Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Understanding the believer and the nonbeliever

I've pointed out before that one of the frustrating things about being an atheist is having people tell you what you think. I've heard so many believers, from fundamentalist Christians to "spiritual" agnostics, explain what my point of view is only to get it spectacularly wrong on every occasion. It's getting to the point where I'm honestly of the mindset that once one is able to accurately and honestly articulate what atheism is, one has become an atheist.

The strange thing to me is that theists often turn atheism into something much bigger and complex than it actually is. Even when you flat-out say that all it means is a lack of belief, it needs to turn into something far more than that. It's frustrating, but it's understandable. With that said, it's my sincere hope that this blog entry will serve as advice to both the theist and the atheist when engaging in these debates.

When trying to talk to theists, it's really tempting to explain atheism by saying that it's the same as not believing in werewolves, leprechauns, The Smurfs, etc. We don't believe in any of those things, but we'd be convinced with evidence of their existence, and the same goes for any God or gods that might exist. This seems like a really easy and accurate analogy, but it doesn't work for the theist. 

And why should it? None of those beliefs carry the same history as the world's major religions do. Nobody bases their entire life philosophy on those beliefs either. People who believe in God claim to have a personal relationship with their deity. It's not like even like believing in other supernatural beings that actually do have a significant number of people accept like ghosts. To say that God doesn't exist would be to deny something that they would claim to know to be true - not just believe. It's something that affects their very identity.

So, to make an analogy with leprechauns comes off as ridiculous because a belief in God is not like a belief in leprechauns - AT ALL. I would hope that any atheist can see this and understand why a theist would bridle at the suggestion.

But here's the thing, and I imagine that most atheists reading this by now would have already caught what's going on here. And this is what I'm hoping that the believer will understand when this point is brought up:

To the believer, a belief in God is nothing like a belief in (insert supernatural being here). However, to the nonbeliever, the nonbelief is exactly the same.

What gets lost in the discussion is that the believer is talking about something that's more than just a belief to them while to the nonbeliever, that doesn't matter. However, the believer thinks that it absolutely should matter, and that's why it's not right for the atheist to be so dismissive. I'm not entirely sure what the resolution to this should be, as while I understand both sides, I ultimately think that the atheist is under no obligation to grant religious belief more weight simply because of the importance of the belief to the theist. Perhaps it's a reason to at least treat the believer with some sympathy and not just go for the jugular, but the burden of proof always lies on the person making the claim of something's existence, not on the person who doubts it. To suggest that it's somehow different when it comes to a belief in God is to elevate the theist position based on reasons that nobody would accept for anything else. 

Because what if belief in leprechauns DID become as important to people as belief in God? Would that affect the belief's legitimacy one way or the other? I would suggest not, and I think that most honest theists would agree with me there.

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