Q&A with A Raging Atheist

Ladies and Jellyspoons, boys and girls, I’m coming out. I’m an Atheist! Yay! I’m not Agnostic, I’m not curious or questioning; I don’t believe in God. Not Islam’s God, Christianity’s God, or New-Age “The Universe Loves You” fabrications. There is not one fiber of my being that believes some higher moral entity exists to govern our behavior towards one another. As a matter of fact, I don’t even want to believe that. I can’t find a single reason to support an argument in favor of divine guidance.

Of course, this joyful announcement may not be news to some of you. I have no shame in my views, nor do I think they make me a pretentious, arrogant bastard (although I am certainly that for other reasons). But I do receive a fairly common string of questions that I want to address, partly because I think I share these views with many fellow Atheists who may not care to articulate them, and partly because I’m lazy and will simply refer future askers of said questions to this blog post.

Doesn’t being an Atheist give life no true meaning?

If you define “true meaning” in the sense that there is no ultimate, existential purpose to human existence, then yes. Because I don’t think a God put us here in order to perform some extraordinary task, and because I don’t think there is any afterlife, that may mean I don’t see life’s “true meaning” the same way you do. Does that mean I believe life has no meaning at all? Absolutely not. I still experience pain, joy, hope, and love exactly the same way that you do. Cooking a mega Christmas dinner for my family and then sitting down to eat and laughing our butts off together brings me joy fit to burst. Having a giant, hairy dog who loves me so much she freaks out every time I come home makes me feel needed and happy. Experiencing the loss of a good friend makes me cry, rage, and hurt. I experience humanity whether there’s a God or not, and that’s meaning enough for me.

Do you believe in anything?

Sure. I believe that humans are fundamentally creatures of tribal existence, with intelligence cultured by millions of years of brutal evolution. I also believe that humans are fundamentally “good” in the sense that they want to be happy and see the people they love happy. We are each motivated by very similar things—the need to feel needed, loved, praised, successful, attractive. Although the extent to which we feel these things varies by person, I haven’t met a single person who didn’t care to be treated kindly. Once you take away threats to someone’s well-being, people are generally pretty willing to be nice to each other. Studies show that altruism breeds altruism—which is why, at my very core, I believe that treating others with humanity is the most important thing we can do in this life.

What happens after we die?

Nothing. We die and (hopefully, unless we were real assholes) our family and friends celebrate our life, and mourn our loss, but we cease to exist as intelligent entities functioning within a living, breathing body of organic matter.

Then why even bother getting up in the morning?

Because I’m hungry, I want to brush my teeth, Lois has to pee, I love my job, and I’m excited for the future.

What gives you hope?

I have to admit that, sometimes, there are things that bring me down. Watching the incessant war in the Middle East and doubting whether it’s ever going to stop—that doesn’t make me feel great. It often seems like humanity is its own worst enemy. Going back to true altruism though, I also think it can be its own greatest hope. When I see groups of people coming together, united under a cause to make life better for people for no reason other than just to be good, I am extremely hopeful. Why must we wait or depend on God to be good? 

Why are we here, then?

Does it matter? We’re here, whether you believe there’s a reason to it or not. I personally believe we’re here because billions of years of complicated evolution brought us to a point where we’re sentient enough to realize we exist. Again, that may not be the existential purpose you’re looking for; but as far as I’m concerned, we’d all be a lot better off if we got past the “whys” and delved deeper into the question of “How can I make positive contributions to the life quality of myself and those around me?”

What if you’re wrong, and there is a God?

I probably get asked this question more often than anything else. For the sake of argument, let’s just pick the god I’m most familiar with—the Christian God of the Bible—and play out a little scenario. If I die and float (or whatever one does when they’re dead) off to the pearly gates and am confronted with Jesus Christ and his rather abusive, neglectful father, I have some serious questions to ask them. 1) If you are going to base my entire eternal existence on my behavior on Earth, why did you create me with a brain that cannot believe in a higher power? 2) Why, being the all-powerful dudes that you are, did you allow such senseless, pointless, needless suffering to occur to the innocent? 3) Why were you such as asshole in the Bible? 4) Why did you permit people to carry out atrocities on each other in your behalf? 5) Why did you make such a painstaking effort to conceal yourself, and demand belief anyway? 6) Why use the process of evolution when you can command the elements at will? 7) Why didn’t you turn my water into wine? I really could have used all the money I spent on booze throughout my life.

