It’s Hard Out Here For An Atheist (2014Aug31)


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Sunday, August 31, 2014              3:28 AM

Being an atheist is not easy, especially if you’ve been raised in a religious family. First of all you have to deal with this sense of lurking, just outside of your vision—that’s religion, waiting to enfold you back into its welcoming arms. Make no mistake, opting for faith is far more comforting than anything atheism has to offer. For some folks, that may even be the rational for faith—but I’m too stubborn to settle for that. I’m not going to believe in a religion as a form of intentional escapism—even if I did, the back of my mind would always be heckling me for sticking my head in the sand.

So, I began by facing the obvious—without religion, there are no rules. God is not in his heaven and all is not right with the world. If I do something wrong, no one will bother me about it, ever (unless I get arrested). But being arrested is beside the point—there’s plenty of wrong being done without breaking any laws—just as there are people being arrested, at times, who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s an unfair, tough old world—but it comes with civilization.

Civilization makes stability possible. Without our societal norms, the streets become a free-for-all. We prove this every time there’s a disaster—suddenly, a part of the people feel free to steal and fight and who knows what-all. Civilization is my friend—I depend on it to walk down the street in my town and not be afraid I’ll be attacked by a random gang of outlaws, or be afraid of getting shot in the head by one of my neighbors, just ‘cause they felt like it.

This is one of the very rare places on Earth where a self-declared atheist can do that—walk down the street free from fear—and that’s just one of the many things I love about America. Atheists are a bug in the system—if you don’t believe in one religion, you at least belong to some other faith—good people can disagree, so that’s alright. But opting out of the whole concept is a direct criticism, whether it’s meant to be or not.

I cannot disbelieve in traditional faiths, particularly Christianity, without implicitly insulting everyone I know. I accept that—it can’t be helped—truly, if I was capable of traditional faith, I’d be practicing it with gusto. I can’t do it. There’re all kinds of debating points this could lead to, but I’ve already written them all down and posted them, and they simply incite a post-modern, unfriendly debate with high emotions on both sides. The faithful have faith and I haven’t—that’s all I got.

But beyond that, I have no wish to insult the faithful. These New Atheists, with their angry, anti-Theism attitudes, are obviously suffering from a sense of betrayal—they often come from strictly religious families that have repressed their spirit—perhaps even physically harmed them. Their reaction to religion is not to simply turn away from it, as I did, but to turn on it and attack it for the remembered inflictions. Some of them are even activists because they sympathize for their siblings, still caught in what the New Atheist sees as a sort of mental prison.

I don’t know what to tell someone in that position. For me, it’s a matter of letting go of things, out of deference to peoples’ feelings. But a real dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist is more than a match for the New Atheist—neither of them care to look at the other side of the issue. This is a futile activity and I avoid it. I might get curt once in a while with an annoying bible-thumper—but that’s because of their personality, not their faith.

The biggest problem with the New Atheists is that they bring threats and hate to the party, not realizing how badly that can backfire. They may be just talking tough, but their targets, those with strictly-held beliefs, have gone to war throughout history at the slightest provocation. And no river of blood is deep enough for a man on a mission from god. So I see little good in taunting them, even if I was inclined that way.

I’ve been through some stuff, though. Back in the seventies, with the Born Again revivalists, there was one group from Maine that had snagged some friends I’d known for years. I went to a meeting on Holly Hill Lane once. I came into a room full of people, many of them my friends—they told me they loved me and would pray for me; they started praying in unison. I was very uncomfortable but I managed to say, over the noise, “Don’t pray for me. I don’t believe in God.” There was some back and forth, but once I’d managed to spit it out, the rest was easy. They told me they were sorry, but they couldn’t associate with me, or even talk with me, any more. Two of my brothers would join the same group and neither of them spoke to me for over a year.

But it was a passing fad for many of the young people who had been swept up in the first excitement of it—the daily reality was far less glamorous and most of them were soon back hanging out, their faith still intact, but their fervor substantially cooled. People deigned to speak with me once again, but no apologies were offered. I’m still nervous about public speaking, but not so much, since I can’t imagine a tougher room than those Born Agains.

Besides the adversarial aspects of atheism, there’s also the question of creation. The universe is too big for us to comprehend, too complex for us to decode, and had to come from somewhere. I accept this—it’s common sense. But I don’t look at it as proof of any institutional religion, just proof that there’s a lot we don’t know—and may never know—and may not even be capable of knowing. We are tiny specks on a huge planet, and the planet is just the beginning of all the hugeness.

I find it amusing that some hierophants will claim they know what it’s all about. The world around us is full of secrets. The universe beyond our world is full of mysteries. We’ve discovered some basics, but they are just a handful of tricks called science—science is far from finished, if it ever can be. I believe that theorizing is beneficial and that reproducible results are worthy of note and study. But I don’t believe science has all the answers—no one who truly understands science believes that—the whole point of science is to keep going, to keep trying to learn a new handful of tricks from the universe.

Kurt Vonnegut had some very funny theories about the purpose of humanity—one possibility was that we were meant to rise up to a technological height that would allow us to manufacture a special wrench that some stranded alien needed—to fix his spaceship. It’s as hard a theory to disprove as any other, and it’s funny—that’s why I like Vonnegut. ‘So it goes’, as he used to say. He also theorized that all language boiled down to one message: “I’m here. Hello. Look at me.” That’s it. As the years go by, I understand him better and better. We don’t want to merely exist; we want to be seen to exist. We want to be noticed—otherwise, we don’t fully exist.

One way to fix that is to have an imaginary someone watching all of us, all the time. But I will settle for other people, whom I see exist, as they see me exist. It’s enough. I learned there’s a name for people like me—apparently, I’m an ‘ethical humanist’, but I was what I was before I’d ever heard of them, so it’s mostly a coincidence (although, I must say, it’s nice to know I’m not completely on my own out here). Besides, they’re city folks and, while I once lived there, I learned that I can’t take the roaches—so they’re too far away for me to participate.

There is one thing atheism doesn’t change—Sundays are still boring. If only I was a football fan.

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2 responses to “It’s Hard Out Here For An Atheist (2014Aug31)

  1. Funny thing: “We want to be noticed—otherwise, we don’t fully exist.” I’ve been trying to figure out why I would need to be noticed. I don’t think that I do. I enjoy being recognized for my efforts but outside that I don’t want to be noticed. I don’t like birthdays or practically any other holiday that requires I be noticed. Present giving for the sake of giving and getting is stupid. A good conversation and some scotch is a much better idea.

    • Being recognized for one’s efforts is a perfect example–one doesn’t need to be a celebrity or be showered with gifts–but the occasional ‘good job’ never ruined anyone’s day. If you make an effort, it feels bad to have that ignored. And even without effort, it feels bad to be ignored. I’m not talking fame, just mental health. Newborn babies can die simply from not being picked up and held once in a while–which was a big problem with AIDS babies, back when nurses were still afraid to pick one up.

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