This recruitment message must be presented with a story.
The Greater Than AIDS Coalition of Savannah stopped for pizza somewhere outside Atlanta. We were on our way to the state Capitol where we would ask Georgia representatives why HIV relief funds were only directed at the capital and did not trickle down to Savannah on the coast. Savannah has the second-highest HIV infection rate in the state.
“My partner died in 1981,” a man said to the group as he looked down at the menu. “He was on AZT. When the new antiretrovirals came out, it was a godsend.”
“God had nothing to do with it,” I said.
They looked at me. “We did that,” I said. “We should be proud of our work.”
I was tempted to add that if god was so inclined, he could have spared himself the trouble of sending antiretrovirals by just not letting AIDS happen in the first place.
Atheism is a difficult subject for sick people. People find comfort in belief during times of suffering. Many HIV-positive people have told me their faith pulled them through. Over the course of my life, I’ve heard the same thing many times: “I knew god had a plan for me and he would get me through this.”
Why does god’s plan include this cruel and horrible ailment? Why does he allow these people’s partners and friends to simply die? Why are the lives of HIV-positive people, though significantly improved since the worst days of the epidemic, still marked with blood draws and medical bills and cancer and stigma? Where was the glowing benevolence of which these people spoke?
The man said, “I take it you don’t believe in god.”
“I do not.”
“You’re an atheist.”
Someone asked, “So what do you believe?”
This is a bothersome question. Atheists I’ve spoken to get asked this question often and it’s always a little frustrating. The question assumes a person must believe in something, and if not god, what? Atheism is not a dogma, not a set of beliefs. It is an odd label by all accounts because it describes only that which it is not. It simply and only describes the belief that no deity exists.
In these situations, my answer is usually, “Almost nothing.” And that’s the truth. I believe we are animals crawling on a ball of rock, hurtling through space.
But the truth is, atheists believe different things. Some believe in utilitarianism — “greatest good for the greatest number.” Others, like me, believe pleasure is good and suffering is bad — the hedonists — and that life should be lived to seek pleasure and alleviate suffering. (It’s worth noting that utilitarianism is often seen by philosophers as a form of hedonism — both approaches essentially claim that pleasure is quantifiable and the highest good.)
The one thing all secular approaches to life have in common is that they all place importance on one’s own ability to determine right from wrong. You call the shots and bear responsibility for your actions.
Many atheists practice something called “secular humanism,” a philosophy that celebrates human life and achievement. Humanism by another name is simply the prevailing belief that most humans share about the modern world: that humans are special. That we are tasked with running the world. Most people today are humanists, even if they don’t realize it.
Most modern Christians practice a humanist version of their faith, since most of them believe humans have the authority to determine their work, education, and particular religious practice and can choose, for example, what denomination of Christianity they will adhere to. This would have been a heathen concept in the Middle Ages.
The only problem with humanism — my problem with it — is that it elevates humans above the natural world and all other animals. I think this perspective has led to the destruction of nature and widespread abuse of other living beings.
Atheism lacks centralization, which is perhaps its best feature. There is no governing body of people who define what doctrine is “official,” because there is no doctrine. There’s no Vatican, no Pope, no holy book. There’s not even a set definition that defines what atheism is or what morals we must adhere to. Some organizations, like American Atheists, have attempted to be the definitive source of atheistic information. Resultantly, many atheists bristle at American Atheists.
I am an existential hedonist in the truest sense. I don’t think life has inherent meaning, and I think ethics (along with almost everything else we believe in) are subjective constructs, products of language, and social inventions. With no god and no afterlife, pleasure becomes the highest moral pursuit. Heaven is here on earth, and when you’re dead, you’re dead.
Science is generally regarded as the stuff of atheism, and many atheists draw their reasons for non-belief from science. But I’m not a scientist, so I do not base my atheism on numbers and figures I don’t understand. I never have.
My atheistic argument holds up better under religious scrutiny because I speak the same language as religious people. I grew up religious. My reason for rejecting god is moral, not scientific. I was raised in religion and will always think and reason in the language of faith.
My reason goes back to the table conversation I had with the Greater Than AIDS Coalition of Savannah. Deists would have me believe that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and presumably benevolent being created the world and humans to live in it. This being, being omniscient, was aware that our tremendous suffering would invariably follow, all our toil and misery, and still chose to gift us with life. Worse, the Christian god not only neglects to get our permission to be made, but damns us because of our sinful nature. And if Genesis is to be believed, this damnation is more than a slap on the wrist — it is eternal suffering (as if life wasn’t hard enough) because two people ate an apple.
