“I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it” (source). This quote from Albert Einstein always comes to mind when I try to convey to others why it is that a lack of God or gods does not make the universe any less meaningful or lackluster, but instead bright with wonder and curiosity. It is one of many misunderstandings regarding unbelievers, heretics, atheists, agnostics, or whatever you should want to call those who have come to their own conclusion that they can no longer believe in a particular God or gods. That is right, most atheists were not raised in a family of non-believers. The vast majority have spent time in churches, attended Sunday school and participated in church events (source). They each come to the conclusion, in their own way, that there is too much cognitive dissonance between their own logical perception of their world and reality and the potential for any sort of deity. To be a non-believer does not mean that a person loses their morals, their understanding of right or wrong. It does not mean that they no longer have passion for their fellows humans nor for causes that benefit those in need. It does not mean that they have become any more or less than what they were when they did believe in something else being out there. Most importantly, it does not mean that they have declared war upon any particular church, group, or country. Atheists and agnostics are people who have chosen to live their lives without God or gods and honestly believe that it is the best way for them to live. I would like to challenge everyone, regardless of their faith, to consider what non-belief means and why it is a way of living that should be considered.
I have heard over and over again that non-believers are always causing trouble for the church and are just as zealous as the fundamentalists they are campaigning against. However, according to a comprehensive study performed by Christopher Silver with the University of Chattanooga found it is less than one out of six atheists who would fall under this description, most of which have recently been hurt and cut their ties with a particular faith or church. This study also found that Atheists, much like Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and every other religion, are not made up of one homogenous group but instead can be described as part of sub-sects falling under the umbrella description of religious-nones. The more caustic and argumentative of atheists have begun to claim a new name, anti-theists, meaning against religion or belief. It is an apt reference to people who often seek out those who do not believe as they do, that there is no God, no pantheon, no creator, and work to convince them that they are wrong. Richard Dawkins, a biologist known more for his role as an antitheist preacher and author, is often held up as what every atheist must be within their hearts. I argue that nothing could be further from the truth. While men and women like Dawkins may be something of celebrities at conferences and quoted over and over it is not because their words are the only truth, but because their words are often the first glimpses many have of this other way of thinking. A way of thinking that is outside the teachings of Sunday school and church. They are an introduction to questioning what has been considered fact, of beliefs that may or may not be applicable to a person’s life any longer.
The typical non-believer is not going to proclaim that they don’t have a god to pray to for all to hear. For most atheists or agnostics the lack of religion takes up so small a part of their time that it is insignificant (source). Some like to debate their ideas with others but merely as an intellectual exercise. Others couldn’t care less about the whole religion thing. They don’t understand why there is so much trouble caused by debates between believers and non-believers. The best word for them is “meh.” There are others who stand in the middle ground between believers and non-believers. This middle group may not believe any human can know whether there is something out there or there isn’t. They don’t care if that something is a sort of great universal energy or power that encompasses all or an actual all-knowing entity or nothing at all, they just believe that there could be something more out there. Mr. Silver even found a group of atheists who continue to go to church or synagogue because they enjoyed the rituals and community. There are many, many more different variations upon this theme. There are as many ways to be an atheist or agnostic as there are ways to be a believer. It is truly an amazing example of how many different ways there are to understand and interpret the world. Perhaps the most inspiring of things to me is that these non believers do not require some written or spoken code of conduct to know what is right and what is wrong.
This, the question of morals, is perhaps the single greatest conflict between believers and non believers and the greatest obstacle a person who is experiencing a crisis of faith has to overcome if they are going to become a non believer. This comes from a misunderstanding about how it is that humans develop their morals. Yes, religious teachings help us to establish our morals but it is in much the same way that we learn how to speak. We are surrounded by these concepts on a daily basis in every aspect of our lives in churches, at school, in the home, our family and friend’s homes. It is a necessity that every child learn what is considered right and wrong within their own society. An atheist does not need a bible to tell him or her that killing is wrong. They only have to look at the laws of the land to know that it is punished by society. However, an atheist may be confused by a person who follows the bible, particularly the Old Testament, when there are so many examples where people are murdered and it is considered right in the eyes of God. The story of Joshua and the destruction of the city of Jericho and all the men, women, children and even animals within the city is one which many atheists point to and ask believers, “Why? Why is this okay?” There is also of the question of how a group of people can reconcile the revenge based teaching of “an eye for an eye,” from Leviticus 24:19, with Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount that declares, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (biblehub). An atheist or agnostic may look at this contradiction and declare that at least their concept of morality is consistent. They do what is right based on an internally consistent and externally approved set of mores and values without having to waver and consider between two different teachings. That is not to say that every person who reads both the New and Old Testaments has trouble deciding which teachings they based their morals on, but it has frequently come up in discussions between peoples of different belief systems.
