Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't tell me you're praying for me

This is a more or less hard-and-fast rule for this blog: anyone who says that they're praying for me or any other "unsaved" person will not have his or her comment approved, depending on what he or she seems to mean by that.

Some "live and let live"-style atheists may even welcome it as just another kind thought that differs from any other only in a trivial choice of religious language, but I am absolutely unable to honestly take it in such a way if I know something else is meant by it, and the distinction is not an idle one I am willing to let slide.

If "I'll pray for you" means "I'll pray that you join my religion before it's too late to save your soul", then I can only take it as an insult and a willful refusal to even try to understand anything you've read here. Of course I can't stop you from praying for me or anyone else in this particular way; by all means, go ahead if you really can't help it. But please don't tell me that you're doing it. Trust me when I say that in showing such restraint, you will be sparing me the kind existential despair one feels when one tries to make a phone call to a living, thinking, responsive human being and instead receives an answering machine message one has already heard a thousand times or more. It would hardly be an exagerration to say that I've heard it all before... and that is not a challenge to come up with something I haven't.

This is harder to explain than I thought it would be, but I will try.

It seems as if it is difficult for many believers to appreciate exactly how insulting and thoughtless such a gesture is. Allow me to explain how it more or less looks from my point of view: I have never seen anything that even begins to suggest to me that any particular religion ever known to humanity is correct. Neither fossil evidence nor historical evidence nor anything else has ever done anything to confirm that anything other than human feelings, speculations, and repetitions of hearsay is needed to account for the existence of religions, nor have I ever felt anything at all like an "inner voice" greater than myself or anything like that. All I have to guide me are my own instincts, my own personal preferences, my own reason, the things I've tried to learn from others, and my own ideas about what kind of world I want to live in, and my best estimates of what the likely consequences may be of the actions that I take.

I feel that torture - let alone everlasting torture - can be nothing more and nothing less than sadism, and that calling such a thing "justice" is not a justification, and that it is special pleading, and that it does not even begin explain anything. I do not accept that burning "morally impure" things is a noble end in itself, and I don't even know what that means. All I know is that torture is a disturbing idea and that I don't want anyone subjected to it - myself, or anyone else; that bringing Hitler back to life just to pour hot acid in his mouth would do nothing to make anyone anywhere happier, more loving, more artistic, better musicians, smarter, better at cooking, or anything else.

I know that the justice system we have in the USA is, in its unrealized, idealistic best form, is not based on vengeance, but on the best interests of general public - that is, an enlightened justice system does not hold "throwing the book" at "evildoers" as its goal, but rehabilitates offenders when possible, keeping them confined and out of the public only because it acknowledges that it isn't so trivial or even consistently possible to rehabilitate. Punishment needs only be severe enough to discourage potential offenders; going beyond the point of diminishing returns on this front would not make anyone's life better, except maybe to satisfy a sadistic itch or two.

It is with complete lack of comprehension that I ponder the idea of human who could earnestly praise a god who would administer torture, especially in response to an "offense" like failing to worship him. He can either torture someone, or he can not; the idea that there is a natural "order" or an abstraction like "purity" or "perfection" that makes burning the "unclean" necessary is just an arbitrary pile of empty abstractions that never makes any sense to me, no matter how often it's all reworded and repeated. A god who tortures people is not a god I want to have anything to do with. If there were such an omnipotent god, and the only way to avoid his torture were to sincerely love him and worship him, then I would have to conclude that the universe itself had gone mad, and that all of humanity were trapped in a frantic race to see Who Will Be Eaten First in a world where madness itself is salvation. I'd like to live indefinitely as much as any other self-respecting vertebrate would like to, but I neither see any reason to think that this god in particular is real, nor would I begin to know how to worship it if I thought that he were.

This is why Christopher Hitchens, who was diagnosed with esophegeal cancer last year, when asked if a deathbed conversion might lurk around the corner, responded, "not while I'm lucid".

When a Believer prays for someone like Hitchens to come around to their religion, these "good thoughts" they are thinking are for a person that in no way resembles the person he or she attempts to pray for. The person prayed for is either some romantic abstraction - at the bottom, a lost little lamb who just hasn't opened his or her eyes yet - or a demented shell of a previous consciousness, worn down by disease, fear, trauma, altered states of consciousness, and possibly even brain damage, all in a perfect storm conjured up by the almighty for the sole purpose of replacing a strong and disbelieving person with a battered, empty, and eager vessel ready to be led around by the hand like a child by the first grownup with a comforting word to say; at any rate, I'm not so sure that such conversions away from an examined position are even the least bit common. The most celebrated cases are spurious.

