Friday, 9 November 2012

A Big Welcome To New Atheists

So you've finally admitted to yourself that you're an Atheist!

The first thing to understand is that you're not alone; you are part of a very rapidly growing world-wide 'community' of Atheists. I use the term 'community' loosely here because Atheism is not an organised movement. It doesn't commit you to believing in anything in place of gods so there are no dogmas, axioms or tenets of faith (how could there be?). Atheism is not an alternative faith. Atheism is an alternative to faith. It has been said that the only certainty is that there are no certainties.

What it does mean though is that your opinions and thoughts are shared by very many other people. They are not 'heretical', eccentric, oddball or crazy. If you come from a strongly religious background or a strongly religious community, you will probably feel like the odd one out. You will almost certainly have gone through a stage of self-doubt on your way to Atheism. You will have wondered if there is something that prevented you believing by 'faith' - had you missed something that other people can understand, maybe?

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

Christopher Hitchens - God Is Not Great
All religions will have worked hard to instil the belief in you that faith is a virtue - something to be proud of and admired and something which, when questioned, you should be ashamed of yourself for. This was all part of the indoctrination of children which all religions use. What you have missed out on is being fooled by this indoctrination.

Questioning and doubt are good things. One of the great harms that religions do is to make people afraid of, or ashamed of, doubts. What a powerful weapon that is in the hands of the unscrupulous and manipulative! Doubt and wonder are things that spur us on to learn and to understand. The universe is so full of wonderful things that who could not want to learn about it and understand it better? The only people who could possibly not want you to question and learn are those who don't want to be caught out for having told you lies.

So, put any thoughts out of your head that you are the oddball. You are one of those who have shrugged off your childhood brain-washing. For many people this is not an easy thing to do; you should be very proud of yourself.

If you were more than superficially religious, and many new deconverts to Atheism were, or have been brought up in a religious culture, there are a few things you need to be prepared for:

Modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the Golden Calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

Richard Dawkins

The God-shaped Gap

Subconsciously or otherwise, you will have got used to thinking in terms of a god watching you and very many of the words you use will be based on the assumption of a god. 'God' will have been a part of your persona if for no other reason than your childhood indoctrination. Now you have realised that this god is not real, there will be a 'god-shaped gap' in your persona. This will have some strange effects which can be confusing.

For a long time I got a weird feeling when I went into a church - and I love old churches and cathedrals. I felt I needed to be reverential and respectful; to talk in hushed tones, etc. Some people mistake this for an actual presence of something and begin to doubt their atheism even. It's only that god-shaped gap which hasn't healed over yet. Give it time. I know of at least one former Catholic, an Atheist for some forty years now, who still finds it strange to turn her back on the crucifix and not to genuflect in front of it. For a long time she felt uncomfortable going into a Protestant Church because the nuns at her convent school had impressed on her how evil those satanic Protestants are.

You will also find yourself saying things like "Oh my God!", "Jesus!", "Inshallah", "Allahu Akhbar", etc. These are just cultural word; forms of shorthand. They are no more reverential than a Brit saying "Cor blimey!" (God blind me) or "Goodbye" (God be with you), or a Spaniard saying "Adios" (with God). They are words which mean something different now. They no more indicate religious beliefs or thoughts than saying, "shit!" makes you a proctologist or saying "bugger!" makes you gay.

Those of us who write and study history are accustomed to its approximations and ambiguities. This is why we do not take literally the tenth-hand reports of frightened and illiterate peasants who claim to have seen miracles or to have had encounters with messiahs and prophets and redeemers who were, like them, mere humans. And this is also why we will never submit to dictation from those who display a fanatical belief in certainty and revelation.

Christopher Hitchens
You may find yourself still saying "fingers crossed" meaning "good luck!" or saying "bless you!" when someone sneezes, or even wishing people "Merry Christmas!". As you now know, none of this will make the slightest difference to the outcome but if they make the other person feel better, why not still say them?

Don't worry about saying these things. Worrying about saying the wrong words is for people who are afraid of 'blaspheming' in case a thug in the sky hears them. As an Atheist you are free from that phobia too.

An Atheist is one of the grandest titles... it is the Order of Merit of the World’s heroes... Copernicus, Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, Priestly.

