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The Unbeliever’s Dilemma

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A new atheist ad campaign hits the New York City subways next week. A group called the Coalition of Reason is sponsoring posters declaring that "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?" The campaign aims to give non-believing New Yorkers assurance that they're not alone. This seems unnecessary in New York; the anonymous donor might have spent his or her money better in some Bible Belt city, someplace where nonbelievers really do feel marginalized. But it did get me thinking.

The "million" figure comes from the famous 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which found 15 percent of respondents claimed to have no religious affiliation. In terms of New York's population, that points to roughly a million people. While the numbers may lack precision, there are certainly millions of Americans who don't believe in God. President Obama's acknowledgment of nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address was a small but significant gesture towards recognition of this population.

But awareness campaigns can go only so far. Nonbelievers in a country dominated by religious people will always labor under the near-impossibility of being able to prove a negative.

The term "atheist" and the question "Do you believe in God?" pose an oppositional conundrum similar to what occurs when I ask, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In asking the question that way, I'm stipulating that you have beaten your wife at some time in the past, regardless of whether you have since stopped. Similarly, if I say "I am an atheist" or "I don't believe in God," the very phrasing puts me in opposition to something I don't recognize as existing – theos, a god, a supernatural being.

Hence the term "atheist" defines me according to a belief system I don't accept; it places me in a world in which there may be an entity people refer to as "God," and in which I am something like a scientist who doesn't accept a certain theory because he believes the evidence is inadequate or has a rival theory. But that picture does not accurately describe a naturalistic worldview. In my conception, a naturalistic worldview by definition does not stand in opposition to some competing worldview. It isn't one of a number of possible theories posited to explain some phenomenon; rather it has defined a supernatural worldview out of existence. "Naturalistic" means "with reference to what is." In nature, in the world, in the universe, there are things that are. Of course, there is much that is unobservable to us, and perhaps some things that we will never observe. Still, these things are. Anything else is speculative or imaginary.

Saying "I don't believe in God" is somewhat better than using the term "atheist," because it at least refutes the superstition implied in the term "belief." But it suggests that the alternative, "believing in God," is somehow of equal logical weight. The oppositional conundrum still applies. The term "belief" itself is weighted. In its religious sense, "belief" means trusting in the existence of supernatural beings and events that one has not personally observed (and which, since they are supernatural, are also, to a naturalist, nonexistent, hence unobservable). To a pure naturalist, this kind of "belief" is an almost meaningless concept. Opposing it is like arguing with the wind.

Miracles are a prime example. These are fictional phenomena that, by definition, defy natural law, or else real phenomena that witnesses could not explain because the necessary scientific knowledge is or was not yet available. "Believing in" miracles means accepting a supernatural origin for (currently or formerly) unexplained phenomena. This was understandable in pre-scientific cultures. It is far less understandable today. Angels are another example – fictional characters firmly "believed in" by some of the same adults who are just as sure Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are made up. As with miracles, there is no logical explanation for such beliefs. Logic isn't relevant – people believe these things on faith. Thoughtful theologians often have no problem admitting as much.

Ideally, there should be (philosophically speaking) no conflict between science and religion. They operate on different mental planes. Unfortunately our terminology too often doesn't let us – believers and nonbelievers – see that. Instead we see things in terms of opposition and conflict. We "atheists" and naturalistic thinkers continue to struggle to find accurate and acceptable terms with which to describe ourselves, using a language whose very terms deny the reality we perceive.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • John Wilson

    I don’t believe in god.

    I don’t believe in NOT god.

    I don’t think ‘god’ is an interesting question.

    I don’t think ‘god’ is a valid question.

    What does that make me?

  • zingzing

    sports rock.

    or in british!

    sport rocks.

  • Irene Wagner

    *looks at watch*

  • Irene Wagner

    Not you, Matt. Jon. I hate sports.

  • Irene Wagner

    Well, if it comes down to a choice between being lumped inappropriately with Mao Zedong or George Washington Carver, you’ve made the right one.

    (Thanks for thought provoking article Jon. I should’ve worked that into my adversarial comments somehow!)

  • Change the etymology of atheist to say it’s in honor of Athena, goddess of wisdom.

  • Point taken, Irene. All the more reason to find a better word than “atheist.” I’m liking “naturalist,” as was discussed earlier in this thread.

  • if that what Technorati is paying, they are being cheated.

  • I don’t drink. But saying I don’t drink is offensive to me, because who’s to say I should be drinking in the first place? DON’T EVER REFER TO ME NOT DRINKING EVER AGAIN!!!1! [sobs]

    By the way, if anyone’s interested, my closet is full of nits that need picking. $3/hour plus bathroom breaks.

  • Irene Wagner

    ..who STOPPED resisting, I meant. That catch was just under the 6:30 Mountain Time Witching Hour.

  • Irene Wagner

    Jon, YOU quite eloquently expressed how your lack of belief in god does not equate to a belief in nothing: HOWEVER, still, your enthusiasm–if you’ll pardon the embedded “theos,”–for life in all its forms and the Scientific Adventure is NOT a defining characteristic of atheists.

    I have no doubt that you share that enthusiasm with a great many atheists. You DON’T share it with atheists who are nihilists, solipsists, and a hefty percentage of Cultural Revolution style Communists, so you’ll have to find some other term for THEM in order to distinguish between yourself and all those others who don’t believe in God or gods.

    And good luck trying to do it without using the “theos” root. 😉

    Dr. D. as you may have observed as comments editor, my brain basically shuts off after 6:30 pm Mountain Time, so I’ll have to continue these thoughts another day, another thread. Except to say: You aren’t nearly as old as some of the people who resisted the alleged “pre-programmed” inclination to believe in God. Or to father children, for that matter. AND with that, I think you’ll agree, its a good time to say, goodbye. 🙂

  • Ruvy

    It’s only a matter of time before laboratory techniques are found to take synthetic biological material, and get it reproducing. Then all those notions of souls and essences will start to seem rather naive.

    All this reminds me of the tale I heard many years ago of the scientists who decided that humanity no longer needed G-d and could get along without Him. And these were no dummies in lab coats. These were geniuses who could duplicate almost any kind of lab they needed in a small box. So a delegation of them went with their small boxes to the Mountain of G-d (Jebel el-Lawz in Arabia) ascended the mountain, and when they reached the top, camped out in the small cave that Elijah had used millennia ago, the same cave where G-d had shielded Moses from His Glory.

    G-d appeared to them in a Vision. They bowed respectfully and said that they believed that Mankind had come along very nicely and that they believed that G-d’s services were no longer needed. The Presence in the Vision nodded understandingly (that’s how that scientists perceived it) and Spoke.

    “If you no longer need My services, that’s fine with Me,” He Said. “I would just like to propose a small Test to see if you are actually ready.”

    The scientists waited expectantly.

    “I’d like you to make a man from dust, just like I did.”

    The scientists conferred among themselves, and G-d saw that they were preparing themselves to make a man from the dust, and He saw that it was good. The scientists prepared their lab, an admirable structure, and said “we’re ready.”

    G-d nodded and Said, “Go ahead, gentlemen.”

    They reached down to pick up some dust from the floor of the cave, and G-d Said, “Stop right there, gentlemen. You need to make your own dust.”

  • zingzing

    i’ve always like the concept of brahman. there is some thing that connects us all, but it’s not a god, yet there is a sense of divinity to it. it goes a little far for me, i guess, but it’s closest to what i can allow myself to think about believing.

  • …And that clearly, and unsurprisingly, there are some organisms – like Jon! – who resist that programming, just as there are some – like me – who resist the genetic impulse to bring forth progeny.


  • Basically, Irene, what Jon is objecting to is that the term ‘atheism’ implies that theism is the default position.

    I can see how this might be troubling in the same sense that the term ‘non-white’ might be perceived as offensive.

    And to respond to your response to me, I note that your objection is couched specifically in terms of the Judeo-Christian notion of God. I’m not saying that intellectual faith isn’t a conscious choice, just commenting on a scientific theory which has been put forth that the human organism is pre-programmed to believe in some sort of higher, supernatural power.

  • Irene, while I respect your POV, I must disagree when you say “There is NOTHING that defines those who reject the idea of a personal God or gods other than their rejection of the idea of a personal God or gods.” The fact that there ARE other things that define us was the whole point of my article, and Bob expanded on it eloquently in comment #29. It strikes me that you are willfully missing the point, which is that people who don’t believe in superstitions are (or can be) fully complete human beings and don’t need to “believe” in things beyond what we can observe.

