(A)Theism: A Brief Autobiography with a Word of Caution

The Self-Concept is a fickle thing.  It starts to develop young, and as we get a little older, grow more aware of its influences, we try to wrangle it into submission.  At one point, just when we think we have it subdued, it gets loose and, it is in those brief moments of panic, we hope that nobody had a camera rolling.

Many of my readers know I have been reticent to discuss matters of god; while I voice my opinion about a particular interpretation or an eisegetical understanding of the figure ‘god’, I often avoid the debate over the deity’s existence all together.  There are several reasons for this reticence and, perhaps for the first time in a long time, I’d like to break my silence on the issue.  But fair warning, once I finish writing this post, I suspect I shall put to rest any further comment about the subject for a while more.

If I’m going to be blunt about it, I find the whole ‘does god exist’ question to be a boring one.  To be fair, it wasn’t always some banal subject for me. At an all-too-recent point in my life, the question played a large role in defining my self-concept.  I lived by it, and I had lots of questions; I just thought I had more answers.  I won’t say I was a fundamentalist about it, but I had grown dogmatic.  I lived by a set of precepts, and by ‘lived’ I mean I was ‘blinded’ by them.  Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair either.  My anger, my frustration–a direct result of the question of the existence of a god–blinded me from the destructive influences these precepts had on my life.

At one point I ceased trying to talk to people who did not agree with me.  The fabric of the fictional weave, or mythos, I had woven about anyone with even a modicum of faith kept me at a distance.  And when I ventured close, it was only to ridicule them, or debate them, and usually this only happened on my own turf.  And I wasn’t alone.  The sectarianism of the movement fueled me, kept me charged, able to proceed in my own grandiose delusions about the devaluation of belief.  It was pathetic. I was pathetic.

But something happened.  I don’t know what it is.  It was not stress, though some of my former ‘colleagues’ (I just don’t know what to call them) might argue that it was.  Frankly, I have never been able to put a finger on the variable that snapped me from my meaningless, selfish existence.  A lot was crashing down at that point, and among the debris I started to see the shattered pieces of the life I had been living scattered before me.  It was as if I had taken part in some archaeological dig and came across fragments with my image on them, and while I saw my face clearly in the shards I could not recognize the person I was seeing.  It was something from which I wanted to distance myself.

I struggled with this at first, tried to recall at what point my life had taken this awkward turn towards the path on which I had only just realized I had been treading.  But the only real memory I could find was the one that had kept all that aggression.  It was at that point then that I decided that whatever it was that had driven me towards this question had become irrelevant.  While I could easily recount the moment I left my faith in the Christian god behind, I could no longer find the emotion that I had, at that point in my life, useful; not nearly as useful as any of the questions that had begun to take its place.

I can easily understand, even appreciate, the confusion that followed (and, apparently, is still prevalent) when I left the movement behind.  But whoever I was then, I’m not now.  It is unfortunate that the Inter Highway does not have a time-concept.  That is to say, only a handful of the people who knew me then will read this now.  And more people will come across those words I wrote years ago and will be unable to separate that dead individual from the man I currently am (and from the one I will become).  It is disheartening, in a way, and hopefully they will forget the name of that person as quickly as they happened upon it.  But if they search me out, it is for them that I write this post.

For those who I left behind in my journey, I have no words of comfort for you.  I suspect that you are either filled with disgust, with acceptance, or are just noncommittal.  Maybe you’re working up a response.  Of course I welcome any discussion.  But it might be important now to note that I have not even yet ventured at an answer to the question ‘does god exist?’  I have refused to answer.  I do not wish to indulge your egotism, your wish to label me, to place me in some convoluted category.  To hell with that.  If you want to judge me, do so on my positions in other more serious matters.  Do not trouble me with your bothersome rantings about the pointlessness or the value in the exultation of faith.

If you feel the urge to tell the world your position on the matter, I pity you.  The question over the existence of god has ceased to be an intellectual pursuit in this radicalized society and has, instead, become one drawn-out session of  incontinence after another (and I’m being polite about it).  If you, adventurous reader, enjoy those sorts of discussions, of what I can only view as a form of masochism or the results of some type of virulent piety, then by all means, don’t let me stop you.  Just leave me out of it.

17 Responses

  1. I, for one, am happy for you that you left the atheist “movement” behind. It did seem to be crippling you, and you seem like you have much more resolve (I don’t know what else to call it) these days. I understand your reticence to answer the question of God’s existence, but I would offer – having very prominent biases as a philosopher and theologian – that those highest intellectual pursuits, such as discovering whether God exists or whether human happiness lies in contemplation, are really the most fulfilling for us as human beings. I’d hope your disregard for atheism has not blinded you to the very real goodness in philosophical (and maybe even theological) pursuits.

