Friday, April 8, 2011

Why Bother Being Atheist?

I did a post on my blog entitled “What’s the Point?” that addressed two common questions that I (and I imagine most atheists) get asked from time to time by believers. But there’s one question I never get asked, but whose answer is often erroneously given by some believers. I thought I’d clear it up, at least from my perspective.

To my knowledge, I have never been asked, “Why bother being an atheist?” I have been asked why I was an atheist, in the context of what caused me to stop believing in god (usually people assume it’s something having to do with being mistreated by believers or some sort of emotional trauma, which I suppose it could be for some, but is not to case for me). However, the question is implied by the often discussed “Pascal’s Wager.”

The situation is this: atheism makes no appealing claims, provides no inherent or promised reward, and is an overall depressing idea (especially when it comes to death). These statements are generally true, and are certainly true in my view of what atheism is (and isn’t).

I often wonder how many people are “believers” only in the sense that they claim to be religious “just in case.” After all, if all it takes to spend eternity in bliss is belief in God, then maybe it’s not such a bad thing, right? I mean, what does belief cost you, and what can you possibly gain from being an atheist?

In other words, what compels people to deny the existence of gods (usually implied to be just the one Christian god) when there is no tangible benefit that can come from being atheist?

Well, besides the smug satisfaction of simply being right (which I do enjoy from time to time), and setting aside the notion that belief isn’t free (especially if you attend a church that expects your time and donations), there is really nothing drawing one towards atheism. But this doesn’t stop believers and non-believers alike from coming up with dumb justifications.

Perhaps the most irritating and common claims I see believers ascribing to atheists as the cause of their heathenism is the idea that atheists just want to screw everyone on the planet, sometimes even both genders, and that they don’t want the challenge of adopting the strict morality of [insert religious dogma here].

First off, from what I have seen from believers, you don’t have to be an atheist to shoot meth and fuck male prostitutes in hourly-rate motels. Hell, I might go so far as to say there’s more religious people doing it than atheists, since religious people (in this case, primarily Christians) feel they can do whatever they want, so long as they ask God for forgiveness.

Now, I don’t want to imply that doing meth and having gay sex is wrong. You’re free to do it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a disturbing number of religious people who do are publicly against homosexuality and fight to legislate against the rights of same-sex couples. Hypocrisy isn’t a crime, but it is justification for you to be publicly loathed.

Then there’s the small matter of atheists being convicted of less crime than believers. Pop quiz: what is the most popular prison tattoo? Anyone? If you said “cross,” congrats.

In fact, with most Christians I have talked to, they don’t believe being Christian makes you a better person. Most will openly admit they are sinners, that they aren’t perfect, and that they struggle with their morality (and usually it’s real moral issues, not just imaginary religious ones like homosexuality or disbelief or working on the Sabbath).

So statistically speaking, and even according to most Christians, being religious does not imbue one with morality. The more extreme or fundamental believers may disagree, but most religious people think this claim is nuts.

Another annoying one, which is slightly more common, is the belief that someone who turns away from Christianity was never really a believer. This idea stems from Calvinism, particularly doctrines like the perseverance of the saints, unconditional election, and irresistible grace. These all basically state (in their own unique wordings and situations) that once someone is saved, they will always be saved, and if you turn away from God, you never really knew Him.

This denial that one can truly understand Christianity and still reject it is particularly insidious for what it implies about people who leave Christianity (“real” Christianity, of course, as Catholics and some Protestant sects don’t hold these views). Besides the refusal to believe a person leaving Christianity could have ever been a true believer who was saved prior to their departure, it also creates and promotes an “us vs. them” mentality, providing a justification for a feeling of superiority by those who believe they have God’s grace.

But again, this is another explanation that is only espoused by a percentage of Christians, and certainly not by all faiths. Islam holds similar views, and it is arguable that these ideas were borrowed by Christian theologians who had come into contact with the Quran after it was translated (poorly, I might add) into Latin and other Western European languages during and after the Renaissance.

Another extremist view, one which I don’t see much anymore (maybe because those who believe it don’t use computers), is the concept that non-believers are possessed by demons, or the devil himself. Again, this is similar to the above in that it takes the matter out of the conscious choice of the non-believer and places it into the grand scheme of supernatural mechanics. I mean, who would be insane enough to deny god except one who was under the control of pure evil, am I right?

As stated before, I think the most common reason people imagine for disbelief is that people must associate religion with some negative Earthly experience. I don’t really get this, but I understand this might be the case. I have known many people who loved a food for a long time, then one day they got sick and blamed that food they loved, even though it never made them ill before. I know many people who stopped eating something entirely after vomiting it up (sadly, it’s so rarely alcoholics), and I think the mechanism is similar in religion.

