A Profile in Atheism

The Washington State Tri-City Herald ran a lovely story last month profiling a local atheist: Atheism – A belief in the here and now. Fernando Aguilar, the story’s subject, is the kind of person every atheist should strive to be like: a dedicated and courageous humanitarian, an outspoken activist, and a loving family man.

When mortar shells were exploding near Fernando Aguilar in Iraq, he didn’t pray to God for help.

He doesn’t believe God exists. And his long-held conviction didn’t change when he traveled to a war zone.

Aguilar, 55, of Walla Walla, is a civil engineer and his work has taken him to some of the most dangerous places in the world. He’s been to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once since 2003, helping to build water systems, hospitals and schools.

He’s also done relief work in Southeast Asia and volunteered in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

Using the skills he has to benefit others is part of the code Aguilar lives by.

I thought at first that Aguilar was a soldier, but I misread the article the first time: he’s a civil engineer whose work rebuilding vital infrastructure took him into active combat zones. Still, in either case, he’s another living refutation of the cowardly and slanderous insult that claims there are “no atheists in foxholes“. Atheists, no less than anyone else, can and do believe in improving the lives and welfare of their fellow human beings, even to the extent of putting themselves in danger to do it. This is an inspiring illustration of the humanist principle that happiness and well-being are values to be pursued with the greatest of passion.

Aguilar is also an activist who’s worked to defend the separation of church and state from those who would infuse religion into government:

Aguilar realized he was an atheist when he was 24.

He’s not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to God. He believes people should be able to pray, read Scriptures and practice their faith. But he doesn’t think religion belongs in courts or schools.

He’s been active in the national American Atheists organization and once clashed with the Walla Walla City Council because members were starting the meetings with prayer. The council eventually went to having a moment of silence.

And, like many atheists, Aguilar lives out the philosophy that life’s brevity is what makes it precious and valuable, and is why we should make the best use of it we possibly can. He exemplifies that principle in raising a happy and prosperous family, and in using his abilities to help others wherever possible:

He believes that when you die, your mind and consciousness die too. That urgency gives his life meaning.

He tries to be a good partner to Yvonne and a good father. He has a daughter in college and son who’s a teacher, and he beams when he talks about them.

He tries to help other people when he can. That’s what he believes in.

Real atheists like these provide a powerful counterexample to the stereotypes we too often encounter. I’ve often said that, the more the public gets to know actual atheists and see what we really stand for, the more sympathy and accord we will win. We’ve long been kept down by insulting caricatures, but if we want to refute those, the very best way is not through argument, but through the examples of our own lives.

No doubt there are countless people like Aguilar and his family out there, people who’ve simply never attracted the media attention enjoyed by more prominent commentators. But we don’t need to go through the media to reach others. By showing that atheists are good people in our own lives, we can make a difference for those around us. It may take longer than using the mass media, but I believe that it’s ultimately a far more effective and persuasive method.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thanks for sharing such an inspiring story.

  • Bruce Wright

    I am not affiliated with any religious organization but I do believe that order requires intelligent direction. Perhaps I am naive but how else can you explain the existence of
    order without the existence of an intelligence capable of producing this order?

    For example, the Earth travels 18.51 miles per second or 66,636 mph on its orbital path around our Sun and makes one complete orbit every 365.2422 days, precisely. It’s been doing this for many years, making this process more durable and precise than any clock or watch man has ever been able to manufacture. I feel such orderliness “must” be the product of an intelligence capable of producing it. Since man isn’t capable of such order, at least not yet, how does an atheist explain this?

    Sincerely,

    Bruce
    Atlanta

  • James B

    Hi Bruce,
    To me it seems a bit of a leap to go from an apparently uncanny orderliness all the way to an intelligent and presumably all-powerful creator. Perhaps we should be asking those who make this leap, “How do you explain the existence of an intelligent creator?” This article is almost relevant and might make interesting reading.

    Ooops! We both appear to be way off-topic.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    What is there to explain? You are the one presuming that what you see implies order. You need to explain to us why you feel that “order” can only be intelligently produced.

