Atheism

11/23/2016

Atheism is on the rise in the United States.  Though examining religious beliefs in the general population can pose difficulties, according to the Pew Research Center, more Americans than ever don’t consider religion an important part of their lives, and over half say that it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.  But more importantly, atheists tend to be younger than the general population, so atheism is likely to continue its ascent in years to come.

The majority of atheists report that they never or seldom discuss their views with religious people.  But there are some pretty vocal atheists who would proudly bluster against the evils of religion.  So a dialogue on religious beliefs seems to have opened.

If we consider atheism to be a “cause,” I believe that religious people in the U.S. have, by and large, fueled it by painting an image of themselves as sometimes distastefully conservative, science-denying, harboring their own definition of history, and constantly striving to implement their views in government institutions.  But that’s not what religion necessarily is, or has to be.  Apart from its social function, religion can just offer a way to contrive more meaning out of life, whether or not you believe in the existence of the divine; like in much of Europe, religion doesn’t have to dictate social conservatism or replace science.

Let me be clear: I have a lot of respect for atheists.  To me, it seems that a reasoned atheist has thought out life more than someone blindly religious has.  But I think a few arguments against the existence of God are worth addressing.

In particular, one argument is the prevalence of injustice.  Injustice manifests everywhere, within our borders and abroad, in more ways than we could ever define.  What does that mean for religion?  As the argument goes, if God exists, the prevalence of injustice can mean one of two things: that a) God is unjust, or that b) God doesn’t have enough power to enforce universal justice.  The unfavorability of both options has nudged some toward the atheist, or at least questioning, side.

But I think there is a resolution to this issue.  For several reasons.  For one, reincarnation (alongside our friend karma) provides a simple explanation for the injustice around us: because we have each led many lives, what we experience now can be the result of our activity in past lives.  More generally, our vantage point can never give us the full picture.  So with reincarnation, it is certainly possible that justice does reign, though we will never be able to see its full context.

But before we even get to reincarnation, I think something more fundamental fails the argument that the prevalence of injustice disproves God.  What is injustice?  What does it mean?  For simplicity, let’s define injustice as good things happening to bad people, and bad things happening to good people.  We know that both happen, so it seems injustice prevails… right?

Not so fast, honey.  “Good” and “bad,” like “inferior” and “superior,” are only constructs of the human mind, so they have little objective significance.  They can mean pleasant and unpleasant, or agreeable and disagreeable, or beneficial and detrimental, or desirable and undesirable.  Moreover, we myopic humans have little capacity to know what will be good or bad for us in the long run.

To demonstrate that “good” and “bad” are relative (and mostly unhelpful) constructs, Swami Mukundananda offers the following allegory:

A man lives on a small farm with his son and earns most his living from a single cow.  Then one day, that cow runs away.  The neighbors express their regret on the man’s bad luck, but he dismisses them.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” he says.  But the next day, the cow brings back several more cows.  The neighbors celebrate the man’s good luck, but he again dismisses them.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” he says.  But the following day, one of the wild cows attacks the man’s son, breaking his leg.  The neighbors once again lament the man’s bad luck.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” he says.  But soon after, the son is conscripted into a war—but his broken leg excuses him from military service.  The neighbors once again congratulated him for his good luck.  “Good luck, bad luck, I don’t know,” says the farmer.

The point of this is, we don’t know what is good or bad for us.  If you still think justice and injustice are strictly definable, immutable ideals, you may not agree with this, but I will extend the allegory’s message to say that it may be difficult for us to judge whether or not God bestows justice upon this world.

However, a few steps back in our logic, another interesting point arises.  We can throw around all the arguments about God we want, but atheism and religion don’t have to be opposing parties.  For example, though Buddhists worship him as God, Buddha never himself claimed to be divine, and for the most part, Buddhism and its spiritual focus have provided many with insight into life that could almost be considered secular.  Though its standing pales in comparison, Hinduism also shares that secular tinge: there are many atheist, agnostic, and humanist Hindus.  The takeaway is that religion doesn’t have to alienate atheists as much as it seems to; faith shouldn’t be a stipulation, but an opportunity to explore the relationship between one’s mind, intellect, and conception of God–or lack thereof.

On the topic of faith, let me raise one last point: according to my understanding, a significant reason someone would subscribe to atheism is that, for the most part, there is no evidence for religion.  Our tools for proof can only quantify the material, and God is not material.  So, by syllogism, God literally cannot be proven.  But by the same token, God cannot be unproven, either.  We almost use faith and religion interchangeably, but does that fairly reflect what “faith” actually means?  Not really.  Where there is no proof, belief in something’s existence requires just as much faith as belief in something’s nonexistence.  So atheists are, in a very real sense, just as faithful as the religious.

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