I get a handful of questions pretty regularly, and I’d like to start selecting a few of the usual suspects to give a sample of how I usually answer those questions. My answers depend a great deal on the individual circumstances and backgrounds of the people inquiring, but there do seem to be some recurring patterns. What follows are several questions I’ve received in the last few days alone. I’ll start with this one:
It would appear to me that being an atheist requires just as much faith as believing in….any religion. While I certainly do not follow any incarnation of the Judeo-Christian gods, I never felt comfortable adhering myself to the other side of the spectrum either. The closest label I could adequately give my self is an anti-fundamentalist of any religion. But I can no more prove there is a god than I can prove there isn’t one. In short the question therefore is: Doesn’t it take as much faith to be an atheist as it does a christian?
Very good questions! I see two main questions in there, so I’ll address them each in turn. The first isn’t so much a question, but it’s still something I’d like to address.
I can no more prove there is a god than I can prove there isn’t one.
Nor can I, although people rarely establish which god we’re supposed to be considering. It’s always assumed that, of the thousands of possibilities available, the god of one’s own upbringing is the only one worth considering. But why is that? Why is one deity automatically privileged above all the others? I would argue that some gods are more easily dismissed than others, and the ease with which they should be dismissed is in direct proportion to how easily testable are their claims. A belief in a deity which never does anything and never interferes with the world—never interacting with it in any way at all—would be very difficult to disprove. But then again, what would be the point in that? On the other hand, a belief in a deity who is supposed to be constantly intervening but doesn’t? Well, that’s a different story, especially if that deity is supposed to be showing up all the time and yet no one can provide good evidence that he/she/it shows up at all. At that point the absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence.
To put it differently, I cannot disprove the god of Deism. But then again, why bother? What would be the use? I don’t even feel the need, nor would it be possible since it makes no testable claims whatsoever. So with regards to Deism I am pretty much in the same boat with you. But what about a god which is supposed to be healing the sick, and blessing people according to clear and unambiguous promises? That’s a different story. Now we’ve got something testable. And I’d encourage you to test those out for yourself. No need to take my word for it.
It may be technically true that we cannot disprove any and all gods (some I frankly don’t care to consider, anyway), but when outrageous claims are made and that religion fails to deliver, the only rational response is to disregard those claims. They are not supported by the evidence.
Doesn’t it take as much faith to be an atheist as it does a christian?
Nah. But I would ask what you mean by the words “faith” and “atheist.” Let me first tell you how I define those words.
First of all, an atheist is simply someone who lacks belief in gods. There are no extraordinary claims in that statement. That definition technically doesn’t ever assert that there cannot be any gods. I consider myself an atheist, but like I said before I think the god of Deism could exist (shrug). No way to know. I’m not too concerned about it, frankly. But some insist that the word “atheist” must necessarily be defined as one who asserts positively that there are no gods of any kind. If that’s what being an atheist means, then count me out. I’m not in a place to claim such knowledge. In fact, most of the people I know who call themselves atheists would say “agnosticism” indicates a lack of certain knowledge while “atheism” connotes a lack of a certain belief. Does that make sense? In other words, I do not believe in any gods in particular (thus atheist), but I cannot say that I know there are no gods of any kind (therefore also agnostic). I just haven’t come across any convincing ones yet, including the one I was raised to believe in.
As for the word “faith,” well, again I need to know how you define that word. The Bible uses that word to indicate an acceptance of ideas which may or may not have any empirical evidence. In fact, according to the Bible’s use of the word, the less evidence for something there is, the more “faith” one is said to have. But is that what atheists have? Not if you define it the way I define it. I do not identify with the confidence that says I can know for certain that no gods exist (how would you even go about proving that?). I cannot make such a claim. What I do believe is that so far the most reliable means of arriving at knowledge are empirical observation and the scientific method. The things we have discovered through science have drastically improved our lives in so many ways (I say as I type on a little box, talking to someone who could be anywhere on the planet right now…what sorcery is this?). Science produces real results. Testable results. Does it get things wrong sometimes? Yes. But then it improves upon itself and comes up with better theories and better tests and better results. It keeps moving forward, keeps improving.
