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Monday, October 3, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Religious Norms? Part 1

Being an atheist in America is still difficult even after attempts by many prominent nonbelievers over the decades to normalize it as part of modern culture. Madalyn Murray O’Hair comes to mind, as well as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Christopher Hitchens has American citizenship as well, originally from Great Britain, and Richard Dawkins, a British native, also has made strong strides for nonbelievers. American Atheists is one of the most prominent groups to promote atheism as a culture and community that also shares many values with Christian Americans. But there are many persistent preconceptions people have about atheism that cannot be solved with even the prominent ad campaigns American Atheists has done, as I spoke about in “Atheists Patriot Ad Campaign,”  There are so many, in fact, I have to divide this into two parts. This week will be issues of atheists studying religion and whether that is hypocritical, whether atheists can celebrate holidays of a religious origin and whether atheists must swear on the bible in court.

Something I encounter virtually every time I speak about my undergraduate major, religious studies (sometimes phrased as religion), is that if you are studying religion, you’re presumed to have considered going into ministry. The idea that religion has to be studied from the position of a believer always irks me, since it suggests that one cannot really study religion in an academic context of its effect on culture, on people, as philosophy, as literature, etc, without believing that it reflects reality. The default notion historically for studying religion (understood intrinsically as Christianity and Judaism by association) was to minister to people about theology, to be someone people could consult about these sorts of issues. Pastors can serve that purpose, but only in a limited framework, since their primary goal is counseling more than actually educating people overall. I am in no way doing a disservice to religion or even insulting adherents of any particular religion if I study it and reach a conclusion that I personally don’t believe it, but still find it interesting to read about. A good 20% of my personal library is texts about Christianity, primarily theological or apologetic in nature, if only to see what believers present as enumerations of beliefs and defenses thereof. I can finish any of those texts with an improved understanding of Christianity and yet remain an atheist at the end of it. I would say my study of religion actually helped me a great deal in confronting my own beliefs and comparing them with texts presenting other convictions from their individual perspectives. I gained skills to analyze things that benefit me even today and that is nothing for anyone to denigrate by claiming I’m being disingenuous. If that’s the case, then many Christians who do the same thing in their spare time and ultimately conclude they don’t agree with it are basically as guilty, even if they don’t do it academically. They’ve still looked at something they disagree about with a partly discerning eye and come away a more knowledgeable person (I hope).

Another issue that persists even in spite of pretty clear secular manifestations of such things as Christmas and Easter (the two most prominent religious holidays celebrated even by so called religious people who only come into church two times a year) is a prejudice of atheists being supposedly hypocritical in taking part in religious holidays when they don’t believe in God. While Easter may have more explicit connections to God, Christmas is agreed by even theologians and many more fundamentalist Christians to not be historically justified or have any theological relevance to Jesus. Jesus was more than likely born much later or earlier than the winter, especially with cultural considerations of the shepherds in relation to their sheep. The date decided through church practices in the past coincided with Saturnalia, a pagan practice that Christians sought to co-opt and it has remained that way in spite of historians of varying faiths, Christians included, concluding that it is purely a matter of popularity, not dissimilar from All Hallow’s Eve in the Catholic calendar following Halloween chronologically. A certain group of Christians don’t even celebrate either Christmas or Halloween, for instance, suggesting that they have been so intertwined with non Christian religious practices and are not worthy of devotion. There’s also the observation that Jesus never said to observe anything related to his birth, but only related to his alleged resurrection as he spoke to his disciples. Easter is the more contentious of the holidays, since it is agreed upon by all Christians to focus on God and its involvement with the world through Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. But, like Christmas and Halloween, there is a way to celebrate Easter without being clothed in reverence to a deity. Merely celebrating spring and new life coming to be through that season seems sufficient to me. I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to appreciate spring, since the sunrise will happen every day regardless, as far as I’m concerned. Regardless of the sacred overtones or undertones of any day, it doesn’t exclude atheists from participating in a different, but similar, way. I can get married, but that doesn’t require I pledge my fidelity before God anymore than me getting candy eggs at Easter means I have to believe Jesus came back to life. It is in no way contradictory to celebrate a holiday’s non religious virtues and ideals, since, in all cases, they have already long since been separated by the practice of consumer culture inculcating in us the desire to buy not only candy and presents in convergence with Xmas, Halloween and Easter, but decorations to adorn our house to let others know that we celebrate the holiday. But this in no way establishes (mostly) whether you’re Christian or otherwise. Similarly, I can share time with family and have a good experience, but I don’t need to have extraneous beliefs attached to a special day like Xmas in order to appreciate it. The mere shared experience of happiness and enjoyment is special in itself.

The final question asked (for now) is something actually more easily solved by historical progress. Atheists, from what I recall, were historically not trusted to give oaths, though outspoken atheists didn’t exist prominently until probably 50 years ago or so. But now atheists are trusted to give oaths, albeit technically they are called affirmations in legal terminology. The distinction lies between making a claim without religious sentiment that you will tell the truth and nothing but the truth as opposed to swearing to God, which some Christians would argue contradicts what Jesus says in Matthew 5:37 “Simply let your yes be yes and your no be no,” If atheists can assert that they will tell the truth because it makes sense to and that there will be repercussions if they are found to be lying; while Christians seem to think they have some moral high ground when making an oath to God and also doing it partly because they might be charged with perjury; perhaps the former is simpler than the latter. This is one of those questions that has a simple answer and yet is complicated by a basic lack of education. If you are in a court of law, you have no compulsion to take any religious oath, and if you want to put your hand on a bible and swear to both your god and the court that you won’t lie, I can’t help but chuckle, because it’s unnecessary on its face. Why can’t you just not lie because you don’t want to be lied to? Is it that much of an obsession that you need to tell God you won’t lie in a criminal trial?

Atheists have no problem with a religious culture existing and being practiced by people, but they do not need to be practiced by everyone in that sense and there shouldn’t be any pressure to conform by believers. There are secular manifestations and practices of religious holidays and norms, such as the alternative of affirmation versus swearing on the bible for atheists and the like. Not to mention there’s common ground to be found in sharing time with friends and family that transcends those borders between the believing and the unbelieving. Next week, we’ll confront the norms related to patriotism and also that little superstitious phrase uttered when you sneeze with its own history and irony when saying it to atheists. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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