Let’s be honest, if you were molested by a church figure, no one is going to hold it against you if you leave your church. Nearly anyone can accept that as a valid reason for at least leaving a particular parish or congregation. However, believers would take offense at the rejection of an entire religion over such a thing. As stated before, religion doesn’t fix people, so in most people’s view, it would be wrong to blame a faith for the actions of one church leader who abused their position.

That’s a fair statement. If people in a religion wrong you, it doesn’t make much sense to blame the religion, anymore than being mugged by a person of a particular race would be valid justification for hating all people of that race. This is also seen among some women who are raped; they never want anything to do with men again. While I can understand these sorts of feelings, I think they are all examples of individuals whose logic and reasoning have been overpowered by their emotional prejudice.

For me, there’s only one reason to be an atheist: a lack of belief in gods.

I’m not a particularly pushy guy when it comes to atheism (at least, I don’t think I am). I don’t have much to gain by [de]converting people. I don’t earn Atheist brownie points, I can’t unsave a certain number of people and win a lunch with Richard Dawkins (I wouldn’t even want this… unless he paid), and I certainly don’t think I’m doing anyone any favor by making them an atheist.

Being an atheist can be irritating. Once, when talking to a black person who was taking particular offense at my atheism (a strange phenomena, having someone being bothered by what I think), I told them that I wouldn’t wish being atheist on them because they had their hands full already just being black. It’s sort of like how I have more sympathy for black people who are gay than I do for white people who are gay: having to deal with both has got to be a bitch.

I’m lucky I’m just atheist. I’m straight, white, financially secure, and I have no disabilities (unless you count mild asthma and heartburn, which I don’t). I basically won the birth lottery. I firmly believe that anyone born in my position could easily live a happy life. I sometimes wonder if atheism is essentially a luxury that I can afford.

If you’re even slightly off from the description of myself given above, you will almost undoubtedly have a harder time in life than I ever did. Black people are on the whole more religious than white people, and part of this is a desire or need to fit it. Minorities have to try that much harder to be accepted by society, and there is enormous pressure to adopt positions which are traditionally acceptable in order to attain this goal.

So why am I an atheist? Maybe it’s just because I can get away with it. Well… that and the fact that I have actually read the Bible, the Quran, and a whole host of other religious mythologies.


  1. Yes, it comes down to simple non-belief. I like to think of myself as intellectually honest, so I couldn't convince myself to believe in a god or religion that I really don't, no matter the benefits involved.

    I share your suspicion that some "believers" are just hedging their bets on Pascal's wager. Of course, they'll never admit it.

    You've also given me some new ammunition... since I run in conservative circles, I have to occasionally endure the incredulity that I'm not religious. A similar argument to the one that you made is, "who would choose to be gay given the harassment that goes with it" as an argument that homosexuality is not a choice. Along those lines, I can now say "who would choose to be an atheist?" As you say, we don't reap any benefits.

  2. Ah but you see, people are gay because they've been tricked by Satan.

    Out of curiosity, are there many conservative atheists who oppose gay rights or gay marriage?

  3. Ah yes, the old tricked by Satan argument. I'd forgotten.

    I'm going to read your question as two questions:

    1) Are there many conservative atheists who oppose gay rights? None that I know of. We'll fight right along side you against the bigoted right wing conservatives who don't think gays are entitled to the same rights.

    2) Are there many conservative atheists who oppose gay marriage? A few, including me (at the risk of earning your condemnation). I'd be happy to discuss it, but you can read my entire argument here.

  4. I'm afraid my reply will be too long for a comment, so it will be addressed in my next post.

    And I wouldn't even know the method by which I could condemn someone. I'm guessing a little doll with a lock of your hair might be involved, but I would prefer to just point out my concerns, rather than dismiss you and wish you ill will.

  5. Glad to hear it; I prefer civil debate to name-calling any day.

  6. You said "and I certainly don’t think I’m doing anyone any favor by making them an atheist." Jeez, guy. I certainly feel I'm doing people a favor by helping them let go of gods. It frees up their life and allows them to focus on reality. It's a great thing to be able to do for someone. I always try to get people away from gods and religions. I do this out of kindness.

  7. For me, anyway, it's not as though atheism freed up the time I would have spent on religion to do amazing things like cure some form of cancer or uncover an understanding of an underlying mechanic of the universe. I also know that many people who actually do these amazing works manage to find time to be both religious and successful.

    I don't know that atheism will make someone happier, either. People aren't being held by religion, religion is held by believers. The religious embrace their faith, and it is only in cases where religion is being imposed that I have interest in intervening.


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