Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Friday, February 6, 2015

A brief introduction to atheism

There has long been a stigma attached to the word "atheist" among religious people. It is considered a dirty word, and atheism is often perceived as something to be avoided at all costs. This article aims to provide a brief introduction to some aspects of atheism you may not be aware of, and hopefully dispel some of the myths.

I hope you will try to take this on board as informative, and not become defensive in your thinking. This article is not about you or your faith. It is not going to tell you what you should or shouldn't believe. It is about atheism. It will also be quite personal, because I will be speaking from my own experience.

I am an atheist.

Come with me and let me show you a little of what that means to me...

What is atheism?
I typed "define atheism" into Google and I got this:
"disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods."
That's about as good a definition as any I've seen. It is also how I would describe my position. You may also have heard of the term "agnostic". Where atheism refers to a lack of belief in gods, agnosticism refers to a lack of knowledge of gods. The two terms are not mutually exclusive. I am thus an "agnostic atheist" if you will. Almost all atheists fall into this category. It is also sometimes known as "weak atheism". There are some atheists who hold a positive belief that there are definitely no gods (i.e. "strong atheism). I do not hold this view. I consider the possibility of the existence of gods unlikely, but a possibility nonetheless.

I simply lack sufficient evidence to warrant a positive belief in any deity. The concept might seem foreign to you. After all, many believers claim that evidence for their god is everywhere, right before our very eyes. They cannot understand how a person could possibly take it all in and not believe in their chosen deity. And yet here we are. There are many of us, and if the statistics are to be believed, our numbers are increasing.

Some Christians see the increase of atheism only in negative terms. They see it as a threat. I am not sure what they fear. Our only "weaponry" is reason, logic, and science. If God was real, we surely could not compete.  In Romans 8:31, Paul says "If God is for us, who can be against us?". And yet many Christians fear atheists as though we were some force of evil.

It is a shame that Christians should fear atheism. I can only speak for myself, and those I've met both online and in person. Most of us are quite nice people (if I may say so myself), with good values and morals, and we're just trying to do the best for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our society. It is true that we can sometimes be argumentative and outspoken, especially when our freedoms are not respected. Standing up for individual freedom and fairness is something we care a lot about. In many places atheists are a minority group, and sometimes they need to speak up in order to be heard. We believe that all people have a place in the world, and we will defend the right for people to believe in any god, or no god, without fear of violence or harm and without the will of others being imposed on them.

People matter
I care about people. In fact one of the biggest changes in my life since becoming an atheist is the greater sense of shared humanity with every other human being on the planet. They are my sisters and my brothers. They are my family. There is no such thing as race or colour. We're all human, and we all matter.

And that's why I'm also a humanist.

What is humanism?
"Humanism" was also considered a dirty word among the Christadelphians I grew up with. It was described as an elevated focus on humans as selfish and perhaps the cause of every evil in the world. I hope I can convince you otherwise.

All humans have a tendency to be selfish, and all humans have the capacity for altruism as well. Not all atheists are altruistic, but many are. Likewise not all atheists are humanists, but many are. And of course one need not be a humanist to be altruistic.

As humanists we seek the best in people because we care, and because we believe it makes the world a better place for everyone to live in. We don't believe in a higher power who will reward us for doing good. We do good because that's the world we want to live in, and so that's the world we work to create.

So what is the real definition of humanism?

Google tells us:
"a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters."
Wikipedia has a slightly more detailed definition:
"Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism)."
Source (emphasis mine)

This anti-faith stance may sound arrogant to you. However, people who become humanists generally did not wake up one morning and decide to abandon their faith. It is far more likely and more common for people who have lost their faith for other reasons to later become humanists. We may not believe in God, but we still believe in people.

I also think the above definitions are too cold and calculated. Humanism means a lot more to me than merely disbelief in gods and elevated value placed on humanity. To me personally, humanism means caring about each other as people. We are humans. We make mistakes, we forgive, we try, we succeed, we fail, we love, we support, and we encourage. It means treating each other as equal, without exceptions. This is why we care about issues such as sexual and gender orientation, and about the freedom to marry. I actually hate referring to these as "issues", because they are not issues. People are just people. Let them define who they are, and let them be who they are. We are all different in many ways, and yet we all essentially share the same DNA. With humanism, there is a real sense that we are all in this life together, and we owe each other respect and love. Humanists across the world typically seek the welfare of everyone, and are often actively taking steps each day to make this world a better place. There is no in-group and no out-group. There is just humanity.

