Letter from a UD atheist: an open dialogue

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The author hopes to inspire more open discussion between religious and non-religious students on campus. Photo by Kathleen Miller.

Wait, an atheist? At the University of Dallas?

I don’t blame you if it comes as a surprise. For the most part, I keep my head down and my pagan thoughts to myself … that is, until now.

Allow me to first clear some things up. As is true of many minority groups, atheists are often misunderstood. Within the religious community, the word “atheist” sometimes comes with a slew of negative connotations and misconceptions; atheists can be subconsciously thought of as stubborn, amoral or nihilistic. For this reason, I actually do not prefer to call myself an atheist at all. I would much prefer something like, “guy who is highly skeptical of the existence of a supernatural power,” which, though obnoxious, lends itself less easily to stigmatization.

Though I’m currently not a believer, I am also no stranger to Catholicism. Like many at the University of Dallas, I was born and raised in a big, beautiful Catholic family. I said my prayers at night, went to Mass every Sunday and was confirmed at age 16. But somewhere between my confirmation and high school graduation, my doubts about my faith reached a critical point and I left the church. I entered a brief period of agnosticism, and it wasn’t until a few months after I came to UD that I cautiously adopted an atheistic position.

As an atheist at UD, I am surrounded by people who base their lives on a faith that I believe is a delusion.

You might assume that I find the religious devotion of UD’s student body irritating or excessive. Quite the opposite. I respect the devout Christian far more than the Christian who practices his faith only when it’s convenient. While I do strongly disagree with the veracity of Christian claims, I also believe this: If God does exist, He had better be taken seriously. If Jesus really is the son of the creator of the universe and was tortured and killed to give us passage into eternal happiness after death if we would only love and serve Him, then yeah, He’s a big deal. He’s the biggest deal. We should be profoundly affected, and it should show. In that light, I sometimes find even UD lacks piety.

But relative piety aside, I find UD lacking in terms of critical engagement with the idea of God. The greatest strength of UD students is their willingness to engage with the big, important questions. I submit to you: If any such question is worth engaging, it is the question that strikes at the core of everything else — the question of God.

Yet at UD, where over 90 percent of students are Christian, it is easy to assume that this essential question has already been answered. I object to this assumption, and I feel it is my duty as a philosophically-inclined dissident to drag the question of God back into the foreground.

UD’s Catholic community has many wonderful qualities, but we must not allow it to become an echo chamber for what we already believe. We must think. We must question. We must doubt. No belief is so old, so sacred, so established that we ought not scrutinize it, especially when we’re talking about the beliefs that fundamentally shape our understanding of the world.

Universities, and UD in particular, are meant to be places where we challenge ideas through candid, purposeful dialogue. It is not enough for us to contemplate these questions privately, or worse, to pretend to debate with those who already agree with us. We must engage, eagerly but respectfully, with the other side.

I challenge you to honestly question what you believe. Shake off the dust of intellectual complacencey. Abandon your comfort zone. Explore new ways of understanding the world.

And to that end, let me be a sparring partner. I am always ready, always eager. I am also interested in making the all-important question of God’s existence a more public and ongoing discussion at UD, and I am open to your ideas.

Now, without further delay, let me start things off …

There is no God.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Nathan,

    As a fellow “guy who is highly skeptical of the existence of a supernatural power,” I just wanted to say thanks for the article.

    Adam
    UD Class of ’14

  2. I like where you’re going with this. I think part of what defines UD’s culture around the topic of God’s existence could be that a lot of us are “still” young and relatively vulnerable in our approach to this and related questions. So for some people, being challenged in that way could be more crippling than vitalizing. But perhaps it would make for a more authentic learning environment in some situations not to be too easy on ourselves or make too many assumptions. I mean, I would have applied myself to Phil of God more if it had been more of a question for me.

    • Joe,
      I must disagree. We are still young indeed, but I don’t think we should see ourselves as “vulnerable” to this question. This is the beginning of that decade of our lives when we decide who we are and what we believe. Besides, if we see ourselves as incapable of handling this question at this age, it just comes off as too similar to the “safe space” and “trigger warning” nonsense (in my opinion it’s nonsense, at least) that we’re seeing at other universities.

