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Friday, July 1, 2011

"I Sold My Soul On eBay" book review - part 2

In part one of this review, I discussed the merits of Hemant Mehta's very interesting book as a book. In this half, I want to address some of the things that I think the churches and people Hemant came into contact with seem to have failed to explain fully to him. I also want to discuss a few things from the book that struck me as not quite fully thought through.

Hemant does not believe in the existence of anything outside of the observable world. It's not just that he does not believe in the Christian God; he does not believe in a "spirit world" of any kind at all. This not only excludes Christian Theology, but it also excludes every world religion which contains deities, angels, life after death, or anything else "supernatural" (something that exists in or originates from a reality outside of our own). It also makes the title of the book a bit of a misnomer (Hemant acknowledges this in the book), since the author doesn't believe that he even has a soul! But the failure to understand the nature of the spirit world described in Christian Theology is the reason Hemant fails to understand a number of things about Christianity itself.

Before I get into that, I wanted to address two topics I brought up in part one: the racial mix of churches, and the animosity that many or most Christians seem to have for atheists. I think there are complexities to both of these things that go a little further beneath the surface than the book delves, and I'd like to briefly look at those to issues and plumb the depths a little more.

I fully agree with Hemant that most Christian churches seem to be, to one extent or another, racially homogenous. I also agree with him that a rich racial mix would be very desirable for any church. What I do not agree with is that this is necessarily a problem with the attitude of the Christians who attend those churches, or that it is due to worship styles that are unwelcoming to certain ethnic groups. Racism does exist, of course, and people certainly do have preferences as far as music, atmosphere, etc. which are culturally based. But particularly in the case of smaller and mid-sized churches, there may be some other factors. Smaller churches tend to attract a very local congregation; in those cases, the makeup of the neighborhood in which the church itself is located likely plays a big part. The racial makeup of the church may simply reflect a bigger issue in society as a whole: people of different racial origin tend to sort of flock together. Those churches may be very willing to accept someone from a different ethnic group, but if he doesn't live in the neighborhood, he may never come to a service.

In contrast, Hemant makes this statement: "Think about this: atheist gatherings are often a mixture of everyone in society. The people represent different ethnicities, ages, sexual identities, and races, Does it surprise you that secular people are leading the way in accepting others, no matter what their individual differences?" I think the idea that atheists seem to be better about this may be partly because, as Hemant mentions earlier in the book, atheist groups tend to be small and scarce. If there is only one atheist group in your town, you will have to attend that group or nothing. If there were atheist meetings on every street corner, as there are churches in some towns in the United States, you might see the same sorts of breakdowns happening in those gatherings.

As far as animosity on the part of Christians against atheists is concerned, I think that it exists in an odd kind of place in the American mind that can hold two completely opposing viewpoints at once and not notice it. I think in general Christians tend to be suspicious and a little bit afraid of atheists because the main times we hear about and from them is when they are doing something that directly assaults religion, such as trying to get "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance or removing a monument or picture of The Ten Commandments from some courtroom. When the news media reports these things, the perception on the part of the person hearing the report is that atheists are a large, aggressive, antagonistic organization which is seeking to eliminate all traces of spirituality from the world. But I also think that most Christians, encountering an actual human being who is an atheist, once they realize he is not going to take their Bible away and burn it right in front of them or try to force them to believe in evolution, will treat that atheist as a human being, with kindness and friendliness. They might try to convince him of their religious beliefs, that's true, but I don't think Christians as a whole seek out atheists in order to cause any kind of harm to them. I think it's a case of being fearful of "atheists" but not of "an atheist."

But let's talk about that "large atheist organization" that Christians may perceive. Hemant seems to say that it does not exist, that atheists tend to be more individualistic about their beliefs and activities, and I believe him that there is no worldwide atheist organization seeking to destroy religion in all its forms. But for a moment, if you are an atheist, consider the Christian concept of a spirit world in which there is a God who is the good guy, a Satan who is the bad guy, and a battle between them over humankind. The thing that God wants most of all in this scenario is the hearts of human beings. The only thing Satan can do to hamper God's plan at all is to turn human beings against God. Assuming that Satan has demonic agents across the globe, and that those demons have ways of influencing human behavior (I'd say most Christians do believe this), then no human organization is necessary for an assault on Christian beliefs to occur. It could occur through demonic forces, with a degree of organization, convincing as many human beings as possible that God does not exist, and giving them ideas of other things to do to undermine Christianity. I think that's where some of the ambivalent attitudes Christians have toward atheists may originate. When atheists do things that get them on the news in a negative light, say for opposing a Christmas display because of its religious nature, not only does it reinforce an us-against-them point of view, and not only does it assault religion directly (as Christians fear atheists will do anyway), but it assaults Christians on a cultural level that sometimes has little do do with their faith. I think atheists would do well to make pains to expose projects they do to help others to the world at large - humanitarian relief contributions to regions affected by hunger or natural disaster, literacy programs in low-income areas, things like that. Atheists might also do well to understand something that Hemant seems to have understood from the beginning: whether or not religious beliefs are true, more often than not they seem to turn people into nicer people. Why would anyone want to destroy something that has a positive effect on people?

I think a major misunderstanding on the side of atheists is to equate God, religion, and Christianity. The three are related, but they are certainly not the same thing, and to go looking for one in the other is going to lead to errors of understanding. For example: even if every Christian on the face of the world was a lying, dishonest, adulterous, murderous child molester, there could still be a God, and He could conceivably still be a Good Guy, even though his supposed "followers" weren't following His example very well. The failings of Christians do not prove the non-existence of God. Likewise, even if every church out there was found to be engaging in embezzlement and forced labor of congregation members, that doesn't prove that Christian beliefs are false. The word "atheist" means someone who does not believe in a god; realistically, you could reject God but still believe in a spirit world. And realistically, you could be an atheist but still accept religion as a positive thing. "God" is an all-powerful individual; "Christianity" is considering yourself a follower of Christ; "religion" is the set of rituals and observances that someone follows as part of their beliefs about spiritual things. So being an atheist visiting different churches is a step toward understanding Christian culture, but if you will not believe in a spirit world, you will not find God.

