Because I Am An Atheist

Ian Cromwell, brilliant fellow FtBer who writes a profound and witty blog under the Crommunist Manifesto banner, asked me to contribute to his “Because I am an atheist” series. He printed my piece a bit less than a week ago, with an intro that referred to me as “the incomparable Hank Fox.” (How can you not like a guy who calls you THAT?)

I’m echoing the piece here. If you’d like to contribute your own take on the subject, Crommunist is actively soliciting submissions.  Click the title link below to go to his original post, and contact him via his email address from the About the Author box in the right column.  (Also, take the time to read the wonderful comments to Ian’s original piece.)

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Because I am an atheist…

…I understand that the real world is the real world.

That means I know that praying — wishing, whining, begging, whatever you want to call it — doesn’t work. What works is doing it yourself. Hard work by PEOPLE.

You learn, plan, think, and DO for all the best results in life. Not every plan works out, but when you compare the people who plan and work to those who depend on fate, or luck, or prayers to a supposedly benevolent god, those who depend on their own efforts manage to make good stuff happen a lot more often. Those who sit back in learned helplessness, who believe their best hope is for some outside supernatural agency to swoop in and solve every problem, they suffer whatever fate happenstance dishes out to them.

Yes, there are plenty of unpredictable things that will enter our lives, but that happens to everybody. What doesn’t happen to everybody is voluntary good planning. In fact, it doesn’t happen at all unless we DO it.

Because I’m an atheist – which means: a realist – I also know the future is real. A future, THE future, is really coming. Its shape depends in large part on what I and others are doing right here and now. We have the capacity to shape things for the good, both in our own individual lives and in the world around us.

Rather than praying for divine intervention, I go into each day thinking “What can I do today to make something good happen?” Sometimes it’s as minor as deciding to go for a hike and just enjoy the experience. Other times it’s writing, working hard on some project to see what I can get done that day.

Still other times, human that I am and all too fallible, I just fuck off and accomplish nothing beyond getting a day older. But when I DO do things, I’m always amazed at what I can make happen. The simplest of efforts, made outside the narrow bounds of your limited vision of yourself, can bring fantastic results.

Also because I’m an atheist, I reserve my gratitude for people – for all the others who DO things. For doctors, engineers, teachers, librarians, pilots, firemen, and all the other experts and volunteers who make this world – and my own personal life – a better place. Rather than, for instance, that feeble fantasy Jesus.

…I don’t expect miracles.

I don’t buy lottery tickets – never have, never will. I don’t gamble at all. Because, statistically speaking, it’s a complete fantasy. A waste of good time and money that could be better spent on something real. I’ve been given lottery tickets dozens of times – on my birthday, on other gifty occasions – and I quietly regift them to someone else. I tell the recipient I don’t even want whatever prize money there might be. Because I don’t want to allow the lottery an outpost in my head.

The problem I have with the lottery, other than the fact that it’s a lie perpetrated on trusting people by a predatory government agency, is that participating in it invites a parasitic presence, a parasitic belief, into your life. That phony hope you bite into is a hook that makes you flip and skitter on THEIR line for the rest of your life.

The lottery encourages you to believe that wealth can come without work or excellence, that an outside agency can drop success onto you, for the price of a ticket.

Religion is the gold standard for this sort of thinking. The hope for miracles destroys you in the same way that blunt, constant yearning for a winning lottery ticket destroys you, by keeping you trapped in the belief that your best hope for prosperity and success is something outside yourself.

…I know my body is ME.

I’m not wearing a body like a meat suit. It’s not a disposable, temporary transportation capsule for some ethereal spirit. It’s me.

So I take care of it. I work out – not a lot, but a little. I take weekly hikes. I take a daily vitamin, and a couple of other supplements recommended for guys my age. I eat lots of vegetables, and limit the amount of meat in my diet. Not long back I cut out sugary drinks, candy, snack foods, junk food, caffeine and fatty foods. I snack on apples and baby carrots, applesauce, sometimes sunflower seeds.

My goal in life is not to leave this body behind and rise up to glorious paradise and angel wings, it’s to live as long as I can here, to honor and revel in my physical nature, here in my one life.

…I understand the incredible human tragedy that religion represents.

Across millennia during which “hope” was measured against the willingness of an unknowable God to fix problems or provide a future of abundance for people, rather than the capabilities of hard-working, educated, compassionate humans, we Earthlings have continued to waste our vast potential, losing out on near-infinite opportunities. During that time, huge amounts of effort and wealth have been bent toward pleasing this or that capricious god, or his supposed Earthly representatives, stealing away the value of human endeavor in order to build castles of worship, create artworks of fear-driven piety, and produce – rather than textbooks for learning – mere holy books, the printed tools for brainwashing billions of hapless victims.

