Why I’m No Hollywood Atheist

I am an atheist. On the surface, a simple enough statement; I reject the existence of god, the idea that he created the world and continues to watch over us. And that does helpfully sum up my feelings on the matter, although it feels a little too trite for my liking.

Let me explain. I was raised a casual Catholic. I was never baptised or confirmed, but attended Mass and prayed before bed. I accepted, without question, the existence of a benevolent (but capricious) Christian god; I believed he watched me and judged my actions. As a kid, it felt a little bit like God was Santa Claus, and that to be put on his Divine Naughty List was the worst thing that could happen to me. I didn’t question it; grownups told me it was so, and therefore it must be.

I had a minor epiphany aged 13. I asked my nan one day “Do you believe in God?” fully expecting her to say yes, of course, and perhaps launch into the virtues of being a good Catholic girl like my father’s mother. But she didn’t. She looked thoughtful for a minute. Then she said “I don’t believe in God the way you do. I believe in nature.”

My nan’s beliefs were, and continue to be, a beautiful (if quite unconscious) mishmash of Wicca, Taoism and Jainism. She is very much an atheist, preferring to attribute the wonders and disasters of the world to forces of nature, of chaos and chance. I was spellbound by her explanations in a way I had never been with Abrahamic theism. Although I had learned a little about other religions at school, this was the first time I had been explicitly told that it was okay not to believe in god.

I felt a little bit liberated, truth be told. God had never been a satisfying explanation of the world. An increasing amount of what I was taught at church had begun to strike me as nonsensical, or hypocritical, and I had been torn between my duty to my community as a good Catholic and my own budding scepticism.

So my nan opened my eyes to the possibility that not only might God not exist, but that might not actually be a bad thing. And as I’ve grown older atheism has made more and more sense to me; I feel no mourning for the loss of my religion, my god, my church. It’s not that I look down upon these things as symbolic of my impressionable youth, although I do wonder how much of my belief was taught and not formulated individually. I just don’t feel as if I’ve really lost anything.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of atheism as a legitimate way of seeing the world (I reject the term ‘belief’ – atheism is not about belief, not about faith. It it precisely the opposite) and I’m truly pleased; it wasn’t very long ago that one could be severely punished for such a blasphemy as claiming god did not exist. But with freedom of (non) belief comes spokesmen. Men and women who feel qualified to speak on behalf of all atheists. Real-life atheists and those created for TV and film suddenly become representative of atheists as a whole.

Just as Sarah Palin does not represent all Christians, and Osama Bin Laden does not represent all Muslims, so Richard Dawkins and Dr. House do not represent all atheists. Now, both Dawkins and House put forward very legitimate points of view and I certainly can’t claim to disgree with a fair bit of what they say. When House says “Religion is not the opiate of the masses; religion is the placebo of the masses.” I find myself nodding, thinking back to my own childhood.

I think my problem with it all is partly that both Dawkins and House are deliberately acerbic. They’re not content with theorising and discussing the unlikelihood of theism. They are what I call ‘Hollywood Atheists’ – the kind of atheist who prefers to approach the issue of faith and religion with flamethrowers, miniguns, tanks and nukes, firing round after round until religion is reduced to a smouldering lump of conjecture.

Thing is, not all atheists are so damn aggressive. And not all of us are so egotistical about it all. I can accept the possibility (however slim I may perceive it to be) that I might be wrong. I don’t think I am; in fact, I’m really quite sure that there is no god. But I’m totally comfortable with admitting to the small margin of error left by my calculations. We can never be sure. It’s true that the burden of proof rests with the believer; they have to prove beyond doubt that their god exists in a real, physical sense before an atheist will concede (and I really don’t see why it ought to be any other way)

I’m not arrogant. I know why people believe; it’s quite a reasonable thing to do, when you think about it. And some aspects of faith are really quite beautiful; there are passages in the Qu’ran and Bible, in the Torah and Bhagvad Gita that inspire me as well as the ones which repel me utterly. I don’t reject all religious ideologies; just the idea that a divine being has anything to do with it.

I love Dr. House, by the way. I find him hilarious. I find the show extremely entertaining. But I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that he is ostensibly representing pretty much all atheists. Sure, a lot of the things he says are, in my opinion, fairly accurate. But it’s the manner in which he says them. Not all atheists are so quick to offend.

So no, I am not a Hollywood Atheist. I’m sure there are quite a few atheists who are. I’m sure, like Christian fundies and Muslim jihadis, they inspire people to assume that the majority of atheists are angry foot-stompers who decry religion as the febrile sputterings of brainwashed fools in large numbers. But for the rest of us, Hollywood Atheism is a bit of a straw man used (frequently by the Daily Mail) to prove that we are all soulless nasties with no respect for our fellow man. And that’s not a badge I’m comfortable wearing.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jen
    Jun 05, 2010 @ 00:50:24

    Thank you for writing this! I read it yesterday but am just now getting a chance to comment. These are very similar to my feelings from when I was an atheist; even though I’m in a different place on that issue, I still resent when any “fundamentalist” becomes the public face of a given philosophy.


  2. blabbermonkeh
    Jun 07, 2010 @ 09:46:57

    Thank you! I think the least we can do as human beings is to remember that the actions of a handful of nutters in the name of god (or indeed, godlessness) do not represent the thousands of others who pray, or debate, or theologise in peace.


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