When it comes to faith, I make it clear: I do not believe in the “supernatural” because sometimes nature really is that weird.
That isn’t to say I buy it all but I do have an appreciation for metaphors and symbols. One of things that drew me to atheism was how quickly it changed people’s perceptions of the way I talked about religion in my cross-faith analysis of texts. I realized in middle school at a Catholic institution that it didn’t make sense to take any scripture literally. Even in the 6th grade I could understand that the world several thousand years ago was a completely different social context that I nor anyone else alive right now could even fathom. We can offer conjecture from archaeology and ancient texts but we don’t know what it would have really been or felt like to have lived during early human civilization. I was willing to consider that there were probably a lot of great things about believing ancient ideas in ancient times but I didn’t know what any of it had to do with my life.
I love reading religious texts, though. I always have and probably always will. I have an abundance of bibles and I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between them. Being a theologian always struck me as an interdisciplinary field that very well could have entertained me as a career. To be a good theologian, someone who studies theology, means to have a massive breadth of knowledge about history, geology, language, literature, art, economics, biology, botany, mathematics, physics, and virtually everything else one could study all applied to spiritual books.
I always learn something new about humanity when I read a bible and I’ve never limited myself to the Christian ones. My library is full of books of mythology from around the globe. It will never bore me, ever.
But I never thought that it was literal. I don’t think that there is a great judge or judges who watches over us. I do think that “sin” is variable; to me, it is that which detracts from personal development. We are all born with millions of potential minds. Millions! Babies babble the sounds of all languages and culture is a filter that etches away unbridled potential into what becomes our “self.” The human brain has not undergone radical changes in the past thousands of years. The same brain that wrote the bible also built a computer. This leaves me in awe. Still, there was no author of the universe to applaud nor an ultimate goal of evolution. There are contexts to which all life adapts but I think it’s ridiculous to believe that all live on earth exists to serve humans. I am appalled when I hear this by both the religious and the irreligious.
Calling myself an atheist was the first way I could carve out space to fall into awe of the world. Religious texts help me understand the minds of humans, the quandaries and questions we face, but it does nothing to help me understand how the physical world came to be. It can teach me about paradigm shifts throughout time and the huge role that communal beliefs have in shaping culture. In one sense, a bible helps me understand how “I came to be” in an ideological sense because I can follow an ancestry of ideas that became codified law and a reality that we take for granted. The bible does not teach me how my hand works. It doesn’t teach me about how the human hand came to be. It doesn’t teach me why a human hand is physically advantageous for certain tasks nor does it tell me anything about how a human hand was selected for over time.
Religion has been a huge boon to cultural development. Many preachers have been great philosophers, social revolutionaries, and leaders. However, community activism and education does not have to include a literal belief in the supernatural to be effective and empowering. To quote Belinda Carlisle, heaven is a place on earth and I stand with those who work with every fiber of their being to make it something that all humans experience in their lifetime. It was living without god that forced me to become an activist. There is no one to save us from ourselves but ourselves. There is no reward in the afterlife for human suffering so we must abate it. When the wicked and the unjust are in power and the cause pain, death, and sickness among the people, they must be removed from their posts. No one has the divine right to exploit their fellow humans. Period.
However, atheism and skepticism are movements that have been primarily driven by people with immense privilege because it has taken that much privilege not to be destroyed by others for saying something so counter to what we’ve been taught for as long as we’ve been humans. I think that atheism has been in the hands of white, wealthy men for a long time because they are the safest from the repercussions of non-belief. The problem is, many people in that demographic believe that they will be displaced if others are welcome.
Polyamory, for all of its own goofy community dynamics, has been a constant teacher that love doesn’t get displaced. Making it a point to drop the exclusive barriers on being an atheist (like, threatening people with gang rape and harassing them to the point of exhaustion) does not displace the work of others. That’s like suggesting that if we teach students of literature about authors who are women, trans*, of color, lower class, incarcerated, or disabled that everyone is going to completely forget the works of William Shakespeare. We’ve got Shakespeare very well covered and we don’t lose William Shakespeare if we teach people about Aphra Behn.