Since we don't believe in a supernatural guardian out there looking after the planet and all of its inhabitants, that duty falls on us. We, both individually and collectively, are responsible for our own well-being and the well-being of others. We are also responsible for looking after our planet. Climate change is real. Not that the planet itself really needs our help. The planet will do just fine. But if we intend for our children and grandchildren (not to mention the entire animal kingdom) to live healthily on it, then we ought to do our best to make that a reality.

 Next time you meet a humanist, talk to them. You might be surprised at how similar you are.

Why do I hate religion?
Generally speaking, I do not hate religion. However, there are times when I do feel quite bitter and sometimes angry about some aspects of religion. It's not that I hate religious people. I don't. Nor do I hate Christadelphians.

I personally think that when people react strongly against religion it is often a reflection of how religion affected them. For example, I express the most anger towards religion when dealing with issues that I personally experienced as a Christadelphian. I have a theory that my anger in these instances is not directed at Christadelphians per se, but at my former self, and also at those who took advantage of me. I see the same pattern in other ex-Christadelphians as well.

I also have strong feelings against the teaching of things to children who are too young to reason or determine whether those things are true. When beliefs are instilled in a child's mind this way, those beliefs are often later protected from rational enquiry and questioning, and may even become intertwined with the child's identity such that they have a strong disincentive to ever question them. But suppose this child grows up and eventually does gain the courage to question their beliefs. In this case, they are not questioning their beliefs only, but also their entire identity!

This is a traumatic experience for anyone to go through, to put it mildly. It becomes incredibly difficult to deal with when you realise that you did not choose your identity in the first place. But there's more. In the Christadelphian community it is not just identity that is tied up in the belief system, but also friends and family as well. Friendship with "the world" is strongly discouraged, and so I had no friends who were not Christadelphians. Christadelphians require adherence to a pre-determined set of "beliefs" in order to remain a member. Members are not free to form their own beliefs. Disbelief in the core doctrines translates to alienation from the community. Questioning one's beliefs therefore comes with an attached risk. It is no wonder very few people ever take that road.

In my case, this was the only community and life I knew. I wasn't a worldly teenager, and had no interest in "enjoying the pleasures of sin". I did have a keen interest in truth however, and eventually truth mattered more to me than anything else. I needed to know whether the things I had believed all my life were in fact true. Without knowing what lay ahead, I set out on a mission to research every aspect of my belief system, and every part of my world-view. Doubt became my norm, and I allowed myself the freedom to explore every question, no matter how sensitive. A year later, I had discovered that most of what I had been taught about the Bible and about reality was wrong. That's a lot to take in.

People have accused me of wanting to leave. They have claimed that I only looked for information against the religion and that's why I found it. This is false, and extremely unfair. Anyone who has had a crisis of faith can attest to this. I wanted God to be real. I wanted to be saved. I clung tightly to any evidence I could find that would hold my beliefs together. I still prayed often, and earnestly. I pleaded with God to reveal himself to me, so that I could believe. There was only silence. I reconciled my faith and held onto my beliefs long after accepting evolution. I was disfellowshipped 7 months later but still identified as a (out-of-fellowship) Christadelphian even months after that. Even when I no longer called myself a Christadelphian I still remained a Christian for several months after that. The only choice I made was to seek the truth. I did not choose where that led me. I did not choose the facts.

To those who accuse me of wanting to leave, I simply say "Try doing it yourself".

Having to choose between the truth and the only community I knew, was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. You may not agree with my decision. But you surely must agree that the decision was mine to make. I chose truth, despite the enormous cost. I was raised as a truth-seeker. I still see a lot of value in that. I am committed to being as honest and true to the facts of reality as I possibly can be.

Not always pretty
Atheism isn't always easy to live with. It's not very nice to think that death is the finality of existence. But I have no evidence of anything else, and plenty of scientific evidence that life ceases at death.

It is not always a pretty picture. But if it's the truth, I'd best get used to it. To me this is just part of growing up and becoming an adult.

In many ways, the finality of death makes life more valuable. I have more reasons to live a fuller life.

I'm not going to claim that atheism always makes me happier, although I certainly feel more free. Life is different as an atheist. It takes some adjusting to get used to it. Life feels a lot more like a journey, and atheism feels like a rebirth. I'm still learning, and will go on learning more about the world every day.

I may not see God in nature, but I do see awe and wonder. I am inspired by images of deep space and distant galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope. I love exploring the natural world, and reading about its amazing secrets.

I hope this article has given you some insight into my journey to atheism. I also hope I have in some way changed your perspective of atheists. We're just like you in many ways, with hopes and dreams, and real lives and families and friends. We live in the same world, and we interact with you daily. We differ in how we view the world, and we don't believe the same things, but we still live meaningful and purposeful lives, doing the things we love and caring for those around us.

Take care.