Atheism and me: Talking about religion

Note: This is a post about a thing that I’m still thinking about, and that’s definitely not a fully formed, concrete point of view. It’s a work in progress. And it’s very much based on my pwn experiences and inclinations – I don’t expect others to be the same on this one!

As an atheist, talking about religion can feel like a minefield. Talking about atheism, too. Finding an approach that is both respectful of the people with whom I interact, without compromising my own position, can be difficult. And with good reason. There’s a lot going on. First, though, a little background on my own perspective. Because perspectives are important here. I’m writing from Dublin in Ireland- which makes a big difference, in the mostly-American internet. Religion(s) and atheism have a bit of a different relationship here than they do elsewhere. On a personal level, being an atheist- especially as an adult without any kids- is simply not a big deal. It’s not a thing that people talk about. When it is talked about, I’ve found a lot of understanding for a person’s choice to steer clear of the church. See, the thing about Ireland is that we are very, very aware of the damage that giving religious institutions too much power can do to a society. And the damage that identifying really, really strongly with religious groups can do to a society. I’m not sure if it’s a conscious thing, but talking a lot about god or about our own beliefs is definitely something that would be considered.. odd. People don’t do it, at least in the circles I live in. I’ve heard that this isn’t always the case, particularly in more rural areas, but I can’t speak from experience.

At the same time, the Catholic Church still has a ton of institutional power here, with control over the majority of our schools and hospitals. So we have this strange sitution where religion doesn’t come into every day life, isn’t really discussed, but does have an awful lot of institutional power. Well, one religion does, at least. Because of these factors, it’s not at all uncommon for people to criticise the instutions of the RCC. People are less likely to talk about actual beliefs, though.

So for me, talking about why I believe what I do (or, well, don’t!) needs to get past a level of discomfort with the topic itself, before even starting to tackle any other issues. Tis an odd one.

Background aside, let’s talk about talking about religion. For me, there’s a few issues at stake. The first thing is, of course, being honest about my worldview. As an atheist, I do genuinely believe that there is no real evidence for the existence of gods. And I’m as sure as I am about anything that I’m correct about that. I’m not going to deny that.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t religious viewpoints that I have respect for, though. And it doesn’t mean that I can get into conversations with religious people and ignore the massively important meanings other than the existence of gods that religion can have. Religion is about the supernatural, but it’s also about a hell of a lot more. It’s about where you come from. It’s about family, identity, class, and a host of other factors. I’ve spoken to enough secular Jews and cafeteria Catholics to know that, although a lot of sceptics would like to pretend otherwise.

When I talk about my views with religious people, I’m not trying to convert anyone. It annoys the hell out of me when anyone tries to convert me to their beliefs. I have no interest in being annoying. What I do try to do is to simply explain my own perspective- why I have come to the conclusions that I have, what those conclusions are, and how that informs my perspective. And I listen. As Jadey said in a comment to a previous post in this series, I prefer to practice “genuinely setting aside my own expectations and trying on something new”. I want to understand where people are coming from- us humans have a really terrible tendency to lump in all the members of other groups together and rely on stereotyped views.

Some people really like debating. I’m not one of them. While I love watching a good debate, I have about as much interest in participating as any sofa-bound sports spectator. Seriously. Not my thing. When I talk about religion and atheism with people, my interest is in increased understanding of our perspectives. That’s all.

Unless someone’s using their religion as an excuse to ignore reality or behave horribly to other people of course. Then the gloves are off. But that’s a different conversation, for another post.

Ethics and Morality: why I’m perfectly okay with being immoral, thank you.

Poster: Behind Closed Doors: The Truth about Campus Immorality. Image of the sillhouette of a man and woman (I assume) embracing.

One of the conversations I often have with the wonderful Cleo over at My Two Centses involves morality. We’ll be talking about something or other, and she’ll mention that she has difficulty with the morals of whatever-it-is, and I’ll feel a bit mystified because it doesn’t seem like a thing that’ll harm anyone to me. And then we’ll go on to have an entirely lovely conversation about it over a couple of glasses of wine or mugs of tea, depending on the topic and what time of day it is. Good times all around.

But it got me thinking about what morals are, what ethics are, and why we even bother trying to equate the two. At first glance they’re quite similar. But I think that there are major differences between how each of them are constructed and created which could do with a bit of investigation.
I started, as one does, with a Google search for definitions. Here are the first three definitions I get for ‘morality‘:

  • Concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct.
  • Ethical motive: motivation based on ideas of right and wrong.
  • Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is a system of conduct and ethics that is virtuous. It can also be used in regard to sexual matters and chastity.

And here is what I get for ethics:

  • ethical motive: motivation based on ideas of right and wrong
  • the philosophical study of moral values and rules
  • Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality; that is, about concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, justice, and virtue.

Right, so the first two of each of these definitions are fairly similar. The real differences between the two start to become very apparent with the third.

  • Morality is virtuous. Morality can be used in regard to sexual matters and chastity.
  • Ethics seeks to address questions of concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong.

Morality is a system of conduct, while ethics is a branch of philosophy. A system of conduct tells you what you should do, and is relatively static. A branch of philosophy provides guidelines on how you should think about things, and generally needs to be open to revision to keep the philosophers in bread and butter, if for nothing else.

