We are all born with an innate sense of fear as a survival mechanism. It is natural to feel fear when confronted with something we do not understand. When we were simpler creatures, we could live a bit longer by assuming something was dangerous and staying away, rather than assuming it was safe only to find it considered us tasty. Take for example a primitive ancestor out for a leisurely stroll in a nearby field one sunny afternoon, perhaps after a hearty lunch or a much needed nap. While walking through a patch of tall weeds he trips over an unexpected object and hears rustling in the grass. He doesn’t see what he stumbled over, but he knows large venomous snakes are common in the area. He chooses to run. He has only happened upon a dead branch in the weeds, but if he had just assumed this and it had been an actual snake, he would have been in trouble for sticking around. Fear is a natural reaction for any intelligent life-form with self-preservation in mind.
As we have evolved, we still carry this gut reaction. Rather than being a useful tool for our survival, it now acts as a hindrance to our lives. Living within any culture bedeviled with archaic beliefs and superstitions, we are often told that certain thoughts, emotions or objects are bad or evil by their very essence. We are given simple explanations as to why these things are believed to be iniquitous, and if it is an idea generally accepted by our peers we will often take it at face value. It is simpler to adopt a preconceived notion than to explore and discover new experiences for ourselves; this is often the path of least resistance when trying to fit in amongst peers. Other times we may draw our own conclusions that something is wicked simply because we don’t like it, or we don’t understand it fully – such as waking to an ominous sound in the middle of the night, or shadows moving suddenly as we walk home on a dreary winter evening. Whatever the case may be, we tend to irrationally label these as bad things and assign a degree of fear to them. Fear causes us to shun, rather than seek to understand.
As with many things that I ponder these days, I am taken back to an event from my childhood. One fall afternoon a few days before Halloween, I walked through the usual maze of back yards to my friend’s house. The neighbors never complained, and it cut a ten minute walk down to two. His parents always treated me as if I were one of their own, and today was no exception. Upon entering the house, his mother told me she was about to make some hot cocoa and asked if I would like some. “Yes, please,” – that sounded delightful. I went to my friend’s room where I found him practicing a game on his Atari 2600, one at which we were planning on mercilessly competing against one another in a short while. We decided to go hang out in the kitchen and eagerly await the tasty treat we were anticipating. I watched as his parents gathered the ingredients; a gallon of milk, a can of chocolate powder, a large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. They poured the milk into the bowl and mixed in the chocolate, and then placed the bowl into the microwave oven.
Back in 1986, my family did not own a microwave oven. We had just barely acquired our first VCR. I had heard some grown-ups talking about microwave ovens before, quite sure that using radiation to cook food would be horrible for our health – why just look at the disaster caused by all that radiation in Chernobyl a few months back! I didn’t have any personal experience with microwaves, but if adults whom I trusted said they were bad, then certainly they must be bad. I was nervous about radioactive anything, since it was all over the news recently. I was paranoid about falling ill with any disease, and at the top of this list were AIDS and cancer. I knew in my heart of hearts that microwave radiation would maliciously and intentionally give me cancer. “I just remembered, I have to help my mom with some things around the house today. I’ve gotta go!” I said, as I backed my way towards the door, thanking them for the offer of hot cocoa. “Maybe another time!”
I was afraid of what that nuclear beverage would do to my insides, and didn’t have the heart to tell my friend or his family that it was going to kill them all. Rather than finding a way to express my fear and politely decline the offer only after seeing how it was prepared, I fled. Natural survival instincts had kicked in, and self-preservation was at stake! I spent the rest of the evening at home, bored, with nothing to do and no chores to help my mom with. All because I didn’t understand how a microwave oven worked, and had ranked it right alongside Hitler at the top of a list entitled ‘Things that are evil’.
