I Got Yer Intelligent Design Right Here, Baby… »« How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 2

How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 3

This is the third and final part of a three part serial. When our story began, our heroine had gone from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of her childhood, through a credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit phase, to a general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things and that survived in some form after death. When we last left her, she was beginning to question even this broadest, most general belief in some sort of soul that might survive death…

…when the accident happened.

Elbow1That makes it sound a whole lot more dramatic than it was. It wasn’t a very bad accident: I fell off my bicycle, I broke my arm, and I had to have pins put in the bone. Fairly painful, but nothing life-threatening, or even very dangerous. I was only under general anesthesia for an hour, maybe an hour and a half.

Have you ever been under general anesthesia?

SleepGeneral anesthesia is nothing at all like sleep. When you sleep, you have some feeling of presence even while you’re asleep, some sense when you wake that time has passed and you were there when it did — even if you weren’t aware of it.

Anesthesia1Anesthesia was completely different. When I came out of it, it felt as if the time I’d been under had simply been erased. I had no idea if I’d been under for an hour, or six hours, or twenty-four. If the nurses had told me I’d been out for days or even months, I would have believed it. All my sense of self, of having had a self during that time, was utterly absent.

It didn’t feel like I’d been asleep. It felt like I’d been obliterated. It felt like death, and coming out of it was like clawing my way out of a grave.

Anesthesia2Not so surprisingly, this was a profoundly upsetting experience. And not just because it was scary and freaky. It was upsetting because it destroyed the last remaining shreds of the idea that I might possibly have a soul that would survive me after my death. After all, if just a small amount of some drug injected into my bloodstream could wipe out my sense of selfhood so thoroughly, merely by altering my brain chemistry a little bit… then why on Earth would I think that this selfhood could somehow survive the total decay of my flesh and my brain?

GravestoneSo I had to face the fact that this is what death would almost certainly be like. I had to face the idea of my own non-existence — not just intellectually, but with a visceral and immediate experience of what that might be like. I had to face the idea that, when I died, I wouldn’t be going to Heaven, or getting reincarnated as a lazy housecat, or resting peacefully in an eternal afternoon nap. I had to face the idea that, in all likelihood, I simply wouldn’t be.

KnifeAnd now I had a very bad few months indeed. It’s one thing to believe, in some abstract sense, that death is the real and final end of your existence. It’s another thing entirely to get a taste of that non-existence. I went into a fairly serious depression, and the memory of my non-existence experience — or to be more accurate, the “crawling out of the grave” experience afterwards — would spring out at me unexpectedly like a mugger with a knife. (To be fair, this wasn’t the only thing triggering the depression — a lot of bad shit was happening right around then — but it was definitely a major contributor.)

Question_markI knew that I had to rethink everything. I knew I had to come up with some way to deal with the shortness of my life and the finality of my death, some philosophy that would let me come to some sort of peace with the idea of my non-existence, without making me feel like I was lying to myself.

So I wrote Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God.

PeaceAnd it worked. It was a hard, bad time, and I spent months at my computer with tears running down my face while I wrote. It was an extremely scary piece to write: I went into it without any real idea of what conclusion I was going to reach, and I knew I was getting into treacherous emotional waters without any clear sense of how I was going to get out. But I got there. I got to a place where I could contemplate the finality of my death, and the death of the people I love… not without sadness or grief, but without panic and despair, and with a reasonable degree of acceptance and peace.

And once I got there, I didn’t need to believe in the soul anymore. Or the World-Soul. I didn’t need to hang on to a belief that I was finding increasingly implausible, just because I wanted to believe it.

AvalancheI think I probably would have gotten there without the accident. But it sure speeded things up. And it definitely started a sort of cascade effect. The more comfortable I felt with the idea of the absence of the soul and the finality of death, the more willing I was to see the soul as an unnecessary, needlessly complicated hypothesis, one that doesn’t really explain anything and doesn’t fit with what we know about how the self and the mind works. And the more willing I was to see all that, the more comfortable I got with the idea of the absence of the soul and the finality of death.

