The Godless Life

By Keith Kloor | August 17, 2011 7:52 am

Despite my many faults, I’m a nice guy. I can be too sarcastic for some, and lately I’ve been cranky because of a growing sleep deficit, but those who know me know I’m a caring, good-natured person.

This is not meant to sound self-serving. Think of it as background context for the anecdote I’m about to share.

So I have an out-of-town cousin staying with us this month. She’s 25, bubbly, very sweet, and hoping to make her mark in NYC as a singer. She’s crashing on our living room couch until she finds a place of her own. I’ve known her since she was a toddler. Her family has treated me like one of their own since I was a boy. I have a deep bond with them. There’s a lot of love and respect between us. My 25 year old cousin knows this.

For a few moments yesterday, she couldn’t find her checkbook amidst the clutter of our living room, where kids toys now share space with her sprawling luggage (and impressive shoe collection). She was getting a little frantic. Then, presto, there it was behind the couch. “Thank you, Jesus!” she exclaimed.

I couldn’t resist. “What did he have to do with you finding it?” I asked, trying hard not to smirk.

It was just an expression, she said, but since I asked, she told me that she recently had her faith in God affirmed after a few health scares. (She is half-Jewish, half Christian.)  “My prayers were answered,” she explains.

I tell her I’m skeptical of such things, since I wonder why God would answer her prayers but not those from other people who are in dire straits and just as worthy as her.

She said that God must have his reasons. “Don’t you believe in God,” she asked?

No, I said. I’m an atheist.

A look of horror and shock spread across my cousin’s face. As if I wasn’t the same person she thought I was. I could see that she was trying to reconcile the good soul I am thought to be with the confessed heathen. How could they be one and the same?

I share this anecdote because coincidentally, a collide-a-scape commenter from yesterday explained the religiosity of American politicians this way:

Americans expect and are comforted if our leaders believe in a Power greater than themselves. That they have a known and familiar set of guiding moral principles in which they follow. Another way to look at it is we want some proof that our politicians have a conscience.

This association of personal morality with belief in God (widely held, especially among Christians) is something I reject. I know I have a conscience and that I am guided by a firm set of moral principles, though I am sure my cousin is now suddenly doubtful of this.

I decided to be playful with her and see how far my star had fallen. I told her that I used to debate a group of super polite born-again Christians in college, who tried hard to get me to see the light. It was no use. They had ruefully said I was going to hell, but that they would still pray for my soul. It was almost touching how badly they felt for me.

I asked my cousin if she too thought I was a condemned man.

“No, I don’t think you’re going to hell,” she said. “But you can’t get into heaven. You’ll just be in purgatory.”

Bless her heart.

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  • Tom C

    Your cousin’s response is not at all unreasonable.  It’s easy for you to think that your morals are satisfactory despite your atheism because you happen to be embedded in a society that was formed by Judaism and Christianity.  You don’t realize how much of what you assume to be good and right is “in your blood”.  If you had any real experience in an atheistic culture (or even in a truly pagan culture) you would not be so glib.  Or supercilious toward your cousin.  You might want to read and ponder the Brothers Karamasov.

    Regarding the post from yesterday re Andrew Sullivan, how can you take this person seriously?  His unrelenting obsession with the conditions surrounding Sarah Palin’s pregnancy and son Trig would, I think. disqualify him as a rational observer of just about anything.

  • Pascvaks

    (-;Understand Purgatory isn’t that bad.  From what I learned at  the end of a ruler swung by several Nuns, I’m going there or farther down.  See you there, maybe;-)

  • Tom Scharf

    Man if you thought AGW was kind of a toxic subject, you have found an even more toxic argument with this one.  I sense you probably knew better than to bring up that subject with your cousin to begin with.

    Hope you don’t alienate too many of your supporters by coming out of the closet with this “ugly confession”, ha ha.

    Good look from a fellow pro-un-non-dis-believer in a personal God who grants you wishes based upon your faith and devotion to them, et. al.