Given these definitions, I’m not too surprised that accusations of immorality get thrown about, in ways that accusations regarding ethics do not. It’s easy to accuse a person of immorality- all that they have to have done is broken one of the rules, or even to have appeared unchaste. To accuse a person of being unethical is more difficult, as well as being far more open to questioning and discussion. Morality’s focus on matters of chastity also makes it easy to see how a person could behave in a perfectly ethical yet entirely immoral manner.

Which is why I am perfectly fine with accusations of immorality. Immorality doesn’t preclude acting in an entirely ethical fashion. Immorality doesn’t automatically make one’s actions harmful in any way. Immorality is not necessarily the wrong thing to do, and morality does not necessarily describe the right thing to do. Not from an ethical perspective, anyway.

Salamanders and hymns: secularism and beauty.

Lazy weekend mornings are the best for contemplating the meaning of life, don’t you think? I was just in the shower, listening to church bells playing Ave Maria a couple of roads over, and found myself singing along. I really do love hymns. I love that they are expressions of some of the best things about religion- that search for meaning and connection, for something greater than oneself. I love that many of them have been around for a long time, that I’m humming along to the existential longing of someone from centuries ago, that I can empathise and understand how they must have felt.
It’s a beautiful thing, that. Religion and spirituality would have been wonderfully creative and oh-so-human expressions of our common need to understand the world around us, to make explanations and connections, to make sense of our lives. It’s a pity that in many cases they can do the opposite. From outright rejection of science, to deliberate dehumanisation and Othering of those with even slightly different philosophical positions to oneself, to insisting that humanity itself is somehow different and separate from the rest of the world.
There’s an accusation often leveled at science, that it is a cold and emotionless tool for viewing and understanding the world. Scientific methods rely on documenting facts, not on human values and warmth. This is where salamanders come in. Blind cave salamanders, to be precise.
Last week I watched Hitchens debate Dembski on the existence of God. One thing that he mentioned stuck with me, about blind cave salamanders who have, over millions of years, lost their eyes, until all that’s left is little eye-shaped indentations on the front of their faces.
Think about that. There are blind cave salamanders who have little eye-shaped indentations where hundreds of millions of years ago, their ancestors had eyes. Eyes a little bit like the eyes that my ancestors had hundreds of millions of years ago. Like our common ancestors had, probably long before that. If you’re looking for connection with the rest of the world, for something bigger than yourself, for a sense of wonder, you could do far worse than the little indentations on a salamander’s face.

“I’ll pray for you”

There’s a post over at the Friendly Atheist on “how to push away religious people with good intentions?” Reading through the responses to that got me thinking. Now, I’m in a very different cultural context to most of the people at that blog, living in Ireland as opposed to the US, and I am aware that the way people “do” religion here is very different. But here’s my take on people offering prayers and religious consolations to me:

The Good Stuff

For a lot of religious people, “I’ll pray for you” is code for “I’m thinking of you, I hope things work out for you, and I’m going to set aside some time every day to do what I can towards that in the best way I know how”. For these people, I’d respond in the same way that I would to anyone expressing those sentiments. In many cases, the intention to pray for me comes bundled up with some perfectly appropriate ‘real-world’ actions as well- offers of endless cups of tea and a well-placed shoulder to lean/cry on. In some cases, the person offering isn’t capable of offering those more practical things, and that’s okay too. Either way, when I’m dealing with something difficult, it’s always good to know that I’ve got friends and family who care about me, and who have my back. Whether they express that with “I’ll pray for you” or “I’ll be thinking about you”, it’s still all good, and it still makes me feel loved and fuzzy inside.

But then again..

Despite this, however, there are situations in which religious attempts to be comforting have precisely the opposite result. And yes, if you’re a believing type, this would be a good place to start taking notes*. You see, while offering to pray for someone having a tough time is quite the sweet gesture and, for me at least, is generally appreciated as such, you might want to be careful about offering religious consolations.

Last year I lost someone immensely important to me. It was tough, it hurt, it still hurts. I was lucky to have people in my life who were there for me, who helped me so much in working my way through that loss and all the bewildering array of emotions that went (and go) with it. And yes, some of them offered to pray for me, and that was very sweet. It was good to know that they were thinking about me, that I wasn’t on my own. However, sometimes people took a different route, and tried to console me using their beliefs. They would tell me that it’s okay, that she’s in a better place and she’s happy now. That there was a good reason for all her previous suffering, and that, again, she’s in a better place.

Trust me. When a person is trying to deal with the reality that someone they love is gone forever, trying to make sense of the fact that that person does not exist any more? Telling them that this isn’t the case, that in fact that person is in a happy land filled with butterflies and bunnies, is not the way to go about comforting them. For me, all it served to do was remind me that no, she is not in a nice happy place. She’s dead. And that sucks. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. And, while I haven’t experienced this myself, similar responses to illness (“There’s a reason for it, it’s a blessing in disguise”? Give me a break) and other difficulties would be almost certain to elicit similar responses.

So- praying for someone? Awesome. Go for it! Just make sure to follow up the praying with putting the kettle on, stocking up on biscuits**, getting a good pair of walking shoes and limbering up your hugging arms. But be careful when it comes to offering religious comforts to the non-religious. With the best intentions in the world, it can backfire in ways you mightn’t have expected.

*No, I’m not talking about you, C, and you know it. Put the notebook down and thrown on the kettle there garl.

**Cookies, for you Americans. Cookies.