The moral of the story is that we should always seek out the facts and put forth an effort to understand something before we blindly classify it as villainous and refuse any further mention or inquiry. We should ask ourselves how we know that this object or idea is bad, who has done the research, what was the outcome of this research, and just how awful is it? Is it little-scratch-bad, or bone-through-skin-bad? Is there any documented proof of this, have we seen it for ourselves, or are we taking it all on hearsay?
I encourage everyone to break out of their comfort zones: find a subject that you have condemned as abominable and fully reevaluate it. Why do you believe it to be bad? If it’s a lack of understanding, seek out information on the subject and educate yourself. Maybe it doesn’t suit your personal tastes, but is it actually harmful to yourself or to others? Is it something that your parents or peers have long believed to be bad because they were told this was the gospel truth? I am finding that my newfound inquisitive approach is allowing me to see things in new light. I frequently ask myself, “Is this just not my style, or is it truly bad for me or anyone else?”
In some cases, things are truly bad: heroin, crystal meth, drunk driving. These are harmful to people and contribute to many issues; poor health, hospitalization and termination of life. In some cases, things are alright: a homosexual relationship, pre-marital sex, legalizing marijuana. If the sex is consensual and safe, then whom is it hurting? If we legalize pot, I’m sure the same people smoking it now will continue, and those who don’t wont start; legality is hardly the issue. It doesn’t seem to have any lasting harmful effects, other than laziness and the munchies, and a stoned person is far less likely to be out in the world killing people or otherwise causing harm. Legalize it and regulate it, just like alcohol. Let people love whomever they choose, and let them express it however they want as long as they’re being safe and responsible, and all parties involved have given consent.
As I put forth effort to make sense of and understand things, I find that giving it rational thought leads me to see many things as acceptable, even if I don’t agree with them on a personal level. We don’t need to instinctually shun what we don’t understand when we are not in immediate danger anymore. We’ve evolved beyond the need; now we just need to try to ease out of the reaction.
Thinking back to my first post on this blog (Coming Out) a little over a month ago, I had mentioned that my tipping point down this path of atheism started with seeing Penn Jillette on a talk show promoting his new book, “God, No!” I started my journey with other books on the subject of atheism rather than this one specifically, but I felt it important to finally read the book on which I had made my wager with ‘God’. I am very glad that I did – it is very entertaining, and he makes many excellent points. I don’t connect with Penn on every level; we are obviously two very different people leading different lifestyles (and that’s OK), but I do agree with him on so many points when it comes to religion.
I was fascinated to read about the “Atheist Baptism” with the ex-Hasidic Jew he dubs Atheist Boy, in which AB approaches him after a show and explains that after hearing Penn on the radio, he had been inspired to come out as an atheist. Penn & Teller took him for his first taste of treif (non-kosher food); he experienced the joys of shrimp, clams, oysters, pork, and – most importantly – a bacon cheeseburger. I connected with this story because it was similar to how mine began: it wasn’t Penn who put the doubt in my mind, but it was Penn who indirectly encouraged me to accept that I was an atheist. In writing this book and appearing on a show that I happened to catch on a small screen in the gym (perfect example of right place/right time), he got me thinking about what I do (or in this case, don’t) believe.
In his book, Penn describes his awakening into atheism as a high school student, when he negotiated a deal with his parents whereby he could skip church and sleep in on Sundays, provided he went to youth group on Sunday evenings. Then he decided to read the Bible. He describes reading the bible as the “fast track to atheism”… not reading a passage here or there, but starting with “In the beginning” and throwing it down in disgust at “the grace of the lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” He shares an amusing anecdote about being excused from the church entirely after getting into debates with the pastor; eventually his pastor informed Penn’s parents that he was not only not getting anything out of youth group, but he was converting the other kids to atheism as well. Huzzah, I say!
I found several fantastic quotes in this book, including one from an anonymous author he found on the web: “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.” This is undoubtedly where the chapter got its name – Passing Down the Joy of Not Collecting Stamps. A quote in this chapter which really stood out to me was,
Reality exists outside of humans. Religion does not.
