GENTLE GODLESSNESS: a compassionate introduction to Atheism
By Paul O'Brien
Living without a god isn't easy. But living in general, with or without a god, is an undertaking that challenges and frustrates the best of us. As humans, we are special in that we lead our lives and treat our lives in a relatively cognizant, rational manner. We are naturally reflective creatures. We have the capacity to do more than simply live our lives; we are able to step away from our physical situation and consider it, assess it, make judgements, and make decisions. You don't need to be an academic professor in philosophy to face colossal thoughts, such as wrestling with your humanity or trying to solve important moral dilemmas.
There is one such philosophical issue that we have all faced in one form or another, at one time or another: God. "Does God exist? Do I believe in God?" one asks upon reflection. Some can confidently answer those questions with relative ease, because their minds are already made up about the issue. Many are content to believe, while others are content to doubt. It is not to these people that I am primarily writing now, though they are certainly invited to listen. Rather, I would wish these people, if peaceful and contented, my admiration and respect.
But I dare say that most of us struggle with this issue of God to some degree. We were certainly raised to believe in certain religious ideas. Some of us were even taught more than just ideals and principles, but complex rituals to engage in and literature to read as well. But there comes a time in each of our lives when we must step away from what we have been taught and make our own independent consideration of the issue. Sometimes we choose to stay where we are, but sometimes we choose to change our minds.
I have seen various religious leaders and academic thinkers hold their views with the greatest of confidence. They speak assuredly, and they can be quite persuasive. But if so many people are so confident and sure of themselves, why do so many still struggle to solve these issues of God and religion? Though the answer to that question is probably uncertain at best, I believe it's nonetheless safe to say that we struggle because there is no easy answer. It may seem painfully obvious, but please, try to never let that fact escape from your mind. When you regard serious abstract issues, particularly God, you are engaging in one of the most challenging of mental activities. God is an age-old issue, and it has remained unsettled for millennia in every aspect of its nature, from metaphysical existence to the most personal of beliefs.
I am like a lot of people. I was raised to believe in a certain religion, I came to an age when I had to reevaluate my religion, and though I have made many religious decisions in my life, I still struggle to resolve many spiritual questions. I was personally raised as a Catholic, but ever since I was fourteen years old I have been an atheist. Though God is a delicate issue in itself, atheism seems to manage to be even more so. I have been grossly misunderstood by a great number of people, but I have also had my most meaningful and engaging philosophical conversations about God and godlessness. It hasn't been easy for those of us who are atheists, and if you look even briefly at how atheists have fared during the last two and a half millennia or more, you will find a history of persecution and misunderstanding.
Nonetheless, times have changed. Atheists have gained great respect, and atheism seems to have become much more popular and acceptable, especially in academic and intellectual circles. I take this as a good sign --not that I believe it necessary that everyone be godless-- but that people are growing more open-minded and tolerant toward alternative religious beliefs. Although the issue has become more liberated, it still needs a great deal of help, and that is why I am writing this book. I confess that I am a neophyte to this issue. I am young and inclined to change my mind from time to time. But I hope that my lack of experience will be compensated by my proclivity to keep an open mind and to consider this a live, unsettled issue. I have met too many people who are adamantly, inalterably set in their ways; I do not want to be one of them. If possible, we should all be receptive to the reasons and arguments of those with whom we disagree.
What I wish to discuss is not simple, but it will hopefully provoke some serious thought. First of all, I will briefly survey some conventional arguments both for and against the existence of God, but this I do only with a desire to clarify them and set them aside. I will posit that they all fail to address the true issue at hand, and that even if they were to be accepted, they are still religiously unconvincing. Then I will primarily focus on what I consider to be the more essential and human elements of religious belief. In this discussion I will try to offer some thoughts as to why atheism is a viable and effective belief, not nearly as anarchic or unfounded as some seem to think. By considering religion in terms of both pragmatics and more emotional, nonrational convictions, I will try to show that atheism is a religiously living, plausible option. I will try to describe atheism, even though atheism isn't a religion by itself. Atheism is one belief with some serious religious implications. I will attempt to defend the worth of those implications with some positive reasons.
This will certainly include a strong look at theism. In fact, theism and atheism must be placed side by side in order to explore the true natures of both. I will not degrade theism nor glorify atheism, but at the same time, I must analyze the theistic position very carefully to set the stage for the atheistic stance. My intention will never be to disprove or disconfirm the existence of God, nor will I try to persuade anyone that theistic beliefs are somehow false or foolish. Rather, I will assess the merits and flaws of both theism and atheism with a strong emphasis on putting theism under careful scrutiny. I will raise questions and concerns about theism in that process, but nothing more.
