Our resident challenger of dogma in the Catholica Forum, James, has been on another of his jaunts through South America and meeting with some South American writers whose work he has been translating. He has kindly secured for us here at Catholica permission to publish a series of essays that have been published in Spanish under the title The Manual de Ateologia, published by Tierra Firme Editores, Bogota. The English title is The Manual of Atheology and it is a collection of 16 Colombian personalities who explain why they do not believe in God. This first essay, entitled "Soft Atheism" is by Héctor Abad Faciolince whose book Oblivion: A Memoir which has sold well through Catholica as a result of the attention James drew to this book some time ago. [See the further explanation in our forum HERE as to why we believe it is worth publishing these viewpoints on Catholica] ...Brian Coyne, editor
by Héctor Abad Faciolince
During my adolescence, I had some moments of inner struggle and even anguish while reading Bertrand Russell, arguing with my friends, thinking on my own, and then coming to the conclusion that I was not going to believe in God anymore. Ceasing to believe in Santa Claus, Purgatory or that Mary was a virgin, was not very difficult. But to reject a belief in the most powerful being that one could imagine, in the greatest idea that my mother, my grandmother and my teachers had taught me from the time I was a little kid, was not so simple. It is true that my father, an agnostic, had always said to me that he did not know if God existed or not, and he wavered one way or the other depending on the time of day.
"Love God above all else," said the First Commandment; "I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible," begins the Creed; "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name," intones the Our Father. These three phrases, like three rhythmic mantras rigidly imprinted in blood on your neurones, hammer away at the mind like a sharp and inescapable command of a distant, silent, unknown power, and they are even more potent the more unknown, distant and silent the power is. Even today, after being an atheist for more than 30 years, I remember these prayers, and I can even grant them an undoubted poetic charm.
The Our Father, for example, has the great virtue of being a long poem without one adjective, and the lack of rhetorical flourishes makes it more effective, a sober elegance similar to the great Romanesque basilicas. Jorge Luis Borges, who was an atheist, and did not believe in a life after death, died reciting the Our Father in English, not because he believed in anything expressed in the prayer, but because of the serenity that rhythmic words have when they are well written.
Those who have believed in God over the centuries, over millennia, have not been imbeciles. Nor have they been bad poets, painters or musicians. Nor have they always been bad people. If I think about the poetry of St. John of the Cross, of Rafael's Madonnas, of Giotto's and Bernini's saints, Velasquez's Christ, and Bach's music, I realize that religion has inspired some of the highest artistic creations throughout the long march of Homo Sapiens over this earth.
Religion has also been comforting for millions of people, because it removes death's definitive character, and gives them the hope of seeing once again their loved ones in another world, without the discomforts of this one (or even though they might be in the other, netherworld, Hell, and much more uncomfortable than this one).
Religion has been a cohesive factor because it has allowed us to see those who have no blood relationship with us as brothers and allies. Religion has, perhaps, from ancient times, quietened down the evil in some evil people through fear of punishment by a supernatural power.
Religion gives to good people the hope that, in another life, evil will be punished and good rewarded – something that rarely happens in this vale of tears. For centuries religion was also the only option for a person to become a scholar and a thinker, and for all those who prefer a quiet and contemplative life as a better option than a frenetic one. The first scientists, thinkers, writers, musicians, philosophers, naturalists, at least in the western world after the fall of the Roman Empire, were generally monks.
But all that adolescent agony (not receiving the sacraments, not having a Father in heaven, not asking help from supernatural powers, not feeling that I had a guardian angel to protect me and an evil devil to tempt me) was disappearing little by little, and these days I live serenely with my atheism, and, dare I say it, I have been blessed.
God is no longer a problem for me, and it is as far behind me as adolescent acne. When I was still struggling with my atheism, I liked to confront my ideas with those of my believing friends and enemies, and to challenge them with intellectual duels in which I always thought I was the indisputable winner because of the force of my arguments, and for the poverty of their proofs in favour of God, for my science and logic, as opposed to their superstitions and prejudices.
Becoming a soft, rather than militant, atheist...
These days, on the other hand, I am a soft atheist, not a militant one. I'm not an atheist who thinks that he has to convert all men to atheism, like an Apostle in reverse, the same as those fanatics who spend all their time wanting to convert us to Islam or Catholicism, or Seventh Day Adventism, or Mormonism, or Evangelicalism, or Hinduism. As I do not believe that believers are better people than non-believers, neither do I think that we atheists are ethically superior to anyone.
I certainly believe, on the other hand, that we atheists do live without so many illusions. I do think that we live in a less unreal world than do believers. I am not saying that we live in the Truth, that grand word.
Truth for humanity seems to come to us without our being aware of it, and it is more than likely that we will never reach perfect truth. In any case, I believe that there is endless evidence for thinking that the physical, chemical and geological description of the origin of the earth and of the Universe, the evolutionary and biological explanation of life are much more precise, trustworthy and nearer to the truth than the poetic words of Genesis. By that I mean that science is a much more trustworthy tool that the myth that describes that which, with all its perplexities, we call "reality".