This is a simple way of stating what I have felt for a very long time. All living creatures, big or small, experience reality in the world that we all live in. Whether humans believe animals have a ‘soul’ or not doesn’t change the simple fact that we share this planet with them. They have just as much of a right to be here as we do. They eat, sleep and breathe the same as we, and most pass on their genetics in the exact same way. Our paths have only diverged as a matter of evolution. We should treat them, and our planet, with respect. Religion is man-made; reality is not.
This is not the point Penn was going for, but it’s not too far off. He was alluding to basic truths such as evolution which people choose to ignore despite the evidence, because it leaves precious little room for their beliefs. My take is just another branch of the same tree, just as animals are another branch in the tree of life.
“I just want to believe in God”
“I just want to believe I’m Bob Dylan, but it will be healthier for both of us if we just live in the world the way it is.”
So true! Believing in the things we wish were true is a waste of time, and can be detrimental to our health and well-being. We could live together peacefully if we put that same energy into believing in each other. We can work to enrich our lives (and the lives of our children) with science and technology; we can prevent disease, preserve our environment, and find new ways to produce food in an already overpopulated world.
“The enemy is faith. Love and respect all people; destroy all faith.”
I completely agree, as I have said in previous posts. We shouldn’t hate people because of what they believe; we should try to help them come around to a more sensible and rational point of view. If we are going to allow anyone to believe things without evidence, then we must respect everyone’s beliefs, regardless how crazy… no cherry-picking which ones are OK! Penn sums it up best with, “If you believe that your warm, snuggly feeling about the universe means a god… Then Charlie Manson can tell you that those people were killed because the Beatles told Charlie about an impending race war.”
Overall, I am very glad that I finally read this book. I respect Penn as an entertainer; I have always been a fan of Penn & Teller. I respect him for his opinions, even though we lead very different lives. He is much more liberal than I, and has far fewer inhibitions, but I am not going to judge him for his lifestyle; we are each living our lives the way we want, and each have the right to do so. This is different from respecting a religious belief – Penn isn’t infringing on anyone else’s right to live, he isn’t violating any human rights, and he isn’t impeding any scientific research that can be crucial to the survival of our species. I believe he ended this book in the most perfect way imaginable, so I am going to outright steal the last sentence from his book for this post.
People under the pretense they’re walking a straight line at a reasonable pace in front of me while they focus on their text messages. Inconsiderate drivers blaring their horns while making rude gestures and mouthing obscenities at me; I had plenty of room to make that turn! Linguistic acrobats who twist and contort perfectly good words to sound “cool” among their peers. All those times that I’ve had to apologize for interrupting a conversation as I dived between two participants who hadn’t the presence of mind to stand on the same side of the hallway. These are all things which annoy the piss out of me. But none of these come close to the irritation of a toe finding its way through a newly-formed hole in the tip of my sock. That feeling of frustration that will quickly mutate into desperation and panic when I am unable to resolve the situation quickly.
This sensation is one that belongs in the devil’s arsenal: it would surely be included in my regime of everlasting punishment if there were indeed a hell. Given that I don’t believe in hell, I am relieved of this agonizing thought. But the truth is, we don’t know what happens to us when we die. I suppose it could be possible that our “spirit” or energy continues on without our physical form – most likely as universal energy, not our consciousness as we know it. Or maybe this energy transforms into new life in the Buddhist sense of reincarnation. Perhaps we will find out that heaven and hell are real, but the men who wrote the scriptures did a spectacularly shitty job of making the story sound believable… Ok, I almost maintained a straight face on that one. My point is that no one actually knows what will happen. My best guess is that we will just cease to be; we will become the nothing that we were before birth. If we do cease to be, then a new question arises: how long will we maintain our senses before fading away?
