Things have changed a little now that some of my friends know about my lack of faith. This post and perhaps more to come are geared a little more toward helping them and others understand atheism.
It seems the popular belief is that atheists are miserable people that have nothing to live for. When many Christians think of atheists, they think of someone who is bound for eternal hell and knows it deep down. They think of someone with a pointless existence, somebody that is just trying to make it miserable for everybody. Some of them think it’s impossible to truly believe that there is no God–that we must be followers of Satan and are actively trying to trick everyone else into damnation and eternal torture.
There are several reasons why Christians view atheists as a sorry lot. Often, when a Christian hears from an atheist they hear negative words. This is quite simply because the atheist is disagreeing with the Christian. Atheists also talk about a lot of other things–you just might not realize that they’re atheists when they’re talking about other things. Another reason is that Christians attribute so much of their happiness to their faith that they can’t imagine how someone without that faith could be as happy as they are. I, on the other hand, suspect that happiness is a little more about chemicals in our brains and a little less about our metaphysical beliefs.
When I was a Christian, I believed that my purpose in life, in fact, the objective purpose of everyone’s life was to earn that ticket into heaven. As I entered into that transitionary period between Christianity and atheism, I often struggled with a seeming contradiction. On the one hand I felt that life was worth living but on the other hand, I couldn’t think of an objective reason for me to feel that way. My life had lost its purpose, but weirdly enough, my zeal for it remained.
I eventually decided (i.e. realized) that there is no objective purpose to life–that we each find our own. Did life suddenly become more pointless for me? In all honesty, I would have to say that yes it did. But life also became less serious and a little more whimsical and fun.
The Christian is never alone. Often the Christian feels the presence of God, Jesus, and even angels. In times of fear, these feelings can be helpful in staving off panic, in gaining a feeling of security. I remember as a child, I would always pray when I was alone and afraid. After praying, I would feel the omnipotent presence of God, and I would immediately feel more secure. I don’t feel the presence of God, Jesus, or the angels anymore, and I am glad for it. I realize now that they were never there–that my brain tricked itself into feeling safer and more powerful all on its own.
Christians pray for various reasons ranging from material possessions, to finances, to world peace. It helps them clarify their goals, wishes, and desires, and it helps them deal with the difficulty of achieving them. If these goals, wishes, and desires do not come to fruition, then they feel secure in that God’s will is being done. Praying also allows Christians to feel like they’re helping others without actually having to do anything.
I no longer believe in the efficacy of prayer and as a direct result of that, I am more confident and have more self-esteem. I believe that prayers sometimes do come true, but I do not believe it has anything to do with anything supernatural. It’s simply the result of self-fulfillment and coincidences. I believe the idea that prayer has a direct effect on our lives (via supernatural means) is a mistake resulting from various interpretive biases (e.g. confirmation bias, placebo effect, etc.). Many of my prayers had come true but now I believe it was I that accomplished those things, and not some supernatural being that is watching over me and doing all the difficult work for me. Realizing that I deserve the credit for my successes and the blame for my failures, rather than God, gives me more self-confidence and a feeling of greater control over the course of my life.
Church provides many psychological and social benefits for the Christian. Being a member of a church provides the Christian with a greater sense of community, frequent fellowship, and the knowledge that they have something in common with a large number of people. As an atheist, I have yet to find secular equivalents for these things, and it is something that I miss. I do periodically go to church with my friends but the large difference in worldviews makes the experience considerably less enjoyable for me.
A lot of Christians have faith, but what is faith? It seems to me that faith is a cultivated optimism based on beliefs that can’t be proven. Faith provides a means for Christians to accept their limited control over their lives and environments while at the same time believing that there is a grand reason to it all. They see the world through these colored lenses and I see it affect their understanding of and explanations for events all the time. As an atheist, I don’t really have anything equivalent to this cultivated optimism and I’m glad that I don’t. I want to see the world as it is and faith seems a little too much like willful self-delusion.
A little note about semantics here: If faith is defined as ‘belief in God despite a lack of evidence’, then I most certainly do not have faith. However, if faith is defined as ‘a belief that concerns questions for which there are no answers’, then I might have faith in various things (although I would not consider it logical). In that sense, faith could be another word for optimism. I consider both optimism and pessimism to be illogical, tainted frames of mind. I do not have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow morning. I have a reason to believe, based on past experiences, that the sun will come up tomorrow morning.
When I was a Christian, I believed that the Bible and my fear of eternal hell were why I tried to be a good person. I was being forced by God, to be a good person. Now that I’m an atheist, I feel a lot more free. I feel free to steal, and kill, and rape as much as I please. But I don’t. I realize now that I try to be a good person because that’s how I am. It had been me all along–not God or a fear of hell. As a result, my morality feels deeper and more personal. Here’s a quote by atheist and magician Penn Jillette that seems relevant:
“The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.” ~Penn Jillette
When I was a Christian, half the stuff I did made me feel guilty. Every time I smoked a cigarette or drank a beer I was destroying a little bit of Jesus’ temple. Every time I drove a car or wore “English” clothing, I was breaking the rules of the church and God. Every time I questioned the existence of God, I was committing blasphemy–the worst possible moral offense, or so I thought. Without God, I have no more of that religious guilt. I still try to be a good person and I feel guilty every once in a while when I do something that I shouldn’t, but a lot of that stuff that caused me to feel guilty years ago, I realize now are neither wrong nor right and it’s a waste of time and energy to fret over the ethics of them.
The Christian is in constant awe of his God and the mighty powers attributed to him. As an atheist, I feel much the same way about the universe. I often look up at the starry night sky and marvel in awe and wonder at the scale, the mystery, and the absurdity of it all. It just blows my mind that things exist, but unlike the Christian, this feeling does not compel me to believe in a supernatural creator.
Supernatural explanations seem to help those that are seeking only to ease their fears but they don’t actually provide meaningful information about our universe. The idea that disease is caused by demons or that it is punishment for some earlier “immoral” action by the victim, was never helpful in treating or preventing illness. In fact, such thinking probably prevented mankind from discovering the true causes of disease for a long time. The natural explanation–the germ theory of disease, on the other hand, has been extremely helpful in preventing, curing, and mitigating the effects of disease for over a hundred years. Evolutionary theory is a lot harder to understand than Biblical creation stories but once you put in the effort and actually learn about it, you realize that it explains so much more about life. Similarly, modern cosmology is a lot more meaningful when it comes to understanding the larger universe, than the idea that God created it all in six days. Saying, “God did it,” has never been helpful in reaching a deeper understanding of any process. As an atheist and a science advocate, I am always seeking the natural explanation. It takes a lot more energy and effort to understand the natural explanations but the result is far more meaningful. I look up at the night sky, out at the universe, and it all makes a lot more sense than it did when I was a Christian. That alone is worth all the social stigma of being an atheist.
I couldn’t complete this post in all honesty without touching on the worst thing about being an atheist–the social stigma. As an atheist, I belong to a tiny minority of people that has metaphysical beliefs that are in diametric opposition to the majority. We face a lot of intolerance and discrimination for it and it can make our social life a little more unpleasant than it needs to be. I hope that with time, atheism becomes more widespread and more accepted and this intolerance will fade away.
I do not believe in an eternal life after death that will redeem me for all the good things I do. I do not believe in an eternal hellfire that will punish those that do harm to me and to others. As an atheist, I believe that this life is all I have and it is my goal to make the most of it.
As an atheist, I do not live in a dark and gloomy and pointless world as you might think. All in all, I believe that I am exactly as happy as the average Christian with a solid faith in God. I am certainly a lot happier than I was as a Christian with doubts.