Recently I’ve been watching on YouTube old uploads of “Q.I.”, a delightful British comedy game show hosted by Stephen Fry. Although he is very polite about it, Fry — who is one of the U.K.’s most famous and popular figures and has come out publicly as gay, bipolar, and an ex-addict — makes clear that he is an atheist and believes that religion is nonsense.
There are as many different kinds of atheists as there are religious people, and for many of the same reasons. Some atheists are raised by parents who were atheists, and religion simply never entered into the formation of their world view. Some atheists are reacting against childhood abuse by religious relatives or groups. Some atheists become so due to severe emotional or physical traumas; they have lived in Hell, and having emerged from it (at least partially), their bitterness has overwhelmed them, or their hope in the ultimate meaning and benevolence of reality has been extinguished.
Some atheists seem to be reacting against the extreme behaviors of certain Fundamentalist religious groups, both in this country and abroad. Some atheists were once believers, but became atheists when, often after long effort and diligence, did not achieve the emotional and spiritual satisfaction for which they had longed from their religious group(s) of their choice. And some atheists appear to declare themselves as such not because they have thought and felt deeply about human ethics, history, and personal pain, but because atheism is currently fashionable among the intelligentsia.
But there are atheists who become so because, in all sincerity, they have seen no evidence in science or history that an unseen spiritual world exists. They believe that all evidences of spiritual interaction with the physically measurable can be better and more simply explained by coincidence, biology, misinterpretation, or fraud. I find that such atheists are seldom contemptuous of or hostile towards believers, and I can respect them because of this.
If you go back over the above gloss of atheism and its causes, you may notice that precisely the same arguments can serve to illumine the motives and experience of self-proclaimed religious people. Some believers are believers because they were raised that way. Some become believers after years of seeking. Some become believers in response to living in Hell, whether the Hell of childhood abuse, war, or addiction. Some become believers because they have had numinous experiences that they simply cannot explain away as delusional. Such believers are seldom contemptuous of or hostile towards atheists, and I can respect them because of this.
Many of us, however, fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Sometimes I am certain of the love and protection of the unseen, and my fear of death as extinguishment recedes. Sometimes I am certain that everyone and everything in physical reality are essentially meaningless and accidental, and my fear of death as extinguishment reduces me to sobbing paralysis. And sometimes I simply don’t know. So I call myself a spiritualist agnostic. A skeptical psychic, if you will.
One thing I am certain of: atheists and believers treating one another as enemies comes from places of fear, and fear clouds judgment, making communication impossible. There are no opposite camps, however comforting it may be for me to think so sometimes.