In either case, I want nothing to do with it, whether your prayer is for an imaginary me who lives only in your fantasies, or an actual me who has been contorted in horrible ways. I do not want to hear about your "good will" in this matter. Do not pray that your god will change me; if you must involve gods in this at all, ask your god whether he really intends to go through with all this hellfire business, or if perhaps he has been misunderstood by one of his human scribes somewhere down the line, or if the religious texts might leave the issue ambiguous enough to be honestly interpreted differently.

What I'd like to hear, if you sincerely believe so, is, "I don't think you're going to Hell." And if you believe that, but what you mean by it is, "I think you'll come around to my religion before it's too late," then I don't ever want to hear it.

I already know that millions of people around the world think that I'm going to Hell at this rate - my parents think so, my grandfather probably thinks so, the first girl I ever kissed very well might think so, at least a couple of my grade school teachers likely think so, each church youth leader who has ever tried and failed to explain to me how you know god is real probably thinks so, now-grown kids whose houses I used to sleep over at think so.

That much I know. And here is the part that I don't know, the thing I can only feebly attempt to speculate about: how do they go along with it? Some of them may not know that I'm an atheist and am unlikely to change that. Others may know. What do they think of this afterlife - will they lose all memory that every unbeliever they had ever known had ever been? And then will they live together forever blissfully even though their happy family tress are missing so many links in the generational chains, but no one notices or bothers to comment or pay any mind to their whereabouts? Or are they perfectly well aware of who's missing and where they are and what's happening to them, but their bliss will be impenetrable to such concerns? Or are they simply assuming that the night is young and that we'll all get saved eventually - except, maybe, for just a few lowest of the lows? Or do they simply think it's all part of The Plan and try not to think about it, meditating on how much better it is to "lean not on your own understanding"? I honestly don't know how a believer could take the thought experiment of Heaven and Hell seriously and get out with their faith intact, if they go through the trouble of thinking of people they actually know and claim to care about in the scenarios, both the tortured grimaces of the damned, and the radiant smiles of the Chosen whose bliss can't and won't ever be punctured by anything that goes on downstairs.

I'm well aware that millions of minds can't and won't be changed on this matter, and I don't expect to have much of an impact. Just don't remind me, and especially don't dress it up as if it were nothing more than a friendly gesture. I can't take it as such; at most, I can try to be polite on the outside, if I'm feeling unusually charitable. All that you can hope to accomplish by reminding me of all of this is to aggravate my pessimism about humanity.

I can't be alone in feeling this way. Some atheists might honestly not be bothered it at all; I do not know to what extent that's really true, and to what extent that is just appearance. But I am bothered by it every time, and for good reason. Such comments will not be approved here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Hello. You can call me Watt. I have decided to remain anonymous for the time being, but I was born and raised in the USA, born in 1982, and am one of the many white, middle-class, straight, male atheists on the internet writing what he thinks about things. I hope to give you a better idea of who I am in a sort of literary sense as I write more posts.

To start off, I'd like to describe what I have in mind for this blog. When the topic being discussed is atheism, I often find myself in an odd situation when it comes to the "new atheists" - though I agree with something like 85-95% of what they say and write, something strikes me as lacking holistically about the general approach of writers like Richard DawkinsPZ Myers, and Christopher Hitchens*.

This is not to say that I think they do more harm than good; quite the opposite. After all, I belong to the choir they preach to, and I indulge in a vigorous, scathing venting session quite often myself on Facebook or in a casual blog where I mostly choir preach to even more like-minded people in turn. But there's more to my appreciation of "new atheist" writing than the mere fact that I sometimes indulge in the style myself for fun, catharsis. Before I started reading people like them and their predecessors like Bertrand Russell, I was an agnostic on the fence about a very "born again" style of Christianity in which the choice is, quite literally, between putting your faith in Christ and burning in Hell forever. I knew that I was not "saved", and when I tried to figure out how I could know for certain that Jesus was real, I often began to have thoughts like those of the "new atheists", but I would shut them down half-formed and hover over their edges like a kid afraid to jump into a swimming pool, poking at the surface with my toes and feeling unsettled about its being there in the first place. I knew that I was supposed to have faith and walk over it as a spider or a savior walks on water, but I could do neither, nor could I swim in it, for that was unthinkable; I know that really I was supposed to trust Jesus to do this carrying or something like that, but this path was always completely incomprehensible and the explanations of adults only served to make it more so. Only through reading atheist writings - with their unapologetic tone and all - did I find a well-established and well-traveled intellectual and emotional ground to build a world view. I had only known this ground as a pathological, lonely terrain traveled aimlessly by me and me alone with shame, doubt, and confusion, but knowing that others had thought similar things and carried them out into complete sentences, paragraphs, essays, books, and lives changed everything - I had the right to take my own thoughts seriously, to regard doubts and reservations on their merits and evidence, rather than according to a spoon-fed set of moral answers in the back of some divine textbook with which I must eventually come into agreement at the end of whatever labors I took. There is no telling how much longer I would have fumbled along waiting for the light had I continued to hold the assumption that faith held the answers and that my epiphany to clear it all up just hadn't come yet.