All joking aside, though, I think believing in God simply on the off chance that He exists is tantamount to base cowardice. Simply believing in God because you’re afraid of retribution is living a life based only on fear. Step back and observe those around you: Does God really, truly bless only those who believe in him? Of course not—you see happy people, hungry people, hurting people in every walk of life and religious denomination. And if there is a God, which God is it? Your god? My god? The god of the starving child in Detroit, or god who tells parents to mutilate their daughter’s genitals? I haven’t heard of one single higher power on this planet that I believe is worthy of worship by human beings. In most cases, the things the gods we worship command us to do, or do themselves, are so much worse than anything we do to each other of our own volition (I guess this might be misleading, because since I believe humans made God up, we are doing anything they “command” us to do of our own volition). But you know what I mean? What is it about a mean, vindictive, jealous, murderous, racist, homophobic, and inconsistent God that you want to worship? If that means I don’t get to go to heaven, count me out. 

Do you think you can do whatever you want because you’re an Atheist?

Sure, I could do whatever I want. So could you. It doesn’t mean that we will, because whether I’m an Atheist or not, I still have to operate within the restraints of civilization and basic human decency. And if the only thing between you and committing capital murder is your belief in God, I’m a little worried, bro. 

If everyone were Atheist, how would the world have any “morals”?

Let’s just make one thing clear: Morals are not Ethics. I see religious people all the time acting unethically based on their “morals”. So your kid is gay—your morals dictate that his sexual orientation is a sin, so behaving according to your morals, you decry him as a sinner and refuse to allow him to bring his partner into your home. What if your morals dictate that the female sexual drive is fundamentally evil, and those women who experience orgasm will inadvertently stray into sexual sin? Your morals dictate that their genitalia be removed, but ethics say that is the bat-shit-craziest, ugliest, bloodiest, most reprehensible thing you could do to a young girl. Morals are a poor thing to base your decision making process on, because they’re dictated only by what other people believe. Ethics, however, are based on the fundamental principle that we should do good to each other and our behavior should reflect that decision. Morals remain stagnant as part of a religious code—Ethics evolve and become better, higher ways to treat others. I daresay we could use a world without any so-called “morals.”

What about the value of faith?

I find no value in accepting something to be true simply because somebody else told you it was. I think there might be value in having “faith” in humanity, if that’s how you want to put it; but that’s based on the fact that we have observed others doing good, not because of some ethereal concept of human goodness. Failing to ask questions—of everything—is not a virtue. Making enormous, critical life decisions based on what you think God might want you rather than what practicality and circumstances and personal desires indicate you should do—that’s not a virtue. Faith, or blind belief, is not a virtue, it’s a vice, and we’d all be better off without it.

Didn’t Hitler, Mao, and Jeffrey Dahmer do awful things because they were atheist?

There are people in this world who do not care whether those around them suffer. There are people who relish the power to make life difficult for others, who crave the ability to cleanse the world of what they consider lesser human existence. That isn’t atheist—that’s just an ugly part of humanity that, unfortunately, seems to exist across the board. We see it in religious folks and nonreligious folks alike. The Inquisitions were based around doing exactly what Hitler did. The constant wars in the Middle East are pushed onward by religious zealots on all sides. Catholic priests are constantly called into the limelight for preying on little boys. The propensity to do ugly things to other humans has nothing to do with one’s beliefs—it has everything to do with one’s character, and the belief in God doesn’t seem to improve character one bit.

Doesn’t something have to exist in order not to believe in it? Why is God any different?

This is the dumbest fucking question I’ve ever heard, and I’m surprised by how often I hear it. The utter lack of logic evidenced by such a proposition scarcely deserves to be dignified by a response; but for the sake of this post, I’ll just say this. You don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. That doesn’t mean a little green pixie with a tiny waist and giant boobs is hiding quarters under children’s pillows in exchange for a rootless molar–just so you can have the luxury to not believe in her.

Why do atheists hate religion?

