The recent Christchurch earthquakes catapulted sign language interpreters into the news. We have always known there were such helpful people but now they’ve attained almost cult status. Their skill ranges from interpreting words such as “liquefaction,” a word few of us had encountered before, to interpreting rock concerts in the United States, where they open up a new world for hearing impaired fans.
Sign language is not the territory of the hearing impaired alone. We all use sign language – read, “body language” – indicating our agreement or disagreement, excitement or boredom at what we are hearing.
Any speaker in the public domain knows those signs. The rolling eyes, the downcast look, the nodding heads, the canyon-like smiles indicating your listeners wish you would go away or they are with you all the way. Watch any Christian congregation in action.
Most of us prefer listening to speakers who reinforce our convictions or our prejudices. We would rather read books that affirm deeply held and long cherished beliefs than be genuinely open minded and read literature by those from the opposite side of the tracks.
That’s why Philosophers without Gods – Meditations onAtheism and the Secular Way of Life proved a stimulating and slightly nerve-wracking experience. Edited by Louise M. Antony, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the book is an engaging set of personal essays by various academic philosophers who open windows on their various journeys into atheism.
Stimulating, because they make you think deeply about long-cherished expressions of faith; nerve wracking, because it’s not easy listening while informed thinkers tell you why they do not believe what you consider axiomatic.
But when the book’s reviewer in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, pointed out that, “Rather than the foolishness of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, these essays are compelling and sophisticated arguments that religious people ought to confront,” I read on and listened. Without going into all the pros and cons of the theism versus atheism debate, here are a few discoveries I made.
Atheists, like Christians, are amazingly diverse. They come from a range of backgrounds and experiences and do not fit the manufactured stereotypes we often impose.
It’s a limitation that all the writers in this symposium are academic philosophers, a domain that is foreign territory to most of us, but they bring to their quest for truth honesty and commitment to rational thought that challenges some of the pre-digested religious propaganda we theists sometimes swallow.
The first section of the book deals with their journeys, several of the writers being nurtured in Jewish or Christian traditions before rejecting the theistic environment of their upbringing to become card-carrying atheists.
One writer even acknowledged he is not “a cheerful atheist” whilst another, in a moving essay, Life without God: Some Personal Costs, claims that loss of clarity about what to do with his life was by far the most serious loss he suffered when he lost his faith.
Each of these “journeys” affirms how important stories are in making and shaping us. These atheist philosophers remind us that our theism, like their atheism, is shaped by our human stories and personal experiences as much as by any profound theological insights we may have worked out or been taught along the way.
The writers generally treat religious belief with respect. Their attitudes vary, as they will, but several regret that they no longer honestly believe their earlier theistic convictions. In some ways we share that regret, when it comes to letting go of long-held and sometimes cherished convictions with which we have grown up. Changes in thinking, lifestyle and expressions of faith are little deaths for Christians as well as atheists.
A common insistence amongst the writers is that secular human life presents a set of challenges to live life responsibly, to act morally without hope of reward, to find genuine fulfilment in human experience. It reminds us how easily we lift our faith out of the arena of human experience and concoct fanciful stereotypes of holiness not grounded in the actualities of human life.
H.L.Mencken, an avowed atheist and one of America’s leading and controversial literary figures during the first half of the 20th century, once said:
“What is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender, therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber stamps.”
The Church too easily becomes such a hopper where good Christians are pressed into shape and given the rubber stamp of approval.
Listening to atheists as they critically examine faith and explain why they reject it is one way of ensuring our faith and convictions will be shaped and moulded by our own thinking and journey, and not by someone else’s official rubber stamp, no matter how well meaning.
• Tom Cadman looks at life and faith through the lens of literature