A few months ago, blogger Ian Cromwell wrote a post about how atheism has affected his life and titled it “Because I am an atheist.” In the comments section, others left their own “Because I am an atheist” stories. Then my friend Kate wrote her own version, and now I’ve been inspired to write mine.
I’ve only recently started identifying with atheism. I’ve used the terms “humanistic Jew” and “secular humanist” to describe myself for a while, but it’s really just a matter of semantics. The nutshell version is, I don’t believe in any sort of god. I haven’t for a very, very long time, and the belief left me naturally, as though I’d grown out of it.
Fun happy disclaimer thing: This is a personal post. It’s about what atheism means to me. It is not an attack on your religion. Aside from this disclaimer, I’m not going to insult my readers’ intelligence by sticking in “but of course you don’t have to agree” and “of course you can get a similar experience out of religion too” and “I don’t mean to say that atheism is superior” into every paragraph.
So here we go.
Because I am an atheist, I get to develop my own moral code. Many people get their sense of morality from religion. That’s totally okay. But I relish the opportunity to create my own.
My morality is a sort of combination of utilitarianism and the Golden Rule. When I decide how to act, I weigh the pros and cons. Will this help someone else at very little cost to myself? If so, then I’ll do it. Will it help someone else at a great cost to myself? If so, I might do it if the cause is important enough to me. Is this act self-serving, with a potential for hurting the other person? If so, I probably won’t do it, unless I really, really need to.
That’s not to say that I always act ethically or that I never hurt anyone. At least, though, I get to own my actions whether they’re positive or negative. Regardless of the outcome, nobody made me do it. My holy book didn’t tell me to do it. My pastor/rabbi/what-have-you didn’t tell me to do it. I told myself to do it, and if it turned out badly, I can do better next time.
Because I am an atheist, my major life decisions are my own to make. I don’t have to get married. I don’t have to have children. I don’t have to give a percentage of my money to any particular cause or charity unless I choose to. I don’t have to belong to any particular organization.
Now, I do want to get married and have children, and I do want to donate money to certain causes and belong to certain organizations. But I’m allowed to change my mind. It’s not my “duty” to do any of these things, unless I’ve chosen that duty for myself.
Because I am an atheist, I am only accountable to the people I choose to be accountable to. If I screw up, the only people I need to apologize to are the people I’ve affected. The only people whose forgiveness I need is theirs, and my own. I don’t need to confess to a religious authority figure. I don’t need to pray for forgiveness.
Because I am an atheist, I can seek explanations for things in the physical world. For instance, I don’t have to believe that men are the dominant sex because God made it that way as a punishment for Eve’s sin. I can examine the evidence and form the opinion that it’s because males are naturally stronger than females in most species, and human gender roles developed from there. I can also decide that we don’t need these roles anymore, now that our lives aren’t a constant struggle for survival.
In my own life, I can find explanations that are empowering rather than disempowering. For instance, my depression wasn’t some sort of punishment from God; it was an illness caused by an interaction between my genetics and my environment, and I could overcome it. Although it was my responsibility to overcome it by seeking treatment and changing some things about my life, that doesn’t mean it was my fault that it happened. Just like if you slip and fall, it’s not your fault, but you are responsible for picking yourself back up. Not God.
Because I am an atheist, I can choose my own lifestyle. I can eat what I want. I can make my dietary decisions based on what’s healthy or what tastes good or what restaurant my friends want to go to.
I don’t have to stop doing the thing I love most for one day each week. I never have to disconnect from technology unless I choose to–and sometimes I do.
Decisions about sexuality are mine to make. Without religion, there’s little reason to consider any consensual sex act to be “wrong.” There’s only things I want to do and things I don’t want to do.
Because I am an atheist, I can trust science. Of course, there is still such a thing as faulty science, but the trademark of science is that it keeps trying to challenge and improve itself. So while individual theories might be disproven and individual studies might be poorly designed, I can trust the scientific project itself.
I don’t have to worry that new findings will contradict my beliefs. Of course, that’s exactly what they might do–but then I can just change my beliefs. I don’t have a huge, deeply personal stake in explaining things a certain way. Evolution doesn’t bother me. (In fact, it’s pretty cool.)
Because I am an atheist, I can question things. Since there’s no god to make the world the way it is, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Judaism, which is the faith I was sort of secularly raised in, does emphasize asking questions and learning, and I appreciate that about it as opposed to, say, Catholicism. However, in the end, you do need to believe in God. Full stop. Or else you’re a “humanistic Jew,” like me. You can question and seek “proof” for God’s existence (and many Jewish philosophers have offered up compelling and interesting rationales for this), but at the end of the day, you say your evening prayers and you go to bed knowing that someone’s watching over you.
Nobody’s watching over me. I’m watching over myself. And that’s fine by me.
Fantastic! Thanks for writing this.
