Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Revisiting atheism

Jen at Et tu is answering some new questions about a familiar topic: atheism. She's participating in an interview with Jason at The Cynical Christian and offers some great answers to his opening questions.

I could have written similar answers, in several cases, as I identify with so much of what Jen says both in the interview and on her blog. Though I did have some Damascus road moments along the way, a great deal of my conversion journey, like Jen's, had to do with digging in to the intellectual meat of the faith, and getting at the truth. Or, at Truth. I had a powerful desire to know and to follow what was true, wherever it led me. I didn't particularly want it to lead to Christianity,and certainly didn't want it to lead to Catholicism, but then, I wasn't in charge of the answers. I was just the questioner. And I wanted answers that made sense.

One thing Jen mentioned particularly struck me. She said, "One of the things you see a lot in those circles is a heavy emphasis on intelligence," and that was definitely something that influenced my rejection of Christianity as a belief system. It simply seemed to me that the most intelligent people I knew did not believe in God. Christianity seemed too simple-minded, to put it bluntly. The irony, of course, is that my own simple-minded approach was to casually dismiss an entire, ancient belief system based purely on my limited perception of it. And it's also ironic that in Catholicism I've since encountered the greatest thinkers and most profoundly intelligent men and women I've ever had the pleasure to know on paper (and, in some cases, in real life.) The idea that faith and reason are not in opposition to one another was an exhilarating discovery.

I hope to contribute to Jason and Jen's series a bit here and there, and I'm happy that Jason contacted me to ask if I'd like to get in on the discussions. It can be so easy to dismiss the beliefs of others when they seem so foreign to our own. Whether it's the Christian or the atheist being dismissive doesn't really matter -- we've all done it. I'm heartened by attempts to stop dismissing and start really talking. So, I'll be talking more about this soon. And listening, too.


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Umm... I'm an atheist and, let me tell you, intelligence isn't the main thing I value. I value knowledge, decentcy and humanity, humor and self reflection.

I don't reject Christianity because it is simple minded- I reject it because it is false. You might want to argue about it's truth value rather than disecting the psycology of your opponents.

Beck said...

The irony, of course, is that my own simple-minded approach was to casually dismiss an entire, ancient belief system based purely on my limited perception of it.
So very, very true - for me, my defining conversion moment was getting to know one of my university professors and realizing that a) he was one of the most devoutly faithful men I'd ever met and b) also one of the most intelligent. It shook up what I'd decided smart people believed, defiinitely.

Karen E. said...

Beck -- Interesting! I didn't know that about you.

Samuel Skinner: I don't want to argue at all. :-) I want to point out, though, that I didn't say/mean to imply that intelligence was "the main" thing I valued. What I hoped to convey was that a desire to find what was objectively, intellectually true was a huge motivation for me. And I think the two are connected -- I assumed that intelligent people would know that the fairy tales of Christianity couldn't possibly be true.

I should have been as thorough as Jen was in mentioning some disclaimers. Jason is a life-long Christian, trying to understand how someone begins or ends at atheism. Jen and I have both been on both sides of the fence, and each of us can offer her *own* perspective, but neither of us pretends that we're offering the reasons and motivations of "all atheists" -- all kinds of people embrace atheism for all kinds of reasons. I don't want to dissect the psychology of my opponents (and actually don't think of atheists as opponents.) I want only to offer my own perspective, which is what Jason is seeking.

Thanks for commenting!

momto5minnies said...

I think it was the "smart" people that really drew my husband to Catholicism. Of course he is married to moi ;) , but I think it was the number of other people that God put in his path that influenced him. Some Divine intervention ?????

I try to check out that blog every now and then.

Karen E. said...

Well, I've no doubt you had an effect on him! :-)

Yes, it was the "smart" Christians and Catholics who drew me in, too. C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, for example, was a great read for me, in terms of looking at the bigger picture and questioning some of my long-held assumptions.

Heidi Hess Saxton said...

Hi, Karen. I realize this is a little off-topic, but I don't have your e-mail on this computer ... I just posted my "Mary video" at Mommy Monsters, and wanted to alert you to the fact that your brilliant endorsement is in it!

Here's the link:

Thanks so much! Heidi

Eileen said...