There were a few things in Hemant's "testimony" of converting to atheism that seem to me intellectually short-sighted at best, and dishonest at worst. For example: either God exists, or God does not exist. Whether I or you believe in Him makes no difference; if there is no god and we imagine one, it doesn't make him real. So saying that you "chose to become an atheist" seems to me to be nonsensical. It's like choosing to not believe in Toledo: whether you believe in it or not, Toledo does exist! So if some god does exist and you "choose" not to believe in him, you've done nothing but make a fool of yourself (at least, that's what the Bible says about it). If you think there is no such thing as a god, don't say you "choose to believe" that way; have the guts to say what you truly think. Say "I realized there was no God and became an atheist." Sure, it's not as live-and-let-live as the other, but it's much more honest.

But I think Hemant's original reasons for becoming an atheist are questionable. Saying that the "strongest argument for atheism" is that people question their parents' religious beliefs around age 14 is both bold and illogical. At age 14, young people are questioning everything. By that logic, there is a strong argument for promiscuity and teen pregnancy, driving recklessly, teen alcohol use, and all sorts of other things that parents of teenagers oppose. Fourteen-year-olds can't even vote for mayor; as a society we have decided that they are not yet ready to fully understand a question that big. How much bigger is the question "does God exist?" I'm not saying that teenagers shouldn't make up their own minds about big questions; I know a lot of very intelligent, responsible teenagers. But having questions in your mind when you are fourteen is proof of only one thing: you are fourteen.

Hemant relates a story about his sister that he says sort of pushed him over the edge from I'm-not-quite-sure to there-is-no-god. During that questioning fourteenth year of his, his sister voluntarily participated in a grueling religious fast which was probably inadvisable for a child of her age, and her parents let her do it. Watching his sister suffer for her religion was the straw that broke the camel's back for him; if his religion would allow that, then God must not exist. This is an example of that muddled thinking I mentioned earlier, where religious rituals determine the existence of God, like whether I own a DVD of Iron Man determines the existence of Hollywood. The existence of the Paryushana fast, the fact that Hemant's parents allowed his sister to participate, the fact that it was very hard for her... those things don't have anything to do with the existence of any god. For something like that to be the deciding factor in whether a person believes in the existence of a god or not is irrational, emotional, and anti-intellectual. If god exists and I drive a red car, God still exists. If God does not exist and I drive a green car, God still does not exist. The set of rituals a believer in a religion follows have no bearing on the existence of the deity they say they are doing them for.

For the next several weeks, I'm going to take Fridays out to address some of the questions people pose about the existence of God. Part of the reason I know about these questions is because I've asked them myself. I've read C. S. Lewis and I've read Lee Strobel and I've read other stuff, but I'm going to really try not to regurgitate anything I've read somewhere else without thinking it through for myself. These issues are too important to gloss over. Please join me over the next few weeks; comments are always welcome (I do moderate them, but only to avoid spam and offensive language, so keep it clean and civil and there won't be a problem); I pretty much always reply to comments on my blog posts, so feel free to debate if you are so inclined.

Hemant stopped by and checked out this post and Part 1, and he had a few clarifications to add:

-- Fair point about how, if there's only 1 atheist group, it's more likely to be heterogeneous.

-- I think getting "Under God" out of the Pledge and getting the Ten Commandments out of the courtroom are not assaults on religion (as many Christians perceive). I see it as the government endorsing Christianity over others faiths and no faiths. All the atheist groups want is for the government to stay out of the religion business. Many pastors agree with us when it comes to that. (Also, realize that no atheist group has ever tried to stop a child from praying on their own in a school... or a church from praying on a Sunday. We're only interested when public officials try to force their Christianity on others.) I think that's worth clarifying.

-- You're right that pointing out dickish Christians doesn't prove god doesn't exist. But when soooooo many Christians are hypocrites, anti-gay, anti-women, etc, it's easy to show that believing in god doesn't make you a better person, which is a claim a lot of theists love to make. When my sister was suffering during her fast, that wasn't proof god didn't exist. That was evidence suggesting Jainism isn't always a force for good and maybe I need to rethink what I've always believed.

-- Perhaps saying "I chose to be an atheist" was a bad phrase on my part. But so is "I realized there was no god." I think the appropriate thing to say is "There's no evidence god exists" and leave it at that. If Christians want to claim something exists that we can't see/hear/touch, then the onus is on them to prove it. That's a point I've tried to stress on my blog if not my book.

-- It's true that I began questioning god at 14, and that's an age when many things are called into question. Though, it's unfair to say "there is a strong argument for promiscuity and teen pregnancy, driving recklessly, teen alcohol use, and all sorts of other things that parents of teenagers oppose." I'd love to hear your version of the arguments teens make in favor of those things. I think that's a strawman. Anyway, I began questioning then, but it's not like I stopped reading about religion or questioning faith immediately after that. I've been doing those things ever since. And my atheism simply hasn't wavered. I was right then and I've only had that confirmed ever since. To say that my thinking is invalid because I became an atheist at 14 is unfair. (And I know plenty of Christians in youth groups at that age. Do you say they're being silly because they think they "know Christ" at 14?)

Good points all! Thanks for visiting, Hemant! Don't forget to stop by his own blog,!

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