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 so heavily directed at the capital and rarely trickled 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 and just not let AIDS happen in the first place.
Atheism — and its sister, anti-theism — is a difficult subject for sick people. People often find comfort in belief during times of suffering. Many HIV-positive people have told me that 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 his plan include this cruel and horrible ailment? Why does he allow their partners and friends to die? Why are the lives of HIV-positive people — significantly improved since the worst days of the epidemic — still marked with blood draws and medical bills and cancer and stigma? Where was the benevolence of which they 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?”
Atheists I’ve spoken with get asked this question a lot and it’s a little frustrating. It assumes a person must believe in something. Atheism is not a dogma, not a set of beliefs. It is an odd label by all accounts because it describes only what someone rejects. It describes only the belief only that no deity exists.
In these situations, my answer is usually, “Almost nothing.” And it’s true. I believe we are animals crawling on a ball of rock that’s hurtling through space.
But the truth is, atheists do believe in 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 hedonsim — both approaches essentially claim that pleasure is quantifiable.)
The one thing all secular approaches to life have in common is that they all place enormous 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.
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 will be officialized, what must be read and done in order to be an atheist. 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 most everything else we believe in) are subjective constructs, products of language. With no god and no afterlife, pleasure becomes the highest moral pursuit. Heaven is here. 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 in 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. My reason for rejecting God is moral, not scientific. I was raised in religion and will always think and reason in the langauge of faith and belief.
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 in it. This being, being omniscient, was aware that all 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 obtain 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 this wrist — it’s eternal suffering (as if life isn’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 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 being?
We can extend this argument outside the Christian god so long as the definition of “god” is an all-knowing, all-powerful being. If one argues that this being, whatever it is, is not all-knowing or all-powerful, why call it God? If God simply started time and space and let it spin — the watchmaker idea — then he abandoned us and his presence is a moot force in the universe (he effectively does not exist if he does nothing). If one says God is an “energy” or “force” in the universe, they’re playing word games and falling into the “god of the gaps” trap — stuffing god into the gaps left by science and rendering a creator or creatress increasingly small and ineffective. Pantheists believe in the Hindu-ish idea that God is the embodiment of all things, and atheists chuckle because this is still a useless concept — a nice idea that has no applicable value. Practically speaking, pantheism is the same as atheism — one is still left with suffering and without purpose or direction.
God is more than a fallacious theory. If he is real, he is maniacal and monstrous. I am anti-god and anti-belief simply because I cannot thank a jealous and perverse deity for a life of pain.
With thousands of years of religious history behind us, we instinctively feel there must be an explanatio 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 we can think better of. 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 in fear. I think the 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.
I once looked at stars and saw a deified cosmology, a world of God that placed me at its center. Now I see something far more wondrous — balls of gas burning so far away that their light has taken longer than their billion-year lifetimes to reach me. What 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 a less majestic one and that life is smaller without purpose. Yes, it’s rendered smaller than the self-inflated lens of faith, but I’d rather love life as it is — a small, free thing, something worth protecting, something you can experience and then surrender. Termination is terrifying and one lifetime is not nearly enough, but it’s everything we have and — I think — the only thing we have. Enjoy it.
Above Image: Graham Monro/Getty Images