I will finally make appeals, and these appeals are what motivate me most to write this document. I am immediately wary of adding to an already congested topic, but I now feel very strongly that somehow I can make things better, not worse, by writing what I will. I am appealing directly to two parties: theists, specifically Christians, and atheists. To Christians, I ask that they please make an effort to reconsider atheism if they have already condemned it. To atheists, I make an especially avid plea to reconsider their own position as well. I am tired of heated debates that lead to personal insult. I find Christians who are close-minded frustrating, but I find atheists who speak sarcastically and disrespectfully equally disappointing.
I am going to try to play mediator, and I am certainly destined to fail. I find God a wonderfully fascinating topic, one that is very pressing and important to so many of us; hopefully I can offer something constructive to consider, if nothing else. If I fail to articulate these issues, and if I fail to argue for atheism in a credible and intelligent manner, then at least distill this from my effort: atheism needs to be treated as a positive belief. Atheism does not always have to be some sort of default belief away from theism, but rather toward something else. If I fail to execute a proper exposition and defense of that thesis, then I encourage someone to do what I could not.
I am going to be treading on thin ice throughout this entire discussion, but I am not going to allow that to become a paralyzing fear. Let me clarify and explain some more delicate methodological points right away to help smooth over some of the grievances I am unavoidably going to commit.
I will continue to speak informally, and it is not because I underestimate anyone's intelligence. I do so because I feel that speaking as such will alleviate some of the unnecessary prudishness that flows from too much of academic literature. This is a human issue and I am going to address it as if I were speaking to any one of you face to face: seriously, but not pedantically. I have a job to do, and if someone does not understand me, I am failing at my job. Technically speaking, the author of a philosophical document does not need to be as sensitive as I will be, but the issue of God is special and I believe that this sensitivity is, even if not required, wise.
Seasoned thinkers, ones with much more experience than I have, will undoubtedly find mistakes and faults with some of the concepts I will use. Hopefully my mistakes won't be fundamental, but if I do commit such a grievous error, please be quick to correct me so that I may revise my position accordingly. If my mistakes are small, try not to let them detract you from my main points-- but still let me know.
I will use many words and many titles, and there will always arise questions of the form, "what does Paul mean by ?" I will try to clarify many terms, but I am personally opposed to a strictly logical, analytical, and overly-linguistic style of philosophy in the discussion of God. I can see why some are attracted to such an approach, because it is undoubtedly valuable when applied to most philosophical arguments and concepts. But I won't spend much time listing definitions or defining terms when doing so would unnecessarily shroud the discussion with obscurity. To serve intuition, I would rather stick to a more down-to-earth style at the sacrifice of technicality.
When I speak of theists, please keep in mind that I am primarily speaking about a Western conception of theism, specifically Christianity, and at times even more specifically with the form of Christianity I am most familiar with, Catholicism. I do not include other, non-Western interpretations of the nature of God simply because I am far too ignorant of them. Even if I could include some Eastern notions of God, though, I would certainly be leaving out some religion that I should have included from some reader's perspective. I am, like many Americans, more familiar with Christianity and that is not meant to ignore nor show any disrespect toward other religions which may be equally plausible and insightful. Please do not be offended when I focus on Christianity, nor when I regard "God" in most cases to be referring to a Christian God, unless otherwise noted. I also hope that even if my analysis seems too honed in on Catholic ideas at times, that members of other Christian groups will be able to distill the bigger point and greater message behind my meaning.
Also be aware that I will be using both the words "God" and "god," which I believe have some subtle but significant differences in meaning. I take "God" with a capital "G" to refer to the personal, Christian God. Just as we capitalize the first letter of any personal name, so we capitalize this name because it's supposed to refer to a specific person. But "god" with a lower case "g" is a more general term referring to the concept regarding any sort of godlike being. Christians may assert that since there is only one god --that is, since only God exists-- this distinction is not important. But some cultures have held beliefs in numerous deities. Therefore "god" merely refers to a certain class of being, just as "human" and "angel" refer to other classes. For these reasons, consider the word "god" just a general term, and "God" a specific, personal name. As an atheist, I consider myself both "Godless" for not believing in the Christian, personal deity, and "godless" since I do not believe in any general class of godlike beings. "Godless" and "godless" are not completely interchangeable terms, but for the most part, referring to myself or others atheists with either word basically means the same general thing: that we do not believe that God or any other god exists.
If these explanations and apologies seem unnecessary, then I am glad for us from the very start; I will be addressing a tolerant audience. If I seem too meek, let it not be for any lack of my conviction but rather for my desire to be understood and to be respected. There is a remarkable amount of intellectual opposition and social animosity in this endeavor and I do not believe it is justified. We are facing a common issue, a common problem, and a common concern, so our efforts ought to be constructive and cooperative. I want to encourage more respect in this field between those who disagree, and I will make no intentional attempt to confuse, deceive, or insult anyone.
So let our minds dwell in the heavens, but let's keep our feet on the ground.