Which takes us to the more recent place in this little saga:

Crowleytarot1. thinking that God or the soul, while theoretically possible, are not only unproven, but extremely implausible — about as implausible as Zeus, or fairies, or the invisible hand guiding the Tarot cards, or any number of other beliefs that I now feel entirely comfortable discounting as hypotheses;

Quakers_support_gay_marriage2. thinking that, while I disagree with people who have religious beliefs and think that they’re mistaken, it’s really none of my business what they believe and isn’t a matter of earth-shaking, deal-breaking importance — as long as they respect my atheism, don’t treat their faith as if it were fact, don’t act as if the fact that they believe something they have no evidence for somehow makes them virtuous people, don’t try to shove their faith down other people’s throats, and generally act like decent people;

Pat_robertson3. at the same time also thinking that, in the larger sense, the question of religion or the lack thereof is not merely a personal issue of faith and opinion, but a political issue of enormous importance for this country and for the world — and becoming radicalized about the need to speak and act about it;

Julia_sweeney_24. becoming increasingly aware that there is a growing movement of atheists and other non-believers — a movement that’s becoming more outspoken on an almost daily basis — and wanting to be an active part of that movement;

Richard_dawkins_25. deciding to call myself an atheist instead of an agnostic, not because of a change in my beliefs or lack thereof, but because of a change in my thinking about the language;

Writing6. blogging about it ad nauseum.

Which pretty much brings us up to date. If you’ve been reading the atheism rants on my blog for the past few months, you pretty much know the rest. (If you’re a newcomer to this blog, may I suggest Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends, Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy, The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely, Atheist or Agnostic?, and Defending the Blasphemy Challenge. (Or you could try A Dyke’s Defense of Blowjobs, or The Aging Slut, or Broccoli or Tofu? Sexual Differences in Relationships… which don’t have anything to do with atheism, but are funny and dirty. Or you could even throw your hat into the Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings debate…)

And I don’t know where I’m going with this in the future. I’m curious to find out myself. I’ll keep you posted.

Comments

  1. Michael says

    About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].
    Peace Be With You
    Michael

  2. Buck Fuddy says

    Dear Michael,
    I’ve been through some similar experiences. I was suicidal all the way through grad school. I also tried praying and asking Jesus Christ to be the lord of my life. Do you want to know what happened? Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Outside of my own head, nobody was listening.
    Does this mean Jesus thinks you’re worth saving while I’m not? Can a god just arbitrarily decide to save some people but let others rot? That sounds like a pretty sucky kind of a god to me. I’m actually kind of glad I don’t have any sort of relationship with a god like that.
    In case you’re interested in hearing how I survived my ordeal, it’s actually kind of interesting.
    One day I got a small glass vial from a chemistry storeroom and filled it with potassium cyanide. I intended to use it at some point over the weekend, just as soon I a got my grades turned in. I didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced by my passing.
    When it came time to take my poison, however, I did what I normally do when confronted with momentous decisions: I procrastinated. “Maybe things will get better tomorrow,” I thought.
    Well, things never really got a lot better, but they didn’t get a lot worse either, but as long as I had my little chemical escape pod in my pocket, I knew I had a way out if the pain ever got totally unbearable.
    It probably saved my life.
    If I hadn’t had that little vial in my pocket I probably would have jumped off a bridge at some point, as many a Cornell student has done over the years, whenever the necessary motive and opportunity presented itself. But since I had my own means of escape always at the ready, I never felt the need to avail myself of that opportunity.
    I still have it, packed away somewhere. I don’t know if I’m keeping it for the sense of security it gives me or out of a kind of gratitude I feel for the strength it gave me during those terrible dark times.
    So now you probably think I’m crazy, and that’s okay. Now you know how I feel about what believe. We all have our crutches, but at least I know that mine is real.

  3. says

    Thanks for writing all this, Greta, sharing your preception and personal experience. You’ve given me a great deal to consider and share with others.
    My grand parents are Mormon. I still remember learning the “Book of Mormon Stories” on the piano when I was four. I was baptized in the Episcopal church when I was ten. Ash cross on the forehead. I remember that as a child I enjoyed church for the parade of candles, the stained glass, the shiny gold crosses, the singing and communion. I loved the little wafer Father Babb placed on my tongue and then the sip of red wine I got from a shiny gold cup in his hand. It was all very . . . pretty. So, aesthetically, religion pleased me as a girl. Weird, huh?
    When I was a kid, I asked a religious man where God came from, and he told me, “You can’t ask that.” There I was, a kid,(not to mention a girl being told by a disapproving man) that wanting to understand something as significant as God wasn’t an option. For a lot of American children, religion isn’t a choice. It’s set in stone. No choice. The Bible has the final say. I feel sad about this. I don’t believe any child should be told life is black and white . . . or that a quest for knowledge and enlightenment isn’t possible.
    Let each person decide for him or herself.
    By the way, have you seen a documentary called “Jesus Camp?” Scared the crap out of me.
    Peace,
    A