Atheism as a movement is pulling a page out of Harold Bloom with its suggestion that the canon hasn’t been formed within a context of privilege, William Shakespeare is just objectively the best writer that ever existed and anyone else asking to reconsider the canon and broaden the field of literature just has sour feelings of bitterness for not being as good as Shakespeare and we’ll all be dumber if the canon is altered because it was made that was made that way for a reason. The traditional canon of literature was not formed in a vacuum, it was formed in the context of privilege and we have all lost out on our understand and knowledge of literature as a whole because we don’t teach the art and perspectives of people outside of wealthy, white men. Our understanding of human history, art, and thought is limited because we worship the canon of privilege and we all know less about each other as a result.
The competition between monotheism and polytheism is something philosophical. When you pull your head out of the literal minutia of monotheism and polytheism and look to the intellectual structure that contains them, you can see that this is the core of the intellectual debate even within atheism. Monotheistic atheists hold jealous perspectives that will have no other perspectives before them. Polytheistic atheists believe that one perspective does not discount them and they should all go out and party as equally legitimate. Please look at my language carefully: I said perspective, not belief. I don’t think all beliefs are equally legitimate. I think that personal narratives, life stories, and experiences all forge unique views of the world are equally legitimate.
People are made out of combinations of genetics, not exact cloning. Children of the same parentage do not have identical perspectives on the world. Their place of viewing the world, however, is 100% legitimate.
A silly belief does not displace my own. Laws, exclusionary practices, and violent retaliation does displace people. And the atheist community has been doing a lot to displace the ideas, perspectives, and lives of people within it. Jen McCreight wrote a fantastic post about angry, exclusionary atheists and why we have to tear down the borders surrounding communities of religious disbelief. She wrote about the incredible lengths harassers have gone to in order to silence the voice of marginalized people who are atheists. She points out that social justice needs skeptics and atheists.
The divisions inside of atheism have not come from Freethought Blogs, anti-oppression atheists, or “pussy whipped men like PZ Meyers.” These divisions were already there, otherwise there would be better representation from women, trans* folk, people of color, and other marginalized groups talking about atheism. Tokenism only serves the privileged, it does not broaden the viewpoints and perspectives. It does not help us better understand ourselves and our world when white men get to decide which marginalized people get to speak. Nothing is accomplished with tokenism. We must tear down the walls and boundaries and really figure out how to move towards more wisdom and less suffering for humans.
Because it’s true: there’s only so many times we can debunk psychics and homeopathy and really, those are not the most pressing issues facing humanity at this time. When we spend all of our time debunking homeopathy, we really highlight what kind of healthcare access we have. We should be skeptical about who gets healthcare and who is forced to rely on placebo effects for themselves and their children because they cannot afford to see a doctor. Instead of debunking psychics, maybe we should be looking at what is happening with employment and what it means that psychics are predominantly in low income neighborhoods. Atheism, right now, is about shooting fish in a barrel and letting them rot. Shooting fish in a barrel and leaving them to rot is a fucked up thing to do when people are starving to death, right now.
“Atheism Plus” has been presented as a new form of atheism that focuses more on social justice. It’s a paradigm shift within the movement. Interestingly enough, this same shift can be seen in a lot of fields right now. Maybe this demonstrates how connected we really are to one another, especially in a digital world. All kinds of social groupings are going through angry debates. For every new voice speaking up about their relationship to any given interest is being matched by a temper tantrum of people with jealous perspectives who are convinced that they will be displaced if someone else is included.
Ideas are not physical spaces: you cannot run out of room. One of the greatest things about them is the way they intermingle and breed and create unimaginable combinations. People are standing up, recognizing their power and changing the direction of thought movements. This process will keep us from stagnation and atrophy. It means we’re turning another page in the history book and writing our human story with better evidence because it’s including more humans.
Atheism is evolving.
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