Wednesday, February 4, 2015

First Contact – Part 18 – Atheism

Growing up I was surrounded by family and friends that were Christians of one sort or another. Well, at least I think I was. There might have been a few nonbelievers amongst them who were afraid to come out of the closet for fear of retribution. Even my Uncle JD, my mom’s brother, believed in God despite not living like it. I can recall him saying to me when I was a teenager, “I’m going to hell.” I was taken aback and asked him why. He said, “Well, everyone knows the Bible is true, but I don’t live by it. So, I’m going to hell.” I queried him as to why he wouldn’t live by it if he really believed it was true and thought he was going to hell. He responded simply, “Because I don’t want to.”

As a young person I was somewhat fearful of atheists. I think it was because I associated anyone who was opposed to God as a supporter of Satan. However, when I got older I came to realize that atheism simply meant not believing in God. It didn’t mean the person was a follower of Satan. In fact, most atheists are in reality asupernatural, meaning they don’t believe in any supernatural beings, including Satan.

Speaking of Satan, as an adult I decided to read the definitive book on Satanism by Anton LaVey, “The Satanic Bible”. As it turns out, LaVey’s brand of Satanism doesn’t even believe in Satan. They just believe that Satan best personifies man’s true nature, that of a carnal beast. They celebrate that rather than condemn it. I can remember sitting in the upstairs bedroom of my in-laws house reading “The Satanic Bible”. Suddenly a thunderstorm came up with high winds, bright flashes of lightning, and booming thunder. I became a bit fearful, thinking that God was letting me know I shouldn’t be reading that book. But deep down I knew it was just a coincidence. The storm passed quickly and I continued to read the book without incident.

I suppose my first true brush with atheism was when I began reading books by Ayn Rand. Ayn was the founder of a philosophy known as Objectivism (which I will cover in my next post) and a declared atheist. However, she was not like many of the so-called militant atheists that wanted to deconvert the religious world. She just considered atheism to be a default belief given the lack of evidence for God. Her primary thrust was to develop a philosophy of life that was suitable to mankind.

Upon becoming more comfortable with the idea of atheism, I began reading other books by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, David Mills, Robert Ingersoll, Paul Kurtz, and others. But there was one book I read that really struck me. It was “Losing Faith in Faith” by Dan Barker. Dan was a preacher of the Gospel for 19 years, but eventually came to believe that the Bible was not the Word of God. His story concerning his transition was very similar to mine. However, his transition was much more difficult than mine since his whole life and livelihood was wrapped up in the Christian world. His change cost him his job, a number of friends, and his marriage. He later married Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose mother had founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Currently Dan and Annie Laurie are co-presidents of the FFRF.

I mentioned in my previous First Contact post that my former Email pal, Rachel Ramer, sent me a copy of “Finding Faith” by Brian McLaren for Christmas 2000. Well, I sent Rachel a copy of “Losing Faith in Faith” by Dan Barker that same Christmas. Just as I opened an Email dialog with Brian, I also opened an Email dialog with Dan. I soon discovered that Dan was going to be debating Rubel Shelly at the upcoming Atheist Alliance convention on Easter weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. At that time Rubel Shelly was the preacher at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, which was originally known as the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ. I knew I had to attend this convention. I informed Dan that I would be there and we arranged a time on Easter Sunday morning to get together for a private conversation.

On my solo drive to Atlanta, I was delayed by a bad wreck on the Interstate. I barely made it to the opening dinner on time. The entire weekend was very fascinating. I recall a conversation I had with a man at the opening dinner. I informed him that I was not an atheist, but rather an agnostic. In other words, I wasn’t convinced there was no God, but I also wasn’t convinced there was one either. The man asked why I thought there might be a God. I told him that one thing was the existence of the Universe. Science teaches that the Universe had a beginning and apparently will have an end. Yet, we cannot account for how this vast Universe could have come into existence from nothing. The man responded that there were some exciting advances in the field of cosmology that could potentially explain how this could have happened. I told him that made no sense to me.

He said, “Well, you see, there were these zero fields…”

I interrupted. “Wait. You have already violated your premise that everything started from nothing.”

He countered, “No, you see, these were ZERO fields.”

I responded, “I don’t care what kind of fields they were. They were something. Nothing means no mass, no energy, no fields of any kind, no potentials, no laws, and not even any space or time. Nada! Nothing!”

Anyway, the conversation never really went anywhere. We each had differing views about what constitutes NOTHING.

Another memorable event was one of the breakout talks by an atheist who was somewhat of an activist in that he was willing to challenge religious people to public debates. He told of one debate he had with a preacher. The preacher, speaking on the topic of the importance of Jesus from a moral standpoint, said, “If it weren’t for Jesus, I might cheat on my wife.”

The atheist responded, “So you are saying that you would be willing to have an affair if you didn’t follow Jesus?”

“Yes, I might.”

“Personally, I don’t cheat on my wife because I love her.”

Excellent point.