  4. says

    Atheism, politics, sex – it’s good to find a kindred spirit :-D
    I was expecting “just” a touching personal story, but then you give us those points as a bonus! “the question of religion or the lack thereof is not merely a personal issue of faith and opinion, but a political issue of enormous importance for this country and for the world” — yes, yes!
    Also, interesting you have a picture of a Quaker protester illustrating the “good-natured religious folk” point, as there is a small (but influential) movement of Quaker atheists (see nontheistfriends.org)…

  5. says

    Hi, Greta —
    Your story moved me deeply — at least as much for its clarity of thought as for its emotional depth.
    In hindsight, my parents made some fairly heinous errors of judgment in raising us kids, but one of their most abiding gifts (for which I am exceedingly grateful) was the decision to raise us without compulsory religious faith. Compelling children to adhere to a particular dogma of any sort strikes me as a tremendous disservice to any young person.
    If it were so obvious that God (construed as an external force to swear obeisance to) is real, and that spiritual indoctrination into any particular faith forms the cornerstone to a successful life, then why are there so many humans leading successful and fulfilling lives without having endured any of that baggage?
    I happen to find great comfort in the knowledge that one day, each person’s pain and suffering will end. In my opinion, it’s being left behind that’s much more fearsome. Why is this so hard to understand?
    –Bill

  6. Rebecca says

    I don’t remember ever being afraid of my own death (except for a few seconds on a thrill ride on top of the Stratosphere Hotel). I fear the deaths of people I love, because I may still be around and conscious of their absence. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve assumed that after you are dead, that’s it for your consciousness: no coming back, no sticking around as a ghost, and certainly no afterlife. Thus, what is there to be afraid of? The nothingness holds no fear for me, because I won’t be around to experience it.
    Periodically, something happens that makes me question this belief. The weird experiences I had after Kaci’s death shook my assumptions deeply, but deep down, I 99% believe that there is a scientific explanation for the weirdest of those events, and the rest were just coincidence.
    I’ve never felt strange for not believing in any sort of life after death, but I definitely feel like an oddball when I read about how hard it was for most unbelievers to accept. What’s wrong with me, I sometimes wonder, that the thought of my own non-existence doesn’t move me?
    I still have questions involving the existence or non-existence of souls. While I have lived for years (and through a great deal of mourning) without the crutch of believing that my dead friends are waiting for me on a cloud somewhere, I am not quite ready to give up the idea of some sort of soul. I think that I may come to define “soul” in some way congruent with scientific evidence, but that will mean giving up the idea that people’s souls exist after their death in even some non-conscious, non-unique form.
    Dammit, Greta, all this thinking is making my brain hurt! Could we please talk about bunnies?

  7. Eclectic says

    Rebecca, please continue to believe in souls. Indeed, I can give you a 100% scientifically defensible definition of a soul/spirit/ghost which retains the personality of the person after death. (It might not be what you’re thinking of, though.)
    But, most importantly, you realize that:
    1) This is a belief you hold because it is comforting,
    2) This is your personal belief, not shared by everyone, and
    3) You don’t need to make others believe it.
    Given that, it would be churlish of me to harangue you about it.
    The part of christianity I object to is the evangelism. These guys take themselves far too seriously.
    “Why,” rabbinical scholars are asked, did יהוה create goyim?” The generally accepted answer is “Someone has to pay retail.”

  8. says

    “there is a small (but influential) movement of Quaker atheists (see nontheistfriends.org)…”
    There’s an atheist Quaker group?
    Damn. This could change my life. I’ve said for years that the religious group I felt the most affinity for was the Quakers, and that I might even join up if it weren’t for the pesky “believing in God” part. If there’s a group of atheist Friends that meets in San Francisco, I might have to check it out.

