Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Interview with an Atheist: Part Three

Do you like being an atheist?

My own answer: "Well, the first thing to explain with reference to this question is that whether a position is pleasant or not is not any comment on the accuracy of the position. It wouldn't matter if being an atheist made me unbearably, suicidally miserable, it would not affect the likelihood of a deity or deities existing (actually, having to accept that the stories of the Harry Potter novels – and especially Severus Snape – are not real can make me pretty blue at times).

That aside, I am in general a lot happier as a non-believer than I was as a christian; my memory of believing in Jahweh is dominated by guilt, confusion and feelings of inadequacy, so it's nice to be free of that. This isn't to say I don't still feel guilty when I do something wrong, or confused when confronted with a difficult moral decision – in fact, moral questions have become if anything more troublesome now that I can't just refer to a book to tell me what I should do – but there's a lot less fear and a lot more honesty in knowing that the person I answer to is me, not some invisible and baffling entity I can't hope to understand.

This is probably as good a moment as any to make a confession that I think could leave me open to criticism from believers; I don't think I'm intellectually capable, with the evidence we have to date, of believing in a deity. Unless something dramatic turns up – and obviously I don't think it will, or I wouldn't be an atheist – I don't think I could believe if I wanted to. I am incapable of the kind of double-think religious faith requires. The beauty of atheism, for me, lies in the blissful absence of cognitive dissonance. There is nothing about NOT believing in deities that doesn't make sense or requires apologetics and mental cartwheels, because atheism is just the null hypothesis maintained in the absence of a reason to deviate. Intellectually and morally, atheism is completely satisfying.

There are aspects of atheism that bother me at times, though. The most obvious of these is the way other people look at you; “atheism” is a word that simply states one non-belief I have out of a near-infinite number of non-beliefs, yet people can hear or read that word and think they know everything about me from it – and most of what they think they know is unpleasant. I also know that my mum's not thrilled about my being an atheist – more to do with my outspokenness than with my actual lack of belief, I suspect – and that troubles me because it's an invisible barrier between my mum and me, a topic to be skirted around. The one and only thing, though, that I truly dislike about having become an atheist is actually attributable to my having been religious first; and that is the loss of an afterlife, the complete and final loss of loved ones in death.
I've said before in this blog that I think indoctrinating children into a belief in hell is little short of child abuse, but actually in my case the long-term damage has been done by my indoctrination into believing in heaven. Hell was a threat, and once I realised it was an idle one I was nothing but glad that it wasn't real; however, the idea of meeting loved ones again after death took longer to shake off, and I sincerely wish I'd never had it. For ages – years and years – after I shook of christianity, I still had a kind of half-formed, unexamined assumption that something in our consciousness survives death; that idea is everywhere, I remember reading Wuthering Heights at school and finding genuine solace in the idea of Cathy and Heathcliff being buried in a shared grave. Even after the concept of any specific afterlife was gone, I still sort of assumed that at the moment of death all this stuff we don't know in life – why we're here, what happens to us after death, the nature of consciousness etc. - would become clear... as an atheist, of course, I now know this will not be the case, I will never know that stuff, I will simply return to non-being. That realisation doesn't bother me anymore, but the fact that I now have to accept that people I love are just gone when they die – which I didn't have to face before – still stings. Overall it's probably good for me in the sense that it makes me reluctant to hurt people or argue with them, but it does mean I'm denied a source of solace in certain situations that was available to me when I was a believer.

Having said all that, I prefer on principle now to learn the truth whether I think I will like it or not; there's a fascination and a thrill in being free to consider all the options without having to fret about whether they're compatible with stuff I want or feel obliged to believe. I'm free to learn as much as I can in the fields of science (although those who know me will confirm that my education is informal and my understanding patchy at best), and I regularly learn things that make me feel almost giddy. There are some incredible, bizarre and wonderful facts to be understood about the universe and our place in it that is very sadly unavailable to religious people. I can sit and contemplate the huge unlikelihood of my own existence – although I can't hope to actually grasp it – or muse of the vastness of space and time, or try to work out what Hawking and Einstein are going on about with all those dimensions, or how the hell quantum theory can possibly be correct (the maths tells us that it is, at least partly, but that doesn't mean we can understand it yet!). Or at the other end of the scale, I can pick up my cat, look at her paws and reflect on the fact that they're really very little different from my own hands in their basic structure (seriously – if you have a cat take a look!). I can marvel at the ingenious and improbable animals and plants thrown up by the process of evolution, and I can be humbled by the reflection that the only reason I'm able to think about all this is that I happen by pure chance to belong to a species of ape whose big survival characteristic, developed over aeons by uncaring and implacable processes of evolution, is not long claws or big teeth or strong legs but a large brain which has gradually become capable of abstract thought and which may yet prove to be our species' undoing.
So, short version; there's one or two aspects that are hard for me to swallow and things can certainly be more complicated without a handy book to tell me what to do, but overall I find non-belief suits me just fine and leaves me free to do what I want to do (within the limits of my own moral code) and learn what I can. And as I said, I don't think I could now be anything but an atheist on the available evidence."

