The nature of the Infidel: an introduction

In a society where religion is pervasive and taken for granted, we unbelievers must always be considering how to deal with its influence, especially when “holy” days roll around (Mother Hen’s recent Zombieaster is a good example here on MMA).  Personal “deconversion” (escape from religion) stories are a staple of the atheist blogosphere, and some who were raised with a religion but abandoned it still find themselves nagged by “spiritual” questions (example).

My history is different.  I grew up completely without religion, and so I have a rather different perspective on it.

I was born in the US, but my parents had immigrated here from Britain in the 1950s.  It’s hard to convey to Americans what a non-issue religion is in mainstream society in Britain.  Many (perhaps most) people would, if you asked them, self-identify as “Christian” in some very vague way, without actually believing in anything much.  Fervent religious belief is (outside the small Muslim minority) very rare, and mistrusted.    The word “Christian” continues by cultural inertia, almost devoid of substance.  My parents, as far as I know, never self-identified as “Christian” to even that extent, but the word was all there was left to give up.

That’s what I grew up with.  I was not taught to reject religion; as far as I can recall, the subject never even came up.  I was given a kid’s book of Bible stories (I still have it somewhere), but it was just one of many storybooks I had.  As a teenager I became interested in history, and of course that included the influence of religion, but that’s all it ever was to me — a feature of cultural anthropology.

To me, the stories of Jesus and Jehovah stand on exactly the same footing as the stories of Zeus, Thor, Aton-Ra, Vishnu, Peter Pan, or Harry Potter.  They are simply stories which have influenced human culture in various ways; it does not occur to me to wonder if there are “truths” in some sense to be found in them.  I do not believe humans have souls; I do not believe in anything “spiritual” whatsoever; there is no “God-shaped hole”.  On the question of how human free will and consciousness can be reconciled with the laws of physics, I’m quite content to say that we simply don’t know — yet.  Our understanding of the brain continues to advance, and we will figure it out in a couple of decades, as we have figured out so many other things our ancestors thought must be supernatural.

If it weren’t for the fact that the society I live in is still full of residual religious influences — from creationism in the schools to molestation in the confessionals to incessant efforts to enact ancient sexual taboos into modern civil law — I’m quite sure that concepts like God, souls, spirituality, etc. would never even have occurred to me.

What fills me with awe is not the fantasies of other humans who lived millennia ago, but the staggering sweep of achievement since then.  Think how much more we know, how much longer we live, how much more we have, how disease-free our lives are, how many superstitions and taboos we have been liberated from, compared with our ancestors of a thousand years ago — or even a hundred.  My grandmother was born before the flight of the Wright brothers, and she lived to see men walk on the Moon; what she would have thought of the device on which you are reading this post, I can barely imagine.

That is achievement, the achievement of human reasoning power and hard work.

It inspires me because I know where we started from.  We are not “fallen” from some ideal state and in need of redemption.  We are a bunch of hairless mutant chimpanzees, trying to understand the universe and run a high-tech post-industrial civilization with brains which basically evolved to hunt animals on the Serengeti.  If you look at it that way, we’re not doing so badly.

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Posted by on April 4, 2010. Filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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16 Responses to The nature of the Infidel: an introduction

  1. MadMike Reply

    April 4, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Infidel writes:

    “To me, the sto­ries of Jesus and Jeho­vah stand on exactly the same foot­ing as the sto­ries of Zeus, Thor, Aton-Ra, Vishnu, Peter Pan, or Harry Pot­ter. They are sim­ply sto­ries which have influ­enced human cul­ture in var­i­ous ways; it does not occur to me to won­der if there are “truths” in some sense to be found in them.”

    Well said Infidel. I continue to be astonished by the shenanigans and beliefs of the religious right in America. Like you I am originally from England and also came to the United States in the ’50’s. I still have family all over Great Britain and they just don’t get us. They don’t get that we don’t have health care available for everyone and that Jesus seems to be the prevailing force in a nuclear super-power.

    I live in South Georgia, America’s very own Third World. Bitterness and hatred, coupled with a weekly dose of Jesus is what drives this part of the country. People actually have life sized crosses in their front yards that light up at night just in case you miss them. People have HUGE decals of Jesus, complete with crown of thorns, stuck to their windshields. Schools have church services in their gyms on Sunday, and Jesus music is piped into the doctor’s and dentist’s offices, as well as restaurants and etc.

    While waiting for my hair cut I have heard Jesus, hang, and “nigger” uttered in the same sentence. You will not find a New York Times here, and very, very few Catholic churches. What I find here fills me with a sad and lazy despair. It is true that man has many accomplishments, but there hasn’t been a whole lot accomplished here in the last 100 years or so….

    Thanks for an illuminating post…

    • Infidel753 Reply

      April 4, 2010 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks, Mike. I suppose if history had turned out a little differently, the fundies might be driving around with the Eye of Odin on their cars instead of fish symbols, and blowing up abortion clinics in the name of Thor’s hammer…..

      The yard crosses and decals you describe are astonishing — I never saw anything like that in Texas. Don’t people realize how tacky that is?

      I have heard Jesus, hang, and “nig­ger” uttered in the same sen­tence.

      I’m almost afraid to guess at the sentence. (If it was “Jesus was hung like a nigger”, you were in Georgia’s only gay barbarshop:-))

      It is true that man has many accom­plish­ments, but there hasn’t been a whole lot accom­plished here in the last 100 years or so….

      But in the long run they can’t escape the effects of what has been accomplished elsewhere. Radio and TV came; the internet came; ideas from outside are seeping into the South (think of the Itawamba county prom fight — sticking up for gay rights in Mississippi). Even dictatorships like those in Iran and China are fighting a losing battle against this. Georgia answers to a black President and to secular court rulings like Lawrence v. Texas just as much as Massachusetts does.

      Look at the last 400 years. Reason advances and religion retreats, however slow and stuttering the process. One day Georgia will be as secular as Denmark. Even Saudi Arabia will be. It’s just a question of time and technology.

      • MadMike Reply

        April 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm

        I have to believe that Saudi Arabia will be secular long before South Georgia my friend 🙂

      • Bee Reply

        April 4, 2010 at 5:58 pm

        The yard crosses and decals you describe are aston ish ing — I never saw any thing like that in Texas. Don’t peo ple real ize how tacky that is?

        Nope, they really have no idea how f’ing tacky it is. Trust me 🙂

        • Infidel753 Reply

          April 4, 2010 at 7:41 pm

          Tackiness aside, hasn’t it occurred to them that if Jesus did come back, the last thing he’d want to see would be crosses all over the place — I mean, he wouldn’t exactly have fond memories of them…..

  2. osori Reply

    April 4, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Infidel yes that was very interesting.I know a few people from England who are basically as you describe, they may self-identify as Christian but likely only if one brought the subject up.

    You mention the Muslim minority in the UK as having fervent belief.Without knowing much of UK demographics I would imagine they would eventually acculturate (undoubtedly with strong opposition from hardliners)? The reason I bring this up is in my experience immigrants from Mexico are deeply religious, but taken as a whole the second and third generations evolve away from such strong ties.Black people too depended upon religion as an escape from persecution but gradually become less religious too.

    So if my logic is correct (and I may be totally whack here) as any group comes into a much larger society religion may play a role in providing a kind of emotional shelter,it might also play a role in segregating the group until it melds with the larger society.

    So why would so many European-descended people still cling to fundamentalist religion? Possibly in the South following the Civil War it would make sense, but not over a hundred years later. I don’t get it. What’s your take on this?

    • Infidel753 Reply

      April 4, 2010 at 12:22 pm

      Without know­ing much of UK demo­graph­ics I would imag­ine they would even­tu­ally accul­tur­ate (undoubt­edly with strong oppo­si­tion from hard­lin­ers)?

      That’s exactly what’s happening. It took a long time to start, because Islam has features which make its adherents especially resistant to cultural assimilation, but it’s clear now that it’s under way. Britain actually has an organization of ex-Muslims — people who used to be Muslim but left the religion, mostly to become atheists. If there are people who would publicly go that far in spite of the danger (in Islamic law, apostasy carries an automatic death sentence), you can bet that the number of quiet “Muslims in name only” is much larger.

      If anyone’s interested, here is a post of mine on that issue — it focuses on France, but the general pattern in western Europe is similar.

      in my expe­ri­ence immi­grants from Mex­ico are deeply reli­gious, but taken as a whole the sec­ond and third gen­er­a­tions evolve away from such strong ties.

      That has been my experience too. I’ve known a few people who were of Mexican ancestry several generations back, but they were not culturally different from the American mainstream in any visible way — they didn’t even speak Spanish as far as I know.

      Why religion is so much stronger in the US than elsewhere in the Western world is the $64,000 question. One thought that occurs to me is that the earliest immigrants were fleeing religious persecution — it’s only hard-core believers who would brave such a long and dangerous journey rather than give up their beliefs, while the less-fervent would just stay put, give in, and accept whatever the local authorities’ favored sect was. Once the pattern was established, the more religious people would tend to keep migrating here, leaving the least-religious ones back in Europe — a self-sorting that would change the character of both Europe and the US. (I don’t know if there is much historical evidence to support this.) It could also be that the width of the Atlantic delayed the secularizing influences of 19th-century Europe from reaching here — or that the low population density in the US allowed local communities to stay more isolated from mainstream influences than in western Europe.

      The answer is probably a complex of factors.

  3. Holte Ender Reply

    April 4, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    We are all creatures of habit and religion is a habit, one I managed to escape from many years ago. Growing up in the Catholic Church, the whole 9 yards, all the rituals, took some shaking off, probably 5 or 6 years after being out of school. I have no problems with people believing what they wish, as long as it doesn’t become compulsory.

    Fear plays a big part in religious doctrines, fear of dying, so an afterlife is promised to believers, which gives a lot of people comfort. Who am I to say they are wrong and make them even more fearful.