  • Irene Wagner

    If atheists are proud to BE atheists, then they should be proud to be called atheists. There is NOTHING that defines those who reject the idea of a personal God or gods other than their rejection of the idea of a personal God or gods.

    Bob Lloyd, it is most certainly true that SOME “atheists have strong moral values…” but morality isn’t a sine qua non for atheism. Not believing in God or gods is the sine qua non for atheism.

    And to the “Bars” and their musings over “what a Christian is.” I’ll hold out a definition: it’s someone who isn’t ashamed to be identified with Jesus or to be identified with those who identify with Him, no matter which tradition of the Reformation or Counter-Reformation they may worship Him in.

    Finally Dr. Dreadful. While it is true that some have a reserved personality that will prevent them from becoming demonstrative Holy Rollers even after they’ve acquired a belief in God, there is nothing genetic about believing in God in a quiet, real way. Faith comes through the Word of God, not through a predisposition to see patterns–or “feel God”– that is stronger in some than in others.

    Otherwise, it is unlikely that those who came to God late in life (G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, ex-slave-trader John Newton, ex-all-around-rotter George Mueller) would have been able to switch world-views so radically.

    So, as late in the day of life as it for some of y’all (*ducks*) there’s still hope!

  • I too find the term atheist to be a linguistic trap which moves the ground onto defending against belief, rather than expecting belief itself to be justified. Surely the burden of proof is on the seller…

    Religion is just one branch of Woo, that collection of unfounded beliefs propped up by unreasonable theories about how the world is. Energy healers make up an energy called Qi to explain what they do, and religious people call on the image of a supernatural being to justify what they do. In the case of religion, the Woo is very deep-seated because it is culturally embedded and normally transferred by parents so it’s much more difficult socially to criticise it.

    In the case of ditching the notion of energy healing, we simply have to look at modern science and apply a bit of critical thinking, but to ditch religion, we have to go against family tradition, deep-rooted cultural institutions, ubiquitous religious imagery, linguistic expressions, and all the rest. Most people simply ameliorate the strictures, drop the more absurd statements, and acquiesce in a spiritual viewpoint.

    Some people prefer to talk about spirituality or essences and shift the focus from the deity to the individual, looking for some path, finding their personal way, but that really is nothing more than introspection and critical self-awareness. It doesn’t need any of the trappings of religion or spiritual beliefs. Of course, some people feel better thinking in this way; the placebo effect of prayer is very well known.

    I’m pleased for those who can use unfounded beliefs to make themselves feel better (I’ve never been able to placebo myself in that way). But, inevitably those unfounded beliefs will unravel in time. It’s only a matter of time before laboratory techniques are found to take synthetic biological material, and get it reproducing. Then all those notions of souls and essences will start to seem rather naive.

    Whilst we’ve developed brains that initially adopt a believing viewpoint (because believing our parents is evolutionary advantageous in a hostile primitive world), we have also developed critical faculties, a sceptical viewpoint, and the ability to refine our knowledge of the physical world. Religion clings to the former – the uncritical believing viewpoint, but it’s less and less useful.

    Atheists have strong moral values, rooted in society, based on individual responsibility, without the need for something mystical propping up its validity. That’s the kind of morality that’s needed in the modern world.

  • I’m coming to this a bit late in the game, but it is certainly something in which I have a great interest. It’s late, and I haven’t read all of the comments, so if I repeat points already made – well, so be it.

    I often think the problem is just one of semantics. Perhaps there just isn’t a single word or even a single phrase that adequately explains or describes the position of not believing in any god.

    More important, though, is just what it means to each individual. As noted in one of the comments I did read, non-believers are at least as varied in their “non-belief” as are most believers in their respective “beliefs.”

    So often so called “christians” refer to those of different sects or groups as not real or true christians. Who the hell IS a real or true christian.

    By the same token, we non-believers are a varied lot’ most of us with our own notions of just what that means. If you doubt that, check out my blog – Rapturenutballs.blogspot.com – not necessarily to read my drivel, but check out the “Atheist Blogroll” which has literally hundreds of individual blogs which are more or less dedicated to non-belief and non-believers.