Because we see it cause so much damage. Even if most religious people are fundamentally good, religion gives people an excuse to behave in ways they normally would not. If God didn’t say being gay was bad, would we ever disown our LGBT children? If God didn’t say a woman’s virtue is encased in her virginity, would strong, independent women be valued higher and would slut shaming stop? If God didn’t say men were the head of the household, would we see less spousal abuse? If God didn’t tell the Sunnis that the Shiites were wrong, would we have factional wars in Yemen and Syria? Religion spearheads much of the ugly behavior we see in the world today, and for non-participants, it is sad and frustrating. 

What about programs like Alcoholic Anonymous that make people better through religion?

I won’t deny that we humans seem genetically preprogrammed to believe in a higher power. The simple fact that we alone look up into the heavens with a blazing curiosity to understand the powers in the firmament is remarkable. It is hardly surprising that we invented superstitious ways to explain the incredible things we saw. Interestingly, those who have less control over their lives tend to rely on superstition the most. Even in baseball, where superstition is a fundamental part of the sport’s history, it is the players who have the least control over the game—namely, the pitchers—that exercise the most rigorous superstitious rituals. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous that make users acknowledge a higher power that can usher in relief and assistance to the struggle of addiction certainly have their place. I take no issue with the fact that simply believing in a higher power can assist those whose lives seem to have lost control to substance abuse. Certainly I would prefer to see that higher power be relationships with loved ones rather than God, but who am I to dictate what makes other people stronger? If they’re not using it as a weapon against anyone, power to them.

What about studies that show religious people live longer?

Correlation does not equal causation. What scientists are finding now is that religions encourage people to unite in groups with a strong foundation in community and common purpose. Humans are social creatures, and we are happier when surrounded by those who love and support us. That is what makes people live longer—not the religion itself. I have watched several people struggle through issues of enormous implication, like death, cancer, and divorce. When these people have family and friends who join together in supporting the sufferer, the entire community is buoyed up and strengthened. Religion acts as a core unifier, not as a magical life-extenze. 

What about the new age spiritualism? Is that better than religion?

I guess, in a sense, I would much rather see people engaged in “spirituality” than religion. Those I’ve seen who consider themselves spiritual are typically in the pursuit of personal enlightenment, and do so because they want themselves and those around them to be happy. That being said, I think the “Law of Attraction” (which is a theory, not a law, and a flimsy one at that), and “Universal Guidance” are absolutely ridiculous and have no ground in reality. The universe doesn’t “love” you, because the universe is not a sentient whole capable of loving anything. Love is a concept that exists for humans because it makes us behave in ways that are beneficial to ourselves and each other. It’s a measurable force that exhibits itself in chemical reactions in the brain, and then causes us to carry out behaviors that reinforce good relationships. The universe is not human, and is not subject to our lovey-dovey wishes. The fact that positive thinking can make us happier is no Secret—but it doesn’t give us whatever we want. If it could, we’d all be manifesting ourselves into millionaires driving Maseratis. And the constant invocation of “Quantum Physics” to support the arguments for the Law of Attraction is the biggest psuedo-science bogus alive and well today. The average layman has so little knowledge of the quantum physics that they can’t distinguish the difference between quack science and genuine physics, but any reputable physicist will tell you that the Law of Attraction is utter nonsense. My biggest issue with this new-age Spiritualism is that it comes from a very self-serving point of view, and seems to blame those who have less simply because they haven’t tried hard enough to attract it to themselves. But that is a whole blog post unto itself (coming soon).

I’ve covered as many of these as I can think of; I’m sure there will be more added later. If you’re curious about any of these answers, or feel like they have been explain fully, or even just have a question of your own, I welcome comments and suggestions. May the force be with you. Always. 

Exodus Explained

During my most recent visit to Utah, I was visiting a dear friend of mine whose young husband was in the hospital being treated for leukemia. Though her husband was just released (huzzah! hooray! hallelujah!), at the time we met the outcome was very uncertain. My friend and I got breakfast and, as we chatted over sumptuous bagels and toasty chai lattes, she testified strongly that she could not have endured the trying ordeal of cancer and the potential loss of her soulmate without her beloved religion—the Mormon Church. I voiced my opinion that I always thought she was a pretty tough chick, and that Church or no, she would have been “okay” (as much as is possible in such circumstance). The strength of her marriage is obvious to even the most passive observer, and both her and her husband are lucky (they would say “blessed”) to have supportive families who have been at their sides every step of the way. And, hey—if the Church made cancer suck less, gung ho! I’ve got no qualms with that.