Whoa, that was fast! Thanks for reading. 🙂
Hi Miriam. I found your blog via Freshly pressed and the title of this caught my eye. I haven’t ever thought of my non-belief in a god in the way you’ve presented it, but reading your list has made me think about my own. My five year old daughter has recently started at our local Church of England infant school (5-7 year olds) and we’ve had some tough decisions about whether to send her, how to handle her questions & sudden absolute belief in god. we’ve gone for honest without being critical – sometimes it’s hard if you fall closer to richard dawkins view of the reality of organised religion whatever your view of faith in a higher being itself. Anyway, thanks for making me think. Annabel
Hi Annabel! Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked it. That definitely sounds like a tough situation with your daughter. But when I was little (a bit older than she is now, though), I was a complete believer. I even prayed all the time. I remember being terrified that God would be angry and punish me. I have no idea where that came from, since my parents are secular and never instilled that in me whatsoever. I think many kids just have a tendency to believe in supernatural things, whether that takes the form of Santa Claus, mythical animals, or God. I have a 7-year-old sister, so I’m familiar. 🙂
Completely agree with all of these, especially the ‘believe in science’ one! Scientists are always questioning and searching, never just accepting or assuming!
Bravo!! As you demonstrate, we so called “non believers” actually believe in a lot! We believe that people create their own meaning and purpose in life. We believe that people determine the conduct of their own lives, and must take full responsibility for their behavior. We believe that only people can solve human problems.
We most certainly have morals and ethics in our Atheist community, even though we are painted incorrectly as being immoral. We believe morality and meaning come from humanity and the natural world, not from the supernatural. In resolving ethical dilemmas, we seek solutions that respect the dignity and self-esteem of every human being. We believe in the validity of our own well thought out choices. All of this is very empowering and very uplifting in leading a satisfying, positive, meaningful, honest life!!
Despite what others say about how dismal and empty we are, we believe in leading extremely fulfilling (even spiritual!) lives. As Secular Humanistic Jews (see http://www.SHJ.org if you are looking for a local congregation or group), we celebrate our Jewish heritage in an honest manner that is consistent with our beliefs; we say what we believe and believe what we say. More importantly, we DO a lot (e.g., social action, “fixing” the world), mainly because we are so hopeful for the future and the role we must play in it.
Because we are so confident in the collective strength and power of people, we don’t hunger for signs of a deity. We don’t stress about whether there is a supernatural power with a plan. This is really irrelevant to us based on our beliefs and, as you point out, that’s just fine by us. I’m ok going to bed without the protection of any imaginary friends overhead. We focus on the “here and now” and how we can help others, ourselves, our world. We read the Tanakh and other ancient writings, as well as many other forms of Jewish literature and history, but we write our own ceremonial liturgy, so that we can be honest in what we say (my son and I even wrote our own mezuzahs, and seeing them in my house makes me more fulfilled than anything deemed “kosher” by a rabbi!).
I’m very proud of how my son questions things, and demands credible evidence. He did this well before he even understood atheism or the concept of god. At age three, in Kmart, when approached by the “Easter Bunny” with treats, he asked me “Why is that bunny SO BIG?” For us, things really do have to add up right or we keep asking questions.
We believe in ourselves and the daily choices we make freely. In many respects, I feel like I’m a bigger (and more satisfied) believer than my theistic friends!
Aww, I love the story about your son! That’s exactly how I hope to raise my children if I have them someday.
I am actually looking for a humanistic Jewish congregation, but unfortunately, right now I live in Chicago and the closest one is way up in the suburbs where you’d need a car to go. But in a year I’m going to the East Coast for grad school, and I don’t think I’ll have a problem finding one there.
Right now I go to Shabbat services and/or dinner almost every week on campus, and I enjoy the cultural aspect, but the instant someone starts getting into how God made men this way and women that way, I’m just like… -_-
I like the Jewish traditions that emphasize being with your family, reflecting on yourself and your life, things like that. I think Judaism includes a lot of useful teachings on self-improvement, kindness, and charity. But you don’t need to believe in god to access all of that awesome stuff.
Nicely written. I especially liked your last line. True. I’m true to myself and that’s enough.
Another great post! I feel the same way. As an atheist preteen and teen and a child raised sans religion in a community that was divided between Catholics and Protestants with a minority of Jewish people, I was often asked about morality. The strange thing is that the people who were asking would pick and choose Christian morals to follow: claim that atheists were without a moral compass, but then pick on the gay kid, cheat on their self-imposed Lenten restrictions (“I can have pop on Fridays!”), cheat on their partners. In uni I learned about moral relativity and tend to go with a “generally this, but it depends on the situation.” That is, I try to do right by others, do no harm, and improve the world, but I recognize there is a huge grey zone to most things. I just wish that people would realize that “love thy neighbor” includes all of us, regardless of gender/race/ethnicity/language/sexual orientation/sex/ability/age, etc.
Re: the morality thing–I recently went to the national conference for SSA (Secular Student Alliance) and one of the speakers was Herb Silverman, an awesome dude who tried to run for public office in South Carolina, where an atheist could not legally do so. He succeeded in challenging that law all the way to the state supreme court and won.
