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Monday, July 28, 2008

On Atheism: Part Three

As those of you with long memories may recall, I have been writing a semi-regular series in which I discuss my atheism. The purpose of this is not to have an excuse to just ramble on about myself, but rather to help educate people about what atheism really is... or at least what my atheism really is since atheists are a pretty diverse lot. The last installment of this series covered why I think it's important to talk about being an atheist and in an intermission that followed I presented a short parable about prayer. In today's installment, the final of the three I originally promised, we're going to talk about how my atheism makes me happy. As always the standard disclaimers apply: I am not trying to convert you or anyone else. I do not care if you're an atheist or not, nor if you agree with me or not. Likewise, I speak only for myself. Other atheists may have different opinions.

Now, it goes without saying that it has been some time since I wrote anything for this series. Indeed, the last quasi-installment was in March of this year so it's been over four months. Some of you may have been wondering if my long delay was because I was having a hard time finding a way that atheism makes me happy. Fortunately for me, this was not the case. Instead, I was wrestling with the difficulty of explaining in a blog format how my entire worldview is fulfilling. That is, of course, a simple task and for my next trick, I'll jump through my own ass backwards. Seriously, though, it's difficult to know how to do a coherent job without writing a book. And since I don't have the time to write a book about atheism- what with the Ph.D. program and all- I decided to do an incoherent job instead. Aren't you lucky?

So, to begin this rambling exposition I want you to consider for a moment how I view mankind and, indeed, myself. I experience myself as a thinking, self-aware being. Yet, I do not believe in a soul, nor in the supernatural. I believe that my consciousness is a result of complex electro-chemical activity occurring in my brain. I believe that my existence is not planned, I am not here because some super-entity intended me to be. Indeed, my entire species is in a sense accidental. Some find this line of thinking upsetting or demoralizing, it saps them of purpose or will. To me, ladies and gentlemen, it is beautiful.

Try to imagine with me what this means. I am sitting in my kitchen typing on a computer. Outside I can see trees blowing in the wind and hear rain pattering to the ground. These are things that would have happened whether or not I was here.* They would have been as beautiful and as wonderful whether I was here or not. Yet, I am here, if only by chance, and that chance does not in any way diminish the beauty or peace of what I witness. Indeed, if a rose by any other name smells as sweet, then life- whether planned or happenstance- remains life. Yet, life for me is different because it has no limits.

That is, of course, an exaggeration. My life is circumscribed by my culture and my material reality as surely as anyone else's is. Yet, on a larger level, that we are here without a plan also means that we are here without an end. We as a species are not destined to do or become anything any more than any individual one of us is destined to do or become anything. Instead, we as individuals and as a people have only potential. We as individuals can be gentle, caring, and giving to those around us. We can succor the injured, teach the ignorant, defend the weak and so forth. As a species we can build new wonders, learn about our world, and grow both physically and socially. Likewise, as individuals we can prey upon our fellows, ignore others and destroy. And as a species we can rape the environment, crush other species and generally draw the entire world into our own selfish maw. To me, neither of these options is foreordained. Each of us, every day, makes choices that produce these outcomes. And in so doing we are- each of us- beautiful and terrible. Yet, however our choices go, the wonder of being human is that there are always more choices to make, new challenges to meet and new discoveries to have. I type on a computer invented by human minds, I live in a home built by human hands, I bend my efforts to accumulating human knowledge. I carry the legacy of thousands of generations of mankind and I bear a responsibility to the thousands that are (I hope) yet to come. I am, as a human, part of a great tradition, a great work, that binds all of those like me together. It is a work of discovery and growth that will always be in progress, can never be finished, and as such will continually give us a goal to strive for. In the work we become what we are, and in the achieving we become beautiful.

