Because atheism is not a set of beliefs or even one belief, I cannot speak for anyone but myself in terms of what it is like to be an atheist in today’s culture. I can, however, give a glimpse from a possible point of view that may be shared by other people, perhaps atheists as well. If your experiences differ from mine or if you disagree, then you are an infidel who will regret your heresy come the judgment. Just kidding, maybe….
Being an atheist is nothing like being a minority race. Besides passing, being a different race is not something that can be hidden from society. An atheist can walk down the street and nobody would know that he or she is an atheist, we have not previously been enslaved or killed en mass (the Inquisition notwithstanding), and we don’t have stereotypes about us that are unfair generalizations. OK, that last one may not be true, but I’ve gone three months without eating a baby or worshiping the devil, so get off my back already!
Being an atheist is not like being gay. People are born gay. OK, so people are born atheists as well and then are introduced to religion as children. But besides that, people don’t choose to be gay. OK, in a strict sense a person does not choose to be an atheist either; belief, or lack thereof, is not subject to the will. I cannot simply decide to believe in god, I have to be presented with certain evidence in order to come to the conclusion that a god exists. I have not been presented with such evidence. I’d like it if it were available, but despite my attempts it has not come.
Now, you may tell me that it is simply better to believe because by believing I lose nothing and by not believing I risk my eternal soul, but this would only be pretending to believe, and if such a god existed than that god would know the difference. This wager–that it is better to believe than not because of the potential consequences–are really reasons to pretend to believe, not reasons to actually believe.
But you, my imaginary interlocutor, are distracting me from my point. My point was…oh, right; my point was that being an atheist is not like being gay. Although if I were gay then my being an atheist would be a lot like being gay, because I’d be gay. But my digression continues. Bottom line, I’m not gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and my being an atheist cannot be exactly compared to being a homosexual.
Of course, outing myself as an atheist has often been similar to experiences friends of mine–people who are gay or bisexual–have had. But they are not the same.
OK, so being an atheist is not so bad. Sure, people will sometimes look at you funny when you say you don’t believe in any gods, including theirs People will possibly feel sorry for you for not having the relationship with some god as they do. In some cases, you may get a death threat, damned to Hell, or people might pray for you. It’s not so bad.
But my concern is not so much how people treat atheists as it is how I look at the society around me. Now, I believe strongly in personal freedoms. I am willing to fight for people’s right to believe whatever nonsense they like, so long as they are willing to respect that right for others. But I believe that part of our freedom is to be able to criticize where we see fit, and that must include religion. One thing that I see in our culture is the free pass that religion gets; to criticize it is rude, people say, and it doesn’t do any good, they sometimes continue saying. I hear atheists (but don’t call them that to their face!) say things like that a lot. They don’t see the harm religion does to people often. That’s nice for them, I guess. Others don’t have that luxury.
So as I walk around, enjoy a drink at a party, or obnoxiously walk in screaming “God is dead!” during church services and listen to people talk about what their god did for them that day, their sophomoric platitudes about how god is ubiquitous and obvious, and how my life will be so much better with a god in my life, I can’t help but feel like I’m talking to some kids at a kindergarten about Santa. I wonder, as Bill Maher did in his film Religulous, if people were taught fairy tales as religion and the Bible as fairy tales, if people would defend Mother Goose with the same zeal they defend Adam and Eve or Jesus. From an outside point of view, I don’t see much of a difference between fairy tales or Greek myths when compared with what is in the Bible.
So I get a little frustrated with people around me. I feel like people are deluded, blind, and unwilling to genuinely investigate what they believe. What’s most frustrating are the people that live their lives without thinking about religion much at all–sure, they’ll pray sometimes, attend church even, but they have almost never actually investigated the claims of their belief systems–but they will defend their beliefs with a vigour that should only come from genuine certainty about their beliefs. They are sure, but they have little to no reason to be sure because they have not investigated their beliefs and often consider doing so unnecessary because god told them it was true. Of course, people in other religions say the same thing. God must be a prankster or something. After all, he told me that he doesn’t exist, and you can’t tell me that my experience wasn’t real!
