For some, this post will come as no surprise; many may have suspected I identify with the term “atheist,” others may have assumed it based on my Sunday morning activities (fishing instead of church). Others still know this specifically, especially those with whom I’ve been discussing this for a while (ahem, Rob).
Why explicitly profess my atheism? Why “come out”?*
Because in our society there is a stigma against atheism, a stigma fed by misconceptions, misunderstandings, and a general unfamiliarity with atheism and atheists in general. The word atheist is often treated like a bad word– it sometimes feels like that even to me, an atheist. For this reason I will use the term atheist as much as possible in this post to help desensitize you, the reader.
(Want to see this stigma in action? Watch as the mere mention of atheism devolves into personal attacks, homophobic insults, and general defensiveness on this outdoors forum thread. To be fair, there were plenty of folks who did not interpret the mention of atheism as an attack on their own beliefs, and many others who stepped up to defend me. All in all I think it is a fascinating thread and perhaps a microcosm of atheism in our society today.)
Probably the most important point I could make is this: atheism is not an attack on religion. Atheism is a worldview not against religion but for evidence. Certainly there are many atheists who actively fight against religion or at least dislike it, but this does not define atheism nor does it represent all atheists. Certainly, however, atheists believe religious folks are incorrect, and that is sometimes interpreted as an outright attack on faith.
* I paused before referring to this as “coming out,” mostly because the level of stigma or discrimination that may exist against atheists is nothing compared to what my friends in the LGBT+ community have faced and still face everyday. That said, I consider both to be social justice issues that will not go away until we address them. I spend a lot of time addressing the first; now I would like to begin publicly addressing the second as well.
Regarding my atheism and my new desire to share it I have a few goals:
- Make sure that everyone that I know is aware they know an atheist. This is not as selfish as it seems: it’s comparatively easy to distrust and even judge the unknown, but more difficult when this unknown turns out to be somebody you actually know. The idea that discussing religion or politics is taboo or impolite is only preventing us from better understanding each other and learning. We must learn or we cannot move forward.
- Help alleviate confusion or misinformation about what it actually means to be atheist. Some common myths about atheists can be found here and here– and I highly, highly encourage you to read those if I happen to be the only atheist you know.
- Open a dialogue, start a conversation. In this I am truly interested!
The same way my Christian friends don’t want everybody to think every Christian is a hypocritical Bible-thumping homophobe, I don’t want everybody to think every atheist is an amoral, nihilistic, depressed asshole who hates religion.
To borrow a religious term, I suppose you could call this “atheist outreach.”
Atheism is not Faith
By using the term “believe,” it may seem that I am simply creating a faith-based belief system just like religion, but that is not the case. When I say “believe” I don’t mean “have faith.” I believe when I sit down, the chair will hold my weight because of past experience that shows me this is true. I don’t believe that eating a pint of cherries will give me gas as a matter of faith; I know because I’ve done it and experienced the consequences. My belief in gravity is backed up by demonstrable and repeatable evidence that can be examined by anybody.
I think it’s fair to say that my atheistic worldview is informed entirely by this sort of reasoning: I believe things for which there is reasonable, objective evidence, while I do not believe things for which there is not. In this way, atheism is not a negative worldview (“religion is wrong”) but a positive worldview (“my beliefs are informed by evidence that exists out there in the world”).
As Julian Baggini in “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction” writes (emphasis mine):
The crux of the issue is the very fact I have stressed throughout my argument, that absolute proofs are not available for the vast majority of our beliefs, but that a lack of such proof is no grounds for the suspension of belief. This is because where we have a lack of absolute proof we can still have overwhelming evidence or one explanation which is far superior to the alternatives. When such grounds for belief are available we have no need for faith. It is not faith that justifies my belief that drinking fresh, clean water is good for me, but evidence. It is not faith that tells me it is not a good idea to jump out of the windows of tall buildings, but experience.
A frequent complaint against atheists is that atheism is just another faith position, no different than religion; that since there is no proof for atheism, some amount of faith is needed from the atheist. This is simply not the case.
If we do want to say that faith is involved in examples such as these, since committing to any belief or action that is not strictly proven to be right requires faith, then we are really robbing the idea of faith of its distinctive character. If that is what faith is, then there is nothing to distinguish matters of faith from other beliefs. Everything becomes a matter of faith, except for perhaps belief in a few self-evident truths such as 1 + 1 = 2.
Certainly there is evidence to believe in supernatural things– I am not debating that. People have near death experiences, religious epiphanies, and moments of zen all the time. I am not suggesting all these folks are mentally ill or mistaken in their experiences. The world is full of mystery, but that does not mean we should attribute that mystery to a higher power (the “god of the gaps”). Here’s just a bit more Baggini:
The atheist believes in what she has good reason to believe in and doesn’t believe in supernatural entities that there are few reasons to believe in, none of them strong. If this is a faith position then the amount of faith required is extremely small.
What I Believe
In the interest of sharing (I am a serial over-sharer after all), here is a list of things I personally believe, today (Wednesday, July 22, 2015). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s entirely possible that my beliefs will be different tomorrow if I encounter new evidence.
