Recently every conversation I have had has devolved into, “I can’t believe you call yourself an atheist!” Then follow accusations of bandwagoning, shallow reasoning and appeals to the Courtier’s Reply or the mystery card. My favorite is the accusation that I, as a non-believer, am somehow limited in my ability to appreciate fine art. Ha, ha Houdini!
The odd thing is that this is all coming not from religious folks, ministers, rabbis or what have you. These have almost exclusively been conversations with secular, avowedly non-religious people like myself who – for whatever reason – don’t like my calling myself an atheist.
“Just don’t proselytize and we’ll be alright.” Somehow we atheists have been confused with religious fanatics, with a church and a creed and a militant lobby of non-believers out to atheize America and the world.
But what arguments have they offered in favor of belief? None, I’m disappointed to say. I kind of look forward to a good, respectful debate, but all I’ve been offered has been the claim that I am presumptuous, materialistic (contrast with “spiritual”) or a preacher in disguise. “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” I am rebuked. What does that statement even mean?
What I’ve learned about my “opponents” is this: they are all Deists. They all believe in some higher power which is ethereal, non-material, invisible, all-encompassing and completely devoid of any of the qualities most people mean when they speak of God. “Oh,” they say, “I don’t believe in that pedestrian, biblical God, or miracles, or any of that stuff. Ha! You atheists are so dumb you’re the only ones left who believe that crap. If that’s your straw man God, I’ll stick with the believers.”
So what do they believe in? “Spirituality,” “love,” and any number of heightened, pseudo-religious states of appreciation are the usual answers. The divine spark that separates us humans from baser forms of life. Intimate conversations with the deity. They believe in the God of Fine Art. A wireless iGod with infinite loving memory.
They can have their Terry Eagleton, though. Because none of these are remotely persuasive arguments for the existence of a god or God Himself. People seem almost embarrassed to have their intimate, personal deity confused with the huffy-puffy swordsman of biblical lore. Don’t they realize that religious folks probably lump them in with the atheists?
So let’s clear something up: atheists are not proposing any counter-cult to the thousands of existing cults out there. We remain unconvinced by them all. We are just like you, only we believe in one less god than you do (if you are Hindu or polytheist of another stripe, rest assured we don’t believe in any of your gods either). End of story. If this is so bothersome, most atheists welcome lively debate or exchange of ideas. We promote discussion and differing points of view. But if all you can muster against us is, “You’ll never understand the spiritual dimension of Mark Rothko’s later paintings unless you admit there is an immaterial plane where altered truths reveal themselves…” then I’ll remind you that that’s exactly the way cults of all types work. The truth can’t be revealed to you unless you give yourself over to faith.
So, if anyone reading this has any novel, powerful arguments for the existence of God (or the god of your choice), I’m listening. Until then, I’m happily godless and enjoying every minute of it.