Interview with an Atheist (DAVE NEWLIN)
How/when did you become an Atheist?
Well, I need to start in a slightly different place. While I do refer to myself as an atheist, It is only for lack of a better term. The term means “not a theist” and defines people in such a way that what I believe is only in relation to the idea of God. That’s not how it is. In fact, I have zero beliefs which rely on anything like the concept of God or believing in God. I simply lack superfluous and unjustifiable supernatural beliefs. This presents some technical difficulties: you don’t call a healthy person unsick, a short person untall, etc. They just are what they are. There isn’t a good word for what I am because what I am does not involve much more than just reason.
Was your upbringing religious?
I was raised as a Mormon in El Paso, Texas. I actually loved it, Mormonism. It is a very interesting and philosophically complex religion which appealed to my apologist tendencies. I spent a lot of time thinking about religion and the issues surrounding it because both my amazing family and some members encouraged me to do so. Members who recognized the fun and the usefulness in doing so. I was extremely devout, though I was always on the outside of certain issues, mostly because that’s were I liked being.
As for how I came to be an “atheist,” It was in November of 2007. It was extremely sudden actually. I was just up late on a graveyard shift, thinking about whatever I think about super late at night, and it just hit me like a slap across the face — “God” makes no sense, it is an ill formed concept. It further occured to me that a lot of what religions rightly regard as bad or evil, they do for the wrong reasons. Murder, theft, abuse…whatever is evil is not evil because God said so, but because they, for the most part, harm people or groups of people in some demonstrable way. Morality is bigger and more important than to just leave it at “Some sky-man says so.” Plato’s Euthyphro explains this extremely well.
To maybe take a bit too long to answer #two, it is important to realize that everyone, and I mean everyone, is an atheist already. No one believes in Baal anymore, or Hermes or Jupiter. Everybody is already a good atheist, I’m just one or two gods ahead of everyone else.
What are your thoughts on organized relgions?
Organized religion is a terrible, terrible thing. It legitimates disgusting violence, unjustifiable practices, unfounded beliefs, holds up banal men (almost always men) and powerful heirarchies, patriarchies, stokes racial tensions, and any number of other awful things. It is true that people do great things in the name of religion. But people don’t need an organized religious structure to write good music, or to paint beautiful pictures or what have you. People do need organizational reasons to justify a desire to pillage and make war, and spread absurdities which hold up the powerful and make them like gods on earth, and as such I see organized religion as fundamentally and irrevocably deleterious to moral progress insofar as it holds up thee problems and makes them possible in a way no other structure can.
It is true, and is often claimed in response to my above criticism that humans will find a reason to do whatever evil things they want to do, and religion just happens to be one of the oft-cited reasons. The problem, though, is that organized religions offer promises that no non-religious structure could possibly offer. The United States can’t provide you with eternal happiness or 72 virgins or enlightenment if you are willing to murder someone on their behalf, and neither can the Republican Party or the Labor Party give you the power to heal the sick and speak in tongues if only you obey and toe the party line. Religions can at least offer, if not actually deliver, on these illogical and foolhardy profits and they do so efficiently and regularly. Religion is peculiarly immoral in this way, and it just isn’t true that political modivation can provide the kind of mass motivation that religion can, for good or bad. Not in a million years.
But unorganized religion is only a little better. Just as far as you believe in something without sufficient evidence or justification, you are engaging in a belief which is corrupting and you ought not to believe that thing, if only for the sake of your own psyche.
How would you define spirituality?
This is perhaps simpler than you might think. It is a sense/ emotion/ feeling of being connected in some way to something greater and bigger than yourself, perhaps even something mystical. Spirituality does not in any way require the belief in anything supernatural, illogical, absurd, ancient, or even remotely related to the concept of God. One can have this kind of experience with regard to plenty of entirely material things, or even if one had an experience that might be described as metaphysical or mystical in some way, they should come down eventually, and realize that the experience is just part of the benefit of being a real live human being, and not any indication of anything more real than what we can empirically encounter. And we should be happy about this. Whatever there is to experience, we can experience it in this life. No one, no deity, no priest, no bishop has to do any of the work for us. We can meet the world and know it on our own terms, unmediated by religion.
What are your thoughts on the Dostoyevsky quote, “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted”?
I follow Slavoy Zizek who was following Lacan in claiming that preciesely the opposite is true — If God doesn’t exist everything is prohibited. To approach the world in a fully rational, scientific way is to prohibit everything, in at least some sense. To understand the consequences of our actions effectively rules out the possibility of performing actions which are bad for either ourselves or others. To continue eating chocolate in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is making you obese or is hurting your kidneys etc. is either pathological, as in massochistic or depressed or some other thing, or it is to simply not really understand the consequences of eating chocolate. If you did, you wouldn’t do it.
Only science can explain these consequences and as such only science can truly prohibit something. This applies in the moral realm too — To fully understand the moral implications of something is the same thing as knowing whether to do it or not, and not only that, but to understand why as well. No sky-man required. By approaching morality with a rational/scientific mindset you simpy are already commiting yourself to prohibition. No one has to command you to do or not do something.
Is it difficult being an atheist in Utah?
It’s difficult being an atheist anywhere. Religious belief, and therefore the people who hold those beliefs, are afforded an amount of respect and leeway that atheists generally aren’t. Most people have no problem telling an atheist that her morals are suspect or even impossible if she refises to believe in God. In effect you can say to an atheist “you’re immoral” without batting an eye, but to say the same thing about say, Christianity, for instance “The new testament espouses immoral ideas” is immediately met with ire and claims of bias and bigotry, or condescending paternalism. Either way, atheists are everyone’s punching bag. It’s never bad politically to criticize someone who lacks belief.
Notice too, how this has changed — Thomas Jefferson was esentially a non-believer, as were many other early american leaders. Most were Deists. Not so many Christians though. Yet the Idea of an atheist president now is unthinkable. For all intents and purposes, atheists are entirely unrepresented in both the federal government and the State of Utah, which is of course frustrating. But there is a good community of people around here, atheist and theist, who make it acceptable.