Annie Wood Besant (1847–1933)
When someone dies you'll still be tempted to wonder if they can see you and what they are doing. You'll find it hard to believe they've just stopped existing. You won't feel comfortable talking about them, especially in disparaging terms. The cultural taboo against speaking ill of the dead will still be there. This is just part of the normal human psychological process of grieving. Denialism is merely a stage you go through on the road to acceptance.

You probably went through a similar stage on your way to Atheism with respect to your former god. If your god had been a major part of your life, you probably found it difficult to imagine it not being there, just like you find it hard to accept a dead close friend or relative not being there. I wonder how many overtly religious people are in fact in this stage of denial, grieving for the god they don't think is there anymore? Was that behind your former religiosity maybe?

Truth does not ask to be believed. It asks to be tested. Scientists do not join hands every Saturday or Sunday and sing, “Yes, gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I will be strong! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!” If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept.

Dan Barker,
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists
You'll also find it hard to imagine your own eventual oblivion. Some people find it impossible to imagine what it would be 'like' to not exist; to not know what happens next. This is perfectly normal. We did not need this concept to evolve; we can only think in terms of our own existence because we can't help but put ourselves at the centre of the universe as we model it in our minds. In our conceptual model we are looking out of our body at the world around us through the windows of our eyes because that is how our perception of the world has evolved. Our world always has us in it. But the world really can exist without us, just as it did before we were born.

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. 

Richard Dawkins
Accepting the inevitability of your own eventual oblivion is the key to accepting that this life is all you have and all you ever will have. It is not a rehearsal or a preparation. This is it. This is your one big chance to experience the universe. Make the most of it but make of it what you will. It is yours to do with as you wish. Do you want to leave a legacy? Do you want to be remembered? If so, how and for what? Will this planet be the better for your life or not? You are the product of a 3.5 billion year evolutionary process and the descendant of survivors who never ever failed when failure was the norm. What does that mean to you? Some of us think that alone is enough to make us feel very special and very fortunate. Only you can decide that for yourself.

That God-shaped gap will heal over in time, now you've excised the superstition which caused it, just as a tumour-shaped hole will heal over when the tumour has been excised.

Friends and family

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Christopher Hitchens - The Portable Atheist
The affect their atheism might have on friends and family is the reason so many Atheists remain in the closet. They don't want to upset their family and they don't want to lose their friends. One thing to think about here is that, if fear of what your friends will do or say is what is keeping you in the closet and preventing you being free, are they your friends, or your jailers? And how many of your friends are also in the closet through fear of what you might do or say?

Dan Barker was an evangelical fundamentalist Christian preacher and singer song-writer who deconverted to Atheism and is now a leading American Atheist. Here's how he handled the friends and family issue:
In January 1984 I wrote a letter to everyone I could think of—ministers, friends, relatives, publishing companies, Christian recording artists, fellow missionaries—breaking it off for good, telling them that I was no longer a Christian, that I was an atheist or agnostic (I didn’t have the distinction clear in my mind then), that I would no longer accept invitations to preach or perform Christian music, and that I hoped we could keep a dialogue open. I remember that moment, hesitating for a few seconds at the mailbox beside Chaffey High School in Ontario, California, holding those dozens of envelopes in my hand and thinking, “This is it.” Dropping those letters into the slot was a million times more satisfying than any religious experience. It was real...

My letters were mailed, every important person in my life would soon know that I was no longer a Christian — and I walked away from that mailbox a free person. I knew there would be strong responses, but I was not afraid. I had made my own free choice, and no believer in the world would deny me that freedom. You can’t believe if you don’t have the freedom not to believe. Here is the letter I mailed, dated January 16, 1984, to more than 50 colleagues, friends and family members:
Dear friend,

You probably already know that I have gone through some significant changes regarding spiritual things. The past five or six years has been a time of deep reevaluation for me, and during the last couple of years I have decided that I can no longer honestly call myself a Christian. You can probably imagine that it has been an agonizing process for me. I was raised in a good Christian home, served in missions and evangelism, went to a Christian college, became ordained and ministered in three churches as Assistant Pastor. During those years I was 100 percent convinced of my faith, and now I am just about 100 percent unconvinced.

The purpose of this letter is not to present my case. Yet I will point out that my studies have brought me through many important areas, most notably: the authenticity of the bible, faith vs. reason, church history — and a bunch of other fun subjects like evolution, physics, psychology, self-esteem, philosophy, parapsychology, pseudo-science, mathematics, etc.