    • Hey Joe, thanks for the comment. I agree with Lauren here. If we shouldn’t engage with these questions now, then when should we? When we’re old and hard set enough in our convictions that our beliefs won’t budge? To the contrary, I think it’s important to do it while our minds are still malleable.
      We are constantly taking in new ideas from the day we’re born, whether we like it or not. You and I were both raised to believe in Catholicism long before we were capable of critical reasoning, when we were at our MOST vulnerable, but we can’t really say that our parents introduced those ideas to us too early, can we? So I don’t think we can say that we are too vulnerable at any point. We are always vulnerable to some extent, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expose ourselves to new ideas, and even do so vigorously.
      It is worth remembering also that the world outside UD is not particularly friendly to Christianity. If you are a Christian, I think you should want students to be prepared to take on that world. The best way to prepare is to engage with the real thing (in this case, atheism from the perspective of a real atheist), right here, right now.
      If you want to continue this discussion more in-depth, feel free to email me. nswope@udallas.edu

  3. Hi Nathan,

    Thank you for your candid and respectful thoughts. I believe that’s always the best approach to any dialogue. For me, it’s not actually shocking to hear of an atheist at UD. I would love it if the whole world was Catholic, but I’m not holding out for such a luxury. You are right that Catholics need to take their faith more seriously (myself included). I think it’s important to remember though that although we need to think critically about our beliefs that also includes approaching knowledge with a humility hard to come by in our age. The Church does have thousands of years of wisdom on its side and that isn’t to be taken lightly either. Perhaps the population at UD currently doesn’t think critically enough, but you expressed that the belief entirely is delusional, and that is something the Church has reflected on for many times longer than any of us have been alive. I don’t think faith in that is unfounded.

    Often, in my experience, the people I love who turn away from God have some resentment towards the Church that causes a rift. Maybe they are justified in their feelings, but they start listening to people who really don’t make sense. Dawkins rejects the idea of God, but surplants it with a tenuous belief in intelligent alien design. The damage is already done though and no matter what is said, the person is now convinced there is no God. If you ask Catholics to be critical of their thoughts, I agree and ask atheists to be just as critical. It is my belief that anyone genuinely seeking the truth will find it.

    On that note, I will continue the discussion:

    Why is there no God?

    • Hey Thomas, thanks for the response.
      When I wrote that the Christian faith is a delusion, I only meant that the claims it makes are false. I realize now I could have chosen a less contentious, distracting word. I also hope it did not convey any resentment toward the Church or my Catholic upbringing; I can honestly say I harbor none.
      I agree we ought to be humble in our search, but I strongly disagree that the age and scope of an institution like the Catholic Church makes it more worthy of our trust. I think you would agree that just because Buddhism has been around longer than the Catholic Church does not mean that it ought to be taken more seriously. In another discussion, we could discuss more precisely why one should or shouldn’t trust the authority of the Church, but I will insist that its age and size should matter very little, if at all.
      Whether or not the Church should be counted upon to deliver the truth, completely submitting our intellects to the claims of any institutional authority, especially when it comes to the essential questions that religion tries to answer, would be unwise. For us to even allow an authority to influence our beliefs, we must have evaluated it as trustworthy, and such an evaluation must occur independent of any input from the authority. Outside influences affect what we believe, but the search begins and ends with our own independent thought.
      A final question: If everyone who genuinely seeks the truth will find it, then why do so many genuine seekers come to so many radically different conclusions about truth? Are they not searching genuinely?
      I would love to engage with you on each of your points and respond to your final question, but in a different forum (comment sections don’t do well for long, serious discussions). Feel free to email me if you’d like to talk further. nswope@udallas.edu

      • Hi Nathan,

        Thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate your questioning to further our mutual understanding. I agree with you that comment sections don’t do well for long, serious discussions; however, we are also involved in an open dialogue and I think the emphasis should be on that. Thank you for your offer.

        Firstly, to clarify, it is not necessarily the age, and certainly not the size, of the Church, but the amount of time and effort that the Church has put into its thought, as well as what it is thinking about. An institution can exist for quite some time and make little or no effort to reflect on its existence. It’s not just that it’s survived for this long, but that it has been actively engaged for this long. You bring up a great question with Buddhism and with genuine believers at the end of your response: if there are so many genuine believers, why do they come to radically different conclusions? If I may, I will draw a parallel from science. Our understanding of the atom has been different ever since the ancient Greeks and their four elements (probably longer, actually). In 1904, J.J. Thomson introduced the “plum pudding” model for the atom, which, long story short, is not the correct mapping of the atom. Today, we have a robust understanding of the atom and how it is mapped; however, J.J. Thomson’s work contained some truth and was genuine, J.J. Thomson was searching genuinely as a scientist (he even won the Nobel prize for some of his other work), but he did not have all the information necessary to make the right hypothesis. The Church has the fullness of divinely revealed truth (the atomic blueprint, so to say), but that doesn’t mean that others are not genuine, that their work does not contain some part of the truth or that they are even less holy that most Catholics. It does mean they are not achieving the fullness of their potential, but it depends on their individual circumstances as to whether they are at fault. Did they ignore or disdain the truth or did they simply not get that far yet (we are finite here after all).

