Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Difference Between Faith and Trust

It sounds awful to say, but I don't believe I have faith in anything or anyone. Before any of my family or friends react with outrage, please bear with me as I explain.

Every time I get into my car, I put on my seat belt. I do so even though I will probably not need it. In fact, if I were to drive a whole week without wearing my seat belt, it probably wouldn't matter. But I would never do that because of the statistics. These statistics are supported with evidence that I see on the road, hear on traffic reports, watch on the news, and hear about from other people.

So what does all that have to do with my faith (or lack thereof). One could say that I have faith in the traffic reports, the untested seat belt, or the veracity of other people's stories. I would disagree with that statement, because my attitude toward those things does not constitute faith, it constitutes trust.

Faith is the belief in something regardless of whatever evidence that may exist to disprove it. Trust is the reliance on something that is built upon experience. We are taught to have faith, but we learn on our own how to trust.

We learn to trust our family, because they provide and support us from a young age. We learn to trust our friends, because they support us when family cannot. We learn to trust authority, and authority figures gain trustworthiness based on performance or accuracy. We learn to trust ourselves, because we know our strengths and weaknesses. But when our family, friends, authority figures, and our own impulses betray us, our trust weakens. When we have no trust left, what can we rely on?

For many, people turn to religion. It provides hope and a stability that can be a powerful aid during times of crisis. It allows someone to turn off that part of their brain that calls for reason and just experience relief. It is the one place that can be counted on for acceptance, which is why when things are going so rough for people, their lives turn around for the better once they open a Bible or set foot in a church.

But what do I rely on? I rely on what I've experienced to be true. In my experience, when times get tough for a person, a family, a community, or even a nation, people chip in to help, regardless of whether or not the people know each other. Some do it for religious reasons, others do it for tax breaks, and others do it because it makes them feel good. But whatever the motives behind a person's desire to be help out, the result is the same: there will always be people who help people. This is not faith in humanity, but a trust in humanity. It is a trust that is fulfilled every time there is a natural disaster and help arrives, and a trust that is betrayed when help does not. But through it all, there will always be those who have a character to give it their all for the sake of their fellow man.

Which is why I don't have faith in my family and friends. I trust my family and friends. I trust them with my life.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Atheists: The New Evangelicals (Part 3: The Continuing Search)

Continued from Part 2...

And so there we have it. Older atheists such as those in WASH are bitter and curmudgeonly, and younger atheists such as those in the Beltway Atheists are arrogant and dismissive. Both groups seemed intolerant, and anyone who wants to be an atheist only has these choices to look forward to, right?

Of course not. The broad strokes that I've painted these two groups with go against the very creed implied in this blog. There are many different facets to everything, and in order to equivocate, one must look at all aspects. First of all, one common aspect was their atheism, which I share. Second, all seemed educated, well-read, and interested in a sense of community. Unfortunately for me, all these aspects alone were not enough to establish a relationship with either of these groups. The vibes of arrogance and intolerance were too much for me to deal with, because I came to realize that I was not simply searching for a group of atheists with whom to hang; I was looking for a community to where I would feel comfortable taking my future children.

Now, where could that community be? Where could one find tolerance of all, where the goodness of humanity was thought to be universal, where there was a unity of spirit focused on the improvement of life here on Earth? (You can tell where I'm going with this...)

The very first moment I set foot at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, I felt comfortable. I'm not a fan of congregations, because there's a little too much groupthink for me, but after sitting through the service (which was about unity through humanity and not through worship) I got to know the members and the spiritual education that was offered. To say that they were ecumenical is an understatement. Acceptance was a way of life, as was fostering a spirit of improvement, not just of the self, but also of the community and the planet. Focus was not on any hypothetical afterlife, but on the here and now. Good deeds were performed not to score points for admission into heaven or good karma, but to benefit the one mortal life we lead.

So it seems like I found a place where my family and I could go once a week and have a good time. Hooray! Yet there is still this little voice inside telling me that I'm being a hypocrite for praising a church, when the whole idea of organized religion rubs me the wrong way! But then I realized that it's not about me anymore. I have a child on the way; this is about her. I've already discovered my own path to truth, and it took a long time. By teaching my child what everyone believes in, she'll better understand the world and its people. And I feel this is the best place for her to learn.

No belief can be forced upon another. Just as democracy cannot be spread at the point of a gun, religion or atheism cannot be spread by animosity. The message has to be relayed by example. If a person is good and reasonable, then conversations can be held. With conversation comes education, and with education, ignorance and irrationality will hopefully be purged. It's not that truth will set us free, but truth will allow us to leap further.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Atheists: The New Evangelicals (Part 2: My experience with the Beltway Atheists)

Continued from Part 1...

So my first experience with a congregation of atheists turned out to be a bust. After watching Christopher Hitchens and Ayan Hirsi Ali on television, I was starting to think that bitterness was just part and parcel of being an outspoken atheist. Since I associate bitterness with age, I felt that perhaps a younger group might be more to my liking.

I found a more youthful local group with the Beltway Atheists. They met every so often in different watering holes in the DC Metro area, and I decided to hook up with them at a nice place called Busboys and Poets. It's a nice little place that's bar/restaurant/liberal bookstore. Basically, it's a place where people snap their fingers instead of applauding. The group members trickled in, and some ordered dinner, while others ordered drinks. Conversation was much easier with this group than with the members of WASH, and I struck up one with someone who had just passed the bar that day. He seemed a less excited than I would have been if I had passed the bar, but if there's one thing I've learned about myself is that equivocation goes hand-in-hand with being non-judgmental. At least at first.

