I read recently of a man quoted as having said he lost his faith in God due to the tragic, accidental loss of his wife and child. “How can there be a loving god,” he questioned, in a tone reeking with mixed anger and dejection. Such loss of belief isn’t uncommon. Out of outraged god-denunciation a new atheist is born, a temporary state for some, permanent for others. I am distressed that the terrible effects of this man’s personal disaster are compounded at that time by his loss of a comforting faith. Further, it saddens me to hear of atheism brought about in so painful and reactive a way. Personal loss-however tragic-is no reason for either atheism or theism.
Atheism is a state of mind unconvinced by arguments for supernaturalism. Atheism is not a declaration of war against the cosmos. It is not even anti-god.. (I’m aware that many atheists confidently declare there to be no god(s), but the word atheism simply means unconvinced, the absence of belief. Virtually all theists are atheists with respect to other religions’ concepts of god. Christians, for example, are quick to deny the existence of Hindu gods. This kind of denial is like adults finding that evidence for Santa Clause is so lacking that we feel comfortable in denying Mr. Clause’s existence, even though obviously we have no proof of non-existence.) At any rate, atheism, though natural to begin with (we are all born atheists), often becomes a reasoned, that is to say cognitive, choice in a world awash in religion.
Thought-generated atheism, born in examination and study, is likely not subject to a problem that stealthily lies in wait for tragedy-generated atheism. For them there is a hidden hook. It is that catch I want to discuss and, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the hook preparatory conditions. Part of Christian indoctrination is that we are miserable sinners without a savior, all in need of supernatural protection against fearsome forces including an Antigod, and without a source of either hope or moral certainty.
These depictions of abject vulnerability comprise the religious preparatory conditions, a more-or-less pre-dogma ideation conveyed in early childhood before reason development has an even chance. These beliefs become virtually hardwired, so tightly instilled into our youthful framing of reality that we thenceforth experience them to be as obviously true as that dropping a toy means it falls down instead of up. The view of ourselves as weak, ignorant babes in the wilderness sets us up for religion’s comforting temptation, for we learn that the wretchedness of our condition overwhelms our human ability.
Religion is ready with answers and solutions. In our impressionable youth, we are too young to apply intellectual tests to these religious contentions, tests such as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (popularized though not first stated by Carl Sagan). Any proposition (e.g., that God exists, that He is good, that we need Him) thus inculcated will seem as we grow up to be true without question, so obvious as to need no verification. There are individual differences, of course, but normally a whole complex of dogma is absorbed by each one of us, becoming beliefs that must be true because they feel so true. In effect, truth comes to be emotionally rather than rationally verified, that is, truth confirmed in the heart. To cement its feigned legitimacy into place, religious rhetoric transforms its faith-based “truth” into-let me say it reverently-Truth.
My point here is that we’ve not only absorbed the dogma of religion, but the religion-declared preparatory conditions: the horrid state of humanity phrased in such a way that makes religion the obvious solution. What we absorb is not just that there is a God who loves us and provides a path to our salvation, but that we have a need for a god who loves us and that we need salvation from something. Hence, we grow up convinced that life without God is fraught with helplessness without relief. That proposition is reminiscent of a syllogistic error in which the conclusion is built into the premise: Even though these despairing, needy human states are themselves inventions of religion, it is religion that seductively presents itself as the remedy for them!
Now, let’s go back to atheism as a reaction to tragedy. Framing of the human condition-those preparatory conditions so powerfully instilled-makes it emotionally crushing for anything, including trauma, to disable faith in religion’s solutions to those conditions (e.g., a loving God, salvation). While God-denial rips away the comfort and salvation of the solution, it is apt to leave undisturbed belief in the preparatory conditions that made religious solutions necessary. “How could a loving God let my baby suffer? I’m wretched, undeserving, and weak, and in need for what that God can save me from, but now can’t trust him to provide it. My life has become empty, unsupported, and miserable.”
And so out of deep disillusionment an atheist is born-but for very poor reasons-not thoughtful consideration, but grave disappointment. Due, though, to the preparatory indoctrination of spiritual poverty that still lives on, the new atheist may be forever haunted. He or she has “killed God,” but not belief in the fabricated need for God. So needless a despair! God will have disappeared, but the metastatic supports that necessitated that phantasm are still in place. God may have been rejected, but the preparatory beliefs about our condition remain unexamined. Newly acquired atheism under these conditions can cause depression, hopelessness, and anger. If, however, the new atheist completes the process-albeit begun by tragedy-by questioning and expelling the stealthy supporting assumptions, there will be reasons not to feel spiritual loss, but to experience freedom and self-sufficiency (mindsets that, for obvious reasons, religion frequently warns against!). To stretch a point, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will have proven sweet, for not only can the punishing God not be found, he, she, or it is not even needed.
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