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Humble Atheism

I got a phone call early this morning. My ex-brother-in-law, who lives with my sister, his ex-wife (it’s a long story), told me that my sister, who had been very ill for some time, had lapsed into a coma and was not expected to live beyond the end of the day. I called my brother and my daughter, who was very close to her aunt. I told my daughter to collect her thoughts to help me write an obituary. My sister is a remarkable woman. The obituary will come later.

I can’t imagine that we’ll have a funeral… but we might. My family is odd that way. We didn’t have a funeral for either of my parents, who died, separated by 16 years, when their three children were adults. But my sister and I are both atheists and my mother, who survived my father, was antisocial. Both of my parents were cremated and their ashes scattered on the sea (they had lived on a boat for several of their later years). But my sister lives across the country from me, with her ex-husband, who lost his second wife several years ago and he may want a funeral. We’ll see.

So driving around today, thinking about my sister and waiting for word from my ex brother-in-law, I was listening to “The Moth,” the program that has people tell stories, real-life stories, on NPR. A woman was telling of the epiphanel events that led her to choose the ministry as a later-life vocation. She said that her decision was important because the actions of a minister carried more weight than ordinary actions—they shaped a person’s relationship to God.

As an atheist I don’t think one’s relationship to God (an anthropomorphized one or a more vague "spiritual" force or purpose) is particularly important, since it is a relationship with a fictional entity and only exists in one’s own mind. To me that is simply a fact. But I listened to the woman on the radio and heard her tell of her experience. Her perspective was far different from mine. I thought about my ex-brother-in-law, and my brother, both of whom are very religious. And my daughter, whose religious sentiments are as powerful as they are eclectic. Their religious beliefs probably are more important to them than are my atheist sentiments to me. After all, mine are essentially the absence of belief—nothing terribly complicated nor to which I am attached, except that my absence of belief has satisfied me and is not something I see myself ever giving up.

We all explain our worlds to ourselves in some way. My world is relatively circumscribed by my environment and my experiences. I understand evolutionary theory quite well, having taught it to college students, and basic physics, a little chemistry and quite a bit of biology, particularly neurobiology. I have a Ph.D. in psychology. But I have only a minute grasp of nuclear physics, astrophysics, quantum theory, or cosmology, so my framework for explaining the universe or man’s place in it is limited. I’m interested in what I can glean from popularized accounts of cosmological ideas, but I’m certainly not sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see which theory receives the next bit of support or disconfirmation. I’m more involved with my immediate experience of the world. Most of my religious friends claim to know more than I do about the purpose of the universe, its creation, and about layers of the universe, such as heaven and hell, that I’m pretty sure don’t exist. They interpret much of their lives, and particularly momentous events, such as death, through the frameworks provided by their religious beliefs.

Unlike many of my fellow atheists, I’m not chronically angry with people who have religious beliefs, or even with those who promulgate such beliefs, such as priests, rabbis, imams and ministers. Sometimes I’m angry at the way such beliefs are used to discriminate against people—LBGT people, other races, other religions, we atheists—but I also see that similar discrimination can often exist without religious underpinnings, although I believe that religion is frequently used to promote such intolerance. But I also see people who use their religious beliefs to justify or even motivate them to engage in good deeds toward their fellow humans. I am quite aware that the religious framework by which many people view their worlds and explain it to themselves gives meaning to it for them. It can give them feelings of hope, solace and even sympathy as well as vengeance and anger. Wars have been and are still being fought for religious ideas. But wars are also fought for territory, for power and for resources. Massive humanitarian actions have been taken in the name of religion by religious organizations, as have massive exterminations of cultures and people.

