My being an atheist may not be surprising to some, but stating it is unusual. I’ve stated many times on here, and in person, that I’m a “non-theist.” Which is really just a weaselly way of saying “atheist.” (Although, it began as a all-inclusive way of saying “Deist,” then “agnostic”….) I still don’t plan on generally going around calling myself an atheist, as I still believe it’s a silly term to use to describe one’s self, like using a word for not collecting stamps or not believing in mermaids and saying I’m that word. I still prefer the term “secular humanist,” as it’s a positive affirmation of what I do believe in.
So, why am I making an affirmative stance, coming “out,” so to speak, at this time? (The OUT Campaign) First, what brought me to this moment, then the implications.
Atheism has been constantly attacked by Christians, to the point that Gallup polls indicate an atheist is the last person someone would vote for as president, even if otherwise completely qualified for the job. I went to a Promise Keeper’s rally a few years ago, and along with gays and feminists, atheists were constantly being reviled as the evilist of the evils and must be eliminated. Literally. They call for a jihad war on atheism (and feminism and homosexuality).Then yesterday I saw this article on BoingBoing:
About an Illinois congresswoman who decried an atheist activist objecting to the state giving $1 million to a Baptist church (granted, as a historical building, however). She angrily accused the man of working to destroy the foundation of the state and country, of hypocrisy, and demanded he leave the court because of his “philosophy”, which she stated was harmful for children–who should be protected from ever even hearing about atheism.
Ronald Lindsy, director of the Council for Secular Humanismâ€™s First Amendment Task Force, has replied:
â€œShe is unfit to serve in her office, just as a representative who told a Jew or a Hindu to â€˜get out of that seatâ€™ would be unfit to serve. If she does not resign, the Illinois House has an obligation to expel her.â€
Remember when George Bush Sr. said: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.“? He should tell that to the hundreds of atheists fighting in his son’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
Atheists in Foxholes
I think these organizations have something different to say.
And then, later in the day, I discovered a post by Mark at Sojourner:
â™¦ Where does ‘ought’ come from?
in which he once again attacks something he has no interest in actually learning anything about–naturalism. He uses a quote by Richard Dawkins (a very good quote which I’ll repeat)
My own view, frequently expressed . . . is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.
Mark has decided that naturalists, because evidently all we think about existence is in terms of waves and particles, has no right to talk about “oughts”. That if you don’t believe in God (oddly, only the Christian god, I’m sure is the implication), then concepts of morality and ethics and anything not found on a periodic table of the elements is verboten to us.
(Coincidently, just a couple of hours after responding to Mark’s post, I discovered and started listening to the latest Point of Inquiry podcast which has an interview with the author of Moral Minds, Marc Hauser, where he discusses this very issue! Even right down to the concept of “ought” in dealing with evolved morality and social mores. Of course, this isn’t a new subject–evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, etc. have been researching this topic of evolved morality for years.)
And then, I was reminded of the recent hubbub over the movie Expelled and the way the producers and director of that film (which purports to investigate scientists and teachers who supposedly have lost their positions because of being creationists–which it turns out is highly exaggerated–all the while equating the Nazi Holocaust with Darwin and evolution) have been lying and lying to get the movie made, throughout the making, and even now during the marketing campaign. Blatant lies to scientists in order to get them to participate, and try to make fools out of them. Lying about the criticisms leveled at the film. And more.
Richard Dawkins who was one of the victims of the lying, twice, has a very well worded entry on the issue:
â™¦ Lying for Jesus?
Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Eduction, was recently interviewed on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe where she also discusses her direct experience of the slippery morality of the makers of this film.
And you know, I wish I could say this was an abnormality, this lying “for the greater good.” But it’s not. It’s not just in the debate between evolution and creationism in which creationists constantly “move the goalposts” and conveniently forget (constantly) that the same arguments they keep trotting out have been thoroughly disproved, or conveniently ignore reasoned responses to their claims. (A condition I constantly have found in my discussion with Mark regarding the (in)validity of Christianity, in which my very reasoned and rational questioning of the fundamental basis for Christianity is met with either angry dismissal or ignored altogether,)
But growing up religious, I saw it all the time. Subtle encouragement that it’s OK to deceive if the end result is “saving a soul!” Because, what’s more important than that, right? What’s a Commandment or two when the greater good is eternal soul saving?!
Now, I have to say, not all Christians believe this way. There are some, some I know very personally, who are so non-dogmatic, non-literal, non-fundamental, liberal in their faith that, really, they’re technically Christian in name only. Otherwise they’re more existential pantheists, really. But here’s what I see, from my point of view:
Of the people I know and encounter:
Most Christians: Pro-war, pro-hate, pro-intolerance, pro-xenophobia, pro-homophobia, anti-woman, anti-science, pro-raping the Earth, lip service to love and mercy.
