Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I'm an Atheist . . . and an Activist

"Why don't you believe in God?" It's the inevitable question, and I'd like to formalize at least part of the answer for anyone curious about it. Yes, I'm an atheist. I've been one since I was fourteen. For the last several years, it's no secret that I've devoted a good deal of my spare time to volunteering in an atheist nonprofit, so not only am I a godless heathen, but I'm also pretty active about it. Chances are, if you don't know me well and you're of the religious persuasion, you've already started making some negative assumptions just from those labels, but hear me out. I invite you to take a glimpse of the world through my eyes for a moment.

In an earlier post, I gave an overview of my history with religion, and how I came to disown a religion that wasn't of my choosing. In the beginning, I found my intellectual curiosity for the way the world really worked in conflict with a belief in the Christian God. I could go into great detail about the logical inconsistencies, the lack of hard evidence, the conflicts between scientific investigations of nature and theological explanations . . . but I and many others have elaborated on these points ad nauseum. I'm always happy to get into the existence-of-gods debate, but that's not the perspective I want to take with this. I want to approach this from a humanistic, quality-of-life point of view.

Before I go on, I should clarify the asterisk that comes with this chosen label. I call myself an atheist because I don't think there's significant proof of gods, or even the supernatural, but it isn't a declaration that deities/spirits/souls/afterworlds don't exist. One way or the other, I can't objectively know 100%, and neither can you, if you'll be honest. I can't disprove it anymore than you can disprove the invisible pink unicorn hanging out in my living room. But I find it so unlikely that I can't in good conscience pick a god to believe in, worship that god, and take on faith whatever that god's followers say I should believe. Therefore, to be technically correct, I consider myself an agnostic atheist.

So, again, why do I call myself an atheist?

The short answer: Penguins.

Yes, penguins. Do you appreciate the bleak, freezing, isolated life cycle of the Emperor penguin? What kind of sadistic Creator would design such a creature with such an unreasonably severe life? It's cruel, downright pitiless.

In all seriousness, though, having a naturalistic world view makes me the best person I can be. In some ways it's really simple. It's the Golden Rule in its purest form: treat others as you would want to be treated. What are the attributes that contribute to our quality of life? Morality, happiness, love, peace, self-awareness, community, contentment, charity. Approaching these subjects from an earthly, observable standpoint, unhindered by dogma and false securities, I'm provided a certain clarity of mind. Without the fear of hell or an angry anthropomorphized god, and likewise without the idea of heaven or a mysterious, patriarchal sense of celestial love, I'm left with the reality of my life and my surroundings as I can observe them. I am responsible for my own life -- my only life -- and for the lives of others, and for the planet I call home. This is all I have, so I best make the most of it.

I have an overwhelming sense of urgency to make this life the best it can be. "But why do you do it?" you may ask. "Why get up in the morning? Where's the purpose? If this is what you believe, then you're on your own, a product of millions of years of evolution, living on a rock hurtling through space around a fiery ball of gas. . . . When you die, you're just gone. . . . Bad things happen for no ulterior, divine reason. . . . God doesn't answer prayers, because there is no God. . . . No meaning is given to you from above. How is your life not depressing, nihilistic, loveless? Don't you feel anything?"

You know, it's a little terrifying when you put it like that . . . but not really. Not when you take a breath, sit back, and analyze where each of those concerns come from. To me, letting go of God was a process akin to growing up. When we're young, and if we were fortunate enough to have had a healthy upbringing, our parents gave us unconditional love and helped us make sense of the big scary world around us. They sheltered us from the bad things, provided for us, guided us in our understanding of right and wrong, simplified or even fudged the truth for us when something was too complicated or too "adult" for our fledgling brains. They gave us stories, for both entertainment and moral lessons. We also learned respect, and obedience. For a young kid who doesn't know any better, parents are larger than life -- almost godlike in their wisdom, their gifts, and their punishments.

But maturing into adulthood meant realizing that we can't expect our parents, or anyone, to take care of us forever, that eventually we must go out into the world and survive on our own. When times are tough, we won't always have that parental safety net. We reach a point when we must find our own answers, rather than waiting for someone to give them to us. And most of all, we realize that they aren't infallible, immortal, all-knowing guardians; they're human, with all the flaws and triumphs that come with it. That doesn't make us love them any less, but we do see those relationships from a new, deeper perspective. And the things we thought only our parents could provide -- in time we realize, step by step, that we can do it on our own, without training wheels.

I'd argue that the question of whether or not god exists isn't even that important in the grand scheme of things; it's where we go from there that matters. I understand the emotional comfort that some experience through religion. It speaks to their needs and provides easy answers to life's big questions. But for me, it was an emotional need that I outgrew. The meaning of life is whatever I make it. Sometimes bad things just happen, without an overarching divine reason. My desire to do good, to help others, to seek justice, is without fear of punishment, adherence to blind obedience, or the hope of eternal reward; it is wholly for the sake of goodness itself. Because it's just right. I think we all feel this, even if we don't admit it. We all have an internal sense of morality that guides us, and even if your holy book never existed, I'd argue that you'd still have morals. I guess that's my faith -- faith in humanity. Chances are you've already abandoned certain commands of your religion -- you reject slavery, believe women are equal to men, do not condemn homosexuals, have no problem with wearing clothing of mixed fibers, believe in proper sex education, or don't consider shellfish an abomination, among other things. The point is, you've already trusted your internal moral guide to select what parts of your religion's beliefs are important, and which should be discarded.

When it comes to spirituality, though it may be a word I have trouble using for myself, if only because of its wide array of definitions, I still seek to experience the awe and the joy of life. I don't have all the answers, but I'm comfortable with the not knowing. I don't need to fill the void with a fantasy, but accept with an open mind that we just don't know yet. But I will investigate this world around me, to understand it, even when it provides truths that are difficult to swallow. Nature is my religion, if I can be said to have one. I have a deep and abiding respect for this earth, and for the creatures I share it with. We have to work together for our survival and our higher sense of wellbeing, and that means questioning, observing, taking responsibility, learning, adapting. I'm privileged to have this brain that's capable of self-awareness and complex meta-thoughts, and I intend to use those faculties to their fullest extent. There's so much to take in! Thinking rationally about the mysteries of life only adds to the experience. As Carl Sagan so beautifully put it, we are the way the universe can know itself. I owe it to the entire cosmos to learn as much about it as I can before my atoms get recycled back into the earth.

I'm an activist because atheists are so often misunderstood, and feared, and hated. We've got some really harsh stereotypes applied to us, and it's time to come out of the closet and show the world who we are. I want to educate, to open a dialogue, to answer your questions -- please, ask me anything! I want to form a community, and to support those in need. I want to fight discrimination on all levels, and to work toward peace and enlightenment. I may not believe in your god, but there's still a lot that I do believe in, just like you. I don't wish to "de-convert" people, any more than a gay-rights activist wants to turn straight folks gay; I only mean to show you that there are those who do not have a god in their life, and I'm one of them. It's not a life of depravity or lawlessness, but one that's wholesome and gratifying and meaningful.

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