I was very interested to read Greta Christina’s recent post, “Will Atheism Become Easier?” Greta asks,
And if we came to our atheism more or less on our own — if we came to the atheist community after we let go of God, not before — we had to re-invent the wheel. I certainly went through that. When I let go of my spiritual beliefs, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and humanist and skeptical and secular philosophies of life and death. Death especially was a struggle for me — as it is for many believers letting go of their beliefs — and I pretty much had to piece together my own ways of coping with a life in which death is really and truly final. And I’m not the only one. Other atheists who have left religion report similar emotional and philosophical struggles: about death, about meaning, about personal responsibility, about really big questions that frame our lives.
But I’m wondering if that will be less true for the next generation.
It’s an interesting question to me because I am that next generation, so to speak. I never had to come to atheism on my own. My father is an atheist, his parents were atheists, and my mother’s interest in Judaism always seemed to me to be mostly ceremonial.
I have no hesitation in answering the question of whether it’s easier to grow up without the baggage of religion, because I never thought atheism was the slightest bit difficult. From the first time I ran into opposition from my Kindergarten classmates, I was never shy about stating my opinion, and I have rarely felt much anxiety about whether life is worth living.
Sure, being an atheist has sometimes been difficult because it makes me a minority and puts me in conflict with other people. It has caused the occasional trouble with classmates, neighbors, and coworkers. Fortunately major conflicts have been relatively rare for me, and the answer has usually been to meet better people or avoid topics that cause fights. On the whole, though, I have never felt much of that massive life upending reevaluation of priorities and values that ex-theists seem to experience, or lost a lot of sleep worrying that there’s no meaning to it all.
I have always found other people’s deconversion stories to be fascinating, and by contrast, I’ve always considered the story of my own atheism to be a bit boring. Massive internal conflict and soul searching is something that makes a good narrative — an engaging heroic journey, if you will. But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with skipping it.
With apologies for the overused analogy: My son has never believed in Santa Claus. Even among atheists, this is a controversial position to take, as many atheist parents reason thusly: “I believed in Santa Claus, and it brought magic and wonder in my life until I learned the truth. Is it fair for me to deny the same thing to my kid?” Using a sample size of one, I think it’s absolutely fair. Ben is still at an age where many of his peers believe in Santa, and I have asked over several years, “Do you feel like you missed out on anything, because you didn’t believe in Santa?” He’s always immediately insisted that he’s glad he never bought into it. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the holiday season any less (he says it’s his favorite holiday), and never seems to have been disappointed by the fact that he receives presents from his parents instead of a storybook character.
Speaking of my son, he’s another lifelong atheist, and he seems to have an even easier time of it than I did. Like me, he doesn’t hide his opinions from fellow students. Like me, it occasionally causes a little conflict with true believers. Unlike me, he seems to have collected a fair number of atheist friends at each school and daycare he goes to. I give the credit to the ever-increasing willingness of the atheist movement to speak their minds and make atheism socially acceptable. I’m pretty confident that Ben’s generation of kids will grow up with more exposure to atheists and less fear of them than any of us did.
I certainly don’t want to say that I never faced philosophical dilemmas. Christians have challenged me all my life to think about their views and justify my rejection of their beliefs. I’ve devoured apologetics, both historical and modern, in the form of books and radio shows and religious TV programming and live church attendance and (of course) online and in person debates. I’ve experienced doubt, sure — there was a period when I took a hard look at Pascal’s Wager and asked myself if there’s really a reason to fear eternal consequences. Obviously, I concluded there wasn’t.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly worried on many occasions about my own mortality. I’ve read my old school papers and blog posts and felt some existential sadness that the “old me” will never exist again. I have even, a time or two, pondered the fate of the last humans living. What will it be like when the legacy of the entire human race ends, as resources run out, or the planet freezes, or the entire universe collapses? Those are sad things to ponder.
But at no point have I seriously thought that it would have been better to have never lived at all. I don’t just argue in the abstract that no God is needed to give my life meaning. I try to appreciate what I’ve got, and enjoy what I do, and I can still feel optimistic that life continues to get better as people learn more.
As my son thinks of Santa, so I think of God. I respect people who have gone through the experience of learning for the first time that there is (probably) no God. I appreciate the struggle that they go through in reforging their identity. But I don’t feel like I have to trade for their experience.