I recently had this exchange with a Christian friend. I know him from back when I used to be Christian myself:
Jared, a Christian who attends graduate school at a Bible college in British Columbia:
I could not stop laughing at the irony of this [article about “atheist church” aka Sunday Assembly]
Dave Muscato, American Atheists Public Relations Director:
Just because atheists don’t believe in a supernatural god doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy each other’s company, music, hearing interesting speakers talk about interesting topics, and so on. We’re human, you know. I’ve been to some of these and they’re fun. You listen to a rock band, you hear a lecture from a famous scientist or activist or author or whatever, and get to meet them afterward if you want. Then everybody goes to lunch. Religions don’t have a monopoly on human social interaction… I don’t see anything ironic about the idea of atheists congregating. Congregating is something humans do.
“Just because atheists don’t believe in a supernatural god doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy each other’s company, music, hearing interesting speakers talk about interesting topics, and so on. We’re human, you know.”
This is not what I find ironic. You seem to be mistaking a social byproduct (and one very particular to religious expression in the West) of religious assemblies for their actual function and purpose. “Enjoying each other’s company, music, hearing interesting speakers, etc” is not a function or purpose of religious assemblies. This is at best only a symptom or byproduct of them, and arguably so only in Western and other developed or capitalistic regions. Outside these regions, you could hardly find any of the sort going on in Christian assemblies.
The fact that this is the perception you have of churches is yet another sign that you never were a Christian, despite your continuing profession to the contrary. I know that you love to pull that card as it supposedly adds weight and legitimacy to your “flight from faith”, but it really is not winning you any hands. But by all means, go enjoy your “social club” and whatever else that entails.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for religious people, church is more then that. Church is where transcendence happens. The thing is, since I realized that I was the source of those feelings, and not some external entity, I can have those same feelings pretty much anytime and anywhere I want to. I feel the same awe, the same sense on insignificance and humility, the same connection to something greater than myself – a connection to everything that is.
The difference is simply that I understand that my connection to all life on this planet is biological, not because every living thing was created by some agent. I feel a connection to this Earth in a deeply meaningful way, knowing that every bit of my body is made up of chemicals from all around me, and in this state of continuous flux, I return chemicals to the Earth where they are recycled into other things. I feel a profound connection with the sun, which provides not only light and warmth but the mass that keeps us in a stable orbit and the energy to power plants through photosynthesis, in addition to providing things like vitamin D. I feel a profound connection with trees, which supply us with breathable air, and a profound connection with the billions of billions of microorganisms living inside me, more numerous then my own cells, that make it impossible to say where what is “them” and what is “me.” I am connected to the rest of the universe atomically. When I look at the night sky, and I think about the fact that the light I see has been traveling for millions and millions of years, and finally ends its achingly long journey on my retinas when so many other things could have come in the way first, it amazes me.
I could go on, but the point is that these feelings of awe and wonder and oneness and connection are available to anyone who wants them. They are created by and in our minds, not zapped into us magically. When you experience your god in church, you’re really experiencing something your own mind is doing to itself. The music, the lights, the repetitive driving and droning rhythms, singing along, certain familiar words and phrases all play a role in getting you into this mental state, but it is a mental state. I know it’s tempting to give credit for these experiences to an outside agent, but that is the difference between a theist and an atheist.
Religion is always taking credit for human accomplishment. In this case it’s quite easy to demonstrate that those transcendent feelings don’t come from a god because atheists can feel it, too.
“Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for religious people, church is more then that. Church is where transcendence happens”
Well now, aren’t we so privileged to have you (an atheist) inform all of Christianity why we really gather as the body of Christ. I guess we should all immediately stop our incessant living out and manifesting the kingdom of God and start afresh with having “feelings of transcendence” and “oneness with everything”. Seriously, Dave, where do you get this stuff? Feelings of “transcendence” and “insignificance” do not heal the sick, or cause blind eyes to see, or crooked limbs to become straight. Feelings of transcendence do not cause one person to approach a complete stranger and tell him specific details of his past that only the stranger would know. Feelings of transcendence do not restore in an instant a woman’s awareness of her own dignity and loveliness after years of emotional/verbal/physical abuses of the worst kinds imaginable. None of this is made possible by “feelings of transcendence”. They are the natural outflow of relational knowledge of and encounter with the Son of God who is alive forevermore.
“When you experience your god in church, you’re really experiencing something your own mind is doing to itself. The music, the lights, the repetitive driving and droning rhythms, singing along, certain familiar words and phrases all play a role in getting you into this mental state, but it is a mental state”
Again, “mental states” do not accomplish all the aforementioned works. The more you claim to know about this matter, the more ignorance of it you show. You do not know what you are attacking. You stab wildly at the air in defense of a worldview you have pieced together from the one that crumbled some years ago. Why did it crumble? Because all along you thought it was about “feelings of transcendence” and “oneness” and “connection” and who knows what.
[I’m skipping some other comments that were tangential]
Is there any validity in the notion that an atheist like Dave, one who intellectually hates and is repulsed by any claim whatsoever of a “divine source”, somehow in the end finds himself living in alignment with that source? This is only conceivable if your teleology with regard to the ultimate purpose of the Christian life is “to live a descent life”. I see nothing in the Christian faith or the scriptures that allow for such a teleology so I am forced to call this notion invalid.
When Dave describes his moments of “feeling transcendence” and “oneness”, he readily admits that these are illusions – tricks that his mind plays on him when he is put in certain mental states by environmental stimuli. He further recognizes the tendency he may have to feel connection with something outside himself. Again, however, he has convinced himself that this is just an illusion, though nice to enjoy while it lasts. Perhaps, he thinks, because this gives his life a sense of meaning. Intellectually, however, if Dave really stuck to his own convictions and principles, these illusions are no more able to confer meaning for someone than the moment you appear to see stars flying around you when you receive a good blow to the head. Both are illusions played upon the senses by the mind. What warrant can Dave have in saying the one has meaning when the other does not? They are both illusions. There is no sense, [third person in the conversation], in trying to identify with what Dave has been describing as “feelings of transcendence”. What you are talking about is something Dave has not experienced and chooses not to experience.