Some Christians: Liberal, pro-love and mercy, anti-intolerance, mostly pro-science.
All (aprox 99%) atheists: Anti-intolerance, anti-bigotry, pro-humanity, pro-ecology, pro-mercy, pro-science, pro-ethics.
(I can’t say that I know many Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, etc. Oh, I do know several Wiccans, and well, they tend to also have the same traits as atheists (anti- the bad stuff and pro- the good stuff), I just can’t think of pagan religions with much seriousness (which in some ways is a good thing, I guess. I think of Judeo-Christians and Muslims with deathly seriousness, because death is generally their hobby–be it creating death or thinking only of the after-death existence). It’s like, “I don’t believe in Christianity because it doesn’t make sense, but this stuff about magick in trees and rocks, that’s compelling!” Sorry, Wiccan friends! 😉 )
I seem to have lost my point. (I do that often.)
OK, skipping on, why make the statement of being atheist and not just continue with “non-theist”?
Because even though I have eschewed religious dogma, that word: “atheist,” still holds power in the back of my mind. I was raised as a Christian to believe atheists were the amoral, immoral, evil people religious people still condemn them to be. Even though I know for a fact it’s not the least bit true.
(Well, let me backtrack: being atheists does not make you a “good person” any more than being a Christian does. Psychopaths are often atheist, but not because atheism made them so. By the same token, a great many horrendous killers and “evil” people fully believe in God and Jesus and the soul. I don’t mean to imply that being an atheist makes you a good person–I am saying that almost every atheist I know (personally or in passing) have been socially conscious, ethical, other-focused people. The point is, contrary to religious persons’ claims, atheism does not make a person a “bad person.” Ask the majority of Nobel laureates, who have been atheists.)
But I’m surrounded by people, in my life where I live, where atheism is equated with devil worship. Some people very close in my life who equate it with hopelessness and emotionlessness. So, for myself, and for them, I say I’m “non-theist” like it’s code for “I just don’t go to church” while hiding the fact “I utterly don’t believe in God(s) any more than I believe in a teapot orbiting the sun.”
But atheism needs to come out of the closet. Atheists are by and large not bad people (and are often more ethical, in my experience, than religious people), and are growing in numbers. Recent polls show as many as 14% of America are atheist or agnostic, (compared to nearly 90% of most northern European countries, by the way. Oh, Sweden is sooo evil! Those people in the Netherlands are fascist devils who hate our freedom!) The more we stop being afraid of being vilified and show the world we’re moral, ethical people who care a great deal about humanity and the state of the world, the more people in general will stop being afraid of the idea like being afraid of saying the name “Voldemort.” A large percentage of Americans call themselves “Christian,” because it’s what expected of them. But they don’t really believe, and if you told them the fundamental basis of Christianity (the original sin, by an omnipotent omniscient God who loves you…until you die and then will damn you forever if you didn’t use your free will to do exactly what he demands…if you’re lucky enough to be born in a time/place where you can hear about Jesus, who is an amalgam of many pre-existing hero/savior/man-god stories, who was a masochistic blood sacrifice to appease himself/God who actually could simply change the rules he set up in the first place…etc etc,) they’d probably be willing to drop Christianity if “atheism” wasn’t a socially dirty word.
So, I’m not afraid of the word–and more importantly, I’m going to help others not be afraid of it. How? By saying it constantly? *laugh* Nope–that would just make people annoyed by it. Squeaky wheels may get grease, but they also get yelled at and replaced! By not doing anything different than I already do (gasp! Radical.) except when asked, and “secular humanist” is not enough, instead of saying “non-theist,” I’ll just say “atheist.” (All this bloomin’ text to come to that conclusion?!) If that’s the sentiment, then good. It’s not an Issue and we’re mostly there already. but if this is a big deal for some, to actively identify as a godless atheist, then we have a ways to go.
But there’s something else as well. Something a bit more personal. There’s something inside of me that tells me if I make this statement, take this leap, I can find some amount of relaxation and peace. What I mean is this:
I’ve been existentially angst ridden for the last…twenty years, basically. Since I started questioning what I was taught to believe, since I read the Bible in its entirety, since I started asking very fundamental questions regarding religion. Once the contradictions became obvious, the absurdity starting showing, there was no turning back–but there was a lot of mental and emotional struggle against it: For the first several years as I struggled to figure out the REAL Christianity, then REAL spirituality, then Deism and finally rational “non-theism.” The ultimate conclusion, which had always been staring me in the face but I refused, then grudgingly accepted, then embraced like an apostate, is that there are no gods. But even in the embracement, there has been reticence to really embrace and own my knowledge and acceptance. Thus, “non-theist.” And this inability to fully accept has created anxiety that, I think, projected itself as anger and derision unto other people. I feel guilty for not being about to say “I’m an atheist,” and more significantly, I feel resentful that I can’t say it in my personal life, so I take it out on on others by being a jerk about religion.