     

  • Keith Kloor

    Tom Scharf (3),

    What supporters? I have readers and many of them already get regularly pissed off at me. If I worried about alienating anyone, this would be a much different blog.

    Tom C (1)

    I have been an atheist since I was a teenager, but I have no experience in atheistic culture. Is there such a thing? If so, what would be some examples?

    I know a couple of atheists and they don’t belong to any coven, best as I can tell.
     

     

  • Sashka

    Of course there such thing as atheistic culture, Keith. I grew up in socialist Russia where that was the case.
     

  • Sashka

    Why did my comment end up in moderation? There was no links in it and I don’t recall getting into a pissing match with anyone lately.

  • Keith Kloor

    Sashka,

    As a longtime reader, you should know that comments occasionally end up in spam or moderation for no reason at all.

    As to your actual comment, you grew up in a communist/socialist culture, of which atheism was a byproduct. I see a difference, but you probably don’t and since you lived there, I can appreciate that.

    More to the point, the disparaging equation of atheism with communism has a long history.

  • Keith Kloor

    On the whole atheism/communism thing

  • Sashka

    It wasn’t exactly a byproduct. It was a necessary tool of political oppression and ideological control. The church was correctly perceived by Lenin and his gang as a moral authority that could be a threat to the machine. Therefore it had to be reduced to the bare minimum and eventually incorporated into the apparatus.

    I agree that there is no clear connection between communism and atheism, nor (especially) between Christianity and capitalism. Except societies tend to naturally gravitate towards capitalism while socialism/communism is so far impossible without oppression of competing ideologies, including religion

  • Sashka

    Twice in one day is my personal record.

    [Perhaps you are using a different email account or server.//K]

  • Keith Kloor

    On a related note

  • Tom C

    The Soviet Union, Albania, North Korea, China – these are countries where atheism was mandated and religious practice subject to eradication to one degree or another.  Why do I need to inform an educated person of this?

    Regarding you cousin, maybe you don’t grasp an outlook toward life which could be summed up as “in all things give thanks to God”.  I’m quite sure that every event of the day is not subject of a prayer request which is then acknowledged by “thank you Jesus’ if the desired result is obtained.  That is a strawman concept of a life suffused with a sense of gratitude.

  • harrywr2

    she told me that she recently had her faith in God affirmed after a few health scares


    The placebo effect is real and measurable. I once spent a 12 hour flight sitting next to a real live African Witch Doctor. He had no delusions that his ‘treatments’ had any medicinal value. The belief his patients had in their medicinal value did have medicinal value.
    I.E. Stress is an immuno-suppressant, remove the stress and the immune system works better.
    Whether or not God exists or personally intervenes in your cousins life doesn’t make a difference. Your cousin has a belief system that allows her to place stressors in a harmless place.


  • Marlowe Johnson

    As all roads here lead to climate change, let me suggest that it is precisely the sort of emotional/irrational defense mechanism that is often at play when it comes to climate change denial (on top of threats to one’s identity politics).

    Necessary illusions are everywhere…

     

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Oh and harry-coal-bot, on a completely unrelated note, I’d thought you be interested in the latest and greatest pronouncements from NHTSA on fuel economy regs and safety 

  • Keith Kloor

    Marlowe (14),

    You’re such a troublemaker! :)

    harrywr2 (13):

    I entirely agree. My mother-in-law is very religious (and most virtuous I might add), and I Know that the stresses in her life are tremendously alleviated by her faith and by going to church.

    On a larger note, let me say this: People here should not confuse my atheism with dismissal of religion. On the contrary, I believe very strongly in the need for a greater dialogue between the science and religious communities, along the lines of what I tried to do here.

     

  • Tom C

    #14 Marlowe Johnson –

    After decades of failed predictions of environmental catastrophe from “the population bomb”, dioxin, etc. it’s nice to have a built in defense mechanism that prevents me from taking such nonsense seriously.

