Monday, February 22, 2010

Sentimental disbelief

Nonbelievers have a problem with public relations.

One popular stereotype portrays atheists as cold and overly analytical, all logic and no heart. They are thought to have a deaf ear when it comes to feelings. "What is this thing you call love?" asks the alien of science fiction in a robotic voice. From an LDS viewpoint, this type of nonbeliever lacks the gift of faith and can be pitied. This kind of nonbeliever prays but receives no answer.

Another kind of nonbeliever in the popular imagination is the arrogant professor, exemplified Richard Dawkins. Too smart for his own good, this kind of atheist talks down you, and nobody likes a smarty pants. In the LDS world, this kind of nonbeliever gets 2 Nephi 9:28 thrown at them: "when they are learned they think they are wise, [but] their wisdom is foolishness." (Unfortunately, this familiar ad hominem attack doesn't say how to refute the facts and arguments presented by the unpleasant person of learning.)

To sum up, nonbelievers either lack feeling or they lack humility. As bad as this is, it gets worse. In many cases, nonbelievers are evil.

Joseph Smith took on the theme of the public skeptic in the Book of Mormon with the character Korihor. Korihor is definitely a nonbeliever we can love to hate, since he follows the conventions of villains from melodrama. Korihor isn't just a nonbeliever; he's dastardly. He's the third kind of nonbeliever: the villainous deceiver. What distinguishes Korihor is the fact that he means to cause harm. The moral of his story is that nonbelievers are evil people who want to lead us astray. We learn that they must be dealt with by force, either human and supernatural. Interacting with them or trying to understand what they are saying would be as ill advised as inviting a vampire to cross your threshold.

Clearly, nonbelievers have a public image that could use some polishing. Let's see-- as a nonbeliever you can be lacking in feeling, lacking in humility or just plain evil. These are not attractive options.

When I wonder what kind of nonbeliever I am, I start with these three possibilities.

The first one (Mr. Spock) might fit in some ways. I certainly had tremendous cognitive dissonance when I was a believer. Getting an answer to prayer that I could believe in was next to impossible. However, I am intuitive and also very emotional. I *never* (even to this day) have had any problem feeling the rush of affirmation that that people describe as feeling the Spirit.

When I compare myself to Prof. Dawkins, the second kind of nonbeliever, I think we might be getting closer. I can't really say for sure. I will say that one of the most profoundly moving moments of my life was when I really understood the implications of the scientific method. I'm the kind of person who gets very excited by repeatable experiments. So, I guess I have to leave option two as a maybe. It's possible that I lack humility, since I do value knowledge deduced from empirical data, and I prize academic achievement.

I feel pretty good about ruling out the last kind of nonbeliever, the ill-intentioned deceiver. I know my own heart pretty well, and if anything it's my commitment to independently verifiable facts that keeps me in a state of disbelief. I certainly have no desire to cause harm.

Ultimately, though, I don't feel comfortable with any of these atheist personas. My attempt to find a path through this life is no different from anyone else's. I'm as bewildered by this life as the next person. I'm just as awed by the magnificence of creation as the believers I know. Maybe I'm a sentimental nonbeliever. Is that a new category?


Mister Curie said...

I think the typical portrayals of non-believers are as false to reality as the typical portrayals I grew up with of homosexuals. Perhaps I'll do a blog post on the similarities between "anti-mormons" and gays.

Holly said...

the thing that always made me crazy about Korihor is that he preached non-belief and atheism because the devil appeared to him in the guise of an angel, and told him to.

I don't know about you, but if a supernatural being appeared to me and told me to tell everyone else that all the supernatural stuff they believed was bung, I'd think twice.

J G-W said...

Well, for what it's worth, I reject all three of these stereotypes of atheists. One of my best and closest friends is an atheist whom I would describe as one of the most feeling, loving, caring people I know. She also cherishes a number of spiritual experiences which she would describe as a kind of intuitive perception of an ordered universe. Her atheism is motivated in large part by her compassion for the victims of religious intolerance and rigidity; though criticism of religious intolerance is not her primary reason for being an atheist. Reason is her primary reason. Of all my friends, she has been one of the most personally supportive of my own religious quest, despite the fact that she finds it personally dismaying in some ways. OK, so stereotype number 1, bunk. I know atheists can be very feeling-oriented in how they approach the world.

Stereotype number 2: the cold intellectual. Well, again, my reaction to Richard Dawkins (and I've posted on this so you can look it up) is that I see him as a man of great compassion and passion. I love him when he is at his best, speaking about what he loves: science. I love his love of science. And like my friend Candy, Professor Dawkins is also passionate about protecting the victims of religiously motivated cruelty and intolerance. In my mind he is weakest when he goes on the attack, when he slimes all religion with the same black brush that he uses to paint religious bullies. Then he starts to look like a bully himself. But I know that the real Richard Dawkins is not a bully; I've seen him in moments of great tenderness and compassion. So stereotype #2, also bunk.

Stereotype #3: Holly is right. Korihor is the most bizarre atheist in the world, because he learned his diabolical doctrines from an angel of light. Whatever he is, he's not really an atheist in my book, and Mormons who use him to condemn modern atheists like Dawkins or my friend Candy are IMHO off the mark.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Mr. Curie,

I look forward to your post!


Korihor never sat well with me either. As a story, it's a grab bag of contradictions. It contains several doctrinal problems. Plus, it doesn't help that a story that is supposed to be faith promoting contains some less than faith promoting anachronisms-- the bit about the motion of the earth (pre-modern societies consider the earth to be immovable), the idea that the earth is itself a planet (implied by the closely juxtaposed mention of the earth's motion and the motion of the planets) and the use of writing to aid a handicapped person communicate (writing is a task performed by specialists in the few pre-modern cultures that have writing; only professional scribes would be literate; you wouldn't just whip out a piece of paper [there was no paper] and scribble a note).

J G-W,

You are the most atheist-friendly believer I know. I appreciate your perspective on this.

The stereotypes cut both ways. Nonbelievers have weird ideas about believers. You should do a post about that sometime.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone has a belief system--a religion as it were--to get them out of bed every morning.

It may be belief in supernatural, in veganism, or cycling. Or of course, politics, power and gold.

The trick is to not let that belief lead to intolerance and arrogance.

C. L. Hanson said...

If you recognize that these are stereotypes (perpetuated by people who don't understand non-believers and have no motivation to try to understand them), then why do you think you should pick one of the stereotypes to represent you?

Andrew S said...

Because, chanson, it's so fun being an evil villian.

now where's my evil mustache...

On topic, I have to admit I'm not all that sentimental. I still don't get where Dawkins is coming from a lot of the time, and I dislike the super hyper rationalism that a lot of atheists try to argue with or for).