Warning: this one is a bit on the long side.
Wow. It’s almost like I have no papers or grants to write, no dossiers to prep, no classes to prep…it’s actually exactly like that.
This post, which has been bouncing around in my mind for a long time, was triggered again by a commentary I heard on NPR this morning (about the murders at Charlie Hebdo). I’m not going to comment on that beyond, “Yeah, they were racist and offensive comics. No, it’s not okay to murder anyone because you’re offended.” Again, because I am a reasonably intelligent human, I can maintain both thoughts at the same time.
But this commentary on the radio got me thinking, again, about my lack of belief in not just the Christianity I’m constantly soaking in as an American citizen, but anything supernatural. I’m an atheist. I’m not remotely conflicted about it, or unsure. I’m reasonably sure there’s no god, nor anything else approximating magic.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. Although it did, at least at first, to a few people. I remember my sister being a bit surprised by it the first time I told her. (I think she’s closer to my way of thinking about this now, though.) I’m quite certain a few people who love me dearly think I’m going to Hell for sure.
This doesn’t really worry me. Again, I don’t believe in Hell, either. This post is mostly about the common questions that people ask when they find out you don’t believe, as well as a little glimpse into what it’s like to be a nonbeliever in a sea of religion.
It was recently suggested to me that I don’t believe in God because I’m a scientist. After all, most biologists don’t (though most physicists do). I don’t think it’s that straightforward, though. For one, an understanding of Mendel and Darwin and a trained scientist’s trust that those data don’t prevent belief in God. I have a lovely former lab student who stands as evidence of this fact. Several faculty in my own department are or have been quietly religious.
So, if it’s not because I’m a biologist, then…why? For a start, I think it’s more likely that I’m a biologist at least partly because I don’t believe in God. Because, while Mendel and Darwin don’t prevent belief, they do make it downright impossible to buy into certain brands of faith – namely the sort that says the earth is only a few thousand years old, and the ones that deny evolution. In addition, an understanding of the Theory of Evolution definitely eliminates any necessity for deities in the creation of life or humanity. Since the creation of life is a HUGE component of most religious texts, it does make it harder to believe.
I think, therefore, that many of us nonbelievers come to biology because we can – we have no pre-existing beliefs that prevent us from accepting the evidence. For me, it was more, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” It confirmed my previous suspicions, rather than contradicting dearly-held beliefs.
So, questions: Well, what do you think happens to your soul when you die?
Answer: I don’t think I have a soul. I have a mind, and while we don’t yet understand how the “mind” is generated in the brain, we’re quite certain that it is. My mind…well, barring computer uploads becoming reality in the next few decades, when I die, so does my mind. The things that were me are gone forever, except as they are remembered by the people I leave behind.
Question: Jesus, don’t you find that sad?
Answer: Sure. But my not wanting to believe a thing doesn’t change the reality of it. And the idea of my soul persisting after I die is, frankly, even more sad to contemplate. I don’t WANT to be a bystander in the lives of my surviving loved ones. To watch, but be unable to touch, to hug, to interact? THAT sounds like Hell, to me.
Question: If there’s no God, what gives your life meaning? (Related question: what keeps you a good person?)
Answer: I give my life meaning. It means what I decide it means. Which is so awesome, I can’t even tell you. And as for the second question: I gave up being a good person for fear of punishment decades ago. It’s called “growing up”. Yeah, it’s sarcastic, but the fact is that religion isn’t where moral values come from. Again, it’s the reverse. Religions come at least in part from moral values that already exist as a result of the evolution of social behavior, and by our own cultural and societal contracts with one another.
I guarantee this is true. Most atheists never murder anyone, don’t steal, don’t lie or cheat more than average. In fact, more murders in the U.S. are committed by people who DO believe in God. This is almost certainly due to sheer numbers of believers vs. nonbelievers, and unrelated to religion vs. atheism. If religion is required to ensure moral behavior, where are all the atheist serial killers?
(On that note, some science: there’s a fair amount of reliable data saying that psychopathy is heavily genetic.)
Question: But you let your kids believe in Santa Claus.
Answer: Yup. And the Easter Bunny. But the difference is that they will (naturally) stop believing in those things when they grow up. Harmless.
Question: Harmless? Does that mean you think religion is harmful?
Answer: Oh, boy. This is the one people get riled up over. With good reason, I guess. On average, no. I don’t think the average religious person is being seriously harmed by being religious, nor are they causing serious harm to others. Harm is done, as I noted above, by folks regardless of religion.
That said, there are a few vocal minorities in the religious world that ARE doing harm specifically in the name of their religions. Evolution-denial IS harmful, period. Denial of the methods of science leads to harm. God or no God, evolution is not up for debate, as I have said before. Teaching your children things that are demonstrably untrue is harmful. Influencing elections so that OTHER people’s children are exposed to pseudoscience is also harmful.
Question (the last): What’s it like to be an atheist in a sea of Christianity?
Answer: I’m in California, so, judging by folks I know in other places, I have it easy. That said, not a single day goes by that I am not confronted by people who believe something I am quite certain isn’t true, AND who are trying to convince me that they’re right and I’m wrong. And, on the flip side of that, not a day goes by where I don’t restrain myself from doing this exact thing: telling them why I think they’re wrong. I see Facebook posts thanking God for a loved one not getting on the plane that crashed, and wonder, “What do they think God was doing for everyone else on that plane, then? Why did God have it in for the other 200 folks?”
I’ve had that argument with wonderful, well-meaning friends who think it’s the wrong question. Perhaps. But I still can’t help but wonder.
I actually think Christianity, as defined by the teachings of Jesus Christ, is a fine thing, if that’s what you’re into. But, as John Scalzi has written, “Christianity is a fine thing. I wish more Christians practiced it.”
Finally, what it’s like to be an atheist: It’s good. I am responsible as much as possible for what happens in my life. I don’t have anyone supernatural to thank for the good, or to blame for the bad. I don’t have to try and come up with an answer to the question, “If God is good, why do children starve and die of AIDS?” Human problems are just human problems, which we must face and solve without any help from above. I live as though this is my only shot, because I’m pretty sure it is. Every human life has value, because each one is unique, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. There will never be another like it. That’s what it’s like.