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.