I’m not sure what the purpose of this letter is, except to serve as a point of information to a friend or relative whom I consider to be important in my life, and with whom I could not bear to be dishonest. I have not thrown the baby out with the bath water. I still basically maintain the same Christian values of kindness, love, giving, temperance and respect that I was raised with. Christianity has much good. Yet I feel I can demonstrate an alternate, rational basis for those values outside of a system of faith and authority. Of course, I admit, those values cannot save me from the fires of hell — but it is irrational to hold a fear of something which is nonexistent, and to allow that fear to dominate one’s philosophy and way of life.

If the bible is true I will run to it willingly. If there is a God, I would be silly to deny Him. In fact, the little child in me still sometimes wishes to regain the comforts and reassurances of my former beliefs. I am a human being with the same fears and feelings we all share. The bible says those who seek will find. You know me. I am constantly seeking. And I have not found. Right now I am somewhere between the agnostic and the atheist, although I spend a great deal of time in both camps.

There is much more to say, and I would greatly appreciate any input you can offer. I would suggest, though, that before we attempt any meaningful dialogue, we should understand as much as possible about each other’s thoughts. If you wish, I will send you any of various papers I am preparing, including: The Bible, Faith vs. Reason…

Finally, I am not your enemy. Our enemy is the one who doesn’t care about these subjects—who thinks that you and I are silly to be concerned with life and values. I intend no disrespect to you, or anyone who is genuinely interested in religion and philosophy. It is the non-thinker who bothers me and with whom meaningful interaction is impossible.

Dan Barker
Today, I would write a completely different letter, but that’s where I was at the time, in the process of changing one worldview for another. Today, I would point out that the “Christian values” I found to be praiseworthy are simply human values, and that not all Christian values are good — in fact, no values that are exclusively Christian are admirable. The “little child” nostalgia lasted about a year, and has been replaced with embarrassment that I ever believed or missed my belief. The definitions of agnosticism and atheism have been clarified. But that letter is a perfect snapshot of who I was, and reading it again brings back many of those old feelings.

Barker, Dan (2009-05-01). Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (pp. 44-48).
Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Most developed Western nations are now reporting a huge rise in non-belief over the last ten years or so. Non-believers are now in the majority in many European states like Britain, the Czech Republic and Sweden and should soon become majorities in countries like France and Germany. Even former staunchly Catholic countries like Ireland, Italy and Spain are becoming increasingly secular. In the USA non-believers now make up about twenty percent of the population.

The interesting thing to me is just how rapidly these figures are growing. It suggests that rather than people being deconverted from religion, what is happening is that, as reported non-belief increases, more and more closet Atheists are coming out and admitting their atheism, to themselves and to others.

How many of your friends and family are in that closet just waiting for the courage to come out?

In Dan Barker's case, his outwardly staunchly fundamentalist Christian mother suddenly concluded, some weeks after his letter, that religion was "just a bunch of baloney" and that she didn't "have to hate any more!" - which made her feel happier than religion ever did. What had never occurred to her was that Atheism is an option. Her son's atheism gave her permission to question.

For many people the question has always been which church to belong to; the 'none of the above' option was never there. For very many other people, I suspect, the choice has been which church to pretend to belong to because it is expected of them. For many people it seems the ritual of going to church, mosque, temple or synagogue and proclaiming yourself to be a Baptist, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, Methodist or Anglican, a Jew, a Muslim or whatever is religion. That alone seems to define them; it matters not at all how they actually behave. It's hard to see this as anything but a pretence, a keeping up of appearances for fear of what people might think. How many of these simply lack the courage to come out for fear of being isolated?

Public Expectation

In some parts of the world, Atheism is a crime just as homosexuality was a crime in most of the western world until fairly recently. That situation can be changed if public perceptions change.

Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing [in the ten commandments] about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?

Christopher Hitchens - God Is Not Great
In some parts of the world, Atheists are still regarded as criminals, rapists, murderers, Communists or Satanists. These are usually in places where people don't so much believe in God as believe in belief. Where religious belief is believed to be needed to control people. It's as though people here think the only reason not to murder, rape, rob banks and molest children is a fear of eventual punishment, and that the only reason to do good and care for ones fellow man is to get a reward. For some reason, this doesn't seem to apply to them, just to everyone else.

This is a dismal, forlorn, cynical and contemptible view of ones fellow man. This too will change, and quite quickly once non-belief becomes more common.

Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms — had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.

