Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Semantic Problem With a Church Full of Atheists

The Semantics
Atheism is not a religion in the sense that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are," states a religious site.i This site is about "tolerance," but it actively sells Christian literature, promoting religion containing a deity.

Atheism by definition contains no deity.That a religious site can state that atheism is not religious in the same sense as deified religions are religious, presupposes and confirms the conviction that atheism is a different kind of religion.

"[A]n Atheist's belief system is confined to one factor: the existence or non-existence of a deity.”ii But this idea belies the fact that atheism is the distinctive lack of any belief in a deity. Atheists will say they do not believe a deity exists; not, that they believe a deity does not exist.

Yet in a strange apparition in the English language, one statement may be substituted for the other, usually without this distinction making any difference in the purpose of the statement.“I don't believe there is a table in that room,” can mean the same as “I believe there is no table in that room.”

About that table there is no belief system. No one has to go through the process of deciding on the merits of whether tables exist before making either statement. About God that process of systematizing one's beliefs is inherent in the subject. It requires many more processes of logic—and religious faith—before one has a belief system about God. So the distinction about “believing no god exists,” versus “not believing a god exists” is more than a slip of the English language. When taken literally--as any metaphysical naturalist would mean it--it means "no god exists in my belief system."

It should not be presumed that when an atheist says he “believes there is no god,” that he means it. A belief that there is no god really defines the agnostic. But for the atheist, who by definition cannot have any belief about a deity, that slip of the tongue is only a slip of the tongue, and only because of the vagaries of English. If he has thought about this oddity in the English language, he will argue against you when you point out his “belief.” Otherwise, he will agree, not having seen the error in the semantics.

There is a large distinction to be made in this semantic difference. You can choose to believe that something exists. On the other hand, you may have a total lack of belief in that same thing without making the attempt not to believe. I for one make no active attempt to disbelieve in Santa or the tooth fairy. This is not because I set out to disbelieve, but because I set out to use my faculty of Reason, which will not allow me the suspension of disbeliefiii which is automatic to every person when he/she hears a new theory or other idea. The suspension of disbelief as a phrase is usually applied to fiction or drama; but drama does not need to be fiction, and my disbelief is no longer suspended when I hear ideas that do not conform to my Reason.

My disbelief is not the same as belief in the opposite of what I cannot disbelieve. I cannot believe in the opposite of Santa or the tooth fairy; but I can find a disbelief in them. The mind cannot believe in the opposite of anything that does not exist.But god exists as a concept, if not as a real god, for all persons in all cultures, in all languages. Therefore, the contrary at least, if not the outright opposite of “god”, is Metaphysical Naturalism. In such a theory there can be, for the atheist and others, a belief in the system inherent in that concept.

The Atheist in A Church
It is hard for many to believe that an atheist can feel any spiritual needs—but we do. Not all of call it “spiritual.” Not all atheists can find a reason to call what they find within their consciousness a “spirit” or a “soul.” Some will loudly proclaim that no such thing exists, because as part of their system of belief such an admission would be contradictory to atheism itself. Yet many atheists have no problem identifying the soul within them. It is self-evident within consciousness.

“My hands . . . My spirit . . . My sky . . . My forest . . . This earth of mine. . . .
“This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest,” wrote Ayn Rand, in her novelette Anthem.
“I covet no man's soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before! And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: 'I.' ” iv

In many of my previous blogs I used much the same language to describe the incredible feeling within my bosom when I look at the sunrise or the sunset; at the faun, who was born in my backyard, and the doe who I kept fed with corn and carrots all winter while I watched her belly growing; and at the million people gathered in my former hometown to watch the fireworks. Of course, I could not see all the million-plus; I could see only a few thousands at a time as I walked from park to parking lot and from one block to another through public and private areas full of people sitting on blankets or in chairs.

But I knew that million-plus was there because the city said so every year and to know that many people could gather in one general area with peace and goodwill toward all others because it was the Fourth of July is something one can feel the spirit of. That begs the question: one “feels” it where?

My answer is that it is felt in the soul. An assemblage of like-minded people, whether assembled in a building or in cyberspace, with perhaps hundreds or thousands all reading the same blog at the same time—or at separate times—has been defined as a church by many famous accounts.

But there is controversy about the origin of the word religion. “The derivation of the word 'religion' has been a matter of dispute from ancient times. Not even today is it a closed question.”v

It is surprising to me that such an admission comes from a religious encyclopedia, but I have always found this volume to be objective in its reporting.It agrees with other authorities that the word is often attributed to relegare, which Cicero defined as “to treat carefully.” It states that this is not the Catholic definition, but admits it is not “a closed question.”

If one acceptable definition of religion is “to treat carefully,” then it can be said with confidence that many atheists have treated the subject of the nature of the supernatural with utmost consideration for everything contained in the idea.It will be the purpose of the Free Assemblage of Metaphysical Naturalists to “treat carefully” these ideas of god, of nature, of naturalism, of supernaturalism, and most specifically of the nature of Man himself, and to describe the “system of belief” that admits of nothing supernatural in the origin of existence nor of anything within existence itself.And that assemblage of ideas into a system “treated carefully” is already admitted by other accounts than this one to be a religion and a church.

A System of Carefully Treated Beliefs
The website for the World Union of Deists defines a "cult" as "an embracing of unreasonable beliefs by a group of people. Based on this definition, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all cults because their members suspend their God-given reason in order to believe or accept the unreasonable dogmas and teachings such as God giving real estate as a gift to the Jews, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and Mohammed among many more false and unreasonable claims."vi

An atheist finds the Deist to be as "embracing of unreasonable beliefs" as any other religion is embracing; the Deist is a dyed-in-the-wool theist who believes in God. It is, however, as difficult to call Deism a "religion" as it is to call atheism "religion." Religions are generally defined as an organized practice of rituals such as prayer, kneeling, genuflecting, etc. Neither the Deist nor the atheist practices such rituals. Yet Deism believes in a supreme deity; atheism does not.And there is the crux of the definition. An atheist's belief system is that there is no deity in which to place one's belief; rather, that since nothing exists in which to place one's belief, that no belief exists. Can a church be a place for people for whom no beliefs exist? The very word atheism implies that no theism exists in that system. But does that mean that no theology exists in it?

If the church is a conceptual entity existing previously to, or in place of, a building in which an assemblage examines beliefs, then the conclusion from specious reasoning that the universe and the existence in which it exists is eternal and not of supernatural origin, is a belief, and where ever that belief is “treated carefully” or used in a heated debate, a church exists.

ii ibid

iii The temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. [C]oined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817...

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