“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”
― Carl Sagan
There was a time when I had to see people the way God saw them, and after my deconversion I had the opportunity to see them without that filter. I could see them as they actually were.
Or, at least, that’s what I thought. But it’s not so simple. There are still filters in the way that I look people. I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do believe in stereotypes that put people in boxes. Sometimes I don’t see people because I’m so focused on seeing the stereotype of who I have assumed they are.
This isn’t all that different from being religious. God was made up because people wanted shortcuts to the way the world worked. They wanted to gain confidence, power, and the moral high ground. They wanted to feel like they were Better People in the universe, and stereotypes do much the same thing.
They’re usually false shortcuts people use to map out how the world works. Like God, they are used to give one group confidence, power, and a sense of moral authority over other groups. And those who believe in stereotypes often tend to congregate in their “gathering places,” be they church buildings or Facebook.
When we get rid of God, we get rid of only one method that protects an inaccurate way of viewing people. There are many more.
This isn’t just true in the realm of empathy and understanding. It’s also true in the scientific world, because although you (arguably) get rid of one scientifically incompatible way of looking at the world when you discard God, there are millions left. You can still believe that the world is flat, that vaccines are fundamentally harmful, or that crystals can forecast your fate. Not believing in God doesn’t earn you a gold star of walking away from scientific myths or myths that prevent you from understanding other people.
Most people realize this, eventually. At first, atheism is bright and new to new deconverts, but most eventually realize that not believing in God, in the scheme of things, is not a big deal. I’m not saying that your decision not to believe in God won’t have major repercussions in your life, or that it won’t profoundly change the way you think. I’m saying that it’s just one thing that you don’t believe in. And I’ve found that, as I adjust and become more comfortable with my lack of belief, it becomes less and less of a big deal that somehow means that you’ve “arrived.”
Start an atheist organization in any local area, have them get to know each other long enough, and one of two things will happen. One is that the atheists will largely agree with each other within the group, and they’ll think it’s their lack of faith that brings them together…when in reality, what brings them together, as they get to know each other, is a more thorough set of values, values that include the way they view other scientific concepts and other people, that often are results of their location or subculture. But, more often, members of the group will find radical differences among each other, and will see each other as holding to an alarming number of mythical stereotypes and scientific inaccuracies. They will become alarmed, because this is what they were trying to escape when they left church. And they will inevitably enter into their subgroups, because arguing against myths is exhausting.
Yes, a lack of belief in God or gods gives us freedom to understand others and ourselves better but it doesn’t guarantee that we will. We have the opportunity to get things more right, but we also have more ways to get things disturbingly wrong. And in some ways, I think that trying to get things more right carries more importance to me, at least these days, than insisting that God doesn’t exist. I have one life, and I want to understand as much as I can within it. Talking about a nonexistent being might be part of this understanding, but there’s a whole world to explore, full of people and exciting discoveries. Why would I want to spend it talking about someone who doesn’t exist, when there are so many people and experiences that do?
People are always more complex and profound than their stereotypes, I’ve found. Fighting the stereotypes is admittedly hard sometimes. It takes compassion, talking, reading, and understanding. I’m wrong a lot. But I also feel like this makes my life mean something.
Maybe I can’t get rid of stereotypes for the rest of the world, which has been a difficult lesson for me. But I can try to get rid of them in myself. Maybe I can’t encourage understanding, empathy, and a compassion that instills a strong sense of justice for the entire world. But in the small arena that is my life, I can try to humbly encourage understanding in my world, and empathy, and compassion, and justice that protects the vulnerable. And it won’t change the universe, but it will make a positive ripple on this infinitesimal spot of spacetime.
That’s a pretty big deal to me.
And so…I’ll continue to write this blog, trying to break impossible barriers with this pen, and if the result is a small glance of understanding through a crack that, for a moment, allows some of us to see beauty beyond the lies, the truth will be more than worth it.
Thanks for reading.
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