Sunday, September 23, 2007

Challenges of being an atheist

I have difficulty sometimes with the challenges I face as an atheist. That's not to say I would ever stop being an atheist -- I wouldn't. Whatever challenges I may perceive or experience are minor irritants or simply philosophical quandaries compared with the certainty I feel about the non-existence of deities. And yes...I am certain. 100%.

I am lucky to live in a country where being an atheist is rarely considered to be a scandalous thing. At least in my own experience. I'm sure there are plenty of reformed theists out there in the rest of Canada who have experienced dreadful repercussions as a result of denying the existence of god. This might be especially so in the eastern part of the country and most especially in Quebec, where Catholicism is rampant in the more rural areas of the province. Montrealers, however, are among the most worldly and sophisticated people we have in this country and I'm sure the percentage of atheists there is as high as, or higher, than anywhere else in Canada.

Being from one of Canada's larger urban centres, I have never experienced more than mild surprise from others when I reveal that I'm an atheist. More typically, I'll find out that my interlocutor is also an atheist or an agnostic. Agnosticism is especially high in this country. Hardly anyone I know claims a philosophy more religious than agnosticism. My gentle, polite compatriots are a surprisingly doubtful lot. Canada is a very good place to live for those of us who doubt or disbelieve.

But that doesn't mean we don't have philosophical and practical challenges to face now and then. And the challenges become greater when, like me, you begin to explore more deeply into the world of atheism, when you start devouring everything you can find on the subject. Being only human, all this reading and listening and exploring leads to the inevitable: questioning.

I'm not saying I'm beginning to doubt my position as an atheist. I'm not and I don't. My convictions on the matter are stronger than they've ever been. What I'm saying is that by probing more deeply into the questions that arise from a study of atheism, I sometimes come up against conundrums that, as a a simple person with a only college education and a curious mind can't quite get my head around and don't have the knowledge or experience to solve.

Take for instance one of Richard Dawkins' most hotly held beliefs: that expecting children to follow the religious beliefs of their parents is child abuse. Well, firstly, I have to say that his position is far too stubborn for me to espouse, even though I agree that children should be given the opportunity to make up their own minds about the matter when they're old enough to do so.

My problem with the idea is that, well, what else are parents supposed to do? Leave their kids with a babysitter when they go to their place of worship? Hide all the crucifixes and bibles and holy things away in a dresser drawer so the kids won't be influenced by them or become curious until that unknowable future day when someone (who?) decides they're at the right age to form their own opinion? Is a pious person supposed to refrain from talking about god or saying grace or using expressions that reveal their theism, even in the privacy of their own home just to avoid the possibility of "contaminating" the kids before they're ready for it?

Seriously...keeping religion from kids is simply not going to happen, for many reasons. First, it's just not practical. If everyone who went out of their homes to worship had to leave the kids with a babysitter while they were gone, who's going to be taking care of the kids? Atheists, agnostics and people of different faiths. Hmmm. See a problem there?

And what happens when you try to hide things from children? just makes them a lot more curious to find out what's going on, and for sure you're going to find some day that the dresser drawer in which you hide your religious paraphernalia has been riffled through and there's peanut butter stains on the pages of your bible and cookie crumbs in your crucifix. By hiding these things, you'd just be making the kids even more curious. And why should parents have to go into contortions to prevent their own children from sharing in their religion?

I realize I'm arguing on the theists' side right now, but some things are just too unrealistic to expect. It'd be like asking George Bush to form a coherent thought without a speechwriter writing it down for him. I'd like children to make up their own minds, but I just don't see how it's possible to shield them from any religious influence (if they live in a religious family) until they can make up their own minds on the subject. And while I'm at it, is it any better to lead a child to believe there is no god before they have the resources to decide for themselves?

I think this is one area where we atheists will just have to step back and let the wisdom that comes with time and age help children find their own way to whatever belief is most comfortable for them. As an atheist, I would hope that parents will at least expose their children from an early age to the fact that there are other belief systems out there, including, where applicable, the concept that some people do not believe in any god at all. But even with no pressure from parents, most children will choose whatever belief system their parents's just how people are.