  2. I just don’t find the question at all philosophically useful. I know as a seminarian, this is the be all end all of philosophical pursuits, of which you are certain of the answer. I find that to be the antithesis of a philosophical investigation. Frankly there are much more interesting philosophical questions that I would rather spend my time on.

  3. I wouldn’t say it is the end of all philosophical pursuits for a seminarian or anyone else, nor would the conclusion be foregone except as in any other sense of investigation (every scientist is trying to prove a hypothesis). But if there is a being such as God, knowing about Him philosophically (not only proving His existence) or, theologically, participating in Him, would seem to be the highest goals of life; that would be very “useful.”

    However, all I meant to say was that pursuit of wisdom is a very good thing that I hope this move has not turned you off towards.

  4. Michael, thanks for clarifying. I stand by what I wrote above. I do not wish to be labeled, and so I will cease to answer the question. That includes all that goes along with it; including whether or not I find the pursuit of such a being a ‘high goal’ or not. It just bores me. I didn’t say it is boring to everyone, but I have no interest in such a question.

  5. When I saw this post yesterday, I was very interested for 2 reasons. 1) I knew you when you were active in the atheist community. 2) I still am active in that community. And I probably will be for a long time.

    Now while were were never very close during those days, I spent enough time around you to wonder how accurate your memory is about those times, especially how emotion may be clouding that memory. Yes, we were both a part of a small part of the growing atheist movement which was far more outspoken, passionate, and often declarative in ways that I think now were beyond epistemic warrant, but I don’t remember this person you refer to above. Perhaps I didn’t know you as well as I could have.

    But to call yourself pathetic is (unless we are using it closer to its Greek sense) an over-statement. And in terms of meaningless and selfish, I would not use those terms for you either. Yes, I do believe that in the grander sense all of this is meaningless (until we give things meaning), but neither you or your former colleagues were any more selfish than anyone else can be expected to be as imperfect evolved beings struggling to make sense of this absurdity we call culture.

    And so you left the movement behind. Fair enough. Nobody has to participate in the growing cultural conversation about the role of faith, skepticism, etc in our culture. But I think there is some small amount of disingenuousness in focusing on this question; “does god exist.” I say this because as a person who is very much a part of the atheist community, who reads blogs, writes blogs, and participates in other ways in the community, I rarely see this question addressed at all anymore.

    Now granted, I’m not directly debating theists anymore (except rarely). The reasons for this is I was never a theist, so I have no perspective to offer where other people do. My concern is with the interesting philosophical issues which remain concerning a lack of god in people’s lives, the relationship between science and faith, etc. I am interested in the discussion post-theism for culture,a subject worthy of consideration for many reasons , especially for a historian with an interest in religion.

    I am not filled with disgust at your post nor (perhaps more importantly) at theism or religion. I am fascinated and interested in the phenomenon; that interest has led to the opinion that they are intellectually shallow topics with too much linguistic obfuscation; theology is a topic without real substance.

    The bottom line is I don’t care what your answer would be to “does god exist?” The reason is that this question is possibly not answerable, and it is not the question that atheists or theists are really answering anyway (you really should know this). The issue is what people believe, and why. The same type of methodologies that historians use to determine the validity of some historic event, person, etc are the same type of methods I, as a skeptic (primarily; my atheism is a direct result of this skepticism) use on faith and religion. I see much of the same methods in your analysis as we skeptics use in talking about god and our culture.

    So, refuse to answer, if you prefer. That does not bother me (I do find it disingenuous, but you’re allowed that). But to make the implication that this community you left behind is primarily based upon ego, is pathetic, etc is really just more of that same pathetic temper you claimed to have left behind. You were mad at your former belief, and now you are mad at your former reaction to losing that belief? Is that it? Because that’s what it looks like from my point of view.

    I like you blog, tom. It gives me a window into an intellectual world I don’t live within. But you imply that issues about of millennia-old history, people, and places is more serious than the question of the role of faith, science, and skepticism in our current living world? I’m sorry, but that is debatable, not settled. Again, the atheist community is not just about debating whether god exists. It has evolved much further than that. Therefore, your attack against your former colleagues is a straw-man.

