Am I just a polite atheist?

It seems that I am born to doubt. After all my doubting of religion and atheism that led me to proudly defend the agnostic way, I now find myself doubting my agnosticism.

There are times, not all the time but times none the less, when religion just seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. I mean, it doesn’t really make sense does it? All these stories and mythologising. I realised the other day that most of my friends are atheists. If pressed, I think they’d probably say they find religious belief fairly absurd, and I can understand that. I don’t feel the need here to repeat all the arguments for the case against God. At a head level atheism is an easy choice. As John Humpries says in his excellent book In God we Doubt:

“Anyone with the enquiring mind of a bright child can see that the case made for God by the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is riddled with holes.”

And so, I begin to doubt myself (again). What if this whole agnosticism thing really is just about me not wanting to upset or get into a confrontation with religious people? Am I just a polite atheist?

Well, no. When I look at things honestly I know it’s not as simple as that. For all that I find the idea of a personal, interventionalist God impossible to believe in; and despite the fact that I think taking the bible (or any religious text) literally is a bad and often dangerous idea; even though I have, in the past, felt angry about the way some religious people have spoken of those who do not follow the same religion as them; in spite of all these things, I still find myself going to church. I go every week, religiously, and I love it.

There is no external pressure forcing me to go to church. I don’t go for social reasons, I don’t go for the music, I don’t go out of habit or to please my family. Today I listened to Tom Shakespeare on the radio encouraging people to be religious but not spiritual. He made a lot of good points about the potential benefits of being part of a religious community; encouraging people to look beyond their own wants and needs and offering an opportunity for them to connect with each other and with the world. He recommends religion because it provides tradition, discipline and a sense of belonging. I agree with him on this, being part of a religious community does provide me with this, and I value it greatly, but it’s not the real reason I go to church.

I go simply because it nourishes my soul.

This is something I can’t fully explain with reason. Who even knows what a soul is? But whatever it is, I’ve got one and it likes going to church. There is a spiritual spark inside me that needs to be expressed. Religion gives us a language to do this, albeit clumsily.

“Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life affords” William James

So yes, the religion and spirituality in my life is fluid and riddled with holes and doubts, but I’m ok with that. It’s the fluidity that allows me to grow and the doubt that helps me remember to be humble and try to understand others who think differently to me.

I love reason too much to be a decent christian believer but I love spirituality too much to be a decent atheist, even a polite one.

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