Resisting faith: religious indifference, agnosticism and atheism
I have the intense feeling of living under the benevolent protection of a guardian angel. I feel that someone is watching over me.
You generally feel lucky. On the other hand, slum dwellers in Bangladesh should not often see angels passing by. Angels have their darlings. Why this privilege over those who are unlucky? Is it necessary to understand that an important part of humanity has to live under the malevolence of demons?
Since faith allows us to live better, it doesn't matter whether it is true or not. It's the result that counts: I live happier in the perspective of eternal happiness.
The argument that applies to an outside witness becomes inoperative for the person concerned, because as soon as he or she realises that he or she no longer cares about the truth, his or her faith loses strength and hope fades. Turning uncertainty into absolute truth and living according to unrealistic expectations are forms of lies whose placebo effect cannot be the basis for happiness.
With the prospect of the Last Judgement and the threat of purgatory or hell, the believer perceives death as an event with an uncertain outcome, and therefore highly dramatised. Atheism brings a more soothing vision: death is a natural event with no stake in it. Peace of mind more conducive to happiness is granted to those who trust reason. On the other hand, believing that faith is superior to reason condemns one to live in religious anxiety. Peace is displaced to the other world and reserved for the chosen ones.
A religion is true because every believer sincerely desires it to be true. Thus, all religions are true.
The need to believe is based on the following principle: "The religion I practise is the true one because I desire with all my heart that it should be so". This is an admission of bias that undermines the credibility of the argument.
Respect for religions
Human beings are entitled to respect, without exception. On the other hand, all ideologies and beliefs can be subjected to criticism according to criteria of rationality and respect for human rights. For example, the atheist can criticise Islam just as the Muslim can criticise atheism.
Is it offensive to attack a religious symbol? As an example, consider blasphemy. To take a step back, imagine a religion that reveres the Big Blue Rabbit and has decreed, among other things, that it is forbidden to depict the "Big Blue Rabbit" under penalty of stoning. Should all humans who have drawn a blue rabbit be stoned? It is better to take preventive measures:
The basic question is to understand and admit that it is allowed to live and evolve in a cultural basin other than one's own, but with a major restriction: religions and cultures are not equivalent, because one can assess how they respect human rights and religious freedom.
And one can never ask anyone, believer or not, to submit to confessional rules that are not one's own.
It is destiny, it was written
Whoever believes in destiny does not need to look left and right before crossing the street. Indeed, if it is not written down, no vehicle is going to run him over and he is safe. On the other hand, if it is his fate, even looking left and right, he will be surprised by an accident. Taking precautions, protecting oneself, all this is useless. Fatality will surprise him whatever he does. He doesn't bear the responsibility for what happens to him. This is very convenient, because he is thus relieved of worrying.
In Offenbach's operetta La Belle Hélène, Hélène cheats on her husband, King Menelaus, with the liberating argument "It's fatality". It is laughed at, because recourse to an inescapable fate is only legitimate in the face of events over which one has no control. But, from Hélène's point of view, this is indeed the case since she attributes the situation to the will of the gods. To each his or her role: to the gods the responsibility, to her the enjoyment of life.
Some people engage in risky behaviour: extreme sports, taking drugs, speeding at the wheel, etc. When we try to warn them about the danger, an argument is often put forward: "if it is written that I must die now, I cannot escape my fate; if not, I risk nothing". This is a variant of "God decides" as in Russian roulette.
Belief in destiny is attractive because it removes responsibility and fear. Unfortunately, it does not protect against stupidity. By following the reasoning, you can take any risk you want, even try to commit suicide: if it is not your time, you will come out of it unscathed. We bet?
Reason encourages us to identify the elements on which we can act to improve our lot, and to remain indifferent to anything beyond our field of action. We are not completely powerless, and our future depends at least partly on our behaviour. We therefore have a share of responsibility towards ourselves.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are we on earth? What is the meaning of life? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does evil exist?
The word "Why" has several distinct meanings:
While the first attitude should be encouraged, the second is desperate and sterile. The question "Why is there something rather than nothing" also applies to the existence of gods. Why should there be a god who is benevolent towards us?
«Is there so much to know?
[Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, Manon]
Why is it so difficult for us to admit that we don't know? It's raging that we don't know the whole story and we would have liked a better world. But are these sufficient reasons to promote a mythical story to the rank of absolute truth in order to build an ultimate explanation? I prefer to think that "Knowing that one does not know is the beginning of wisdom".
