A journey to reason.
It is no surprise that this is an atheist site and proudly so. Whatever the Taliban or others may think about atheism to the contrary it is, or ought to be, first and foremost a commitment to reason. But for many people reason is a position they arrive at after years of journey.
One may have religious “conversions” but atheism is rarely an over night experience. One doesn’t suddenly “see the light” or as the faithful may assume, “see the darkness” all at once. It is a process. And it can be a very difficult process. Most of us, especially in the US and Islamic nations, are acculturated to be religious. The commitment to reason in the US is, these days, a weak one
I believe that the tendency in religion, especially in monotheistic religions, is toward fanaticism and fundamentalism. The reason for this is simple. Religion only really seems tenable with a fundie interpretation. Once one begins travelling down the road of reason and tries to make religion rational you start surrendering religion bit by bit. If you refuse to think too deeply you may be able to sustain that position. But otherwise you are trapped.
Look at the Bible. Does it, or does it not, mean what it says? If it means what it says then you have to move into fundamentalism of one kind or another. If it doesn’t then you have no real ability to sustain belief. Christians either say the Bible IS the word of God or they says it contains the world of God. If it IS the word then you are in fundamentalism. If you say it merely contains the word you have another problem?
Which parts are the word and which are not? How do you know the legitimate from the man made? Where do draw the line. It’s a process that makes the book almost meaningless from a theological perspective.
I can accept it is the work of men. I have no problem with that. As such it need not be true. It may be useful. It may have truths in it but it is not THE truth. But once you take it as THE word you have problems. You have to go through intellectual gymnastics to avoid being trapped by the viciousness of writings from thousands of years ago. It says you should kill witches though there is no such thing and it means killing innocent people you brand witches in the end. It says you should execute homosexuals. It says all sorts of barbaric things.
The typical individual in the West, mainly due to secular thinking, knows this is absurd. So they have excuses for not taking those mandates literally. They may argue it is no longer applicable or it really means something other than what it appears to say. They rely on hidden meanings or try to turn it into some sort of metaphor. To take it literally is to plunge into the Dark Ages in a very real sense. So they try not do do that with the particularly ghastly passages.
But if one part is a metaphor with no literal meaning then why not the other passages? How do you accept some literally and others parts figuratively? Why not take all of it figuratively? And if it does not mean what it says but has a meaning you have to figure out then does it really have a meaning? Can there ever be an incorrect version of it? Or does it merely become a text used by individuals to justify any position they want to justify without having to prove it?
So I think the Bible either needs to be taken literally or one is headed in the direction of endowing it with no meaning at all or perhaps, with any meaning you want. It thus ceases to be God’s word and becomes your word
And what is done with the word of God is done with God as well.
Karen Armstrong is a smart lady. She was a nun. She is a history writer. She is still religious. But she is moving away from a more orthodox, literal view of religion to one that is more rational. She says she wants to “make sense of life” and is “looking for its meaning and how we can have a better humanity.” I feel for her. Who among us doesn’t want that? I know I do.
She wants to save religion from fundamentalism. Alas the nature of religion is inherently fundamentalist but she does not yet want to admit that. Many people on the journey to reason are in her same position. There is just too much that have to throw out and it can be scary and frightening to surrender the assurances you have from faith. It is so easy to accept answers that are already formed and so hard to think things through yourself.
Armstrong loves religion but hates fundamentalism. She says you “can’t equate true religion with hatred.” She says of the fundies: “If these people went to a psychiatrist, they would be diagnosed with a psychological disorder. The fact that so many people subscribe to this shows a profound unease, fear, a feeling of impotence, rage and pent-up fury.”
But these are people who also feel safe. They feel as if they have answers. They now have a security and a feeling of belonging. And there is no lack of feel superior to those who may well be their superiors. I remember riding on a church bus with some fundamentalists going past the million dollar apartments on Chicago’s Gold Coast and having one low class fundamentalist with little education and less likelihood of ever being a financial success, look up at the rich people and saying how he is superior to them because he has Jesus and those “poor” people up there will burn in hell. There is no lack of envy in the true sense among such people.
In the Washington Post Armstrong is asked if she believes in God. She responds like most non-literalist Christians do these days: “It’s a mistake to define God. I gave it up a long time ago.... To define literally means to set limits. That is a travesty to try to define a reality that must go beyond human thinking.”
I have Christian friends, even ministers, who grapple with this problem all the time. And they end up journeying in a direction where their term God is devoid of meaning. Think of what Armstrong is saying here? Let me take her to mean what she said. I ask her to tell me about her God. What can she do? Not a whole lot. She can’t tell me anything that gives the term meaning. Meaning means definition and she says that is a mistake.
The non-literalist is clearly more humane and sane than the fundamentalist. But holding on to a god that they can’t or won’t define is itself useless. No doubt I could talk to her but would we be able to say anything?
In the end, if you continue your journey, you reach a point where you realize that you can not tell the difference between your concept of God and unbelief. If you take away the concept of a literal meaning, or a definition of some sort you end up with a god who isn’t there. They end up with a package that has no contents but they simply can’t part with the package anyway.
There is a fear that if one says , “I am an atheist” that they will lose something important. All I can do is tell them that is not the case.