  • RickA

    Interesting philosophical topic.

    What is our personal morality built upon?

    Is it cultural norms – or passed down by training from our parents?

    Or is it innate, and built into our DNA and the structure of our brain?

    Take theft as a topic.

    I would imagine that a cave person would object if another cave person took their club away (which in my hypo, they made from scratch).

    The club owner might say – you can’t have that club – I made it, its mine!

    What is the origin of this feeling that if you make something, that it is not fair for someone else to simply take it.

    This feeling is the source of all property rights, and probably then incorporated into religion (via for example “though shalt not covet thy neighbors goods”), and then into Western laws making stealing against the law.

    But what is the source of the sense of fundamental unfairness when someone simply takes what you perceive to be your property.

    You see it even with small children playing with toys.

    A child starts playing with a block – and thus it becomes their property (at least in their mind).

    Another child takes the block away – and the fighting begins! 

    I know there is a ton of research on this – both with humans and animals.

    Even a dog will feel it is being treated unfairly if another dog is being given a treat for the same behavior that it is not being given a treat for (I recall hearing about a paper on this discussed on a podcast).

    My personal belief is that all of these behaviors and feelings of what is fair and unfair, evolved over time, and became incorporated into all religions, and then into legal systems.

    So our personal morality is innate and hard wired into us and our brains.

    If something is wrong with a person (i.e. they have no compunction about killing another person), there is something organically wrong with that person’s brain and we call them a sociopath or other label.

    What do you think Keith – do you think your personal morality was learned behavior, where you born with it, or is it something you simply decided on yourself as you grew? 

  • grypo

    I have a unique perspective because I have run the Christian gambit.  From rote Catholicism, to fundamentalist Christian (as a child), to modern Baptist, to Kierkagaard’s existential ‘leap of faith’, to Pasqual’s wager, and finally to atheism.

    It’s hard to shake the comfort having God.  As far a morality goes, I too get the bewilderment at my ethical compass by Christians.  I am the prodigal son.  But to tell you the truth, i never felt all that ethical until I developed my own code through life experience and study.  Getting a code from fear of the consequences of hell-fire never felt all that real to me.

     

  • jorge c.

    Sashka: Arnold Toynbee said that Karl Marx was the last Jewish Prophet. and communism (better stalinist/communism) WAS a religion, without god, but still a religion.
    and mr.Kloor could be an atheist, but he has a complete set of values, morals, etc. whose origins are judeo/christians. 

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @Tom C

    What about the predictions that were right (e.g. collapse of north atlantic cod stocks)?  Or do you treat those as lucky guesses ?

    @Keith,
    Growing up in a unreligious environment presented some unique challenges when my mother was ‘born again’ during my late teens only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple years later. While I didn’t (and still don’t) share her faith, I nevertheless was able to see quite clearly the comfort that it provided to her and her like-minded friends.  It’s not something that I’d take anyway from anyone willingly; knowing what I know now, if given the choice I’d probably take the blue pill not the red one :(
     

  • http://rustneversleeps.wordpress.com rustneversleeps

    What about these guys, Tom C? Are they getting their morality/sense of fair play from their belief in God?
    “both provide goods and services to one another, and individuals that don’t play their part receive little few rewards. And because both parties have a say in whom they interact with, and have many partners to choose from, neither can afford to cheat the other. The market stays competitive, and cheats don’t prosper.”
    It’s about fungus and plant roots.  http://networkedblogs.com/lA4Gx

  • Keith Kloor

    Rick A (18) 

    You ask:
    “do you think your personal morality was learned behavior, where you born with it, or is it something you simply decided on yourself as you grew?” 

    All of the above.
    But untangling the cultural from the evolutionary biological is probably futile. With respect to religion and the same question, here’s what a reviewer said about Nicholas Wade’s recent book:

    “Wade says, religion is not going away, because it’s imprinted on the human genome. The first part of this claim is hard to argue with. The second part is probably true, too, but raises the question of how.”

