Hopefully, by now, most of you know that I no longer identify as a Christian. In fact, I no longer identify as religious in any way. I would be counted in the fastest growing “religious” demographic in the United States — the “nones.” We are a group comprised of those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (whatever that means).
Personally, I fall under that first identifier — I am an atheist. And being an atheist simply means that I would answer the question, “Do you believe in x, y, or z deity?” with a “No.” If you think about it, we are all atheists in a certain sense. Do any of you reading this believe in the gods of ancient Greece (Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes)? How about the Babylonian pantheon (Anshu, Tiamat)? Or the Hindu monkey god Hanuman? Probably not. There have been thousands of gods that people have worshiped at some time or another, and most likely, you believe in none of them. If you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, you believe in the one God of the Abrahamic tradition. You believe in Yahweh and disbelieve in all other gods that have ever been posited. Personally, I no longer believe in the Christian God; so while we are all atheists in regards to almost every god, I simply go one further in my disbelief than the Christian, Muslim, or Jew. I do not believe in any gods because there is the same amount of evidence for all of them — none.
So yes, I am an atheist, but that is not the only or primary thing that defines who I am as a person. My lack of believing in the Christian God says nothing more about me than your lack of belief in Zeus, Tiamat, and Hanuman. With that being said, I would like to say a couple of things about who I am and what is important to me, despite my atheism.
I am an atheist, but… I don’t hate Christians. Look, I was raised by Christians, I married a Christian, and most of the people I know and associate with are Christians. If I hated Christians, I wouldn’t be able to get along with almost anyone in my life. On the contrary, I actually appreciate certain kinds of Christian faith, and have no problem supporting the work many Christians do in the world. I have friends who have been involved in social justice work, climate activism, and public policy. Their care for other people, the environment, and building a humane and just society is informed by their Christian commitments. While I don’t think a belief in Jesus is necessary to do the work that they do in the world, I don’t begrudge them that motivation so long as it motivates for good.
I am an atheist, but… I’m not angry with God. Wouldn’t it be pretty funny if I were to tell you that I’m angry with Zeus because my car broke down? And wouldn’t it be funny because of the fact that I don’t believe Zeus is real? How could I justifiably be angry at someone or something that I don’t think exists? I can’t be! So, if you switch “Zeus” with “Jesus” in the above sentence, can you see why it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’m an atheist and I’m angry with Jesus, Yahweh, or God?
I am an atheist, but… I still believe in love. The concept of love is not a uniquely Christian concept. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” He defines love as being a combination of taking delight in another, and wishing them well. Sam Harris says something similar when he defines love as “being deeply committed to the happiness of another person.” So my idea of love has something roughly to do with caring about and for other people’s happiness and well-being. I love my kids, I love my wife, and I love every other person on this planet. I may not use the word often, but when I talk about things like helping others live happier and healthier lives, I’m talking about my love for them.
I am an atheist, but… I can still be a good person, family member, friend, and citizen. Probably the most prevalent (and false) stereotype about atheists is that we can’t be good, decent, or moral people because we don’t believe in a god. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is entirely possible to be good without God. All one has to do is look at the Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest levels of atheism in the world, yet consistently rank at the top for happy, healthy, and safe societies. Does this mean their atheism is what makes these counties better? Probably not. But what it does show is that belief in a god is not necessary to make a good person, family, community, or country. Yes, there have been many atheists who have done terrible things, but there have also been many religious people who have done and continue to do terrible things. Personally, I’m committed to being a good person, to caring about the welfare of my neighbor, in the United States and abroad. No, I won’t ever be perfect, but neither will anyone else. All I can do is strive to be a better person today than I was yesterday, and hopefully that will be good enough.
And lastly, I am an atheist, but … I am still open to believing in God. Put another way: I like to keep an open mind, but not so much that my brains fall out. I used to believe in God because, well, that’s what I was taught to believe from before I can remember. That’s why most people believe in whatever god they believe in — they were told by their parents, grandparents, peers, and community, that x, y, or z, god exists and should be worshiped, prayed to, etc. No one comes to believe in the god they do because they examined all the religions of the world, and weighed the likelihood of each being true, and then picked the one that has the most evidence for it. Granted, most people do have reasons, arguments, or the like for why they think their god is the correct one, but those are built up to justify belief after the fact.
Almost no one believes because of evidence or reasons; they believe because they have faith. I used to have that faith, but I don’t anymore. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. This is, by the way, what most people strive to do in all areas of knowledge. When a car breaks down we take it to someone who knows how to fix it. The good mechanic doesn’t rely on faith or prayers to fix the car. Rather, she draws upon her vast knowledge of how automobiles are built, function, and break down, to determine what is wrong. When we want to know what is the best thing to do for our bodies and our health, we rely on the expertise of trained physicians and psychologists to tell us what to do. Again, we don’t want them to tell us what to do based on “faith.” No. We want them to base their prescriptions on years of careful study rooted in the scientific method.
So when someone makes a claim about the world, if we want to know whether it is true or not, we need to gather evidence. If I told you there was a teapot floating just on the other side of Saturn, you would rightly ask what evidence I had to support such a claim. How could I possibly know this, and why should you believe it too? That is, in the end, what I require if I am to ever believe in God again. I need evidence, data, sound reasons showing why the God-claim is true. And it has to be real evidence. Faith is not evidence; a warm and tingly feeling is not evidence; and your mother telling you it is true is not evidence. Maybe consider what evidence you would require in order to believe that Zeus really is up there wielding lightning bolts. Find me that type of evidence for whatever god you believe in, then we can talk. In the meantime, if you want me to believe in your god, and if you believe that God answers prayers and knows everything there is to know about the universe, then pray that God provides me with more evidence. Because if God knows everything, then surely he knows what would convince me, and he could bring said evidence to my attention.
That’s it. I’m an atheist, but … a lot of things. Just because I don’t believe in god, doesn’t mean I’ve changed a whole lot from who I was a couple years ago. I still care about people, and I still want to build a more loving, kind, and just world for my kids to grow up in. And, most importantly, I still want to be your friend, even if we disagree about which gods are real.
Thanks for reading.