Before I "met" Larry in this digital forum, I never really referred to myself openly as an atheist. In some senses, I still don’t, in that my identity as an atheist isn’t a big part of who I am as a person. I consider metaphysical musings to be trivial. While I enjoy such musings, much as I enjoy the intellectual wankery of amateur-hour policy wonkery, both hobbies really aren’t much more than a cognitive form of ego masturbation. Et la, I try not to let such an identity define me. It’s not that I think poorly of people who do choose to fight that fight – and I’ll jump in if I feel it’s warranted or amusing – but I simply can’t get worked up about something I don’t particularly care that much about.
Interacting with the people here in the forum Larry provides, however, made me see that this very attitude made it important to be forthright about my atheism. There exists in this world a very wide swath of people for whom adherence to the right kind of faith, or at least some kind of faith, in a God is felt to be crucial to participating in the larger community. George H.W. Bush and Joe Lieberman both stated publicly that atheists cannot be good people and should not be allowed to be citizens of a participatory democracy. Frequently, theists of all stripes ask how one can be good without God. I not so humbly contend that I am living proof that God is not necessary: I work day in and day out to help individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, making sure they are not denied access to their rights, medical care, education, and work. I do this for a relatively modest salary compared to what my personal ability and education make possible. I have always done thus, for no better reason than I felt that it was important to give to the community by helping people in need. I feel good doing good. How do I know my work is good? Because it has observable positive effects, and the people on the receiving end say so: just like anyone else.
Self-identifying as an atheist is important because there are theists dedicated to tearing down atheism and atheists. Men like Peter Berkowitz and Michael Novak have penned what amount to, even if they are beautifully written and highly intelligent, little more than hit pieces that prey on fear. The charge that one cannot be good if one is an atheist is a terrible accusation of monstrosity, equating atheists with sociopaths (and frequently sociopaths, like Hitler and Stalin, are equated with atheists in order to distance theists from their ilk): Atheists should fear the community, and the community should fear atheists.
I was not raised religious, never attending church despite my parents’ nominally Protestant upbringing. My mother never talks about religion, and seems to have lost faith around the time of her mother’s early death. My father maintains a quiet, personal faith in something resembling Spinoza’s god. I have never found a need for faith, and that lack is far more telling to me than absence of evidence (though I see none of that, either). At age twelve, at the height of my parents’ contentious divorce, in the throes of suicidal ideation, no faith appeared out of my despair. At the loss of my beloved grandfather when I was fourteen, I did not want to believe my grandfather was gone for good, but again simply found no need for a belief in the afterlife to console me; I had his writings, his gifts, my memories, and the parts of me I recognized as his teachings and influence to shelter my grief. Facing a life-threatening open-heart surgery at sixteen, again I felt no need to resort to prayer or faith to comfort my anxiety: things would play out as they would play out, and I had to trust in the skill of my doctors or not at all. I chose to trust my fellow man and here I remain today, twelve years later.
The one thing that keeps me sympathetic to the theist is the one or two nights a month where I remain awake, breaths coming shallow and rapid, a tight constriction in my chest. These are the nights where I contemplate the possibility of oblivion. Nothing terrifies me so much as the thought of my mind ceasing to exist. I can live with that terror or find solace in comforting belief; ultimately, because I have experienced no need in my life and no revelatory experience, and absent a childhood of gentle indoctrination, I do not turn to belief. I spend some nights afraid, and go on with my life.
One thing I don’t think most theists understand is that I would love to be wrong. I constantly search for reasons why I am wrong in my politics, in my lack of faith, in my morals, in everything. If I am wrong, I want to know; and being insecure as I often am, I must always deal with the uncertain feeling that I could be wrong about any given thing. If I trust to anything, it is my openness to this possibility and my constant search for contradictory information. Sometimes that leads to a changing of opinion. In terms of atheism, despite actively seeking out writers like Messrs. Berkowitz and Novak, C.S. Lewis, the Bible, Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist teachers, and so on, I have yet to find anything that convinces me. To say, for example, that Christians (one sect, all sects, whatever) are correct and I will experience Hell is a gamble I can live with because the consequence if I am wrong still means that my mind continues to exist. And so, Hell holds far less terror for me.
Given so many scriptures to choose from, it seems to me that the only acceptable answer lies in either a Hindu conception (thousands of gods, or one God with many faces) or a Unitarian one (vague Spinoza-esque God thing out there somewhere). I have never been able to reconcile the idea of a loving God requiring worship and belief. Love is not unconditional among humans, but either God is greater than we are – and so should have unconditioned love for all life (or contempt, or indifference; who are we to say?) – or God is no greater than Man, only more terrible and powerful. Just as I do not bow to those I don't respect, whatever their authority, and would struggle against a human tyrant, I cannot worship at the feet of the contradictory conceptions of the Abrahamic God.
Ultimately, I find that I am comfortable with a Mysterian position: there are some things that are simply too complex or ethereal for us to conceptualize or comprehend in our current form. As a student of history, if I have faith in any one thing, it is in man’s potential for further progression as a thinking, feeling creature, since that progress is amply demonstrated in the few millennia’s worth of information we have available to us. Maybe one day we will possess deeper insights into the nature of metaphysics. But it seems to me, as we grow more enmeshed with technology and our thought ascends past rudimentary tribalism into more complex forms, we have moved past the need for a God. Our growing technological interconnection moves us past the need for tribal cohesion. Teleology can be found in unity in leaving a better world for our children. Moral lessons and thought have progressed, allowing Scripture to pass into Literature (there is a reason why logos translates into both "god" and "word"), serving now the same educational function that mythology and folk lore does. Our incredible ability to learn and adapt leads to an expanding base of knowledge, allowing us to accept that there are things we don’t know but may one day, superseding the need for a supernatural explanation for events whose causes seem beyond our ken.
My atheism is, in the end, about confidence in the forward progression of our species and the positive effects we can choose to have. I am an atheist precisely because I am also a humanist. We are our own Alpha and Omega. I guess, in the end, my atheism informs who I am far more than I first thought when beginning this essay.