You Respond: The Phases of Belief and Disbelief
For details/rules, please see The Unapologetics Challenge.
The first entry in the Unapologetics Challenge is a blog by Godheval, The Phases of Belief and Disbelief, describing "militant atheists" who "rebel violently", "screaming and yelling" like "rebellious teenagers" who need to "grow up". These, of course, are how he describes so-called 'new atheists'. Presumably, he's the grown up in the metaphor.
Poor guy has ZERO comments! Maybe somebody can help him out with some comment love?
The Phases of Belief and Disbelief
As children, we believe mostly whatever we are told – by parents, family, teachers, and even friends. We hear a story and we do not know – until it is clarified by another – whether or not the story is real or make-believe.
Then as teenagers it is common for us to go through a rebellious phase – not necessarily acting outside of any established moral or ethical framework, but daring to venture out on our own, to establish our identities as individuals, and to explore for ourselves what constitutes “truth”. Sometimes we act like raving lunatics just to be contrary.
Then we enter adulthood, and invariably become more “grounded”, learning to temper our youthful passions, to focus that energy towards more “practical” pursuits. We learn balance, objectivity, humility. We are able – in most cases – to reconcile our personal views with the fact that others have different views.
We grow up.
It occurred to me recently that there may be a parallel between this maturation from childhood to adulthood, and people’s progression through different phases of belief and disbelief. Of course not everyone has the journey through belief and/or disbelief, just as we don’t all mature at the same pace or experience the same things at any given point in our lives. So the parallel I am drawing is meant to be generic and abstract, rather than a precise comparison.
For those of us who grow up in religious households, we are taught our parents’ beliefs, go to their church, temple, or mosque if they have one, and are saddled with our parents morals, ethics, and any baggage that might come with it. We take what we are given at face value, accept it as truth, due to the trust we place in those that have proven themselves by caring for us. But unlike our natural inevitable journey into adolescence, many people never push beyond the beliefs instilled in them during childhood, they do not dare to venture out on their own, to establish their own personal religious identity.
More often than not, those who do not “progress” beyond this stage are the fundamentalists of any given theology, the hardliners, the literalists. These are people who retain their childhood stories but never learned to look at it with grown-up eyes, to appreciate things like subtlety, nuance, multiple interpretations – like only appreciating poetry where it rhymes, rather than being able to read between the lines.
For those that do move to the next phase, however, some rebel violently against their former beliefs and institutions – or at least the most vile version or perception of those institutions. Perhaps they rebel due to a falling out with a parent or preacher or other authority figure. Perhaps because of some major discrepancy between what we’ve been told to think and what we’ve reasoned for ourselves or even directly experienced. This discrepancy usually has some noteworthy psychological impact, forcing a person not just to let go of their beliefs, but to run away from them screaming and yelling.
These are the militant atheists, who far from simply establishing themselves as individuals “free” of religion, feel some pressing need to return to their old beliefs and institutions with venom and fire, to criticize and belittle them. In this way they are just as tethered to those old institutions as they always were, their identities as atheists dependent upon there being a religion against which to rebel.
Just as angry teenagers do not listen to their parents’ reasoning, their attempts to defend their choices, militant atheists do not listen to the more rational believers, the liberal theologians. They are too busy screaming and yelling. They need to cast religion and religious people as villains against whom they must stand in opposition. The ironic thing is that they become the very thing that they are trying to rebel against, like the worst nightmare of any rebellious teenager – to become just like their parents.
The new atheists, who attack a repugnant version of religion, use it to condemn all religion. They use it to deny the reality and importance of the religious impulse. They are curiously unable to comprehend those who found through their religious convictions the strength to stand up against injustice…The new atheists, like all fundamentalists, flee from complexity. They can cope with religion in its most primitive and abusive form. They are helpless when confronted by a faith that challenges their caricatures.
America’s New Fundamentalists pp. 33-34
My experience with this involved some evangelicals and their implication that my mother, for her experimenting with Buddhism and other religions, would be condemned to Hell. Another example can be seen in the movie The God Who Wasn’t There, which presented itself as a critique of religion and the Jesus myth, but by the end revealed itself to be one man’s personal vendetta against his religious upbringing and parochial school. Much like a teenager finally getting to tell her parents all the things they did wrong in raising her.
Finally, though, the incendiary passions of militant atheism, like adolescence, are tempered through a sort of rational – rather than physical – maturity. We learn to read religion like poetry – to understand subtlety, nuance, interpretation. We learn that no one interpretation is necessarily right or wrong, but that they simply are. This is not to say that we become believers again, but we no longer categorically deny the possibility – or legitimacy – of believing again. And should we choose not to believe, we are able to make peace with religion, to reconcile our disbelief with others’ belief, to accept that disbelief is merely another interpretation of our experience.
To clarify, I do not mean to imply any qualitative difference between people at the different stages of belief or disbelief. I do not think that people at any given stage are better than any other, no more than adults are better people than teenagers, or teenagers better people than young children. They all simply have different ways of viewing and interpreting the world and their experiences within it. I do contend, however, that just as adults tend to be better educated, better adjusted, and to possess greater wisdom for their length of experience, those who have progressed to the “third phase” are also wiser and better adjusted. They are more capable of higher order thinking, more rational, more objective, and more established and comfortable within their identities.
They are independent enough to think for themselves, to make their own choices, and wise enough to look deeper into things rather than taking them at face value. They are secure enough that they no longer need to prove themselves against the standards or norms of another. They are grounded enough to no longer need to fly to the attack on others’ beliefs, or the defense of their own.
In short, they have grown up.