Our existence is not an enigma to be understood, but an opportunity to be lived.
I cannot accept that man is only an animal.
The animal nature of man is hardly disputed. The question is what is specific about man compared to other animals. Part of the problem may stem from contempt for animals, a feeling that needs to be suppressed.
The traditional Western vision grants man a human essence that places him in a position completely separate from nature. Tradition teaches us that a deep gulf separates man from the animal: while man possesses an immortal soul, the animal does not. Add to this the injunction of Genesis "Fill the earth. Rule over every living creature", and he who has received such a teaching must refuse to be just an animal.
Today, science is building a new way of looking at nature. We share 98% of our genetic code with the chimpanzee. We are discovering that animals have many cognitive processes similar to ours. In the tree of life, man is only a small branch in the immensity of the tree. The whole evolution of science shows a continuity between animal and human: use of tools, tool making, culture, self-awareness, etc. It is, therefore, no longer insulting to be called an animal.
«The Darwinian revolution will be complete when we abandon our arrogance [...], admitting that Homo sapiens is but a tiny twig, barely born yesterday, on the luxuriant tree of life.»
We have no serious evidence that man is a supernatural being, i.e. produced by the intervention of a spirit, according to a different process from that of an animal. The spiritual dimension exists, but it is subjective. Nature is not our environment, because we are part of it. The meaning of the word "animal" must be extended and enriched so that man can find his place in it. Perhaps you will agree to say that "man is a natural being"?
If, as an alternative, you think that man is an extraterrestrial spirit on trial on Earth because of the curse of original sin, you are in the realm of fantasy tales.
I prefer a natural, perishable flower to an immortal, dried or synthetic flower, but I am amazed at those who say they prefer a flower that is both natural and immortal. Giving an instinctive answer is unrealistic. Anyone who complains that the stones are too hard, I call them ridiculous. Believers imagine a fabulous and enchanted world where Christ has risen and where they will live eternally in divine happiness.
To think that the search for immortality is in vain is neither a modern idea nor is it linked to atheism, as shown by one of the oldest known texts, the "Epic of Gilgamesh". Our beauty is not that of a diamond, but that of a sensitive being who can, during the time of a lifetime only, love and think.
Only the fear of God can keep people on the right path. That is why the atheist is amoral.
In the Middle Ages, in order to prevent attacks on people and property, the justice system threatened to apply the worst tortures. But deterrence was limited, as misery was the cause of petty theft and it was common to see thieves praying to avoid being caught. Now we know that threats, intimidation and repression alone are measures of limited effectiveness, as can still be seen today in the fight against drugs.
Until recently, popular pedagogy considered that only the fear of corporal punishment encourages children to behave well. Nowadays, it is considered wrong to mistreat children. There is now a different conception of education.
To believe that only the fear of God and the fear of hell can keep people on the right path is a simplistic, partial and reductive vision of humanity. It is a very sad image to see only the selfish side of mankind. It is important to have a less despicable opinion of oneself.
On the contrary, it is a widespread attitude to be respectful in order to be respected and kind in order to be loved. Living in society requires respect, otherwise the situation becomes unbearable for everyone. It is not necessary to adhere to a religion to realise this. As far as I am concerned, I do not want to live in a world governed by brute force, and I am committed to the defence of human rights.
Man being an individual and social being, he is both selfish and altruistic, defending his own interest and the common good, but neither totally selfish nor totally altruistic. Everyone reaches an intermediate position of equilibrium. In the struggle for survival, cooperation brings advantages and plays as important a role as competition. Conscious of his or her dependence on society, the individual feels obliged to shift some of his or her vital concerns towards the common good. This disposition of mind, which is the result of natural selection, is the basis of morality. It seems simplistic to me to think that the atheist is devoid of morality since morality exists outside religions.
It is wise today to stop believing in the educational value of abuse and to give people more respect, more education and more confidence. In short, I would rather believe in man than in hell. True humanism is not religious.
I'm pretty much an atheist
Some people told me that they were "almost atheists" because they doubted the existence of God. But no, this position is that of agnosticism, not atheism.
Other people call themselves agnostics, while being part of a Church and participating in worship beyond the simple respect of social conventions. This is an intermediate state between belief and true agnosticism.
It seems to me that few people can define themselves in a coherent way. The majority are spread over a wide range of ill-defined intermediate positions. By navigating from doubts to hesitations, one can easily go from a counter-sense to a contradiction. It is an ordinary state of those who have been drowned in the smoke of indoctrination.
