Saturday, September 13, 2014

Oh My God, I'm an Atheist?

Last year I finally made peace with the fact that I am an atheist. It was a long and difficult decision for me, because it flew in the face of everything I was raised to believe. It flew in the face of the culture and values of not just my family, but in many ways, my community and country.
God, or more importantly, the concept of religion, surrounds us in many ways. It helps us identify with one another. It is a level moral playing field, at least in theory.
It's been an interesting period of adjustment, that is for sure. For instance, there are a whole host of standard phrases that are cliche to offer in times of trouble, and now I just can't bring myself to say them. A colleague of mine had a sick child, and everyone within hearing distance said the same thing: "I'll keep you guys in my prayers."
Since I don't pray, and I find it hard to believe that God, who routinely allows the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children on a regular basis, is going to make an exception just because a few people really pray in earnest, I don't say it.
Coming up with an alternative is a challenge, though.
Upon removing the idea of mysticism and superstition as a way to mask fear, or give false hope, I've chosen to simply go with what I believe to be both supportive and sympathetic. I look the person in the face who is telling me about their bad news, after everyone else says, "I'll get my whole church to pray for you" and "I'll get people to 'like' this on Facebook" and other empty sentiments, and when it's my turn, I say, "That is the worst damn news I've heard in my life and it absolutely sucks. What do you need me to do?"
They invariably say that they don't need me to do anything. I then say, "If you want to go grab a beer and talk, I will buy."
Of course, if they do put me on the spot, they might say, "Just keep us in your prayers."
I just nod and say, "Sure, certainly." Obviously, I do not do that, because I don't have any, but I do try and stay positive for them and stay up to date with the situation. One thing I never do is argue, protest, or try to convert others. Accepting atheism was a personal thing that took me years to come to grips with. I'm not going to convince you you're wrong about religion any easier than you will convince me you're right.
A sillier, less complicated issue is what to say when someone sneezes. Typically, an offering of "God bless you," or any sort of faster, more streamlined version is given. To not say anything is to be considered rude.
The fact that we say "God bless you" dates back to the year 590, when Pope Gregory I ordered that it be said to anyone who sneezed, because sneezing was a sign of the plague. Just to give you an idea of how long ago the 6th Century was, whose custom we are still mimicking:

  • Attila the Hun had died just one hundred years before 
  • In the 6th Century, there was still a Byzantine Emperor ruling over the remains of the Roman Empire 
  • Genghis Khan wasn't born for another 500 years 
  • The Koran had not been written yet
That's a pretty long time for a superstitious warding off of a plague to stick around. And yet, to not say "Bless you," in my house growing up when someone sneezed was essentially the same as blowing your nose on their favorite shirt. So, in keeping with the tradition that a sneeze is a sure sign of impending death, I've come up with my own variation of "God bless you."
I say, "Hang in there!" or if it's a particularly loud sneeze, or even worse, it's a sneezing attack, I offer them the helpful encouragement to, "Cling to life!"
One thing that accepting atheism has done is fill me with complete terror that this is it. This period of time, whatever we have, is all we get. There is no heaven, no hell, no continuing on in another aspect or going somewhere to find ultimate peace and knowledge. Pretty scary stuff.
However, it has also left me with a deeper passion to get the most out of this life than I ever felt before. Every day is a gift. Some people live their lives preparing to die, hoping they've built up treasures in heaven and will someday have a big mansion in the sky. Some people believe they will go to heaven and have 72 virgin brides. Some people believe that Xenu is going to...all right, I admit I'm not exactly sure what people who believe in Xenu think. Actually, I'm not exactly sure that the word "think" can be used appropriately in that context.
Being an atheist has opened my eyes to the majesty of this awesome planet and the universe around it. How can anything be so big, so filled with mystery, and so perfectly ordered? How, out of all the organisms and environments and eons of turmoil, did we get here? And more importantly, what is going to happen next?
The answer to all those questions, for me, for a long period of time, was the simplistic and dull-headed response, "God's will." That sure is a lot easier to understand than having to go all through the years of scientific study required to grasp astrophysics. Why bother learning all that science-y crap when the answer is "God's will" to everything, anyway.
And I think that's where the secret really lies as to why I embraced atheism. I finally grew tired of being told to just shut my mouth and believe in something, rather than question it and require it to be proven. People use the word "faith" a lot when speaking about God or their own personal religion, and I respect that. I simply do not have faith. Not in something that offers no greater proof than an ancient book, or books, written by men who made astonishing claims in the pre-scientific age. I don't want to just have faith. I don't want to just believe.
I want to know.  
Today, I identify myself as a humanist, or rather, a global secular humanist. It sounds a lot less harsh than atheist, and sadly, most people don't know enough about the terminology to realize what you are saying when you call yourself a humanist. Sadly, their misunderstanding of the word "atheist" is sometimes so polluted and twisted that it invites unwarranted anger. Atheists, they've been told, are the worst kind of human beings possible.
I think, if we were to stack up the crimes against humanity committed by atheists and the ones committed by religious people, or people who claimed to be acting on God's behalf, we'd see a staggering disparity that would defy argument.
There are some who cannot fathom a moral, loving world unless it is based on the foundation that religion presents. Even someone as cultured and learned as Oprah Winfrey cannot understand how an atheist can feel "wonder" and "awe" unless it is coming from God.
My experience has been that by tossing aside religion, it has opened my mind to a wide universe of possibility, and also deep personal responsibility. If there is no God steering the ship, that just leaves us. If God isn't going to wipe out humanity with any sort of Rapture or Revelations, that means we're just going to keep on existing until we either evolve and advance as a race, or we sit here waiting for the sun to collapse. Or we kill ourselves with some sort of bomb, plague, pollution, or war.
The human race can be much, much more than we are now. We'll never be that as long as we chain ourselves to concepts and doctrines that benefit some but not all, or force conformity to ancient rules and customs, or excuse the murder of innocent people because they pray to the wrong God.
It takes a certain amount of guts to accept atheism, but I can honestly say, I've never felt so free.


  1. Good piece. I've often struggled to explain my atheism to others.

    1. Thanks, Susan. It's definitely a tough thing to get out in the open, and there is a lot of scrutiny involved. But hey, if gay people can be brave enough to come out of their closet and face what they face, I can do the same.