    The intellectual pursuits that we entangle ourselves in certainly do deal with whether a god exists, and that does continue to be an intellectual question despite some quasi-intellectual voices (and who are they, in your opinion, btw?) which persist. But I will not be pitied. I personally deserve more than that (have you read my blog recently?), and most of the colleagues you left behind do as well. Perhaps not all of them, but why not call them out specifically and not smear a whole community of intelligent, educated, and authentic people?

    I will keep reading this blog, as it gives me a lot to think about and adds to my worldview. I hope that you will not count us out completely, as I think we still have something to offer you.

    Shaun

  6. […] (A)Theism: A Brief Autobiography with a Word of Caution For those who I left behind in my journey, I have no words of comfort for you.  I suspect that you are either filled with disgust, with acceptance, or are just noncommittal.  Maybe you’re working up a response.  Of course I welcome any discussion.  But it might be important now to note that I have not even yet ventured at an answer to the question ‘does god exist?’  I have refused to answer.  I do not wish to indulge your egotism, your wish to label me, to place me in some convoluted category.  To hell with that.  If you want to judge me, do so on my positions in other more serious matters.  Do not trouble me with your bothersome rantings about the pointlessness or the value in the exultation of faith. […]

  7. I would like to throw my $0.02 in here. Although I agree with Shaun that not everyone in the atheist community, or I should say, active atheist community is an ego-driven dogmatic fool. There are many that are, and I say this because I deal with many of them on my facebook page (which is where I do most of my…”blogging”). I think it is important here to remember that Tom left the Rational Response Squad because he is following a different path, one that was inconsistent with the way RRS was doing business. One that deals in scholarly open mindedness. Tom perceived the RRS as being antithetical to his ends and he made many enemies when he was in the RRS. I think Tom has learned tolerance more than anything else. I certainly can’t blame him for leaving. I truly see nothing wrong with that. Research is his focus now, and his former self was perhaps not compatible with who Tom wanted to be and who he is now. And that’s ok. At least he’s being honest. I may not agree with everything Tom says, but I do agree that above all else, we have to be honest with ourselves and who we are.

    Now I do think that Shaun is correct in saying that this generalization of the people in the RRS perhaps is not the right one. I for one, hopefully don’t fall in the category of selfish, dogmatic and pathetic, and Shaun, as far as I know doesn’t either. I am still a very strong and opinionated atheist, my atheism comes from my knowledge of science. And as far as I know, science can explain our natural world better than any bible can. Anyway, I’m digressing…

    I think Shaun may have felt slighted a bit because he feels that you, Tom have generalized all of us as being ego-centric, pathetic and dogmatic… I can’t blame him for maybe feeling a bit slighted by that. And that’s the way it is sometimes.

    I will say this, my experience with the RRS was a wonderful one, mostly because it has allowed me to meet some wonderful people, like you Tom and you Shaun, among others… and not so wonderful people as well… but that is what life is about. :) In short…keep up the good work Tom, and you to Shaun, you both help me understand my positions on a number of issues much more clearly.

  8. If anyone feels slighted by what I wrote they aren’t reading. If anyone feels I generalized, they aren’t reading. If there is any need to show the dogmatism inherent in some forms of atheism, it is clear in those who are slighted when they feel that they are being attacked when, frankly, they were never mentioned. There is a reason why I entitled this post an ‘autobiography’.

  9. Shaun, I refused to answer your post initially. This is why I hate talking about this; because people who think they know what I’m talking about infer all sorts of crazy ideas from my statements. What is worse is when people infer things from what I say about themselves; I don’t know what kind of convoluted backwards projectionism has caught hold of you, but you are severely misreading my post if your response is the measure of your comprehension of it. Please take a minute to re-read it as my journey (note: autobiography). This doesn’t involve you or any other organization. Keep that in mind. If you cannot separate the two, then you need to figure out why.

  10. Tom,

    I wish no enmity between us. As I said I like your blog and have been reading it consistently for months now, and I plan on reading it in the future as well.

    It is true that the vast majority of the post above is about you specifically. Part of my comment was to say that I didn’t see you so dire as your memory seems to insist upon, but like I said I didn’t know you very well so I am willing to admit I was likely wrong about how you felt inside.

    But the last two paragraphs you broadened your scope of discussions, and talked about those you “left behind.” I assume you mean the RRS. Well, I was not there always, but I was there enough to feel like this might point to me and the otehr people who worked with them. Thus, the rest of the post could be viewed as talking about people like myself; people you have left behind.

    Now I think I know specifically who you have in mind, but the wording of your post was not such that it implies a singular target. And beyond that, I still have some things in common with that person, including an interest in the question of god’s existence, so many of the comments towards him also land on me. Thus, even if not intended for me, they landed there anyway due to those similarities.