My definition of atheism
Since there are several variants of atheism, I will clarify here the meaning I give to this term.
The atheist does not believe in the judging God, i.e. he rejects the sequence of beliefs: « Human beings have a form of survival; when they die, they are judged and then rewarded or punished ». Thus, if God exists and if something of us survives after death, which is not established, there is no reason to believe that God gives us good and bad points to reward or punish us in the afterlife. In other words, I don't believe in the God of carrots and sticks.
This definition does not pronounce on the existence of a creator God and may be compatible with pantheism.
On the other hand, it disqualifies moral retribution. Thus, it also excludes religions which, without mentioning God, announce reincarnations, with or without cycles, which depend on moral behaviour.
However, my personal position goes further than this definition since I do not believe in any form of survival after death, which greatly simplifies all these philosophical questions. To put it bluntly, I use the expression "strong version of atheism".
Atheism is a belief very similar to a religious belief.
This article is a follow-up to From agnosticism to atheism via the principle of simplicity, but can be read as a stand-alone section.
You seem to confuse "Believing that God does not exist" with "Not believing that a god exists". Atheism simply consists in considering as unfounded any belief in one or more deities. One must first agree on the meaning of the words. A creative force is of interest to philosophers, but much less to mere mortals. The God we are talking about here would weigh our actions, record them in his infinite memory, judge us, allow himself to be influenced by ceremonies or prayers and sanction us according to the jurisdiction of our respective religions. In another culture, but in the same vein, after reincarnation, the shape of the new body (vegetable, animal or human) would depend on our merit.
On the other hand, some atheists believe in a creative God who does not judge us. They believe that the attributes of the God of the Bible were imagined by man in the image of kings. Since our behaviour has no consequences in the afterlife, we can completely ignore God. My personal position is a bit different: beyond physics, we can imagine whatever we want; there is no reason to choose a possibility to believe in it. The atheist does not necessarily deny the existence of God, but in all variants he definitively puts all divinity into oblivion. In short, the atheist is "he who lives without God".
It is not a question of establishing that God does not exist, but only that the probability of the existence of a personal God is too low for there to be any interest in getting involved in religion, and even lower still for a God who would have dictated guidelines to us. The possibilities that cannot be excluded by evidence are so numerous and varied that we cannot reasonably bet on any one of them. Atheism is also the realisation that no one - no conscious and compassionate higher force - cares for us. In Pascal's wager, the game is not worth the candle. The atheist renounces the bet and moves away from the gambling table of beliefs; he finds it more useful and constructive to invest his time and energy in the secular field. Wisdom consists in detaching oneself from utopias, i.e. in practising religious indifference.
It is incongruous to equate atheism with a religion. Between unbelief and a system of beliefs, there is total asymmetry. Atheism is an extremely compact act of faith since it is reduced to saying no to religion. It has little to do with a religion whose description requires at least one book and, more usually, a whole library.
Belief requires a creed, and atheism has none. Where the believer asserts that his God is true and that others are usurpers, the atheist sees illusions everywhere. It would be better to say: atheism, like every religion, is an ideology.
The atheist does not belong to a Church, i.e. to a spiritual community guided by pastors or leaders. He sees himself as an independent and autonomous being.
To use the terms "faith" and "belief" in connection with atheism, one must first have emptied these words of their religious content. Unfortunately, those who use them are often unable to do so. This is why I prefer to speak of "atheistic convictions". Whereas the believer aims to believe as firmly as possible, the atheist wants to reinforce his or her opinion that we must stop believing.
The atheist does not claim to hold the absolute truth directly dictated by God himself. He is satisfied with the modest lights of human reason. The mathematics I have taught has been atheistic. Thus, whenever I have said "3×1=3", I have deliberately omitted to mention the exception "3×1=1" for the mystery of the Trinity. Atheism is, together with religious indifference, a means of freeing us from the imperialism of religions which claim to dictate not only our behaviour, but also our thoughts.
While the faithful submits to the commandments of his religion to avoid Hell and reach Paradise, the atheist remains insensitive to religious blackmail. To say that atheism is a kind of religion is as absurd as saying "Abstinence is a kind of drug".
While many believers are willing to write an essay entitled "What I believe", my site could be subtitled "What I refuse to believe". As stated in my tax return, I have "no religion".
When it comes to beliefs, humanity is sick of the maxim "Better a religion than nothing" to which the atheist replies "Better nothing than the first belief that comes along".
