Taking Liberties: A Book We Need Right Now

So you may have noticed lately that the right-wing ratfuckers in state governments are busy trying to roll us back to the Dark Ages. Women aren’t people, they’re “hosts” to those precious babies that will be cherished so long as they’re in the womb; once they’re out, both host and infant will be despised as social parasites if they have the audacity to be unmarried and/or poor. Some jackass is trying to slip prayer into schools by forcing teachers to read congressional prayers. In my former home state of Arizona, the frothing fundies boiled over, and decided to give religious people the right to discriminate against gays, because apparently, refusing to let them patronize your business is an act of worship. Other states have jumped on that horrible bandwagon. And let’s not forget the Russia-envy they’ve got going on. They’ve got a stiffy for totalitarian shitlords who hate on the same groups they do.

Outraged? Good. Here’s a book that will help you channel that rage more productively: Robert Boston’s Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do.

Taking Liberties Cover

This is the sort of book you pointedly give to the fuckwads in your family who insist their religious beliefs and practices be made mandatory for everyone, because freedom. It won’t scare them away by mentioning atheists right up front, either.

Robert Boston’s thesis is simple: “Religion is not the problem. Fundamentalist religion that seeks to merge with political power and impose its dogma on the unwilling is the problem. I have a big one with anyone who considers the raw power of government an appropriate vehicle for evangelism.”

Preach it, Brother Boston!

We see that religious freedom at this country’s founding meant government out of religion, full stop. Baptists were especially keen to separate church from state, with no room left for declaring this a Christian nation. These fire-and-brimstone Baptists were all about freedom, genuine freedom, of religion – and that included Jews, Muslims, polytheists, and atheists. They were better men than the ones preaching hate in the name of religion from the Statehouse floor these days.

Robert shows how court cases placed certain restrictions on religious practice, of necessity: “You have the right to believe whatever you want, but… your ability to act on those beliefs may be subject to certain restrictions.” And he boils the balance between faith and freedom to this: “Does the private choice of another person prevent you from attending the house of worship of your choice? Does it stop you from joining your co-religionists in prayer and worship? Does it require you to bow before an alien god?” No? Then cease being an overbearing asshat.

He highlights church interference in health care, education, civil rights, and politics. “In this country where the right of conscience is precious, all religious groups have the right to be heard – but none have the right to be obeyed.” Can I get a hell yes?

Robert boils it down to a power grab. These churches want our money, and our obedience, and if we want to remain the secular nation that’s always been a beacon of religious and political freedom in the world, we need to remove the theocrats from power. We need to oppose their agenda. Our fellow Americans need to realize that religious freedom does not mean that the people with the theocratic ideals and barbaric notions about women, LGBTQ folk, sex, science, and education get to have everything their way. Just because you’re religious doesn’t mean what you’re doing is right. And those 18th century clerics would be the first to fight the merging of government and church.

This book goes a long way toward ensuring we have the awareness and ability to stop and reverse this trend toward theocracy.

Brand-New Blogger, Y’all

You may have noticed the list of blogs got one longer. We were lucky enough to snag Kaveh Mousavi, and his blog On the Margin of Error is absolutely fascinating. You know an atheist in Iran has got stories to tell. He’s got insights only a person living under a theocracy can have. Head on over, say howdy, and help me encourage him to post lots.

On the Margin of Error blog header.

Congratulations! You’re Going to Hell! 4: Remaking Hell

Does the threat of hell still terrify you even though you know, consciously, it’s an imaginary place?

Imaginary situations can be terrifying and vivid. Even when you know they’re not real, they may continue to haunt you. Sometimes, it’s a fleeting fear; sometimes, it digs talons in and won’t let go.

I had a recurring nightmare as a child. For weeks, my 6 year-old self was plunged into the same terrifying situation every time I tried to sleep. My mom and I had gone shopping. It was a lovely, sunny day, and we were happy – until we pulled up to our house, and found it in flames.

My little brother was trapped in there.

House on Fire. Crop of image by Joseph Krawiec via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

House on Fire. Crop of image by Joseph Krawiec via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

And this is where I always woke up: with flames roaring out of those windows, threatening to consume us all. Horrified, helpless, knowing my brother was burning to death. Sometimes, I could see him in his rim, see him helpless in his crib, see the flames coming to kill him. I’d wake, sweating, heart racing, wanting to cry and scream, wanting it to stop – but the instant I closed my eyes, the fire was there, coming closer, closer.

