Time for the atheist

2009 September 13
by Stace

We’ve been writing on this blog for over a year, and I have yet to discuss much about being an atheist, other than saying I am one. There have been multiple times when I started posts about it, such as after I finished reading Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” last year. But, oh, I don’t know. I seemed to run out of steam, because really, there’s just so very much to say.

I thought I’d give it another stab today, and see how it goes. How about a look back.

It’s simple. I am an atheist. I lack belief in any sort of deity or other type of supernatural being. I cannot prove or disprove the existence of these entities, therefore, I have no cause to believe. So I don’t.

I don’t think I ever have believed, not really. At some point when I was a child, God and Jesus fell along with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. There was no lightning moment, no critical event or thought that triggered my lack of belief. I simply stopped believing.

Saying I stopped is rather misleading, since I don’t actually recall thinking much about God or Jesus or Mary or any of the things I was taught in Bible school. Santa Claus was far more real to me, what with those presents appearing under the Christmas tree every year.

I remember my paternal grandmother told me that rain was the tears of angels. I gave it plenty of thought, though I couldn’t have been more than seven years old at the time. Why should the angels cry? And how, exactly, did my grandmother know this? It made no sense to me.

I remember being creeped out at the thought that there were people, or some sorts of beings, up in heaven watching me all the time (more creepy than Santa Claus checking in to see if I had been bad or good; why that should be, I don’t know). I remember singing “Jesus Loves Me” with other children in our church (Methodist, by the way, a very laid-back church). I remember vacation Bible school and making paperweights and other crafts, all with the loving Jesus theme.

Only empathy can truly restrain. People who have none, we call evil. People who have an abundance, we call saints.

The rest of us live somewhere in between.

Then I just remember not believing any of it. And I didn’t go to church anymore.

My father was an atheist. He likely influenced me, though not as much as one might think. My father may not have believed in the Christian god, but he believed in all sorts of other supernatural events, beings, whatever.

An example. It was the 70s, and there was much talk about the “Missing Link” in regards to the chain of evolution of modern humans (before the discovery of Lucy, and the plethora of early hominids in the chain today). My father believed that in ancient times, a spaceship crash-landed on earth. The people on board were unable to fix their craft or find a way to communicate with their off-world fellows. Eventually, they settled in to live here, and being horny aliens, they had sex with the nearest relatives they could find on the planet — apes. The offspring of these dalliances became modern human beings.

Ancient aliens, my father believed, were the missing link.

Seemed pretty nutty to me. As nutty as angels crying rain. So, when I say that my father probably influenced me, the statement must be qualified. I would say the way he influenced me most was that he was an example that it was okay not to believe in gods. No one else could have done it. He was the only atheist I knew, or would know, for the entirety of my youth, until I went to college.

All of this aside, I still wanted to believe in something. Buddhism, fortune telling, Oija boards, Tarot cards, spirits, Wicca, etc. — I toyed with these from time to time. Ultimately, I couldn’t believe in any of it.

Why can’t I believe? The shortest answer would be that it makes no sense to me, that such things are in opposition to my sense of reason. The long answer … well … those would merely be personal proofs, which can have little meaning to anyone but myself.

I have been asked by theists if I don’t believe in God, then what do I believe and how do I know what’s right, or what’s wrong? What questions these are. My answers have changed over the years. Today, it is the following:

I believe that the scientific method is an ingenious system for understanding the mechanics of our universe, far more useful than any other system devised by humankind. It puts all religions to shame in its ability to better our lives in purely concrete ways. Its fault, like so many others, is that it can be manipulated. With the careful scrutiny of inbuilt requirements of repetition, however, it can’t be manipulated for long. I find its logic exquisite. But it cannot ultimately decide what is right, or what is wrong; it can only inform those decisions.

I believe that empathy is the most powerful tool humans possess in regards to morality. With this tool we do not need anyone or any system to tell us right from wrong. We already know. Whether we choose or do not choose to use empathy to guide our actions is independent from law. Humans will do as they wish, regardless of threat of punishment, worldly or otherworldly. Only empathy can truly restrain. People who have none, we call evil. People who have an abundance, we call saints. The rest of us live somewhere in between.