I moved my conversation to a group who were lounging in the couches near the window, and it was at that point that the atheist discussions started. I was basically interviewed about my history, and I gave my autobiography (which is another post for another blog) and experiences with religion, which basically boiled down to this: I don't believe in anything supernatural, but I have no real problem with religious people or communities, as long as they don't harm humanity.

Well, a religious community not harming humanity was an explicit contradiction as far as some of these members were concerned. A summary of the members' attitudes could be expressed as such: "How could you, a reasonable man with a science and history background, not be outraged that people believed in imaginary sky gods and worshipped them? People should know the truth about reality, and allowing to believe in God would lead to more of the chaos and violence that we are experiencing today! It should be your duty to explain to these poor, misguided fools that they are wrong. There is an excess of tolerance, and atheists shouldn't be shy about speaking out against the mass delusion of the world known as religion!"

Where did this animosity come from? Apparently, it came from a sense of persecution, something which I found ridiculous. Sure, atheists aren't exactly the most beloved members of American society, but in recent history, the pogroms against European Jews would better fit the label of persecution than the disdain that atheists might experience. But then I began to pity some of these young men and women. Some had grown up in religious households that really messed up their heads. One young woman grew up in a home that not only didn't allow belief in Santa, but as a young girl, this woman preached to her fellow students about the sin that was Kris Kringle. Remember that brand-new lawyer? He was taught about the sin of sex and the purity of abstinence, and these teachings led him to have absolutely no clue as to how to talk to women. That night, the poor guy got sloshed on beer after beer, and it was embarrassing.

Religion messed up these people's lives so much so that it evoked a resentful emotion that I can only describe as an underlying sense of vengeance. Their Halloween party had the theme of dressing up as your favorite Bible character (since the Bible was a scaaary book), which I found to be mean-spirited. There was no room for live and let live. Someone saying "God Bless You" or "Merry Christmas" to them was tantamount to a racial slur. They considered themselves better than others, and there was a look in their eyes of righteous anger that I'd seen somewhere before.

I left the place (after expressing my well-wishes) with another sense of disappointment. Was there no place that I could just go and have fun? I don't need to talk about atheism with other atheists; I already am one, and I don't need my atheism to be validated by others.

And that look of righteous anger? Similar to the looks from members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of Atheists: The New Evangelicals...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Atheists: The New Evangelicals (Part 1: My experience with WASH)

As you may or may not know (or care), I'm an atheist. It's not something that I advertise or wear on my sleeve or even disclose without asking. It's just the way I see the universe; my moral compass is derived from many sources, mostly from personal experience, but I also include religious texts as sources of guidance. I mean, hey, if it works for so many, there must be something to them, right?

For the past couple of years, I'd been looking for a group of people to socialize with apart from my theatre friends and/or drinking buddies. I figured that getting to know other local atheists would be right up my alley. Boy, was I wrong.

The first experience I had was with the Washington Area Secular Humanists. I suspect that they labeled themselves as such because Washington Area Atheists has a worse acronym. The chapter closest to me meets the first Saturday of every month for discussions and refreshment at the Montgomery County Public Library in Chevy Chase, Maryland. When I arrived, I was instantly apprehensive about fitting in: everyone in the group was old, unkempt, and had no sense of style. I was also the youngest one in there by about 10 years. Looking at these folks, I couldn't see anyone there who I could strike up a fun conversation about the latest episode of Heroes or the travesty that was Spider-Man 3 or even marriage and babies. As the afternoon progressed, I discovered my apprehension was apt.

The meeting started with summary and reflections on the latest Atheist Alliance International Convention, where noted atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Ayan Hirsi Ali told their stories and publicized their books. (These are the world's leading voices in atheism today, and I know that at least 3 out of these 4 have appeared on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report at one time or another.) The WASH representatives who attended the convention gave the speakers almost unanimous raves and praise. Then something interesting happened and it gave me an unfortunate sense of disappointment.

One WASH representative reported on his experience listening to Sam Harris. Harris' philosophy on discussing atheism with religious people boils down to this: remain calm and don't get frustrated, no matter how frustrating or unreasonable a person may seem. The message seems simple enough, except that it assumes that all religious people are unreasonable. Worse yet, the representative giving the report explained this philosophy as if having calm and reasonable discussions was a novel idea! It was at this point that I came to the clear yet unfortunate realization that no group is immune to ignorance.

Refreshment soon followed, and I trolled around and eavesdropped on conversations, seeing if there were any that I found interesting. None were. All were basically the same thing: religious people are fanatics, look at 9/11, Republicans suck, Hitchens and Dawkins are fantastic. This was Bible study, but without the Bible or even the happiness and joy that can be found in Bible studies.

The discussion period then began, and the question posed for the day was "Is having moderate or light religious faith as bad as being an extremist?" For the most part, people said that not all religious people are extremists, but they are still suffering from a delusion. I found that the tone of the answers smacked of an overwhelming sense of derisiveness, as if these people didn't truly understand how non-atheists led their lives. I said as much when I went up to speak.

The meeting broke up shortly after, and there were continuing conversations in the parking lot. Using my history background, I explained to one gentleman that Abraham Lincoln, while not a member of any specific church, was a deeply religious man, and not (as the gentleman I was chatting with believed) a man who used the word "God" as just that -- a word. Great men and women in our history and today believe in a higher power, and I didn't think it was wise for atheists to consign those men and women to the category of deluded individuals.

The WASH meeting was a bust for me. The members carried with them a sense of superiority that I found disturbing. I realized then that I had just gone to a place that I was hoping to avoid: I had just been to a church.

Next, Part 2: The Beltway Atheists.