Besides, experiencing God and His kingdom is not really a matter of “good feelings” or “good words” repeated over and over again is it. As Paul says, it is a matter of power – power to raise the dead, power to heal the sick, power to set captives free. What do “feelings of transcendence” have to do with this?
I don’t want to argue about the purpose of church… I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that, as far as magic healing and so on. I do need to point out, though, that your belief that I was never really a Christian isn’t justified. I believed that Jesus was the son of God, that humans were sinful and deserving of Hell, but that because Jesus died on the cross, if we accepted his gift of salvation, we could be spared that. That’s the definition of Christianity in my book. If you disagree, I’d be interested in hearing more about why. I think that the reason it’s important to you to believe that I was never really a Christian is because it’s hard for you to accept that someone could, having felt and experienced a real connection with Jesus, at some later point fail to recognize that. Of course, I don’t see it as a failure to recognize it; I see it as a recognition of what it really was all along, but we don’t have to get into that. I am sometimes tempted to feel the same way about former atheists I meet – it’s hard for me to accept that they were ever really atheists, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t.
The other thing I need to say is that I don’t “intellectually hate” nor am I “repulsed” by any claim whatsoever of a divine source. I hate and am disgusted by many of the behaviors humans engage in when their brains are infected with the virus that is religious fundamentalism, but that’s not the same thing. The claim of a divine source in itself doesn’t make me angry or disgusted. Anger is the emotion you feel when you perceive injustice. Repulsion or disgust is the emotion you feel when you perceive a risk of contamination. I feel neither of these. What I feel is pity and sadness. It may appear to be anger but there is an important distinction if you pay careful attention to what I write and say and so on. I am angry at people who try to use religion to bully others, or use religion to make other people suffer, or use religion to defraud people, or use religion to stifle scientific progress, or use religion to subjugate women, or use religion to justify bigotry, or use religion to justify war, or use religion to steal credit for human accomplishments. I get frustrated when I see people misunderstanding certain aspects of logic and statistics and so on, but it doesn’t anger me; it’s more just that I think it’s unfortunate that they are ignorant about cause and effect and magical thinking and so on. And the pity comes when I think about the people who do not understand that they are being taken advantage of or that they do not have to imprison themselves in rules that aren’t really there. I feel sadness because so many people are living out their one and only lives in a fantasy-land. That is what I really feel, not hatred or anger.
I do want to be clear that I think religion is the most vile, puerile, barbaric, and damaging invention humans have ever come up with. It is incalculably dangerous and has caused more suffering than anything else throughout history or in the world today. If I could rid the world of religion in an instant, I would without hesitating. But like science, religion can be used for good or for evil. What this really tells us is that morals are independent of and separate from both. Science allows us to accomplish certain things, and those things can decrease suffering (surgery, air conditioning, etc) or increase suffering (torture devices, nuclear bombs, etc). Religion can decrease suffering (cause people to decide to commit their lives to being charitable, although it is my opinion that absent religion, these same people would likely have made that choice anyway, e.g. working for a non-profit) or increase suffering (open any newspaper and take your pick). I do hate what religion causes people to do, but since people are also the source of religion, it’s really people who do this to each other—via indoctrination, via forced conversions, via state churches, etc—and people who do this to themselves.
Part of the reason I became an activist is that I want people to know that they can free themselves from the personal turmoil of being religious. The world is not some cosmic battleground between good and evil. It’s just chemistry doing what chemistry does under the conditions of observed patterns (we call them laws) of physics. Given enough time and the right conditions, chemicals can form life, and eventually you get conscious entities like us. That’s it. Existing chemicals on this planet and energy from our star come together to make up our bodies, we live for awhile, and then we die. Life is so short and it breaks my heart to see people wasting away their time, money, energy, and passion on something so damaging and so childish and so ridiculous as religion. There are so many better and more meaningful ways to experience life, ways that don’t hurt other people, ways that don’t put your brain in this self-imposed prison of fear. I want my fellow humans to enjoy the same freedoms that I enjoy. I want people to be able to express themselves through fashion instead of wearing what ancient bigots allegedly said people have to wear. I want people to be able to express themselves through dancing and art and music and tattoos regardless of what ancient bigots allegedly said is off-limits. I want people to be able to enjoy sex with whomever they want, given that we’re talking about consenting adults, regardless of what ancient bigots allegedly said. Life is just too short to live by other people’s rules, especially when there is absolutely no authority behind them.
If you want to know what it’s like to be free, the most amazing thing about being an atheist is that there is no such thing as a thought-crime. There is no one to punish you for being curious or for wanting to try a certain food or dress a certain way or be attracted to someone you can’t help but be attracted to (regardless of the sex of either of you) and so many other “forbidden” things. If you want to say “God damn it,” you can. If you want to sleep in on a Sunday, you can. If you want to genuinely help hungry people without forcing them to sit through a sermon first, you can. If you want to mock Muhammad, you can do that, too. I’m not saying there are no rules—we still do live in society and we do still all have to get along with each other—but people don’t have to be afraid of something that isn’t there. There is no cosmic judge. We humans are responsible for ourselves; we’re responsible for our own planet, for our own governance, for our own justice, for our own ethics, for our own mistakes and joys and meaning in life. Being an atheist to me, above all, is about being free. There’s no feeling like it.
– Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director
(908) 276-7300 x7