There is only nature, there is no metaphysical. We are not spiritual beings, we are simply clumps of molecules. That love, kinship, inspiration, sadness can all potentially be reduced to chemical reactions in the brain does not diminish their value or change the effect they have on us. Love may be chemical, but love is real. Religion and morality are human constructs – and equally real in the sense that we experience them (but also, morality can and does exist independent from any higher power).
As an aside, my love for and awe of nature is not lessened by my atheism, it is greatly increased! To me, billions of years of evolution through natural selection is a much more inspiring feat than some all-powerful entity snapping fingers and creating fully-formed life instantly and out of nothing. When I look at a plant, a fish, an animal, I am indeed in awe of a higher power, but that higher power is evolution and the fantastic ability of nature to, at all costs, survive.
There is no meaning or purpose in life besides the meaning and purpose we assign ourselves. This does not diminish the purpose of our lives; it takes our purpose and meaning out of some higher power’s hands and places it firmly in our own. What is more life-affirming than controlling ones own destiny?
We are animals that evolved from other animals. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and available for examination by anyone who chooses to look. This is a scientific fact like many others (the Earth goes around the Sun, for instance) but bears mentioning here because it is in conflict with some interpretations of Christianity.
We are animals that think. Our mind is not a thing unto itself, it is a delusion of our brains. There is no “spirit” to go somewhere after we die; that we have consciousness is not proof that we are more than meat.
When we die nothing happens. We are nothing before we are born, we are nothing after we die; there is no afterlife. As with squirrels, largemouth bass, and bacteria, this life is the only life. When it is over we will probably become food for some other organism. Personally I love that idea– in some way I may indeed be “born again” as something new, perhaps a small clump of ox-eye daisies.
I might be wrong. This may be the most important part of my atheism; indeed, in some way this defines it. I am not dogmatic (i.e. “I believe what I believe regardless of evidence the contrary”), I am the opposite. I am skeptical of everything and open to new ideas, including ones that challenge my own beliefs (if you know me I think this is obvious).
As I mentioned earlier, my atheist worldview stems from evidence. If new evidence is introduced, I must reevaluate my beliefs. To me, this is the only way to live, and it is the way we all start out: at first a baby believes her parents disappear when they leave the room, but after amassing enough evidence to the contrary the baby must reevaluate her beliefs. That is how evidence works!
Why my Atheism is not Terribly Depressing
But Chris, that sounds terribly depressing. How do you get up in the morning?
As an atheist I believe this life is all we have, and I am motivated to use it to its full potential– perhaps even more so than somebody who believes they get another one when they die. From a thought-provoking Facebook discussion on the subject, here is my response when that question was posed to me:
Without the promise of an afterlife there is a motivation to do as much as possible NOW– because this life is the only one we get. The clock is ticking. I want to do as much as possible now because this is it. I truly believe that when I die my body will decompose, bacteria and bugs will eat me, and my nutrients will return to nature just like everything else that dies. That’s what I will believe until I see evidence to the contrary, at which point I will reevaluate what I believe (again– not dogmatic here).
Without a higher power explaining right and wrong and providing rewards and punishments, won’t human civilization degrade into anarchy?
I am no philosopher, nor am I especially good at debate. But to this question I have three responses. The first is some of this evidence I like so much. The Czech Republic which, according to census information, is 40% non-religious. As far as I know that country has not fallen into an amoral anarchist zone.
The second is this: if the only thing preventing you from murdering or stealing is threat of punishment, you are not a moral person.
The third is, if you personally know me, do I seem like an amoral hedonist to you? Hedonist maybe, but if you’ve followed my long-running grappling with the ethics of eating fellow animals and hunting, I believe you already know the answer.
What This Actually Means
Just like any worldview– whether that is religion or not– my atheism informs almost everything I do.
In the big picture, I believe every person is equal because there is no reason to think otherwise. This inspires me to actively fight for equality (I do not need religion to have inspiration!). I believe anybody should be able to believe whatever they want because we simply cannot be sure that they are wrong and we are right– because I may also be wrong. This inspires me to continue investigating and learning, so that I may have a worldview that most closely resembles reality. Along the same lines I believe nobody has the right to impose their belief system on anybody else– and this includes the teaching of unproven non-science like creationism as well as the governmental endorsement of a specific worldview like atheism. Neither one should be allowed to happen.
If you read this, chances are you know me personally, which means you know an atheist. Congratulations!
If I happen to be the only person you know that actively calls themselves an atheist, even better!
Please, please ask me questions; if I really am the only atheist you know, I feel it is my responsibility to promote respect and understanding between our (probably) opposing worldviews. I want to learn more about what you believe, and I want to share with you what I believe. I’m not easily offended. Ask away!
Hit me up on Facebook, or if you’d prefer, you can comment anonymously right here on this blog. Email me at email@example.com. Find me out in the woods, on the water– I truly want to open a dialogue.
At the risk of sounding preachy… I am an atheist, one of many. We live among you. We’re not going anywhere. We aren’t just ultra-liberal progressives found solely in the most left-leaning urban centers on the coasts. We are also pickup-truck drivers, beer drinkers, gun owners, anglers, hunters, bloggers; we are happy, ethical, inspired by life, and most of all, we are people just like you.