For some believers, it is inconceivable to "believe in nothing". In order to cure their dependence on religious faith, I offer them a substitute religion: Adepts of Terminus (to be used with discipline and caution, like methadone).
Is religious belief a belief like any other?
This question can be answered by carrying out a survey and observing, using statistical methods, whether the intensity of religious belief can be correlated with other beliefs such as astrology, fortune-telling, palmistry, numerology, horoscopes, various superstitions, the intervention of spirits in daily life, telepathy, premonition, miraculous healings, the power of healers, the power of dowsers, homeopathy, etc. My hypothesis is that the correlation is positive, i.e. that there are people who are globally more credulous than others, in other words that credulity is only slightly selective. I postulate that the attitude of credulity consists in seeing the world as governed by occult or magical forces, as opposed to the rational posture which sees the universe as obeying natural laws. However, only a true scientific study can establish such a conclusion.
He who adopts an atheist stance displays an extraordinary pride.
What can be said of those who believe that their Church is the repository of absolute Truth? What to think of one who sees himself as a chosen one with a special bond with God? Perhaps it is not a question of pride but of megalomaniacal pretensions? The depths of the unconscious being opaque, this kind of judgement is out of place and cannot be used as a serious argument.
In many detective novels there is a character who explains events through the action of supernatural forces. But in the end it is always the inspector who is right, because he is based on rational arguments. Unfortunately, in society, police inspectors are in the minority.
Rationalism is certainly not a spontaneous attitude. It can only develop from a critical attitude that exposes the emotional attachments that are at the basis of religions.
«The doctrine of the chosen people is undoubtedly a product of the tribal form of society.»
Karl Popper, Open Society and its enemies
This is why a parallelism can be drawn between
In both cases, the movements are the same: from the guts to the brain, from a tribal way of thinking to universality and from an infantile state eager for the marvellous and supernatural to the age of reason.
The atheist is not credible.
I have heard believers, in particular two retired teachers, support the following theses:
I sincerely hope that the sincerity that emerges from my testimony constitutes a denial of such "theses". To be an atheist is a reasonable, defensible and honourable position.
As an atheist, you do what you reproach believers for, namely preaching and trying to indoctrinate.
The movement that you denounce goes from the propagandist to the population: advertising, canvassing, etc. As far as I'm concerned, it's the opposite: it's the Internet users who are looking for texts that answer their questions. I defend my point of view on the internet, it is true. However, only those who want to read me read it. My wife is Catholic, and I have always respected her faith. I refute that my behaviour is proselytizing.
I have not, like Catholicism, set up a system of indoctrination on a planetary scale. I behave better than the public school which subjected me to a very marked ideological education. I am content to defend myself. I am not at the level of action, but of reaction, that is to say, of resistance. "Disindoctrinating" is not indoctrinating! My main message is:
«Beware of "ready-made thoughts" that you are being asked to adopt. Do not capitulate to arguments of authority. Don't allow yourself to be dictated to. Take advice from a variety of sources. Subject ideologies to the criticism of reason. Maintain your intellectual autonomy.»
It is therefore a discourse to fight against religious propaganda. If you break your chains, it is not to accept a new straitjacket! Atheism is a path, not a goal. Other paths of liberation exist: agnosticism, rationalism, religious indifference, anticlericalism, etc. In this attenuated and open form, it seems acceptable to me to militate against militancy.
Let us be inspired by the Enlightenment movement which consists essentially of this:
«the removal of the man from the state of guardianship for which he himself is responsible. The state of guardianship is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guardianship of another.»
By becoming aware that they are largely a minority, shouldn't atheists learn to doubt?
To put the question in context, 8 % of Swiss people declare themselves to be atheists, which corresponds to around 650,000 people (in 2015). Atheism has become a relatively common attitude.
While the majority of the population positions itself along the axis of the heart "I hate / I love", the rationalist prefers the axis of the brain "Irrational / Rational". It is clear that the first attitude seems more sympathetic: the discourse of atheists is less sexy than that of religious preachers, who are able to make more promises than honeyed advertisements appealing to dreams.
Crosses in public spaces
The cross is, like all instruments of torture, the shame of humanity. The cross is a symbolic and purified version of the crucifix which represents the Calvary of Christ. The crosses placed in public spaces and on mountains proclaim the triumph of Christianity and its reign over society. Some are "mission crosses", which says a lot about the spirit in which they were erected. For me, they also evoke the crucifix in the classroom where, as a child, I had to repeat the catechism. I am relieved that this period is over, but for anyone who has received a Christian education, the cross remains a symbol that is undeniably religious.