Both your story and Jen's are incredibly beautiful, and your reflections on faith are deeply moving and edifying to me.

I am one of those "cradle Catholics," as we are called.

And, at the age of 12, I distinctly remember reading the very familiar story of the Prodigal Son, and feeling so much more connected to the beleaguered older brother. You don't hear many people defending *him*! But I caught myself thinking, Hey, God, what do I have to do to get you to pay attention to *me*? I mean, come on, not even a goat to share with my friends? What gives?

I really felt left out of something wonderful, all because I never rejected God in the first place! You probably find this incomprehensible. I admit, it is silly.

I have to admit, though, I still get a little wistful feeling when I read conversion stories. Oh, sure, we all have to have our hearts "converted," and I have no desire at all to reject My Greatest Love just for the fun of watching Him take me back :) :) :) Yikes!! (And all sin is a rejection, and all forgiveness is exactly that reunion, of course. But it ain't glamorous.)

You have a such great gift. And you know it (I think Jen compared it to having the Narnia Wardrobe right there in your own home). It's the ultimate irony, I think, when someone like me hears the words, "You are with me always and everything I have is yours," and thinks, yeah, but I want what *she* has!!!

And, in a very important sense, I do. Keep telling your story. It'll help me make sense of mine. :)


Karen E. said...

Eileen, what a beautiful comment. Thank you.

It's not at all incomprehensible to me that you could identify with the older brother ... I've often felt bad for him myself! :-)

But, the one I don't feel bad for is *you.* :-) I would trade a dramatic conversion experience for life-long faith in a minute. You've had an incredible gift all your life, and you've never turned your back on it, on Him. And that is a greater gift than I can ever claim.

I'm reminded of one year when I was on our RCIA team and the director wanted everyone on the team to give a witness talk. A few of us had already given ours, and one very sweet, older woman said, almost sheepishly, "But I don't have a story. I've always believed." I said, "THAT'S your story! Tell us what it's like to have treasure in your hands from the very beginning."

We all have our stories, and we're all learning from each other, and, yes, listening to one another to make sense out of our little pieces of the puzzle.

So, thank you, Eileen. *Your* story moves and edifies *me.*

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Smart people can believe nonsense. Heisenberg for example was an ardent Nazi. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritualist.

The important thing is if the argument hold up. They don't.

Also, like note. When you say things like "question long held assumptions", would you state wht the assumptions where and how you questioned it?

Origionally I asked such a question because I wanted to ensure I wasn't mistaken. Now I ask to see if my collection of logical fallacies is complete. Trust me- I've seen all of the arguments and I know why they don't work.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Samuel! You must truly love an argument,and I bet you're really good at it, too.

Sadly, I'm not. If we were to get into a debate, you'd crush me so fast that it wouldn't even be fun for you. Or me, for that matter. So let's not. :)

On the off chance that you come to a place like this, and a post like this, for something other than a good debate, however, I'd like to offer you the possibility that there may be more than one way to see things, but you have to be open to that idea in order to actually see it.

An image that has been very important to me in my adult life as both believer and seeker is the optical illusion of the faces and the vase. Both images are "true"--they're both entirely present; but if the picture is drawn correctly, you can only see one image at a time. In fact, if you didn't know the other image was there, you'd never see it at all.

It just takes a shift in your vision, and you can see the image in a whole new way.

(You hate this comment, don't you? Oh, well! It's the best I can do. God bless you just the same! Whether it be a decent argument that deepens your position, or one last shot at a new view of the truth that you seek, I hope you find it.) :)

Karen E. said...

Anonymous, nice point about the shift in vision. I'd add that we can't always shift our own vision, but once it's divinely shifted, there's no going back. :-)

Samuel, I agree that smart people can believe in all kinds of nonsense. My point is not that "if one smart person in the world believes something, I'll believe it, too." My point remains that I had personally dismissed Christianity as simple-minded, assuming that no intelligent person could find it worthy of consideration. When I encountered extremely intelligent people who not only considered it but had ended up believing it, I took another look. I did the same with a number of religious belief systems.

So, the first long held assumption was that Christianity was too silly a set of beliefs on which to spend my time. When I began to see things that were beyond silly, I took a deeper look.

Please feel free to post your set of arguments. I'm not here to argue, but am happy to discuss. :-)