That’s the biggest part–resentment that I can’t be who I am because of what people will erroneously think. There are people involved with my life who belong to the mindset that atheists must be eradicated, that they are inherently evil. Thus, if I came out as atheist to them, as opposed to “spiritually searching for answers,” Bad Thing will likely happen in my personal life. I probably never will be able to actually say the word around them, at least not for a long time–but I think at least saying it to myself (and the world via blog), can help mitigate that frustration. I’m a generally good person. If I continue to show people an example of being a person who is ethical, moral, caring, and can do so without fear of punishment from a bearded surveillance camera in the sky, that will go a lot further toward showing people atheism is not about being mean and hateful toward religion.
At least, I hope so. Since making this decision, coming to this conclusion, I still feel ire and antipathy toward people who blatantly show their belief in mythology. I feel it’s a personal affront. I try very hard, all my life, to search for truth. The truth of what people mean, of what’s happening in a situation or event, behind people’s motives. Truth in advertising, truth in media, truth in myself. I felt so angry at myself for a long time for having lived a life that was untruthful, shrouded by a belief in the supernatural (not just religious, but also ghosts and alien visitations and Bermuda Triangles and ESP and hermetic magic….) I feel like everyone should strive for living in truth, in the world and in themselves. I get so upset with people who live the way they think others would approve of, if it means sacrificing what they want and need in their own life (so long as it’s not harming another. Everything has that caveat). Living an honest life if far more important than living someone else’s life; it’s way way too short to do that.
So, I can’t see how I won’t continue to grind my teeth when I encounter someone who believes in ghosts despite the ample evidence against them, or proclaims belief in a religious dogma that is blatantly unreasonable. (Again, assuming they have access to other ways of thinking. Can’t blame a person who believes in ghosts if that’s all they’ve known is credulousness and haven’t been exposed to critical thinking. Likewise religion. I had been so angry at myself for being so devout, but I had to remember, that’s all I knew. From the moment I was born I was conditioned to believe in the sole and unique validity in a Bronze Age Middle Eastern myth. Aluminum always melts at a constant temperature, and there was a god who couldn’t come up with a better way explain his Plan than through a book written thousands of years ago in a time and place rife with cults and superstition and myth. Pulsars rotate at a constant rate due to thermal nuclear forces, and there was a god who loved you so much he’d burn you forever once you died if you didn’t follow his rules–regardless of the fact he created you to be temptable and put you in a world of temptation he created and could change in a blink if he wanted to, but doesn’t. Just as a child who grows up in a racist environment learns racism is normal, in an abusive house learns abuse is normal, I learned cognitive dissonance was normal. And so do most Americans. And for a few years now, it frustrates the very core of my being that if I could learn to see reason and truth, why can’t other people?!
But now I’m hoping to be somewhat Zen about it. It’s hard to do. Of the atheists I know about and hear from often, about half are able to say “Meh, let religious people be religious. It’s cool.” The other half tend to express, “Religion is harmful to society in this day and age! We need to educate people.” And then there are Christopher Hitchens atheists who would be happy (if he’s capable of being happy–which I think is a genetic thing. His brother, Peter Hitchens, is an outspoken religious believer who appears just as dour and sour as Christopher…) if all religious and credulous people were simply jettisoned from the planet. I don’t want to be that type. I’d kind of like to be on the cusp of the first two groups. I think people do need to be given the tools to be freethinkers, and I do think religious extremism and fundamentalism is dangerous to society–but I also want to be able to not get so worked up. To relax and know it’ll all work out, and I can’t change the world. I can’t be, don’t even really want to be, on the front lines of some non-/theism war.
I think as long as I say I’m a non-theist, I’m setting myself up as anti-theist. I’m creating a situation of antagonism, if not outwardly then certainly in my own mind. I feel like identifying myself as “atheist,” I feel a sense of elevation above the battle. Not that I’m better-than anyone else, by any means! (No, I do feel I’m better than Fred Phelps and other leading activists for hate and ignorance. But not of 99% of the rest of people.) I feel like I’m apart from the battle, an observer–not a soldier. Ah! A dignitary, or emissary, or ambassador for the godless, not a fighter. I may have field-promoted myself. I know my life, certainly my emotional state, would be better if I can find that peace within myself to be able to Zen myself outside the fray. And so it’s going to be an incomplete embracing of who I am–I can’t be too indiscriminate about who I’m “out” to, and that’s still going to cause some resentment issues. But I think this is a good step toward inner peace. I feel it.