Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ex-Theist Atheists

In my philosophical wanderings, I have noticed something interesting about some ex-theist atheists.

Unlike someone like me, who has never been an insider on this whole religion malarkey, an ex-theist will often retain a desire for every observed phenomenon to make sense and for there to be a relatively accessible and comprehensible answer to even the most inane questions.

The example that brought this home to me most strongly, at least in recent times, is the theory that the Gospel of Mark echoes Homer’s Odyssey.  This theory revolves around the “Mark and the Masked Man” phenomenon and the fact that, in the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home dressed as beggar and the only human to recognise him is his aged wet-nurse – not his wife, not his friends nor any of his subjects.  (Curiously enough, his old dog Argos recognised him too, despite being well over 20 years old, which is a little on the unlikely side for a neglected dog without access to modern veterinary science.)

The supporters of this theory link Jesus’ repeated efforts to hide his identity to the literary device of Odysseus’ anonymity in his own home (for this reason, let’s call them Masked Man Theorists).  This is all well and good.  Parallels can, after all, be drawn be between aspects of many Biblical stories and features that appear in other, earlier stories.  For example:

Zeus gave a sealed jar or urn (often described as a box, due to a mistranslation issue) to Pandora, the beautiful wife of Epimetheus, mother to Deucalion and a woman cursed with insatiable curiosity, and told her not to open it.  Pandora opened it, of course, releasing all the evils of mankind.

Zeus and Apollo once visited the lands of mortals in disguise, to see how things were going.  Zeus was particularly unhappy with the state of affairs that their little mission revealed and so he sent a deluge to kill everyone bar Deucalion and his family.  Interestingly, Deucalion built an ark.

Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu, one of a trinity of gods) was immaculately conceived when visiting the world on a mission of salvation.

Masked Man Theorists go further than noting parallels.  They say that because parallels can be observed, then they must be related in some grander narrative.  Therefore, for example, Mark was written as a (then) contemporary version of the Odyssey – in the same sense that “Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a Depression Era retelling of the same story (George Clooney as Odysseus, not Jesus).

What these ex-theist atheists seem to want to do is create a story that works for them, more specifically in this case to create a grander narrative into which the stories of the Bible can fit neatly.  Once this grander narrative is formed, they can then become as devoted to their particular theory of how and why the Bible was written as they were previously devoted to the idea that God wrote it.

On one level I understand this, if you’ve been told all your life that everything makes some form of narrative sense then it might be difficult to make the transition to a world in which much cannot be easily explained and quite a few things simply don’t make any narrative sense at all.

For the most part though, I simply can’t understand the desire to recast the Bible as cogent in some other, non-divine sense.

Surely the major contributor to abandoning a faith is the dawning realisation that whatever religion it is that you belong to is not cogent.  Isn’t it?

Why then would one wish to devote time and effort on forcing some level of cogency onto the book that is central to your ex-religion?  I can’t quite grasp why, when someone is released from the mind-lock that has them believing that the Bible is the (possibly literal) word of God, that they cannot then make the logical step to understanding that it’s no more than a collection of stories – much like any compendium of myths.

Perhaps, and this is entirely conjecture on my part, these people realise that they’ve wasted a good part of their youth, and sometimes more, on a delusion.  This tragic waste would be somehow worse if the delusion were to be founded on the basis of a totally obvious fiction (and I imagine that the fiction does become totally obvious when one reads the Gospels after the blinkers are removed – I’ve never had those particular blinkers so I’m no authority on that).  Therefore, there may be some comfort in convincing oneself that a book like the Bible is not founded on totally obvious fiction, but is instead founded on a somewhat less obvious fiction.

Maybe, for an ex-theist, the idea of having held a belief based on a commonly held miscomprehension is in some way better than having been deliberately misled.  Therefore, if the stories in the Bible were written in good faith as fiction but later misinterpreted (again in good faith) as rather bizarre fact, this would be better than to have taken the writings of a liar or madman seriously.  “We were all misled in good faith.” (And for those who have given up Divine Command Theory: “We were all good in misled faith.”)

If this is the case, then an inordinate willingness to reconstruct the Bible could be seen as an attempt to deal with the cognitive dissonance brought on by an ex-theist’s unwilling realisation that he’s been a bit of a dill.

The only consolation that I can offer anyone suffering such cognitive dissonance is that at least an ex-theist has stopped being a bit of a dill, unlike the sadly large number of others to whom the idea of recognising they’ve been a bit of a dill is enough to lock them into a false faith for eternity (or, more correctly, until the day they die).

There is another approach taken by ex-theists which is similar to that of violently ex-smokers (I’ve never been a smoker either) – with some newly minted atheists going on a crusade for their new cause, giving a modicum of credence to the occasional claim that atheists are angry at God.

I can understand why some people think that such ex-theists are angry at God, but it should be reasonably obvious that they aren’t likely to be angry at God per se.  It’s much more likely that they are angry at all the people who lied to them throughout their lives (even if the lies were told in “good faith”).  It’s no surprise to me that an ex-theist would want people who continue to spread such lies to be enlightened and/or brought to account.

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