Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nathan Phelps and the right of self

I just read the speech that Nathan Phelps gave the American Athiest convention in 2009 (http://atheistnexus.org/page/nate-phelps-2009-aa-speech) and I am stunned. It addresses a few things that I hadn't realized were present in my own life, such as the discomfort that Christians feel around a person once they know that they are not speaking with a fellow Christian, the terrible crushing feeling that he describes his own children having when they realize they don't want to go to hell, the questioning of why goodness can't just be a part of who we choose to be. The biggest one was letting go of the security of faith. That touches a lot of what I have faced in my life.
Often I have told my friends that I wish I could have faith because then I wouldn't worry. Why worry when you have a free ticket to the afterlife? What could be more reassuring that no matter how craptactular your life becomes, you will be in Heaven forever once you shuffle off this mortal coil? What is 80 or so years compared to forever?
I know this isn't as coherent as it should be, but the other thing that it touched on is my own unwillingness to associate with my own conflicts. I think the reason I can be an advocate for equality and free speech is because those concepts don't hit as close to home. The defense of athiesm promotes a strong reaction in me, probably because of the old guilt and shame associated with "turning away from God." Rationally, I'm at peace with it - if God exists, then he made me and understands. Viscerally, I'm not. Athiesm means owning your sins. There is no forgiveness, no blessings. Bad things happen to good people, and the best way to avoid most of them is not to single yourself out of the herd, not to become a target, yet that's what an advocate does is stand up for something that is not widely accepted. Even now, as I write this, I wonder how it will come to haunt me...if I run for a judicial position, will my agnostic beliefs ruin my chances? Will the fact of who I am keep me from who I want to be?
I don't think that other people should have to hide who they are. Perhaps its time I trust in that belief for myself.


Kory said...

While I did not come to the same conclusion that I believe you have come to (I ended up staying a Catholic) I can certainly appreciate the difficult soul searching (if you'll pardon the phrase) work that you are going through.

There are what I like to think of as atheists, who are the rational sort who just can't for whatever reason believe. And then there are the anti-theists whose guiding principle seems to be entirely dependent on rebellion. Clearly and thankfully you appear of the former category.

Faith by its definition is the defiance of evidence in the pursuit of a greater ideal. We all have faith in something, and we all have that faith shaken from time to time.

Don't mistake me for trying to evangelize here, that would be counterproductive. But as one who has felt spiritually blown about on the sea, perhaps it might not be such a bad thing to look at the different kinds of anchors.

No matter what you end up picking, be it Christianity, Buddhism, secular humanism, etc. I do suggest joining some kind of community based on that selection. Religion or philosophical ideologies are more than just a thing to help you make sense of the world, they provide you a context so to speak to frame your role in history, both in the past and perpetuity sense.

Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Agnosticism of its own accord is probably not too much of an issue, except for the fact that it’s so damn non-committal. At least the atheists have some kind of certainty, and they sleep good at night because of it. Agnostics spend their time throwing up their hands at the end of a very long dialogue with themselves and others and basically go, “Oh well, we’ll never really know anyway.” That’s why it’s essentially such an unfulfilled position. It provides neither the certainty of theism that we’re safely wrapped in the cocoon of planned existence nor the certainty of atheism, that human connection is all that binds us together.

The problem isn’t that you don’t have a faith to depend on. Atheists of the most dramatic order have faith in something, even if it’s just seatbelts and microwave oven warranties. Faith is really just the acceptance of the tail ends of probabilistic phenomenon. That is, it’s easy to have a lot of faith in things that are very likely to happen and very hard to have faith in things that are less statistically likely but the act of ‘having’ faith can be completely independent of those statistics. That is to say, I can intellectually understand that Harleys are more dangerous than automobiles; however, mine is blue and has a patent leather seat, so I feel good riding it.

Theists, atheists, and agnostics all simply choose what they want to put their faith in. And there are sliding scales among all of them into which bins that faith goes, with one side of the continuum as purely humanistic (individual) and the other purely theistic. Somewhere in the middle, we roll into the social compacts in their myriad of forms and the responsibilities that they exert over the individual. The interesting idea here is that they all primarily feel “compelled” to put their faith in whatever it is that they ultimately choose, whether it is by “evidence” or by “dogma.” Everybody can, at a time and place of their choosing, be off the hook for how they choose to allow faith to shape their experiences because it can always be delegated to external forces.

That brings us to the difficult part, and the converse. What do we choose to be responsible for? Atheists roll in with everything, Agnostics with everything we understand and don’t relegate to the unknowable, and the theists with variations from “nothing at all” to “our own personal choices.” The fact is that in each there are trade-offs. If we select staunch predestination, then we lose an impactful free will. If we choose unequivocal human responsibility we may overshoot the mark and become unforgiving of our own nature, circumstances, or others when it is necessary to allow us to grow or situations to change.

Advocates stand for a concept that, in and of itself, has no other feet. If all advocacy came from experience it would never be successful. Advocacy movements are usually only successful when the concept being defended gets a large margin of support from people who formerly held the opposing viewpoint. Up until that time it’s dissent, which is always unpopular because of its challenge to the status quo. However, the tipping point applies to advocacy, as well, and societies reach a point eventually where their endorsement of the concept, because they identify with it in some way, now overshadows their former rejection of it. It’s not the people on the side of an idea who eventually are responsible for its widespread acceptance; it is the people on the other side who have the introspection of character necessary to change their minds.

These are all just labels of the moment. And everyone is making the same choice with the same tools in response to the same pressures, both internal and external. However you choose to live, do so with choices that reflect certainty. The absence of certainty is what generates worry, not the absence of security. But, never be so certain that you decide your position in advance of the evidence for your certainty.