Faith doesn’t do that. It can’t change what it believes no matter what it sees because it has to trust authoritative pronouncements from…whomever (depends on which tradition you were taught to trust). It holds onto the same beliefs for thousands of years without substantive change. Meanwhile empiricism is learning every single day. It’s hard to even keep up! Which is why I trust it more. Science is capable of learning, and faith is not.
So which one is more trustworthy? I’ll go with science. I’ll go with empirical observation. I’ll go with testable theories and falsifiable things.
Now that you consider yourself an atheist, how do you cope with unjustified suffering, like the reality that children die every day from disease?
Another good question. Everybody copes with pain and loss and stress in their own ways. I’ll not deny that religion gives a sense of comfort (even if it’s based on a falsehood). When injustice happens in the world, it soothes our anger to believe that something is going to “right all the wrongs” in the end. But this is based on a wish of our own which doesn’t get satisfied in real life. And the loss of that belief can make for a difficult adjustment. But there are ways of coping.
One way is to think deeply about what the causes of suffering are (things like inequality, class warfare, racism, jingoism, etc) and to find ways to combat those things globally (or at least locally). There are little ways you can contribute to the good of people’s lives around you, and I find that this helps. It may not save the world, but it can make you, in some small way, a part of a solution. Another way is to seek out and get involved with other “freethinkers” who are interested in organizing and making a difference at a local level. Sometimes finding something to do that helps in a small way can help deal with the angst of larger world issues.
As for dealing philosophically with the absence of an overarching “goodness fairy,” since that was based on wishful thinking anyway, I say good riddance. The sky fairies never did really come through and do anything anyway. It’s a step forward to stop looking for them and expecting them (or “him”) to show up. The world isn’t really designed intelligently, so mutations and diseases and unequal distribution of resources are a part of life. We just have to do our best to alleviate the suffering of others and to try and improve the quality of living for as many as possible. The more we invest in science and technology, the more we can help find cures and even gene therapy to eliminate many of the world’s diseases and birth defects. These are the kinds of ways we can fight these things that make a real difference.
Help! I am recently deconverted and I’m trying to decide if I should “come out” to my parents/family/friends. Religion is very big in their lives and I’m afraid of what they will think of me when I tell them I don’t believe anymore. What should I do? Should I tell them?
But my family is so very sweet! They love everybody and I just know that they…
Really, though. You would have to know my parents. They…
No. Don’t do it. Not if they are very religious, and you are a new deconvert. I’ll try to explain why.
If your family is of the evangelical/fundamentalist type, no matter how sweet and loving they are, they have been taught that people who don’t believe the right things will be punished for their unbelief for all eternity. And even those who try to avoid thinking about the doctrine of Hell will still believe that you are “throwing your life away” if you don’t believe in Jesus because they have been taught that “following him” is the source of all happiness and true success in this life. If you were raised in this ideology, then you know what I’m talking about. They believe that only bad things can happen to you by leaving the faith, and they will feel compelled to warn you about these things for your own good. It might start out subtle, and they might even begin with denial (“She will come back to Jesus. She’ll see”). But in time most of them will feel compelled to pressure you to come back into the fold. You will be amazed at the sudden appearance of the coercive side of your loved ones. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. It gets particularly ugly if you are financially dependent on them in any way. I have seen so many friends cut off from their family’s good graces because they turned away from the faith. I have even witnessed ministers and counselors advising people to make life harder for their lost loved ones in order to scare them back to Jesus. People get really nasty when their faith is threatened.
I also think the timing makes this a more difficult moment to try and have these conversations with them. It can be particularly frustrating and difficult to keep a lid on your own emotions if you are still new at thinking through everything from a non-theistic perspective. I feel like my conversations with my friends (most of whom were in some kind of ministry or another) shortly after I deconverted were wasted moments because I had not had the time to really think through a number of things. When you become a Christian you are heavily indoctrinated into the faith with instructive literature, introductory classes, and all kinds of other “helps” to arm you with answers to all the questions you could possibly have. When you deconvert you get no such help (somebody should write a book for new deconverts!), and most people are, like you, the only atheist they know at first. In time you will be able to process the world from your new perspective and future conversations will be easier to have, and (at least slightly) less prone to detour into unproductive quibbling over argumentative debates. Debates will happen, I assure you. But you’ll know better in the future how to keep the whole thing from derailing into a personal interrogation and/or assault on your own character. That’s often where those conversations lead, I’m afraid.
