I’ve been an atheist for roughly 20 years. As a child, I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household. My parents believed (and still do) in the god of the bible, but their belief wasn’t attached to any particular denomination. Unlike other families, we didn’t attend church services*. I wasn’t part of any church groups. We didn’t read bible verses at home. Heck, I don’t recall ever seeing a bible in the house (though I’m sure there was at least one). From what I recall (my memory regarding finer details is spotty the further I go back) god was not a subject that was often discussed at home. During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we sat at the table and said grace, thanking god for giving us the food we were about to eat and praying that he’d ensure our continued health and happiness, but that was about it. This was par for the course for pretty much my entire childhood. As a teenager, I had some vague belief in god. If someone had asked me, I’d have said “yes, I believe in god”, but more than that? There wasn’t anything more than that. When I got to college, that ill-defined belief in a deity was challenged once I took Philosophy 101 and 202. It was in those classes that I began to explore morality and ethics. Questioning the morality of an a particular act led me down the path to atheism. Just as importantly, in those classes, I was exposed to other religions and learned that humans have created gods for thousands of years. By the time I’d taken my break from college in my sophomore year, I was an atheist. I realized that humans had been creating deities for a very long time and those gods so often served to explain aspects of the world we couldn’t explain. That bright flashing light in the sky when it rains? No idea what that was. Nor any idea where the rain came from. But chalk it up to Jupitor or Thor and you have an “explanation”. Does something happen to us after we die? No idea, but Hel and Valhalla provide an “answer”. As I began to learn about the similarities between religions, I began to think that if those were all invented, there’s no reason Christianity couldn’t have been invented either. Plus, the modern Christians had no more evidence to support the existence of their god than the ancient Greeks had to support the assertion that their gods existed. That was the primary reason I rejected a belief in any god or gods (there were other, slightly less important reasons, such as the problem of evil and my growing belief that there was nothing wrong with me or anyone else being gay-contrary to many religious teachings). I say all of this bc my lack of a belief in any higher power(s) had (and has) fuck-all to do with having faith. And that’s why I have a hard time understanding the perspective of Ijeoma Oluo, an atheist who recently wrote an article for the Guardian titled ‘My atheism does not make me superior to believers. It’s a leap of faith too‘
Right from the jump, the title stands out to me. I’m not sure if she wrote it or not (apparently article writers often do not write the titles of their pieces), but either way it’s just not an accurate representation of atheism. Faith is ‘believing in things despite a lack of evidence to substantiate the existence of those things’. If you believe an undersea creature exists in Loch Ness…if you believe Bigfoot exists…if you believe in chemtrails…your belief in these things is based on faith. There is no evidence that airplane contrails emit sinister chemicals, that large, hairy, ape-like bipedal creatures roam the Pacific Northwest, or that a large, undersea cryptid dwells in Loch Ness. It takes a leap of faith to believe such things bc there is no evidence in favor of their existence. The same applies to believing in all flavors of gods, be they from Norse, Mesopotamian, Aztec, Incan, Indian, Greco-Roman, Christian, Jewish, or Islamic mythologies. To be an atheist typically means that one does not believe in the existence of a deity or deities. But lacking a belief in a higher power does not take faith. The information conveyed by the title of the piece is “I don’t believe in the existence of any god and that is a leap of faith”. I find that confuzzling. Because that’s like saying “I don’t believe a deity exists and that’s because I believe in things without evidence”. That’s a nonsense sentence. It is *because* there is no evidence for any deity that I don’t believe in them. It takes faith to believe in a deity. It takes *no* faith to not believe in them. I can’t wrap my head around such an illogical position. As I continued reading the piece, I discovered that the title does appear to reflect her beliefs:
But my conviction that there is no God is nonetheless a leap of faith. Just as we have been unable to prove there is a God, we have also been unable to prove that there isn’t one. The feeling that I have in my being that there is no God is what I go by, but I’m not deluded into thinking that feeling is in any way more factual than the deep conviction by theists that God exists.
(I wonder if Oluo feels the same about all the other gods humanity has created. Does she think it takes a leap of faith to not believe in them?)
