May 18, 2004
Don't trust any belief system that ends in an ism. I once thought that atheism might be an exception to that rule. It isn't. I subscribed to one of the atheist publications for a while to learn more about it. At first I was confused by the esoteric debates that seemed to be raging, in which some very bright people were engaged in intense dialog with theists and with each other about the nonexistence of God. They seemed to be trying to outdo each other by inventing all manner of complex logical proofs about the randomness of the universe and the absence of deity. Anyone who as much as suggested that there was some kind of an ordering force in the cosmos was set upon at once, and savaged by the others.
It took me a little while, but I figured it out. Key to my understanding was the realization that atheism is a religion. It has its orthodoxy, its dogma, its theologians, and its believers. All that seems to be lacking is a temple, and there likely is one, but I probably didn't look hard enough to spot it.
So the atheists have no more of the answers to life's questions than do any of the other True Believers. All of them, atheists and theists, are so passionate and so sincere that they surely deserve our respect. Each one of them has a faith, and would like nothing more than to convert you to it. It is, after all, part of the White Man's Burden to enlighten the ignorant natives.
Where does this colossal arrogance come from? Any one of you could be right. What is even more likely is that not one of us is. I long ago concluded that as a species we probably lack the intelligence and capacity to ask the right theological questions, let alone find the relevant answers. Even if we were staring right at the essential truths, we haven't the wisdom to comprehend what we see. So far, I have not met, heard, or read anyone or any thing that seemed convincingly closer to the mark.
When I was in the third grade I made one of the more important decisions of my life. The teacher announced to the class one day that an optional bible study class would soon be starting, to last one period a week and be held in the library. Anyone who did not wish to attend would be allowed to remain in the classroom and read. We were told to discuss it with our parents and get their decision on whether to participate. I talked to Mom & Dad about this and told them I was troubled by this development. They suggested that I try the bible classes and then make up my mind if I wanted to continue them. I agreed.
I went to a couple of the classes, then asked to be excused. I did not find the stories that the teacher was discussing to be either believable, relevant, or particularly entertaining. The stories were filled with violence and bad behavior, and seemed to me hardly moral.
I was the only child left behind in the classroom when all the others departed to attend the "voluntary" bible class. I remember the looks from my schoolmates as they filed out. They ranged from curious to downright hostile. It was not easy for me to separate myself from the rest of society at so tender an age, but I stand by my decision with some pride. I would make the same decision today, although for somewhat more complex but no less valid reasons.
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