Atheism and religion: it’s all in the axioms


I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods or supernatural beings or occurrences. As far as I can tell, we live in a wholly natural world. But while my atheism is important and informs many of my perspectives, I don’t see it as an essential part of my basic worldview. It’s merely a conclusion drawn from something far, far more meaningful: scepticism and inquiry. I say this because I’m going to talk about an idea I have about the difference between axioms and conclusions and how this can be applied to religiousness and atheism. Bear with me on this one- it’s not as complicated as it seems.

Here’s a handy definition of ‘axiom’ that I googled. While obviously any particular definition will be incomplete, these will serve us perfectly well and fit in with how I want to use the word today. An axiom is:

A self-evident or universally recognized truth

and here’s another one:

A proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident.

Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, does operate with certain axioms. There are things which we take for granted and whose truth appears self-evident. There are other things which we do not take for granted, and whose truth or falsehood we deduce in other ways- from things like logic or evidence. The axioms that I use in my day-to-day life, however, are not necessarily the same as those which you use. Or, to put it differently, there are things which I take for granted that you do not. And, by the way, vice-versa.

Something I hear far too often in atheist circles is the idea that as atheists we are somehow more rational, logical and intelligent than our religious counterparts. I don’t believe this to be the case. And here’s why:

The God Thing: Axiom or question?

I wasn’t always an atheist, but I am now. Have been for several years and expect to continue this way. In between my religious childhood and atheist adulthood were several years of questioning. This isn’t unusual. Something I remember from my early years, however, is how the existence of God wasn’t something I came by rationally. It was something that I took for granted. God existed just as much as my family and everything else in the world around me. Whether God existed or not wasn’t a question– of course S/He did. One of the things that changed for me as I grew into adulthood was that several things happened which made me start questioning my religious background. It happened slowly, over several years. First I questioned Catholicism, then christianity, and finally the existence of any god at all. It wasn’t a simple process, and I think that one of the things that made it so complicated was how it involved more than new answers to questions. Things which had previously been axiomatic to me became topics I questioned and subjected to logical inquiry and the search for evidence. It wasn’t new answers to questions at all. It was a whole different way of thinking about the entire damn topic.

I’m lucky to have a fairly diverse bunch of friends and acquaintances, although I will admit that they lean towards the secular. However, they also include a good few people who follow various religious traditions and share beliefs in god. I am no more intelligent and no more rational than my friends who believe in gods. They’re generally the same kind of pro-science somewhat geeky social activist types as the rest of the people I tend to hang out with. The only difference, it seems to me, is in whether we frame the existence of god as an axiom or a question. Everything else flows from there.

Contradicting reality

When I look at the religious people around me, I don’t see people who deny reality. This is, of course, not representative of everyone with a religious belief. There are people whose beliefs blatantly contradict observable facts and evidence, and that is a problem because that kind of thing can be seriously harmful to us all. I have a massive problem with people who would choose the words of their sacred text over the evidence of their eyes.

The biggest difference that I see isn’t between believers and nonbelievers. It’s between people who choose their scripture over observable reality (“the planet’s climate couldn’t be changing because the bible says that God will never again do that kind of thing” or “I’m going to deny my child life-saving medical treatment and pray for them instead while they suffer and die”) and those who believe one alongside the other. Honestly, I’m more interested in whether you acknowledge that the universe is billions of years old than whether you think that there is a deity planning the whole thing on a level that humans can’t fathom. The latter is something that doesn’t affect me in the slightest- it’s an addendum you have to the things we know about the universe. We live in pretty much the same place, give or take an axiom or two, and we try to not have too much cognitive dissonance with them. The former is terrifying, because it shows a blatant disregard for reality, and someone who is willing to do that in one sphere is likely to be willing to do so in another. We have far, far too much evidence from history as well as the present of people whose prioritising of their scriptures over the world and people around them led them to do terrible things.

I’m an atheist. Far more importantly than that, I am a sceptic and a humanist. It would be lovely to be able to put atheists in one category (“intelligent, rational, exceptionally good looking and charming”) and everyone else in another that was far less flattering. But in my own experience- and yes, I am speaking from anecdote in this entire post- focusing on whether the existence of god is one of a person’s axioms is a red herring. Things aren’t that simple. And I, for one, am not about to let a desire for simplicity overlook reality- a reality where a person’s respect for observable reality is far, far more important than whether they see something beyond that.

