In Case You Missed It …

This is the piece that appeared in the Albany Times Union newspaper this last Saturday, in the Voices of Faith column on the Faith & Values page. (Interestingly, it used to be the Religion page, and I suspect the change reflects some sort of sea change in understanding that “values” can come from someplace other than religion. Which is progress, and which I attribute directly to newly-vocal atheists making that very point.)

The two other main stories on the page were “Pope orders crackdown on nuns” and “Faith lost, then found, strengthens Troy mayor.” (Troy is a local city, a once-upon-a-time industrial giant located next to Albany.)

I titled my piece “Being Good Without God: The Option of Atheism” / the editor renamed it Atheists Aim for Goodness.

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On the menu of faith-related choices, “none of the above” has been downplayed for thousands of years. It’s only fair it’s finally coming into its own.

I’m an atheist. Have been for decades.

I’ll tell you what it means: I don’t believe in gods. Gods, plural, because there are more than just the Christian god, aren’t there? More than 10,000 distinct religious sects currently exist in the world.

My own particular brand of atheism is that I actively disbelieve in all those gods. Which means I’m convinced they don’t exist, just as I’m convinced the Hulk doesn’t exist. No Hulk, anywhere, ever. Not just that there isn’t one, but there can’t be one.

Not all atheists are so bold. Many are more on the agnostic end of the spectrum, which means they’re willing to say that some sort of supernatural power might exist. But meanwhile, they live their lives and function daily as confirmed unbelievers. They don’t pray, they don’t go to church, they don’t walk around suspecting an all-powerful superbeing is watching and judging everything they do.

I was born into a family with two faith traditions. With a Southern Baptist mother and a Jehovah’s Witness father, I got some early insight into the variety of religious worldviews. I was a fairly devout Baptist in my early years, but I started to have my doubts about the age of 13. Twenty years later, the doubts had all resolved into this: There are no such things as gods.

But also: No ghosts, psychic mediums, no heavens or hells.

Not “I don’t know whether or not they exist,” but the firm conviction that, until some evidence shows up, we can know, as well as we know anything, that there are no such things. From Allah to Zeus, Gaia to Ganesh, people made them up in more primitive times as a fumbling way to explain how life worked.

For me, the first key to the doorway of doubt is that there are all these different deities, with believers of each apparently convinced theirs is the one and only. They can’t all be right, can they? Some of them – or maybe all – have to be wrong.

In fact, whatever faith tradition you currently find yourself in, as far as all these other gods go you yourself are an atheist, every bit as much as I am. As the saying goes, “I just disbelieve in one more god than you do.”

I’m not the only atheist you know. Out of every ten people in your life, one or two of them, these days, are unbelievers. There are atheist doctors, teachers, students, truck drivers, fry cooks and postmen. Within a block or so of your house, several of your neighbors are likely to be non-religious. We’re probably the fastest-growing social demographic in the U.S. today.

We’re not bad people. We atheists have hopes, dreams, fears. We have pets, we fall in love, we hold down jobs, we do all the things religious people do. We just do them without religion.

When I heard my friend of 35 years was in the hospital, probably dying, I flew to California and sat with him, around the clock for four days, talking to him, holding his hand, comforting him, making sure the hospital staff gave him pain medication on schedule. I was there when he breathed his last breath, and I cried buckets before and after. He was my mentor, my life-coach, my Dad in everything but blood, and I miss him terribly.

But I don’t fantasize that he’s somehow still here with me, or that I’ll see him again when I die. I don’t even want to believe that. It would cheapen his life, the one life he was generous and loving enough to share with me.

Talking to Christians over decades, I know many have doubts it’s even possible to not-believe in God. But … it is. It’s not even all that hard. Basically, the same innocence-from-religion you had as a child comes back to you, and you find you can get along just fine without religiosity. In fact, better than fine, because a load of fear comes off your shoulders, and you begin to see the world around you more clearly.

Rather than various holy pronouncements that might rate avoiding lobster higher than not-abusing kids, you discover the real basis of morality is just this: being good to the people around you.

Atheists I know aim for goodness rather than godness, working for a better world here and now, rather than in Valhalla, or Heaven.

  • geocatherder

    Well said, Hank!

  • Kevin

    Nicely done.

    We are the neighbors. The lawn mowers. The dog walkers. The car washers. The tax payers. We probably speed just a little bit, but not too much. Most of us probably like a drink or two (or a smoke of something quasi-legal), but we don’t drive impaired.

    We treat our parents well. We educate our kids – and we vaccinate them, too. We don’t blame someone else for our own troubles, and we don’t expect a random “get out of trouble free” card just by professing a belief in magic.

    We recycle. Some of us do it “religiously”.

    If a TV news crew came to your house and asked if you knew we were atheists, you’d say “I had no idea. They’re so nice. Quiet. Not a bit of trouble.”

    We’re just like you. Without the smug self-satisfaction at being personally loved by the creator of the entire freaking universe, and without any fear at all about our post-death state.

    We’re atheists.

  • Matthew

    Yes, and all the good things we do, we do without the expectation of heavenly reward. Which makes the deed that much more honorable, in my opinion.

  • ed

    Nice essay – I don’t like that the editors changed your title, although they do paraphrase one of your sentances. I used to live in Albany and read the Times Union; I’m sure there is a contingent there (and probably everywhere) who are rankled by the change og that page from “Religion” to “Faith and Values”, and even more rankled that they would publish your essay.

    I guess things are changing – I really could not see that being published 20 years ago when I lived there…


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