    As to the bus ads in NYC, I say, why not? Churches advertise in all manner of media. Many send their minions door to door in their respective efforts to lure us all into their particular fold. Why shouldn’t athiest organizations advertise? Come one, come all!


  • In my mind, the word ‘naturalist’ has always meant guys like David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell – people who aren’t professional scientists but who nonetheless earn their living studying and talking about the animal/plant kingdoms.

    But you’re right, it does have that other modern meaning.

  • Heh. The non-clothes-wearer is a “naturist,” I believe. As for “naturalist,” to me it always brought to mind an old-fashioned term for “scientist,” but I’ve found that it’s being used more and more to mean someone with a naturalistic worldview, as in the Center for Naturalism, so yeah. Naturalist is looking pretty good.

  • Baronius, a naturalist’s primary interest is in the flora and fauna of this fine planet. Whether he or she chooses to wear clothes while pursuing this interest is neither here nor there.


  • Maybe that’s what the god-gene is about: the science of trying to understand it all is beyond us, so the designer (whoever, whatever, however that might have been) gave us a built-in fall-back position.

    Bit of a circular argument there, Stan, don’t you think?

  • Baronius

    Jon, this doesn’t sound like a dilemma. As a Catholic, I’m irked that “Christian” has come to refer to evangelical Protestantism. A lot of the conservatives in the BC Politics section complain about the loss of the word “liberal”. In the grand scheme of things, it’s no more than a frustration.

    Anyway, aren’t there words you can use other than “atheist”? Naturalist, materialist, secular humanist? None of those refer to an absence. Sure, if someone told me that he was a naturalist, I’d think he either holds to an atheistic world view or doesn’t wear clothes, so maybe that’s not the best word. But the other two are fine.

  • Chip – I haven’t read Hitchens’ book, though I’ve heard him talk about it enough that I don’t really feel the need. I’ve read Harris, Dawkins, et al. All have something of value to say, though there’s often more of a confrontational nature than I prefer.

  • STM

    Doc: “Unsurprising that we might perceive structure or direction in the universe where perhaps there is none”.

    Perhaps, here, being the key word. I’m at a loss to explain even how I’ve managed to keep one job for so long. The rest of the stuff is totally mind-boggling either way.

    Maybe that’s what the god-gene is about: the science of trying to understand it all is beyond us, so the designer (whoever, whatever, however that might have been) gave us a built-in fall-back position.

  • Did I miss it? Or has no one mentioned Christopher Hitchens’ book, “God Is Not Great”.

  • Chris and Jon:

    As you probably are aware, there is actually some scientific research which suggests that humans have a genetic predisposition to believe in a god or gods.

    Whether there turns out to be a ‘god gene’ or not, we most certainly are pattern-seeking animals, and it’s unsurprising that we might perceive structure or direction in the universe where perhaps there is none.

  • Clavos


    I find much to contemplate and think about in your #15, and I must tell you that you’ve really caught my attention in this thread.

    I hope we do all find that opportunity someday. In the meantime, I’m glad we have this medium.

    Thanks, Jon, for your really thought-provoking essay.

  • Doesn’t sound like a “dilemma” to me; looks like you’ve figured it all out (even without God)!

  • John Lake

    Jon Sobel,
    Odd that this topic is receiving attention today (and perhaps tomorrow…) at BC.

    I recently (about an hour ago) made some relevent commentary. The comment in part said:
    “…I wonder too if religion might be becoming a little obsolete. At Facebook the young people are challenging basic concepts. Can belief in unsubstantiated ideas ever be a positive force? Religion provides a “big stick” but consider the price. In Mogadishu, teen aged Islamic extremists threatened to behead anyone not willing to pray five times daily. Maybe we should consider a “religion” in which we are encouraged, or moved by propaganda, or early learning to be good people, respecting human life to the extreme, never allowing the injustice that we have seen at detention centers, injustice to human beings, but without the weakening belief in an overseer and judge, and the threat or promise of joy or pain after this life.”

  • Clavos,

    My perception is that all life is interconnected, which is already pretty amazing and worthy of respect. I think that it is this relationship that many people sense when they talk about belonging to something greater than themselves, regardless of what they personally attribute that to.