    My fiance, in reading your post (she was an English major, if that counts for anything), agreed that your wording implied not only more than just one or two individuals, but all of your former colleagues, and possibly much of the atheist community. I do not have the ego to actually assume you had me in mind in writing this post, but your aim was general and I caught a stray bullet and was a little offended.

    I am sorry I misread your post, but there is enough ambiguity therein to leave room for this failing of communication. I accept responsibility for the mis-reading on my part, and hope that we can remain friendly, if not friends.

    Shaun

  11. I reiterate my point, Shaun: If you felt slighted by my post, you have only proved the dogmatism inherent in the sectarianism of the current atheist movement. If you think I’m being ridiculous, again, you just said you felt slighted. You read my post (really, it was just eisegetical on your part) in a manner which I never intended, and you felt slighted. That says something.

  12. Well… here’s my two cents as well. (OK… it’s at least a nickel…) I’ll start with my motivation for what I’ll call “moving on” as opposed to “leaving” RRS. I have two core beliefs that figured heavily into the decision. (For the record, as far as I know, and as far as my feelings are concerned, I’m still good with pretty much everyone):
    1. I am a behaviorist. That is, I believe that nature and nurture are not equal partners. A person’s environment is far more likely than genetics to cause belief and behavioral changes. The obvious extension of this is that to change a culture, you try to change the environment, not individuals.
    2. I believe that social equality movements are dynamic processes that follow relatively predictable paths. It is the manipulation over time of large groups of people through active changes in the environment (see #1 above). The “Atheist Movement” is a social equality movement.

    With these two ideas in mind: I think RRS — especially with the Blasphemy Challenge — filled an indispensable role in the formation of what is now the “secular movement” in America. But I think that its impact is substantially lessened now that America is “out.” When a movement goes mainstream, its spokesmen have to go mainstream. From what I could see, RRS was very content to internalize anger (however well justified) at religion and the religious, without working on effective mainstream ways to bring about societal change. Or at the least, I came to doubt the potential for RRS to accomplish the kinds of strategies I wanted to be a part of. Which isn’t a cut. Different people are good at different things, and I think there are still plenty of people who are benefited by RRS’s approach.

    Ironically, Tom’s mythicism crusade, or whatever you want to call it, was one of the reasons I decided I could do more good in other places. I just really don’t think it matters to Joe Plumber what non-Christians think about the historicity of Jesus, and I don’t think the argument for or against historicity is an effective way to encourage people to leave religion. It just seemed like so much soap-boxing without a target demographic or a long term strategy.

    In some ways, Tom and I left for the same reasons, I think. We both felt like we’d serve our target audiences better from a different pulpit. While I find Tom’s chosen profession intensely interesting, I don’t find it immediately relevant to mine, which is creating a primarily secular America. Not surprisingly, while Tom has shied away from addressing contemporary questions of theist belief (What does it have to do with ancient history?! Nothing!) I have shied away from the more philosophical and pedantic issues in atheism. As an example, though I have a position on atheism vs. agnosticism (and have left it up on my blog if anyone wants to read it) the truth is… I DON’T CARE A WHIT. It’s another topic that doesn’t change Christians’ minds. So I leave it for people who enjoy philosophy for its own sake. And there are plenty of them.

    In the vague direction of Shaun and Larry: I don’t care if Tom is an atheist or not. I care how he votes. I care what he believes about the separation of church and state. I care about whether his beliefs or votes aid or abet those who would turn America into a theocracy. And I don’t think he’s doing that in any way by deferring on the “ultimate” question of a god’s existence. In a volatile academic environment, it’s a prudent position. So I’m not offended by this bit of autobiography.

    In the direct direction of Tom: My favorite saying these days is this: “It’s not what you say. It’s what people hear.” We’ve talked about this at some length many times in the past. What I’ve *heard* from you is that you are a bit embarrassed by some of the brash things you’ve said in the past, but more than that, you’ve been upset that people have misinterpreted things you’ve said quite often.

    With this in mind… it’s obvious that people are *hearing* slights aimed at least in their vicinity. That doesn’t mean you meant it that way, but it does mean that your communication was not effective. Is this your fault or theirs? I dunno. But before laying blame, I’d encourage you to answer this question: Do you believe you’ve communicated your feelings in the absolute most effective way, such that the largest possible number of readers would hear precisely what you were trying to say?

    If the answer is no (and honestly… Bayes Theorem just about dictates that it must be) then you’ve at least got work you could put in on your side of the equation to try to find better ways to communicate your own beliefs without other people hearing unwanted innuendo.

