The last time I had the “I’m an Atheist” talk, I was with the Greater Than Aids Coalition of Savannah, Georgia.
We were having dinner at a pizzeria in Atlanta, on our way to talk to our state representatives at the Georgia Capitol and ask them why government funds for HIV/AIDS non-profits stopped in Atlanta and didn’t trickle down to us. Savannah has the second highest infection rate in the state.
“My partner died in ’81,” someone at the table said. “He was on AZT. I remember how hard it was on his body. When the new antiretrovirals hit the market, it was a godsend.”
Quite casually, I said, “God had nothing to do with it. We did that. If there was a god, he could have saved himself the trouble of sending us antiretrovirals and just not created HIV in the first place.”
Everyone went quiet. It’s hard to talk about godlessness when you’re surrounded by people who rely on their faith in hard times, as many do. Many of them would tell me that their faith in god is what “pulled them through.” I heard a hundred times on that trip: “I knew God had a plan for me, and he would get me through this.”
I am always tempted when I hear such a thing to ask why their benign god would have the abject cruelty to allow them to get HIV in the first place, or allow their partners to die from AIDS, or to allow the thousands of people who die every year from AIDS to live short, hard lives and suffer. That night at the table, the truth was out. The gentleman across from me said, “So I take it you don’t believe in god.”
“No, I’m an Atheist.”
I was asked several questions, the same ones that come up every time.
The most common one: “So what do you believe?” That’s actually a tricky question. Different Atheists give different answers. Some believe in an ethical stance based on implicit good, others believe in utilitarian ethics, others belief pleasure is good and all good things foster pleasure, and all bad things don’t.
Many Atheists practice something called “Secular Humanism,” a philosophy that rejects religion and any moral code rooted in it. Secular humanism celebrates human life and human achievement.
On the Council for Secular Humanism’s website, it is broken down into three parts:
But that’s the Council for Secular Humanism, which is not the definitive voice of Atheists everywhere, like the Vatican is for the Roman Catholic Church.
There are other organizations, like American Atheists, the American Humanism Association, Atheist Alliance International, the BHA (British Humanist Association), that have different specific approaches to the question, “How should one live without a god?” The important thing is that we ask ourselves this question — as an Atheist, you have to. We are totally responsible for our actions, our morals, our work in the world, and our — for lack of a better word — beliefs. This puts all the pressure on us, not god. We are responsible. We decide what is right and wrong.
Atheism lacks any centralization, which is perhaps its best feature. There is no body of people that define this stuff for us, so an Atheist’s specific worldview is specific to them.
I do not call myself a Secular Humanist, because Secular Humanism holds that humans have a special moral duty (to the earth, to each other) because of our higher-thinking capabilities. I don’t think that’s true.
I am a nihilist and hedonist in the truest sense of both terms. I don’t think life has any inherent meaning, and I think ethics are completely subjective and relative. With no god and no meaning, pleasure becomes the highest moral pursuit. I don’t think we need to suffer through life.
There are different forms of pleasure, different degrees of pleasure that one must take into consideration, but pleasure (the opposite of suffering) is the lifelong end goal.
Going out and getting tanked every night might be fun in the moment, but in the long run you’re going to have poor health, a bad liver, and a shitty life between your hours drunk. This is a lower pleasure, a temporary pleasure, and therefore not a higher, better, or longer-lasting pleasure. It’s not implicitly bad to get drunk, but its pleasure potential is limited. A better pleasure — one worth devoting time and energy to — is being healthy, maintaining good relationships, having enjoyable sex, taking care of yourself and others, being good to the earth, etcetera. But you are free to decide what pleasure you want to chase. Others can simply weigh in and offer suggestions, but no one can really tell you you’re wrong.
I don’t believe in any afterlife whatsoever. When you’re dead, you’re dead.
I could be called an antifoundationalist like Derrida and Richard Rorty — thinkers who had a chipper acceptance of meaninglessness. But none of this is new. These are not new ideas. This is Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Freud. This is philosophy. But unlike a lot of Atheists today, who have rejected religion on the basis of scientific, factual grounds, my anti-theistic stance comes from an ethical argument, not a mathematical one.
Which goes back to our conversation at the pizzeria.
Christians would have me believe that a benign, all-powerful, all-knowing god created mankind. This being, being all-knowing, was fully aware that we would sin, and simultaneously chose to punish us for said sin — to damn mankind for all eternity.
He could have made us without the impulse to sin, or chose not to taunt Adam and Eve with the “whatever you do, don’t touch this” tree in Eden, or simply chosen to forgive our built-in flaw (the one he made us with) so that we could go on living idyllic lives in a happy little garden.
On top of that, he could have chosen to make our lives completely free from suffering and misery forever, even after we sinned, especially since we are allegedly “his most beloved creation.” Instead, we are punished forever to toil on the earth with hunger and genocide and war — all because someone ate an apple.
This “loving” god created us, man, with its omniscient knowledge of things. If god truly is omniscient — all-knowing — then god knew we would fuck up, suffer, and die. God could foresee our world would eventually have the AIDS epidemic, mass starvation, genocide, the Holocaust, infant slaughter, and all the awful things we have. God chose to do it all anyway — to give us this narrative, and to punish us with this suffering for a feature (sin) that god created us with in the first place.
Long story short: in my book, the concept of god is more than a fallacious, anti-scientific theory. God, if he/she/it is real, is an evil, sadistic being that must enjoy watching us suffer, knowing full well that he/she/it is invariably, unavoidably, and fully responsible for our pain. If such a creature exists — and I do not believe one does — they should be destroyed immediately, or fought till kingdom come.
We instinctively feel that there must be a reason, some kind of explanation, for our suffering. We want to pin blame on someone. Our species doesn’t easily accept the idea of meaningless agony. We want to believe we’re special and that the universe favors us, so we have created religions that elevate our suffering to something holy: it must be God testing us, or punishment for sin.
I don’t think any of those ideas are true. As with all things — life, nature — I don’t think there’s any meaning whatsoever to suffering. It just happens because we’re animals with pain receptors and emotions. That’s it.
As far as ethics go, I’m relieved from shame or constant prayers for forgiveness because I’m neither “good” or “evil,” I’m just an animal on a ball of rock hurtling through space. Good and evil, like law and order, are concepts that our species created. They do no exist beyond our collective and individual ability to believe in them (and agree on them — something we don’t do easily).
In conversations like this, I’ve been told that my beliefs — or lake thereof — are based in fear. I think the opposite is true. I think people are comforted by the ideas of purpose and meaning. Take those concepts away and they get very afraid and very defensive. Take away their religion — or threaten it — and religious people freak out, and quite often jump at the opportunity to pass laws and mandates prohibiting their beliefs to go under attack.
I once looked at the stars and saw a deified cosmology, a world of god that placed me, man, at its center. Now I see that we, man, beat the natural world into subservience. We cut down trees and killed off the competition. When I look at the stars now, I see something far more wondrous: enormous balls of gas burning so far away that it their light has taken longer than their million-year lifetimes to reach me. I think about how most of the stars in the sky are dead, and that is amazing.
I think about my smallness in a vast, godless universe. I think about how grateful I am for this little story called my life, and how grateful I am to be part of the lives of others. That is enough to live on.
By the end of dinner, my new friends at least understood my reasoning, even if they didn’t agree with my views. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I was the Atheist at the table.