How about yourselves? This is something that I’m very much in the process of working out my own views on, and as always I’d love to find out what you think. I know that my readers have many different ir/religious perspectives. If you’re religious, do you think I’m right about my idea that belief in god(s) is more of an axiom than something logically deduced? I’m also really interested in the ways that people reconcile where reality seems to contradict the scripture(s) that you follow- I’d love if anyone would like to talk about their experiences with that?

Oh, and this is only tangentially related, but I found it kinda amusing.

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Atheism and me: a brief history.


For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about atheism and me- how I became an atheist, why I am an atheist, what is important to me about atheism, and how I relate as an atheist to those of a more religious mindset. I want to start talking about this today with a history of how I got to where I am today, and will move on to the rest in later posts. I was a kid for whom ‘god’ was as much a part of the world around me as anything else I couldn’t see. As real and unquestioned as distant relatives. While different religions were a thing I took for granted, so was the existence of god. Unlike many ex-religious atheists I don’t think it ever occurred to me to doubt back then. Neither did it occur to me that any of the things I believed were in opposition to evolution, dinosaurs or anything else in the world around me. As a child, I was pretty open about what I would believe. I always wanted to learn more, but the idea of skepticism wasn’t one that came naturally to me. I’m not an atheist because of any bad experiences with religion. I was never badly treated, never abused. I knew some very lovely nuns and priests growing up. Praying with my Nan, and having my forehead coated in liberal quantities of holy water before leaving her house, are memories that still make me smile. As a teenager, things did become a little more fraught. At a particularly persuadable point in my pre-teenage life, I ran out of books at the same time as coming across a massive stack of teen magazines by- and here is where I start getting a little mortified- Focus on the Family. Suddenly I was worrying about sin, about living up to Christian standards and about not ending up in hell. That didn’t last too long, though. We moved countries back to somewhere with many conveniently-located bookshops. I discovered the internet. As teenagerhood really kicked in, I found I had many other things to be worried, enthusiastic, and embarrassed about. I had some slight worries around the time I came out to myself, but reasoned pretty quickly that nothing to patently harmless could possibly be sinful. I did, however, become a lot less Catholic and a lot more vaguely spiritual. I didn’t know what was out there, but I was pretty sure that something. There was ‘something’ out there, it was benevolent, and it was why things would be okay. At least, that’s how I remember how I felt then- I’m aware that memories do change and aren’t always completely accurate. The things that led to my becoming an atheist were, in many ways, the things that led to my becoming an adult. For me these two processes are so entwined as to be interchangeable. I’m not saying, by the way, that only atheists are adults. I’m simply talking about my own experiences and how they have shaped me. I can point to two sets of things which changed my perceptions of the world around me. One was one of the best things that happened in my life, and the others were some of the worst. I went to college, and learned to think critically and to question the world around me. People I cared about died (and lived) in gut-wrenchingly horrible ways, and the world around me gave no fuck. Things just went on. After a while, I noticed that the times when I turned to god were the times when I was deeply unhappy or deeply scared. After a while, I wondered if I did that because we all turn to others when times are hard, or because that was the only time when I could convince myself that any gods existed. For the first time, I began to ask myself why I believed in any gods. Aside from fear and grief, I couldn’t come up with a reason. I still can’t. I spent a few years calling myself an agnostic before admitting, somewhere in my mid-twenties, that I had no belief in anything supernatural. For me, becoming an atheist was part of accepting that I live in the world that is, not the world that I would like to live in. It was part of learning to look at the world sceptically, and to question my own beliefs as much as I question the claims of others. So what do you think? Can you relate? How did you come to your own beliefs or lack of such? Check back here for the next post in this series!

Drink from me and live forever: the case for Vampire Jesus.


I know that you lot are used to getting scintillating, intellectually challenging, and delightfully witty posts from me here at the Tea Cosy. Which is why, today, I’m dealing with one of the most pressing issues of our time. One of the major misunderstandings of the (Western) world. Something that affects us all.