I am very much aware of the damage that religious fanaticism does, and has done to the world throughout its history. I can imagine very well the terror of an Aztec boy or girl when they were led to the altar of sacrifice, when a High Priest, with an obsidian knife, takes out the still beating heart to offer it to a bloodthirsty god, a Sun that would not rise if the holocaust were not continued.
I know the history of the wars of religion, the burning of heretics, the Crusades, the Jihad, the violent conquests, and murders committed in the name of the religion of love for one's neighbour, and carried out with crosses and swords to kill their neighbour. But I am also aware of Stalin's outrages, destroying the treasures of Orthodox religious architecture, and sending to the Gulags, people who were only guilty of continuing to believe in the God, the saints of their fathers and in the Orthodox Church that had been imprinted into their heads from childhood.
And just as there are serene and private believers, there are also fanatics and ultramontanes, ready to revive the bonfires of the Inquisition. In the same way, there are soft atheists and militant ones, just like priests, perhaps too emotionally involved, and so excited that one has to wonder about the sincerity of their atheism. If I was once an atheist of the latter type (militant), and now I am of the one of the former (soft), perhaps this change has not come about because of any virtue, but for the simple biological reason that the years diminish the amount of testosterone in the blood.
The onus of proof...
But, in the end, the fact is that militant atheism seems to me, in the long run, a waste of time. In fact, I don't think it makes much sense to demonstrate the nonexistence of something. It is difficult, for example to show that unicorns do not exist. I have seen them in paintings, undoubtedly, just as I have also seen a painting of a dove that represents the Holy Spirit. Those who believe that unicorns really exist, and not just in the imagination, have the onus of proof.
As long as believers in unicorns do not show us a herd of these beautiful species, or even just one of them, it is better to live on the basis that they don't exist.
Something similar happens with extra-terrestrials. While there is no kind of contact with them, we can have strong doubts about their existence, or we can say at least that their existence is irrelevant for us. Let's suppose that there really is intelligent life in some other corner of the universe; the fact is that this corner is so far away from us, that never in their history or in ours, will we be able to have some relationship with them. For all practical purposes, their eternal absence is the same as their not existing.
By analogy, I cannot entirely dismiss the idea that there is one god or many gods (absent, or bad, or dead, or asleep or lazy). The fact is that while they have no relationship with us, while their only revelation is the most absolute and distant indifference to human affairs, their existence is as irrelevant as those hypothetical extra-terrestrials with whom we can never come into contact.
But it is true that hypothesizing about imaginary beings, like dragons, ghosts or unicorns, is something that, in a certain sense, enriches our poetic reality of the world. And so gods, angels and devils, as well as spirits in glory or suffering souls are imaginings that speak very highly of the infinite and insatiable capacity of human ingenuity, and our marvellous tendency to create fantasies. Likewise, Don Quixote or Funes the Memorious, are imaginary beings who are created because of our enjoyable and hypothetical human fantasies.
I believe that the Christian God, like the Islamic one, or the millions of Hindu gods, are made of the same fantasy material with which Borges wrote Funes or Cervantes wrote Quixote.
For that very reason, I look upon the infinite treatises on the Christian, Jewish or Islamic doctrine and theology with more affection and tenderness than ill will. Thousands of men have devoted their entire lives to writing treaties on fantasies, catechisms of inventions and precepts dictated by imaginary beings. These are nothing else, in the words of Borges, than very leafy branches of fantasy literature. Christ, as Pessoa said, perhaps is no more than the saddest and youngest of the gods, "one more in the Pantheon to be worshipped".
How many limitations, crimes, prohibitions, sacrifices, sufferings (but also how many good things and acts of altruism) have been created in the name of an imaginary unicorn!
The private suffering that rigid religious doctrine produces...
There are still undoubtedly some problems created by religions or the religious hierarchies that both believers and non-believers have to confront. One is the endless private suffering that rigid religious doctrines produce, especially those that concern their sexual puritanism.
It is true that believers are adults and they freely subject themselves to those limitations, but many have been instilled in them from infancy, and it is not fair that they are still have them. It is necessary that children and young people are exposed to other types of information and that as adults they can resolve freely what they think they want to do with their bodies. The same thing can be said about taboos, foods, ritual practices, discrimination against women, body mutilation, fasting, pilgrimages, tithes, etc.
Another problem is that no one starts a war of religion brandishing Don Quixote, The Unicorn or Funes the Memorious. The Crusades and the Spanish Conquest took place while waving about the Cross and the Bible. As I said before, the religion that loves its neighbour, lovingly decapitates, and puts to the sword, those who do not bend before the "revealed truth" of Christianity. Still today, in many countries, if anyone makes fun of the prophet Mohammed, or simply wants to break away from and reject Islam, to convert to some other religion, whether it is Judaism or Animism, they run the risk of being put to the sword.