  9. says

    Gosh, people. I leave my computer for two days, and come back to way too many interesting questions!
    Bill: “I happen to find great comfort in the knowledge that one day, each person’s pain and suffering will end. In my opinion, it’s being left behind that’s much more fearsome. Why is this so hard to understand?”
    A lot of people have asked questions like this, either here in the blog or just in personal conversation. I wish I had a more profound answer… but honestly, the reason I get upset over the idea of my own death is that I’m greedy and egotistical. I like to think of myself as important, and that’s hard to do when you realize that your life is an eyeblink of a flea on the skin of the universe. And I like life, and I want more more more of it. I want to see how the story comes out.
    Which is why I was so struck by Richard Dawkin’s comment on this very subject. From “Unweaving the Rainbow”:
    “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
    That’s what I try to remember when I’m feeling petulant about life being short. Given how staggeringly unlikely it was that I was born at all, complaining about life being short is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred trillion dollars.
    And eclectic, Rebecca may or may not be interested in your scientifically defensible definition of a soul, but I for one am curious as hell. Please share. It’s not evangelizing if you’ve been invited.
    (Oh, speaking of which: Nikki, of course you’re invited. I welcome anyone here who’s willing to play nice, and I’m glad you’re here.)
    Finally, eclectic asked (I think it was eclectic — I’ve kind of lost track of all the threads) why being an atheist was such an important and central identity to some atheists. That is an excellent question, and one that deserves its own post. I’ve been ruminating on it, and as soon as I find time, I’ll post an answer.

  10. Layne Winklebleck says

    On the Dawkins definition of atheist:
    Hi Greta. Interesting perspective you derived from Dawkins of being able to proclaim yourself an atheist even if a smidgin of doubt remains, and obviously you are having a lot of fun being an atheist, especially when there are so many ludicrous proof-of-God arguments to lampoon.
    However, I must point out that your Dawkinsonian logic cuts both ways, so that it is, I assume, reasonable for an agnostic on the other end of the continuum to decide a certain threshold has been met and to declare that they are a believer, even though they do not ascribe to any sort of blind faith criteria as promoted by fundamentalist religions. I do now so declare. Prior to this moment I had taken a position that certain matters of spirit might most properly be considered axiomatic for the sake of further exploration, rather than known. But now I am a believer, hallelujah and amen!
    All of which begs the questions, believer in what? Big question. I should start my own blog. But for our purposes here, of this much I am certain: In or around 1958, at age 19, I was shaving in my parent’s home about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and heard a train whistle or horn far (at least 1 1/2 miles as the crow flies) in the distance. Oh my God, I thought, briefly, for no apparent reason, what if that train hit my sister’s car while she was on the way back from school? I discounted the idea, until, some minutes later, my sister’s car came to a sliding halt in the gravel road outside. I went to the door to see my sister and her friend Kathi jumping out of the car.
    “You will never guess what happened!” my sister shouted.
    “You almost got hit by a train,” I said. Both girls stopped, dumbfounded by my reply. They had indeed narrowly missed being hit by a train.
    Using my newfound Dawkinsonian certainty for the first time, I can now say that my experience, which can be essentially verified by my sister and Kathi, was some sort of telepathic or precognition phenomenon. Well, yes, it might have been coincidence, but that conclusion seems far-fetched and implausible, at least enough to meet the threshold for a Dawkinsonian believer in the existence of a paranormal phenomenon — a woo-woo phenomenon if you prefer — not validated by official science.
    Hey, I like this Dawkins stuff; nice to know things for a change.

  11. Eclectic says

    You might want to try to think of it yourself before I give it away. Remember, I promised a “scientifically defensible definition of a soul/spirit/ghost which retains the personality of the person after death. (It might not be what you’re thinking of, though.)”
    My personality is, in the reductionist limit, a description of how I respond to circumstances and events.
    Social animals in general, and humans in particular, are equipped with a “mirror neuron” system which we use to observe and predict the responses of others.
    For someone significant in my life, I’ll have a pretty detailed model of their responses. I’ll know what they like and dislike, and how they’ll respond to various situations. I can hear their comments on things even when they aren’t with me.
    In other words, I have in my head a portion of their personality. And that part obviously survives after their death.
    Or, put in more metaphysical terms, a part of my friends’ spirits stays with me after they die.
    Of course, that part does tend to be static and not evolve over time. Certainly not much like the natural person would. Someone who I remember a certain way is going to stay that way in my memory.
    Which, interestingly enough, also describes the ghosts and “unquiet spirits” of legend. Are they just what we can most easily imagine?
    For a more specific example, consider George Burns’ description of how he would go to Gracie Allen’s grave and try out his new material to see what she thought.

  12. Rebecca says

    Coincidentally or by grace of God, Douglas Hofstadter, in an interview with Deborah Solomon, in this weeks NY Times Magazine, makes much the same argument as Eclectic.
    While I do not have this belief about the soul, my knowledge that I can and do change the lives of the people with whom I interact is my “comforting thought that has nothing to do with God.”

