Sunday, July 29, 2007

Coming out

An insane, immoral war in Iraq, built on lies and delusion. Another war, equally insane, equally immoral, equally founded on lies and delusion, brewing with Iran. Global warming threatening the whole planet. The supply of oil declining. Clean fresh water becoming increasingly scarce. Widening inequality between the very richest and the very poorest, and the middle class—the engine of every civilized society—on the decline.

These are but a few of the problems facing our society. None of them are fundamentally ideological: They are problems caused by reality, and require rational, sensible solutions. To discover and implement these solutions requires that human beings become, in general, rational and sensible. And we are not. And not only are we not rational and sensible, there are social forces in all societies that actively deprecate, dismiss, and marginalize rationality and sensibility.

Religion is definitely not the only such social force, but it is one of them, with the longest history and most force. And it is, furthermore, the most egregiously irrational, insensible and ridiculous set of ideas. The idea that a magical sky daddy is going to make everything all right—in this world or the next—if only we adhere strictly to a set of social and sexual mores invented by iron-age pre-technological savages and justified with a blatantly fictitious mythology staggers the rational imagination.

I know a lot of people who don't believe in any god, have no use whatsoever for religious bullshit, but who don't call themselves atheists. I understand, really: Self-identification as an atheist is a political statement, and people have every right to choose their political battles. I don't want to shame anyone into self-identification, but I do want to exhort them.

I'm asking you to self-identify as an atheist and do so publicly. Nothing more. You don't have to write letters to the editor. You don't have to vote the atheist party line (but please do vote). You don't have to come to the Evil Atheist Conspiracy picnics. Just decide you're an atheist and when the topic of religion comes up, say you're an atheist. You don't have to be hostile, confrontational or argumentative, just honest.

Self-identifying in public as an atheist entails the rejection of the most pervasive and socially acceptable irrational superstitions. Public self-identification will not automatically make society rational, but it will help, at least, make it a little less irrational.

You don't have to be certain there's no god to be an atheist. If you're a rational, sensible person, you know we can't be certain about anything. Saying you're an atheist is saying nothing more than that, based on the evidence you presently have, according to your natural reason, there's simply no justification for believing in any god, and thus disbelief is justified. And any god that might exist—given the same evidence—would be unworthy of belief, undeserving of worship, and unconcerned with the well-being of humanity. Yes, a god might be hiding behind your couch, but is such a god worthy of your consideration? I think not.

Atheism does not entail renouncing spirituality, at least if you define "spirituality" to mean something other than believing in some brand of superstitious woo-woo. Spirituality is nothing more—and nothing less—than the recognition that people have values, emotions and preferences and that they're important; that human life is more than just the neutral collection of objective knowledge. We can celebrate life, and life is manifestly real. We can sometimes act irrationally because of emotion, but emotions are not intrinsically irrational: They are facts, and the rational person accepts the facts.

You don't have to judge others to call yourself an atheist: You can simply say that's what you yourself believe. But you can judge: If you really believe that religion is irrational and irrationality is self-destructive, to withhold even the knowledge of an alternative seems profoundly indifferent to the suffering of others. It doesn't violate anyone's autonomy to say or imply their beliefs are irrational; anyone who expresses offense is trying only to violate your autonomy.

There are, I suspect, millions of people who are troubled in their own minds by the irrationality of their religion, but who cling to it simply because they are not aware there's an alternative. Who knows? You might just say, one day, "I'm an atheist", and such a troubled person hearing your declaration might investigate and release him- or herself from the bondage of irrational superstition.

Come out against superstition and bullshit. Come out for rationality and sensibility. Come out of the closet and into the streets!


  1. This a great post. Thanks. Especially the point that you don't have to be religious to be aware of your own spirituality [a basically HUMAN component].

    If, when I find myself in some unknown world beyond this one, and discover that there is a god after all, I shall say to him, her or it "How COULD you?"

  2. I realize that a lot of people have a problem doing this. I've never really understood it though. If we lived in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan I would get it. But here in the U.S., it just seems so simple. I've been doing it for 35 years (since I was 19).

    Maybe I haven't had anything to lose and can't see it from the position of someone who is worried about their career. But I think folks would find that being honest can have as many upsides as the problems that could come with announcing ones atheism.


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