Yes, a lot of the so-called "new atheist" writing is choir preaching - but it is not pointless or in vain, especially for those choir members who do not yet know what choir they belong to. When in no uncertain tone, the thoughts and attitudes of an unabashedly atheist community are broadcast clearly, humanly, and in detail, the faithless listener who hears and reads can no longer romantically pity himself as a Doubting Thomas, but instead finds himself growing a spine, some self-respect, and maybe even the infamous chip on the shoulder "new atheists" are so famous for having. At least that's how it was for me.

No, I don't want to write off the "new atheist" movement or scold them on their tone. I merely wish to fill a different niche here. I do not have much of an interest, at least in this space, over "the God debate" - I'm more or less tired of it, and know fully well that it just goes in pointless circles after a certain point, and I am nowhere near being "on the fence" on such matters anymore, and haven't been for the better part of a decade. I am not here to rally the atheist troops against the latest initiative of James Dobson.

What I more specifically have in mind is something like this strikingly human post on Reddit, in which Michael Behe's** oldest son discusses his recent deconversion from Christianity (sample quotes here), and other young people share similar experiences and their attitudes toward the religion they were raised in and later rejected. These kinds of feelings and experiences are undoubtedly very common, but not the kind of thing that is likely to come up in the persuasive format common to the so-called New Atheist bestsellers of the '00s. Or to cite another example, there is Blankets by Craig Thomson, which is so loose and directionless, defying well-trained narrative expectations and cliched notions of "destiny" precisely because it is faithfully adapted from real life directly to the page, but communicates life experience so much more honestly precisely because of its matter-of-fact lack of a "moral" to take home.

This is what I'd like to do: write clearly about my experiences in a way that makes it that much harder to write off atheism as reckless, unexamined, thoughtless, hateful, pitiable, one-dimensional, rebellious, or selfishly contrived out of short-sighted convenience. Atheists are human, and many of us have considered religious questions much more seriously than we're likely to be given credit for from the pulpit on Sunday. In order to undo the caricature, there is no substitute for providing the real person.

I am not here to be a shill for atheism and claim that it's wonderful and fulfilling and the best thing that could ever happen to you or anyone; I am here simply to be honest about it, so that there can no questioning the sincerity or motives of whatever I say. Whether atheism is a happy view or not is a race in which I have no horses. I just want to speak honestly about it, and to be regarded on my own terms in a light in which I would be able to recognize myself, not as a Doubting Thomas or a prodigal son or a silver-tongued devil, but as an ordinary person who sees no reason to believe in gods and probably never will.

To my knowledge, the exact niche I'm looking for isn't quite filled yet, but in terms of non-polemical atheist writing in general, Greta Christina comes highly recommended - in fact, I might skip over a great deal of "What (Many) Atheists Think And Why 101" material, secure in the knowledge that a somewhat comprehensive resource exists already with which I agree on most points. Her blog strikes a very nice balance of maintaining an even-handed and civil tone while remaining firm, clear, and even uncompromising. Her writing avoids the siren call of polemical rhetoric that makes for good choir preaching, but is sure to alienate all but the most questioning, open-minded, thick-skinned, fair-minded and agnostic of the believing, half-believing, and trying-to-believe crowd. I can't recommend her enough.

In the near future, I hope to include a little more required reading, which I expect everyone to read before commenting, seeing as I'm looking for a very particular kind of discussion here of a very literary quality. All comments will start out screened, and I will unscreen them only if I find them to be keeping with the goals of this blog. This is not a debate forum, nor is it a place to fish for men, nor is it a place to unload volleys of polemic against religion. Though heartfelt criticism of religion has a place here, I expect rhetorical flourishes to serve the goal of clarity, not that of hammering nails into a coffin. Clearly expressed profound disappointment is allowed and encouraged, but barrages of insults and anger are not. Stories about how a reader came to be a believer might, in some cases, be acceptable, but something about such a story should be unusually honest in a way that distinguishes them from the fairy-tale conversion stories I was subjected to by the dozen in my childhood. Similarly, discussion of how get along with or otherwise relate to the atheist in your life will not be allowed to go in the "how can I get X to come to church and/or find Jesus" direction.

At times the difference between open conversation and raw polemic can be ill-defined and hard to discern, and I reserve the right to make judgment calls. I cannot guarantee that writers and readers will not be upset by what I choose to leave out or include, respectively.

* - There are nice exceptions; Hitchens also edited the more even-handed The Portable Atheist; some of Myers' more effort-intensive posts are very thoughtful and even delve into ruminations on mortality, but he updates a LOT and can't write like that all the time.
** - An excellent NOVA documentary on the Dover trial can be found here.