One Guy’s Perspective On Unbelief

Hello, everyone.  I’m Tony, but blog as Midwestern Gent.  First, I’d like to express my appreciation to Chris and FSGP for the opportunity to write for this forum.  FSGP is a vital voice for reason in our region, and it’s great to have a chance to contribute to the conversation.

Chris introduced us all briefly, but I thought as an inaugural post (no, Rick Warren will not be featured), I’d share the post that started it all for me back in 2007. 

I am an atheist. I have concluded that God does not exist.

I use the word “concluded” intentionally. I do not “believe” that there is no God.  Statements of “belief” signal opinions lacking a foundation in investigation and thought.  I have rationally concluded that no supernatural deity exists outside of or above the natural realm after examining the evidence presented by science, reason, and my own experience.  Accordingly, my atheism is not a dogmatic “belief,” because I have not reached this conclusion uncritically.  Moreover, it is a conclusion that, as my life progresses, remains open to reexamination.  Although I do not foresee that further evidence will undermine my conclusion, I do not foreclose that possibility.

It took me a long time to reach this conclusion.  My life has been accentuated by long periods of weak or no belief followed by short, intense conversions — first to evangelical pentecostalism in high school, then to Catholicism as an adult.  I pushed down my persistent doubts, suspended my disbelief, and kept trying to convince myself that what the priests said was true, that I needed a god, that life was too big to handle without believing.  At last, I’ve managed to be honest enough with myself to acknowledge that I do not need a god, and never did.

I do not need a god to be a moral person.  Without consideration of eternal reward or damnation, I strive (though often fail) to treat others as I wish to be treated.  I love and am faithful to my wife; I do not kill, steal, cheat, covet, lie (aside from the white lies of daily life); I respect my parents; I pay my taxes accurately and on time; and I give to charity without expectation of recompense.  I do not seek to engage in licentious conduct and through atheism to justify such conduct – my conclusion is one of conviction, not convenience.

Religion possesses no monopoly on morality.  I categorically reject the idea that a life lived in hope of eternal reward or in fear of damnation is “moral.”  Morality imposed from without strips a human being of his or her moral agency.  Blind obedience to rules may be commanded of a dog through the inducement of a cookie or the threat of a scolding.  We rightly do not consider a well-behaved dog to be acting “morally.”  In the same way, the religious person who obeys not out of love and respect for other people, but in response to the promise of Paradise or the specter of Hell, acts not as an independent, moral person.  He is merely a trained animal seeking to please an unseen master. 

I do not need a god to feel safe and fulfilled.  I create my reality with the choices I make.  I chose my spouse, my job, my house; I choose what to read, eat, drink; I choose how to relate to others and to my community.  I acknowledge that life and nature are indifferent to my individual success or failure, life or death.  This is freedom – to live now, in the present, in possession of the trajectory of one’s life.  I will not surrender this freedom for the comforting delusion that there is an ultimate caretaker looking out for my well-being.

I do not need a god to explain the universe to me.  It is the province of small, lazy minds to look at all that is and require that it have an easily explainable source, a genesis in the mind of a designer.  The natural world needs neither a reason nor a purpose to be enthralling – it is astonishing simply because it is.  Even a basic knowledge of science discloses wonders enough to fill a lifetime – the unfathomable distances and forces of astronomy, the intricacy and diversity of biological life, the complexity of weather systems.  I stand in awe of all these things with only a very imperfect understanding of any of them.  The accumulation of scientific learning that permits us to know incrementally more about these phenomena marks our progress as a species.  Religious thinking about the universe poses a threat to that progress.

I am still working out how I will relate to others’ religious expression.  From a purely legal perspective, the First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to freedom of conscience.  If they choose to exercise that freedom by subjecting themselves to a fictional daddy figure, it is not the government’s place to prevent them doing so.  Nor does the First Amendment allow the government to favor one type of religious belief over another, or over non-belief.  However, religious expression should not be permitted an unfettered right to escape the reach of secular law by claiming a “free exercise” exception.  To the extent that neutral laws passed on secular bases impede in some non-targeted way the religious practices of this group or that, those practices, not the law, should give way.

From a non-legal perspective, my feelings are less charitable.  Religion is a pernicious force in American society.  To show “tolerance” or “respect” for irrational religious belief is to tacitly sanction its perpetuation to the detriment of everyone.  This I cannot, with any intellectual honesty, do.  American Christianity (the faith about which I know the most) is shallow and superstitious.  Most American Christians know very little about the scriptures that they claim are the infallible word of god.  The deity is largely viewed as some combination of an ethereal referree – keeping score of sins and forgiveness, meting out penalties – and the ultimate Santa Claus – intervening in the minutiae of individual lives to grant blessings, cure disease, and otherwise alleviate the sufferings of normal daily life.  Polls show more Americans believe in angels than evolution.  Human frailty is blamed on “the forces of satan” and the stain of “original sin” passing directly from Adam and Eve to all humanity.  Paradoxically, such forms of belief actually relieve the believer of responsibility for his or her behavior or lot in life – when blame may be assigned to supernatural forces and “god’s plan,” real self-awareness and “soul-searching” become unnecessary.

Expressions of this superstitious faith wedged into the public square cause us to regress as a people, and on this ground I anticipate writing and acting in my community to curb the undue influence of religious thought.  Religioius sentiments produce such absurdities as advocation of “intelligent design” and denial of the scientific proof of Darwinian evolution; inadequate sex education for kids coupled with restricted access to contraception and attempts to reduce the availability of abortion and other reproductive services; discrimination against gays and lesbians in the benefits of civil marriage; and a pervasive anti-intellectualism that threatens our economic and cultural competitiveness.  These are tangible threats to the freedom and well-being of Americans, and indeed all people, and as such, my conscience compels me to speak out against them.

Let me address some common rejoinders to expressions of atheistic thought.  First, my conclusion is not born of anger.  God has not wronged me such that I reject him out of spite.  I experienced that form of atheism as a teenager following the death of my grandfather, angrily rejecting any god that would permit my family to splinter as it did.  Possessed now of my full faculties as an adult, I reach my conclusion in the midst of what many would consider a “charmed life” – happy marriage, good job, nice home.  I don’t reject God because I hate him.  I don’t reject him at all.  I simply have not seen any evidence that he exists.

Nor is my conclusion born of disillusionment.  Not since I was a naïve young man have I believed that religion possessed the ability to lift man above his native state of self-regarding conduct.  True, there are examples of religious people motivated by their faith to embrace the poor and powerless in society, but those examples exist also among those with no faith at all.  It has been my experience that the highly religious are no more likely for their faith to place others before their own wants and needs.  Accordingly, I am not some “lost soul” whose desire to believe has been thwarted.

I can almost hear my childhood churchmates scolding me that the “wisdom of men” is foolishness compared to god’s wisdom.  If I must choose between imperfect human knowledge and perfect religious ignorance, I choose the former.  I will not limit my mind and hobble my conscience with the dictates of dead men, written down and collated in barbaric times.  The wisdom of reason and experience is a living force, adaptable and always growing to incorporate our ever-expanding store of knowledge.  I will follow where it leads.

I am an atheist.  I have concluded that God does not exist.

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