This morning I read an interesting post over on Andrew Sullivan’s blog by one of his “under-bloggers” named Patrick Appel. Patrick considers himself an agnostic or pantheist (depending on how you define the terms..) and in this post he is actually making a very astute linkage between how atheists and vegetarians approach the world. He states:
Whenever the Dish engages in a discussion about atheism we get a deluge of emails from atheists and agnostics who simply don’t care about questions of ultimate purpose. They are theological equivalent to vegetarians who never liked meat; they didn’t have a hard time abandoning religion because, for whatever reason, they never got much out of it in the first place. And they often don’t understand how anyone could.
I’m pretty much on board with this… but then he goes on to say the following:
Whatever religion’s failings, and there are many, it is one of a handful of institutions that compels us to contemplate unanswerable questions. The new atheists mostly neglect questions of meaning, probably because they and their followers don’t obsess about those questions to the degree the devout do.
This was not something I could agree with AT ALL.
Thus, I felt compelled to send an email to Patrick and the crew at Sullivan’s Blog, and rather than reformat and organize all of the thoughts here, I will take the lazy Sunday approach and just post my email response here as it was written…
Dear A. Sullivan Crew (but especially Patrick),
As one of those atheists who semi-regularly write in when some post about atheism seems to be going off track, I wanted again to write in about something Patrick just said in the post: “Those Not Tempted” about atheists that strikes me as wrong.
Patrick states that lots of atheists just don’t seem to care about questions of “ultimate purpose” and that this is pretty much the equivalent kind of situation of vegetarians who just never really liked meat.
I personally find this to be a very apt analogy and it does seem to describe my own version of agnostic atheism in that I have never really felt that my religious upbringing (liberal roman catholic in the US) really spoke to me, and thus I’ve never felt that I was “rejecting” something, but more like I just wasn’t interested in it.
However, later on, Patrick then seems to slip back inside the kind of religiously-framed mindset that perturbs so many atheists (myself included). He states, “Whatever religion’s failings, and there are many, it is one of a handful of institutions that compels us to contemplate unanswerable questions. The new atheists mostly neglect questions of meaning, probably because they and their followers don’t obsess about those questions to the degree the devout do.”
Although there are certainly a bunch of rhetorical caveats in that statement, it still strikes me as rather biased. In my experience, religion doesn’t actually seem to compel most of its adherents to ask or contemplate these deep existential questions or to consider the source of meaning in their lives. Many, many, many religious folk don’t ask these questions because they don’t think they need to be asked–at least that’s the reaction I get when I’ve asked them such questions and they don’t really have any thought out answers to them.
Now, of course, there are some deeply thoughtful thinkers that contemplate the question of “meaning in our lives” who are religious, but then again, there are many other thoughtful thinkers who aren’t religious who also contemplate how meaning is created without any religious assumptions put into the mix. To imply (perhaps unintentionally…) that the question of “meaning” is always tied to the issue of “ultimate purpose” is to frame the question in a way that is already biased in favor of religious approaches to the problem and which doesn’t allow for the fact that there are many different ways to find, create, and understand the concept of “meaning” in each of our individual experiences.
To conclude, I’d like to go back to Patrick’s analogy about vegetarianism. As I noted before, I agree with his analogy that for many atheists, their relationship to supernatural entities is very much like vegetarians who never actually liked meat. It’s just not something that they ever felt any need for. However, Patrick’s subsequent statements about “ultimate purpose” and questions of meaning take this a step further and seem to be like a person saying that these vegetarians who never liked meat don’t really seem to care about protein(=meaning), because protein is mainly a meat-thing. The implied and assumed support for this position is that because meat-lovers obviously consume a lot of protein through their meat, and meat is disproportionally made out of protein (although there’s a lot of fat in there too!), then only meat eaters really care about protein and know about protein. It is then regularly assumed and even often explicitly stated that the non-protein focused vegetarians are just not really able to talk about protein at all. Furthermore, because of the lack of centrality or dominance of protein in vegetarian food, it is assumed that they lack competence or interest in the issue of protein.
In real life, as in this analogy, this position is just silly. The point here is not that atheists don’t care about meaning–but that they mostly all have a very different foundation for creating and understanding “meaning” in their lives. Just as vegetarians can point out that there are many different kinds of protein that you can get through different non-meat foods (with the resultant scoffing and smirking by many meat-eaters about how obviously silly these vegetarians are for not just eating meat to get their protein…), atheists can easily and, in my experience, do easily point to a variety of different sources of meaning in their lives that don’t revolve around religious experience. These expositions by atheists (or vegetarians), then seem to be ignored out of hand as not really being valid because the framework for understanding meaning (or protein) is so totally and implicitly understood in religious (meat eaters’) terms and concepts.
Thus, if you want to help make the debate more comprehensible to both sides of the group, one needs to be more careful about how you frame the questions and terms. Religious groups don’t control the question of meaning any more than meat eaters control questions of protein consumption. While it may certainly be true that religious groups do spend a relatively greater amount of their time focused on this topic (just as meat does have a lot of protein in it!), that doesn’t give them ultimate or exclusive competence in this area.
I hope my contribution to this analogy will make the debate even more clear!
A regular reader,
Edit!–Patrick actually read my response and posted it to Andrew Sullivan’s blog. He also wholeheartedly agreed with my points. This can all be seen here….