Today, the tendency is to lighten the Christian heritage of a part of its substance in order to make what is left of it more acceptable. Passing the cross off as a unifying symbol that also has a secular interpretation - a man with open arms - is a historical misinterpretation. The past questions us, and we distort its messages. Perhaps the cross will one day become a secular symbol, but the announcement seems premature to me.
Crosses in public spaces cause discomfort to those who do not feel connected to an established religion. They must nevertheless be received as cultural heritage, and whoever accepts them in the landscape does not necessarily indicate adherence to a religion. On the other hand, I find it more problematic to defend crosses ardently, but not what they represent.
The adjectives attached to the cross are not without consequence. If the cross is a symbol that everyone interprets in their own way as religious or secular, then Christian activists can continue to erect new crosses in public spaces. I am thinking in particular of the ostentatious one on the edge of the A12 motorway in Châtel-Saint-Denis (Switzerland). Will this continue? It bothers me to pass under a cross that says to me "I bear witness to the Christian faith of this country" when it is my land and I don't feel Christian. Believers do not only worship God, they also worship to speak on behalf of everyone.
Since yesterday's society was permeated by religion, a consensus had been reached on the presence of crosses. With the de-Christianisation of Western Europe, public manifestations of faith become less ostentatious. Today's crosses divide, especially those that are intended to be hung in every classroom. Given the diversification of religious feelings, I am opposed to the erection of new crosses. Religious movements should not be allowed to take over the public space, be it mountains or schools. Since the cross is a predominantly religious symbol, erecting a new one is a partisan and inappropriate act.
The funeral cross
I find it in bad taste to place funeral ceremonies under the omnipresence of the crucifix. A religion that elevates suffering to the status of a model falls into a kind of moral masochism. It is difficult to do worse, unless you represent an impalement. Perhaps I am wrong to renounce a Catholic ceremony: just the thought of it could dissuade me from dying! More seriously, I don't want a cross on my coffin or on my urn.
I prognosticate that you will regain faith at the approach of death.
Religious hope is anxiety-provoking and overwhelming.
The practice of meditation allows, among other things, to relax and de-stress. These effects are explained by the slowing down of the metabolism (heart, lungs, brain). A state of consciousness of inner peace can take hold. Meditation also consists of getting rid of anxiety-provoking beliefs.
To ward off negative emotions, classic exercises consist of concentrating on your body, typically on your breathing. Personally, it is enough to focus on an emotionally neutral subject such as a mathematics or computer problem. An impersonal preoccupation soothes the deep movements of the soul. Whether religious minds like it or not, rationalism has a spiritual function. Awakening consists in becoming aware of the vanity of faith.
Just as rest is essential for the athlete but cannot be the main component of his training, the practice of meditation is a factor of well-being but cannot be a life goal.
Reincarnation is very trendy: it is a kind of ecological recycling of souls.
According to the Buddha's teaching, my present state (my suffering, my joy, my perception of the universe, my destiny, etc.) is the result of my past acts. In particular, my suffering is explained by my past lives full of negative emotions. My future is determined by the quality, positive or negative, of my present actions.
On the contrary, I think I have only one life and believe that the evolution of the universe is governed, not by the consequences of respecting moral rules, but by the natural laws of physics.
An inexhaustible source of inspiration
Intelligence is not magic, you just have to think of something stupid and say the opposite.
I was asked where I get my ideas, where the material that forms the framework of my texts comes from. I didn't have to go looking for them, because they imposed themselves on me. Throughout my life I have been surrounded by believers who have overwhelmed me with Christian visions mixed with neo-thomistic philosophy. By taking the opposite side of each thesis, I have frequently come up with something that makes sense.
This absurd behaviour can be explained: the believer speaks of love to hide the fact that he is governed by fear, which deprives him of his brain and leads him to subordinate his reason to the Doctrine.
Tartan and religion
If we had to choose a tartan, we would be guided by our favourite colours and personal tastes. A Scot could not do this, as it is his duty to wear the tartan of his clan, family, or institution.
This is often the case with religion: children adopt their parents' religion. In order to preserve the harmony of the relationship with the relatives, doubts should not be shown.
In the Western world, the situation is changing because social pressure is decreasing. At present, it should be accepted that everyone can give up wearing the "tartan" of their family, and even, may not wear any "tartan" at all. What folklore loses is gained by individual freedom.
Supplements and answers to objections from all sources
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