I am terrified of fire. Back then, it bordered on phobia. I could imagine nothing worse than burning to death. I also badly wanted a brother. It didn’t matter this one was imaginary: in that dreamspace, he was my brother, and I loved him, and he was about to die in the most awful way possible.

After a week or two, I couldn’t take it. I was getting seriously sleep-deprived. Mom telling me it was just a dream and not real and I shouldn’t be afraid wasn’t helping. Trying to sleep only when exhausted didn’t work. Telling myself not to dream, abject failure. Trying to stop the nightmare when it started, no use. So one night, desperate, despairing yet determined, I decided I’d finish the dream.

I laid down on our old brown tweed couch, closed my eyes, but didn’t sleep. Instead, I pictured the fateful scene. House afire. Flames pouring through the window. Little bro trapped.

Then I found the door. Imagined the flames hadn’t reached it yet. I fought my fear of fire and got inside. I imagined myself a safe path through it, up the stairs, into my brother’s room. He was alive! I picked him up, and carried him outside. We were all right, now. We could live happily ever after.

Image shows a little girl carrying her little brother across a lawn.

“Portage.” Photo by Gordon (Monkey Mash ) via Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I never had that nightmare again.

So here’s what I propose, for those haunted by hell: let’s remake it.

There we are, souls condemned to hell because we didn’t believe in God. Down we go to wherever hell is. Oh, it looks grim. A blasted wasteland stinking of sulfur, and horrible spiky black gates that are opened by a huge horned demon. He grabs us in his massive-taloned hands and howls, “Wretched sinners, now you will BURN!!” We are yanked inside, through a curtain of flame, as the demon shrieks about eternal torment at deafening volumes….

And we scream, but…

…the flames don’t burn.

And the talons don’t pierce us.

The gates slam shut with a reverberating boom. We blink our dazzled eyes as we are set gently down. Balmy breezes (or cool, crisp ones, if you like – any sort of breeze, really) waft our favorite scents to us. An attractive person of indeterminate gender, dressed very fashionably and sporting two tasteful horns dusted with tiny rhinestones (or polished to a high sheen, if you don’t like glittery things), gives us a warm welcome.

So sorry about all that drama-llama-ding-dong just then. Can’t let on to the Big Butthole in the Sky what kind of place this really is, or he might shut us down. Or we’d end up with everybody from the Family Research Council. Nobody wants that here.” A delicate shudder quivers our host’s frame. “Welcome to Hell! I’m Lucifer. Call me Luci. Come have the time of your afterlife!”

We’re given a whirlwind tour of the place, which has got everything we loved most in life. The best beaches, mountains, meadows, libraries, stadiums, feats of engineering, anything you like. The food and drink are abundant, incredibly delicious, and 100% enjoyable due to having none of the bad features of earthly food. All of the people we ever loved are there. All of the people we ever wanted to meet wander in. All the the people we couldn’t stand mingle, too, only now they’re great good fun.

And we have all of eternity to hang out.

We have an infinitely awesome realm to explore.

Astral Landscape by Comphone, via DeviantART. CC BY-ND 3.0

Astral Landscape by Comphone, via DeviantART. CC BY-ND 3.0

All of the animals we loved are there, too, plus some mythical beasts, and fascinating ones we’ve never heard of.

We can go anywhere, do anything, be anything. Every day is like living your favorite fantasies. Luci, it turns out, likes people a lot, and loves making them happy, so everything in hell is geared toward that. And what we do here sends out ripples that makes the world we left behind better.

Meanwhile, up in heaven, the sterile streets are sparsely populated by the handful of people rigidly saintly enough for their legalistic bastard of a god, mostly folks who were lifetime members of the FRC. They spend their days digging at specks in their neighbor’s eyes, finding more rules that will get people sent to hell if they break them (which, fortunately, never make it to Earth), and praising God. They, too, are blissfully happy.

Everybody wins.

Everybody lives happily ever after.

That’s one way of re-imagining this imaginary place. You may rather go in all heroic, and quench the unquenchable fires, and slay the worm that dieth not. You may come to those gates in fear and trembling, open them – only to find the place empty. You may imagine it in ways I can’t even dream of.

Just imagine it. Imagine how it never was. Imagine how you would like it to be.

Give the nightmare a happy ending.

Open your eyes.

And go on with your life, free of that nightmare, forever.

Congratulations! You’re Going to Hell! 3. Best Place Ever

Hell doesn’t exist. But before I realized that, I was very much looking forward to going. Why no fear?