This idea first came into my mind in 1988, after watching “The Serpent and the Rainbow“, but was further refined on Friday, June 19, 1981, after an episode of Tales from the Crypt entitled “Abra Cadaver” aired. Beau Bridges and Tony Goldwyn played a couple of brothers; the story was set years after a brotherly prank-gone-wrong leaves Bridges’ character, Marty, partially disabled and unable to achieve his goal of becoming a surgeon. Marty is convinced that brain activity continues long after clinical death, and kills his brother to prove the point to him. The story focuses on the experience of the cadaver, who is still aware of his senses: sight, sound and touch!
I’m not a fan of holding my breath, and I can’t handle being under water for more than a handful of seconds. If, upon physical death, I could still think, aware of my inability to breathe… I think this would fuck with me. The embalming and autopsy would be an unimaginable horror if I could feel every moment of it without the benefit of anesthesia. And then the mental torment of having to listen to friends & family speak at the funeral; no one should have to endure that! All of this sounds pretty miserable, but my thoughts dwell mostly on one particular event: lying on a cold steel table in a morgue with a tag upon my toe.
I seriously hate having anything around my toes. Whether it’s the wandering toe through the hole in my sock, or a hair on the floor winding its way around my barefoot digits, it drives me nuts. I quickly fall into desperation when I realize a toe has found its way between my sock and shoe; it’s worse than the itch that occurs somewhere between the throat and the eardrum! I cannot continue on my way until it is set right. If I were to experience this sensation and be unable to move or call out for assistance, it would be entirely thought-consuming, and I would not be able to come to terms with my death. So, given that we don’t know what will happen after we pass, I’m not willing to risk it: my wife is aware, and it shall be declared in my will… Under no circumstances should I be the recipient of a toe tag!
I consider myself fortunate, despite the numerous churches polluting our beautiful landscape, to be living in a largely secular part of the United States. Here in the greater Seattle area, it’s largely normal (and acceptable) to be an atheist. We often hear horror stories from atheists in the bible belt, where our kind are discriminated against simply because we don’t believe that fairy tales are true. Taking a step back and looking at the situation from a distance, I begin to see where the problem truly lies: it’s a simple misunderstanding of what an atheist is.
There are many labels we non-believers wear: heathen, heretic, infidel, apostate; all of which have a negative connotation. Religion, as a general rule of thumb, teaches its adherents to shun the non-believers. The scriptures even suggest such people should be killed, which doesn’t leave much room for the question of personal trustworthiness. The end-penalty for non-belief (among other sins) is eternal damnation in hell, where one will forever suffer at the hands of Lucifer, to be tortured and roasted in everlasting hellfire. The only thing this ideology really accomplishes is fanning the flames of ignorance, as is revealed in a recent study by Will M. Gervais which shows that our society as a whole trusts atheists even less than rapists. Many people are brought up with the misconception that there isn’t a basis for morality without God, so it stands to ‘reason’ that those who reject God must also refute morals and ethics. Or perhaps the dislike/distrust is coming from something much simpler, as many religious beliefs do prompt low self-esteem, and those afflicted with this ailment do often feel anger towards those ideas which contradict their own.
I was recently going through my Twitter timeline and stumbled upon a tweet proclaiming, “Atheists make me so angry!” I decided to ask this individual why and was told, “I don’t know, I guess because they don’t believe in anything. Not even science!” As an atheist, I have a deep passion for science and technology, so I had to correct her misguided viewpoint. I explained that we are people, just like everyone else: we have families, jobs and responsibilities. We are a part of our communities; we simply do not hold a belief in God. Her concept of atheism was a mislabeled definition of nihilism. She now has a better understanding – courtesy of a kind atheist who took the time to understand where she was coming from and debunk her misconception, rather than firing back with both barrels as is usually the case in the online world. She thanked me for clearing it up, and I hope this will stick with her in the future.
It is helpful to understand the definition of a word before forming an opinion on it, especially when the word is used to define other human beings and their worldview. Let’s look at a few definitions (taken from Dictionary.com):
1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe,without rejection of revelation ( distinguished from deism).
