The Humble Atheist (December 2003)

In this time of religious strife in the world and in light of the recent removal of a multi-ton, monolithic monument to the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse, it might be useful to examine briefly what a cola company might call “the un-religion” to which millions of unorganized Americans and higher percentages in Europe “belong.”

Regardless of their actual beliefs, many atheists in America describe themselves as “agnostics,” since it sounds less assertive and abrasive to the religious majority. Actually the word “atheist,” coming from the Greek, literally means “without gods.” I use the plural here, since an atheist really only has one fewer god than a monotheist; to a Hindu with many gods, there is not much difference between an atheist and a monotheist, I suppose.

How does one become an atheist? With most religions, the vast majority of adherents follow the same faith as their parents.

Far more atheists come to their position after a quest of sorts. One path goes as follows. Looking at the progress of the sciences (physics, biology, psychology, etc.), one decides that there is very little explanatory power inherent in the concept of a god. In fact, students of the social sciences, who are more directly exposed to the mutually contradictory and self-inconsistent beliefs around the world, tend to become dubious about faith more readily than many in the physical sciences.

Indeed, studying history, one sees that previous “explanations” offered by religion, such as plagues or droughts being caused by witches or Jews or through neglecting to sacrifice a virgin, don’t seem to be holding up very well today.

Quite recently we had a few evangelicals claiming that the 9/11 calamity was due to rampant homosexuality and abortion in America.

This brings up another path to atheism, namely through personal tragedy. Some people who fall prey to terrible events simply seek to find comfort in believing that someone is in charge, while others throw up their hands and conclude that there can be no beneficent power that would allow such things to happen. Yet another path is to notice that any god worthy of the name, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and, in a word, perfect, would not really have many of the primate attributes of a human: maleness, a beard, jealousy, pettiness, etc.

As one contemplates such a truly abstract, transcendental God, one is likely to become what many of our Founding Fathers (students of the Enlightenment) were, namely deists. To a deist, God is above the ephemeral matters with which we are so concerned.

He simply set up the natural laws of the universe and is letting things run accordingly. To that extent, his existence is then irrelevant, and atheism is just around the corner; indeed, atheism may be described as simply behaving as if there were no god, since we cannot presume to know what we are supposed to be doing in any case. Contrary to the recent shallow claims of some evangelists, our country was not founded in a Judeo-Christian tradition. Most of our constitutional and legal framework came from the Romans, years of English tradition, and the secular thinking of philosophers in the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries).

In regard to prayer, the only one which makes any sense for a deist is “Thy Will be done,” rather redundant for an omnipotent god.

But an atheist would view it as simply the ultimate resignation to one’s fate. On the other hand, there are prayers which, rather than asking for more stuff, request that one find the strength to do something (not lie, stop smoking, save for a house, etc.); such prayers can simply be viewed as a noble discourse with oneself. Finally, there are the prayers which are the equivalent of wishing someone “Good luck;” taken as an expression of hope or concern for one’s fellow humans, deists and atheists can readily identify with such.

Are there atheists in foxholes? Contrary to common belief, the reason for heroic efforts in stressful situations (such as a battle) is that we are mostly programmed (initially through evolution, reinforced through basic training) not to let others in our “group” down.

On the other hand, suicide bombing is conducted only by those who are either really depressed or most commonly by those who are administered unknowable claims about immortality. Atheists do fine in foxholes, but they make lousy suicide bombers. Although religious folk seem to think that atheists have no ethical base, my experience indicates that most do, in fact, have a keen sense of morality.

Certainly, there is automatically more altruism in a kind act when it is not simply done to help win one a place in Heaven. Atheists tend to follow science, and as a result they are open to new facts and theories, as discovered. This is perhaps the ultimate in humility, wherein notions are held with varying degrees of tentativeness.

It contrasts mightily with the ungrateful arrogance of the religious person who, upon falling ill, is rushed to the hospital by trained paramedics, worked on for hours by surgeons using instruments, techniques, and medications developed incrementally over many years through the efforts of myriad dedicated researchers, and then only wishes to “thank God” for his recovery.

It is a common myth that religion provides comfort concerning death. Most atheists feel relatively sure that life is finite, and that after living a full life, enough is enough.

Religious people typically have grave doubts about the nature of a life hereafter and whether they will prove truly worthy. In fact, it is very hard to conjure up a picture of heaven that does not amount to either endless struggle or eternal boredom. Hell is much easier to depict in explicit terms. In the end, most of us go about our lives creating our own goals and striving to achieve them independently of supernatural forces.

We don’t pull up to an intersection and ask a higher being for advice on which way to turn; we plan and decide for ourselves. To that extent, in our daily lives, we are all atheists.

Freedom From Religion Foundation