Sunday, October 5, 2008

Help! I Want To Believe!

by Denise Beck-Clark

It dawns on me that one thing more alienating than being Jewish in this Christian culture is, well, besides being a Muslim, being an Atheist. What poor timing: now, when this country seems to be at an all time high, at least since the 1950's, in its religiosity, what a time to come to the realization that I am, after all is said and done, an Atheist.

Writing these Blogs has caused me to have a revelation: I am, indeed, an Atheist. Prior to now I called myself “Agnostic,” but I understand that this was based on confusion. For, vis a vis the identity of God, I’ve been confused, all my life! I was raised by non-religious Jewish parents, who, when, I asked as a child, “What is God?” answered, “God is all around us. God is in everything.” They didn’t say “there is no God.” Nor did they call themselves Atheists. But I definitely was not raised as a believer in A God.

Because I grew up believing in “God as a Force,” this stopped me from calling myself an Atheist. Now, however, I’ve come to understand that when we talk about “God” we’re talking about the anthropomorphic God. God as the Father of Jesus. God as the Creator, Protector, and All Powerful Being that loves everyone unconditionally. God as the old man with a white beard and long robes, or, in whatever persona people picture this Being.

All my life, until now, I have found it reasonably acceptable to believe in God as a force because to define God as a force allows for stuff like synchronicity, and for believing that there’s energy out there that never dies but instead is re-formatted and re-cycled and provides, at times, a certain unity and logic to things. It’s God as Karma, God as a lesson, God as an explanation. But now I know that this is not the same as the God that people love and pray to.

I have found believing in God as a force to be mildly comforting. But I know that this comfort is nothing compared to the profound solace that is brought by the belief in God as an All Powerful Being who will love me unconditionally and have my best interests at heart at all times. It’s this latter belief that really helps people, and I sorely miss it. Because when the going gets rough, as it so often does, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this Being to turn to with absolute faith and trust, which would allow me, like a child trusting her all-powerful loving parents, to believe that yes, Denise, everything is going to be just fine. You’re one of God’s children and God is always looking after you. How comforting! No wonder so many people are believers.


Bruce said...


I hear you. I also want to believe. In fact, I call myself an "aspiring theist." By that I mean that I am an atheist but I really and sincerely want to believe in a Transcendent Spiritual Reality (God). It is just that I cannot.

The militant atheists (Hitchens and Dawkins) make being an atheist sound like it is a choice, but it is not. I did not choose to be an atheist. I just am. And I would love for someone to change my mind -- but being a theist or atheist is not a rational decision.

At the risk of being self-promotional, I have written a book that speaks to this conundrum: "An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Religion Succeeds and Atheism Fails." It comes out in July 2009. I wrote this book in response to Dawkins and Hitchens because I firmly believe that religion has done much more good for society than harm. In my book, I do not defend God (I do not believe in God) but I defend religion as a cultural institution. In the book, I explicitly say that I would like to believe in God, but it is not something that I can "will."

So I am not defending the existence of God, but the belief in God. And I think that religion provides many psychological, existential, emotional, communal, and even physical health benefits that no other institution can match.

And I argue that "science" cannot take the place of religious aspirations. This is what Dawkins, Hitchens and most hard-core atheists say: science and reason can replace religion. That is not possible. Science is devoid of "humanity." It is just a tool (a very successful one) to help us understand the natural world.

I give you a lot of credit. I mean, most hard-core atheists try to make a virtue of their disbelief. I think that not believing in God is an aberration (after all, 95% of Americans believe in God). But because militant atheists are so defensive, they try to make being an atheist sound like it is a noble choice. I am not sure how noble it is. I argue that it is really not noble for Dawkins to devote his life to debunking the beliefs that have given comfort to billions of people. Just because he cannot benefit from the consolations of religion does not give him the right to take that away from others.

In the main, atheism is not adaptive or conducive to life satisfaction, as numerous studies have shown. If it were, then it would be more widespread (via meme replication and social Darwinism). And atheism is certainly not a "choice." I did not choose it. And I think it is risible that atheists strive to make themselves feel "superior." Atheists are supposed to be "courageous free-thinkers." I do not think so.

I do not believe in God because I do not believe that God is real. But I admit that sometimes I would rather be happy than be right.


Melissa LaFavers said...

Denise, I can definitely see why you would feel the way you do. I find more comfort, though, in relying upon myself, the strengths I've developed in coping with the adversity that happens in every human life.
God was never as reliable a comfort as I am to myself. I know I can count on Melissa. I never could quite count upon god.

As for you, Bruce, I hardly know where to begin! I don't want to afford you the same zesty vitriol you directed at Hitchens and Dawkins, neither of whom I would describe as militant simply because they are fed up with religion exerting self-assumed rights to tell the rest of us how we should be living.

Whatever "benefits" people might derive from religion, they aren't worth the price we pay for the damage religion does to us individually and collectively. I could probably type for hours enumerating examples, but we all know religion's role in the atrocities that have befallen humankind for millennia.

We don't need religion for community, and we don't need religion for morality. Comfort can come from human connection, and we don't need religion for that, either.

writerdd said...

bruce, right on. I do not think that belief is voluntary. I also would not have chosen to become an atheist, although I am at peace with my "condition" now, and I'm no fan of religion. (I never was. I was one of those people who said "I'm not religious, I just love the Lord.") :-)

Please contact me about your book. Maybe we can feature it on Skepchick next year when it comes out. Sounds very interesting, even though my guess is that I will disagree that religion is necessary for community, etc. Maybe it does provide those things to a lot of people, but there are other ways to reach the same goal without invoking the help of an imaginary super hero.

Denise Beck-Clark said...

Bruce, I really appreciate your feedback. I am only just reading Dawkins but sort of assumed his viewpoint. I don't believe Atheism is a choice either; in fact, in my blog I was going to compare it to sexual preference as a choice or not but decided not to as I think the latter is more complicated. But I look forward to reading your book. It sounds like it will express many of my beliefs really well.

Denise Beck-Clark said...

I've thought a lot about your saying you would rather rely on yourself than on god because you have always been more reliable. As someone who is a great advocate of self-reliance, this sounds very attractive to me, yet the people I know who rely more on god rely on (her/him/it) for things which they don't feel they can control or effect. And, most people I have found don't have that much capacity for a) being alone or b) relying on themselves. Also, perhaps the reason you couldn't rely consistently on god is because (as "they" would say) your belief wasn't strong enough.

Anonymous said...

I'm just glad there is a place where people can write about this. I'm an Athiest, probably always was, though I do remember thinking as a kid in school that somehow the Greco-Roman Pantheon seemed more believable than the Christian Trinity - though I didn't believe in the Pantheon either. But talking about this with others is impossible at times - my mom has never gone to church and loathes organized religion; but last week she told me that she'd never be an Athiest, she hates Athiests because Athiests are "liberals who hate America."

Sigh... Whatever.... Never mind.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure what I am, I certainly do not believe in any God or gods, I dont adhere to supernaturalism or superstitions which sounds like an Atheist and yet I am very spiritual, I engage in rituals both privately and through my local Unitarian Universalist church, I meditate often, I do affirmations, I burn candles and sage, I just believe in connecting to myself as fully as I can-My deeper self and the Sacred Universe.

So...who knows! :( I understand the desire to want to believe though, it would make my spirituality sensible at the very least, I have a Christian friend who believes I chose to be Gay and she respects my choice though she doesnt agree with it, lol and I am sure she would think non belief was also a choice!