2. belief in the existence of a god or gods.
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
ni·hil·ism [nahy-uh-liz-uhm, nee-]
a. an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.
b. nothingness or nonexistence.
To simplify, a theist believes in God (or gods), an atheist does not believe in any gods, and a nihilist just doesn’t believe in anything at all. Nihilism sounds pretty crazy, I know; but they’re not out to destroy everything or ruin anyone’s day. It’s usually more or less just an attitude of, “If nothing matters, then why should we bother?” Typically since an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, a nihilist is also an atheist in the same sense that a vegan is also a vegetarian, just taken a step further. The word ‘atheist’ doesn’t mean devil-worshipper, hoodlum, ruffian, psychopath, lunatic, etc.; it just represents one distinct idea that we do not espouse.
Over the past few days, I have been discussing this with a colleague who happens to be a Christian. Where he comes from (Chennai) they do not call us atheists; instead they refer to us as rationalists. As such, he doesn’t have any preconceived ideas that we are evil people, but rather he recognizes that we rely on our own rational thought processes as opposed to accepting things on blind faith. He has suggested that we should look for another word to describe ourselves, something that focuses on what we do believe (the positive) rather than what we don’t (the negative). I gave his suggestion some consideration, but then came to the conclusion that this is only masking our atheism. We can call ourselves Humanists, Secularists, Rationalists… but it doesn’t change that we still reject the belief of God. Whatever we call ourselves, we are still atheists in the same way a Christian or a Muslim is a theist. Masking the problem is only sweeping it under the rug. We can shift the spotlight off of our godlessness and hope people will just dismiss it as a personal quirk; or we can embrace the word and help people overcome their fear of it.
We have people today who are working to prohibit scientific advances and theories because they do not understand them, or because it opposes their own personal beliefs. There are people who reject important facts such as global warming, with the idea that Earth is only a temporary proving ground for us humans (never mind the abundant animal species – Noah already saved them once!), and fossil fuels were put here by God for us to use without any worry of the consequences. This is why education is crucial; it removes blatant and morbid ignorance, the fear of the unknown, and is an important instrument in faith-reduction. As we make new scientific discoveries, we are able to explain things that remove the need for God: we now know that this planet we call home is revolving around the sun and that the moon is orbiting the Earth – these celestial bodies were not hung in the firmament by a creator like some sort of cosmological mobile above an infant’s crib. We know that lightning is an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, and not God striking down those who hath displeased Him. We know that bacteria are behind infections, and disease is not a punishment for our misdeeds (at least not every time). As we remove the need for God, we are threatening the lifestyles – and industries – of the deeply religious, and this invokes a desperation to try putting a stop to the advancement which is so clearly the mischief of devils… We must come out of the Dark Ages!
Each new discovery that science makes will take the last remaining concept of God from a believer whose faith is shaky and will continue to weaken the belief in the more devout (if they do not continue to reject scientific theory). As we continue to explain that which was previously unexplainable, atheism will continue to expand. This is why we must not be silent. We need people to have a realistic understanding of what it means to be an atheist, as there’s a very good chance they too will one day find themselves among our ranks. We need people to understand and accept scientific theories which are fortified with insurmountable evidence, rather than dismiss them as rubbish & poppycock simply because they clash with a beloved bedtime story. We need people to understand that the roots of their faith are grounded in our early ancestors seeking answers for things which were (at the time) lacking an explanation: why does the sun set in the western sky, why does the lightning flash before the thunder roars, why does the wind blow, and why do the ocean waves keep wrecking the coastal cities when the winds blow really hard? That’s a hurricane or a tsunami; it wasn’t the divine temper tantrum of a God who got pouty over two men who were intimate with each other in the privacy of their own home. These are silly superstitions that adults should be ashamed to carry, not proudly wear like a badge of honor.
