Friday, June 26, 2009

Doubt - Er, the Mental State, Not the Movie

Here's Anonymous, the most frequent commenter to this precious, precious blog:

Sometimes religious folks have passing doubts about their faith that come and go. Do atheists ever have doubts about their doubt?
For purposes of this blog post, I speak for every atheist -- living or dead, past and future, near and far -- when I respond to this question as follows: sure, why not?

Sure, I have doubts now and then. Most often these take the form of hopes that I'll be reunited with lost loved ones, something that's only possible if there's an afterlife. It would be nice to catch up with my mom, and to count the minutes until I'm tired of her again. (If you're a betting sort, the smart money places the over/under on that at 120.)

Another kind of hope -- less pressing, to be sure -- is that I'll have the chance to meet all the interesting people who have died. Who wouldn't want to meet William Shakespeare? Who wouldn't want ten or eleven minutes with a tire iron and the 9/11 attackers, Adolph Hitler, Michael Jackson (too soon?), and each member of our respective inner circle of long-departed betes-noires?

Other times it's fear-based: a scary movie or disturbing news report has been known to put me in a "gosh, I'd sure hate to go to hell since it's probably something like that or worse" state of mind.

Note the pattern: wish-fulfillment of different kinds fomenting doubts. Suffice to say the power of wishes, undeniable as it is, has a terrible track record for producing sturdy truth claims.

Most of the time, the real answer is no: I don't spend much time wondering if there really is a god (or group of gods*) watching over me and making entries on some naughty-nice list. There are countless situations where the question has no discernible impact and no association: for example, when one of my cats yowled for no reason at 4am this morning, and I threw a bundled pair of socks in the general direction of the yowl, no thoughts of eternity crept into the calculus or increased the subjective melodrama. The same is true of the moments spent not long after dressing for the day, and so on.

Interestingly enough, I think the same is true of believers. I suspect even the most devoted of believers are functionally atheistic most of the time: except for brief snatches of time here and there, whatever god(s) they follow is entirely irrelevant to what they're doing and thinking.

Maybe the more fruitful answer is to turn the question around and ask believers how often and under what circumstances they entertain the possibility that their religious beliefs are wrong, and whether all those committed believers of other faiths are right. Do devout Muslims worry that the Christians might be on to something? Vice-versa? Do both worry that the Hindu gods might be the universe's actual custodians? Do all three wonder if the Jews have it right?

It has often been said, so here's one more: an atheist is someone who rejects all the gods you reject plus one more.

* What is the proper group name for deities? bundle? satchel? pile? congeries? majesty? sum? herd? procession? index? tribe? murder?


Makarios said...

That was a really good post. Thank you. "It would be nice to catch up with my mom, and to count the minutes until I'm tired of her again." Priceless!

Dale said...

Makarios, thanks for the kind words.

Laura said...

Pride; it's a pride of deities. I think.

Dale said...

"Pride!" Of course! Thanks, Laura.