  13. Jane Shaffer says

    Hey Greta, I’ve been under general anesthesia three times as an adult and, each time, experienced retrograde amnesia. Twice, my memory was erased back to when I was counting down before surgery (I checked in with the anesthesiologist to see what the last number I said was and it was always lower than I remembered). Once, I went from joking with the nurse to suddenly being wheeled out of surgery. I said, “Hey, aren’t you going to do the surgery?” and my doctor laughed, held up my bandaged foot and said, “A little amnesia, eh?” I don’t even remember meeting the anesthesiologist that time.
    These experiences didn’t have the same philosophical effect on me, but I can sympathize that having time simply disappear is pretty freaky and unpleasant.

  14. says

    Actually, Layne, I totally agree with you that it’s reasonable for an agnostic on the other end of the belief spectrum to call themselves a believer instead of an agnostic. One of the main points of my “Atheist or Agnostic?” piece was that, while Dawkins convinced me that it was reasonable for someone with my place on the belief spectrum to call themselves atheist, he *didn’t* convince me that everyone else in my position was morally obligated to do the same and to use the language the exact way he does. (I like Dawkins and admire him tremendously, but on this issue he can be something of a twit.)
    I do actually have a response to the telepathy experience you described. But for the most part, I don’t try to debate with people’s actual beliefs on these issues unless they’ve either asked me to or have been arguing with *my* beliefs. I’ll start debates about the place religion has in society, the way we do and don’t talk about religion compared to other topics, what kind of language we use to talk about religion and atheism, whether faith does more harm than good or vice versa, etc. — but I rarely debate the actual beliefs unless I’ve been invited to, either explicitly or implicitly by arguing against mine. (I did say “for the most part,” y’all, so there’s no need to rush to the archives to dig up counter-examples. Unless you’d find that entertaining.)
    Anyway, Layne, if you’re interested in knowing how I would respond to your experience as a skeptic, let me know. If you’re not, or you don’t want to get into it, that’s cool, too.

  15. Layne Winklebleck says

    Hi Greta: Please do debate me re my beliefs if you like. Go ahead, hit me with your best shot. I am not at fragile, and I enjoy your witty and inviting skepticism. I would not want to distract you from the flow and momentum of your blogging, however, and the truth is that I am actually more interested in the place religion has in society than in how many angels can dance on the head of an apparent telepathic experience. In particular, I am interested in the great and consuming drama playing out between forces on earth who insist that morality and ethics must conform to a higher spiritual authority, and opposing them, those in the humanist/secular/scientific, not to mention Hollywood/academic camps (and other “moderns”) who desire freedom to set their own course.
    So, jumping to what I consider the most burning issue, do you desire coalitions in which atheists and Unitarians (for example – or other moderates of “faith”) form political alliances? Have you dealt with this question already in other posts? If so, please point me to them.
    As a practical matter, I think we must consider that some of the values, ethics and morality that allows our secular society to function comes from a sort of often unthoughtful base of religious teachings. Do onto others, etc. Would you want to undo that amorphous consensus at the very time that freedom faces such a strong challenge from fundamentalists? What is the ideal mix? If you have dealt with these issues in other posts, please direct me.
    Enjoying your blog.

  16. says

    Thanks, Layne. It may take me a few days to compose my reply (I have a couple other longish pieces in the works), but now it’s in my brain and I’ll definitely get it out in the blog soon. (And don’t worry about interrupting the flow of the blog — replying to interesting and thought-provoking comments is actually pretty central the flow of the blog.)
    To answer your other questions…
    Short answer — yes, I would like to see alliances between atheists/ agnostics/ skeptics and progressive/ moderate believers. I think it’s a little more complicated than that — I think our political/ social agendas often overlap but don’t always… but generally, yes, I think those alliances can be useful and good. (This does separate me from some very hard-core atheists — I’ve seen atheists like me who want to ally with progressive believers referred to as “Neville Chamberlains.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — some atheists are real assholes.) I’ve written about this a little, in “Oh, The Believer and the Skeptic Should be Friends…”
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2006/08/oh_the_believer.html
    …but that was talking more about personal friendships rather than political alliances. It’s a good topic, and one I’ll try to write more about. (No promises, though — the list of topics I want to blog about soon is getting ridiculously long.)
    As to whether our ethics come from religious teachings… I’m reading more and more from evolutionary psychologists who are beginning to think that at least some of human morality may be genetically hard-wired rather than culturally learned, from religion or anywhere else. But it’s frontier science still, which means it’s still up for heavy debate. (Also a topic for another post.)