  • Sashka

    @ jorge

    Out of the context I don’t have a first clue of what he meant by “the last Jewish Prophet”. My first reaction is to classify it as utter nonsense because if he ever predicted anything it was the end of capitalism and see how well that worked.

    You can say that communism was a religion without god but this would miss the most important part: it was a religion that nobody believed in. Thus there is much better word for it: a hoax.

  • Carolyn (from you know where)

    Hello dear pagan! It’s been too long. We should catch up some time soon…Love, a fellow future resident of purgatory.

  • Keith Kloor

    Whoa, a blast from the past–and from someone who can attest to both my winsome sarcasm and lovableness. 

    When will the prodigal gypsy return to NYC? Let’s do catch up soon…

  • Leo G

    My religion is to where the finger points, not the finger.

  • Leo G

    Keith @ 23, I think it was in Discover, where I read that geneticists are discovering that gene imprinting seems to be able to occur from belief/thought. Won’t have time to source it right now, as I am preparing for a mini holiday.

  • jorge c.

    sashka: millions and millions believed (and thousand still believe) in the “truth” of communism, please read The Red Flag, by David Priestland.

    and Toynbee drew a parallel between Marx and the jewish prophets of the Bible because the similar apocalyptic vision of the future  

  • grypo

    Marx’s attitude toward religion was apathetic.  He thought of it as a drug.  Much like has been described in this thread.  He thought it made people settle for less than they were worth, much the same way he though of wage labor.  Lenin took it to a new level by writing anti-religion laws.  An off-shoot of Marxist thought, the first of the modern anarchists, Proudhon (Mutualists) and Kropotkin (social communism), believes the state sponsored organized religion, and that, along with wanting to  end usury and the conglomeration of capital, was the reason that the state needed to be destroyed.  Both had similar goals, but much different ways of getting there.  A stateless society with no need for organized religion.

  • Tom C

    @ rust

    There are lots of mysterious things in life.  I don’t think good and evil can be explained by biology alone.  I think deep down everyone knows this.

    @ marlowe

    Not sure I would count collapse of North Atlantic cod as an environmental catastrophe.  You will have to come up with something more compelling than that.

    @ various posters

    Some say that belief is a sort of self-delusion that grants comfort, stress relief, etc.  But a big part of the Christian life concerns admitting sins, confessing sins, grapplings with sins, etc.  None of that is particularly comforting.  So maybe the religious life is much more multi-faceted than you make it out to be.

    @ Mr. Kloor

    Re-read your account of your cousin’s checkbook find and “thank you Jesus” response.  She said that it was “just an expression”.  It was you who created the strawman account of Jesus answering her prayer but not that of some other worthy person (as you tried not to smirk).  There might be more psychological subtlety in religious folks than you assume.

    [Tom C– I think it is you who need to reread my post. You’re mixing up my narrative. My second question/skeptical comment to her was not related to her checkbook find.//KK]

  • EdG

    “Americans expect and are comforted if our leaders believe in a Power greater than themselves.”

    Think this applies to far more than just Americans.

    At its core, this phenomenon seems to me to be just basic primate behavior – creating social hierarchies – with a human twist. We extend our hierarchies to an abstract level to give leaders more authority.

    Usually this alpha abstraction is some spiritual power but for some the state is their defacto god.

    Thus I don’t get this, from grypo, unless by “religion” they just meant the spiritual kind:

    “A stateless society with no need for organized religion.”

     

  • Tom Gray

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zCP9mW0GH4

    The above points to a deabte between two philosophers at teh Unversity of Toronto on “Living Without The Sacred”

    Jordan Peterson has some interesting ideas on the reasons why religion was created and persists

  • Steve Schuman

    Whenever I come across someone who professes atheism, I ask them what concept of God they don’t believe in.  To whatever they respond I always agree.  Such are the limits of concepts.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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