I’m inevitably hesitant to write critically about how frustrating I find it when atheists write about faith, religion or spirituality, because I feel like I risk sounding overly self-pitying and coming off as though I don’t recognize the privilege that nominal Christianity brings in North American society. I am, however, just going to hope that I’ve disclaimed enough to give me a cushion of respectability before I ask (rhetorically, of course):
Could Amanda Marcotte please stop explaining the way my mind works? “Trying to” is even too generous a term, because she is so damn certain that she has unlocked the key to why people choose the religious/spiritual practices that they do, despite the fact that she herself is an atheist who, as far as I know, has never (as an adult) believed in God. So when she says:
People choose their religions based on finding those religions reflecting their identities and values back at them.
I’ve already got my back up, even before getting to this:
See, the problem I have with religion is that it exploits the gray area in people’s thinking between metaphor and the thing that metaphor describes. For no doubt complex cognitive reasons, at various times every human being has moments of being too literal, though I have no doubt that some people have problems distinguishing between the literal and metaphorical more than others.
And I know that this kind of religion/faith exists, and that it’s more prominent in certain parts of the world than others. I also think there’s room for discussion on the point she’s trying to make about the intersection of faith and politics, but that conversation is going to be impossible as long as there remains the assumption that she understands exactly why I have the faith I do. Because, see, as soon as you do that, you start thinking you’re better than me, you have a handle on the big picture where I don’t, because I’m the only one of us who can’t get out of my religiously defined box in order to see how it is the “Other” thinks. Adding the phrase “for no doubt complex cognitive reasons” doesn’t make it any less condescending (and believe me, I don’t lack for understanding of cognitive linguistics, framing and semantics).
I get that Christianity is privileged in this part of the world, and I fully believe that for the most part, being in a position of less privilege gives you an ability to understand the experiences of the more-privileged group far more than vice versa (because those experiences are defined as the norm, they are shown to you constantly, you are trained to relate to those experiences), but it seems that atheism is decidedly an exception. This particular, highly personal approach to the world doesn’t give you special access to the cognitive processes and emotional motivations of those who don’t choose it.
Certain aspects of my faith are based on comfort and familiarity – the surface trappings, as it were – and one of the reasons I love the church I go to is that on some level, we share some political and personal values (though in many cases, we don’t, at all). I go because I feel the presence of God there, which is not some kind of narcissistic exercise in self-reflection as seems to be suggested in Amanda’s statement. And maybe there is some over-literalism in much of the religious practice of the world, but it seems to me that there is the exact same kind of insistence on certainty in that post itself.
I’m purposely not delving too deeply into the structures of my faith right now, because I don’t feel the need to justify my beliefs and spiritual practices to anyone at all, let alone to strangers on the internet. Suffice it to say, however, that I’d really like to speak for my own damn self about them if and when I choose to do so, and if an atheist (or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or another Christian) would like to talk about them, said individual can bloody well ask me what it is I think, and I’ll pull out a frickin’ brain scan if they feel like getting real cognitive about it. Until then, to reiterate: please stop trying to explain my brain.