Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Coming out to Play

I blame my sister for this post. Rachel commanded it, so I must do it.

I am an atheist. I do not believe in any gods.

You may believe I am completely misguided, and you are welcome to your belief. But understand that your experience, point of view, and mode of thinking differ from mine, and therefore you come to different conclusions than I do. I am not writing this post to convince anyone of anything. I'm writing simply to share my experience, and to explain the origin of my conclusions.

Likewise, this post is not a request for your convincing argument for the existence of your deity. I attended church for many years, I am reasonably well-versed in the Bible (ha! pun intended!), and I have come across nearly every argument for the existence of god and found them all insufficient.

I have not believed in any higher powers since I was quite young, although I did not admit it aloud until I was 18. As Rachel quite accurately expressed, in our family, belief in a deity was not optional. The particulars of said deity were negotiable, but belief in a god was mandatory if we expected to be a fulfilled individual. (Looking back, I realize that our family put the "fun" in "dysfunctional," and no member of our family, believer or otherwise, was fulfilled.)

I tried really hard to believe, but I found that I could not. Just like some people feel compelled to believe, I feel compelled to disbelieve. It is not a choice. I say with complete honesty that I do not and cannot believe in the existence of any gods.

In every other way, I am just like the majority of Americans. I feel love. I enjoy life. I want to feel accepted. I get angry sometimes. I obey the law (most of the time). I feel no compulsion to murder, cheat, or steal. I don't have horns or a tail. I try to be a responsible citizen of the world. The only difference is that I believe in one fewer god.

I am a scientist by nature, so I find myself questioning everything. Even as a child, I did not always believe what my elders told me. When things did not make sense, I was quick to notice.

One of the first things I noticed was that there are many religions that purport to be the One True Way. They can't all be the One True Way, since they are mutually contradictory. But how is one to know which one is true? After all, there are well-meaning, honest adherents of each religion. So it's not obvious that one way is truer than another.

But maybe all that means is that there is not One True Way. So why do I reject all religions? They don't make sense to me; they don't adequately explain life's mysteries and inconsistencies.

Social justice has always been important to me. One time when I was a pre-schooler, they had to call my mother out of the church service to calm me down. Why? Because we were playing Musical Chairs in Sunday School, and I thought the game was unfair, because there weren't enough chairs for everyone. So I threw a tantrum and refused to participate. My sense of justice has been refined since then, but fairness is still very important to me. I see all the suffering in the world, and it makes me angry.

No religion provides a convincing explanation for the existence of suffering. Why do children in impoverished countries starve to death? The best (and most just) explanation is that there is no omniscient, all-powerful, all-benevolent god. If there is no god, then the inequities in life are a product of chance. Chance is equally unfair to everyone, and I can handle that. I can't stand the idea that some people are somehow more deserving than others, or that some are made to suffer in order to learn some lesson. How morally perverse is it to believe that some people don't deserve food as much as others? And what kind of lesson does a child learn by starving to death? No, that innocent child is starving to death because chance placed her into that situation.

The fact that a given person suffers by chance does not absolve the rest of us of responsibility, however. While it is true that any given person's suffering is due to chance, the existence of suffering people is decidedly non-random. The inequitable situation leading to the child's death by starvation exists because of human activity. Since there is no higher power, it is up to us to right wrongs.

People often wonder why I should care about the other inhabitants of the earth. Is God the only reason that you care about others? I seriously doubt that most people would go on a killing spree if the existence of their deity were once and for all disproved, because love is part of what makes us human. Ultimately, love is a product of the chemicals in our brains, and its existence can be explained from an evolutionary perspective, but I don't think that the existence of a scientific explanation makes it any less powerful.

I find that a world unconstrained by higher powers instills me with hope. We are not pawns of a higher power. Real human beings can work together to find solutions to some of the world's most difficult problems. It frees us to think creatively, and use our diverse perspectives to everyone's advantage.


Phantom Scribbler said...

Did you and Rachel read Berube's almost-last post?

Laura said...

Nice post, Bec, and I like Berube's post too.

(We still have lawn preachers at Virginia! But I've never seen one take the time to have such a civil conversation as the one Berube describes.)

On the problem of suffering: just to be clear, this bothers religious people too (most of us). It just doesn't dislodge our belief in God.

Like you say, Bec, you may be biologically incapable of religious belief/feeling; and I think some of us religious folks have just the opposite experience. Like certain music makes me feel really happy, certain religious stuff makes me go "yeah!" I guess it's just how I'm made. (How *God* made me, you could say... but we don't have to go there!)

Anyway, yay for coming out. I'm in favor of it. Rachel's right: you are brave and beautiful.

And I love you! :-)

Rebecca said...

Thanks for the link, Phantom -- no I had not seen that one but I think he and I are on just about the same page, religion-wise.

And Laura, you are right that everyone, religious and non-religious alike, struggles with the problem of suffering. Just to be perfectly clear, I am talking only about my own conclusions. While I cannot reconcile a higher power and suffering, many other people evidently can.

David said...

I found your blog many months ago whilst searching some math topic and knew I'd find more I liked here in the future.

I have not come out yet, publicly--er, widely, publicly. I think the way you have articulated your perspective here is refreshing and it is so nice to read that there are others out there who think like I do.

The main reason that I am not "out" is that I think that the majority of this country harbors some hostility toward non-believers--greater than that which they hold toward believers in gods other than their own.

I'm glad for you that the people in your circle are open minded enough to accept your perspective on this.

David said...

I'm a web developer and I think I might like to get more science oriented. I like math, but have no background other than the basics required by my bachelor's degree.