    To put it another way, I think Shaun’s interpretation of your post is valid even if you didn’t intend it to be. Not that I think it’s the correct, or the most obvious interpretation, but I can definitely understand how someone (in this case, Shaun) could read it that way. In short, it’s not unequivocal. And as someone who writes for a living, your goal should be to approach the unequivocal as closely as possible.

    With all that being said, I think this is a good conversation to be having. It represents one of the best possible scenarios, in which several people began their journeys on the one train in town, and are now riding different trains in different directions — but they’re all still owned by the same company! In other words, the atheist movement has gotten big enough so that each of us can pursue our own passions, and we each have our target audiences, and we can each accomplish goals which are all part of the secularization of America. And that’s a very, very good thing.

  13. Thanks Hamby. Just a few things. First, I’m not a part of the atheist movement. I don’t hold the title ‘atheist’. I don’t agree with the term and flat out refuse to acknowledge it. Whether or not I believe in a god is a question I just won’t answer. I don’t want a label applied to me. I like the possibility of something beyond me, that doesn’t mean I do or do not accept that possibility. If that sounds confusing, good. That is my point. In this regard, I don’t want to communicate an effective answer.

    On the other point, related to the one above, my goal is to get people to challenge their own presuppositions. If my statement about ‘those left behind’ was vague, I meant it to be so. The goal of mine was to get those who read it to analyze for themselves who it might have been I was directing that comment towards. If they felt it was directed at them, and they thought about it introspectively, and came to a conclusion (i.e., it wasn’t about them or it was) or they simply ignored it, or refused to address it, they’ve (a) proved my point about the dogmatism in the system or (b) they have accomplished something worth accomplishing–they looked at their own philosophical and epistemological views in a way they might not have done so before; maybe they even looked at themselves in a way I did. I don’t want to say that the post was not directed at someone or a group of people; it was. But it was vague for a specific purpose as well. That was what I was trying to get across to Shaun; and I think during our phone conversation a bit ago I did. He might not agree with me, but I think he is at a better place about it now.

  14. P.S. I agree that your wording implies the entire group. I knew you weren’t talking about me since we talk regularly, and I know we’re good. But even with that being said… I’ve been known to pen the occasional position piece on the non-existence of the Christian god, and even to weigh in on matters of cosmology and origins (when pressed). I could read myself into this article if I was in a maudlin state.

  15. Tom, I’ll answer by the numbers:
    1. See what I mean about clarity of writing? Off the cuff, I said “atheist movement” when I didn’t mean to imply that you’re an active part of it anymore. You’re part of something different, which I think is relevant to aspects of the atheist movement, but is not directly concerned with it. I use you as a resource when Christians ask me about Jesus’ historicity. So… you’re part of the atheist movement — just indirectly. Aren’t words tricky!?

    (Or to put it another way, the question of god may be irrelevant to you as a historian who studies Jesus, but the answers you provide are highly relevant to many believers and some non-believers as a piece of the god-question puzzle.)

    2. There’s a bit of methodological presumption in your analysis that makes this social scientist uncomfortable. While your goal is valid (to target a broad audience and proverbially run something up a flagpole to see if anyone salutes), there’s no check for internal consistency. That is, you’re performing an experiment designed to measure dogmatism in a targeted audience, but you haven’t done experimental verification that your items actually measure the variable you’re targeting.

    In layman’s terms: Shaun and anyone else who feels targeted by your post might be doing so based on any number of other confounding variables, such as:
    * Poorly developed measures. (That would be, for instance… an item that intends to say one thing but has a disambiguation problem. I’d say you’ve got that…)
    * A hidden variable that has not been accounted for. (Could the appearance of dogmatism to the researcher actually be a manifestation of another emotion or motive?)

    In short… and in layman’s terms, I don’t think you’ve laid a good groundwork to throw a blanket of dogmatism over anyone who’s unhappy with your perspective.

    But then… that may not be what you meant to do… in which case… there might be a problem with communication :-)

    And by the way, Tom… in all seriousness. I’m smiling. Like I said, I think this is a good exercise, and I hope we’re all doing it with good intentions.

  16. […] least it should be–since I find the whole ‘does God exist’ debate to be dull and redundant.  But for others, I understand, it is a big […]

  17. […] ‘atheist’ thing is just weak.  I’ve even written a (very) brief autobiography on my rejection of atheism.  If I define myself in any way, it is that I’m a humanist and a secularist and an […]

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