So, I’m an Atheist.
I’m not coming out, or anything. Most everyone I know and care about already knows this about me.
But, in recent months, and very much lately, I’ve found myself in the position of having to explain, and more often, to correct misapprehensions about Atheism.
(The only reason I capitalize the word is because my spell checker tells me the name of every other religion is misspelled when I don’t capitalize them.)
As far as I know, there are no particularly good books one can read if one wishes to learn about Atheism. This is primarily because the lack of a belief doesn’t really warrant a book length manuscript. Many, if not all of the books one sees in circulation, regarding Atheism, tend to be about why it is preferable to religion, or why some person in particular is an Atheist, or an Anti-Theist.
(I’ll get to Anti-Theists in a moment.)
And there are a lot of words in print, by a lot of authors, about their own Atheism. Bertram Russell’s, “Why I am Not a Christian” springs to mind. Sam Harris has a few good ones. Likewise Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Also, for historical perspective, check out Epicurus, Percy Shelly, Voltaire, and the list goes on…
Pretty much any of these books are a good read, and worth the look.
But me, why am I an Atheist?
Simply put, I do not believe in any deity. Period.
Here’s a good definition of Atheism:
The lack of belief in a deity.
As the old song goes, even my religious friends know what it is like to be an Atheist with regards to Zeus, or Thor, or… pick your god(ess).
Here are some of the main misconceptions I’ve run across – in conversations with religious people – regarding Atheism: (I’ll deal with them as I go.)
1) “Atheists believe there is no god.”
This is wrong. It is not that I have a belief that no god exists. That’s Anti-Theism. It is simply that I have not yet seen sufficient evidence to accept the proposition that a god, any god, exists. It’s the skeptic in me. Go figure.
2) “Atheists are just mad at god.”
Also wrong. Sorry people, but I, and most sane people, generally do not get angry with something they do not believe to be real. Try being angry that elves didn’t come and fix your shoes in the night. Go ahead. I’ll wait…
…See what I mean?
3) “Atheists just don’t like religion because god set forth the moral law and Atheists just don’t want to be told what they are doing is wrong.”
Seriously, this non-argument often dovetails with the argument that Atheists can’t be moral people, because it takes a deity to hand down morality, and people have to be afraid of punishment to be good.
These are both oblivious, at best, and utterly stupid at worst.
Morality and ethics are not the sole purview of a deity. Want to know how I know?
Cool, thought you might. Here goes. Stick with me if this gets a little strange or new to you:
All people make decisions, on their own authority. There. That’s it.
Even if you follow a god’s commandments, you are still doing so on your own authority; because you think/ believe it is the right thing for you to do at that time.
In this way it is very much like asking for advice. You may ask for it, but it’s always and only up to you, the individual, whether or not you act on it.
Same goes for religious commandments. Sure, the belief that an all powerful deity handed down those commands gets weighed in your assessment, but in the end, it is the individual – as a moral actor – that makes the decision to follow or not follow any given stricture.
You, and just you. Got it?
If a god made you do something, you wouldn’t be moral, because morality implies the choosing between what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. Choosing. And if god is making you do something, you are not choosing…
…Unless you want to give up on the idea of free will, but that’s a subject for a different post…
Where was I? Oh yeah…
4) “There are no Atheists. There are only Agnostics.”
Interesting dodge, and also wrong.
Whether or not one is an Atheist or an Agnostic are answers to different questions….
Atheism deals with one’s belief, or lack thereof, about the nature of reality. In philosophy this fall under Metaphysics.
Agnosticism deals with whether or not one can know if a deity exists. Also, in philosophy, this falls under the subject of Epistemology; which is a study of how we know things, and if we can ever really know a thing.
Two different questions. One can admit not knowing a thing and still believe in it, as demonstrated by nearly all religious folk in the world today. Little children never personally experience the magical elf known as Santa, and yet – for those in the paradigm – they believe just as completely. I know I did when I was small.
5) “Atheists are hateful and evil.”
This seems connected to number three, and often ends up in badly debated arguments. It’s also wrong.