    There are a lot of meanings of the word spirituality, many of which are mystical gibberish.

    I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a more everyday, although no less awe inspiring, meaning to the word, akin to one of those listed, “Concern for that which is unseen and intangible”.

    You have really had a very hard time in recent years, although your commitment to and evident love for your wife has been an impressive display of that very unity. I don’t really know you well enough to speak with any particular knowledge or expertise, but at a guess I would think you are possibly simply worn out by your recent experiences. The human heart has a great capacity to regenerate itself though, which is why I think compassion and love are such powerful and in some ways the most radical and challenging of concepts.

    We don’t yet know enough about how this universe came into being and maybe we never will. However, we do know that the seeds of life were carried through vast interstellar distances and landed on Earth. I can’t provide a reference for you and may have some of the words wrong but I remember reading somewhere that it was the presence of these organic compounds that was required to change the pure basaltic volcanic rock into granite and other stone, which in turn lead to the creation of land and so on through the processes of evolution over time to us and all we survey today.

    That is pretty impressive and would mean that all life is directly connected, just as much of our DNA is found in most other species.

    I don’t know if that would amount to any kind of spirituality that could be formulated, but it certainly leads me to have a certain reverence for all life.

    I don’t know if any of these notions resonate with you, particularly given your situation, but maybe there is a tad of comfort and meaning somewhere in there.

    It’s quite hard to address this kind of stuff in the comments space rather than in person and possibly with a few drinks involved. Maybe we’ll all get together some day and shoot the brown stuff face to face!

  • Clavos, it doesn’t worry me that others seem to experience something I don’t. Religious people (“faithists”) are using their imaginations in directed ways, that’s all. Directed by upbringing, by others, or by their own desires and needs. Some people want or need that (or merely accept it for social or other reasons), others don’t. It’s when people try to convert others that things get bad, and the same goes for inflicting irrational beliefs on impressionable young minds…. but that’s another article.

  • Clavos

    I have been following this thread with considerable interest.

    In particular, I find your comment #10, Chris, very interesting in light of your demonstrated strong antipathy to the beliefs of those you call faithists.

    Your #10 is the first time I recall seeing you allude to something greater than ourselves in the universe (I admit I may have missed previous references), and I find it of particular interest, because, as a nonbeliever myself, I do not have the same sense of awe you mention, nor do I admit a “greater,” particularly in light of the horror my wife endured for so many years.

    It worries me, because I really seem not to experience what everyone else professes, and I wonder if there is something lacking in me, especially now that even you confess to contemplating a form of “spirituality.”

    Of course, I see such things as the fury of a storm at sea as “awesome” (in the original sense), but the power of a hurricane, for example, is easily explained by meteorology, and thus, holds no “spiritual” meaning for me.

    I doubt I could even define spirituality in terms that would be meaningful.

  • Hi Jon,

    Sure, but many words have unfortunate alternative connotations, we just need to reclaim it!

  • Doc and Jeanne, I don’t believe that “the need to believe is as powerful and fundamental as the drive to reproduce and (or) attain sexual gratification.” But then, it depends on what you mean by “believe.” I might say that we have a deep-seated need to feel connected to other people and the universe, and that this often involves a feeling of communion with something ineffable. I suspect this is a function of the simple fact that our imaginations go beyond our physical capabilities, which leads to frustrations, yearning, and emotions that we can’t fully ground in perceived reality – due to our own limitations as physical, mortal beings, not to the actual existence of anything supernatural.

    Christopher, I understand your wanting to use the term “spirituality” instead of religion but I have problems with that word too, because it has so many connotations of new-age claptrap!

  • Doc, I am one of those who find the term atheist irksome, simply because it is a term that comes out of a faithist framework which seeks to elevate monotheism. Contrast that with the absence of a term to denote those who don’t believe in Astrology for example.

    I would also dispute your assertion that religion is an essential part of human nature. I reckon Jeanne is closer when she refers to a “profound connection to an Other and a sensation that there is something larger than oneself”.

    This is literally true, of course; all life is linked on a fundamental level, both throughout this planet and beyond, which opens the door to a more profound sense of a unifying spirituality, which is a better term for this persistent impulse than religion, which is usually a human created system of control or manipulation, whether for good ends or bad.