The question of morality is not the only debate that occurs when people of differing beliefs converse. The most common question heard is, “How do you know that your religion is the right one?” There are thousands of religions believed throughout the ages, some that are still around and others that have become extinct along with the civilizations that followed them. A person who is willing to look at this information and ask how there is one true religion when there are so many potential religions that could be right. Richard Dawkins points out the problem with believing that one, and only one, way of thinking is true, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one step further” (source). Most atheists and agnostics have voiced this as one of the first questions they start asking that leads to their deconversion from religion (source). If a man or woman begins to ask for some sort of proof for why one religion is more right than another they have a lot to look at and ponder.
One of the most prominent questions that really doesn’t seem to have any answers is what makes this one religion that a person grew up with more right than one in a different culture or from a different time. If there is only one true and right religion and way to believe and any who do not follow that system will be tortured, lose their souls or be stuck as ghosts wandering the world forever when there are millions of people born prior to the establishment of that religion or in parts of the world that have not heard of it or had the chance to hear about it. This may not be a concern to some people, but many others they have difficulty understanding how any deity can dole out such punishments while stacking the chances against a society or individuals. In the words of most children, that just doesn’t seem to be fair. Certain people, just by pure silly luck, were born in the right place and at the right time to hear a very particular religion and therefore can be saved from eternal suffering. Everyone else is just plain out of luck. Non-believers often have trouble reconciling this concept because it just doesn’t make sense that any god or pantheon of gods would punish people who never had a chance to know them. There are religions that declare that God is not a specific entity but rather a formless and all encompassing universal power that is understood and related to in different religions based on what fits in their culture so that the Christian God is the same as the Egyptian God Amon Ra is the same as the Hindu God Shiva. All are different aspects of the same unknowable and incomprehensible power. Examples of these belief systems are pantheists, deists, Secular Humanists and some Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists in particular are accepting of most possible ways of seeing a god or gods, questioning the existence of some greater entity or nothing at all (source). Secular Humanists are typically agnostic or atheist but are accepting of all peoples of all faiths and really just want everyone to recognize the humanity and goodness in everyone.
Perhaps it is this awareness of the many possibilities and acceptance among the atheist and agnostic community that makes it appealing to so many who are uncertain. One does not have to declare themselves an atheist to be part of it. Some atheists will challenge those who are questioning their own belief, but there are many, many more who are willing to discuss and be open about their own journey from being a believer or being raised in a religious household to declaring themselves a non-believer or no longer religious. They understand that it is never easy to leave behind a long established way of thinking of the world and the comfort of the rituals provided by religion. This is why non-religious individuals have established organizations like Universal Unitarianism and Secular Humanisism; they wanted to provide some of that same support and structure that religion provides. Atheists, agnostics, religious-nones, deists, pantheists and those who don’t care are just trying to live their lives in a way that they have found to be the most logical and sincere for themselves personally. Douglas Adams, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, summed this up quite eloquently in his book The Salmon of Doubt. “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.”
Just a note: If you want to use this as a source, cool. I’m totally down for that and would be happy to share with you some of the sources I used. However, I do ask that you be considerate of the fact that this is my 6th revision of this essay. That means I put in a lot of work and taking credit for another person’s work is cheating yourself as much as that person. If you’re going to use me as a source just keep in mind that I’m just a random blogger who happens to be taking classes at this time and am not, in any way, considered a great 1st source for material. If, however, your assignment is regarding information dissemination and impact of social networks, cool! Have fun.