There are as many rude Atheists – as a ratio – as there are rude Jews, rude Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, etc…
This has less to do with what one believes and more to do with how one was raised. Rude parents make rude children, regardless of what they believe.
Some people are assholes, and some people aren’t. It’s part of the human condition, and was ever thus…
As for the “evil” thing.
Really? Evil? By what standard?
Here’s my standard, and forgive me if I’ve mentioned this before:
“Morality is the concern for the well-being of conscious creatures.”
(My thanks to Sam Harris for coming up with a definition of morality that doesn’t include the words “I” or “believe”.)
This is where, I think, my tolerance of believers comes from. Not from pity, or a sense of superiority, but simply from the idea that if one believes something, and it lifts one up, makes life better, helps one to live a better life, and does not infringe on the rights or safety of another, then go for it. You’ll not hear me complain about your belief. It’s not my business anyways.
To me, it is just that simple.
My Atheism doesn’t affect others negatively. So long as their beliefs don’t cause a negative affect, why should I, or anyone, rightfully care?
(As an aside, I’ve met as many flaming asshat religious folk as flaming asshat Atheists. More, actually, but that is only do to a higher population density of believers. Sorry guys, sometimes being in the majority means there are just more of you to act like screaming douche nozzles. I try not to judge you by their actions.)
(Also, if we’re talking population density, the religious commit more crimes than the non-religious, hands down. As an aside to that, and because of population density, again, Atheists, do more to help the needy, per capita, than religious people.)
( See how statistics can fuck you? Maybe take that into consideration next time you want to tout one set of numbers or the other. Statistics, as much as we need them, are dangerous and should be viewed with as much skepticism as any other claim.)
There is something else I’d like to say about belief, in general.
No one picks what they believe.
We just don’t.
It’s the same with romantic love. No one chooses who they actually fall in love with. That shit just happens to you.
Belief works like that, or so I have observed.
For me, I was raised Episcopalian – actually, more like non-denominational Christian, but definitely not Catholic. I believed, because I was told by people I trusted, that these things were true. But they believed for much the same reason.
And I continued to believe, even though that religion did not answer my questions.
So, I researched, first other versions of Christianity, then the other Abrahamic faiths – Judaism and Islam – then Neo-Paganism, then I branched out to the Eastern traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.
Still, my questions were not answered.
And, as I learned, and learned how to think critically and logically, I found I believed less and less.
For a while, I fancied myself a Deist, but after a while, I realized the only reason I said that to people was because I was afraid of what they would think of me if I told them this terrible secret: that I did not believe in god, any god.
After dealing with that for a while, I said “fuck it”, and started telling people – only the people who asked, mind you – that I was an Atheist.
And that’s where I am, well, mostly.
You see, I don’t believe in any of the gods we have been told to believe in, even the ones that, ostensibly, no longer exist. But that doesn’t mean that I discount, entirely, the possibility of the Divine. I don’t know if such a thing is out there. I don’t even know, at this moment, how to define something as nebulous as “The Divine”.
But, I look for it.
And that, in technical terms, makes me a mystic.
(Although, for me it is often times more about altered states of consciousness and altered perception of reality, in order to discover if there is, in fact, some fundamental thing called Truth out there.)
It’s a hobby, and it doesn’t break any laws or hurt anyone. So, bonus.
Before I leave this missive, let me state one more thing:
I have plenty of friends who are religious, in one doctrine or another. Even my girlfriend is a Christian. It leads to some interesting conversations, on all accounts, but I only try to have conversations with people who know how to respect themselves and one another during those types of conversations.
And we get along, at least in terms of religions, just fine.
My Atheism doesn’t hurt them, and their various beliefs don’t hurt me. And we tend to enjoy each others company.
See? It is possible.
Maybe in some other post, I’ll talk more about my questions, my search for answers, my loss of religious faith, and about free will.
But not today.
Send me a comment if you have questions.
(Asshats, the Rude, and Screaming Douche Nozzles need not apply.)