24 April 2013

Freethought vis à vis religion

On New York's Upper West Side lived an assimilated Jew who was a militant atheist. But he sent his son to Trinity School because, despite its denominational roots, it’s a great school and completely secular.

After a month, the boy comes home and says casually, “By the way Dad, do you know what ‘Trinity’ means?  It means the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

The father can barely control his rage. He seizes his son by the shoulders and declares, “Danny, I’m going to tell you something now and I want you never to forget it. There is only one God. AND we don’t believe in Him!”


One of my more interesting experiences online was playing coed nude Wesson Oil Twister in Irish Gaelic on Paddynet one night.  It was the female language instructor’s idea, with me and four other female participants.  That has nothing to do with the subject in question here, but I probably got your attention.

I’ve been an atheist since roughly the dawn of the new millennium.  I’ve been a skeptic and freethinker much longer than that and had to frequently suspend my disbelief in order to continue believing.  My Religious Views on Facebook listed Stone Cold Atheist as my religious status, the “Stone Cold” added after I received numerous requests to sign petitions to put prayer in schools or keep “In God is Our Trust” as the U.S. national motto.

I’m currently in a situation where I lack choice about having fundamentalist Christian beliefs shoved down my throat on a daily basis.  As noted elsewhere, I’m homeless and the only shelter in Chattanooga is run by a coalition of churches of that stripe with a satellite church of Bob Jones University at its center.  To keep from losing IQ points, I began going to Mass every Sunday at the nearby Episcopal Church after being subjected to the enforced attendance at said BJU satellite.

Most Episcopalians are not even aware of it, but freethinkers have been an integral part of the Anglican Communion since the 17th century, when the rationalist Latitudinarians of the “Broad Church” kept the High Church Anglo-Catholics and Low Church Evangelicals from slaughtering each other en masse.  In the early days of freethought (dated to the 1600 CE burning alive of Giordano Bruno by the Holy Inquisition for proposing that there were countless other planets in a non-geocentric universe with nonhuman sentient life), there were very few actual atheists, most instead being what were later called deists, like Thomas Paine.

I started calling myself an atheist around 2000 because the concept of “God” is a hypothesis with zero evidence of its validity and a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  That and the fact the cosmology under which the Jewish-Christian-Muslim deity was conceived is primitive beyond the point of being infantile and that without that supporting cosmological framework the whole house of cards collapses like the World Trade Center after its supporting steel frame was melted.

Not long after returning to the Episcopal Church, I changed my Religious Views on Facebook from Stone Cold Atheist to Freethinker.  In a small part, I have to admit, this was out of a sense of diplomacy, but the major reason was that my denial of the existence of “God” has little to do with belief or disbelief.  To me, both those are irrelevant. 

Freethought is about logic, reason, and empiricism, basing its view of the truth on facts and science rather than on tradition, superstition, and belief (or disbelief).  I’m a freethinker before I’m an atheist.  Or as George Carlin said, “For a while I thought of myself as an atheist until I realized that was a belief too.”  For some atheists, their position really is no more based on objective facts than the beliefs of any religious believer.

Back to the streets.

For the first several months of my homelessness, my main route between the Community Kitchen and the Rescue Mission lay along the section of East 14th Street dubbed Crack Alley by my fellow homeless.  A couple of years have passed since that stretch of byway deserved that appellation, but the name has stuck.  Still, some activity of that kind does exist there.  One of the things I always did passing through the neighborhood was to greet everyone outside who even glanced as I passed by, whether resident, crack dealer, buyer, or the rare streetwalker.

One afternoon, after I’d waved at one dealer and asked how he was doing, he was so surprised that he replied, “God bless you”.  To which I replied, “And the same to you”, which was the polite thing to do, of course.

Of all the freethought quotes in my album for those sorts of pics on Facebook, my son’s favorite is this from Carl Sagan: 

In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be.  Their motives are in many cases consonant with science.  If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness.  None of us comes fully equipped.

For we atheists and freethinkers to deny our relationship with, and many debts to, our religious predecessors and current siblings is as illogical and irrational as creationists denying the relationship of Homo sapiens sapiens to Australopethicus sediba.  Religious beliefs often go to the core of an individual’s identity in the same way as does their sexuality. 

Empathizing with and understanding the deeply-held religious convictions of our brothers, sisters, and cousins, our fellow Terrans, in no way diminishes unbelief. 

Anyone who can hear Jeff Buckley or Hannah Trigwell sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or Josh Groban sing “Oh Holy Night!” or Leigh Nash sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and not be moved has no soul, and I mean that in the same way as saying anyone who listens to Nina Simone sing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” or Tom Waits sing “Cold Cold Ground” without being moved has no soul.  Soul isn’t a religious or metaphysical thing, it’s a human thing, even if it is extinguished from the universe at death.

We skeptics, atheists, and freethinkers need to be more tolerant of our fellow humans who believe, as long as they are not trying to impose those beliefs on us or anyone else.  As Maria Maltseva said recently, “Generally speaking, I can't help but wish that we were simply kinder to one another. How hard can that be?"

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