My friend proceeded to tell me that she blamed my loss of faith squarely on the shoulders of my mother. Since we’ve known each other since middle school, my friend is acutely aware of my teenage upbringing. She was often a coconspirator when it came to getting around the fact that I was grounded at least 50% of my high school career.

But to attribute my apostasy entirely to my mother is both unfair to her and me. It discredits the arduous process leaving the Church entailed, and it gives undue influence to my mother who, in many respects, is an ideal Mormon and a pretty neat person. Because my friend and I did not have much time, and because I did not want to offend her beliefs in a time of high tension and need, I allowed the conversation to fizzle and we drifted to the much happier topic of Dream Theater, our favorite mutual (totally kickass) rock group.

I’ve thought about that conversation since then on a few different levels and asked myself some questions. Why did I, in lump summary, leave the Church? Why didn’t I feel comfortable telling my friend right then? Is it a topic of conversation appropriate when one side is devoutly for and the other devoutly against? Should I be sleeping at 2 AM instead of writing this blog post?

Since I generally err on the side of stirring the pot and avoiding early bedtimes on weekends whenever possible, I shall proceed to explain my exodus from the Matrix as succinctly and non-offensively as possible. So, without further ado, I present: “More Shit about Liz’s Life That You Probably are Not Interested In.”

First, dear reader, you should know that when I was Mormon, I drank the probity punch without restraint. I served in every capacity I could; I sang in Church choirs, I memorized Scripture Mastery with a zealous ardor, I did not miss a single day of scripture study in over four years. I did baptisms for the dead, and I knew exactly which Mormon boy I was going marry when he got back from his mission (Brandall, if you ever read this, I’m still holding out hope). I had questions, of course—little nagging things that never quite left the back of my skull, but were easily pushed aside by counsel of church leaders (i.e., “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.”). God had a will and He’d make everything clear someday, I just knew it.

I applied to BYU, got accepted, and was cruising on my way to becoming another well-oiled baby making machine, when I went to public school and fell in-very-17-year-old-love with a fellow student, whose anatomy happened to match mine (I’m assuming, since we never got that far).

Confronting the fact that I felt the way I did was in the top three scariest things I’ve ever done in my life (closely followed by a recent trip through Wyoming in a flash hailstorm, and living in a world where the Kardashian sisters are regularly on public television). What did this mean for the eternal well-being of my soul? Was I fundamentally flawed? Could I fix this part of me? Who could I trust to confide in?

I first ended up confessing my feelings to my beloved. She ultimately did not feel the same way, but she did a top shelf job of helping me navigate my way back to sanity. Religious as she was, she believed that God would never punish his children for a tendency so ingrained in who they are; she knew, for certain, that she would never be attracted to a man, but knew with equal certainty that God would not want anyone to be alone forever. So, she reconciled her beliefs and her personality, and she was happy.

Liz wasn’t. Because, particularly at the time, Liz lacked moral color cone receptors and saw everything in black vs white, it boiled down to this: Either I’m a bad person for being attracted to another woman, or the Mormon Church is wrong. There was no in between. Keep in the mind that this is pre-Proposition 8; the Mormon Church was still hardlining on the LGBT topic and hadn’t faced waves of negative publicity over their political involvement with the gay marriage issue to force them to soften up as they have in the years since. I had also never known another gay person up to my first year in public school. I’d heard rumors, whispers, knew “of” but was sure the afflicted individual was just confused—but the most I knew about LGBT people was something my mother had once said to me on the subject, something along the lines of, “I wish my kids could grow up never even knowing that existed.”

Confused and frustrated, I got down on my little Lizard knees and pleaded with God through terrified, desperate tears that He needed to let me know if I was wrong. If being with this girl made me so happy, and I admired her for what I reasoned to be good principles, give me a signal and stop me now. I honestly would have taken a lightning strike if that would have solved the issue right away. But the only thing that happened was a lot of sniffling and a whole lot more silence. God was remarkably mute on the issue.

That fundamentally cracked my foundation. The more I let myself be, well, myself, the happier I was—and it wasn’t like I was engaging in wanton, reckless behavior or excessive amounts of euphoria-inducing drugs.* I had no idea what the consequences of coming out in Utah were, and I royally fucked it up for myself and very nearly for the girl in question—it wasn’t long before she didn’t want anything to do with my brash, outspoken self, and understandably so. Nevertheless, I had drawn the damning conclusion that the Mormon Church was not right for me.

