I am not a Christian.
I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.
I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.
That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.
My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.
My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.
I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.
When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.
His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.
So why did I go to church? I went for my son.
The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.
Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.
Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.
One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.
I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.
In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.
My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.
In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.
Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)
I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.
I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.
I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.
Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?
I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.
Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.
When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.
No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.
I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.
To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.
For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.
Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.
Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.
It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.
We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.
I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.
I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.
I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.
I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.
My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.
I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.
We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.