Well, for one thing, I was pretty sure that whatever the Divine was, he/she/they/it had absolutely no interest in torturing people forever. I mean, come on. Do we get so mad at ants or amoeba or our dogs, cats, parrots, fish, etc. that we plot to keep them alive forever just so we can punish them horrifically? Do we become outraged when bacteria don’t bow down and proclaim us the ultimate? Do we seek a personal relationship with protozoa, and throw a tantrum when they don’t proclaim their undying love? Would you, given the option, consign any member of the animal kingdom to everlasting torment for daring to go their own way?

Do you lie awake at night feverishly writing up rules on How to Have Acceptable Sex for various species, and become obsessed with them forcing them to follow your rules to the letter? Do you wish to fricassee them endlessly for Doing It wrong?

(I hope you said no to all of the above. If not, please immediately seek help from a licensed secular therapist.)

Whatever this god-thing is, I thought, cannot possibly be more fucked in the head than the worst human ever born. Besides, that punish-you-if-you’re-bad/reward-you-if-you’re-good, all-seeing, all-knowing pervert type of god sounded an awful lot like Santa Claus, and I’d known what he was invented for ever since my friend’s mother and I used the “Santa is watching” myth to make her son behave while we were sewing Barbie clothes. This Vengeful Lord character sounded awfully like the kind of god a dude would make up to keep people under control. Fuck that noise.

But what if God really was such a petty, obsessive, jealous, abusive asshole? What if I really did end up in Hell for not following his rules?

Fantastic! Super-great! Sign me up!

Why? Plenty o’ reasons:

For one, if God was such a raging fuckwad, I wanted to be as far from him as possible, and I’d been told Hell is as distant from God as you can get. Perfect!

Image is Buddy Jesus. Caption says, "You're going to hell. LOL."

Heaven sounded bloody boring. “You’ll be reunited with your family!” they said. I don’t actually like most of my family – you think I’m wanting to spend eternity with them when I can’t take five minutes at Christmas? Oh, and this singing-praises-to-God crap sounded awful. People babbled about pearly gates and streets of gold and I’m all like, “Dude, that stuff’s valuable because it’s rare. Put it on everything and it just gets tacky.” The music? Heard it, hate it. Never feel pain, sorrow, etc.? I’m a writer, you dipshits, I thrive on conflict!

“But you’ll be with Jesus!” the Christians cried.

Awgawd, you mean the egotistical fuck who reminded me of a cross (ha) between every horrible cult leader ever and the worst moments of my unmedicated bipolar relatives? I get to spend the rest of all eternity in the embrace of someone who makes me deeply uncomfortable? Yeah… um, excuse me while I go blaspheme the Holy Spirit.

Then I discovered that by the criteria of many branches of Christianity, none of the interesting people were going to make it to heaven. Carl Sagan? Atheist. So were almost all scientists ever. Emily Dickinson was probably there. The greatest writers, poets, philosophers; the endlessly fascinating people of other faiths or no faiths at all; condemned. You know something, if I’ve gotta spend all eternity somewhere, I’d rather spend it with people who are actually interesting, even if the thermostat’s broken.

Besides, I’m not fond of freezing. Being in the warm sounded nice.

Oh, and this Lucifer fellow? Better fashion sense than the head cheese. Got kicked out of heaven for using his own brain rather than mindlessly obeying. Slipped humanity knowledge on the sly. Clever bloke. Great taste in entertainment. Sounds like a better sort than god, actually, and far more likely to be the kind of person you’d want to drink with. And seriously, after what God did to the poor fucker, I seriously doubt he’d be spending his time torturing the souls God doesn’t like. Far more likely he’s trying to win all the best, most clever and talented souls so he can march on heaven and initiate a regime change. Considering the kind of sick, twisted fuck a God is who’s willing to burn you forever for not stroking his ego enough, allow me to just register with the Resistance.

And for all those silly shites babbling to me about God’s love and mercy: do you really think the best father in all of creation would inflict unfathomable agony on his children, without reprieve, just because they struck out on their own? I mean, seriously. What rot.

No, if that was the case, Hell sounded like the place to be, and I was rather looking forward to it. My fear of it vanished once I’d had a chance to calmly think it through. Seemed like the only way to lose Pascal’s Wager was to stake my life on that legalistic shit of a god the fundies were always on about.

That hasn’t changed now I’m an atheist. I’m not fussed about the possibility of being wrong. No matter which way the coin falls, I win.

Besides: there’s a serious contingent of Christians who assure me, with utmost sincerity, that Hell is actually the absence of God.