In summary, we need to take the time to inform people of what it means to be an atheist. We can offer them a guiding hand in understanding that all humans are born with a basic compassion for other sentient beings, with an innate sense of morality that is cultivated and sculpted by our parents and our communities – we are not born cruel by nature; cruelty is fostered in a negative environment, or as an unfortunate side effect of mental illness. When everyone can accept that we are good without God, mankind can overcome these fears and take the human race to new and exciting places.
One winter evening in December of 1981, I was sitting down to watch Frosty the Snowman with my mom. I was excited; I loved Christmas time and everything that came with it: the sense of family closeness, watching snow fall outside from the comfort of our cozy living room, the wonderful holiday television programs that were broadcast every year, and of course – the presents. I was so content in the moment, I wasn’t even aware that anything could change that. Then it happened… The Talk.
“So, you do realize Santa isn’t real, right?”
My mother’s words slammed into me with unimaginable force. It was that feeling of reality suddenly rushing in that gives the sensation of an unexpected punch to the nose – followed by the idea that one might not be present in the here and now. Perhaps this could be a dream state? The overwhelming shock dissipated as the imagined silence ringing in my ears gave way again to the sounds of my surroundings, and I could hear my mom saying my name, “Did you hear me?” Not a question of malice, but from her perspective it probably appeared that I simply did not hear what she had asked. Perhaps I didn’t turn as pale as I felt.
Everything felt to be in slow motion for the next several seconds as I contemplated what I had just heard. “That can’t be right,” I thought to myself, “I must have heard that wrong.” I turned to her, hoping my ears had deceived me and asked, “What?” She repeated, “You do know that Santa isn’t real, right?” and my only response this time was a full blown meltdown. I began crying and babbling incoherently, “No, he’s real, he has to be real! Why are you lying to me?” I wanted so badly for her to take it back; I wanted her to be wrong. I would have given anything for Santa to be real again.
I was devastated. I had so many thoughts whipping around in my young mind, so many questions: What does this do to Christmas? Does this mean the presents will stop? Does this mean we won’t be taking the annual trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s anymore? Do I have to go to school during Christmas Vacation now? No, it doesn’t mean any of these things. As it turned out, everything stayed about the same, including the decorations of Santa and his reindeer. The only real difference was that the presents in the stocking hung by the chimney with such care now said, “From Mom & Dad.” Oh yes, and now I was no longer obligated to save any of those delightful Christmas cookies for Santa.
I contemplate this memory now, imagining that this might be why religious people have such a hard time letting go of God. I only held the Santa belief for a handful of years, and the only real consequence to it being untrue was that a man in a red suit would no longer break into our house in the middle of the night to give me stuff. Yet it caused so much heartache to be told my precious myth wasn’t true. I can only imagine how much more difficult a belief held for 20 or more years would be to let go, especially when eternal paradise is at stake!
Even when presented with empirical evidence, the devout often find an irrational explanation to justify remaining in their comfort zone. Quite often, this explanation involves “God’s plan” or “The devil did it” – such as believing they had been born into a Catholic family rather than a Hindu family simply because God wanted them to be born of the ‘one true faith’; or that the divinity of Jesus closely resembles so many gods before him because Lucifer went back in time and placed false evidence to instill doubt in all of us. If we entertain the possibility that Satan actually does exist (he doesn’t), I would think that if he were capable of time travel he could use this power to inflict greater damage to God than simple mischief… but i suspect this notion would simply be irrationally dismissed with another explanation of God’s greater plan.
The mind of a believer wants to think that life does not have any meaning or purpose without God, and that therefore the fact they have meaning in their life proves the existence of God. This is like saying that the holiday of Christmas doesn’t exist without Santa. Your life has whatever meaning or purpose you assign it, whether you are career-oriented, want to raise a family, or contribute to world peace. I was upset by the loss of my imaginary gift-bringer, but the tradition of family cheer and gift giving went on without ol’ Saint Nick, just as a life full of beauty, wonder and meaning goes on after you kiss your God goodbye.