So in thinking about my sister’s impending death and how or whether to commemorate it, I’m also thinking about how different we humans are in how we explain our worlds to ourselves. Most of us, even the most learned scientists, if they are honest with themselves, might as well admit that our understanding of the universe and how it works is a fiction. Some versions are closer to the truth than others, but simply looking back on the history of philosophical and scientific thought on this subject and how it has changed over the centuries should make us humble whenever we think we have finally come close to understanding the true picture. Imposing one or another of these views on others seems ridiculous (but of course s one of the characteristics that is most irksome about nearly every religion is that its followers want to impose it on others).  But not respecting someone else’s effort to try to make sense of his or her world or his own existence within that world, seems equally ridiculous, since, so long as their viewpoint does not lead to them hurting others, it is equally valid in terms of its function, which is to give meaning to the world the person experiences.

It’s hard to maintain such equanimity as I have just espoused when an even cursory glance at the world around us reveals Christians hating Muslims, Christians hating Jews, Muslims hating Christians and Jews, Muslims hating Muslims, Catholics hating Protestants, Buddhists hating Muslims, Catholics hating Buddhists, Hindus hating Muslims, all of the above groups hating atheists. And don’t forget that these hatreds have been going on for centuries. But then we’ve also had wars over territory, wars about resources, wars over ideologies, wars over tribal supremacy, wars over possession of women, wars over leadership and wars to sell arms. The greed, bigotry, intolerance and need to suppress those who are different from ones self that breed wars, slavery, and discrimination can be at the heart of religious beliefs, ideological beliefs, racial supremacy beliefs or nationalistic beliefs. It is these attitudes we need to rid ourselves of when they are enshrined in a set of beliefs, religious or otherwise. Beyond that, I’m for everyone finding his or her own explanation for his or her own life and world and the rest of us respecting his or her effort to do so. Live and let live.



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Reader Comments (4)

First of all, I am very sorry to hear about your sister. No matter what you must believe about her life and her death, and where she goes from there, it is sad to lose someone that you will not have the opportunity in this physical world to have with you again. My thoughts are with you all. One of the many things I admire about you is your ability to accommodate for those that do not think like you. This is a rarity. I love this, "I’m for everyone finding his or her own explanation for his or her own life and world and the rest of us respecting his or her effort to do so. Live and let live." You are right. I am the polar opposite of you...I believe in an Almighty Presence that has made and given us a purpose in this world. I think that we all are on this journey of life of finding our purpose. The more I learn, the more I realize that there is no conclusion or fact. What we think we know may change, or is pure speculation. This universe, our beings, the intricacies of all that exists is so far beyond our capacity to understand. But we all find paths, via atheism or complete dedication to a religious viewpoint so that we can find our way and make sense of it. I think otherwise we would be lost. Life is too hard to not have something to believe in. Your atheism is something to believe in, contrary to what you think. It is "something" to help you make sense of the world. We all need it...but we all need to realize, we really don't know.

June 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torphy

I'll pray for your sister, Casey, and I agree with you, there's little in this world that's more upsetting than religion and spirituality being used to hurt people, especially because God is Love. The fact is, Christ was born of a virgin, crucified as a sacrifice, and raised from the dead because God loves us, and death was never part of His plan. I hope you'll come to know the truth of the Gospel someday. Peace.

June 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

I'm in complete agreement with you, Casey, and I send you my best wishes in this very difficult hour. That you could reflect so soberly and generously at this time about matters of faith or lack thereof and conscience is a tribute to your character.

June 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Aw Casey, I'm sorry about your sister. I'm so pleased though to learn a bit more about you via this thoughtful, incredible post. I echo many of your thoughts though I do not identify as either Christian (or any other religion) or atheist (the absence of one).

I spent many years (about 40) trying to embrace the Christian faith I was raised in until I finally gave myself permission to vocalize my deeper truth: the faith had never made sense to me, and i fact had always offended my complete openness to others and their beliefs and lifestyles. Heck, I grew up with a gay sister. How on earth was I supposed to judge the person I loved most in the world at the time? It was a great relief, then, to "unmoniker" my beliefs.

I so appreciate this post, and you, Casey.

June 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBritton Swingler

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