Ironically though, my feeling is that if you simply didn't mention religion or god at all, most kids would wind up as atheists. In this day and age, there simply isn't any reason to invent god on your own. There's enough evidence out there to explain the world satisfactorily for most children. They wouldn't need a made-up figure to stand in for what they can see right in front of their eyes or find out with a few keystrokes on the Internet. Of course, I'm speaking of children in a society like the one I exist in. It's not within my power to discuss how things are for kids in foreign cultures. Kids get over the concept of Santa Claus easily enough - after the initial trauma wears off. They can get over god too.

Another challenge I find myself grappling with is the question "what would the world be like without gods?" would the world look, what would be the impact of the death of religion? What would we replace it with, if anything? People require certain things in order to feel that life has meaning, purpose and sense. Ritual is one. Community is another -- we're social beings and no matter how sophisticated and modern and technologically advanced we think we are, we are subject to our instinctive craving for community.

Ritual is not really a problem. It's as easy to create rituals for life passages for atheists as for theists. In fact, many aspects of theistic rituals do not require a belief in god. We already have civil marriage. Funerals in many ways are a-religious except for the prayers that are said. Most other milestones in life can be marked quite easily with parties or solemn reflection or whatever the appropriate response is...without prayer.

Community is another matter though, and this is where I stumble when trying to imagine a world without god. Even the most ardent introverts at some points in their lives seek out the company of other people. Hermits are exceedingly rare in all societies so it's not even logical to combine them into the mix as proof of anything this way or that way. Let's face it...churches, mosques, synagogues, temples...they all serve as gathering places for community. What do we atheists have that would replace that?

Not believing in something is not a good basis upon which to build community. Free thinkers don't like to be boxed in or labeled. Flesh and blood atheist clubs tend to be small and, I would guess, rather plastic, with membership changing regularly as people come and go.

Community is necessary. Will there be something to replace the places of worship as centres of community when religion finally starts to die out? What will those places be like? Will they be like special interest clubs? Quite literally, the Catholic church for instance is a special interest club...they just have a huge membership, very complex structure and a hierarchy of participants that makes it more like a small country than anything else I can think of. Where would all the members of the catholic church go if religion suddenly went away?

Also, religious institutions often hold up the charity work they do as an example of how bad the world would be without them. No-one to "house the people living in the street, no-one to shoe the children with no shoes on their feet" (Steve Miller Band). Non-theistic charities have to start making a point that they're not a part of, nor reliant on, any faith-based institutions for their existence. But it still remains that someone would have to take over from the faith-based charities in a non-theistic world because if suddenly they weren't there any more, the level of suffering in the world would certainly rise. That's not an excuse to justify religion, it's simply a statement that if they don't do it, someone else will have to...and that's entirely doable.

Then again, perhaps in a non-theistic world, there wouldn't be as much need for charities.

Something to think about in more depth another time.

If any readers of this blog know of any online resources which specifically address the ideas of letting children choose their own path, or what the world might look like without god, please share them with us in the comments. I would certainly be interested in learning what other more erudite writers would have to say on those topics.


Felicia Gilljam said...

Religious parents can't be made to hide their religion from their children, that much I think even Dawkins would agree on. What we CAN work for is a society where no worldview in particular is foisted onto kids forcibly. There's a big difference between having a crucifix and a bible sitting around at home and having your kids go to sunday school and telling them they were created by God. I for one was never told by my atheist parents that there are no gods - they let me come to that conclusion all on my own.

Btw, I think you mean theist when you say deist. Deism is a specific kind of religious belief - look it up on wikipedia for more information. A conventional Christian isn't a deist, they're theists.

Patti said...

Thanks for your comment, Felicia! I agree with your thoughts on raising kids to make up their own minds. And thanks also for the heads-up on deist/theist. I've fixed it. Guess I'm showing off my newbieness at this atheist writing thang! :-)