        On completely submitting ourselves to what the Church says, I would like to clarify that what I said about the weight of Church teaching is that it should not be taken lightly and that faith in it is not unfounded. To reiterate, I disagree that we should make our opinion completely devoid of what the Church says. We should carefully weigh what it is saying and give credit to where it makes sense. In understanding the natural world, you would not completely disregard what science has to say about the atomic structure. Your whole basis for understanding the atomic world depends on it actually. By all means, question whether or not the atom is what it is, but I don’t think we should entirely separate ourselves from what has been laid in front of us when we do that.

        Finally, I have yet to hear a coherent argument for the disproof of God’s existence. I think it’s very easy to criticize others for their beliefs, but if there isn’t something more reasonable in return, what are you trying to achieve? This is the two-way openness we need to achieve. What is your opinion? Do you think the entire universe was randomly created? What has your inquiry led you to believe?

        Thanks,
        Thomas

  4. Natie,

    Thanks for inviting the middle-aged to your college party. I hope I will not be a party pooper 😉

    Your article was so very well written. It has stimulated my thinking and given rise to a few ideas. I guess one thought that figures prominently is that if I did not believe in God I’d probably be a fairly good atheist. I suppose this thought occurred to me because, other than the believing-in-God-thing, I agree with much or most of what you wrote.

    At the same time, what also catches my attention is the idea that belief in God is the result of nothing other than mass delusion. What an interesting thought. I would say that it is certainly true that a great many religious people DO in fact suffer from delusion, because, as you alluded to, what they believe and how they behave may represent serious discrepancies with what their religion actually teaches.

    Any given individual’s “faith structure” is neither innocent nor “correct” until demonstrated otherwise. From my experience and observation [particularly among various Christian denominations], there is tremendous diversity among religious peoples not only in the structure and content of their beliefs but also in their [various personal] motivations for believing whatever they believe.

    This broad diversity, across not only denominational lines but also across divergent religions, makes it difficult for me to attribute belief in religion to delusion. I don’t think it’s enough to simply point out that people claim to have faith. We would have to explore exactly what we are referring to when we say “faith.” Not everyone’s “god” is quite the same, even among monotheistic religions. If religious belief were much more of a uniformly monolithic phenomenon, with everyone’s belief being in accord with the religion they claim to follow, then the likelihood of mass delusion would be bumped up a notch. I’m certainly not interested in defending the “belief” of the under-informed faithful, the misinformed faithful, or the quasi-faithful, etc. “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:14

    And, by the way, if atheism is correct it also should be taken quite seriously, as it would represent humankind’s only hope of unshackling ourselves from the ball-and-chain of religion and finally make some REAL progress as a species. On the other hand, if there is no God, then in the face of a senseless, indifferent cosmos, what objective difference does it make if humanity either builds the finest starships of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination – or if it extinguishes itself?

    U.P.

    • Hey Thomas, thanks for the response.
      When I wrote that the Christian faith is a delusion, I only meant that the claims it makes are false. I realize now I could have chosen a less contentious, distracting word. I also hope it did not convey any resentment toward the Church or my Catholic upbringing; I can honestly say I harbor none.
      I agree we ought to be humble in our search, but I strongly disagree that the age and scope of an institution like the Catholic Church makes it more worthy of our trust. I think you would agree that just because Buddhism has been around longer than the Catholic Church does not mean that it ought to be taken more seriously. In another discussion, we could discuss more precisely why one should or shouldn’t trust the authority of the Church, but I will insist that its age and size should matter very little, if at all.
      Whether or not the Church should be counted upon to deliver the truth, completely submitting our intellects to the claims of any institutional authority, especially when it comes to the essential questions that religion tries to answer, would be unwise. For us to even allow an authority to influence our beliefs, we must have evaluated it as trustworthy, and such an evaluation must occur independent of any input from the authority. Outside influences affect what we believe, but the search begins and ends with our own independent thought.
      A final question: If everyone who genuinely seeks the truth will find it, then why do so many genuine seekers come to so many radically different conclusions about truth? Are they not searching genuinely?
      I would love to engage with you on each of your points and respond to your final question, but in a different forum (comment sections don’t do well for long, serious discussions). Feel free to email me if you’d like to talk further. nswope@udallas.edu

  5. Hi Nathan!!!
    I think it’s awesome that you’ve written this article and are openly inviting more discussion on the topic at a very Catholic space like UD. Not only am I a gal who’s skeptical of the existence of a supernatural power, I’m not even Christian to begin with! (I guess I’ll call myself an agnostic Hindu?)