    The Earth simply takes the same amount of time to revolve around the sun every year. So what? If it went faster, it would leave the solar system,. If it went slower, it would probably be swallowed up by the sun. The fact that it’s been doing it for over 4 billion years simply means that it has been doing it for 4 billion years – nothing more. It has reached a state of equilibrium conducive to orbit. There probably are or were planets in other solar systems (and who knows, maybe this one)where such “disorder” caused them to be so destroyed.

    Why do you feel compelled to find meaning behind physics?

  • terrence

    OK, off-topic it is! Bruce, spend about 30 minutes brushing up on the latest astronomy and you will discover the orderly orbit of the earth is by far the exception in a universe teeming with disorder, anarchy, chaos, cannibalistic galaxies, expoding stars, wayward asteroids, and more. And just on this planet, something like 99% of all species ever “created” are now extinct. Intelligent?

  • Brock

    The exceptional thing about Mr. Aguilar is that he is unexceptional. Thousands of people put themselves in harm’s way for some greater good, thousands lead an exemplary life, thousands put in extra time for worthy products… and Mr. Aguilar does it all, and doesn’t believe in a deity. That makes him, in the eyes of the Tri-City Herald, exceptional. How can an atheist be so normal, and refrain from total immmorality? Why isn’t he a communist, like all the other atheists? If the people who reported on this story weren’t suckered in by the myths about atheists, they would see that they have no story here. If their readers weren’t likewise brainwashed, it would be just a nice human interest story that would never have gotten out of Washington State. I remember reading a description of the O’Hair murder case, in which the victims were repeatedly referred to as atheists, as though that made the story different somehow from a similar story regarding Methodist or Catholic murder victims. Surely, what a person believes should, in America at least, be the least important thing about him.

  • Brock

    OK, I meant worthy causes, not worthy products.

  • DamienSansBlog

    If the people who reported on this story weren’t suckered in by the myths about atheists, they would see that they have no story here.

    Brock, I’m confused about your “suckered in” remark. I can’t find any obvious bias in her reporting, if that was your concern. I also point out this article really is just a human interest story (and part of a series, at that) which, outside of this blog and possibly a few others which scout out mentions of atheism in the news, never got out of Washington State. More is the pity.

    For example, the Earth travels 18.51 miles per second or 66,636 mph on its orbital path around our Sun and makes one complete orbit every 365.2422 days, precisely…I feel such orderliness “must” be the product of an intelligence capable of producing it.

    Bruce, you remind me of the story of the intelligent puddle. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a puddle wakes up one morning after the rain, looks around, and says, “What a lovely hole this is! It’s shaped just right for me to fit in! Why, it must have been made just for me by the Great Puddle Poobah!” When, of course, the exact opposite is the case; the puddle is the shape it is because of the hole, not vice versa.

    Likewise, if we were Martians and our planet orbited every 687 days instead of every 365, we would call that a year instead. And its orbit is no more or less variable than that of the Earth.

  • Brock

    It’s possible I read more into it than was there. I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series. (What about?)
    I also was under the impression that it had been picked up by a major service like Yahoo, but when I googled it, I found that I had actually read it on another blog.
    I think my point stands, that Mr. Aguilar is undoubtedly a fine human being, but exceptional only in that he is up front and activist about his non-belief. To which I say, more power to him.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Think globally and act locally” may be a cliché, but a useful one, as Mr Aguilar shows.

    ********

    On the apparent order in the Universe requiring an Intelligence, I shall simply point out that many processes in the Universe are self-organizing: some chemical reactions; the “tug-of-war” between gravity and heat inside a star; the separation of oil and vinegar in a bottle of salad dressing. If you wish to find Intelligence in such processes, have a field day. Myself, I prefer to find intelligence in the people with whom I share my days.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Bruce, the answer to your question is a simple one. The Solar System coalesced about 4.5 billion years ago out of a swirling cloud of gas and dust, creating a large number of comets, asteroids, planetesimals and other objects in various types of orbits. The objects that started out in chaotic, unstable orbits soon experienced one of three fates: they fell into the Sun (or Jupiter) and were swallowed up, they collided with other objects and were shattered, or they were gravitationally ejected into interstellar space.