The more I program, the more I want to learn more about math and science. . .and the stronger I feel about atheism. Any recommendations on reading or things to explore as I continue with my career?

Ginger said...

I agree that we are not pawns of a higher power. The Bible says we are created in His image, which means we have consciences, and the ability to do or not do as we choose.

Do you believe in heaven/hell?

Rebecca said...

David, thanks very much for your comments! (I knew someone was reading this for the math!)

It's never easy to tell everyone that you disagree with the fundamental beliefs upon which they base their lives, and I don't make a big deal about it or even talk about it very often. Plus, I now live in a major Bible-wielding state, so it's not something I'm particularly open about with my neighbors or anything. As for the learning more about math and science, I think that warrants another post, which I will do as soon as I get the chance.

Ginger, I do not believe in heaven or hell, or anything "supernatural," including, but not limited to, ghosts, psychics, astrology, dowsing, and past lives.

Tatanus said...

I am glad that you took to time and effort to put in print what you truly feel and share your point of view. I have never been one to back down from any discussion nor have I ever had an issue sharing my beliefs on religion when asked.

My base view of everyone else in the world is; if you believe in GOD then you should do as your selected doctrine states or other wise face the wrath your religious consequences. If you do not believe in GOD, then still, be kind and true to your humanity and live a good and just life (basically the same as everyone else should be doing).

Who am I or any of us to judge anyone else (where religion/faith/hope is concerned)?

P.S. Praise the all might Flying Spaghetti Monster!!!

Ginger said...

I belive that Heaven and hell are the only real justice we have. If they do not exist then there is no true punisment for the evil in the world. Prisons are not harsh enough for some of our worst criminals such as terrorists and pedophiles. If there is no hell, then death isn't a punishment either, because the menace to society is being removed, but there is always another evil lurking around the next corner. Suffering and sin never end that way, and I just can't believe that.

Rebecca said...

Ginger, I see what you're saying but I think that circumstances play a big role in people becoming terrorists and pedophiles. The vast majority of pedophiles, for example, were themselves victims of pedophilia. You and I were fortunate enough to not be victims of pedophilia, and thus much less likely to become pedophiles ourselves. But who knows what we would be like if we had been molested as children? I'd like to think that I wouldn't succumb to the temptation of molesting children, but at the same time I have no experience with that and I can't definitively say either way. "There but for the Grace of God go I," so to speak.

Do pedophiles deserve punishment? Are they in control of their actions? They certainly deserve mortal punishment, because whether or not they are in control of their actions, they committed an evil act. Do they deserve immortal punishment through the afterlife? I think no, not in all cases.

I could go on and on here, but instead I think I will make a whole post about it at some point.

Laura said...

Becca and Ginger,

Regarding the afterlife and justice: I agree, Ginger, that life on earth is limited and it does seem like we need some sort of extra-human or supernatural justice. I'm much more concerned about the "good" people who don't get what they deserve than the "bad" people who don't get the punishment they deserve; but we share the same interest in a justice that goes beyond this world.

Regarding the effects of circumstances: I agree, Becca, that in many cases circumstances are to blame and that there are some circumstances that would lead most of us to commit horrible acts.

Regarding both topics: I actually disagree with both of you about the value of punishment for adults. This is called "retributive justice" and I think it's too close to revenge -- where the victims or others get pleasure out of seeing the criminal suffer.

I've been learning recently about "restorative justice," which is a situation in which the criminal repents and the victim forgives. They've been doing it some in South Africa, and the stories are very inspiring. (In the Wikipedia article above there's a section about Mennonite churches working with sex-offenders, too.) I think that's a better way to address crime (when it can be done), and probably more Christian.

Becca, your statement that under other circumstances, you, too, could have committed horrible acts is very consonant with Christian ideals of humility and the understanding that all of us are sinners, all the time, and very much in need of God's grace. Anyway, given your ability to use and exemplify ideals that could be considered Christian -- I think you have a great future in atheist-Christian dialogue! :-)

Captain Fatbody said...

I thought I'd leave my ten cents on this topic, so here goes.

I choose not to base my belief in a deity on whether or not I will receive eternal reward for good behavior or be punished forever for acting up. To me, both of those situations are bad: one is extortion, the other is bribery.

I choose to live my life with as much morality and ethics as I can simply because that is the way anyone should live, end of story, no buts about it.

To me, this is what walking with god means.

Of course I am not so naƮve to think that my morality is the universal moral of humanity. My experiences in this life dictate my morality, and I am well aware that my morality and ethics will always and forever be viewed as misguided by someone else.

What I think is right will be viewed by someone as wrong no matter what I do. What is important is I respect the choices I make, do the best to minimize pain caused by my path, and I own up to the responsibilities of my actions.

If God blesses me for this path then I thank him. If he condemns me, then that's ok too. I can't be nice all the time. After all, I remember Jesus himself kicking a little A$% in a temple not too long ago.

I need not believe that there is a place where bad people go to be punished for things they get away with in this life. What saves me is that I continue to follow the path of the light in defiance to all the evil that runs rampant in the world. That is what is most important to me.

And I don't do it because I'm going to win a prize when I die. I do it because it's a stand I make in this life, hoping that others can join the bandwagon and do what they can to bring an end to suffering in the here and now.

Or they can pass the buck and let the evil go on in hope of someone bigger taking care of the problem after they've "cut and run."

Maybe that makes me think I'm special because I think I'm a martyr. Maybe not. What it does prove to me though is I can still be a good person without thought of reward, and to me, that means everything.