    I definitely agree that these “big” questions of the origins of the universe are still important discussions to have at UD; and I think it is important to be inclusive of people who have different beliefs than our own when we have these (respectful) discussions.

    • Hey Anissa. Glad you liked it! Your enthusiasm makes me optimistic about making these issues a more common topic of conversation at UD. I absolutely agree we need to be inclusive of people with different beliefs, but I would add that we can still candidly criticize people’s beliefs without disrespecting the people who hold them.

  6. I find it odd that the author claims the UD community does not address the existence of God when that very question is at the heart of so many readings in the Core.

    • Hey there. The question of God certainly comes up in our core classes, but in my experience this rarely leads to what I’m advocating, which is truly critical engagement with the question, especially outside the classroom. I think this is very different from what goes on in core classes.

  7. Please note that this business about delusion is a separate issue from where the burden of proof lies in regard to whether or not religion [or atheism] is true.

    Delusions are typically associated with psychopathology. We can attest to the fact that the diversity of personality in churches runs the spectrum from crazy to sane, mentally healthy people. For the crazies, it may be more of a convenient accident than a delusion that they “found religion” as a vehicle to express their madness.

    But, if atheists mean religion is a delusion merely in the sense that otherwise sane people just happen to be incorrect about it, then this very human tendency towards delusion is certainly shared with atheists whose belief is more uniform than religious belief, therein making atheism more vulnerable to being a delusion than religion is.

    Furthermore, for a delusion to be a delusion, by definition you need to unarguably demonstrate that it is false. Do atheists labor under the belief that they have proven religion is false? Now who is deluded?

  8. Hey Uncle Peter! Thanks for the reply.
    Not to brush what you said about delusions to the side, but I only meant that Christianity is a delusion insofar as the claims it makes are false. I realize after reading your and others’ comments that it was a poor word choice. I’m not sure exactly what your definition of delusion is, but it’s probably more accurate than mine, so my fault there.
    The religious diversity of the world is indeed tremendous. Not only are there hundreds of different religions, but within each religion are hundreds of sects, and even then beliefs and interpretations differ from one individual to the next. To me, this is evidence against monotheism. If there were only one Truth, emanating from one God who reveals Himself to man, then why on earth would so many of us get it all wrong? Why would an all-powerful God be so ambiguous about His existence and His nature as to allow such pervasive disagreement (which, by the way, often leads to wars and a horrific amount of human suffering)? It seems to me He is doing a terrible job revealing Himself. What we see in the world in terms of religious diversity is much more consistent with the idea that God is a man-made concept.
    The question of the burden of proof, which you brought up, is a good one. I think it lies with the theist. The atheist “belief” is not really a belief; it is a lack of belief. There is no claim being made. The atheist simply says there is not enough evidence to justify believing in the existence of God. It is up to the theist to convince us that there is, in fact, enough evidence.

    • Natie,

      Thanks for clarifying what you meant by delusion. Perhaps Richard Dawkins could learn something from you. On the surface, the title of his very popular book uses the same word you started out using, except that in his case I find it more difficult to believe it was an innocuous oversight. In his book, Dawkins didn’t do a very good job of hiding his contempt for religion.

      Not sure if it was a study by Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, MA, but I believe the current tally of Christian and quasi-Christian denominations is something on the order of 40,000. This carries implications that in my view are both good and bad, and I do not have difficulty understanding why it would appear to invalidate Christianity, if not all of religion. What especially presents a problem is that there are plenty of sects pointing the finger at other sects saying that the others are wrong while they alone are right. When you have several different sects simultaneously laying claim to exclusivity, what are you left with? Multiple gods? A God with multiple personality disorder? A God who arbitrarily or capriciously decides which ONE of the 40,000 sects to reveal Himself to in the “right way” while all of the others are indifferently relegated to hell without even being told in advance that they have it “wrong?” Perhaps God’s message to humanity can be expressed in a simple poem: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I. Even I, God, cannot tell who will go to heaven or hell when they die!” (I just thought that up now, myself!)

