My Life Without Odin Barely Defines Me

Take this as you will, that is the way of things. You have probably read this before, written by other people in a more pertinent and concise manner, but if you have a minute or two and nothing better to do…

 

About a month ago, someone asked if I felt i was a bit zealous with my atheism. I asked them for some evidence of my zealotry (yes, always a stickler for evidence, damn these scientists muttering in my mind) and they politely backed down as they realised that my zealotry was based on presumptions. 

This may be due to my Christmas shows, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless people, which a few people seem to imagine is some rally where a gathering of excited atheists strip naked, smear themselves in the offal of dismembered papal emissaries and scream banshee-like as the high priest Richard Dawkins rears up on a mighty robot horse made of science. As those who have attended will know, it’s really a variety show with some skewing towards experiments with giant test tubes and a little laser harp jazz. I used to pop up on discussion shows as “the atheist”, but soon gave that up due to the temple throbbing lasting for days after the underwhelming televisual event. 

 

Late last year I wrote about my experience at Greenbelt http://robinince.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/uh-oh-a-liberal-atheist-writes-about-liberal-christians-this-cant-end-well/ and I may well repeat what I typed then, though not intentionally (the blog is free, please feel free to leave when you want).

 

I have always felt the term “militant atheist” is rather silly, a simple two word ad hominem attack, like “liberal intelligentsia” , “media elite” or “mule fondler”, a summing up of a character that means you can ignore what she or he has to say.  

Lately, I have started to fret a little that some atheists see their position of godlessness as the defining feature of their personality and agenda. Some seem to see the mere act of believing in any form of higher, seemingly mythicaI power renders that human an intellectual elf. I was amused that when I tweeted “I don’t mind these atheists, but these militant ones who don’t believe in any god at all seem to be going a bit far”, I received some furious tweets admonishing me with a fury such that the virtual spittle seemed  to spring vividly from my computer screen. This is the risk of RTs, once the context of the person tweeting has been lost, people don’t bother to stop and check before unleashing their unhappiness. I was amused, facetiously perhaps, that people who prided themselves on their rationality and ability to see through deity myths, did not take the thoughtful/sceptical approach with everything and had not thought to check the source or intention. That night I tweeted “being an atheist doesn’t mean you’re smarter. Being religious doesn’t mean you are more moral, being drunk doesn’t mean you’re Dylan Thomas”. It’s the sort of tweet that suggests I have been drinking and become loose with my fingers. Most people took it in the spirit I meant it; being an atheist alone doesn’t mean you must be smarter than your local cleric or pious bell ringer, just as their act of taking communion or pointing people to pews did not mean they were breathing the Olympian airs of a heightened morality . A few did suggest that being an atheist meant a higher chance of intellect and offered surveys that predicted as much. I read most surveys, whether they are about intelligence of the faithless or how the higher percentage of charitable works done by seventh day adventists, with my eyebrows arched. 

 

For a while I have worried there is a rise in the superior atheist, though I hope that is not true of most I know. I believe there can be a lack of imagination and experience amongst some atheists. We can gloriously bathe in the reprehensible examples of faith inspired misogynists, homophobes, terrorists and other thugs, and ignore the religious people who amble around us, filled with doubt, questions, compassions and a non-dogmatic view of the world. There are cultures and countries, where the repugnant, muscular hand of organised religion manipulates the populace. There are people who embrace dogmas, religious or political, and will refuse to view them with a critical eye, whatever the evidence might seem to be; old Maoists or Catholic die-hards who, while eagerly criticising other persuasions, will remain energetically blind to “their own sides” shortfalls. I am sure I have and will fail to notice my own shortcomings, while criticising those I see as opponents for exactly the actions I have been guilty of. It seems that is part of the human survival mechanism, though I hope I am becoming more vivacious in my eye for personal hypocrisy. 

 

 

I’ve gone off the point. I’ve been drinking. 

 

Free thinking can exist in a mind that also believes in some form of god. The Quakers, Unitarians, Anglicans, Reform Jews and others I have spoken to are not rigorously bound to text and hellfire preacher. Ask them to define their god and you will hear many and varied descriptions of what this figure, cloud or energy might be. As unnerving as this might be to a few non-believers, I have found many religious people whose beliefs are not a stumbling block to free thinking, it’s just that on top of ideas of particle physics, cosmology and evolution, they have a further belief that is liquid but present. 