Hey… I’m an atheist. There’s no god in my life. Total absence. ZOMG. This is Hell!

Moi at Crater Lake.

Moi at Crater Lake.

Nice. So glad I ended up here! Okay, so, yes, I did get burned. But I got better.

And so, my darlings, the next time the deadly-earnest and oh-so-concerned Christian (or other hell-believing religious person) threatens you with Hell if you don’t submit to Jesus (or other deity) right now, just remember: Hell isn’t necessarily the worst place you could end up. Perhaps they should threaten you with Heaven instead….

Happiness is The Happy Atheist: A Review

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers


I should probably begin this review by admitting that PZ Myers was my gateway drug to atheism, and some of the essays in this book helped me become the type of unapologetic atheist that haunts the nightmares of deeply religious people. I stumbled upon Pharyngula during a determined effort to decrease the deficits in my scientific knowledge, specifically biology. I learned there that this squidgy, squishy, ofttimes smelly branch of science was actually quite a lot less boring than I’d believed. I also learned that, contrary to what society had shrilled at me for over 30 years, you didn’t have to be a despairing, suicidal, evil, and unpleasant tool of Satan in order to be an atheist. You could, in fact, be charming, witty, rapier-tongued, wicked-smart, adventurous, full of lust for living, in awe of this grand old world, and… actually happy. Not to mention completely Satan-free.

This book might just be the gateway for a great many other people to become happy heathens as well.

For me, this book was a nice, concentrated dose of Pharyngula, from which many of the essays originated. I could catch up on some bits I’d missed, and enjoy old favorites (“The Courtier’s Reply” will remain an atheist classic for centuries to come, I like to think). The whole book rolls smoothly along, shading from religion and the excoriating thereof into the wonder and beauty, the exquisite truths, of science. All along the way, atheism is unapologetically presented. This isn’t an accommodationist’s book. No forelocks are tugged in due deference to religion; no beliefs quietly tip-toed around; no ugly bits of faith discreetly papered over or studiously ignored while a cringing case is made for atheists to please, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, be allowed a place at the table, maybe at the foot, or perhaps underneath it if actual atheists in actual chairs are offensive to delicate religious sensibilities.


Religion is given no quarter within these pages. The concealer is scrubbed from all its pimples and warts; bandages ripped from its oozing sores; its sheep’s clothing stripped from the mangy, devious wolf* within. Religious people are treated with respect and compassion, as long as they’re not frauds and cons like Ken Ham, but religious beliefs are not spared.

I think you can get a sense of what they’re subjected to by this quote: “Religion is the Mega-Shark of culture.”

But it’s not all bashing Bible bashing beliefs. Myths about atheists are dispatched, and a whole new universe, free from superstition, is opened up. Unfettered by belief’s chains, we can explore, learn, grow, and savor. Science is celebrated. Lives free from faith are shown to be far from meaningless. And every page is suffused with PZ’s quirky, sometimes caustic, sense of humor.

This book made me a happy atheist indeed. Hopefully, it will do the same for you and yours.

The Happy Atheist book cover, which is a blue smiling Darwin fish.


*Apologies to wolves for the above analogy – they don’t deserve to be insulted so, but I’m afraid ebola doesn’t have a folk tale about it sneaking round under false pretenses

Congratulations! You’re Going to Hell! 2. Just What the Hell is Hell?

No one can even agree on what Hell is. They’re happy to threaten you with it, but they’re all over the place when it comes to explaining it. You know, a real place usually has a pretty consistent description. Take Chicago. We know where it is. Right there in Illinois, can’t miss it.

(Where is Hell? Can anyone reliably tell you where it’s located? Nope.)

Sure, we may disagree about what Chicago’s like: I think it’s the best damned city in the Midwest, other people think it’s a shithole. But we can all agree it’s got nice areas and run-down ones. It’s got a dazzling downtown. And everybody can agree on what’s there. You don’t have arguments over whether, say, it’s got a library or not. You can verify.

The Chicago Public Library. One of the most awesome buildings I have ever seen - I love it muchly. Image courtesy steveblane via Flickr.

The Chicago Public Library. One of the most awesome buildings I have ever seen – I love it muchly. Image courtesy steveblane via Flickr.

So what is hell?

Hmm. Hot place where fire’s are unquenchable, worm dieth not, wailing and gnashing of teeth, etc. Yuck.

No, it’s got all these levels, and where you end up depends on how bad you were.

Wait, no, those aren’t levels, they’re circles!

