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Because I am an atheist: PZ Myers

Today’s contribution comes from fellow FTBorg PZ Myers, who blogs at Pharyngula. By order of the blood-signed contract wherein I pledged my unwavering fealty to a biology professor from Minnesota (I am not a clever man), I am obligated to not only post this, but to tell you it’s the greatest thing ever and also the iron-clad proscriptive truth that must be followed without question.

Because I am an atheist…

Identifying the consequences of my atheism is a difficult thing for me, because I’ve really been an atheist all my life. Yes, there was a period in my childhood when I went to church every week, but I can’t say that I ever really believed, and my slow awakening as I grew up involved an increasing awareness that because my mind worked in a particular way, I was therefore an atheist. Because I liked science, I was led to material explanations of the world; because religious explanations were so shallow and useless, I turned away from them. I was an atheist long before I realized it, so the arrow of causality always pointed to and not from atheism. Atheism is a consequence not a cause for me.

And also, I have to be honest about this: many of my principles are not at all incompatible with theism. I am politically liberal and progressive, I support labor unions and the peace movement, I oppose inequity of all forms, I value education highly and want everyone to benefit from it, I feel my greatest accomplishment in life is to have built a strong family of good people I can love and trust without question. There is nothing in that that I can say is a necessary consequence of a disbelief in gods, since those values are shared with many Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, and also I know far too many atheists who do not share them. There are deep, strong motivations driving my positions on these kinds of issues, and I simply can’t say that my intellectual stance on the existence of a deity is the wellspring. There isn’t much where I think, “Well, I’m an atheist, so I should adopt position X.”

But I discovered one thing.

My father died when he was 57. It’s lousy genetics; my entire paternal side of the family seems to kick the bucket from heart disease at a relatively early age, while the maternal side just keeps going and going until pneumonia takes them away in their 90s. It was always a tossup which side I was going to take after, until a few years ago when the tests showed that yes, I was my father’s son. I’m doing what I can now, with diet and exercise, to outlive my father, but I know I’m not ever going to be a nonagerian.

I’m 56.

I have an acute awareness of my own mortality. I’m not obsessed with it, I’m definitely not in either panic or despair, but in moments like this one, I can sit and relax in my comfortable chair, looking out the window at the trees in leaf, hearing the cicadas and savoring the calm, and I’m conscious that this is good, but it too shall pass. And probably sooner than I’d like. But I am untroubled by my fate, and I only worry about the pain I’ll cause my family when I go.

So, because I am an atheist, I’ve learned that I have no fear at all of death.

It surprises me a little bit. I had one experience in the hospital in which I honestly thought I was about to die. My heart faltered and began to fail, exhausted and oxygen-starved, and I felt all the strength drain from me, and this strange sensation deep in my guts that everything was trembling on the brink of collapse, and I slumped down and thought that this was it…I was done. I saw death and I stared it down, cold and black and empty with no consolation and nothing to anticipate but cessation, and I felt…

I felt in expectation that I would soon feel no more…

I felt no regrets. I had no desire to paper over oblivion with false hope, with delusions of a magical afterlife. I did not try to rationalize away what would happen. I did not bargain — I did not start gibbering for rescue by an omniscient being who might hear my thoughts in the face of the void. I’d lived a good life, and this was the end — not a transition, not a change, not a tunnel into the light — a final, complete, and irrevocable dissolution. So I looked death square in its bleak empty eye, and did not flinch in the slightest.

And then I looked at my wife — a much prettier sight — and felt my heart wheeze back into a steady thump, and surrender gave way to a restored resolve, and I wobbled back into the land of the living. Living really is a heck of a lot better than dying. But death is only a conclusion.

There isn’t a lot I derive from just my atheism, but that one grand thing.

No fear. No lies. An unhesitating acceptance of reality. That’s enough.

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