No matter how you spin it, if god created all things, then he is invariably responsible for our sinful nature, something he still chooses sadistically to punish us for. It’s the Job paradox: if god exists, he must be cruel. God either allows things like the holocaust and AIDS epidemic to happen or he directs them. Who would want to worship such a thing? And by punishing us for sin, he is punishing us for what which he is invariably, unavoidably responsible for. If he had no power to create us without sin — if our sin was simply beyond his control — then he’s not omnipotent. And if he could have controlled our sinful nature, he nevertheless chose not to and allowed us to suffer for it — indeed, to punish us for it — and he’s a monster.
We can extend this argument beyond the Christian god to include all gods, so long as the definition of “god” is an all-knowing, all-powerful being. And if one argues that this being, whatever it is, is not all-knowing or all-powerful, why call it god? If one person’s god simply started time and space and left it to spin — the “watchmaker” concept — then he abandoned us and his presence is a moot force in the universe (he effectively does not exist if he does nothing).
If another person’s god is an “energy” or “force” in the universe, that person is simply playing word games and falling into the “god of the gaps” trap — stuffing a malleable definition of god into the gaps left by science and rendering a creator increasingly small and ineffective with every new scientific advancement. Pantheists believe the Hindu-ish idea that god is the embodiment of all things, and atheists chuckle because this is still a practically useless concept — a nice idea that has no real value. Practically speaking, pantheism is the same as atheism — is god is everything then he is nothing, as one is still left with suffering and without purpose or meaning.
God is more than a fallacious theory. If he is real, he is maniacal and monstrous. And if he’s not real, he’s a fairy tale that millions of people have shed blood over for thousands of years. It’s no small thing to disbelieve in something that governs world cultures — something that is referenced in virtually every speech by an American president and has more power than any single world government. I am anti-god simply because I cannot thank a jealous and perverse deity for a life of pain, and I am anti-religion because religion has inspired our most cruel and violent tendencies: how much war, terrorism, genocide, autocracy, and despotism have been done in the name of god?
With thousands of years of religious history behind us, we instinctively feel there must be an explanation for suffering. Our species doesn’t easily accept the idea of meaningless agony. We want to believe the universe favors us, so we have created religions that elevate our suffering to something divine, something we can bear. God is how we give ourselves a sense of control over an otherwise random and unpredictable universe.
I’ve been told by believers that my beliefs — or lack thereof — are based on fear. I think the very opposite is true. I think most religious people are comforted by the idea of meaningful suffering. In fact, I think they’re so placated by belief that the minute their cosmologies are threatened, they pass laws prohibiting their beliefs to be attacked (look no further than Christians in America). That is fear.
I once looked at the stars and saw a deified cosmology, a world of god that placed me at its center. Now I see something more wondrous — balls of gas burning so far away that their light has taken longer than their billion-year lifetimes to reach me. What a world of wonder. I think about my smallness in that vast universe and how grateful I am to be in it. That’s enough. Some say a godless universe is less majestic and that life is smaller without purpose from the divine. Yes, it’s rendered smaller than the self-inflated lens of faith, but I’d rather love life as it is — a small thing, something worth protecting, something you can experience for a little while — rather than the inflated view of self offered by faith. Death is terrifying and one lifetime is not enough, but it’s everything we have and the only thing we have. I think you should enjoy it.
Atheism is not like Christianity. We don’t have to recruit anybody or expand our ranks. But I think the world would be better if there were more atheists in it, and all I’m trying to do here is plant a seed of doubt. Explore your doubt. Read banned books. Read books that call your beliefs, or the beliefs of your parents, into question — books that examine your beliefs and hold them up to scrutiny. You shouldn’t be afraid of scrutiny — you should welcome it. If you really believe — if you’re really a loyal believer — you should be able to read even the best argument against your beliefs and still find faith easy. If, in the end, you don’t arrive at atheism, your beliefs will be fortified — forged through the fires of doubt. And if you do arrive at atheism — or, even better, an anti-theism of the variety I practice — I’ll be here, waiting to welcome you into Hell.
(Hell isn’t real. Duh.)
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