Hell is eternal torment! No, wait, you’re just there for a while, then destroyed forever. No, wait, you’re not destroyed, you go to Heaven afterward!

Hell is the presence of God! No, wait, it’s the absence of God!

Hell is a real place! No, wait, it’s just a state of being!

Hell is other people (and Second Empire furniture)! No, wait, Hell is being alone!

Hell is Satan’s domain! No, wait, it belongs to God!

Okay, no, really, this is what Hell is: it’s exactly like Heaven. Everyone’s at this absolutely incredible feast. Only they’ve got forks three feet long strapped to their hands, so they can’t feed themselves (No, wait, it was chopsticks! Or maybe spoons!). In Heaven, the people feed each other. In Hell, everybody starves because they don’t.

No, wait, that’s backwards: the Libertarians know Hell is where people feed each other (which is hideous icky socialism and lets the moochers take advantage of the producers). Heaven is where you feed yourself, because it’s right that everyone should do for themselves.

Who goes there?

Everyone who doesn’t worship God the right way!

No, wait, just bad people like homosexuals and liberals.

No, wait, just really horrid people like serial killers and politicians.

No, wait, nobody goes because God’s a big ol’ softie and would never ever create such an awful place.

Etc. etc. Peter Cetera etc. But that’s quite enough of that. No one can agree on where and what Hell is and who made it, who runs it, how long you’re there, what it’s for, and who ends up there, if anyone. All evidence people are making this shit up.

But they believe it.


But they say it’s God’s word. They heard, they saw, they got it from the Almighty.


They’re so detailed! Convincing.

Yes, indeedy. But you know what? I can do that. Let me consult one of my fictional characters, say, one of the Eternal – having been here since the beginning, they should know Hell, right? People, I can hear their voice! I can see what they saw! I can describe it all down to the last detail, down to the exact temperature of the Lake of Fire (5,869°F or 3243°C), the color of the buttons on Satan’s shirt (a deep reddish-black, nearly the exact color of a large clot of dried blood), and the name and address of his tailor (Guillermo Sarto, Via dei Condotti 61, Rome, Italy. Likes to keep his look updated, our Satan). I can point out the location of the place if you give me a map of the universe. I can tell you who’s going there, and why, and how.

“Hungry Devil.” Image courtesy Martin SoulStealer via Flickr.

But it’s totes not me making things up! I’m getting it from an authority, and if you lie awake tonight and picture that being and beg for an audience, you’ll be able to consult the very same source. Trust but verify, amirite? Fuck, I could pass a polygraph, because I believe.

I’m (sometimes) a fiction writer, folks. I know how to put myself in that headspace. I’ve been convinced I’m not the one creating those details, because it feels so damned much like I’m just taking dictation. And yes, I’m so very good at it that I’ve convinced others my story people are really real, to the point where they can describe them to the cut of their coat without me saying a thing about their appearance. But when all is said and done, I will be placing my novels in the Science Fiction section, because I made this shit up.

That gun that was pointed at your head? The one that was so real you could hear the safety click off and feel the cold circle of steel touch your temple and smell the metal and a trace of oil, that gun never existed. That’s why the people who’ve aimed it at you over the years can’t agree on it’s color and caliber, the make and model, whether the clip is full or not, what kind of bullets are in it, how much damage it can do… it doesn’t exist, but they swear it does, because it feels so very real.

Do you know what Hell really is?

It’s a story. A work of fiction. An empty threat. Myth, legend, fantasy, product of the human imagination. That’s all. That’s all it ever was. A story.

You don’t have to fear it. Not now. Not ever again.

Congratulations! You’re Going to Hell! 1. Hell is an Empty Threat

Hell pisses me off. It took one sick, evil fuck to come up with the concept of believe-or-burn-eternally. Brilliant, though: terrify believers and potential converts with the worst possible fate if they don’t do what you say, then give them relief from that terror by promising heaven if they just follow instructions. And really, it doesn’t take much to convince them, because you catch people while they’re young and/or vulnerable, ensuring those threats of eternal torment grip them and refuse to let go.

Of course, the people making this threat are generally sure they’re saved and have nothing to worry about. Or they’re just parroting what they were taught as children. And they don’t think of the consequences, don’t care, or actually want their listener to cower in mortal terror.

Image is of several people suffering in a pit of lava. Lava pit, Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore by Jpatokal / Wikimedia Commons.

Lava pit, Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore by Jpatokal / Wikimedia Commons.

Hell is the gun religion holds to your head to ensure you’ll never leave. A thing so awful that you won’t risk questioning, just do your utmost to believe.

