September 29, 2019

Atheists Bursting Bubbles

soap bubbles and hummingbird

If you had asked me midway through college what my favorite subject was, I would have picked philosophy with little hesitation. I remember being annoyed with those who would ask what I would do with a degree in philosophy. But even then, I knew that much of my annoyance was due to my recognition that they were right. They were bursting my bubble, but I think that was a good thing. I did not end up majoring in philosophy, and while there were other reasons, the lack of clear career prospects in comparison to other fields in which I was interested was the big one. I think this is an example where I probably benefitted from some bubble bursting.

One criticism I have heard from religious believers (and some other atheists) over the years has to do with whether atheists aren't being unkind by bursting religious bubbles even when we do so unintentionally. I started hearing this criticism years before I even knew what a blog was. It always puzzled me because the only alternative would seem to be holding one's tongue and refusing to disclose what one thinks about religion. That does not seem healthy or appropriate. Just because someone does not believe in gods does not mean he or she should forfeit self-expression. And the moment I'd share my views on religion, I'd be criticized. "Some people need religion. You shouldn't burst their bubble."

I'm not going to argue that every instance of bubble-bursting we could think of is necessarily beneficial. There are bound to be cases where this would not be the case. I just don't think that religious belief is so different from every other type of belief that we should conclude that bursting religious bubbles is never helpful. I wish someone had burst mine several decades ago! It might have saved me some time and made things a bit easier.

Admittedly, I do not go around trying to poke holes in anyone's religious bubbles. I did some of that in my late teens and early 20s, but that was a long time ago. That hasn't been my goal with Atheist Revolution or on social media. I may occasionally write something with the goal of planting some seeds of doubt, but I recognize that transitioning away from religious belief is often a gradual process that everyone experiences differently and perhaps only when they are ready.

The reason it was so easy for others to burst my philosophy bubble was that what they said about limited career possibilities was already in my mind. It had been my concern from the beginning. I'd talked it over with a couple professors, and I hadn't found their responses terribly reassuring. They did identify some career paths I hadn't considered, but they were not ones I found appealing. And so, I was ready to have this bubble burst. If I hadn't been ready, it probably wouldn't have been effective. I might have become defensive and doubled-down on my efforts to maintain the bubble.

When an atheist encounters a religious believer who is questioning his or her faith, there may be an opportunity to make an impact. We might be able to help the believer advance a few steps down the path of reason. On the other hand, the believer who is not questioning may respond differently. I'm not suggesting there is no point in interacting with such a believer, but I would expect different outcomes.

Some atheists will want me to point out that something as simple as sharing the right meme on social media at the right time could spark a non-questioning religious believer to begin questioning. I don't doubt that. I don't think it happens nearly as often as some atheists would like to believe, but I won't deny that it can't happen. Still, I have a consistent reaction almost every time I hear this from an atheist: I recognize it is exactly the same thing I have heard countless times from evangelical fundamentalist Christians. You see, some of them genuinely think that screaming something like, "Then why are there still monkeys?" or "What if you died tonight?" can have a similar impact on atheists. That is, they think that this kind of questions may lead some atheists to their preferred god(s). If that seems silly, we might ask ourselves why and then give some thought to whether our version is any less silly.

How interested are you in bursting religious bubbles? Do you see this as something more atheists should be trying to do, or are you more inclined to help out in this way only when called on to do so?