should resist the intellectual and logical sin of generalising from the particular. My experience of atheists (of which I am one) is that they are tolerant of the beliefs of others and are, sometimes, envious of the comfort that religious faith brings. Once, at a dinner hosted by a major development aid charity of which I was a trustee, I mentioned, in the context of an over-the-top and wholly inappropriate fundamentalist Christian rant at an event that all those at the table had attended, that I was an atheist and that I would be surprised if I had been the only one present. The response of a senior colleague can only be described as patronising contempt of the sort I have seldom, if ever, heard from an atheist: 'Oh, Alan, you can't be! You're far too intelligent to be an atheist!' Four others at the table then 'confessed'. That response was, in my experience, as untypical of Christians as Catherine's experience is of atheists.
I can completely understand Catherine Czerkawska’s
comment about 'raising of the hackles'; however I don’t believe that ego and arrogance are always the atheist’s motivation. If you were to simplistically split atheists into two groups, those who never had a faith and those who once did, I would hazard a guess that it’s the latter group who are often more zealous.
These are people who have reached a profound conclusion about the meaning of life (and possibly 'the universe and everything' too) contrary to the grain of their upbringing. To do so requires determination and independence of mind. Atheism is not gained through following the leadership of others; it comes from rejecting a suspension of disbelief under the reconciliation of observable reality. For some it might be the disparity between science and literal biblical interpretations, for others it may be the rejection of dogma. All will have had their own personal journeys, and the destination is a place where one can be happy and content without the comforting certainties that religion can provide.
An atheist’s manner may just be excitement and pride, as would be natural for anyone who embarks on a journey and discovers something of importance worthy of sharing. 'I took a risk, and look what I’ve found!'
Compared with the unwavering evangelisation of organised religion around the world, I think the balance of individual atheists determined to make a point is quite tolerable. Richard Dawkins may be the extreme example of this, but his bravery for sticking to his principles and enabling a more educational approach should be commended.
Atheism is not an organised movement, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that its impression on society is manifested as individuals prepared to have challenging conversations. Not that long ago in history this could have had life-changing (or ending) consequences. Thankfully we live in a more enlightened age where – in most of the world at least – people can freely express their ideas.
On the other hand, no-one appreciates a tiring bore, especially in a light-hearted social situation. Regrettable that even the most powerful spiritual insight, religious or otherwise, doesn’t imbue any advance of social skills.
I read with interest Catherine Czerwaska's
article on the smugness and superiority of atheists.
I readily admit that I may be approaching this from a slightly different perspective, living as I do in Virginia. But her words smack of someone representing a community that has been so used to being in the ascendant that the robust challenge to their ideals and own superiority is making them uncomfortable.
I live in a country where it is unthinkable that a professed atheist – or even agnostic – would get a sniff at the presidency. I live in a country where atheists are, at the last count, even more despised than Muslims; in the USA that is quite a bar to fall beneath. This is a country where the religious majority are quite happy to allow religion to dictate policy; let us not forget how Christians are now allowed to refuse service – yes, even doctors – on the grounds that to do so would be in violation of their beliefs. Apparently challenging that idea is an attack on Christianity.
I am, somewhat obviously I would imagine, not a believer. I don't push my beliefs, or lack thereof, on anyone. But we live in a world where the religious have no compunction about doing so, and enjoy a privileged status to do so. In that kind of dynamic, I think on occasion it is more than okay to assert a rational challenge to religion. George Bush invaded Iraq because, in his words, God told him to. If I said in any other walk of life that a voice had guided me to a particular course of action, I would be getting gently guided to the medicine cabinet; religion shouldn't be exempted from that kind of examination either.
It may be my increasing years but, like Catherine Czerkawska
, I confess to getting irritated when teenage Christians tell me of their struggles when atheist friends mock them for their faith being 'a crutch for limping souls to lean on'.
There is often confusion. Everyone has faith in the sense of having an operational framework of meaning in life. An atheist’s belief that there is nothing is just as much a matter of faith as a Christian’s belief that Jesus was God in action: not a mere emotional feeling, but based on evidence in the public arena to be examined. Therefore, while faith is a personal thing, it is not a private thing. The outworking of faith in our lifestyle inevitably affects those around us. An authoritarian smug attitude is a far cry from the Jesus who, while ruthlessly condemning exploitation and hypocrisy, showed personal humility, something which – as sinners anonymous – the church needs to reflect while presenting clearly the authentic message of Jesus.
As Catherine says, 'we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns'. Anecdotage suggests that its origin was Jock Thomson, minister of Duddingston Kirk, who treated all children alike, whether they came from the prosperous or the poorer areas. Certainly, however much it may be distorted by sinful followers, the authentic biblical picture of 'being all one in Christ Jesus' was that Jesus broke down the three main barriers in then current society: ethnicity, class and gender. The outworking of that is still to be welcomed in today’s public arena. Far from being 'a crutch' the authentic Jesus is challenging.
The UK is largely a post-Christian country if we gauge worship attendance figures. However, I have been in the past a son of the manse, a Jewish sympathiser, a West African Presbyterian missionary, a worker in a Roman Catholic school, a humanist observer and a Bahá’i supporter. I have lived with Sunni Muslims in the NWFP of Pakistan and I married an Anglican.
So how did this ecumenical boiling pot lead to me being, at this stage of my life, agnostic? This being a view that there is no proof of either the existence or non-existence of any deity, but since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic and that their existence, therefore, has little or no impact on personal human affairs and should be of little theological interest. Yet the Ghanaian Akan Twi proverb 'no state is permanent', speaks to me. The future is an empty chapter at present.
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