Ryan's answer: "I'm not sure I would say "like" or "dislike" being an atheist.  It is just an arbitrary description based on my non-belief.  If there were no notion of gods, there would be no notion of atheism.

Personally, I do have a small sense of "pride", (if that's the right word) in that I am not disillusioned by nonsensical belief systems.  The only aspect of being an atheist that "I don't like" would be the misconceptions about, and demonization of, atheists and atheism.
I prefer the truth I don't like, to the lie I do like; not matter what that truth may be.
That is not to say that I don't like the apparent fact that there are no gods, for if there are gods, they are almost surely heartless, masochistic, incompetent, and unworthy of praise.
The suffering and evil in the world, and the lack of any appearance of "intelligent direction", I feel, justifies this statement; regardless of some "divine, means-to-an-end, plan"."

Leah's answer: "I find it intellectually liberating to not believe in gods. I am happy to be my own 'master of fate', to take responsibility for my own actions, and at the same time not to sweat over the notions that some of the actions (or even thoughts!) that are perfectly human, healthy, wonderful or necessary would be deemed as 'not cool' by some invisible sky fairy or another. I am glad I have no dogma dictating to me whom to hate and discriminate against. And skepticism overall is a great tool to see through scams and shams of all sorts.

Seeking the truth and appreciating the REAL beauty of this world are worth ANY 'sticks', even though I'm lucky to only get lame attempts at 'excuses for god' and a few predictable labels from the 'loving' believers online, not where I live. Those discussions are funny, although at times a bit annoying, as it's all same old b.s. and lack of ANY knowledge of the most basic science...

As to not liking anything... It may have been a bit discomforting when I had to let go of the fuzzy 'soul' notion (I was never a believer in anything else, but for some reason thought there may be one :D), but frankly, it's all the better push to live THIS life the best way possible every day, for any day can be the last and when it's over - it's over...

Lance's answer: "I do like being an atheist. Exposure to the atheist community has driven me towards a more rigorous style of thought about everything in my life, and has made me more willing to consider that some of my dearly held beliefs could be wrong. The experience of being on the wrong side of social privilege has also opened my eyes a bit to what it must be like to be on the receiving end of the injustices of sexism, racism, and homophobia. My atheistic worldview that has brought me to a place of greater intellectual humility, and has helped me grow in my compassion for others. Sometimes what's right and what feels right are not the same thing, and without skepticism I was not able to entertain that what felt right to me might actually be wrong. Much injustice is perpetuated in that fashion.

I also enjoy the company I find in the atheistic community.

It is worth the threat of the stick, but not because of intellectual satisfaction. I could have that and be in the closet. It's worth it because of the internal consistency I experience, and because of the intellectual honesty. It's worth it because I believe sincerely that the world will be a better place when belief in a god is no longer able to distort our values away from what truly matters - the well-being of human beings in this one precious life. I think that Secularism and Feminism go hand-in-hand, and that these two ideas together could do enormous good for humanity. That is why I have become outspoken; the social movement is worth the threat of the stick.

I think the thing that I most dislike about being an atheist is how frustrating it is to have ideological clashes with people who are, almost be definition, unwilling to consider that they might be in error. I'm an idealist and an optimist. I don't argue for its own sake, but to change minds and thereby improve our world, and I have mostly met with frustration in this regard. Some days, my idealism barely survives contact with the internet.

I don't wish I was a believer of false things, but I do wish we lived in a universe where reincarnation or some other form of afterlife was true. Life is beautiful, and I will be loathe to surrender it when my time comes."

(Incidentally, I heartily recommend Lance's own blog, which can be found here: