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What it is like to be an atheist in today’s world; one perspective June 29, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.

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.



1. Tomkinson - June 30, 2009

Some observations:

Bill Maher is an idiot, and a jerkoff, and is probably the worst public spokesperson for Atheism. Unlike Fairy Tales, Christianity has a rich intellectual tradition. I suppose that had the great thinkers of old read Mother Goose instead instead of the Bible they might have developed a similar intellectual tradition but I doubt it.

Its interesting that you promote individual rights and freedoms, concepts that are themselves primarily derived from Christianity in one of many examples that contradict the Mother Goose idea, in a post bashing it.

The idea that religion is a virus in other than in the most superficial metaphorical way is just dumb. This should be doubly clear for a materialist (what is its equivalent of RNA?). But it is truly absurd to say you respect the street preachers while calling religion a virus, you respect people because they got sick?

It is intellectually irresponsible to assume a society without religion in any form would somehow be better than that with it, particularly when all the evidence we have of at least nominally atheist societies is horrific. The loony political ideas and behavior of your friend Staks (or JP) does not portend well for society at large either.

That video about “Militant Atheists” makes numerous silly, propagandist (circumcision = genital mutilation of infants!), and unsupportable assertions. Its also self-righteous.

Finally imagine you lived in society where most practiced or praised an atavistic social ill. Even those that didn’t participate would still defend it fiercely. Imagine it was a set of rituals and ideas that habituated people to xenophobia and tribalism, to value our most base attributes not our higher ones. Imagine if it was taboo for our political leaders to criticize this phenomenon and yet because most of them are victim to its influence vast amounts of Congressional time was wasted in sessions and awards of praise for those who practice it. Tax-payer money was used to support and investigate it. Imagine if valuable class time was eaten up in schools, wherein which it was most firmly embedded, so that students could work on decorations to celebrate this insanity and every so often students were forced from classrooms to attend ceremonies of exaltation for this worthless activity. And finally imagine if all news casts or papers whipped up excitement such that those possessed by this virus spent every Sunday not reading Nietzsche but willingly sitting through 3 hour long trivial contests where the outcome is less than meaningless. Yes its lonely to be a sports-hater in today’s world.

2. shaunphilly - June 30, 2009

Any mythology can have a long intellectual tradition if it is around long enough and gives ample room for thinking. Intellectuals will be around doing their thing and whatever the contemporary cultural idea is they will use and think within. Hell, Islam had a great intellectual tradition too, although that died off at some point. The intellectual part is what happens when smart people are given creative space within the religion, and is not necessary to the tradition itself.

Religion is a virus in the way that ideas can find minds that will adhere to them. Certain ideas cleave themselves to our minds because they patterns they use work with our wetware. I don’t see how this is at odds with my “materialism” (Again, I call it metaphysical naturalism”). There are ways that our brain works, and some ideas use that structure better than others. Religious ideas have been formed through culture, language, and philosophy to better stick to that structure. I’m sorry you don’t seem to understand this

Christianity is not the sole source of individuals rights and freedoms. Sure, the history of the religion included this, but this is a human action that would have been taken up by somebody of some tradition. It just so happens that the cast majority of Europe’s history in the last 1600 years or so has been Christian, so of course the intellectual history was derived with Christian concepts. That does not argue that the Christianity was the cause any more than a beautiful flower growing out from a crack in some concrete grows because of the concrete.

Send your comments about the video to the maker of the video.

I like sports and competition. I’m not fond of the immense role that sports plays in our culture, and I rarely watch any sports at all. If I’m somewhere and it’s on, I might watch. So your point falls flat on me.

I never said that a society without religion would be necessarily better. I think it couldn’t hurt in the long run.

Again, Jon, get your emotional state in order and deal with whatever bad childhood you had before creating your rants. I’m tired of talking to you because I feel like I’m dealing with a whining child half the time.

3. Tomkinson - June 30, 2009

I don’t see this post as being whiny or based upon my ‘issues’, I don’t really care or worry about sports too much, I do view it as a social malignancy that is more destructive than religion in the modern U.S.

“I’m sorry you don’t seem to understand this”

I understand it I just don’t think the idea has any merit. I say this because I’m doing EXACTLY what you want believers to do; analyzing the logical and epistemological consequences. The notion “that ideas can find minds that will adhere to them” somehow makes them viruses is silly, baseless, and unscientific. Of course certain minds are receptive to ideas otherwise they would cease to be ideas qua ideas. But how is religion like a virus and love of sports not like a virus?

If religion is like a virus because it (allegedly) “better sticks” to our cognitive apparatus would it not be better characterized as an addiction? If an analogy is useful enough to be the subject of numerous books it should explain some aspects that were previously inexplicable with older/competitive theories. How do we falsify the religion = virus theory? How is it superior to theories based on evolutionary psychology?

This whole notion is derived from memetics which has no scientific foundation whatsoever. The fact you give ideas a certain agency (as implied by your use of the phrase “find minds”) offer no examples of a structure amenable to reductive analysis (e.g. RNA) smuggles in idealism while hiding behind the veneer of “metaphysical naturalism”. Might not an alternative hypothesis be that the so-called victims are the agents and it is they who set out to acquire dispositional states that improve (in some cases) their fitness?

I never said Christianity was the sole source of individual rights but it was definitely the main source, read Alexander Hamilton. You say Europe’s intellectual history over the last 1600 years was Christian so it just so happens that it was influenced by Christian concepts, but that’s exactly my point, none of the world’s other religious and intellectual traditions developed the idea of individual rights nor did Europe’s pre-Christian intellectual forbears. None of the great Greco-Roman intellectuals had a problem with infanticide. This stopped when Christianity was introduced and there was also an immediate elevation of the status of women and slaves.

This is due to the fact that in the eyes of Christians all people were God’s children and even the poorest of the poor could join their ranks. This concept of equality in God’s eyes WAS the cause. This was long before Justin, Clement, Origen, Augustine, Boethius etc. developed Christianity metaphysically. Of course that doesn’t mean Jesus was divine or that the idea may not have developed some other way I just don’t see any higher-level moral ideas in Mother Goose and the lower-level ones obviously have precedent in the Bible.

“Hell, Islam had a great intellectual tradition too”

No it did not. Some parts of the Muslim world briefly made modest contributions to philosophy and mathematics, IN SPITE of Islam. Perhaps the most famous representative of this tradition, Omar Khayyám, was pretty close to an atheist hence his appearance in Hitchens’ recent anthology. Obama disingenuously (as usual) referenced Jefferson’s Koran, he wasn’t studying it for moral guidance or great literature or ideas he wanted to know the enemy he was fighting in the Barbary wars.

None of the preceding has to do with my being emotional, I’m actually in a pretty good place right now. Cheers!

4. Child-Like not childish - September 15, 2009

Hello athiest man. Your believes fasinate me. I am a Christian who actully loves people ( all people regardless of color, creed, religon, or age). Yep kinda like in that book whats it called…oh yeh the bible. I agree alot of christians get it wrong. But people have free will (obviosly), but if we believe any part of the bible we should take the rest too. Religon divides faith unites. I am sad 9/11 got all religon pinned as bad, when it was the smaller sect of islam that was responsible. I was raised “christian” but i discovered my faith in god on my own recently. I personally can not see the world and say there is no god but i can understand how someone could do so. the athiest saying – “religon the easy way out of thinking.” is completely false in my own story because my faith empowers me to be explorative and full of curiosity. All the answers i recieve from my church leaders satisfy and build me up spiritaully. Btw all days of the week are based on the worship of pagan gods. < fun fact. well much peace man hope u get back to me via email.( i want to be asked questions).

5. shaunphilly - September 17, 2009


The problem is that the Bible, while it does say some loving and good things, also says some pretty nasty things. It condones slavery, tells women to be submissive, etc.

I have less of a problem with religion than I do faith. Religions can be evil, they can be good, they can be a little of both. But faith is always unjustified belief.

I’m glad that you are curious and like to explore. But faith is not the source to this power. Faith, more often, is the opposite of this. Faith is believing what one cannot see–belief without evidence. Now, one CAN have this faith and still sometimes be curious, but in doing so they are side-stepping the ideal of faith for things, not using it.

The answers you get from leaders might satisfy you, but do they stand up to rational inquiry and to the best evidence? Truth is not determined by what satisfies.

I know about the days of the week being named after Germanic gods. What’s more interesting is that Easter and Christmas are based upon Pagan holidays. And so are many attributes of Jesus based upon older Pagan concepts (compare him to Mithra, for example).

6. John - March 31, 2010

Anyone with any common sense would realize that Adam must of told Eve that the tree was forbidden. Also your picture is rude lack of understanding. Perhaps next time you may want to do a bit more research on the circumstances. Jesus is also mentioned in history books. Therefore he existed you cannot disprove that. Now, if your battling us Christians from a science stand point then you would realize that the theory of a natural beginning has been proven absurd. The chances that the atoms were all floating in the right place(In the universe) at the right time is inconceivable. This set off a charge that was the Big Bang (which ,by the way, has been proven ,the Big Bang happened) God still loves you. You are the lost sheep and he is the shepherd. Do not seek “him” instead seek an understanding of God. He died for you too.

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