    • Infidel753 Reply

      April 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm

      I’m convinced that the fear of death played a huge role in the rise of religion, and that the gnawing suspicion that death really is just the end helps explain why people have historically been so insanely vicious toward those who challenge religion — they hate anyone who makes them confront that fear.

      In fact, there is a solution to that issue — one which may surprise you — which I expect to be widely available within a couple of decades.

  4. Leslie Parsley Reply

    April 4, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Oso asked: “So why would so many European-descended peo­ple still cling to fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion?”

    Good question. I have some theories but no real answers. I had a cousin who was highly respected for his scholarship and for his leadership in the civil rights movement, work for the homeless and for the welfare of others, and his pacifism. He was a Methodist minister who had very harsh views toward fundamentalists who wear their religion on their sleeves. “When anyone tells me how Christian they are, I grab hold of my billfold and tuck it out of sight.”

    Close Republican neighbors shared his views.

    What we had in common was our belief that these people are uneducated and paranoid to such an extent that they cannot function beyond a cult mentality. Also, their religion fills some kind of unnamed void in their lives. Interestingly, many of these same people are successful in business to the point of being mercenary – screw thy neighbor.

    As I said, I have only theories and no answers.

    If you really want to see some modern day cultism in action, attend an AA meeting.

    • osori Reply

      April 4, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      Leslie haven’t been to a meeting in years (friend of Bill W) but you’re absolutely right!
      Black coffee and chain smoking and the party line. Hadn’t thought of it but yeah, everything but the Mormon’s magic underwear!

      • Infidel753 Reply

        April 4, 2010 at 7:43 pm

        Also, their reli­gion fills some kind of unnamed void in their lives.

        Maybe it fulfills the need for something to let them feel righteous while they “screw thy neighbor”?

  5. Lazersedge Reply

    April 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks for your very informative post Infidel. Welcome to our world. The concept of religion is one of the most fascinating aspects in the study of mankind. If I had a business I would like to have Jesus’ marketing manager because it has been one hell of a great campaign. The need for humans to be able to explain the unexplainable has always led them to bow to a higher power. It is easier to believe in an afterlife than to contemplate the alternative I guess.

    • Infidel753 Reply

      April 4, 2010 at 7:47 pm

      Thanks Lazersedge. Yes, that campaign has had quite a run, hasn’t it — almost two thousand years of power, wealth accumulation, and free-lance child molesting based on an anthology of magic tales — no sign that Jesus, or the author(s) who created him, ever saw a dime in royalties from it all, though.

      As for the alternative to the afterlife, you might want to check out the link in my reply to Holte Ender above. Big changes are coming.

  6. Mother Hen Reply

    April 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

    I’m almost afraid to guess at the sen­tence. (If it was “Jesus was hung like a nig­ger”, you were in Georgia’s only gay barbarshop:-)) LOLOL!

    Pretty sure the religious nonsense in the West (as in America) started as a result of colonization. Who would have the balls or the fortitude to WANT to endure such a hell trip across the ocean to a land where there was no infrastructure? Who, but the most crazy of the religious nutters, whose ideas could sustain them when eating shoe leather was not enough.? Of course there were some great minds represented (in re the Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Franklin leaping immediately to mind), but overall the regulars were wanting some type of holy promised land.

    And as an Anglophile (youthful overexposure to BBC and Monty Python are to blame- I can’t claim but a smidgen of ancestry)I must ask- do either of you (MM or Infidel) still have your accents? I can’t imagine what life must be like in Cornpone Alley if you were still speaking the Queen’s English…

    And I am afraid that, just like a chili fart in an elevator, America will still be reeking with “residual religious influences” that will persist long after any great scientific achievements are censored out of the deep south’s gradeschool texts.

    • Infidel753 Reply

      April 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

      Who would have the balls or the for­ti­tude to WANT to endure such a hell trip across the ocean to a land where there was no infra­struc­ture? Who, but the most crazy of the reli­gious nut­ters,

      Actually, this suggests a possible solution to the problem. We could announce a project to colonize Mars, and challenge the fundies to show that their pioneering spirit is equal to that of their predecessors. I can see the recruiting ads now (“Only those who lack FAITH need OXYGEN!”). Concerns about crops failing due to lack of soil bacteria shouldn’t worry those who disbelieve in such evolution-based considerations. And there aren’t even any indigenous people up there to be evangelized or exterminated.

      do either of you (MM or Infi­del) still have your accents?

      I have a trace of it, probably because the family yook quite a few trips to Britain when I was a kid. It was a pain in school, of course, but not since then.

      just like a chili fart in an ele­va­tor, Amer­ica will still be reek­ing with “resid­ual reli­gious influ­ences” that will persist

      Redolent as such atavisms are, they have at least shown a tendency to settle toward the southeastern quadrant of the elevator (I feel fortunate sometimes to be in the opposite corner). And the old country has seen fit to loan us a couple of powerful fans (Dawkins and Hitchens) which are, I think, beginning to clear the air, however much the Republicans still try to entice us with more bean-laden chili well past its sell-by date.

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