Those who wish to demonize or denigrate atheists are rather fond of telling us what we believe as a consequence of our atheism. You’ve undoubtedly heard the shrieking refrain of “you’re an atheist? That means you believe in nothing!” Who can argue with that kind of airtight logic? Or the similarly bulletproof “atheists just say they don’t believe so they can be sinful!” Thanks, Mr. Comfort – any other gems you want to lay on us? “Atheists have no moral centre – if there are no gods, any depraved act is permitted!”
The accusations are as tedious as they are false. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that people who lack a god belief are less moral than those who have one. Indeed, one could make the argument that the association between the most vile behaviours humankind struggles with – anti-gay hatred, suicide bombing, tribalist racism – and fervent religious expression suggests the exact opposite: that god-belief provides a convenient excuse for those who wish to do evil. Whatever the truth is, theist apologists are perhaps the least qualified to tell the world what atheists do as a consequence of their atheism.
Many of you have undoubtedly seen PZ Myers’ “why I am an atheist” series on Pharyngula. His purpose is to provide a variety of answers to the question “why are you an atheist” that go beyond the simplistic tautology of “because I lack a god belief”. In a similar vein, I thought I would share some of the specific ways that acknowledging my atheism has changed my life:
Because I am an atheist, I am more open to new experiences
Being an atheist has made me far more impatient for getting the most out of life. I realize that I am lucky enough to get to experience a slice of self-aware existence. Whenever I am confronted with an opportunity to try something new and challenging, I can’t help but return to the fact that this is the only chance I’ll get. When I am looking back on my one and only life, will I be regaling my friends with all the tales of the times I took the road more traveled? I doubt it. The reality of my finite window in which to experience things makes me much more willing to do things that I might not otherwise have been ‘up’ for.
Because I am an atheist, I am on the organ donor list
Far more pragmatic and less self-reflectively thanatophobic than the first one, I realize that my body is a meat machine that has a lot of parts that can be inordinately useful to others when I’m dead. I hold no reverent sentiment toward my meat – when I die, that’s the end of me caring what happens to my body. Bury me, burn me, freeze me, shoot me into space, carve me up and use me as a bizarre sideshow in a Hallowe’en display – I won’t be around to have an opinion. However, I am cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of people who are literally dying to have a fresh shot at my slightly-used organs. If my atheism-fueled joi de vivre leads me to a premature death in a freak motorcycle-jousting-with-a-tiger accident, let those salvageable bits of me go to some use!
Because I am an atheist, I feel connected to all life
I recognize the link that I share with all living beings. We are the byproducts of the same inexorable laws of physics and biology – I just happen to be the particular part of that chemical reaction that knows how to work a PS3. I recognize this, and it gives me a feeling of obligation to do my best to protect and safeguard diverse life, ensuring that we can minimize suffering and maximize well-being.
Because I am an atheist, I think of my actions on a long timeline
My life is not an adjudicated exam for the ‘real thing’ to come later. Whatever consequences my life has will ripple outward forever. The way I treat others may influence the way those others go on to behave. If I act selfishly, avariciously, or short-sightedly, I have made the world a slightly more selfish, avaricious and short-sighted place to be. Those are not the qualities I wish to encourage in a world for those who would come after me. I want to live the kind of life that future generations will look at and find a net balance of praiseworthy merit. If my life means anything, it’s that.
These are just a scattered, random handful of reasons my life is shaped by my atheism. What I would like to invite you to do is give the topic some thought, and submit (either in comments or by e-mail) something in your life that is a direct result of your atheism. Like PZ, I will periodically post some of your submissions, and give you the opportunity to expand on them if you like. So please, if you are an atheist, tell me your story.
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