Anyway, during his talk, he mentioned some of the questions he would get from reporters. One was, “But if you don’t believe in God, what stops you from just going and raping and murdering?” His hilarious response was, “Well, with an attitude like that, I really hope you keep believing in God.” 🙂
I like this post but I don’t know if what you’ve written follows from “because I’m an atheist.”
I believe in God and I develop my own moral code, make my own major life decisions, seek explanations in the physical world, trust science, believe that I’m accountable only to myself, and choose my own lifestyle. And anyone who knows me knows that I question everything.
I think everyone does those things (to some extent), regardless of whether or not they believe in a Deity. However, of course, some religious people believe that they have to do things because they think that a 3,000 year-old text written by/inspired by/whatever by God tells them to do things. But they still shape their own morality by this – I don’t think you can find two Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus who agree on EVERYTHING, unless maybe they’re religious leaders. (I’m going to use Catholics as an example now because that’s my religious background and I know a lot of Catholics). For example, I know some Catholics who support the death penalty, even though one of the 10 Commandments says “Thou shalt not kill.” I know Catholics who are very strongly against the death penalty. I know Catholics who are indifferent on the issue. And so on and so forth with every social/civil rights issue. They all identify very strongly with being Catholic, but they all develop their own moral code and beliefs, regardless of what their religion or what the Church actually states as “true.” Then there are scientist Catholics (despite popular belief, the Catholic Church actually does think that evolution is true), LGBT Catholics who are still very Catholic despite their de facto oppression by the Church, Catholics who are divorced, those who identify as Republican, identify as Democrats, etc., etc. I’m sure you can find the same differences in every person who believes in a God/is religious (although those are not the same thing).
Tl;dr: I just realized that you wrote “but of course you can get the same experience out of religion” up there, but I still think that “because I’m an atheist” doesn’t really fit/isn’t exactly correct with the rest of your statements. I think it would be better to say “Because I’m a rational, thinking person…” instead. Although some atheists believe that they’re the most rational people on earth and that theists are dumbwits. Eh, to each her own, I guess.
Those are fair points. But I think that’s why I emphasized that this is an entirely personal take on it–I feel that I, personally, have come to these realizations/choices through not believing in God. As you said, a rational, thinking person could also come to the same conclusions whether they are an atheist or not.
Also, while people of the same religion may vary widely in their morals and lifestyle, there are nonetheless going to be things that are prohibited (or mandated) for them based on their interpretation of that religion. Religion would be entirely pointless if it didn’t give you ANY pointers on how to live your life, I’m guessing. 🙂
Thanks for reading/commenting!
True, true. I came to these realizations when I took my first theology class in high school. (14-year-old Nicki: “Wait, so the Gospels were written 50-plus years after Jesus lived, so anything Jesus “said” probably wasn’t actually him? And the Torah is one giant allegory? Aaaaaahhhhh!” *cue religious angst*)
Religion is almost pointless, in my opinion. I think that people get so caught up in the rules and mandates that they become spiritually blocked. Like religion is a giant web between humans and God.
Well, actually, Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was actually handed down to the Israelites by God. Like, personally. Like, “Oh here you go, here’s your holy book!” However, most of the Jewish laws come from rabbinical interpretations of those original texts (the separation of milk and meat dishes/utensils for Kosher being a good example). So it’s a similar thing to your Gospels example: all of these Jewish laws are really just the opinions of a bunch of dudes, many of whom argued with each other at the time. But now they’ve solidified into law.
I actually consider myself very spiritual despite being an atheist. I didn’t even really get to that in this post, but for me spirituality is a feeling of being connected to the universe and to other people. I observe that in various ways. Never needed God for it, though. 🙂
I would say that religion is (among other things) a set of rules for how to interact with God and how to be a spiritual person. I think some people genuinely benefit from having these rules, but others don’t.
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You mentioned that the golden rule was one of your guiding principles; it is based off of a quote from the Bible, where Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself.
Actually, the Golden Rule has been found in the writings of philosophers from ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Babylon. It is also found in Buddhism, Baha’i, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, and even Wicca. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule
Even if it came directly from Christianity, though, that doesn’t change the fact that I chose it for myself, not because religion told me so.
I read the Wikipedia page and the only one that showed a credible source was Judaism and Christianity and the source from Judaism is from a book in the Bible which the Christians share with them. All the other religions came after these two. So I guess your guiding beliefs are still Jewish/Christian. 😉
What exactly is not credible about the other sources? They quote the original writers directly. If by “not credible” you mean that they don’t confirm your beliefs, you’re going to have to do better.
Also, while Judaism does predate other religions, I sincerely doubt that Confucius, who said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself,” had any contact with the Israelites. Or the writers of the Buddhist Udanavarga, which says, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
And no, as I specifically just said, I determined my own moral code. The fact that it shares some features with Judaism/Christianity does not make it Jewish/Christian.
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