Sixth place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest By James Lambert

Courage as the prime virtue of atheism

FFRF awarded James $400.

By James Lambert

I was raised Catholic, which is to say I was baptized and endured the Ontario Catholic school system. God was as real to me in elementary school as the government of Canada, which is to say it existed somewhere well beyond the sphere of what I actually cared about at the age of 8.

A series of events, beginning with my grandfather’s death, kindled a profound doubt. This was fueled by the command and authority expressed by the priests at the mandatory school Masses. Who were they to tell me how to behave? What did they know about my life?
The mild inconvenience of Mass and religion class began to evolve into a pressing discomfort. I could not, would not, stand for a moment longer to be told that I was being watched and judged by some divine invigilator, especially one who had as much evidence in favor of his existence as Santa Claus. (I stopped believing in both fairy tales around the same time.)

There is no substance to atheism. Almost by definition it is the absence of substance. It is not itself an ideology, it forces no injunction, it demands no submission. It is a term that has meaning only in juxtaposition to the absurdity of its necessity.

In a world void of theism or deism, the word “atheist” would not exist. Everyone would be an atheist, but we would not need a word to set ourselves apart. In this sense, atheism as a concept is hardly worth defending, as it does not entail anything which can be verified scientifically.

We have all heard the impotent and revealing challenge, “Well, can you prove God doesn’t exist?” Of course not, if only because whatever is meant by “God” is so malleable as to be almost meaningless. So what should we be defending? Why should somebody be proud to be an atheist? After all, atheism is so reviled by some and so lauded by others that it must entail something ideological.

I submit that atheism is an ideological corollary, and it is the principles of logic and reason from whence it stems that causes this conflict. Herein is found the most admirable quality of the atheist position: intellectual courage.

Fearing god

As an atheist, even as an anti-theist, it is not at all perplexing to me why one could or would believe in the supernatural and, in particular, a god. The phrase “god-fearing” is a brilliant one. It compactly expresses the belief and the motive. Fear is the root of all intellectual and moral capitulations. Out of the terrifying possibility of oblivion was birthed the ancestors of today’s superstitions. “What is right or wrong? Where do we come from?” And, most importantly, “What happens after death?”

One need not be concerned with the strenuous task of answering these questions if one only surrenders his or her intellectual integrity and accepts, without complaint, the authority of a god. At best this manifests as a small blind spot where rational thought is overlooked; at worst it constitutes the complete incapacitation of one’s critical faculties. Rather than looking courageously into the face of uncertainty, supernatural claims provide a framework of self-deception. This constitutes a pernicious and insidious threat to human civilization, now more than ever.

Consider the horrors that are explained away by annihilating one’s own moral agency out of fear. Global warming? Fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Suicide? Murder? You’ve transgressed upon our prophet’s sanctity. Gay marriage? An abomination. Evolution in science class? A preposterous fabrication. Atheism? A dangerous ideology.

At the heart of the confrontation between faith and reason lies a single question. When we are faced with the most profound existential questions, should we confront them with honest doubt or blind faith? We are all inevitably filled with doubt and fear when confronted with the question of death. Herein lies the deepest motive of blind faith.
Some are willing to accept any tenet, surrender any freedom, sacrifice any integrity if only the fear of death can be assuaged. In this question also lies the most admirable quality of an atheist. The courage of an assertion of ignorance, and of uncertainty, is the key attribute that must be common to all nonbelievers.

We have spent most of recorded history honoring the sacrifice of human moral agency and intellectual integrity in the interest of preserving the precious illusion of immortality. We now sit at a crossroad. No longer can we straddle the chasm between what is true and what is “respectful,” between what is honest and what is comforting.

Freethinkers appear to be the only ones with the stomach for this conflict. When Danish cartoonists are condemned for drawing, novelists for writing, and magazine editors for satirizing, it seems that the only group willing to stand up and risk life and reputation for intellectual integrity are atheists, agnostics and secularists informed by scientific skepticism and humanism. These together constitute the only group who have maintained their moral responsibility, rather than sell it for the cheap price of false comfort.

My atheism stems from the insistence that no question is too terrifying, no answer is too daunting, no fear is worth surrendering the most wonderful aspects of human existence. The greatest virtue of atheism is the courage to speak the truth.

James Lambert, 21, was born in Ottawa, Canada. He attends the University of Waterloo (Ontario), where he’s in his final year of an honors physics degree program. “I intend to pursue graduate studies in theoretical physics. As a specialization, I’m considering either relativistic quantum mechanics, high energy physics or plasma physics. I have the good fortune of working in a field where literally every subject is fascinating!”

Freedom From Religion Foundation