    Perhaps that explains to some degree the connection between spirituality and sexuality, because good sex also involves a sense of something “larger than oneself” and many times also results in the profound act of creation of a new life.

    I forget who now but somebody smarter than me once wrote, forgive the paraphrasing, that life is the phenomenon of the universe exploring itself. Given that it seems likely that the seeds of life on this planet have been carried here from space, this seems quite literally true and contributes to the genuine sense of awe I feel when contemplating such issues or even enjoying the glory of nature when out for a walk. As the song goes “we are star dust”.

    Even a simple act such as walking on the beach with my wife and our dogs, as I will be in about two hours from, serves to remind me of these profound yet simple truths.

    So I contend that it is spirituality that unites us and that religion as it is most commonly practised is basically exploiting these genuine feelings of reverence and awe, offering up partial explanations and, at the time these notions were first framed, probably well intentioned attempts to explain the world around us.

  • Dr. Dreadful (#6) — This statement is very important, true and interesting:

    “…The overwhelming majority of cultures in recorded history have had a belief in one or more of these dudes as a central feature. …Religion seems to be as natural a part of human nature as sexuality.”

    I agree with you that the need to believe is as powerful and fundamental as the drive to reproduce and (or) attain sexual gratification. Perhaps because they’re both about profound connection to an Other and a sensation that there is something larger than oneself. It’s no accident that many cultures have linked sex and faith; for some it’s an open, free vision of the essential needs, and for others it’s a guilt-ridden way to justify sexual pleasure.

    Thank you for reminding us of this universal reality — especially at a time when puritanism and hedonism seem to be engaged in a medieval kind of battle.

  • This whole thing is amusing to me. Christianity has so permeated “atheism” that the “atheists” need to “witness” their faith with huge ads on New York subways. Don’t worry boys – once you’ve killed off Jesus in the Christians, the Wahhabi wil be right behind you, shoving their variety of murderousness down your throats. Oh, this is going to be fun to watch!! It happened in England – now it’s happening in New York….

    “I could hear Satan laughing in delight”
    [Don Maclean – “Bye Bye, Miss American Pie”]

  • Irene Wagner

    …or Dudettes. As far as labels go, I like “person who doesn’t believe in God” and “person who does believe in God,” with the emphasis on “person” in either case. “Atheist” works, and even “faithist” would, when they’re used as simple descriptions, rather than epithets.

    I heard about an AA-like group for atheists that focuses on commitment to and reliance on Reason rather than God. I do believe in God, and in some ways hearing about a group that shuts God out makes me sad, but I wouldn’t want to stand between ANYONE and sobriety, so I wouldn’t campaign for such groups to change their approach.

    Conversely, if “God-talk” and “God-think” encourage and strengthen other people, and help them to stay sober, then is it really a good idea to eliminate all references to a Higher Power from 12-step programs?

    The ideal would be ONE group where the needs of BOTH kinds of people were recognized and somehow, accommodated. If a group that has “Live and let live,” as its motto can’t figure out a way to do that (and according to STM, it sounds like they have) there’s little hope for the rest of the world.

  • While I can understand how the term ‘atheist’ might irk some of those who don’t subscribe to the notion of an all-powerful creator/deity, the term is quite understandable considering that the overwhelming majority of cultures in recorded history have had a belief in one or more of these dudes as a central feature.

    Religion seems to be as natural a part of human nature as sexuality. For my money, therefore, the term ‘atheist’ is no more objectionable than the term ‘asexual’.

  • Thanks, Jon and Joanne, and heartening to see that your article has helped enlarge the conversation.

    STM: I am (you should excuse the expression…) a great believer in AA and its spin-offs. It has and continues to help millions and during my long association with a couple of 12-step programs, no one ever tried to convert me or push me or reject me because of my ideas about God, be it good orderly direction or something more. But over the years, I watched a number of folks drop out because they found the God talk/think of the group grating. One might say it was just an excuse to not stop doing whatever it was they came in to stop doing, but I think that for at least some it was a genuine impediment. If I hadn’t had a smart, open-minded sponsor, I might have been one of those driven out the door.

  • Thanks for the great comments, all. Jeanne, the kind of “faith” you describe is exactly the kind that just about anyone, including me, can easily accept and live with, if not positively share. As you say, it’s when “faith” becomes about “conformity, control, and fear” that it becomes both distasteful and threatening.