I thought I would spend some time participating in other religious sects, to see if I was interested in pursuing alternate beliefs systems. I tried to keep reading the Bible every night, but once the flood gates had opened, I was doused in reality. Every creeping doubt about religion I had ever had—Why does there have to be a God, when we’re here regardless? Why are there so many different religions, when they’re all clearly bullshit made up by limited human beings? What does “God” even mean? Why are there so many people born with a tendency to do violence? Why has Santa never brought me that goddamn pony?— crumbled away at whatever else I tried to cling on to.

Then, and this is where the subject of Mormonism gets really touchy, I began doing some research on early Mormon history. Because my own personal roots are so deeply entwined with the religion, I will always harbor a genuine curiosity about Joseph Smith and the history of the Mormon Church. Mormons have a frequent tendency to dub anything that places doubt upon their religion as being “anti-Mormon,” and I approached Mormon literature with a similar skepticism at first. Those worries were quickly cast away as I sought out genuine, well-researched and written books and articles that dealt solidly in facts and impartial documenting. I read books by devout members and harsh critics. I scoured the internet, stole books from my Dad’s shelves, and tried to have conversations with people who reached the same conclusion that I did: that the Mormon Church is one of the most well-planned, well-managed, ingenuous, successful, scandalous, bloody, dishonest hoaxes pulled over mankind in the last 200 years.

Details of why I feel this way are numerous and (I flatter myself) very interesting, but writing them here would cause many readers to become defensive, and that’s not the point of this article. I’m happy to discuss any of the topics with anybody at time, but this post is solely to cover why I initially left the Church. So thar it be.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that much of the animosity I harbored for a long time against the Church was due more in part to the members than to the doctrine. After I decided to leave the Church, at the risk of sounding self-pitying and overly sentimental, I was more lonely than I have ever been in my life. My mother and nearly all of her family wanted nothing to do with me. After I confided my sexual orientation in a good friend I attended church with, she told her mother—who called the mothers of all my friends and warned them to keep their daughters away from me. Not one single person I went to church with every Sunday for over five years ever called to see if I was doing well, or even if I was still alive. Nobody ever bothered to ask if I was actually gay, although I received books, letters, and chastisement admonishing me to change my ways. I was informed that I had betrayed everyone, that I was an utter disappointment, that I had done more damage in my 17 years than most people manage in their lifetimes. It didn’t help that I was wallowing in teenage angst and the insecurity that came along with suddenly realizing everything I had ever believed was not true. I clearly could not attend BYU, so I had no future plans. While all this was going on, my father moved to Utah and my mother absconded cross-country with my four youngest brothers without telling anyone, including them, where they were going (she turned up in North Carolina a few months later).

And I guess you could say all of the above really pissed me off. I was angry for a long time, and although I feel like I’ve resolved most of my personal bitterness towards Mormonism, here and there it rears its ugly head and I have to confront an uncomfortable issue yet again.

But the fundamental reasons for me leaving Mormonism, for my absolute conviction that I will never, ever return, and for my belief that the Church is a giant, ugly corporation that does more harm than good, have nothing to do with my mother, or my ex-worshippers, or any bitter interpersonal experience.

It has everything to do with my personal qualms with Mormon doctrine, history, and ideals. And the only reason I came to know about those issues was due to an intense amout of personal study, soul-searching, and reflection.

pumpkin
The face of unrepentant sin

That being said, several of the most important people in my life are Mormons. I love and respect them dearly. Although I fail more frequently than succeed, I try to be decent towards their beliefs because I remember where they’re coming from. I get it. I was there before, and even though I’ve now seen the error of my ways, I haven’t forgotten that I am now my 16 year old self’s worst fear.

And, in case you’re wondering, I did try to pray once in the last few years, just to see if I wasn’t actually missing out on something. I sat in my driveway, watched snow slowly coat the hood of my car, and got about thirty seconds into a vague, “Hey, God, if you’re there etc…” before I rolled my eyes, muttered something along the lines of “Such a dumbass,” and jumped out to face the snow and the rest of my life as a glutton for punishment.

See you in Outer Darkness!

*yet