That’s my answer. It has taken me over 40 years to find it. And I’m satisfied with it … for now.

As I child, I didn’t think in these terms. I only knew what made sense to me, and what didn’t. It was natural to me and required no arguments or discussions of biblical passages or proofs. It was what it was.

And today, after countless hours of thought, it still is basically what it was. It’s comfortable. Though it wasn’t always, particularly in my young adulthood, back when I was stupid enough to think I had all the answers for everyone. But that’s another story for another time.

Like I said, there’s so much to say.

17 Responses
  1. 2009 September 13
    Rachel permalink

    I’ve never commented here before, but had to take a moment today to say that this post is… well… perfect. Its thoughtful, reasoned, and strikes me as precisely the kind of thing I’d like to be able to say myself. I’ll probably crib it next time someone asks me about my own atheism!

    • 2009 September 14

      I’m glad you took a moment to comment. Thanks! It’s a good thing for me to know I am not alone in my experiences. :-)

  2. 2009 September 13

    I hear you, Stace. I feel the same way – and I tried on a lot of different religions especially during college when I took a comparative religion class. I used to try telling people I was agnostic – but finally decided that was a cop out. Now I just tell people I’m an athiest and let them deal with it. When I met my husband I was impressed that he owned a book called “Why I Am Not A Christian”
    by Bertrand Russell. I’ve owned it for years and years. It was so nice to meet someone who is also a non-believer. It is one thing that impresses me about you, too. Thanks for writing this.

    • 2009 September 14

      Yeah, “atheist” is a word with powerful connotations, not always easy to say and cause discomfort in others. I think you’re right, that it’s just best to let them deal with it. Some will and some won’t, but at least you’ve done some weeding, eh?

  3. 2009 September 13
    RogueShadow permalink

    wow nice answer. I like it, it kinda fits with my thinking on religion. As im sure you can now guess im athiest. I havent really believed in any kind of single “god”, however i mean i will say there are things we just cant explain with science….. yet. Give human kind time and we can exp-lain the unknown. YAY science!!!!

    • 2009 September 14

      I find science very exciting, too. When I was a kid, standard thought was that plant life was individualized. Now we know that there are trees which communicate with their fellows, sending chemical warnings of disease. What they have learned about animals is truly astonishing, going against everything we thought we once knew. Who knows what will be next.

  4. 2009 September 13

    Hello, I’ve commented here a lot because I like what I read. And that means I like what both of you girls write.

    Today, I like your description of the “scientific method.” I’m happy that you only believe and have a world view of what makes sense to you and feels balanced. You articulate this very well.

    I really agree with quite a bit that you wrote on this topic … and I am Catholic …go to Mass, the whole thing. I do it in on my own terms, my own style, and believe in Science in all of its glory.

    But I get creeped out when people ask me if I’m a Christian. Guess it’s because those kind of people always have something to say that’s a put down. So that’s a loaded question that I avoid. If I answer, it’s like this “I go to Mass … and what I believe works for me.” I dunno if that sounds lame…. but I hate someone trying to pin a label on me. I can’t talk the Christian Talk lol.

    Can a person be a Science loving, disliker of bible thumping behavior, uncomfortable with the narrow label of “Christian” ….and still find love and peace in the Catholic Mass? Guess so, because I’m doing it. And all three of my children, raised Catholic, now say they are Atheists – it’s just a natural progression for them – they have no bitter experiences. But they will go to Mass with me like once every 10 years… We all love science … two of us have /or now study for a degree in Anthropology.

    Maybe what I’ve realized by typing out all these thoughts in this post – is that I like that you state how you know your own heart and how you got there. My kids are exploring their world views and I like their purity, earnestness, and honesty.

    Great post Stace.

    • 2009 September 14

      I commented above that there are powerful connotations for the word “atheist.” I hadn’t considered, until reading your comment, that there some pretty big ones associated with “Christian,” as well, that someone might not wish to have laid on their heads.

      Though you and I have reached different conclusions regarding theism, we share the belief that one must find what makes sense to oneself. To me, that’s the best kind of agreement. :-)

      • 2009 September 15
        Anonymous permalink

        …and I totally forgot to type or mention the word “empathy” – which is a huge part of your wonderful thesis – hopefully something I said in the comment at least alluded to it.

