What Causes Atheism?

Now of course there are many causes for atheism–personal, intellectual, emotional, societal–and I respect them all in varying degrees, but the one I come across a lot is this: a bad experience with a particular Christian or with a particular Christian institution. In other words, I believe that hypocrisy and setting a bad example accounts for much of it (not all of it, much of it). (I tried to research the causes of atheism in academic journals but didn’t come up with anything…so this is just my anecdotal opinion).

What I’m saying is not to be confused with the reasons for Atheism, the justifications and arguments that support it. That’s a different topic. And as I’ve said in the past, explaining the cause of something doesn’t explain it away. Theism has psychological causes too. What’s interesting about atheism is that only 2 to 11% of the world is atheist, and many in China apparently, making it an anomaly.

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Atheism is the view that there is no God and that religion is generally false; but when you talk to most American atheists, 90% of what they say is actually just about one religion: Christianity, and usually a particular version of it – fundamentalism. Chances are they think Buddhism is super cool (most people do). That’s a hint. Atheism is the drawing away from something, a revolt, a critique.

Update! I stand corrected. The title should rather be “What Causes Agnosticism?” I was told by someone, and I agree with him, that religious hypocrisy can and does lead a person towards agnosticism, away from organized religion – but not necessarily atheism. That’s a good point.

What hypocrisy? Hating gay people and abortion, just to take two big examples. If you are gay, you probably were judged and hated by Christians throughout your life. I don’t blame any gay person for being hostile to Christianity; it’s only natural. And as the world moves on and young people are more and more okay with gay people, and as Christianity drags behind on this issue (except the new Pope and more progressive forms of Christianity), this will still be the natural reaction. Now hating abortion is one thing (hate the sin, not the sinner…right?), and I think there is a compassionate way to be pro-life, but Christians have taken this to another level. To the point that I don’t want to be part of that crowd anymore. Sometimes pro-life is thinly veiled sexism or classism. Also, where’s the perspective here? On the one hand, there are real people dying from hunger, war, and poverty all over the globe. On the other hand, there are potential people being aborted for various reasons (including rape protection of the mother, or poverty). Hmm…I wonder where we should spend our resources, and time, and judgment on? I wonder what Jesus would do? When we have solved all the worlds imminent problems (hunger, poverty, discrimination, war), then maybe we can start yelling about abortion and how terrible it is. It takes up too much of our moral outrage.

Alas, this is how it was, is, and will always be. A significant percentage of the Christian population will be hypocrites. That’s human nature and math really, and Jesus predicted it:

“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Religion tends to set the bar pretty high in terms of morality, so, for example, loving your enemies will be difficult for Christians. This goes for any religion. Calling yourself Christian is very easy, but it should be the hardest thing to call yourself. This explains why Jesus called out the hypocrites, chastised the religious people who were keeping people from God. It made him angry. I suppose he was judging them, but it was by their own standards (Jesus teaches that God judges people by their own words). I suppose Jesus loved the hypocrites too, and would easily forgive them, but they were blinded by their own self-righteousness; the same blinding, ignorant self-righteousness that infects religion today.

Judge ye not, yet Christians love to judge. When you are constantly around religious people, it’s very tempting and natural. Keeping my distance from religion, while accepting its teachings, is one way I try to cope. The only perfect Christianity is the one in your heart.

What Causes Atheism?

Why People Suffer

Religious

Let’s go over the possible answers and see which is best. First, I’ll start with the worst: people suffer because they did something wrong, they had it coming, God is punishing them. Karma’s a bitch. I can see only one possible instance where this is true, and it’s nothing more than a psychological observation. When we feel guilty, we probably did something wrong. I suppose we could call that suffering. Guilt is the natural indicator and God is the Author of it. That’s as far as we go here. To say that God punishes people through earthquakes, hurricanes, or other natural, social, or political events is morally wrong and bad theology. C’mon, really? Do you really think God, the most perfect being imaginable, kills people? God is much better (thank goodness).

the Lisbon earthquake was seen by many as caused by God for the sins of city. Read Candide.

Karma, from what I understand, is misunderstood by most people. Saying “Karma’s a bitch” to someone who “had it coming” is not the right way to think about it. Karma is not something you justify another man’s suffering with. Karma, rather, is completely in the control of each person. It is the culmination and aggregation of a person’s deeds. You do good, you become good, you progress in the next life. You do bad, you become bad, you regress in the next life. It’s like heaven and hell, but not as final. You cannot apply Karma to another person, another group, another culture.

Second, people suffer as a test, as a way to build character, as a way to learn something, as a way to overcome. Soul building. Job was tested by God and he came out stronger in faith and material possessions. Thus the saying: God never gives us anything we can’t handle. I get it. I understand that this might be comforting or even uplifting  to someone suffering. It could help you overcome a particular hurdle. Perhaps it’s good to think of life itself as a giant test. Perhaps that motivates some people. Or not. What happens when several arbitrary, coincidental pointless things happen to you? How do you distinguish an accident from a cosmic test? People do break. Are you really gonna believe that God is picking on you? And when too much shit happens, and you find yourself on your knees, asking God why, why, why me – whence your faith then? What are you left with? Your faith is exposed, I think. Your faith did the harm more than the events themselves! You are left with a God similar to the one I described above: a God who uses nature to punish people, to teach them a lesson. I wouldn’t do this to my own son! Nor would God. You suffered more than you needed to. Rather than having a friend in God, who would guide you through this horrible thing; instead, you made God into the author of the horrible thing. Perhaps there’s a better way.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe in a God that’s right here, right now, inside me and outside me; ever-present, all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. I am not trying to turn God into a cold, careless, distant Creator. I simply believe that God does not play favorites; that he doesn’t arbitrarily mess with us, or worry about the small, daily events of our lives; that he lets the rain fall on sinners and saints (as Jesus taught). He’s eternal. We are not pawns in a game of chess; we are works of art within an unfolding work of art. I believe that God created a physical set of laws, which allows rocks to fall on human heads. And I believe that God created a moral law, which allows people to use their free will to hurt people. And I believe those two things – physical laws and free will – account for all the suffering in the word. God gives us the tools to overcome. In a way, he suffers with us (that’s what Jesus symbolizes). And I believe that God created an afterlife for those people who wrongly suffered on earth; for the people which God sheds a perpetual tear; the people Jesus referred to when he said “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” God’s gift of freedom was both a weakness and an act of love. That’s the God I want to worship. Theologically, I will have my cake and eat it too.

Secular

Okay, that’s enough for the religious answers to our question of suffering. But atheists and agnostics worry about suffering just as much as anyone. They simply take a more practical and political approach to the question. Which is excellent. So do I. For example, people suffer because of free will. That’s something all religious and nonreligious agree on. People simply make bad decisions sometimes. Second, people suffer because of a horrible upbringing. They were planted in bad soil. The biological and psychological effects of having bad parents, or an insufficient support structure, cannot be ignored. When a child is born addicted to meth, the odds are bad, through no fault of their own. Third, people suffer because of unjust laws, inept governments, and immoral systems of finance and control. This is big picture. This is the ultimate political and sociological answer to our question, requiring ultimate political and social solutions. This is our common worldly battle. We must save ourselves from the suffering of  hunger, and poverty, and disease, and we must do it through social and political agencies. Some day, cancer will be defeated. Some day, people will have what they need to live. This should be the call of both secular and religious people worldwide. This is the kind of suffering that doesn’t need to happen.

Why People Suffer