Friday, November 17, 2006

Atheism and me, part 2

Continuing my story from part 1, I want to begin by addressing what the following key words mean to me: atheism, agnosticism, irreligion, and anti-religion.

Although I haven't believed in a god for a very long time, I only recently started calling myself an atheist. Why? I don't know, but I think the word "atheist" has been unfairly used for so many years by religious folk, that the negativity around the word frightened me away from it. And I had the completely mistaken impression that atheism was as much of a religion as Christianity. Why? Because that's what Christians claim: atheism is a religion established on the faith that there is no god. But this is 100% wrong. There is no faith involved in atheism. Atheists require scientific proof. It's nonsense to claim that it requires faith to not believe in something for which there is no proof.

If a god showed itself (ignoring the obvious questions of what a god would have to do to show itself), I would have no problem changing my stance on this issue. I don't hate god. I just don't think there is a god. Prove me wrong, god! Come on! Do it! What are you scared of?

When I was seeking alternatives to atheism, I settled on anti-religion for many years. Anti-religion is far more arrogant than atheism, but I wasn't concerned about arrogance. I was against religion, and I wanted people to know that.

As I grew older and graduated from university, I pulled back from the anti-religion and settled on being non-religious (or irreligious). This is a grey area that can encompass many different spiritual beliefs. All you are saying is that you are not into the rituals of religion. You can believe in a god and still be non-religious. And this is why I eventually had to acknowledge that I was in fact an atheist. I don't believe a god. Why not accept that I am not only non-religious but also an atheist?

There was a very brief period where I considered myself to be agnostic. Agnostics take the position of unknowing on the issue of god. They are basically weak atheists. They don't believe in god, but aren't prepared to come out and say that.

One of the formative classes for my atheism was Philosophy 110 in university. Arguing the existence of god was a significant percentage of the course material. It became clear that most theists were actually arguing about the existence of a prime mover, some significant force that set the universe in motion, but there was no reasonable argument for the all-knowing, benevolent Christian god. That god can not exist. It is absurd. But maybe there was some force out in the universe that set this world in motion.

I am not a scientist. I can not begin to understand the complexities of the Big Bang. Does the beginning of the universe require a prime mover? Where did the prime mover come from? Where did time and space come from?

I can't answer that. Science can't fully answer that. Yet. But science continues looking. Religion stopped looking thousands of years ago. This is why science should trump religion always. But I digress.

And so, with some feelings of uncertainty about the beginning of time, I decided that maybe I was agnostic. Which was just me being silly, really. I don't mean to offend agnostics, but come on!--you know you are really atheists at heart. When religion argues for god, they are not arguing for the beginning of time, they are arguing for a god that affects us here and now. Even agnostics can admit that that is bullshit.

When did I stop fence sitting and admit to myself that I was an atheist, and that atheism is not a religion nor a bad word? Only about two years ago.

After I graduated university, I started online dating. I don't want to get into a long rant on online dating, but the relevant information here is that most of the women that were looking for men online were Christian. This isn't really surprising, since most people in this country are Christian.

So, I had to phrase my profile carefully to avoid scaring off the Christian women, because if I did that, I would not be meeting very many people, thus defeating the whole purpose. I settled on describing myself as the vague non-religious. And then I wrote that I had "Christian morals."

As I wrote in point 3 of my Manifesto, morals existed long before Christianity, but many people today honestly believe that without the reward / punishment aspect of Christianity, no one would be moral. Which is patently ridiculous. But I was trying to meet women here, so I had to go with the flow and pretend that my morality is the Christian morality, even though it's really just the morality of a good person. I just wanted to make the point to the Christian women out there that even though I wasn't Christian didn't mean that I wasn't a moral person, and I had to phrase it so they would understand.

Even with these compromises in my profile, online dating was extremely unsuccessful for me for three years. I didn't move beyond e-mail with most of the women, and the few that I met in person were good people but not serious candidates for a relationship. The non-religious thing became an issue with one, who made it her mission for over a year to try to convert me. Her mission failed, obviously, but my will to continue trying to meet people that way was also failing.

And then I met my wife-to-be that way. And she was also non-religious. And it was a release. I didn't have to hide anymore. I could be an atheist, without worrying about how that was going to impact my relationship. I have never been happier with my atheist world view.

In the last couple of years, this feeling of freedom has led me to really explore atheism. Blogs like Pharyngula remind me that there are many like-minded people out there, even if I don't know many of them personally (excluding my wife and a couple of friends). Shows like Penn & Teller: Bullshit! exposed me to more of the skeptical community, helping me find James Randi and Richard Dawkins, two men that I greatly respect now that I have read about them endlessly.

And so I am in a good place now. I am comfortable with being an atheist. I am open about it, without being arrogant about it.

I was selected for jury duty late last year. I can't discuss the case, but I can discuss what happened on the day of selection. For those that don't know, even in this day and age of diversity and multiple religions, when you are approved by both the prosecutor and defender to be on the jury, you then have to swear on the bible. When I was approved, I was really shocked--all of the young people that had been picked before me were rejected... and then the bible was brought forward. I'm surprised that my head was clear enough to realize what was happening, but I managed to croak out, "I won't swear on a bible." I didn't know what the alternative was, but it turned out to be pretty reasonable: raise your hand, instead of laying it on the bible. And the last part of the swearing, something with god somewhere in there, was just left unsaid for me.

I was the only member of the jury to choose not to swear on the bible. And after I turned the bible down, they actually asked each person if he or she would swear on the bible before it was brought forth. Obviously, my refusal was a rarity.

In the jury room, at the end of the deliberations, three weeks later, I was asked why I didn't swear on the bible. I replied, "I don't believe in that stuff." Pretty weak answer, I know. If I could go back, I would have said, "I'm an atheist." Why didn't I then? Because I still struggle with using the word "atheist" when talking to Christians.

Many Christians still have a terrible perception of atheism. It's a threatening idea to them, that someone could not believe in the being that gives them meaning. So they demonize us. They write ridiculous rants about atheism that are gobbled up eagerly by their followers. It is much easier to believe that atheists are immoral agents of the devil than reasonable human beings with a self-enforced morality based on simple principles of evolution and survival.

But atheism is picking up steam. It's becoming higher profile. More and more people are openly admitting that they see the world differently than the majority. At the same time, the fundamentalist movements are becoming louder and more frightening. Interesting times are surely ahead.

Thus ends "Atheism and me." Thank you and good night.

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