Stigma of Atheism?
I have friends who are atheists but fear admitting it to their parents and to the world at large. As I was raised without religion, and raised in a tolerant community, I have never felt such fear. But I have had some interesting conversations about the topic of religion, and I thought you might be interested in what being an atheist means to me.
My father was raised as a Protestant. When he was in college, he pursued more information about religion and religious theory. He struggled with two religious issues. The first was that an omnipotent and benevolent god would create so much suffering. He had a hard time buying the argument that God gave man free will, and it is man who causes suffering. Frequently bad luck causes plenty of suffering on its own. The second issue, which was more important to my father, was that he could not imagine that a being powerful enough to create the universe was so insecure as to require worship. These issues eroded his faith, and he eventually found himself without any. My father did the hard work of leaving religion, so I did not have to.
When I first considered religion, I remember being curious about this strange place called “church,” but I never heard my friends say they enjoyed going. I went a few times with my grandmother, but it was dull and not addressed to me. I still feel uneasy in churches, because they are not places in which I belong. I feel like a trespasser. I also remember thinking that religion seemed to originate in fantastical stories and myths, and because I knew both Christians and Jews, it was clear that there was disagreement between the myths and their meanings. I did not buy into any of them.
I had many interesting discussions about religion as a teenager with a Mormon friend, and these discussions helped focus my existing views. She had a very liberal view on Mormonism, and we each discussed religion with tolerance for the other’s beliefs while we explored and formed our own opinions.
One particular conversation with another friend’s father sticks in my mind because he described his atheism in a way that was easy to explain to other people. When I say I am an atheist, I mean that whatever caused the universe to exist did so without giving humans a purpose. Humans were not explicitly and intentionally created, nor do we have souls, nor universal rules to live by, nor an afterlife. Prayers are unanswered because they are unheard.
I cannot prove my belief, so I am taking a leap of faith. I believe it is a pretty small leap, but I will take it anyway. An agnostic who wants to be completely logical may say that the answer to the intentions and interests of the universe are unknowable. Logically true, but I am too decisive to go that route.
Some believers I have spoken to find this a sad thing to believe. I will not ignore the truth just because it is not pretty. However, it actually has joyous consequences. Since the universe does not care about me, I am free to decide the purpose, rules, and importance of my own life. No supernatural being has decided it for me. It is quite liberating.
Although I once approached religion with scorn, I know that religion can be a very positive force in people’s lives. Religion creates communities of people that help each other through life’s tough times, and a community to enjoy good times together. Many Christians talk about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, which helps guide them when they are unsure and comforts them when they are alone. Although there is not much evidence that religion has actually “taken the sting out of death” for the dying, it has seemed to give comfort to the bereaved. Beliefs in a higher power have helped many people on the edge of death and destruction retreat and find new meaning to their lives.
Religion has also been a very negative force in people’s lives. It has encouraged demonization of followers of other faiths, which has small and large consequence. Some believers act with intolerance and disdain. Some believers have committed murders too numerous to count. Most religions discourage critical thinking about any issue that the church teaches, suppressing original thought and innovation. Often these issues follow arguments that were intelligent hundreds of years ago but are lunacy in the modern world. I am frequently amazed by how many people do not believe in evolution.
One thing that surprises me, but really should not, is how many adults claim to be believers but spend little time on religious reflection. If I believed that God created me with a soul, and that my faith or good works would determine my admission to heaven, it would be the focus of my life. Compared to time in heaven, time on earth would be trivial, and the fact that God cares about me would be the most important feature of reality. But most people seem to pick up their religious views from their parents without thought. I respect people who believe and use their belief to guide every part of their lives. Those who claim to believe but then sin or never pray seem to be leading unexamined lives.
I have had a few people attempt to convert me. To those that try, be warned: my faith is stronger than yours. I have never doubted. I will find your efforts amusing. The universe does not care what you worship, so I will not try to convert you. But, my Mormon high school friend? She is now an atheist.