Saturday, July 19, 2008

Study in Atheism

Hemant, the Friendly Atheist, asked his readers about atheism in their families. I've never thought much about my heritage, theism-wise, so it was a nice opportunity to write down what I know.

Recalling family stories and looking at my snazzy new (though inverted) chart, I come up with one main theme. In my family, at least, there is a direct correlation between theist parents and atheist children. I don't know if that says more about religion or the way my forebears have practiced it.

So, here is the tree, upside down and informative. (Click image to embiggen.) What's your tree like?


Anonymous said...

Embiggen is a great word. If Webster doesn't know about it, he should.

I am not sure I agree with your family tree. While my father (your grandfather) was an atheist, a fact he proclaimed loudly by shouting "Thank God I am an atheist", his parents were both strong theists as were most if not all of his siblings. My mother would have liked to be more religious, I think, but gave it up since we due my father and her father's pressures and work. We went to church regularly before she started work and were well on our way to being good little Methodists, or so I assume. My mother's mother was also someone who wanted to be more religious than her husband encouraged. Or at least that is my perception.

I do think that we skip generations with our religious bents and suppose that this is true to some extent in most families. Religion, or any organized thought, can be used as a form of rebellion. "If Mom and Dad think A, then I will think B." It is not really that simple but as a part of growing up we all have a time when we need to break free from our upbringing. Often it comes at the same time that we are examining deep thoughts like religion and philosophy. If those things coincide it is perfetly reasonable to take on a new religion. Sometimes they stick and other times they don't and we go back to where we started or in a totally new direction. Yes, atheism is a new way of thinking.

In college I toyed with finding a religion and came close to several options but realized each time that I don't really think that there is a supremem being so to join a religion would be a little false.

So I married a Hindu and left the rebellion at that.

Your family tree is very religiously mixed. I wonder what the next generation will do. Will you be stressed if your child finds solace in some religion? Are there ones that would be more or less acceptable? No matter what your religious beliefs I have found that it is good to have them challenged occasionally. When I see that religion serves a useful purpose for people I love, I am more accepting than I ever thought that I would be. I can't say I understand it but I can't understand why anyone would want to be an engineer or a math teacher or even a musician either and I can accept all of those choices. If it works for them, it is fine with me. (With the usual "as long as they don't force me to do it, too.")

Anonymous said...

I pretty much echo what my sister has to say. Our mother was an agnostic, I think. But she would, as Linda says, have liked to have been religious - she just couldn't quite bring herself to it. In some ways, I think her father was a theist in anti-theist clothing. He loved the Enlightenment with all its anti-theistic rhetoric but was a Presbiterian at heart. I suspect your great grandpa Schmiedeskamp was a long suffering agnostic but that is a guess. Certainly he was far more apatheistic than Bertha - his wife.

I have had my moments of wanting to believe but never had the stomach for it - so much so that I cannot quite manage even a belief in athiesm. One cannot rule out the possibility of a god. A recent Scientific American had an article about "multiverses" which asserted that if you can imagine a universe with any particular reality it probably exists. Perhaps ours is one of those. On balance, I think God is unlikely. If there is such a creature, it certainly seems to have other things on its mind than micromanaging the universe. So if IT doesn't worry about me, I don't intend to put much time in worring about IT.

As many know I have been much taken by some parts of Bahai philosophy. One part that I wish everyone could take to heart is the duty each of us has to leave the world a better place than we found it. I suppose my belief in that duty is a kind of faith in our collective power to shape the future.

SWE said...

I learned "embiggen" from the Bad Astronomer. He gave me a few minutes of fame on his blog awhile back, so I'm pretty much a fan of his for life. :)

I'll have to find a better template for doing a family tree and including more relatives. It's interesting to see where the family has been over time with regard to personal philosophies.

We won't be shattered if Elise takes up with a deity (or two, or twenty) but I think I'd be a little concerned. I want her to be happy and I'm not convinced that theistic thinking can facilitate that long-term.

I toyed with religion in college. At the time, it was a pretty unapologetic quest for community. Living with a pile of 20-somethings wore me out, and I wanted to at least see some kids and old people from time to time. Once my two very good friends left the Presbyterian church I was attending, I realized that I wasn't really finding the kind of community I needed there. I also realized that being there without actually believing any of the stuff everyone ritualistically chanted every week was disingenuous and probably disrespectful to the people who did. So I left and didn't look back.

I think it is good to have a mix of theists and atheists in the family. It keeps people from going to extremes out of a desire to be kind to the ones they love.

Roni said...

I believe the word 'embiggens' originated in Springfield, USA, and was introduced to the world via the popular TV series "The Simpsons." Apparently it's a verb meaning to enlarge in a noble sense, i.e. A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

If anyone gives you flak for using this word in public just go ahead and tell them that it's a perfectly cromulent word.

Niki Naeve said...

Very interesting. I never thought about it, but I think all my tree are theists. Or hid it well. I especially love the "son of deranged minister" heading!

Anonymous said...

I don't know, perhaps a mix of theists and atheists and anti-thiests makes all a little stronger in our beliefs or lack of. I sometimes think that we feel we have to prove to the others that we are truly committed to our views.

I agree with my brother that the real goal for all of us, whatever our religious bent, should be to live my the old Girl Scout rule of leaving the place better than we found it--or at least not messing it up any more than it already is. Unfortunately, some religions seem to espouse the idea that humans were created to do with the world as they will--being the superior beings just under the supreme being. So we have the right to randomly consume animals, waste oil, and built gigantic edifices to whatever gods (like money) that we select. There is my rant and one of the reasons I am turned off to seeking more from religion. Their front men are not often their best reps.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm one of the ministers mentioned on the family tree, though not the deranged one (ohhh darn, I could work on that :-), I feel I should weigh in on the discussion.

One of the frequent admonitions by faculty to first year students at my seminary, is to be careful not to lose faith. Much we thought we knew about the Bible and God was challenged daily. Learning Greek and Hebrew, and the ways in which the scriptures were created, along with a healthy dose of literary and historical criticism has pretty much forever ended how I used to read and accept scripture.

As I came to understand what I could personally tolerate and agree with from the broad theological range, I realized that I was far more tolerant of diverse spiritual beliefs and practices coming out of my theological studies than going in. Through fairly in-depth sociological studies in my masters program, I realized much about the trends of belief through the ages; individually as a person matures, and historically, through the ages. Atheism among family members and others doesn't send me into hand-wringing, down on my knees time praying for your eternal salvation. I'm not so inclined, and would rather spend precious time relating as wife, mom, grandma, sister-in-law, aunt, etc.

My advisor at sem used to tell us that 90% of our time as pastors would be spent dealing with crisis issues of marriage, family, and children with our parishioners. So far he has been spot on.

In looking over this past week, I see that my time was spent with the county coroner, deputy coroner, local mortician, sheriff's dept., regional drug enforcement detective, child protective, county health dept., hospice care workers, mental health workers, tri-county domestic violence advocates, section-8 housing specialists, a host of social service folks, felons, the hungry, the homeless, the elderly, grandparents raising grandchildren, children living in abusive and very unstable situations, and a whole lot more.

Thursday alone brought in more than 60 calls on 3 phone lines. Last week I also spent time with two extended families grieving deaths, counseling both parties in a divorce situation, chaired a meeting as director of an ecumenical clergy group to develop a county-wide emergency assistance program, arranged for lice checks for kids going to the Salvation Army summer camp near Spokane, sat at the information table at a fundraiser for the new non-profit emergency assistance program, put the fall educational programming for the congregation down on paper after meeting with various groups, coordinated a memorial service for a large, extended family on Saturday evening, conducted worship and preached Sunday morning, and on Monday presided at the funeral and burial of a long-time community leader.

Every now and then colleagues and I joke about having been duped into thinking we would sit in our quiet offices all week studying the holy scriptures and praying, and then for an hour on Sunday morning, enlighten our flocks.

In crisis situations, I realize that "religion" serves a purpose for many folks. People who have never been inside churches other than for an occasional wedding or funeral, will call or show up when they reach a point they don't know what to do next. Study after study shows that in a crisis, people will most often seek out a religious leader in the community before going to others. Most often, I connect them with those who can provide the needed social services, and realize that along with that, they just want to talk and know that someone cares about them. Sometimes they even go so far as to wonder out loud if there is a God who cares for them. Along with having physical needs met, they come, wanting to hear a word of hope from me. When they bring up the questions and want to make sense out their situation as it relates to God and their faith, I'll talk with them. It certainly is not a pre-condition for care. I like to think this sets me apart, and provides me with something different to offer than those who are professional social workers.

My understanding of theology and faith, is that my God requires action for others. If that action means involving others inside and outside of my denominational circle, all the better. One of my members of the board the directors in the emergency assistance program is Buddhist. I serve with many atheists and agnostics out in the community.

For those who despair of homophobic, anti-environment, hyper-capitalist religous leaders, check out what Jim Wallis and others are doing with Evangelicals for Social Action.

Would I like to see more folks in the pews on Sunday mornings, kids in Sunday School, and folks involved in religious studies? Oh, yeah. I believe that learning about what you believe and communal worship is important, for many reasons. One of the most significant, is that it provides community for sinners and hypocrites. :-) "Church" (as defined as a group of believers who come together) get a chance to practice and live out their faith with each other. As I so frequently roll my eyes and sigh over the shenanigans within my own flock, I'm often heard to say, "They're just behaving like normal Christians again." And then I remind them to "play nice" and of my three responses to Christian conflict: 1) If it doesn't directly affect your eternal salvation, it doesn't matter. 2) People going by on the train will never know the difference. 3) 50 years from now, no one will give a shit.

With that, I'm off to another day of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable......


Linda said...

Thanks, Char. It is good to have your voice on this as the flip side. You make me, for one, feel better about the religious folks I so often fail to understand or appreciate. Then I talk to, listen to you and I feel comforted. Clearly you are in the right work.

SWE said...

Hey Mom! Thanks for commenting. :) I love that we can have a family discussion like this.

One of the things I value about your approach to religion is that you're well-reasoned and insightful. It's the crazy ones who get the media most times, so I find it hard to separate the nutjobs from the average person who just happens to be theistic.

Having a minister in the family has challenged (and forced me to moderate) my assumptions about religion. Theism doesn't always lead to a dubious grasp on morality. It doesn't always lead to sloppy (and often outright bizarre) thinking. Or at least it doesn't have to. It's nice to have a mom I can brag about to all of my atheist friends.

Peter said...

Wow, thanks to mom for your nicely thought out and well stated comment. That makes me proud of my mother for her own tolerant take on religion.

I personally like Linda's campsite rule for the world. I do think that religions that preach dominion over the earth and religions that espouse having lots and lots of babies make the world a tangibly worse place.

We just listened to a TED Talk by Chris Abani where he talks about the gods of his area of Africa. A new god could be established with its own idol. It would be worshipped and cared for until it started to demand human sacrifice. At that point, they'd smash the god and never speak its name again.

I have no idea if this is a real practice, but I love the metaphor. To me, religion is at its best when it serves humanity. I used to tell proselytizers, "No thanks, I'm boycotting God until he improves his human rights record."

My chief problem with gods is that they tend to start favoring subsets of society. They then start becoming a basis for a capricious kind of law. This isn't much different than a constitution in some ways. It's an arbitrary, socially agreed, final arbiter of human life.

I prefer constitutions because they can be amended and because they can clearly define those bodies who may interpret them. With gods, their appointed representatives / interpreters frequently have their own agendas separate from society's.

I like to imagine myself as a Sagan atheist. We are the product of an extremely improbable set of circumstances and are significant because we are one way for the cosmos to know itself.