 

The defining belief of my life is not atheism. I do not wake up and, when faced with the first quandary of the day, think “what would Sam Harris do?” (even when it comes to waiting time at airport security)

Atheism is a by-product of my other thoughts and beliefs. I attempt to be rational, hope to be reasonably freethinking despite the rapid flow of misinformation from screens and papers, and I hope to avoid dogmatism. 

Discounting people because they are religious. an atheist arrogance. I belief that by dint of not believing in some form of higher power, you must be smarter than your nearest cleric. 

 

I have reached a point of realising that the limits to my own knowledge are such that I might as well give up on the idea of being right, but that I can at least strive to be less wrong about things. This is not one of those statements that says there is truth in everything and so cultural relativism rules, there are many degrees of wrong. 

 

I have stung my hand on a nettle.

Well, dip the sting in milk, that will sort it out.

 

or 

 

Cut the hand off before the nettle satan transform you into furious vegetation.

 

Both may be wrong, well, you see what I mean. 

 

If I am an atheist because I see myself as a freethinker, then I should take that freethinking as far as thinking freely about religious people, and the breadths of people and beliefs that entails. An air of superiority solely due to godlessness sits uncomfortably with me. I will attempt to judge people by their actions and thoughts, not a label, which at least in my experience, seems far loser than some presumptions.

new DVD – Happiness Through Science is now available – includes 90 minute commentary with Brian Cox http://www.gofasterstripe.com is place to browse.

New tour has begun – Brighton, Maidenhead, Dublin, Belfast, Wolverhampton sold out, many more to come from Glasgow to Swansea, Spalding to Falmouth http://www.robinince.com

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38 Responses to My Life Without Odin Barely Defines Me

  1. interesting stuff Robin.

    Ive noticed a few phases in myself in recent years, including:

    anti-theist – (I was a bit militant, I had stuff to get out of my system)
    atheist – (until after a while I started wondering why I was defining myself by something Im not)

    and then just kinda living label free for a while until after a while I found Buddhism to be a helpful way to understand and navigate the universe and after some reluctance (being label averse by this stage!) I accepted the label “Buddhist”.

    Having “seen the light” (irony intended) I then went through a bit of an evangelical phase (over excitement as much as anything) but now seem to have settled down a bit and recognised, as you clearly have, that there are many beliefs and thought-systems out there that are worthy of respect and consideration and openminded, kindly attitude is more productive than a dogmatic or demeaning one.

    good oh, ttfn

    Rich

  2. I tend to think of myself as a skeptical rationalist, and it followed on from that that atheism suited me down to the ground. I’ve also never been a fan of the term militant atheist. I for one have never joined a training camp full of other atheists where the word of Dawkins was taught alongside proper handgun maintenance and killing techniques.

  3. Simon Grover says:

    Great post Robin. I feel the same way. Some people who declare themselves to believe in God get very het up just being in the same room as someone who declares that they don’t. It’s as if they assume I am trying to foist my views on them, to unconvert them. But I’m not. They believe in God? Fine. I don’t mind, I really don’t. And like you, I don’t think any less of them, or believe myself to be superior. I just believe something else. It can be interesting to talk about the subject with them, but neither of us can prove our belief to be true, and neither of our beliefs affects the other person. So why get upset? Whilst Dawkins et al have done a lot to make atheists a bit less shy about admitting they are such, they’ve also given the impression that all atheists are evangelical. But rather like most theists, most of us are not.

  4. I never thought that people who believe in God or even gods were stupid.

    However I do retain the right to think that believing in God is a silly-perhaps stupid thing to do … With the caveat that I also think absent mindedly fiddling with the staple remover is a stupid thing to do – and yet I still jab myself with it several times a day.

    • robinince says:

      personally, I don’t understand how, after learning a certain amount of why the universe seems at is, a god fits into the picture, I just think that for the believers I know it can be more complex than ignorance or stupidity.

      • People like George Coyne and Rowan Williams are demonstrably cleverer than me. I would also agree that they’ve put a great deal of thought into their faith, more than I have, though as an ex-catholic my decisions came after significant consideration. But very smart people can be very very wrong.

        I don’t evangelize my atheism and nor would I use the word stupid in direct debate as it would be needlessly provocative and hurtful.

        But on the other hand – if pushed – having looked through the arguements in favour of religion I can not put my hand on my heart and say I consider these to be issues over which reasonable people can differ.