As an atheist I believe that we have no goals except what we choose, no beauty except what we earn, no fate save what we make, and as such I am humbled by the limitless power of simply being human. There are those who argue that to be an atheist is to believe yourself to have the power of a god. In a sense this is correct as we must decide our own right and wrong and we must make decisions without the supposed invisible guidance of an all-knowing being. We must live our lives without a net. Yet, if we have the power of gods then we also have the responsibility of them. We bear the guilt for all the pain we cause as well as the joy. We have the responsibility for how we behave, what we do, and as a result what we cause to enter the world. It is a hard and terrible burden. Yet, we as humans are defined by our responsibilities. I am responsible to my co-workers, to my fellow citizens, to my family, to my wife, and someday to my children. Those responsibilities make me who I am and without them I would be nothing. Atheism gives me identity- it tells me who I am because it tells me to whom I am responsible. It grounds me in the tapestry of human life, human power, and human powerlessness.

Being an atheist makes me happy because it tells me how to live my life and how not to be afraid of death. Indeed, many theists have said that to believe in god is to no longer fear death but I do not fear death expressly because I do not believe. I was raised a Christian and, as such, death held much horror. Once I died I would either be exiled to a land of eternal torment forever to regret my life or else would undergo a neutering of the human spirit. By being "perfected" by a god I would no longer have any potential or responsibilities. There would no longer be anything to discover, no choices to make, no lessons to learn, no battles to be fought, and no victories to be had. My life would end in either physical pain or a death of what it means to be me and an end to those things that made existing worthwhile. As an atheist, in contrast, death is simply no longer existing. When I am dead I will be gone and, hence, unaware. There will be no torment or endless banality. My accomplishments will stand, the good and evil that I have done will remain, but I will not. And there is nothing in that to fear. Indeed, I never understood how eternal life was, in some sense, supposed to give life meaning. If life has no meaning when it is only a few decades long, how will eternity endow it any more fully?

I will concede that I fear dying- the actual experience itself- but there is no surprise in that. I hope to die with dignity, few regrets and perhaps a sense of annoyance- at having to miss whatever is coming next. I never was any good with cliffhangers. In viewing death as I do, however, I am encouraged all the more to value life and to live it. I will not pass this way again. I will not have the chance to watch from beyond and guide my loved ones. I must do all that I will do while I am- inexplicably, wonderfully, unpredictably- alive. All that I am, or ever will be, must be now- there will be no second chances, no do-overs, and no divine forgiveness. I must make sure that my wife knows how special she is to me, how much I love her and how devoted I am.

And I do love my wife. More than I realize sometimes, more than she or anyone else can possibly know. I probably don't tell her enough, but can't the same be said about everyone we care for? And that is the most amazing thing of all. We are not flawed, imperfect creatures who are struggling to shed our humanness so as to become divine. We are not trying to destroy that which makes us what we are. Our love, our joy, our friendship, our loyalty and devotion are ours. They come from simply being human, from accepting and cherishing that which we are. And atheism has given me that- a deep, abiding, passionate love of all that is humanity, of all the love and sorrow that we give to one another. I love my wife not because some deity leaks love into the world, not because I have managed to shed some small fraction of my humanity, but for the simple reason that I am human.** What I am is honest, it is good or bad in proportion to the choices I make, and I will live my life to the fullest. I appreciate the love that others give me because it comes to me honestly, openly, from what makes them who they are.

In atheism I find the contentment of a place in the world, of love, of responsibility, and a balm against existential fears. Without atheism I would not be the man that I am.

And with atheism, I believe that I can become a better man tomorrow.

That is why being an atheist makes me happy.


* Well, except for the me typing part, but I shouldn't have to specify that.

** Also she's an amazing woman.***

*** And it doesn't hurt that she's totally hot.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Marf said...

I was wondering when the next "On Atheism" post was going to be.

That pretty much sums up how I feel as well. You and I have come to the same beliefs. We're both strong atheists (by your definition), and we both believe humanity is what we make of it.

Heh, too bad that picture wasn't a front view. ;-)

Monday, July 28, 2008 12:54:00 PM  

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