Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Comfort in Atheism

Within just a couple of days of each other, Rodrigo Neely of Edger and Greta Christina wrote two wonderful posts about arriving at atheism that complement each other in such a way that I was inspired to write about the relationship between the two posts. Greta says:
We spend a lot of time putting cracks in the foundation of religion: arguing why it's mistaken, arguing why it's harmful, arguing why the arguments and ideas supporting it are unsupportable.

But we don't spend as much time -- some, but not as much -- letting believers know that, if and when their faith does finally crumble, atheism is a safe place to land.

And we don't spend nearly as much time as we should actually making atheism a safe place to land.

She is very right, as she very often is. She ended with many questions to her readers, one of which is, "When you were making your leap of non-faith, what helped you feel that godlessness would be a safe place to land?" I'd like to try to answer this question as far as my own experience goes, and it has a lot to do with what Rodrigo says in his piece, "Lust for Life."

There is a real source of righteousness to be found in believing that human beings are the most important thing we know. You do not have to have your sense of ethics clouded by unproven commandments from what mankind dreams is above.

You can see that people in all of our messiness can truly be great. Humans can truly experience happiness, and spread that happiness through freedom, love, compassion, and understanding. Humanity is the best hope for humanity.

This is so much more elegant than I could ever be, and I agree with him. You do not need God or the promise of heaven in order to do great things, to love, to spread joy. You only need other people to do those things, as well as your own sense of what's right. And you know what is right not because of God or the Bible or your church leader, but because of your natural instinct. Our species succeeds when we help and love each other - that's how we've evolved.

And so, to use Rodrigo's beautiful rhetoric to answer Greta's question:

The greatest treasure in life is our loved ones, our friends, our family. The second greatest treasure in life is to spread that love as far is it will go.

Our greatest treasure is not God. For all the talk of loving thy neighbor and turning the other cheek, it is awesome (I use the word's literal meaning here) how selfish the religious can be. Many of the religious (not all) are driven to volunteer, donate, and love out of fear for the destination of their souls after death, not for the sake of the recipients of their good will. It saddens me, because it's so unnecessary and so oppressive. It is so Machiavellian: at least the end result is good, even if terrorism is used to get you to do it. But I know that I do not need the promise of eternal damnation to scare me into doing good things. I can stand on my own, take responsibility for myself and my fellow humans, and do good things for the sake of humanity, not for the sake of saving my soul.

And I, like Carl Sagan, find it easier to be awed by the world and the universe knowing that an all-powerful being did not create it. Though I am not very good at doing the legwork of science, it does not mean that I cannot appreciate its findings.

So, when I arrived at the word "atheist" and discovered what it meant, it was not a difficult leap. I was already in awe of the world. And, like Julia Sweeney said, "The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural." The world looked no different to me with the assumption that God created it than with the assumption that He did not. I already had experiences equivalent to a theist's spiritual inspiration. If I had to pick the most spiritual experience I have encountered, it was not sitting in a Christmas sermon with my father and stepmother and sister; it is listening to inspired, beautiful, emotional music and allowing my mind to soar with it.

If there is a God, and if he truly is merciful, then would He really care if I believe in Him or not? Isn't the important thing here that I do good things and help my fellows, motivated by love for humanity instead of fear of hell? I would like to think so. And so I do not fear the (tiny) possibility that there might be a God, nor do I fear hell, mostly because I don't think it exists, but also because, even if it does, I don't think a truly merciful and loving God would put me there anyway.

I don't need God. I just need people. And music helps too.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Oooh, I told you something similar to Rodrigo recently, didn't I?
Almost word for word that is how I found comfort in atheism.
And people always ask me why I play a human in fantasy games, or in Warhammer I play the weak humans struggling against massive aliens with superior technology.
Courage, determination, and an indomitable spirit are what drive humanity