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Studying Belief

"I've never read the bible," someone once said to me. "I already know that it's not true, so what's the point?"

Interesting question. Why have I, as an atheist, read the bible? Why would I be interested in the details of beliefs that I don't share? The answer to that is tied in with the reason that I am fascinated by the legends and myths of ancient people. It is the same reason that I collect fairy tales and folk beliefs from around the globe.

People are endlessly interesting. Their cultures and their actions are infinitely varied. Whether we like it or not, the reason for a large percentage of those actions is belief. Religion, even. Why did the ancient Egyptians bury their dead the way they did? Religion. Why did "witches" die in Salem? Religion.

These are two vastly different situations, but both motivated by the same desire to placate or entice a god or gods through their actions. Ever since men first believed there were divinities watching over them they began to adjust their behavior and their way of looking at the world.

Therein lies the fascination. What is it that guides and shapes civilization? A ruler's whims? Riches or hardships? How much of the above is due in whole or in part to religion? We will never know unless we study people and their beliefs.

"But," I hear you say, "What does that have to do with the bible?"

For an atheist in the United States, everything. The population of our country is overwhelmingly religious. The reigns of government, both local and federal, are held mostly by Christians. Many of the Christians are, or profess to be, of a fundamentalist nature.

We encounter Christians on a daily basis. They make laws that govern our lives. They hold a multitude of positions that may or may not agree with our own. Reasonable discourse can be all but impossible if the people involved do not understand each other.

I'm not saying that you have to believe what Christians believe. I don't. But I do think that you ought to at least know what they believe, and understand it. One reason is that I don't think knowledge is ever a bad thing. When you learn, you grow. Another reason is that Christians can begin to seem less menacing when you understand their motivations.

An example: It can be very frustrating for an atheist when someone (who knows your beliefs) tells you that they will pray for you. It comes across as if they are attempting to invalidate your beliefs in favor of theirs. I won't try to tell you that you shouldn't get upset. Your feelings are there, whether they should be or no. But it might help if you understand that they see prayer as a truly caring act that one does for someone they are worried about, or whom they love. Most Christians would never view prayer, or the offer of prayer, as a hostile act.

It is my view that with this in mind it becomes easier to tell the Christian "No thank you," and perhaps to explain to them your view of the offer. It also becomes easier to debate with Christians, if that is an activity you enjoy. Debating someone is always easier if you understand their point of view.

Finally, understanding helps to avoid that one truly terrible thing born of differences. Stereotypes. It's easy to say, "Christians are like this," and "Christians are like that." I've even fallen prey to this one a time or two. If you really understand Christianity in its varied forms, you come to understand that Christians are not one homogenous group with the same thought and behavior patterns. Christians are, like anyone else, individuals with their own thoughts and belief quirks.

So we see that there are many different reasons for studying religion and belief. The pathways that take mankind from belief to action are fascinating, and have infinite possibilities. It also helps you as a person, as a debater, and as a human being to have a greater understanding of those around us. This is especially true when those around us are often the ones in control.

Kim Cole
September 26, 2002


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