I had the odd experience of being told by one of my fellow Phillips Foundation Fellows (many of them more religion-friendly than I, most of us being conservative or libertarian writers, recipients of Phillips grants) at one of our thrice-annual meetings this past weekend that lacking religion, he fears, I may eventually go mad — yes, mad!
That seems like a question best decided by careful empirical research, but I will say anecdotally that my vocally religious acquaintances — much as I love them — have tended to be a bit eccentric or emotionally volatile themselves, though I am not (let me be clear) claiming that they will eventually go mad (unless you count that whole religion thing, ha ha!).
Off the top of my head, there’s:
•the one who fasted for forty days and started having “strange ideas” as a result (this after having been, by his own admission, uncertain about the difference between fiction and non-fiction stories until about age eleven)
•the one who got so exhausted working on a paper about Milton she thought she saw Satan
•the one who said he had to embrace tradition fervently because he had a very hard and anxiety-inducing time reaching any conclusions otherwise
•and three lovely ex-girlfriends who, respectively, have suffered (a) severe mood swings, (b) suicidal impulses, and (c) hallucinations (though all would describe religion as helping with these things).
(Add to this my hippie-mystic acquaintances, equally dismissive of materialism, who’ve had to endure upsetting things like getting dumped by a fellow hippie-mystic who concluded “The universe doesn’t want me to be with you.” Om.)
That doesn’t make any of them crazy or bad — indeed, I expect to see two of them in the next several days and am greatly looking forward to it — but my (admittedly limited) sample makes me wonder whether cold, skeptical rationality is really such a destabilizing way to go.
And even when atheism is accompanied by despair, it’s often because religion worked so hard to build up someone’s hopes and get her to emotionally invest in religion in the first place.
My friend from college Holly Caldwell, who went from Christian to atheist the summer after freshman year, once said she felt that happy lifelong atheists like me, who had been raised with no particular religion (nor raised as atheists per se), were sort of cheating. We could easily grow up to not believe in God without ever having to go through the angst of “losing” something (though I should say that, technically, I had passively assumed there was probably a God when I was a child, just because the assumption that there is one is so pervasive in the culture — and partisans of religion who think that assumption is not pervasive are ingrates without the slightest idea how the culture looks from an atheist perspective, I must add).
But emotional reactions are really beside the point (as Holly would agree). As a rationalist, empiricist, skeptic, and science-admirer, I have thought since at least as young as twelve that emotional reactions to information should play no part in deciding whether the information is true (ever since calling myself a “stoic” in junior high, which I suppose was the first time I applied a philosophical label to myself, definitely a sign of things to come). This seems to me one of the most obvious, basic, and important truths about perception but one vehemently denied by many people.
If there is no evidence for God, there is no evidence for God, and whether one rejoices or weeps at the fact is secondary, epistemologically speaking. Indeed, adulthood is largely a matter of recognizing that the boogeyman doesn’t exist even if you are afraid of him and that your beloved deceased family pet is not going to come back to life even if you think that would be beautiful. In a sane world, there would be little more to say about religion beyond that, since its defense tends to rely largely upon the fear of despair or confusion or moral chaos.
Still, I won’t deny religion can sometimes give people solace — take my most notoriously religious ex, Dawn Eden, now dealing with a treatable but nonetheless scary cancer in her thyroid and no doubt grateful to hear that people who believe in the power of prayer are praying for her (so get to it, if you’re into that). I hope and expect she’ll be fine — and she’s feeling well enough to parody my blog’s “Month Without God” with her own depiction of what it might sound like if God blogged about a “Month Without Todd.”
Another, decidedly more theologically-liberal friend who believes in God (or at least objects to militant atheism), Christine Caldwell Ames, requested in the Responses thread to my recent “Religionists and Reductionists” entry that I get to the point of this whole Month by contending with the “evidence” of the universe’s existence and start explaining just how an atheist makes sense of it all and disposes of theists’ best efforts to do so, aside from by insulting the theists. So, barring the unexpected, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow night.