Many more interesting talks and conversations ensued. The highlight, of course, was the debate between Dan Barker and Rubel Shelly. The host for the debate was from Alabama and was quite the comedian. Throughout the debate he was interjecting bits of humor that cracked me up. Here's one example. Dan told the story of talking to his parents after converting to atheism. They asked him to fly back to California to talk to them about it. After Dan finished, the host said that after he became an atheist his parents asked him to fly to California also, but his parents were in Alabama at the time.

One person who spoke before the debate really made me think. He said that a Christian once asked him, “What is it like not believing in God?” The atheist responded, “I assume you know what it’s like not believing in Zeus, correct? Well, it’s like that. You see, you and I are not that different. There are thousands of Gods that people have believed in that you don’t believe in. Well, I just believe in one less than you do.” I had not looked at it like that before. Everyone is an atheist as concerns all Gods except their own.

The audience was asked to submit one question for each debater beforehand on an index card. My question to Dan was, “What would it take for you to become a believer in the Bible once again?” My question to Rubel was, “What would it take for you to give up your belief in the Bible?” Surprisingly, both my questions were presented to the debaters.

Dan’s answer was something like this, “Well, if the Bible had some precise predictions about the future such as ‘On August 15, 2001, at noon, a meteor will strike the Holiday Inn in downtown Philadelphia’, and then it actually happened, that would really get my attention.” Me too, Dan. Me too.

Rubel’s answer was something like this, “If someone could point out an obvious irrefutable contradiction in the Bible, that would give me pause.” I seriously doubted this statement. There are contradictions in the Bible, but there seems to always be a way to rationalize them such that they disappear. For example, talking about the same point in history, 2 Samuel 24:1 says, “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’”, and 1 Chronicles 21:1 says, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” You can’t get much more contradictory than to have one person claim that God did something while another person claims that Satan did it. Yet, these types of contradictions get explained away all the time. For a New Testament example, see one of my earlier posts.

On the Sunday morning after the debate I met with Dan Barker as planned. I got him to sign my copy of his book “Losing Faith in Faith” and gave him a copy of my book “Beginnings to Endings”. We had a nice conversation about a number of different topics.

So where do I currently stand on the issue of atheism? Well, pretty much where I stood almost 30 years ago upon my deconversion. I’m a theistic-leaning agnostic. I don’t know one way or the other whether God exists, but a number of things about the Universe lead me to think that some kind of power beyond our natural realm must exist. But then again, it may be that we just simply don’t understand enough about the cosmos to at this point in time to provide natural answers to our questions. After all, at one time people thought lightning was caused by angry Gods, but upon learning more about it, we discovered there was a perfectly natural explanation that did not require even one God.

One thing that bothers me about some atheists is the way they talk about religious people. They make fun of them and say things that basically boil down to, “How can anyone be so stupid as to believe in the existence of a God?”  But I have also met Christians that talk about atheists in such a way as to basically boil down to, “How can anyone be so stupid as to not believe in the existence of a God?” Rubel Shelly mentioned during the debate that one thing that broke his heart while attending some of the breakout sessions was the derogatory way some of the attendees talked about Christians. But, he also said that he was aware of Christians that spoke in a similar way about atheists. He said that that animosity between Christians and atheists broke his heart because he felt it hampered conversation between the two groups. I suppose his willingness to miss Easter weekend with his church to attend a meeting of atheists was his attempt at trying to break through that barrier.

I have observed both sides of the fence I straddle, being involved with both atheists and Christians. In reality all these people have much more in common than not. Both atheists and theists have hopes and aspirations, find meaning in their work and families and friends, watch TV and go to movie theaters, read books, eat food, breathe air, go to school, play and watch sports, and so on. In other words, we are all human. If it weren’t for these common human traits and our willingness to concentrate on these rather than our differences, I suppose my wife’s and my marriage would not have lasted after my deconversion. But, my personal experience tells me that if we can look past our differences and see our common human desires and even foibles, we can still love one another. The trouble begins when we start viewing “others” as being sub-human for one reason or another.

One day after my change to agnosticism my wife told me that one of the things that bothered her about my new beliefs was that I must no longer consider her to be a rational person as far as her Christian beliefs went.

I said, “You are correct, I do consider your belief that the Bible is the Word of God to be irrational. But overall I know you are a rational person. You have to be to be a math teacher. But I also don’t think you would believe anything that you thought was irrational. Therefore, you must think that I am irrational for being an unbeliever.”

She thought about it a bit and said, “Yes, I guess that’s true.”

Here's the way I look at it. We are all humans, which mean we are not omniscient. We are all struggling to make sense of our existence in this vast Universe we find ourselves a part of. Our DNAs are different. Our brains are different. We have all had different experiences that have influenced the way we think about things and how we understand the world around us. Let’s give each other the benefit of a doubt when we find ourselves disagreeing over something. In other words, let’s recognize each other’s humanity rather than demonizing each other.

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