Atheism is not based around knowledge, but belief. Those words do not mean the same things. “I believe god exists” and “I know god exists” are not equivalent statements. In the former, no fact claim is being made. It is basically an opinion. In the latter statement, an assertion *is* being made. This is a factual claim being made about reality. When such a claim is made, one can devise tests to determine if that assertion is, indeed true. To illustrate it slightly differently, let’s look at a non-divine entity like elves. If someone tells me they believe elves exist, I may or may not inquire why (depends on the situation), and I’m sure to think that’s a bizarre belief to have (because there’s no evidence that elves *do* exist), but it’s not a claim being made. It can’t be tested against reality. OTOH, if they say “Elves exist”, they’re making a positive assertion about reality (similar to saying “trees exist”). That claim can be tested. And guess what? Based on everything we know about reality, and all the evidence that has been accumulated, there is no evidence that elves exist. That doesn’t mean they absolutely don’t exist, but then it’s supremely difficult to disprove the existence of something. So when Oluo speaks about proving or disproving god, she’s moving away from a personal belief or opinion into the realm of knowledge and fact-claims. Her views on atheism and faith aside, she makes another point-one that I *do* agree with:
It’s easy to look at acts of terror committed in the names of different gods, debates about the role of women in various churches, unfamiliar and elaborate religious rules and rituals and think, look at these foolish religious folk. It’s easy to view religion as the root of society’s ills.
At one point, just over half a decade ago, I was arrogant enough to think that religion was the root cause of many (if not most) of the ills that befall humanity. I thought being an atheist made me (and other nonbelievers) superior to theists. I looked down on theists from the lofty heights I thought I dwelt in. Then I got rhetorically smacked back down to earth. My illusions were shattered because I discovered the existence of atheists-more than a few, sadly-who are every bit as homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, racist, sexist, and misogynistic as the hateful theists I saw on television or online (thankfully, my meatspace interactions with most people have been bigotry free-well outright bigotry-free). I began to realize that believing or not believing in supernatural beings, forces, energies, or locations does not make one better than anyone else. I also began to develop a more nuanced view of theism. Or rather, theists. Looking back, I think my problem was viewing theists as if they were their religious beliefs. Since I held such disdain for those beliefs, that disdain carried over to them as people. Which wasn’t fair, bc I wasn’t judging them by their character, but rather, by their identity-something I’d opposed others doing to me based on my sexuality! Instead of seeing all theists as backwards or inferior bc they held unfounded beliefs, I began to see them as people first. People who were more than just their religious beliefs. This change in perspective helped me see that while some theists are horrible people, it isn’t their theism that makes them awful people. After all, if believing in a god makes people shitty human beings, then there are billions of shitty human beings on this planet and I don’t believe that’s the case. While there are a great many bigoted, shitty theists, there are also a great many theists who fight for various social justice causes. Those activists fighting for immigration reform…those in the streets protesting the horrible treatment of racial minorities by the criminal justice system…those fighting for LGBT equality…there are a lot of religious believers fighting for justice and against inequality. That realization made me ashamed that I ever judged them as inferior simply bc they believe in a god. It taught me a lesson in humility.
With that lesson in hand, I came to believe (as I still do) that religion is not the cause of the social ills that plague humanity. Even if religion were eliminated tomorrow, trans people would still be shot and killed across the planet, women would still be denied control over their reproductive anatomy, and racial/ethnic minority groups would still be fighting for recognition as human beings with the same rights as white people. Yes, various world religions play a role in sustaining the myriad forms of social injustice, and I do believe that eliminating religion would be a step in the right direction in terms of making the world a little bit better. But as an end to itself? No, that’s not going to be enough.
While I wish Oluo had simply left out her muddled views on atheism and faith, the overall point of her article is a good one. She’s correct when she says:
If we truly want to free ourselves from the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic tendencies of society, we need to go beyond religion. Yes, religion does need to be examined and debated regularly and fervently. But we also need to examine our school systems, our medical systems, our economic systems, our environmental policies.
Indeed. Religion is but one of many systems of oppression that elevate some at the expense of others.
*I’ll be 40 in about 6 weeks and in my time on this planet, I may have been inside a church 5 times.