        I don’t look at the debate (as I might on other issues such as economics) and think, “well I can see why you think that but I think the balance of evidence leans the other way”.

        I find arguements in favour of faith entirely without merit – in more diplomatic terms – and kind of stupid – in less diplomatic terms. I don’t think that to be mean or superior – I would consider many religious people to be cleverer, nicer more attractive people than me.

        But it is my assessment and why should they care what I think. I’m not upset when my ex-priest suggests I’m an idiot – it’s what he thinks.

  5. Penny Hayden says:

    We must always be aware that any belief/understanding can be perverted, lets not forget the role of communism in the twentieth century

  6. comedypunkz says:

    I think the “superior” tag some atheists adopt is because atheism has realised it has to shout loud in order to raise awareness of the dangers of and alternatives to, religion. Not desireable but probably necessary in the short term.

  7. Matt says:

    Well said – a great post.

    And the part about being drunk not making you Dylan Thomas goes a long way to explaining why my reworking of “Under Milk Wood” keeps getting rejected.

    “Starless and bible-black, I love you, you’re my best mate….”

  8. Zomboy1971 says:

    I generally tend to evaluate the worth of another person based on their actions, not their beliefs. However this doesn’t stop me from questioning aspects of faith which run contrary to evidence. Have long since learned that battering people with logic does not necessarily cause them to question their beliefs. If anything it puts their back up and forces them to come out swinging. So, I’ll say my piece and then get on with my happy, but godless life.

  9. Jon King says:

    Hi Robin. I founded the Shrewsbury Darwin Festival a few years back so I’m sure you can imagine the interesting conversations I became embroiled in with Creationists. I was discussing this topic just yesterday and I’m of the view that the term Atheist suggests I am against something when a Theist is for something; in the case of the Theist, that ‘something’ being a belief in something beyond our measurable, proven understanding of the Universe, so far. I would suggest that being content with our present understanding and happy to accept new scientific facts as they arise is the norm and that such a position requires no title or label. If one chooses to believe in something super-natural, unproven or observable that’s fine too but it sets one apart from the norm. So in that case the epithet for such people should reflect that it is they that are against something and not I.

  10. Andrew Hirst says:

    I always find it strange that certain atheists choose to devote so much of their time arguing about something that they don’t believe in. I can understand a Christian ranting on about God because they believe he created the Universe and has an everlasting love for mankind,which, if it was true would be pretty awesome. But in actuality, most Christians I know devote far less of their time preaching about God than my atheist friends spend preaching about their atheism and accusing religious people of being ignorant lunatics who will believe anything they’re fed. I am opposed to these evangelical atheists just as much as I am evangelical Christians or anyone else that devoted to changing other people’s beliefs or demonstrating the superiority of their beliefs over others. Dawkins on Twitter is the prime example of this kind of atheism – he’s a immensely intelligent chap, who, in his early academic years, produced some fantastic work on the unit of natural selection in The Selfish Gene but has produced very little else of interest ever since he’s been caught up in his atheist dogma. To me, it’s just as sad to see a great mind wasted to atheism as it is to see one lost to religion.

    • stevezara says:

      Dawkins has produced some wonderful books recently, an example being The Magic of Reality. But, back to the point, there are atheists who are arguing against belief in gods for very good reasons, such as that in some cultures (such the Southern States of the US) atheists are treated as at best second-class citizens, the belief being that without some supernatural thinking it’s impossible to be a decent human being. Atheists in those situations want nothing more than the right to be free of religious influence in their lives and arguing against the validity of religion is one approach to this. No matter how successful it may be, it’s surely not hard to understand the motivation. In the UK, where I live, it’s hard to resist a rant about religion when I hear the insulting nonsense about me (I’m one of those gays) that comes out the mouths of so many religious leaders. I’m getting better at resisting.

      Whatever you feel about Dawkins, there is no doubt in my mind that he has had a major influence for the better, and the public profile of non-believers has never been higher. However, his style is not my style these days. I like what Robin says here.

  11. Good Blog Rob. I usually forewarn people I’m going to be talk about Atheism using the following statement. “Look I’m not going to talk about religion or my lack of… as I have this fear of coming over all morally superior to you when I say I don’t believe in a god” At this stage people are almost completely comfortable with the next few mins of me talking about it and maybe sounding a lil morally superior!!

