My conversation with James Sharpe at the Convention dinner prompted an interview. James is an artist who works on video games.
So what brings you to the Atheist Convention James?
I guess one of the biggest reasons is the quest for community. We’re all very similar genetically and there is a need for people of no faith to have the same level of community that people of faith have. In the secular world we haven’t created a good alternative to the communities that people of faith have.
I think that one of the things I find is that the secular world is not as good at talking about emotional stuff. There’s definitely a need for that sense that you can open up to people and talk about things that trouble you. My view of the church and religious organisations is that they create the environment where people can walk in off the street and talk about what is going on in their life. In the secular world it can be very lonely if you don’t have the right kinds of friends.
I think the next thing the secular community needs to address, which is far more important than taking on religion, is looking after our emotional needs and creating that support base.
So is this a spiritual quest?
Yes. Atheism is part of a spiritual quest, not the end but just a step along the way. And perhaps not the most important step. It’s about coming to terms with ourselves as emotional creatures. You don’t have to be an atheist to do that… I think I am most interested in keeping the question open: atheism is more about accepting you don’t know.
Hold on: wouldn’t a lot of people here at the convention disagree with that?
Possibly, but I think it is important to have meaningful definitions of your beliefs. I don’t call myself an agnostic because I am agnostic about everything and for me that means that agnosticism has no meaning. If I am to choose a label then it needs to communicate my behaviour and values, so I am an atheist because my actions are based on the assumption that a God does not exist.
I think that there is a certain sense of insecurity and frustration within the atheist community, perhaps because we don’t have a solid support structure. We don’t express ourselves emotionally in a healthy manner so there’s a danger of us becoming passive aggressive. If we are angry we need to say so, to be honest about how we feel and work out how we deal with that.
Are you angry?
Probably at some level but it doesn’t dominate me because I’ve put effort into expressing myself in a healthy manner. It’s more frustration than anger, not necessarily specific. It’s about how confusing life is and how hard it is to sort out the good information from the bad and to work out the correct course of action. The overwhelmingness of the consequences of our decisions… I feel sometimes we are in a world of the blind leading the blind, you follow someone for a way then realise they don’t know where they are going either. No one really knows what’s going on. You’ve got to question the traditions and the uncertainties of life… to accept that no one really knows the answers.
Surely that’s not the tone of this convention? Are you amongst friends here on that score?
I’m sure we all disagree about a great many things. This is a coming together of people who have formed a conclusion about a single topic: at the very least most people here would agree that there is not sufficient evidence to justify a belief that there is a God. Or at least they have not been presented with sufficient evidence.
My reading so far is that the mood here is not nearly so questioning as you seem to be. Don’t you hear a more definite and strident tone?
Absolutely. I think there are a lot of people here who have a stronger stance than I do. But I understand their position. The same way people of faith believe so strongly in their beliefs, there is a pressure to have strong convictions about our lack of beliefs. There are people here who would say not only that they lack a belief in God but that they believe there is no god. That would be me.
The dismissal by people here of the idea of a God might be out of frustration: there are a lot of theologians out there who offer poor arguments for their beliefs and you might be seeing a frustration or a rolling of the eyes because people won’t realise they do not have evidence based beliefs. The most successful theologians are those who say ‘I believe this because it feels true to me but I don’t know why.’ That position doesn’t require you to make up a ridiculous argument. But I know many would disagree with me: the feelings and intuitions can be deceived but at the same time we do trust our intuitions.
So if Christians want to convince people, should they drop the logical, philosophical, apologetic approach and talk more about feelings and intuitions?
I’m not sure you can convince people about religion without evidence. Until there is objective evidence then religion can only ever be a personal thing. You can’t convince someone to be religious.
What about relativism? One thing that strikes me here is that atheists and believers such as myself are agreed on an idea of truth that doesn’t allow the sort of “what’s true for you is not necessarily true for me” response. Rather, we agree that either the atheist or the theist is right but not both.
I’m very against the sort of post-modernist philosophical relativism. An example: if a meteor hits this building right now my non-belief in meteors will not protect me. That thought experiment throws the idea of epistemological relativism out the window. There is one truth but it is hard to know.
For me the most interesting part of the conference has been to talk to people who have a position that is not similar to my own. That is how we learn: by taking the ideas of others that conflict with our own. That way our own ideas become more refined and we can have a better faith in our own judgment. All people, whatever they believe, are advantaged by talking to people who disagree with them. The truth is best served by talking with people we disagree with.