with the divine - or lack thereof - connects you to the universe.

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