    Obviously, none of them are around any more. After 4.5 billion years, the only objects that are left are the ones that got lucky – the ones that just happened to start out in stable, regular orbits. We’re living on one of those. The regularity of the Solar System is simply a product of its great age, because only objects that started out in regular orbits could have lasted until now.

  • Erika

    @Brock, I actually was in the Tri-cities visiting in-laws the last couple days of the series. The series was about different belief systems that people in the greater Eastern Washington area hold. I only read the articles on the atheist man and on the Jewish woman, but there were several others, all focusing on a different belief in a positive way.

  • javaman

    Did any of you read the magazine section in the NY Times this past Sun. Jan. 13 2008,it is “What makes us want to be Good? – How evolutionary psychology and neurobiology are changing our understanding of what morality is”? Helping others is all part of our evolution , no gods needed.

  • windy

    “For example, the Earth travels 18.51 miles per second or 66,636 mph on its orbital path around our Sun and makes one complete orbit every 365.2422 days, precisely. It’s been doing this for many years…”

    Not quite – days are getting longer because of tidal drag. Devonian coral fossils show that there used to be about 400 days a year then.

    “…more durable and precise than any clock or watch man has ever been able to manufacture.”

    Atomic clocks keep time better than the Earth. (I guess this means that someone must have designed the atoms.)

  • Valhar2000

    Windy wrote:

    Not quite – days are getting longer because of tidal drag. Devonian coral fossils show that there used to be about 400 days a year then.

    And, according to Ian Stewart, author of Does god play dice?, if you look at the behaviour of the Solar System over a scale of hundreds of millions of years, it turns out to be a chaotic dynamic system. It seems that huge upheavals have happened in the past as a result of the unpredictable nature of planetary orbits, and huge upheavals are going to happen (such as Venus being expelled from the Solar System at some point).

    In other words, the order you think was god-ordained, Bruce, is an illusion caused by our piddling little lifespans.

  • Ric

    Thanks for pointing out this article, Adam. It’s a breath of fresh air in a religion-saturated media.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Aguilar seems like a great guy. It’s too bad he is going to burn in hell after he dies for not accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

    :-)

  • Bill Vincent

    Tommykey, christians like you are a good part of the reason I choose not to be religious. Your first instinct was to attack, hate and condemn. That’s a horrible, horrible way to live, you must be miserable all the time. I feel bad for you.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Tommykey is an atheist. He was speaking in jest, Bill.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Tommykey: Try a winky-face next time instead of a smiley. Like this:

    ;)

    Apparently, that makes it funny. Or…or possibly sexually suggestive. One of those.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Sorry Damien, I thought the smiley face would be sufficient. Plus, all Bill Vincent had to do was to click on my link to my blog. That would have quickly disabused him of thinking I was a Christian.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Pff, blogs. Unless you’re mentioned in a bestselling book, nobody ever looks at those.

    … ;)

  • Dutch

    Bruce,

    Try reading “The God Particle,” by Leon Lederman. I highly recommend it. You see order in our universe, so do I, but the subatomic world is fascinating. Before the “Big Bang” there were subatomic particles)quarks, leptons and such) and time did not exist. These particles are being studied at Fermilab and at Cern Switzerland These particles occupied a very small area(1 square inch of the Sun weighs 2 thousand pounds) anyway, the Big Bang happens, and 4.5 billion years later, we have our present universe, a universe that is aware of itself. First we have the subatomic particles, then the Big Bang, particles get togethor and form protons, nuetrons, electrons which get togethor to make atoms which get togethor to make molecules which get togethor to make chemicals which get togethor to make life. Life evolves to apeman, apeman develops speech which turns apeman into a thinking homo sapiens. All this without at least intelligent design…

    There are many scientists that believe in intelligent design, and intelligent design implies God. It’s just easier for them to use ID, as it sounds less religous.
    Atheists take the point of view that all of this could have happened on it’s own. No God or intelligent design. However, nobody can disprove God’s existence. The only weapon an atheist has is to attack the various religous institutions and the people who occupy them – their behavior has given them much material to this effect. Another favorite weapon is to disprove the religous writings, especially The Bible, or as far as I can see The Bible, is the only book that comes under their “freethinking” scrutiny.