      On the other hand, I would suggest that many do not so much get it “right” or “wrong” as much as they just engage in turf wars. Whether in neighborhoods, schools, the business world, politics, or religion, people are always going to be people. That’s what I think the real problem is. Any ideology can be hijacked by ambitious, aggressive people. It has been said that religion is a crutch for the weak. Be that as it may, it seems that religion can be used as a weapon by aggressive people who, in effect, want to play god. There has never been a shortage of charlatans who put on a mantle of religion to achieve their own, unholy ends (in my opinion, this is a good description of some in politics here in the United States right now). God doesn’t like evil any more than you and I do. And God doesn’t like denominationalism any more than you and I do. Here are a couple of verses from the Bible. The first expresses God’s desire for unity among believers. The second is God lamenting that the bad behavior of supposed believers makes Him look bad: “I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23 “As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” Romans 2:24

      I wanted to know why there were different denominations, so, in the mid-1980s, I got out the yellow pages (dating myself just on that alone!), looked up “churches,” and started dialing in alphabetical order. What have I found after years of searching and asking questions? While denominationalism causes its own kind of problems, and I believe that denominationalism can be sin, it should also not be blown up into something it is not. While I have certainly not personally investigated all 40,000 denominations, I did find among the several I have visited that the basic tenets of faith are reasonably consistent. The standards of moral behavior are almost the same across the board. It’s just the vagaries of day-to-day life along with differences in culture and human tradition that do more to divide than actual differences in doctrine do to divide. In cases where division is a result of doctrinal differences, I maintain that the differences are often not worth the divisions. I do not blame God for human pettiness or stupidity.

      In my opinion, this even applies across the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism, in general. For instance, if I envision all of orthodox Christendom as a pie with one half being Catholicism and the other half being Protestantism, the difference is not in the underlying crust or substance of the pie. Rather, it is in whatever toppings you want to put on it. You might say that the Protestant half is, well, more plain, while the Catholic half is topped with some whipped cream, maybe a maraschino cherry, ice cream, or whatever.

      Wars and all kinds of horrific suffering are a result of ambitious, aggressive, uncompassionate people who want to play god. It is likewise due to turf wars and greed. God never taught these things to be virtuous. I do not blame God for a reprobate humanity.

      To me, a satisfactory if somewhat anticlimactic answer is that God allows the pot of denominational stew to simmer on through the ages for the same reason He has permitted all kinds of other problematic things to happen throughout history. You might as well lump the problematic aspects of denominationalism in with the age-old question of why God allows suffering. God allows something we don’t like, so we take Him to task for it. So, what is God’s actual reason for allowing problems in this life? Heck if I know! But, I don’t think it is necessary for any of us to know exactly WHY or HOW God does what He does. Even if He told us, why would anyone expect to be able to understand?? Trying to understand some aspects of God’s rationale would be even more far-fetched than asking my cat to understand differential equations (I don’t understand differential equations, either).

      Seems to me that humanity being as screwed up as it is points to the dire need of a Savior. The Biblical narrative fits perfectly with life as we know it.

      Is God really so ambiguous about His existence, or is there a defect in peoples’ faith – not faith itself as the defect? If you believe the Gospel accounts are true, then even people who personally witnessed Christ’s miracles still experienced doubt. I guess sometimes even seeing isn’t always believing. In the account of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham pointed out that even if the dead came back to life, some skeptics still would not believe (Luke 16:31). So, what is God supposed to do? Exactly when has God done enough for everyone to believe? Perhaps God has left things as they are because doing any more to “disambiguate” His existence still wouldn’t be enough for a lot of people. I recall Christopher Hitchens writing in God Is Not Great that even if God were real, Hitchens still wouldn’t want to be in Heaven with Him. How far would you have God go in order to prove Himself to the many on earth who feel like Mr. Hitchens did? For people who would love God, there is sufficient evidence to make belief in God quite reasonable.

      It’s not a question of if God will do anything about all the problems on earth. Rather, it’s a question of when God is going to set things straight. And, religion sticks its neck out on this one by claiming that God will be back in person – a foolish claim to make if religions knew they were a hoax at their beginnings.

      I see pervasive human strife and disagreement as a problem with people, not with God.

      The lack of belief, or passivity, with which you describe atheism I think would more appropriately apply to earlier crops of atheists like Bertrand Russell. But, this new crop of atheists are quite aggressive in their proselytizing. For a group who insists the burden of proof lies with the religious, they sure are putting a lot of time, money and effort into trying to convince others of the “nothing” they believe in! Among Christopher Hitchens’ last admonitions to the world was: “Don’t keep the faith.” Doesn’t sound like a passive, claimless ideology to me.

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