  12. Deborah Cowell says:

    Excellent post, and good to see some rationality. I’m a biology teacher, and currently teach some very evangelical creationists. I happen to be an atheist, but I don’t think this defines me. They expect me to get het up and defend the scientific angle of evolution. I must admit, I worry that their views will reflect badly on them, as one of them is applying to do biochemistry. As far as I’m concerned, somebody’s religious point of view is only relevant if it prevents them from looking rationally at the subject they are intending to study, and in this case it does. As soon as somebody declares that ‘evolution is only a theory’ they will be taken less seriously by university admissions tutors when applying for a biological subject. This pupil’s only reason for denying evolution is that it conflicts with her religious belief, and therefore is going to make her look less intelligent and rational, despite her excellent academic credentials.

  13. Paul says:

    Excellent piece – I was unlucky enough to see a video of a discussion between American athiests and Creationists a few days ago, and what was intensely annoying (and sad) was the air of bovine smugness emanating from the two atheists; we should perhaps remember that it wasn’t too many years ago that scientists were believing in theories and constructs that we now dismiss with a cheery wave, and in 50 years the same will be true of some long held and dearly loved technical beliefs that we have now.

  14. Ade Foiadelli says:

    Perfect. Reading this was like reading my own thoughts on a screen – if I were I little less drunk and a little more clever.

  15. Spot on Robin. We must never believe that we are more intelligent just because we’ve worked out that gods don’t exist. My atheism, like yours, is only part of who I am. There so much more to life and we’ve so much still to learn. We’d be fools to believe that a person with faith can’t teach us anything.

  16. pat says:

    Great article, Robin!
    Enjoyed reading it.

    I describe myself as having no-religion. I don’t believe in any god or God, and I don’t believe in dogmatism and blind altruism that some religions tend to bring out of their extreme-right believers MOST times. It doesn’t mean though that I deride a particular religion, especially as I have friends who are religous muslims, roman catholics and protestants.

    Being a no-religion person, I don’t think it makes me any less conscientious or any less moral because despite this lack of religious belief (or perhaps having this belief of not believing or subscribing to any religion), I still have my code of ethics or morality or whatever it might be called. As one of my favourite writers put it, ‘Evil is what is destructive to mankind’.

    Two of my closest, religious friends (a muslim and a roman catholic) have accepted my non-belief and we have had lively discussions on politics, religion and science, and I think it’s because we have come to understand that religion should not be something that keeps us from learning new things, or from listening and understanding ideas that come from others with beliefs different from your own. It pays to be rational.

  17. Hi Robin, it’s not being atheist that gets me stressy with religion. Yes, I think it’s a bit silly but then I probably have silly ideas as well. Lots of them. No, it’s being a woman. You can’t walk a yard into religious territory without being reminded that being a girl is not the preferred option. When someone says you can’t inherit equally with your brother/ become a priest/ well, we’ll let you doing the vicaring because, frankly, we’re short-staffed but the Bishoping, that needs a man., what they are also saying is you aren’t a fully adult human. In any other context that would be RUDE. if you read the Bible as a teenage girl, the only time you appear in it is as property, and property that’s really not having a good time. Same for all the other mainstream stuff including buddhism. The only religion that seems to value and respect women is the Pagan-Wicca continuum. Love ‘em.

  18. Vicky says:

    Reblogged this on girlinclouds and commented:
    I do like Robin Ince. He’s funny, clever and generous of thought. This is a good post, and reflects my feelings on the matter. I also like how you can chart his drinking progress as the blog progresses – there is at least one paragraph that has wandered into a ditch!

    Enjoy.

  19. Keeno says:

    loved reading this, and wholeheartedly agree

    I would have classed myself as a militant atheist, and thought belief in God made you thick as two short planks, or at the very least, a coward, due to holding onto a thought that makes death easier.
    but after living more and a few events which made me question the existence of a higher power/ force/ nature, I now thin that it’s the rampant abuse of power that offended me so much, and the closed mindedness of people who believe the Bible/ Koran etc. are the literal word of God. Now if you believe that, you are as thick as pig shit.
    So perhaps it’s more of a case of anger against corrupt institutions that angry atheist are expressing, rather than peoples beliefs in the infinite?

    • Keeno – I can’t help reading ” it’s the rampant abuse of power that offended me so much, and the closed mindedness of people” without thinking of that radical Jewish social reformer Jesus, who taught us to love each other as we love ourselves. There’s a lesson for believers and unbelivers alike.