    I wonder if in their search for a “unified field” theory, more and more scientists will ask what force inititiated the “Big Bang.” Why weren’t the quarks and leptons quite happy in their current state? We have learned to unleash the power of the atom, but the power of the subatomic world is far greater than that of the atom.

    take care, Dutch

    JMHO, Dutch

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Intelligent design does not imply god Dutch. It would imply intelligence greater than us. It does not have to mean a solitary entity. It could be a race of advanced beings that worked together to create our universe, though of course it leaves open the question of where their universe came from.

    Of course the Bible is going to come under “freethinking” scrutiny. That is because we live in a predominantly Christian country. In just about every motel or hotel room in America you will find a Bible in the drawer of the night table, and not the Quran. We criticize what we are familiar with.

  • Dutch

    Point taken and understood.

    Do not look totally at Christianity, if you look over your shoulder, those gathering clouds are another much more imminent threat. Then again, perhaps we musn’t criticize the Quran lest we be killed. You may however wipe your but with pages from the Bible, flush The Bible down the toilet, pee on a cross, and it wouldn’t bother me a bit. Pass the pork please.

    By the way, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised of intelligent life on other planets.

    Good day, Dutch

  • Steve Bowen

    There are many scientists that believe in intelligent design, and intelligent design implies God. It’s just easier for them to use ID, as it sounds less religous.

    Actually not that many. The scientific credentials of those that do endorse I.D rarely stand up to close scrutiny.

    Atheists take the point of view that all of this could have happened on it’s own. No God or intelligent design. However, nobody can disprove God’s existence.

    It’s been pointed out too many times to mention that Atheists do not bear the burden of proof here. God is a flying teapot as Bertrand Russell implies and it is for those who claim to see the invisible to prove their claim.

    I wonder if in their search for a “unified field” theory, more and more scientists will ask what force inititiated the “Big Bang.” Why weren’t the quarks and leptons quite happy in their current state?

    I’m sure they will, however the rational answer won’t be “God” as that explains nothing. In fact the question becomes even more difficult because then you have to explain how such a phenomenally complex entity got to be there in the first place.

    and finally

    4.5 billion years later, we have our present universe, a universe that is aware of itself.

    Dutch, if you mean this literally, rather than in the sense that evolution has produced on earth a species (us)that is self aware then we get into some interesting theological debate.
    Your theology seems more abstract and deist rather than theist and you are a Christian in only a fairly tenuous sense I suspect. I could admit of the possibility (although I see no evidence) that the universe could have some large scale organisation that in some sense over immense timescales mean that it is self aware or could become so. I have heard the suggestion that the universe may consiously re-create or reproduce itself (big bang[s])in an infinate loop of births and deaths. My contention is so what? That doesn’t mean that a self aware universe is any more aware of life on earth (or elswhere) than I am of the bacteria that live in my gut. It has no impact on my perception of reality or my morality and over the timescales that we as a species are likely to survive it is irrelevant.

  • velkyn

    “There are many scientists that believe in intelligent design, and intelligent design implies God. It’s just easier for them to use ID, as it sounds less religous.”

    So, they are liars? funny how their “God” says that it hates liars. What of hiding this supposed “light” under a bushel, also a no-no?

