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Eliot Daley

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Welcome, Atheists. But, Really, Why Are You Here?

Posted: 10/17/11 03:26 PM ET

As a relative newcomer to posting articles in the Religion section of HuffPost, I've been struck by the number of "Comments" posted in response to my articles by people who are quick and loud to proclaim their atheism and the non-existence of God -- and equally quick and loud to disdain the rest of us who don't share their perspective.

What's up with this, anyhow? I mean, really, what are you doing cruising the Religion department?

Actually, I don't ask out of disrespect. I ask out of genuine curiosity. But en route to whatever comments this post will stimulate from the atheists among us, I guess I'll share my own thoughts and speculations.

To begin with, I am impressed by how often certain atheists' posts make knowledgeable references to elements of faith -- e.g., creeds, tenets, customs -- which would suggest these are disaffected veterans of church or synagogue life who, for some reason or other, are now vigorously renouncing earlier foolishness and still working at putting some distance between themselves and their own (or their parents') faith.

This makes me wonder if their quarrel is not so much with the God whose existence they deny, than with a worshiping community comprised of fallible and sinful folks who failed to reflect in their lives the hoped-for grace and blessings one might expect from a loving God. The rant that the church is full of hypocrites is old and tired -- and true. But many have been able to differentiate between these groups of people imperfectly connecting themselves to God and the infinite spirit of God itself.

Then I think, well, because there has been so much bloodshed by zealots of all faiths, perhaps they feel humankind would be better off not having any God to inflict on others or to justify sectarian slaughter. But I don't think there's ever been a reliable scorecard that would create a balance sheet between the good things done in the human community prompted by God-related inspiration vs. the bad things. My guess is that the good stuff wins.

OK, what else? They may have been reared on a concept of a God who arbitrarily intervenes in human affairs, fiddling with laws of physics or reproductive processes or whatever to effect miracles on behalf of that God's favorite human beings, to the detriment of the unfavored. If one believed in such a God, it would certainly create the conditions for chronic disappointment or even contempt, given the rampant pain and injustice in the world which such an interventionist God would, if loving and powerful at all, have long since set right. So certainly such a "straw man" God is not likely to sustain an atheist's credulity or loyalty but, rather, generate the kind of resentment that would reject Santa Claus for delivering not toys but a lump of coal in their stocking.

Another recurring feature of the atheists' posts is their confident assertion that we who experience God are victims of a delusion of the "supernatural." I think this is among the most mystifying notions, as though they had a sure grasp of the boundary between "natural" and "supernatural" or illusory. Can you imagine how the smartest human beings who walked the planet a few hundred years ago would have regarded the phenomenon of the cell phone or the Internet? No matter where I am in the world, this little satellite phone in my pocket buzzes or rings when someone anywhere else on the planet wants to talk to me or see me on a video call. I've got to believe that the most brilliant minds of the 16th century would have dismissed such a concept as supernatural and therefore impossible to give any credence. (For anyone who wants to push forward from this moment in history into a glimpse of what lies ahead as equally inconceivable right now, I recommend Freeman Dyson's wonderful book, "Imagined Worlds," in which he projects the implications for human beings of further advances in cybernetics, genetics and other key drivers of our evolution as individuals and as a society.) So a little humility on calling balls and strikes along the natural/supernatural boundary is probably in order.

Similarly, the atheists' posts pretty confidently declare a bright line between the "rational" and the "irrational" or emotional. This judgment reflects a somewhat primitive understanding of the workings of the human brain -- workings that are currently being illuminated by a cascade of research that makes pretty clear the astonishing integration of processes that meld left-brain and right-brain sectors and create interactivity between intuition, imagination and judgment in cause-and-effect sequences that render the rational/irrational dichotomy totally obsolete.

But giving up making black/white distinctions may be tough for some of the atheists posting here. They reflect a very confident belief in their own intellectual superiority and a disdain bordering on disgust for the witlessness of those of us who experience God. Beyond what I would have to call the relative immaturity of such a stance vis-à-vis any other human being (i.e., the failure to understand that there is a variety of intelligences), it betrays an unwillingness to learn from another. I have found that this kind of categorical dismissal of others usually works to my own disadvantage, shutting me off from opportunities to enlarge and deepen my own understanding of this highly complex and multifaceted phenomenon of human life in which we are currently engaged.

I like many kinds of music, from rock and jazz to classical. Last night I went to a concert featuring the Emerson String Quartet, playing chamber music by Beethoven, Barber and Shostakovitch. I found it enchanting, especially the wildly elliptical Shostakovitch. But I can imagine that if a deaf person had strolled into the auditorium and watched those four musicians on the stage sawing away at their instruments with stringed bows, the deaf person might have interpreted their efforts as a woefully ineffectual means of trying to cut their instruments in half, and offered them hacksaws instead. And the deaf person certainly would have wondered what in the world we in the audience were doing sitting there and watching their futile sawing.

I wonder if there may be a parallel between those who "hear" God and those who don't. Certainly many people, myself included, can be moved to tears by the beauty of music. And yet I know people whose lives are bereft of this extraordinary pleasure. It leaves them cold. I want to pity them, but then I remember what I just said above: that other human beings possess perspectives and reflect kinds of intelligence and find pleasure in ways that are simply foreign to me. Who am I to judge the validity and relative desirability of what they experience?

Which brings me back to my original question: Why do atheists frequent the Religion section? A perhaps excessively charitable speculation is that they are sincerely trying to free others up from wasting their time so they can live more fulfilled lives devoid of God. Not likely, but maybe. I don't want to think it's out of a desire to play the proverbial skunk at the garden party, posting here just for the fun of triggering the predictable and equally judgmental you-are-going-to-hell damnations from others. I admit that I have wondered if perhaps they are like the small percentage of NASCAR fans who freely admit that they go the races primarily in hopes of seeing a really hairy wreck. But once again, I choose to forgo making such presumptive judgments myself, in favor of learning from the atheists themselves how they would answer my question.

Your turn.