What about my husband/wife? Should I keep this from him/her?
That’s a much harder call to make. Everybody’s marriage is different. My first inclination is to err on the side of transparency with your spouse. I say this because I failed to do that in my own marriage, and if I had that to do over again I would have been more open and honest about where I was in my own intellectual questioning. I felt at the time that I could not have those conversations with my wife, and the decision to keep those things to myself is among the most questionable things I did while working through my own thoughts about the faith. A marriage is based on trust, and when you have to develop a double life, one side of which doesn’t include your spouse, it can lead to major issues.
Having said that, I have also seen that some spouses cannot handle those discussions. There are some marriages which cannot survive a loss of faith, no matter how well each person handles his or her side of the relationship. It often depends a great deal on which version of Christianity you and/or your spouse learned (e.g. evangelical vs. liberal). Some people will have little choice but to work through their own questions on their own, without their spouse’s input. This is not the ideal situation to my mind. But I think there are circumstances under which this is the only way to keep from losing your mind. So my bottom line is this: If you can handle it, it would be better to find a way to talk to your spouse/significant other about your own skepticism. If he or she can handle it (and if you can do it without being a jerk about it), that is the best way to go. But you also may find that the discussion goes over like a lead balloon. If that happens, you may need to work on this stuff on your own.
Well, if I can’t talk to them about this then what can I do? I’m the only atheist I know. I don’t have anybody to talk to about this stuff!
If that’s the case, then you can do what a lot of people I know do: You can begin to make friends online, in Facebook groups, or maybe through local meetups you find on the web. Not too long ago a friend of mine put together a database of “freethinking” groups across the Southeastern portion of the U.S. It’s a little outdated in that many of the links are now dead, but if you spend some time clicking through them, you may find a group somewhere near your area so you can connect with them in some way (still waiting on someone to send me a link to a good national or international database). It really helps to have people to talk to about what you’re going through. I know my virtual friends have been a major source of encouragement for me. When you live in an area surrounded by devoted Christians, you can feel very alone and isolated. That goes double if you live far from any metropolitan area. Virtual friends may not always be able to come and give you a real hug when you need it, or cook you a casserole when you’re sick, but it sure does help to have a place to vent and ask questions and just seek camaraderie.
Privacy is an issue, of course, when it comes to Facebook and other social media. That annoying little ticker down the right-hand side of Facebook can sometimes announce your every thought to the whole world, and that can be a problem when you need a safe place to voice your thoughts, free from confrontation. Many groups of atheists have been made “secret” so that non-members cannot see who is in it and cannot see anything you post into the group. But they can often still see what you say on each other’s personal “walls.” You may have to do what many have done and create an alias for yourself for this very purpose. It’s a very cloak-and-dagger solution, I know, but you gotta do what you gotta do. For some people, maintaining an alias on social media is the only way to build relationships with friends online without intrusion from controlling and confrontational friends and family. These days it is far too easy to have drama erupt in your “real life” just because someone got upset at something you said (or your friend said!) online. When people are behind a computer, they become willing to discuss things and say things they wouldn’t have the nerve to say face-to-face. Consequently, things get said which upset relationships needlessly. It’s best to err on the side of precaution and find ways to protect those relationships which matter most to you.
Build for yourself a network of support, and do some reading on your own. Take your time to process what you’re going through and try not to make any major decisions too quickly. Your questions and concerns aren’t going anywhere. They will be there until you deal with them head-on, as I finally did. There’s no rush. Seek and find people who seem to be stable, conscientious people with whom you can talk about the things that are on your mind. Don’t entrust anything too personal to complete strangers, of course, and try to find groups that are managed by responsible people. They’re out there, and they will benefit from what you bring to their groups. And if you find a good one, shoot me a note, will ya? I love meeting great people like the ones I’ve met over the last couple of years.
Got any more you’d like to send me? I love getting email, and there’s plenty to write about. So if you’ve got something in particular that you’d like to read my thoughts on, please send it along. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.