Because I am an atheist, I don’t have to spend my energy justifying the unjustifiable.
As I’ve written before, I can imagine how I could have been a religious person. A different roll of the dice, a few chance encounters that happened differently – there are possible worlds where I became a believer rather than an atheist. I could have become seriously interested in the Jewish heritage I inherited from one side of my family, or the Roman Catholic tradition I’m descended from on the other. I could imagine worlds where I became a member of a mainline Protestant denomination, or an evangelical Christian in the emerging church.
And the funny thing is, I like to think that it wouldn’t have made that much difference. I’m fairly certain that the religious me would still care about equality, would still value social justice, would still think of the world as spectacular and beautiful, would still want to bring about as much goodness as it was in his power to do. It would have taken a much harder shove, a much more improbable chain of coincidences, to send me down the path of one of those more distant possible worlds where I ended up as an anti-choice advocate, or a believer in the imminent apocalypse, or a young-earth creationist.
I think if I could ever meet my religious doppelganger, we’d get along well. But there’d still be one large gulf, one irreducible difference between him and me: he would have to spend a lot more time, energy and intellectual effort trying to come up with ways to justify religious beliefs that falter in the face of the evidence.
No matter how progressive a believer you are, there’s no good way to reconcile belief in a benevolent deity with all the ugliness, suffering and unfairness in the world, nor is there a good way to explain why tragedy strikes good people. In fact, the more progressive a believer you are, the worse a contradiction it is. (This always bothered me when I was a deist.) No matter how progressive a believer you are, there’s no way to defend the Bible as a divinely inspired book when it contains so many genocides, so many flawed moral rules, so many obviously evil or nonsensical commandments.Even if he was a decent fellow, my religious alternate would be compelled to spend time rooting through his holy books, trying to find verses that could be lifted out of context to justify same-sex marriage, or stem-cell research, or acceptance of evolution. He’d have to construct elaborate rationalizations to explain why so much evil and ignorance was and is advocated by people who clearly believed in the same god and the same sacred text as him. He would still be stuck in futile, deadlocked arguments with fundamentalists over the unanswerable question of who really understands God’s will.
As an atheist, I don’t have to do any of this. I don’t have to pore over the writings of soothsayers from the benighted past to decide what to think about every new scientific or moral advance: I can just make up my mind on my own, using the best evidence available to me. I don’t have to construct complex and flimsy excuses for why God lets people get cancer, AIDS, blinding trachoma, guinea worm, or epidermolysis bullosa, when I know full well that I’d abolish those things instantly if I had omnipotent power: I can just accept that the universe is unjust, and do what I can to make it more just. I don’t have to do mental contortions trying to explain why God would have a favorite race or how the murder of an innocent could absolve another’s sin: I can discard all these theological perversities as self-serving nonsense, and devote my energy to learning how the world works in reality.
If I weren’t an atheist, justifying all these absurd beliefs would add up, over a lifetime, to a huge amount of wasted time and mental effort. For me, being a member of any theistic religion would be like wearing a suit of clothes one size too small: there would always be that constriction, that uncomfortable sense of pressure, as my conscience and reason grate against immovable dogmas on every side. But instead, because I am an atheist, I can discard these dusty and tattered trappings of dogma, and luxuriate in the freedom of clear air and daylight. To those who are still carrying that burden, including my hypothetical religious self, I’d invite them to try setting it down. They’d be amazed at how much better life is without it!
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