So, you’ll imagine how I feel about those street preachers, fundamentalists, and evangelicals, right? That’s right, I respect them. They have read the book (whichever one is theirs), they have tried to understand it, and think they know what is at stake; if their book is right, then they are doing what is right. They are not just waving hands at and going through the motions for their god, they are living what they believe. Now, some few of them will become militant and this I cannot allow to happen, although the fact that someone is willing to risk their lives for what they believe I find refreshing. I will fight these militants with the same fire they are willing to muster, but I at least respect their willingness to take what they believe seriously.
It’s just a shame that their minds are infected with a virus. See, I respect willingness to fight, hopefully peacefully if possible, for what one believes in. I have less respect for the so-called Sunday Christians, cafeteria Catholics, moderately religious, etc. Unless, of course, your specific religion is one of moderation, this is hypocrisy. The Bible, the Koran, and other religious works contain horrifically violent ideas. Yes, there are some beautiful ideas as well, but if you take it as the word of god, you have to take it all. And if you only take what you like because they give meaning to your life, then you cannot claim that any of it is beyond criticism. You must take it all as truth or you must call it all myth, some of which you like. Try as you like, but any standard for differentiating the myth from the truth will leave you at odds with another standard. This is why there are thousands of sects of Christianity. This is why the three major monotheistic religion’s are perpetually in conflict.
I see a world of people who are mostly unwilling to challenge themselves. I see people defending ideas they are unwilling to have challenged. I see emotionally infantile, fearful, and ignorant people in most places who would not know critical thinking if if slapped them. I see people who don’t care, don’t care to care, and who will nonetheless think of me as obnoxious. That is, they care only when they are challenged, and since I’m willing to challenge, then they care. What a dick I am for trying to think critically and talk to my fellow citizens about their beliefs in the hope of sharing and trying to improve the world around me. We should just allow people to isolate themselves in their little worlds and not allow people from the outside to ever challenge those worlds. That would be a utopia.
My experience as an atheist–but more broadly a skeptic and a freethinker–is that I’m in a sick culture that keeps trying to cure itself with one of the symptoms of its sickness. I see people who, when the “new atheists” (people like Daniel Dennett, Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc) speak up, they react by defending the symptom automatically out of misplaced reverence.
I do not respect belief in silly things. I respect individuals. I do not respect, necessarily, what they believe. I do not accept that I should respect people’s beliefs. What kind of absurd bullshit is that? If someone believes that the moon landing was a hoax, do you respect that? When someone believes that they saw Elvis do you respect that? If someone says that they believe that their garden is tended to by fairies at night do you respect that? We challenge ridiculous things in our culture because they are ridiculous. But the one thing that actually has sway over our lives, compels legislators to discriminate against citizens by proposing religiously motivated laws like DOMA, and perpetuates beliefs that do harm by often creating a bias against the best method of determining what works (science), is not allowed to be challenged because it is important to people and you might hurt their feelings. Well, I want to talk about these things with people and people not wanting me to is hurting my feelings.
You want to know what atheists like myself are angry? Imagine if you lived in a world where people literally believed,sort of believed but defended fiercely, or simply thought you rude to challenge that invisible sky pixies created the world and without belief in and worship of these pixies not only are you probably a bad person but you should shut up about your disbelief.
Sky pixies. God. Same difference.
And that’s what it is like for every single “real” atheist out there. If you think you are an atheist and you disagree with what I have said here, then you are a heretic and you will be shunned by the real atheists. Of course, we will not directly shun you, we’ll just treat you differently until you eventually go away to create your own little atheist group (but it will not be the true atheist group) and have your own little heretical meetings and call us the heathens (assuming you don’t get mysteriously wiped out by…well, someone will do it I guess). And after a few centuries, there will be all sorts of atheist sects and we will laugh at the old pagan religions about Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad and we will call those a-atheists immoral people who we will pity for their lack of lack of relationship with our non-god.
Hmmm… Something is awry here. Best not to think about it, I guess.