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« "Houston, We Don't Have A Problem" | Main | "Save A Mother" »

December 15, 2009


Lovely post, Sujatha. Thanks. A refreshing change perhaps, from my recent reaction to Lofton's sarcastic cleverness.

Despite the difference in our styles, my own trajectory from childish belief to atheism / skepticism is awfully similar to yours. It was a gradual process and no loud declarations needed to be made and no particular "eureka!" moment sticks in mind. I was surrounded by the rites and rituals of various faiths that passed for religion in and outside the home and quite enjoyed them, especially the hygienic and delicious prasad from my mother's offerings platter. Things just started to fall by the wayside as I entered my teen years. Soon there was no need to pretend any more.
The first time that I had to officially declare my lack of "belief" was when Sudhir and I declined to go through a traditional Hindu marriage and opted for a civil ceremony instead. My father was thrilled. My mother was a tad nervous, not because she feared any divine retribution but of what the older female relatives might say. Fortunately for her, no one objected - at least not within my father's earshot. We all just went our own ways in the family, coming together always to enjoy the sacred goodies.

Our children did not get any formal religious instructions from us although I exposed them to religious practices of various faiths if and when the opportunity arose. My daughter's favorite for example, remains the Catholic midnight mass on Christmas Eve. They are free to choose their own spiritual paths now that they are adults.

The strange thing that I have noted is that although I grew up in the super religious Indian society where religious events are loud, boisterous and often massive street events and interreligious tensions are sometimes high, I never felt the pressure to be religious in India. But having arrived in the US as an adult who was perfectly comfortable with her lack of faith, I was assailed and admonished to "make my peace with god" or "to take Jesus into my life" by complete strangers. I had never experienced anything so intrusive in India.

i think ruchira's comment highlights the peculiarities of *american* religion, which is one of profession and a jostling marketplace of ideas. this is in contrast with the "equilibrium" which has developed in many societies, where you are *born* into your religion. about 1/3 of americans switch religious traditions in their lives, so group X can't take its adherents from granted. this is a weird way to look at things for many people.

for example, i'm an atheist. and i'm not a cultural muslim. so when indians have referred to me as an "atheist muslim" i have objected. first, it's somewhat a contradiction in terms, since a basic faith in god is generally seen as necessary to being a muslim (while hinduism is more doctrinally flexible on this point). but in any case, my significant other is "american" as my parents would say, and my mother was concerned about explaining that she was an atheist to her friends, since they just assumed she'd be christian (since she's "american"), and my mom didn't want to work her way through their presuppositions.

the one caveat is that a more "european" attitude toward religion prevails in parts of the north where mainline protestantism or catholicism dominate. i.e., new england towns with the town church, congregationalist. or dakota towns with just the local lutheran church. not much of an issue with a "church home" if there's only one offering....

and a secondary point: i think the way you're defining "practical atheism" is easier for some religions than others. for hindus and jews who are less doctrinally fixated than evangelical christians for example. it simply wouldn't make much sense to be a "cultural" evangelical christian since the whole religion is predicated on an individualist dynamic. OTOH, i know someone who calls themselves an 'agnostic lutheran,' kind of amusing since they invented the whole emphasis on faith alone...


I suspect the same loud evangelism is beginning to affect even those of other religions, whether in India or the US. (I don't know about Europe and the other parts of the world). The other day, I remember feeling faintly jarred when a (Hindu) friend loudly proclaimed "This happened as a result of God's Grace!" during a conversation. The Hinduism that I recall is not so blatant in proclaiming special favors. It tended to more of schadenfreude, interspersed with proclamations of how 'miserable' our lives were, as a ward against the 'evil eye'.

Come to think of it, practical atheism with external observance of the cultural traditions of birth religion, is not that unusual in Kerala, where I grew up. The evangelicals haven't gained that much of a foothold there, competing as they are with older and more comfortably settled groups. The poorer and less literate the state, the greater the following that inflexible groups have that 'mandate belief' (or at least mandate brainwashing into belief).
I'm not quite sure what you mean by the 'european' attitude towards religion. Is it a variant of practical atheism?

Perhaps the 'practical atheism' I define might be considered a cop-out, at least by the anti-theists. Why indulge in the trappings of religion when it isn't required? My answer: (a) It's fun and jazzes up an otherwise boring calendar (b)It makes for better social interactions (c)Excellent food and delicious sweets.(d)cultural events and such that flow from the group dynamics- there might even be a few geniuses among the gazillion rank amateurs.

"A major survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith." Why don't they just come out and say it? America is not a religious country! Alright, that's extreme, and maybe Razib's "jostling marketplace" (Pew calls it a "very competitive marketplace") or Sujatha's "flavor of the month" best encapsulates Pew's findings. Nonetheless, here from the West Coast, even now in Berkeley, where there are more churches per city block than I have ever seen in my life, I find America's religious strains thin. Of course, maybe I haven't read enough Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, or Ram Dass.

Nor am I persuaded that one's decision to be or not to be atheist is either necessary or sufficient to determine one's religious commitment. The question doesn't feel like the right proxy, largely because it strips the matter down to pure logic, which is already antithetical to the impulses of religion.

Interestingly, the Pew Forum link on religious beliefs has a graph (Go to Report 2 on the tab)that shows:
Across all groups, whether affiliated to a religious denomination or not, only 71% claim they are certain in their belief in God. Among those who are evangelicals, this certainty is 90% (Wow, 10% of the evangelicals are not certain that they believe in God. Who knew?!!) Among the Muslims, the certainty of belief in God drops to 82%, among Hindus, to 57%, and Buddhists, to 39%.

It's good to know the ranks of Practical Atheists is much larger than I thought, if the Pew study is to be trusted. People are evidently more torn between their adherence to logic and the absolute belief required of theism, even as they self-identify with one religion or another.

The decision to be or not to be atheist has little bearing on the choice of religion or religiosity- one pertains to the deepest inner beliefs, while the other has to do with the externals of how one chooses to interact with family and society.
For instance, you may not personally believe in the Easter bunny, but it won't prevent you from taking your kid to the Easter egg hunt and promoting directly or not the idea that there is a bunny which hops around spreading candy in plastic eggs.

The decision to be or not to be atheist has little bearing on the choice of religion or religiosity- one pertains to the deepest inner beliefs, while the other has to do with the externals of how one chooses to interact with family and society.

This is not at all how I see the matter. The first is a minor datum: yeah, there's a god, or nope, there ain't. Nothing deep or "inner" about it. Nor does it follow from theism that absolute belief is required. One's fundamental agnositicism may be fully operating at a deeper level, despite one's explicit pro or con as to the existence of God, which is largely immaterial. (And a glorious pun there, isn't it?) One may choose to behave as if there were a God, to affirmatively hold beliefs in Him/Her/It/Them, and that belief may lead one to associate with a religious tradition. However, the metric of religiousness is far more complex, and has to do with externals, but internals, too. Reading sacred texts, for instance, or enjoying sacred music, participating in sacred rites, and exploring the history of the tradition all have the potential to enrich one's religious engagements.

I have an example that complicates the Easter Bunny. It arose just yesterday when I was discussing Santa Claus with my 3 1/2 year old. At one point Sebastian noted that he is everywhere. In true Berkeley parent fashion, I took the opportunity to introduce the word "ubiquitous" to Sebastian. Santa Claus is indeed ubiquitous this time of year. Was I promoting the myth of Santa? Well, either that or the converse. In fact, Sebastian reflected on the nice white-bearded guy he met last weekend: "He was a nice Santa."

God is an important invention.

When you say 'fundamental agnosticism operating at a deeper level', haven't you already negated your claim that the 'there's a god or nope there ain't' construct isn't 'deep' or 'inner ?

The word theism cannot by any definition be stretched to mean that non-belief is permitted. That's the prerogative of the agnostic or atheist. A mere declaration of belief does nothing, if it isn't the expression of one's innermost belief.

I don't see the complications in the Santa case at all. It's an exact seasonal analog to the Easter Bunny scenario. What Sebastian takes from it, is what he wishes to believe at his age and inclination. Maybe he takes from it the understanding that 'tis the season for lots of red-suited gentleman in white beards to stand around Ho-Hoing at every mall and corner. These personages may or may not have anything to do with the gifts under your tree, unless you choose to state that it was that Santa whom he had seen who brought them.

Last first. You state in your Easter Bunny example that exposing one's child to an egg hunt promotes the idea that EB exists. This assumption must be the case for your example to serve its purpose, which is to illustrate how despite our "deep" belief that there is no EB, we nevertheless risk promoting it to our children. But the exposure does not necessarily promote such a mistaken belief in children, as my SC example illustrates. Another example, from the Julia Sweeney interview: despite the attractiveness to her of the prospect of becoming a nun--and haven't we all pondered that possibility?--she "kind of did always" have doubts about Catholicism. I'm guessing it wasn't insufficient exposure to Church doctrine that caused her to lapse.

OED on "belief": "The mental action, condition, or habit, of trusting to or confiding in a person or thing; trust, dependence, reliance, confidence, faith." Nothing here suggests that belief in a god (theism) requires bullet-proof, total, arbitrary, blind acceptance. To the contrary, the concepts of faith, trust, habit, etc., necessarily include the prospect of their occasional failure. How, otherwise, would one know one were exercising faith or trust? For this reason, I was uncomfortable writing above about a "belief that there is no EB," precisely because belief hardly seems to apply to the EB from the perspective of a normal, give or take, middle aged man in my circumstance. I know damn well there's no EB. Not one ounce of belief is required. God? If I cared, it would entail an exercise of belief on my part, at least for now.

As a corollary, by "fundamental agnosticism operating at a deeper level," I was suggesting that even hard-core religious fanatics entertain doubts. The question of God's existence is easy, not because it's ingrained, but because it hardly matters. Despite one's confidence in G's existence, however, life perennially poses difficult questions that test the confidence. Some religions, of course, internalize this fact and characterize its occurrence as "sin."

I'm afraid that your stretching 'belief' to include 'doubt' seems contrived. The terms are plain opposites. Perhaps faith or 'unshakable conviction' comes closer to what I intend when referring to belief. But all this is just semantic nitpicking. A theist believes in a god, an agnostic expresses doubts, and an atheist doesn't believe in god.
If Mother Theresa expressed her doubt in God's existence, she was veering into agnosticism at that point, much as the church would like us to think that her status as a theist was unparalleled. If she died in that state, she was still an agnostic, despite conforming to the form of religion that she served so well till her last breath. No priest could shrive her of her state of doubt, if that were the case.
The EB example was merely to show how children can be conditioned to follow and believe in ritual/ritualized figures, the operative words in my statement being 'promoting directly or not the idea' of an EB, SC etc.
Parents here in the US have the habit of promoting and marketing these concepts to their kids as in "Shall we go to the mall to see Santa and take pictures with him?" or "We're going on an Easter egg hunt.You'll get to see the Easter Bunny!', without mentioning that it's just a big guy in a costume.
I don't assert that every child will unthinkingly fall for the concept that an EB or SC exists. It depends on the kid. If your SC example and evaluation of Sebastian's reaction is anything to go by, it won't be long before Sebastian refuses to get excited over the prospect of meeting with the mall Santa.


i think that the "new atheism" and protestant evangelicalism can be understood in light of the radical reformation, which detached (at least in theory) religion and society. prior to this period personal religious belief and even practice was less important than that the society expressed some religious truths and central to its identity. salvation was guaranteed by following rituals and adhering to particular institutions. the church. in the 16th and later 17th century radical protestants disagreed, and emphasized the *personal* relationship, and shed the notion of the importance of institution. these protestants were fine with the idea that most people were going to hell if they didn't have proper belief, so they were accepting of pluralism. of course, they wanted to convert the hellbound to their proper belief, and align everyone's *individual* beliefs with their own correct belief about god.

this sort of religion is pretty abstract and extracted out of cultural context. it is explicitly anti-customary and anti-traditional. the evangelical movement is derived from this tradition. and i believe the new atheism arises from the same cultural stream, though as an inversion, in its fixation on aspects of correct belief, and the need to convert all others.

the above is a caricature of course. as an atheist i think the 'new atheism' is pretty diverse. but, i have heard that richard dawkin's own family comes out of low church evangelical anglicanism.

Sujatha, "unshakable conviction" does come closer to what I read as being your intention, but pace the Pew survey--which I admit is just a convenient resource at the moment and not the last word on a muddy issue--nobody has been asked to express their unshakable conviction in the existence of God by merely expressing that they believe in one. Belief and doubt may be opposites, but so are lukewarm and cool.

A theist believes in a god, an agnostic expresses doubts, and an atheist doesn't believe in god.

This is a fine taxonomy, perhaps an unavoidable one for purposes like the Pew's, but the inquiry is far more complicated than the taxonomy can express, and it looks like even the Pew study reveals something of that complexity. What does this mean, for instance: "Most Americans also have a non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion"? It's not perfectly analogous with an up-or-down god-or-no-god poll, but it says something about the possibility that most Americans who purport to be religious are prepared to waffle when it comes to respecting the doctrines of the system in which they purport to believe.

More on belief.

If I were so inclined, I might have claimed prophetic powers, but suppose that this discussion is no more than a consequence of the season.
Dean, you now have multiple roadmaps on how Sebastian could deal with the non-reality of Santa.

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