People: that gun is empty.

You may be one of those folks whose childhood was tormented by fear. I know people, far too many people, who spent entire nights awake in their beds, frantic, terrified they hadn’t prayed the right way or didn’t believe strongly enough or had made that one fatal mistake that God would never forgive them for. Children who sobbed in the darkness and repeated the Sinner’s Prayer again, again, again, hoping it would save them. Praying again to hedge their bets:

Now I lay me down to sleep… I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I loathe the people who did this to them. Oh, I know many of those folks were convicted Christians, utterly convinced this was the right thing to do for their kids. I know many of them just wanted to make sure their kids were saved. Hey, say these words, and hey Presto! God won’t let Satan burn you forever! Problem solved!

While the children cowered with that gun to their heads, waiting for the trigger to be pulled.

The gun is empty.

And then some of them grew into adults who still lived in fear of hell. Trying to walk the narrow path. Trying not to piss off God. Still lying awake some nights, crying, begging Jesus to save them.

Some of them grew into adults confident in the knowledge they’re saved. And they’re so relieved the gun’s no longer pointed at them that they turn it on others.

The gun is empty.

An unloaded Remington New Army Model 1858. Image and caption courtesy DarkSaturos90 via Wikimedia Commons.

An unloaded Remington New Army Model 1858. Image and caption courtesy DarkSaturos90 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of those kids grew into adults who gradually, after a long and terrible struggle, had the courage to look for bullets, and discovered that the gun wasn’t loaded. Either they came to believe God was too loving to condemn his children to suffer forever, or they realized there almost certainly is no God who gives a shit what humans do, or they found the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to no gods at all. No gods, no Satan, no hell. All made up. They were lied to.

But that lie is so horrific, the idea of hell so vivid, that some never can stop wondering if there might be a bullet in the gun after all.

People, the gun is empty.

In fact, that gun never even existed. Just a finger pointing from a pocket, an illusion created by a human hand.

Purple ink on notepaper drawing of a hand with two fingers and a thumb making a gun.

“Gun Fingers” by nickoswar / deviantART. Some rights reserved.

Don’t let it threaten you any more.

Transcending Transcendence

I saw dragons in the sky.

I was driving to B’s to watch the Silva-Weidman Tate-Rousey double-header. There’s a stretch of I-5 where I’ve a view of the mountains on a clear day, but this wasn’t one of those days. Clouds were roiling on the horizon, building over the mountains: a line of perfect Chinese dragons swimming the sky. One of them was especially clear, a magnificent snowy elder of a dragon, head rearing high and several coils of its serpentine body cresting the sea of the sky.

I laughed in delight, wishing I could pull off the freeway and capture them on camera. I love to show you such things. Alas, no chance. But there was a Chinese artist of the Song dynasty who saw dragons in clouds, and he captured some of the essence:

Detail from Nine Dragons, a handscroll painting by Chinese artist Chen Rong. This shows clouds that look like the breaking waves of a sea, and within them, a dragon.Image courtesy Jebulon via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from Nine Dragons, a handscroll painting by Chinese artist Chen Rong. Image courtesy Jebulon via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time when I would have believed I’d just seen evidence of magical beasts floating above our world. And yes, I admit it, it changed the experience. I remember the almost unbearable, childlike excitement when I thought I’d seen beyond the mundane. Knowing that what I was experiencing was water vapor and adiabatic cooling with a healthy dose of cultural conditioning and pareidolia wasn’t quite the same.

Do I miss that? Miss transcendence?

Fleetingly, yes, in the way we all sometimes miss our naive childhood selves. But I remember that being a kid wasn’t all magic and rainbows, and I wouldn’t trade the atheist me for the believer me. I’d rather know and have my mind blown by real things.

It took a while to get here, but I’m quite content without the glamour* of religion and belief. I’m comfortable with the fact that this life is it, and that the so-called mundane is the sum-total of the universe. I’m not pining for faeries or dragons or gods, excepting ripping good tales told by talented human beings – and even then, I’ve gradually lost my passion for made-up stories. Oh, I still love fiction, but I’m quite busy with reality.

I mean, this universe is full of fascinating stuff. If I want transcendence, I head for Hubble. This takes me right out of being human and leaves me as a mote of stardust trying to comprehend an impossibly beautiful infinity.

V838 Monocerotis and its light echo, imaged by Hubble. This is a red variable star in the constellation Monoceros. It looks to me like a Taoist dragon - what do you see?