The universal right not to believe...
The right to apostasy (changing your opinion) has to be a universal thing, just like the right not to believe in God or in any supernatural power.
The danger of that fantasy so widespread, that kind of collective hallucination we call religion, is that its hierarchies are profoundly afflicted by overzealousness – perhaps because of the fragile and precarious foundation on which their beliefs are based – and this leads to extremes of dogmatism, the imposition of truths about which no discussion is allowed, and therefore to fanaticism and its consequent violence.
In this last sense, religion has been, and often continues to be, a pernicious illusion, especially when it flatly prohibits children having access to any other type of conflicting information.
But atheists can also be fanatical about their lack of faith, and they, like the Taliban, can also destroy marvellous artistic works for the sole motive that they have been erected in honour of fantasy figures, contrary to their beliefs (I am thinking, for example, of Mao and his hallucinatory and deluded Cultural Revolution). They have also, in the name of no religion, committed crimes against believers, and have imposed one only kind of education for children. In view of this, I tend to think that our struggle has to be towards a more tolerant humanism applying to all peoples' beliefs. Religious education should not be indoctrination, but the exposure to different beliefs and to no beliefs.
By this, I don't mean that any dogma or sacred discourse should be respected. Ideas, hierarchies and books are not sacrosanct. Everything that seems to us to be false or pernicious should be fought without a second thought; but the battle has to be about ideas, and not about persons or things, or the right to preach any old thing, including the most absurd (prohibiting blood transfusions at the same time as preaching transubstantiation of blood).
Tolerance is a type of kindness for the irremediable tendency in human thought to err. Our species is inclined towards fantasy; it is most likely that we are genetically programmed to believe strongly in fantasies – and we are immune to all evidence that contradicts our deepest beliefs when we are definitely stuck to them. Faith and no faith are usually impermeable, that is, we have them for life.
An argument for freedom of belief (and non-belief)...
The innumerable diversity of religious beliefs that have come to us in the brief history and prehistory of humans, just like the furious or serene forms of our atheism, should lead us to maintaining only soft beliefs, not in the sense that they cannot be defended with argumentative force, but in the sense that they can never be forced on others. We should be able to guarantee the possibility that all classes of fantasy – that we can call religion, metaphysics and even philosophy or the humanities – have the right to be freely expressed and defended in equal conditions, without imposing one's own beliefs. And the right of reply and contrary argumentation should also be guaranteed.
I don't advocate this possibility for the natural sciences, since it is agreed that everything they teach ought to have been exposed to the scientific method, that is, to the principles of proof and falsifiability. Non falsifiable propositions, in the Popperian sense of that term, cannot become part of science courses. Creationism is a typical example of a non-falsifiable proposition which can be taught in classes for the humanities for religion, but not in biology.
My intellectual intuition, and everything that my limited intelligence is capable of understanding, leads me not to believe – without any doubts or anxieties – in the existence of beings or lives beyond this earth.
I have many arguments to defend the ideas in which I believe, and to attack the unnecessary theses in which I don't believe. In my view, the God hypothesis is superfluous, as it is unnecessary to understand the world.
At the same time, I think the wool has been sufficiently pulled over my eyes during my lifetime that I have to recommend a kindly tolerance for the deception in which the great majority of human beings are swamped, at least, while those believers do not try to impose their beautiful or horrible fantasies by force.
For most of them, thinking like this is not even their fault. Their faith was something that was driven into them from infancy when their brains are at their most malleable. Now it would be useless to try and break the indestructible seal, imprinted indelibly for ever in the deepest corner of their understanding. This is the key to our most irrational beliefs: the early imprinting, that is to say the ideas that they instil in us as absolute truths when we are children. This is not brainwashing, but rather an indelible and definitive impression on the most plastic and malleable brain that exists: that of children.
I'm a card carrying soft atheist, compassionate, permissive, and not at all hardened. It is an atheism tinged with a less noxious belief – and one of the least practiced – of historic and earthly Christianity: of a certain fondness (I won't say love, a word debauched by strange things) for my neighbour, for those like-minded people who belong to our species and who carry with them, perhaps written into their own DNA, the tendency to believe in some mystery.
In the long run, it is by imagination and by dreaming strange things – the fantasy about the angels is not all that different to the fantasy about flight, and Newton thought up the Law of Universal Gravitation while under a mystical delirium – that we no long live in caves, but have been flying to the moon. Believers are lunatics, but there are amongst them too many people I love and admire (Bach, Leonardo, Cervantes, Newton, Voltaire, my mother) for me not to look upon them fondly and sympathetically.
Translation by James, submitted to Catholica 28 July 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012Héctor Abad Faciolince and Kieran Tapsell