This post is respectfully dedicated to Tristan Vick, "Advocatus Atheist," who makes all of us better thinkers.
I mentioned before that I have been participating in an Alpha course with my wife, who is a Christian. I stand by my description of the course as:
A Christian outreach program. It consists of weekly sessions to persuade people into becoming more devout Christians. It purports to offer a "safe" place for raising doubts and questions about Christianity, but--if my experience is typical--it's really an ongoing sermon conducted in "free" dinners, worship songs, DVD lectures, and small group discussions.The latter part of the description gives the most serious objection to the course, that it encourages doubts and questions to be raised but doesn't give time and attention for them to be pursued. This is problematic because it means the course is "safe" for voicing concerns but not for holding them. It's not a course in investigation or inquiry: it's a course in indoctrination.
Honest investigation and inquiry require one to be prepared to lose even cherished hypotheses and beliefs. Thus, I am ready to learn something new in Alpha that will change one or more of my opinions dramatically. If a compelling argument is brought before me, or if I come upon one myself, I am ready to admit that atheism is less correct or probably incorrect.
Yet, I wonder whether I really am prepared to give up atheism or whether I am just saying it to appear more rational to myself. Of course, I also wonder whether my fellow participants are prepared to lose Christianity. The point is that I have no reason to feel superior or satisfied in the course, even though I often cringe at what people say.
Beyond this, my fellow participants are my fellows: I like them and genuinely feel for the struggles and successes they face outside the classroom. Someone has a very ill parent. A couple is enduring the endless waiting of the adoption process. A couple is trying to make it work. A woman is coping with depression. A man is waiting on a job offer.
I have settled into thinking that my role in the course is to assert that atheists are normal people with legitimate reasons for rejecting religious and theistic doctrines. It is possible, I say, to perceive the full message of Christianity and to understand it as well as any believer...and also accept that it is untrue. It is possible to be good, happy, giving, peaceful, fulfilled, and whole without gods and religions.
Atheist philosopher George H. Smith wrote: "We have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from the honest pursuit of truth." This is not quite true. Right or wrong, as individuals we often fear losing the comfort of familiar beliefs. We don't like the uncertainty that comes with the honest pursuit of truth. We don't like bracketing most everything we think or believe as provisional and conditional--and subject to revision.
But self-identifying atheists, more than other people, have to declare themselves willing to pursue truth honestly. I say "more than other people" because pursuing truth is a raison d'etre of atheism. We therefore need to show that our opinions and beliefs are not sacrosanct.
We should, forgiving the mystical language, accept the wise counsel of Bruce Lee: "Like everyone else you want to learn the way to win. But never to accept the way to lose. To accept defeat — to learn to die — is to be liberated from it. Once you accept, you are free to flow and to harmonize."