The “-ism Schism” – Comments on Atheism vs Faith

(First published in Rending The Veil, 15th December 2009. Edited by Sheta Kaye.)

“Death to all fanatics!” — Ho Chih Zen

Donald Tyson’s rant in an earlier issue of Rending the Veil1, calling for a united Pagan/ Christian front against the spectre of encroaching atheism has led to several interesting comments — notably from Psyche2 (who points out the range of atheist positions is far wider than Tyson claims), and Grey Glamer3 (who makes a strong case that atheism and a magical perspective are not necessarily opposites).

I think all three writers are missing an important point.

If there is a tendency that needs to be strongly opposed by people of good conscience who seek common ground in these matters, that foe is fanaticism. Fundamentalist thought. The certainty that your view of the universe is not only the One Truth, but that all those who do not share it are deluded, stupid or actually evil.

This is not a viewpoint exclusive to one belief system. It is rather a habit which can appear in any faith — or lack of it4.

Many years ago, I had a long conversation with a friend and work colleague, who happened to be a committed Christian. Nice guy. We talked at length about our different experience of the Divine, our beliefs and how we acted on them. At the end of it all, he smiled, thanked me for the talk. . . and added sadly, “. . . it’s a shame that you’re going to Hell anyway.” For all that he was in my view a good person, he was a fanatic. A polite one, perhaps — but still fundamentalist, unable to move from his dogma.

Last year, I had an incredibly similar conversation with a friend on a comic book forum (you’d be surprised — or perhaps not — how often such matters turn up among fanboys). Only difference was, he’s an rationalist atheist. And instead of saying I would go to Hell for my viewpoint, he insisted I was basically either delusional or foolish. Which I suppose is slightly better. . .

Needless to say, these two examples are not representative of their belief systems. The majority of folk I know of both Christian and atheist tendency are perfectly capable of discussing matters without retreating to claims of absolute certainty — indeed, many of them have adjusted their views as a result of such discussions (as have I).

But some people simply can’t make that adjustment. Whether due to personal experience, the culture they were raised in or some other factor, they are utterly certain that they have the Truth.

I can understand how this happens. In religious folk, their faith is a bedrock of their entire personality and often their culture. Doubting this is risky, scary — and mentally difficult to even find the words for5. In those of the rationalist tendency, there is the added fear of a return to the horrors of the theocratic world which (in their mythology) was banished by the Light of Reason, and that their worldview has a lot of material support. (Of course scientific work is far from the immaculate quest for knowledge they think it is. . . and often those who work in the field have their own beliefs which are far from rational, and which strongly affect their theories.)

Certainty is an important thing for everyone. I think on some level, we all see our points of view as “true” and those which differ as wrong in some way. There’s also a strong tendency in people to conform to a given status quo, the consensus reality of our culture. Some folk, though, go that little bit further. . . even the possibility of someone having differing views to theirs is seen as a threat, terrifies them. And fear so easily turns to hate.

My own view — and of course I could be completely wrong about this! — is that people who can allow a little slack in their beliefs, some flexibility in their world-view, are not only better adapted to the complex, changing times we live in, but are actually better company. I can honestly say that if I met a person who shared my belief system in every single way — except that they were certain it was The Truth rather than a working model to be adjusted as time and experience dictate — I would dread them.

Fanatical certainty, fundamentalist beliefs and the hatred of those who do not share them, are one of the worst parts of the human world. It is that habit which leads to persecution and atrocity. It seems far more important to me that people of all beliefs and systems ally against that than to pick fights among themselves.

It’s a dark world out there, full of things to fear. Each of us has a small candle, a light in the darkness. Surely it’s a better idea to share our light than argue over what colour the other persons candle is?

“Convictions cause convicts.” — Hagbard Celine

FOOTNOTES

  1. Tyson, “Atheism — the Real Enemy,” in Rending The Veil.
  2. Psyche, “Ignorance – the Real Enemy. A reply to Donald Tyson’s Essay,” ibid.
  3. Glamer, “Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?“, ibid.
  4. Vincent, “The Woo, the How and the Why,” in “Oddities and Mutterings.”
  5. Vincent, “Guttershaman — Meanings and Patterns, part 1,” ibid.

(As ever, I am indebted to the work of Robert Anton Wilson.)