Through those hundreds and hundreds of years, how many have starved, or died, or lived in pain and fear and enforced ignorance while fat priests sat in literal castles, built on the backs of their enslaved fellow men? Because I’m an atheist, I can despise the malignant, manipulative human spiders who spin and maintain those enslaving webs of belief.

…I feel a connection to all life.

I have a much more elaborate image in mind than most people when it comes to nature-connectedness. I actually think of dogs and bears and such as RELATIVES. They’re my People, just as much as people are. When I meet a dog, I see a living, breathing, feeling personage. When I see a fox or a bear on the trail, my reaction is respect and admiration rather than fear.

I have this feeling because I understand the basics of evolution, and what it really means: These creatures ARE my relatives, and we share not just links through a metaphorical tree of life, but similar body plans, senses, nervous systems and brains that produce similar emotions and even, to a limited but no less real extent, certain cross-species facets of intellect.

Because I’m an atheist, I understand that, rather than being deliberately put here by a supernatural superbeing to rule over and subdue my fellow creatures, I have the enormous power to treat them with protective compassion and generosity.

It almost goes without saying that viewing “animals” this way, my sense of racial difference among my fellow humans is compressed to a virtual zero.

…I have a different sort of understanding of life and death.

When my adopted Dad died in November of last year, I didn’t waste any time thinking of some fluffy afterlife where I would be reunited with him. I understood that he had ended, that he was permanently gone from my life. To think anything else would cheapen the gift he gave me – the 35 years of his life he chose to share with me.

The immensity of that loss is pretty much indescribable. But it brought with it this other understanding – that all of my friends and loved ones have this moment of life to share, and nothing beyond that. I feel closer to them, more forgiving of them, than ever before in my life. The sharing of our lives, in full awareness of its brevity, is one way we define love.

Buying into the fantasy that there will be an eternity of chances to be together, or to repair rifts, or to see justice done, is a fear reaction that sucks the value out of many of our most treasured ideals: Courage. Fairness. Sacrifice. Love.

Finally: Because I’m an atheist, I got to be free.  

You know that thing you do when you’re all churchy, where you live in the low-level fear that the Big Magic Juju Guy is looking into your thoughts and judging you all the time? Where, if you start to think something “sinful,” you instantly stop yourself?

I don’t do that.

Part of what allowed me to become an atheist was my feeling that nothing that enters my head is off limits. Because I believe your mind is the laboratory of reality, your first and greatest tool for understanding the world around you, you should never be afraid to think … anything.

I got here — to atheism — because I was not afraid of the conclusions I reached that religion is bad for you, not afraid to speculate that churches have been an evil influence and a drain on human society for thousands of years. Not afraid of the eventual strength of my convictions.

I can look beyond the saintly smiles and holy vestments and see televangelists and religion-peddlers as what they really are — the worst sort of parasites, manipulating people in order to suck money and obedience out of them. Parasites who exploit us by sparking the WORST within us, fear and even hate, so we will do their bidding.  Parasites who exploit the BEST within us, our compassion, so we will give our time and money to their causes.

That boldness in experiencing my own thoughts and feelings crosses over into every other area of my life. It powers a mental independence — a freedom of mind — I suspect devoutly religious people never know.

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About Hank Fox
  • Pierce R. Butler

    Definitely worth repeating.

    I see lotteries as another form of the fairy-godmother (Knight in Shining Armor/Angel/Santa Claus/etc) figure which plays such a seductive role in so many personal fantasies – except that state lotteries are relatively transparent and plainly human. Still, they provide a hook for daydreaming that few can resist.

    Churches almost universally frown on gambling (except those which run Bingo Nights), which I had always thought just meant they wanted their sheep not to blow money anywhere but the collection basket. But maybe that was too shallow: they also have very good reason to fight back against any competition for the mental niche of showers-of-fortune-from-the-sky “providence”.

  • Amphigorey

    I totally relate to the feeling of being connected to all life. Thank you for putting it so well.

    I love that we share a common ancestor with everything here, even creatures as alien as an echinoderm. I love that we are just a tiny twig on this vast, bushy tree of life, and if you follow the connections far enough, we’re related to everything.

  • http://niftyatheist.blogspot.com/ niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Hank, this is excellent. I think your analogy of the “human spider” is particularly apt. I am also intrigued by your thoughts on lotteries – never thought of that myself but when I read what you wrote a lightbulb went off – of course!!

    • http://niftyatheist.blogspot.com/ niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

      P.S. Shamelessly stealing, btw. I hope this gets shared a lot!

  • http://whenpeoplelie.wordpress.com Shaun Vaughan

    Another great article, Grace :)

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