  • Dutch

    Steve,
    I just find reading about the latest research into that weird subatomic world fascinating. A weird world with particles vanishing in the blink of an eye, in and out of existence. These particles going through the very chair I am sitting on as if it wasn’t there. It has nothing to do with my faith – I have a good understanding of The Bible, but more importantly I have been witness to some awesome events that cannot be explained away. About 8 years ago, I attended a Bible study at a house of a member of a church that I called the dream cult. (This church’s pastor was a pentecostal, and 10 years ago, after a visit from Christ, he had to tell the church his teaching was all wrong. He lost half the members of a small church, but the vision was too real to simply ignore. I, being a former baptist, and current attender of a Bhudist Meditation center, called them the dream cult, and totally dismissed them as one of many weird Christian cults.) At this first Bibke study I remeber my young nepehew telling me,”This better be real, or I am outta here.” I couldn’t have agreed more. Now some 8 years later, I am still attending this same church. Odd thing is, I just recently heard of a similar story of a southern pastor of a megachurch having to tell his members the same thing. Guess what, he lost his entire church.
    I guess, since you assumed my faith to be “tenuous,” I wanted to show you how very wrong you are. The Theory of Evolution is no problem for me either, although why do they say “theory?”
    some things I know:
    1) The authors of The Bible are genuine, but they are not the writers of the Bible.
    here from Paul’s letter to Romans we can get a little clue of this.
    Rom 16:22 I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord.

    2) What we call earth(universe) is really the grave(hell, pit, sheol) This means we are the walking dead. This means Christ died in man, and He will ressurect in man. As The Bible says -
    Mar 13:26 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
    It is clear in The Bible that “clouds” equal people.
    Funny thing is when our pastor goes to visit a mother and her newborn at the hospital, he says, “welcome to hell kid.”

    I have spent a lot of time on this blogg – after stumbling in here more by accident, but I have enjoyed the reading. I will bring up the subject of atheists at our next Bible study, and tell them how respectfully everybody treats each other – more so than Christian Bloggs. We will reintroduce the virgin birth of Christ because I am wondering whether or not atheism is virgin territory for the birth of Christ. Atheists have no belief in a deity so they don’t have any garbage regarding a faith they never had. I am looking forward to this.

    If I get sent by Jesus, I will write a book about this powerfull Christian faith.
    The proceeds will all be given away, not to the church, but to the poor.

    good day, Dutch

  • OMGF

    Dutch,

    …as far as I can see The Bible, is the only book that comes under their “freethinking” scrutiny.

    You aren’t looking very hard then. There are atheist writers that tackle other religions and their holy books, and it even happens on this very blog.

    The only weapon an atheist has is to attack the various religous institutions and the people who occupy them – their behavior has given them much material to this effect.

    That’s also incorrect. There’s a pretty large amount of literature devoted to debunking the idea of the gods that have been put forth, and showing the contradictory nature of those gods. (I.E. the Xian god is supposedly perfect, yet must have desired to create us for some reason. Since this god has unfulfilled desires, therefore god is not perfect.) Further, as already pointed out, we do not have to disprove your god. You have to prove your god to us as you are making the positive claim.

    The Theory of Evolution is no problem for me either, although why do they say “theory?”

    Because it is just as much a “theory” as gravity. “Theory” in this context means a well supported set of hypotheses that have been continually tested and have continually not been falsified. Evolution is both a fact and a theory. We know that evolution happens as a fact, but there are still questions as to how it happens and happened which is the theory part. But, your estimation of what a “theory” is is well off.

    We will reintroduce the virgin birth of Christ because I am wondering whether or not atheism is virgin territory for the birth of Christ.

    Perhaps you will include the evidence that suggests that the “virgin” part of Mary’s description could very well be a mistranslation of “young woman”?

    some things I know:
    (snipped for brevity)

    How do you “know” those things?

  • steve bowen

    Dutch

    I guess, since you assumed my faith to be “tenuous,” I wanted to show you how very wrong you are.

    No Dutch I don’t assume your faith to be tenuous at all and I apologise if that’s the impression I gave. I meant that I think you are only a “Christian” in a tenuous sense, although I get this from my interpretation of what you are saying. Your descriptions of the bible as allegorical and the events having happened in heaven not on earth are reminiscent of the early Christian Gnostic sects that were around the roman empire a hundred years or so after the alleged birth of Jesus. After Constantine these sects were considered heretics and the main stream Roman Church has fought against that interpretation ever since. So (if my assumptions about your beliefs are correct) you are not a Christian in any mainstream sense. Interestingly Gnosticism was not confined to early Christians. At the same time and prior to the emergence of the Jesus story you would fing Gnostics following Mithras or Dionysus or several other “god/man” cults, all of which were supposedly ways to truth with the Gnostics understanding that the personalities involved were mythical.


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