(Originally published in the March 2010 “American Atheist”)
The material universe is where we live and what we deal with. Atheism doesn’t entail beliefs which must be walled off against the intrusion of the world and the facts of life and of existence. We are completely natural mortal creatures. Someday we will be gone and, if one of many of the current cosmological theories is correct, the universe in which we find ourselves will cease to exist.
Humans are prone to adopting opinions for which there is scant or no evidence, and we human atheists are certainly not immune, but as far as our lack of deities and our dismissal of supernatural phenomena are concerned we have every reason for confidence (and every confidence in reason!). Unless immaterial beings show up at our material doorstep or Uri Geller’s spoons start bending themselves, our lack of belief is completely warranted.
Atheism is not a faith. I know that is contrary to what many religion enthusiasts would have us think, but I can’t help that.
One needn’t be a professional scientist or philosopher to listen to the pronouncements of religious marketers or read sacred texts such as the bible or the Book of Mormon and come to the realization that the ideas promulgated by such characters and in such works are often nonsensical and/or harmful. I think that most capable, educated, modern people can tell by a young age that the dead do not fly up out of their graves and that torturing people (somehow forever) does not make one good, much less perfectly good. Of course if young people are given the “choice” by parents and other authority figures to be punished or believe such things, then many will pretend to buy it. They will fake it ’till they make it, or at least fake it ’til they can support themselves and be done with it.
Atheism does not depend upon being passed through families or communities. It is important for us to make known that it is good to be godless and that atheists are everywhere in order to end the isolation so many of us experience. But we don’t need to knock on doors or call people at dinnertime to spread atheism. Atheism can and does occur naturally to people who perceive that the real world is all there is and that tales of the supernatural are bunk.
“I am so happy, I thought I was the only one,” was how I felt when as an adult I first encountered other nonbelievers. Again and again, when I meet someone who has recently discovered other atheists I hear this feeling echoed. The good godless people who express this sentiment haven’t been visited by atheist missionaries or Freethought evangelists. They came upon their godlessness through thought and reflection and the study of whatever resources they could access.
Let’s compare this stance with the situation that religions find themselves in. Think for a moment of all of the old time religions with which you are familiar; those of the Greeks, of the Norse, of the ancient Egyptians and of almost countless others. Once whole peoples believed the stories and honored and feared the colorful characters of these traditions. We know that many of these people were good and decent to their fellows and that many were intelligent and curious. Now their faiths are for all practical purposes dead. Very few fear the wrath of Zeus or Odin any longer. I know of no representatives of Apollo attempting to insert creation myths into our public school science curriculum. I haven’t heard reports of servants of Thor attempting to have their ancient views of marriage adopted as law.
The religions that we encounter today are likewise traditions based on incredible stories, spread through marketing (more storytelling) and sometimes force, and maintained through the use of appeals to tradition and emotion. The traditions must be continually maintained, shored up, and passed on, or they perish.
Take Islam as an example. Let us say that Islam were to vanish. All traces of Islam, the music, writing, architecture, everything that could tell one anything about Islam were lost to the world. If this were to happen could Islam be reinvented exactly as it had existed? I don’t think it could. Islam was created at a certain time and place by certain individuals and the Islam of today is a product of its particular history. If it were to vanish completely it could not be reconstructed. The same is true of any faith tradition.
Given enough time, the religions we know today will pass away, just as their predecessors did. Other ones, maybe even spin offs of current ones, will likely take their place. But I think that if we humans retain our capacity to think and to challenge authority, no matter what kinds of superstition are foisted upon our descendants, some will refuse to be taken in. And some of these individuals will have the hardihood, in the face of extreme pressure and sometimes violence, to stand up and proclaim their disbelief.
And if indeed the universe ends, whether with a bang or a whimper, a Big Rip or a Big Crunch, and our species, or another species which can ask questions and think critically is around to witness the end of it all, then at least some will be atheists.