      • Or to class people another way, thesists and atheists

      • Keeno says:

        ah yeah, I’m all down with Jesus. but his teachings seem at odds with the actions the organisations that grew up around him (i.e. Christianity)
        of course I’m talking about the top brass in these organisations (and mainly the Catholic Church and the fundamentalists whose horror stories reach the press)
        you’ve taken my point out of context though as I was just refering to those who take the Bible to be the literal word of God (Westborough Baptists Church as an extreme example)
        Hope that helps clear things up :D

  20. Paul says:

    I cant believe your blatent disregard for the truth…. Everyone knows your supposed to rub a dockleaf on your hand for nettle stings… Oh and good job on the gods thing…stuff…you know…

  21. GJ says:

    Father Christmas was fun for a bit but then I realised, if I kept believing, there would come a day I wouldn’t get any presents :) Good piece

  22. martin says:

    I get the impression that feeling obliged to scream and shout about our atheism is largely a symptom of having only just come to the conclusion that there is probably no god. For me at least I found that once I’d read god is not great and started going through the usual phase of watching youtube videos, reading the bible and reading any scientific accounts I could get hold of,I found it all so exciting that I felt I had to share it with people. Not unlike the evangelical religious. I also think there could be some link in the fact that the atheists many of us look up to, in many cases the atheists whose words helped cement our positions as atheists, are seen so often in debates with various extreme religious nutters and winning so convingly, that it becomes something we wish to emulate ourselves. I don’t blame the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens as it’s important that those debates were had, but I.think if we’re to get past this stage we need a new kind of significant atheist public figure to be represented by in the media. One that is more easy going, takes less enjoyment from debunking religious ideas and sets an example to newly realised atheists of not having to turn everything into a debate.Or at least knowing when to and when not to debate. I look forward to the day that this person creates whatever art, music, literature or comedy it is that will propel them into significance.

    TL;DR. Atheists need a new archbishop.

    • Keeno says:

      we need a Jesus who turns up and says “I’m not the son of God, but Rational Thought. and I come bringing messages of love and respect”

  23. jovike says:

    I don’t like the word a-theist (without God) because I am not without anything. Non-believer would be better, but I would rather be called a normal human being, a person, as it’s now the default to not be superstitious.

  24. Wise words Robin. It’s funny isn’t it that intelligence and rationality don’t necessarily correlate. I know many people “more intelligent” than me who are religious. How strange!

  25. Well I did wake up thinking of Sam Harris the other day… (there was this journalist from a catholic paper commenting on the growing (and alarming) secularism in French society, that pissed me off in my half sleep and I called out for Sam Harris because she was suggesting some kind of mediator between the seculars and the catholics.) But anyway.
    Came to the same conclusions you have. Hopefully yours are widely read and understood.

  26. Reblogged this on The Brain Exchange Podcast and commented:
    I thought this was an excellent written piece on free thinking. I think it actually is a good representation of what my own views on Atheism are. As much as actually looking at religious beliefs and systems are hilarious – what makes you better? Good read.

  27. jojofry says:

    Spot on! And you’re right, being drunk does NOT make you Dylan Thomas!

  28. Cubist says:

    Seems to me that in raw statistical terms, atheists (considered as a group) are more intelligent than Believers, because of what might be termed the ‘entrance requirements’ for the two groups. As an analogy, one might consider professional football players. Those people are very likely to possess a high degree of physical fitness, but it’s not because there’s anything about football which magically confers physical fitness on people; rather, it’s because people who are not physically fit just aren’t going to be hired to play football in the first place. Similarly, it doesn’t take any intelligence to just sit back and accept what your priest/vicar/imam/rabbi/etc has told you, but it does take a certain level of intellect to recognize that there’s no “there” there.

  29. Simba says:

    I wonder about the ‘militant atheist’ thing. I think that when you’re part of a group that’s not the ‘default’, and not visibly so, you’re not going to be identified as part of that group unless you say something.

    So then when someone thinks and talks about atheists in general, they automatically think only of the people they know as ‘atheist’- the people who talk about it. Because if you didn’t talk about it enough for them to remember you don’t enter into the question. And then on some level people start thinking that atheists talk about it more, because ‘all the atheists I see’ talk about it.

    Plus it’s the norm for people to talk about their religion in small ways during everyday conversation, but similar atheist comments can be perceived as less ‘normal’ and more offensive.

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