I’m referring, of course, to what is traditionally referred to as Zombie Jesus Day. In recent years a large body of literature has grown up asserting that Jesus, a reasonably historically-relevant Palestinian from the latter-day Roman era, suffered beyond the end of his life from infection with a zombie virus. The evidence given for this hypothesis is based on several sources from the (almost) contemporary literature which describe Jesus as having become reanimated after his demise. This is, of course, a major feature of zombie infection. However, a more in-depth look into the symptoms of zombification leads me to doubt that this was, in fact, the condition which Jesus suffered from. I contend, instead, that he was infected with the relatively more benign vampirism strain of the undead family of viruses.

Continue reading over at the Tea Cosy’s new home! See you there 🙂

More on Neda: extremism, religion, power and ‘us’.


I’ve been thinking a lot about Neda today, since watching For Neda, the doc I linked to in my last post. I’m still trying to work out how to relate to and conceptualise what happened. I don’t think that’s a process that I’ll reach a clear conclusion with any time soon, if ever.

My first and strongest reaction is, of course, a deep-seated sense of sorrow and of horror. And of shame, at my own intrusion into such a.. senseless is the wrong word for this act. Because it wasn’t senseless. On the part of the Iranian government, killing its citizens was (and continues to be) a calculated act. On the part of the Basiji who killed her- well, it must have made sense at the time.

understand.

I want to know more about these Basij, these government militia. I want to know more about who they are, about why they are part of the militia. About how they became who they are now. Who taught them. What their lives are like. If it is fear that makes them beat and kill or if it is just a hunger for power? Where in society are they from- are they from all social classes or just some? This is what I want to know. This is what I want to understand. I can empathise so easily with those who mourn Neda, but in order to help to end this, I think we need to understand those who kill, and would kill, those like her.

There’s a quote from that doc. I can’t remember it exactly, but it involves some Basiji women who confronted Neda in the days before she died, saying that it was dangerous for her to be outside because she was beautiful, and ‘they’ hate beauty. That they cannot control themselves around it, and they need to control themselves or else they will be wicked, so they must destroy it.

I want to know how people learn to hate that much. I want to learn how to empathise with that hatred, to understand it, deep in its most basic motivations and impulses. Not to forgive, mind you. To understand, because you can’t fight against a thing you cannot comprehend.

about religion.

I don’t think it’s about religion, although it is, of course, always about religion. However, it’s so, so easy to point and say “this is religion” or “this is Islam”, when discussing what appear to be fanatical, irrational motivations. These people believe one irrational thing, so why not another, and another, and another?

To say so, however, is to be lazy and simplistic. To hijack religion to explain the acts of extremists is to throw up your hands, to not have to bother thinking about any implications of other, more uncomfortable elements of a more complex explanation. While it is impossible to deny the religious motivations of the Basij- they are serving the Islamic Republic, after all- it would be unfair and inaccurate to deny that many, including Neda herself, practiced and lived a spirituality and religion entirely different, sharing only a name. The religion of the Islamic Republic, here, can be seen as a cover for power, for fear of the Other, for motivations I am too ignorant and too distant to begin to guess at. The religion that they use, however, can only be diminished by understanding those facets, the context within which it occurs. Simply brushing aside heinous acts by blaming the religion of their perpetrators is not only unfair, it is blatantly inaccurate.

us (westerners).

I’m a European, middle-class, college educated, urban, white cis woman. I don’t know what you are, but since this is the internet, it’s likely that you and I share at least one or two of those characteristics- although you’re probably American, not European. What I’m about to say has been said before, many times, but it stands saying again. The death of a young, attractive, cosmopolitan woman- wearing a baseball cap, no less- is going to resonate with people like you and me. Demographically speaking, she ticks all the boxes.

I don’t say this to be flippant. I definitely don’t say this in order to wave away the tragedy and disgrace of her death. I just say it in order that I might remember that the deaths of people who are not young, people who are not beautiful, people who are not cosmopolitan, who dress in unfamiliar ways and whose lives and dreams are not so similar to mine? Those deaths are tragic, they are disgraceful every bit as much.

.

I don’t know what to say or to think about this. I still don’t. I circle it, theorising around the edges, never getting closer to the centre.

“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.