V838 Monocerotis and its light echo, imaged by Hubble. This is a red variable star in the constellation Monoceros. It looks to me like a Taoist dragon – what do you see? Image courtesy NASA/ESA.

Pascal got it in one:

By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world.

If I want to feel part of an immeasurably vast whole, I can look to this universe I arose from and am a part of. If I want to simultaneously feel the weight of incomprehensibly ancient time and at the same instant feel timeless, I turn to the Earth and her ages, from her fiery beginnings to her complex middle age. A mote of silt silently drifting to the sea floor; a particle in a roaring, roiling ash cloud – I’ve been them. I’ve felt tranquil ages and fraught seconds.

Do I need to feel at one with everything living? Biology and evolution make that easy. My cat is my cousin; so are those flowers I love to photograph and that tree Luna delights in climbing. All my family. Buddhism taught me that, too, but it didn’t have the cladograms to make it more than metaphysical.

Now I’ve seen all this stuff, even just having drunk a few molecules of that immense ocean out there, I’m bored by religion. I’m chafed by its stunted imagination and impatient with its false “truth.” I’ll take the unknown over the pretending-to-know any day. Give me chaos over a false order, thanks. I’m not afraid of it anymore.

Once, I needed the universe to care about and for me, like so many others given that sweet, sacred story. Isn’t it nice to think the architect of creation cares about lil ol’ you? Long ago, the thought that my life had great meaning and purpose to such a majesty was flattering. Then I noticed how nobody agreed on who or what that majesty was. Then I realized it didn’t actually exist. Well, not all our human ideas of it, certainly. Sure, it’s vaguely possible there’s an ineffable something out there, but I’ve found no evidence it exists, much less that it gives a single shit about some jumped-up apes on a wee rock if it does. And I don’t need it to. I’m not a child, to need the firm hand of an omnicient parent to guide me along. Lost that need, don’t need it back, would rather stumble about discovering things and getting sidetracked, thanks. It wasn’t that way when I first found myself wandering about alone, but I’m good now.

I don’t need the universe to care about me. I delight in it, but it’s like my rock collection: I love every bit to bits without needing a single bit of affection returned.

So yes, I do vaguely understand why some folks cling so desperately to their notions of more. I know what it was like, wanting so desperately for magic and/or gods to be real that it felt like a physical need. Trying to understand how the good and the bad in my life were part of some over-arching design, because the idea there wasn’t an ultimate purpose scared me into believing it must be there, otherwise what was life for? The hardest thing on the path to atheism was realizing it’s not for anything. It just is. I’m the one responsible for giving it a purpose and meaning. Terrifying? At first. Despair? A few moments here and there. But it got better.

And that’s what I want to tell these folks who cling so tightly to transcendence: it’s hard, desperately hard, to let go, but it gets better. It’s never the same again, it will never feel like it did when something supernatural totally existed for you, but you survived learning the truth about Santa and you will survive this. And you can thrive. Besides, in so many ways, this universe transcends transcendence. It’s more beautiful and terrible and vast and wonderful than we could imagine.

And we’re part of it.

That’s the best thing there is.


Planetary nebula NGC 5189. Image courtesy NASA/ESA.

Planetary nebula NGC 5189. Looks superheroic to me. This universe is far more spectacular than we can comprehend. No gods necessary. Image courtesy NASA/ESA.

*In the magical sense.


(Inspired by In Praise of the Mundane and From the Mailbag: Deconverting from Hinduism.)

Another Atheist at the Grand Canyon

I mentioned last time that Cujo had accompanied me on that Grand Canyon trip back in 2009, therefore ensuring there were at least two atheists present that particular day. He wrote it up wonderfully. Have a taste:

The Colorado River, which formed the canyon, is now cutting through rock that is nearly two billion years old. At that time, the only form of life was unicellular. There were no plants, let alone animals. The Wikipedia entry on the canyon says that it has been formed over the last 40 million years. Biologists estimate that the species homo sapiens sapiens is perhaps a quarter of a million years old. When the first human beings walked the planet, the canyon was scarcely shallower than it is today. In an ordinary human lifetime, only the most superficial changes will occur.


If you’re a believer, the next time you feel tempted to assume that non-believers must see no reason to feel humble, try learning something about the universe you live in. The truth is that the universe is vast in any terms human beings can imagine. We exist on one tiny speck of rock in one little corner of it. Unless we can figure out how to live in other solar systems, we will probably be gone in a blink of an eye on its time scale. The universe cares nothing about us as individuals or as a species.

