I’ve had two diverging reactions to my atheism lately.
About two weeks ago, I was talking to a co-worker who totally agreed with my political views. Somewhere in the midst of my critique on the Republican platform I mentioned that I was an atheist.
She turned without saying another word and walked away. My immediate thought, “maybe I said something out loud that was different than what I said in my head.” Was this the onset of Tourette’s? Did I just say something racist, sexist, or talk about my favorite side dish when I eat a baby? Nope. Just the word: atheist.
Last week, I was involved in a 3-person conversation (a “conversation à trois”) when my friend who I’ll call the “Doubting Theist” says to the third party, “Hey, did you know that Adam is an atheist?” My Doubting Theist friend was hoping to spark a lively debate about Life, the Universe and Everything (see 42). This other person said that I was “crazy” and “delusional” and that my life must be “depressing.” This went on for several minutes. I know what you’re thinking: Left Hemispheres guy --gave a profound, well reasoned, slightly sarcastic argument for non-belief in god or gods in 140 characters or less. Right? Well no actually, I didn’t really have anything to say because I could not stop thinking about the other person from the week before.
Both of these people were immediately upset and surprised--shocked even--that someone could possibly hold my worldview, or probably more accurately, not hold theirs. I find myself equally surprised when I encounter this reaction. They seemed appalled that atheism is even possible. I think this is the case because they were approaching this question starting from a position of faith. Confirmation bias makes God seem self-evident. It takes tremendous initial effort to think about theism critically or objectively. I know this because I used to be one of these people.
When starting from faith, alternatives are rarely considered even as a thought experiment. To conceptualize atheism as valid is to imagine a world without the god you “know” exists. You look at it as a -1. More than just a God, then no-God. An atheist was a person who lives without my (personal) God. To imagine a world that you believe is an expression of God’s love without God is like imagining a world without a world. The concept needs to be approached with neutrality-- from zero.
I was raised Lutheran and had a childhood friend who was Catholic. I was fascinated to hear about Purgatory. I understood it to be a sort of cosmic waiting room whereas I had direct delivery to heaven or hell. I remember having the same bemused sense of novelty as when his mother put the peanut butter and the jelly on the same slice of bread when making a PB&J sandwich (not like our house!). So I was fortunate enough to have an anxiety-free opportunity to look at my beliefs as my Catholic friend would see them. Then, as the Jehovah's Witness girl in my classroom. Then as a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu. With each religion or worldview I came into contact with I tried my best to put on their glasses and look at the world.
My approach to faith was very much like that eye exam where the doctor keeps changing lenses until the blurred letters become clear. Some of those lenses could be placed over my existing lense to add to the overall quality of the image. Some religions or outlooks would bring certain areas into sharp focus while obscuring others. Some lenses make a mess of everything and can be discarded immediately
- The world is all connected (yes!) by an invisible/intangible force in command (huh?).
- Everyone is loved by God (OK) except those people (really?)
- Every positive or negative action will return to you (maybe) as you go through a series of reincarnations as various animals or humans until you get it right (what?)
I had to look at the situation from the perspective of other faiths before I could look at it without any faith at all. I had to go through several versions of -1 until I found “Zero.” I relinquished every notion of supernaturalism. I started each question without the preconceived dogma and without the baggage of trying to bend facts to fit a theology. Using religion to explain the world is like trying to fill a circle with triangles. No amount of effort will make a complete picture. This is the reason religious claims rely so heavily on faith. Faith that the shape one sees isn’t actually real, but it really looks like “this.” Faith that the pieces don’t matter. Faith in the person who first tells you that, “A triangle is not a triangle because God.”
This may help to explain the notions of how depressing it must be to “believe in nothing.” Or the “You are just angry at God” sentiment. They think that they are objectively looking at a godless worldview but they are missing the point. They are in fact looking at their life without their God. This could even explain the smug atheist paradigm. I was able to step outside of myself and look at the world. But for reasons I can't fathom, you won't even consider it. It makes us angry because it seems obvious. Many of us forget what those first furtive steps into godlessness felt like. Once you’ve done it, it seems easy. I have Taoism and later Zen Buddhism to thank for giving me the concept of No Mind. To actualize nothing. To start at the beginning with no specific intention toward an outcome. It’s liberating (at least until the Buddha gets in your way) .
I continue to do this. I constantly reevaluate my positions. I ask myself why I believe what I believe. I try to look at the evidence for every claim (especially my own). I ask myself: would I believe this if I was hearing it for the first time? If we are going to claim the intellectual high ground on what may be the most important existential questions: who we are and why we exist, then we need to be courageous enough to doubt ourselves. Take a moment and look at your own claims first from faith, then from zero. Follow the trail to truth wherever it leads. If you find yourself back where you started, pat yourself on the back and blaze a new path.