Christopher Hitchens - God Is Not Great
When my grandfather was alive it would have been almost unthinkable in the UK to be an Atheist and not go to church. In fact there were times when non-attendance at church on Sunday was a criminal offence in England. That has changed. In the early 1950s most families went to church, by the mid-1960s this had fallen to less than half; now less than one in ten families ever go to church for anything other than weddings and funerals.

Secular marriages, or non-marriage at all, are now the norm and most people don't have their children christened. Churches are finding it difficult to recruit new clergy and stand empty most Sundays. Vicars commonly deliver their sermons to practically empty pews; what congregations there are are increasingly aged. Former Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and other cult chapels are being sold off and converted to houses because no one goes to them any more.

At one time it would have been almost unthinkable for a non-Anglican to become Prime Minister; now most politicians in the UK keep quiet about any religious convictions they may have for fear of being thought of as 'religious maniacs'. Religious fundamentalism is now more associated with mental illness than with being a trustworthy, upright citizen; it's the thing causing that dishevelled character on the street corner to shout gibberish at passers by; or the excuse those phony faith-healers are using to fleece sick and vulnerable people. Rightly or wrongly, many parents would now think twice before leaving their children alone with a priest.

Men have had the vanity to pretend that the whole creation was made for them, while in reality the whole creation does not suspect their existence.

Camille Flammarion (1842–1925)
French Astronomer.
In short, Christianity is on it's last legs in Britain. Within another generation or two, it will be nothing more than a fringe cult at best and probably just another old myth that people used to believe before they knew any better. Yahweh, the old volcano god of Abraham, will have joined the pantheon of dead gods along with Pan, Wotan, Zeus and Amon Ra.

If you are unfortunate enough to live in a country where this process has not got under way yet, fear not. Your coming out as Atheist is part of that process. You are moving with the unstoppable tide of history that is sweeping away old superstitions and infantile notions from the childhood of our species.

The future is yours. Welcome to Atheism. Welcome to sanity and welcome back to reality.





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8 comments :

  1. "For a long time I got a weird feeling when I went into a church - and I love old churches and cathedrals. I felt I needed to be reverential and respectful; to talk in hushed tones, etc. "

    Actually, there may be something more than habit going on there: I think the architecture is specifically designed to encourage that. It echoes and is designed to amplify the sound from the pulpit, choir, and altar, so one does find that one has to talk in hushed tones to get a normal volume level. There are probably also visual cues designed to make people reverential. The same architectural design is present in a number of civic buildings and auditoriums of the grander styles, and there are similar designs in many older "grand" train stations.

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    1. Your spam was removed, as will any more be.

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  3. Terrific post

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  4. I did not realize that any of the men in the Atheism poster above considered themselves "atheists"? Also in the Stupidism poster above I seriously doubt many atheists know of any of the subjects non-atheists are said to be ignorant.

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  5. It's interesting that you want a "scientific" argument. I think you want a philosophical argument that pertains to the subject of science. In the quote I cite here: "The future is yours. Welcome to Atheism. Welcome to sanity and welcome back to reality." it sounds as though you are welcoming people to a club or a cult. I'm sure your cognitive bias toward fellow atheists prevents you from critically thinking about your criticisms of religionists. If your are the epitome of sanity then I'll keep my own mental state. Also, appealing to psychology is a low blow even for an atheist making epistemic claims. I doubt even you have a clue about reality. How could you? You, as an atheist with no purpose or meaning live an absurd life. Thus, you have to fabricate your meaning for existence. It's not real or meaningful regardless of how much you believe it to be. But, I doubt that you have seriously contemplated any of the above. If I were you I would pay attention to world events, because I don't know if you've noticed (I mean how could you, since you don't believe in God) that the signs of the times are being fulfilled and Jewish, Christian, and secular scholars agree we are in perilous times. Good luck and I don't care if this does not make your blog, because it's just for the the blogger.

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    1. Please try to stay on topic. Had you read this blog you would have seen that there is no mention of a scientific argument.

      I note your excuse for not being able to offer any scientific arguments, BTW, so I don't suppose there is any point in inviting you to show your imaginary friend has any existence outside your imagination by accepting this simple challenge - Challenge to Christians (Reissued).

      Good luck if ever you do find the honesty and integrity to demonstrate the truth of your claims.

      Alternatively, you could seek psychiatric help with coping with what is clearly morbidly paranoid theophobia. As an acute anxiety disorder it can respond very well to skilled counselling.

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