That post was written in response to another believer’s ridiculous statements about atheists and atheism four and a half years ago. Plus ça change… Oh, and if you want to know what current estimates of the number of galaxies in the universe are, head over here. Put it this way: it’s many-lots. One runs out of metaphors for how small we are in comparison to all this… and yet the religious people who claim our personal pleasure habits are of great interest to the supposed creator of all this enormity like to think of atheists as arrogant.

Riiight. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. Not church bells, of course, despite having walked the Grand Canyon’s rim many many times.

Image shows a lot of very tiny people milling around atop an observation area at the edge of the Grand Canyon, with a tiny slice of the enormous canyon behind them. People are tiny in comparison to the enormity of this tiny portion of the Canyon - and we are specks on a speck of dust in a tiny solar system comprising in infinitesimal part of a galaxy that is only one among hundreds of billions.... Image courtesy Cujo359.

People are tiny in comparison to the enormity of this tiny portion of the Canyon – and we are specks on a speck of dust in a tiny solar system comprising in infinitesimal part of a galaxy that is only one among hundreds of billions…. Image courtesy Cujo359.

An Atheist at the Grand Canyon

Ah. I see someone’s living in a fantasy world. Via Steven Newton at the NCSE blog, I’ve learned that Time Magazine has a wretchedly ridiculous article up entitled “Why There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon.” Now, I know editors sometimes affix inaccurate and frankly absurd titles to perfectly good articles, but this one appears to be stoopid all the way down. Steven quotes the author, Jeffrey Kluger, as saying, ““there’s nothing quite like nature—with its ability to elicit feelings of jaw-dropping awe—to make you contemplate the idea of a higher power.”

I can’t bring myself to click on the damned thing. It’s for the same reason I don’t click on links to articles proclaiming the discovery of Bigfoot and other such nonsense. I know it’s nonsense, and I’m busy.

How do I know Jeffrey Kluger is full of the brown, sticky, and stinky end product of bull digestion? Because I have photographic evidence of an atheist at the Grand Canyon:

An atheist, namely moi, at the Grand Canyon. I'm standing on a lovely white bit of the Kaibab Limestone, with the whole layer-cake vista of the Canyon behind me. You can tell I'm an atheist because I am standing with a jaunty hand on my hip, rather than kneeling in awe-filled reverance. Photo courtesy Cujo359.

An atheist, namely moi, at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy Cujo359.

Actually, there were two of us there that day: myself, and Cujo. We were atheists then, and are atheists now. I do remember salivating heavily over all those lovely rocks, and being captivated by all that natural beauty, but not for one moment did it make me “contemplate a higher power.” The only time I did so was when I contemptuously contemplated the imagined existence thereof when I found a creationist book infesting the science section at one of the gift shops, and dropped it in disgust.

Seeing incredible natural sights like these are part of what made me an atheist. The gods many of my fellow humans currently babble about don’t seem like they could design something like this with a supercomputer and a tutor with 14 billion years in the business. And science had a bit to say about how this got here (hint: nowhere will you find a genuine scientist proclaiming god did it in the scientific literature). What geologists had pieced together and are still discovering is a fuck of a lot more interesting that any dull tingle in the human religious imagination.

I’ll tell you something: nature used to be pretty, and sometimes made me feel all numinous and tingly and stuff, but until I became an atheist, it didn’t have the power “to elicit feelings of jaw-dropping awe.” I mean, seriously, I was bored with the Grand Canyon until I gave up religion, folks. Big fat fucking hole in the ground, seen it once seen a thousand times etc. Now, I look into that chasm and see billions of years stacked up and cut through. I see nearly half the age of the earth, right there at my feet. And this is real. You might imagine you’re touching gods or something, there, Jeffrey, but I’m laying my hand on a rock and I’m touching ancient oceans. I’m touching worlds that were and will never be again. I’m a part of that saga of eons, and I know that rock and I are both made of star-stuff, and I know that none of this was ever here by divine fiat, but because from the Big Bang to the dawn of this day, things happened. The universe managed this all on its own, with no help from a divine mind, and it could’ve spun itself out in any one of a billion trillion ways, but this way happened to happen, and here we are, and it’s marvelous. And the really incredible thing, the thing that leaves me speechless with astonished delight, is the fact that we jumped-up apes are just smart enough to figure it out, all on our own.

Your gods are paltry and poor compared to that.

So yes, just as there are atheists in foxholes, there are atheists at the Grand Canyon. Sorry you missed us! We were there the whole time. You just probably couldn’t see us with that god muck fogging up your glasses.