        Well said Stace, yes, we do share the belief that one must find what makes sense to oneself. And in addition – people need to respect and be proud of their loved ones and others efforts to find this balance. It is a beautiful part of life, this journey of “thinking” and the searching of many events and hearts.

        And again, about Hedon’s and Stace’s “basic” everyday writing, well it’s just an adventure to read what you see and do, out there in the Wild West.

        • 2009 September 15

          OK, that “Anon” that forgot to mention “empathy” was also me, trying to leave the comment and I forgot to type in my ID info… lol…but it was me, just so we have a paper trail of my boobery :P

  5. 2009 September 14

    I am a recovering Pentecostal. My dad was a pastor with the A0G for many years, and I lived a relatively sane evangelical Christian life for many years. Up until about eight years ago. I abandoned much of my upbringing, and the baggage, in my early 30s. Now, at 40, I consider myself a reverent agnostic, after A. J. Jacobs. I find life to be its own kind of sacred, albeit on a non-supernatural level.

    For all intents and purposes, I am an atheist.

    And this is an amazing post . . .

    • 2009 September 14

      Thanks, Tysdaddy. We had some offshoot sects of Pentecostals where I was raised. A number of children who I grew up with were eventually pulled from the public schools, as these sects became increasingly isolated and secretive. Over time, those sects splintered further, from arguments within. It was interesting, these schisms, but sad, too, seeing friends of my childhood stolen away, rarely to be seen again.

  6. 2009 September 14

    I particularly like the point about empathy. It annoys me when certain religious folk claim exclusive rights to morality. Mind you, normally that only happens when the US missionaries (mormons) come round, and I’ve long since stopped opening the door to them.

    • 2009 September 14

      The Mormons rarely hit my house. For a long time, it was the Jehovah Witnesses. One gal in particular made Hedon a special project, and returned many times.

      Hedon loved to argue with her, and make points that she couldn’t answer, so she would tell Hedon that she would ask her elder (or whatever their preachers are called) about what Hedon had said and get back to her later. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, the gal would return with whatever answer her people had given her. And Hedon would shoot that down, and it would start over again. I’m not sure how long this went on — seemed like forever. At long long last, the woman gave up on Hedon, and do you know what? We haven’t had a Jehovah Witness knock on our door since (a good 8-9 years).

      This sort of thing never would have worked for me, since I won’t argue with them. I just say “No thank you” and shut the door. A big part of me feels kind of sorry for many of them, since it must be a very uncomfortable thing to do. Or at any rate, it would be for me. I couldn’t imagine going around knocking on doors and telling people, “Good news! There is no God! Would you like to hear more?” The very thought makes me shudder.

      • 2009 September 15

        “I couldn’t imagine going around knocking on doors and telling people, “Good news! There is no God! Would you like to hear more?” The very thought makes me shudder.”

        ROFL! Man you make me laugh! I can see you now… “But Sir, we have pamphlets…”

  7. 2009 September 18

    Religion speaks to me, in my very soul, and I need all of them. Every last one. I need it for fuel and for weapons and for breathing and for love, because how am I supposed to know what I believe until I know what everyone else believes?

    See, that’s the thing. I know what I believe and it totally governs my actions, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a religion that fits. So far, there are two: Daoism and evolution. Religion is designed to interpret reality, and my reality is based off of balance, chance, and adaptability. I never thought of throwing empathy in there, because I always thought emotions were a result of those deep decision-making beliefs.

    But your right, emotions are important in beliefs. I love that you don’t label empathy necessarily as a thought or action, but a scale on which to measure thought and action. Like a thermometer.

    You didn’t say that, but you totally did. I am a big fan of that.

    Still, although I agree, I can’t imagine how any two people can believe the exact same thing. It makes absolutely no sense to me. Then again, I believe in balance and chance, so why would it?

  8. 2009 September 20

    Well, you can only go with what makes sense to you. I personally don’t believe any two people can believe the EXACT same thing. Even two members of some small Christian church offshoot branch will likely disagree on certain aspects of their religion, of their beliefs in its doctrines. And while I haven’t known a huge number of atheists, many of those I have known certainly disagreed regularly on even the most basic things, like what the word “atheist” means.

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