    To me, there is so much to be amazed at and awed by in humanity and the natural world – both in what we can directly perceive, and in what scientists have discovered about the world of the unseen – that to require any other source of wonder or awe seems, in the age of science, superfluous.

  • STM

    I’m with Joanne … Great piece, great comments.

    On 12-step programs: The beauty of 12-step programs done properly is that they actually don’t ask you to believe in anything you don’t want to believe in.

    An atheist friend’s interpretation of GOD in the 12-step program he was in for many, many years before he died a few years back: Good Orderly Direction.

    No spiritual being, and no expectation that he should beluieve in one.

    That interpretation was good enough too for his fellow AA-ers … and good enough to keep him off the grog for 40-plus years.

    Provided the 12-step program is being run by its members as first intended by Bill Wilson and his mate Dr Bob, with no hard and fast rules or musts (who says someone who’s drunk can’t turn up to an AA meeting???), no one really should be telling anyone anything – and especially what, or what not, to do, possibly except for making the quiet suggestion that there’s never any need to pick up a drink (or whatever) no matter how much the ice-cream’s hitting the fan.

    I understand, however, that there are what I call 12-step “nazis” around who want to give everyone the benefit of their “recovery”.

    The truly “well recovered” would be having a laugh about that – but never making a comment about it.

    Or making comments about the quality of anyone else’s “recovery”, for that matter.

  • Excellent article, and excellent comment.

  • Jon — An excellent article and I completely understand and commiserate with your dilemma.

    As powerful and specific as language [well used] can be, it still largely fails us in the debate between believers and non-believers. Even those terms are inadequate/inaccurate, because not all believers and non-believers believe or dis-believe the same things!

    I found this linguistic inadequacy profoundly annoying when I was participating in a 12-step program (which, by design, relies heavily on belief) and the issue of diversity/dissent was poorly addressed by terms like Higher Power and “God as you understand Him,” which, of course, presumed faith in some kind of personified super-being — probably male. I had a hard time dealing with it, and it certainly drove away many people who would otherwise have benefited from the support and camaraderie of the group.

    For 10 years, I have been an ordained Interfaith Minister — not particularly active, but that’s still one of the things I am. What my life experience has taught me, along with my study of the world’s major (and minor) religions, is that I am a non-believer in the sense that I do not believe in a personified super-being, nor do I subscribe to the mythology of any particular religion. My ministry is really about the comfort of mystery

    That said, I do consider myself Jewish — not because I believe in the Old Testament God or the Bible’s parables, but because the moral, intellectual and [some] cultural traditions of Judaism provide a measure of comfort, even sanity, in my life.

    I think it bears remembering that the modern-day antipathy between believers and non-believers has really exacerbated over the past 40 years – which is to say, when Christian Fundamentalism gained power in the U.S. and replaced respect for the basic principles of Christianity with the outright stupidity of taking everything in the Bible literally. Concurrently, Islamic Fundamentalism was doing the same thing in its sphere, and Jewish Orthodoxy began a resurgence of ideas and practices that progressive Judaism had rejected long ago.

    Having faith does not mean being rigid, literal, or even accepting the existence of a personified super-being. Rather, faith can simply mean an inner, emotional, intellectual acceptance that, as the Bard said, “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” It can be as simple as a belief that all living beings and things are somehow connected, and that our willingness to embrace this connection and to use it as a conduit for creating interpersonal intimacy and social change may not be explainable, but can be real.

    But none of this really addresses your dilemma, does it? If even the more abstract and open definitions of belief that I just described go against your grain, then I suggest you use the simple words “I’m not a religious believer.” Then, don’t argue with those who won’t accept that as a legitimate, final answer/position. End the conversation. Walk away.

    When believers are pushy and strident, it ceases to be about faith anyway; it’s about conformity, control and fear. People who really believe in whatever it is they believe in feel no need to have everyone else agree with them, to justify their faith. They’re confident/content with their own opinions – and if they’re not morons, they recognize that their beliefs are opinions.

    Belief and non-belief should be personal matters of conscience and consciousness. When it becomes contentious, it ceases to be spiritual and becomes political.

    When that happens, God help us!