  17. says

    Greta’s and Jane’s experience of general anaesthesia reminds me a lot of my one experience of that state of (un)consciouness, but at the time, while I found the experience to be really interesting and odd, I never had any deep thoughts or existential crisis over it. After reading Greta’s reflections on the subject, maybe I’ll have a delayed existential crisis 20 years after the fact!

  18. Eclectic says

    Lovely quote, courtesy of Jonathan Miller (“A Rough History of Disbelief”, available in 10-minute segments on YouTube):
    “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side. ”
    Aristotle (384-322 BC)
    It just seemed appropriate these days.

  19. says

    Greta,
    Related to Atheism, Agnosticism, and others who do not share “traditional” religious views on God and the afterlife, have you seen the ESPN or CNN coverage on Pat Tillman and what his commanding officer said about his family’s religious beliefs?
    Here are some brief quotes from the ESPN web site’s interview with Lt Col Ralph Kauzlarich. Lt Col Kauzlarich is commenting on the Tillman’s family’s insistence that the US Army and US Government investigate the friendly fire incident that led to Pat Tillman’s death:
    ====================
    “But there [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, ‘OK, it was an unfortunate accident.’ And they let it go. So this is — I don’t know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs.”
    ====================
    ====================
    In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don’t know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.”
    ====================
    The rest of the quotes can be found online here:
    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=tillmanpart1
    If it weren’t for the fact that Pat Tillman was a famous football player to gave up a multi-million NFL career to serve in the Army Rangers in Afganistan, this intolerance of atheism would not be getting any press coverage at all.

  20. says

    Hi Greta,
    Sorry, I didn’t see your response about atheist Quakers back in the spring, and only saw it recently by chance via a Google search.
    There aren’t any discrete atheist Quaker groups to date in real life, we’re just mixed in among other liberal Quakers (not to be confused with Orthodox Quakers), similar to how atheists are mixed in with the UUs. (Though personally I often lean towards taking a more separatist approach, even to the point of questioning whether I should identify as “Quaker” at all.) The main nontheist Quaker events are workshops at the annual Friends General Conference gathering (one of which I may be co-leading this year), and occasional regional meetings or workshops.
    Anyway, I posted to the main nontheist Friends email list asking if anyone knows how atheist-friendly the Bay Area meetings are. Though I didn’t get a direct answer to that question, I assume they basically are, being in a pretty liberal regional group (Pacific Yearly Meeting). I think one list member may have emailed you with a little more info.
    Hope that helps,
    Zach

  21. sexposfemme says

    I’m not sure what to call myself at this point: atheist? agnostic? Christian doubter? I live my life as if God doesn’t exist and have many logical problems with the concept of God, especially those expressed in your Suffering piece. But a small part of me fears that it may be true, that I may be living my life against God’s will, setting myself up for both failure in this life and punishment in the next. I may do a conversion in old age. Whenever I have dreams about dying I repent while getting killed.

  22. Sarah says

    I’m so glad I came across your blog. Your “Top Ten Reasons” for not believing in religion are particularly excellent!
    I’m a closet atheist within my religious family and general Deep South culture–apart from my closet atheist conservative Republican sister and a select group of friends, etc.
    My total deconversion was gradual, from my twenties to now in my thirties. I grew up in a wealthy, conservative Christian evangelical (Methodist) family. I moved from that a more liberal Christian theology, roughly Presbyterian. Next was Deism. Then agnosticism. Then “soft” atheism. And, finally, “hard” atheism.
    I think coming to terms with and embracing, enjoying, my atheism took a long time because the concept of giving up religion can seem depressingly, unbearably nihilistic in the beginning. I suppose I couldn’t deal with such a radical paradigm shift except by a gradual process. But I sort of grasped years ago that that was where I was inevitably heading.
    Basically, in a fundamental way, I’m lying (mainly in the sense of omissions and silence) about who I am to most of the world, mainly for the sake of my family’s feelings. And it really bothers me. But the psychic benefit to me of “openly being my real atheist self” is far outweighed by the psychic harm it would do to them. While the concept of Hell is nonsense, they deeply believe in that nonsense and would be deeply pained and terrified, really, over the idea that I was “doomed” to that fate.
    Their deconversion is a practical impossibility. So it seems not worthwhile, from a utilitarian perspective, to choose a course of action that results in more overall psychic pain to people I love, compared to the benefit of achieving “positive feelings” about “being myself.” As much as I dislike it, I’m not in agony over the inability to do that; whereas my mother, for instance, would be, over the idea that I’m doomed to Hell. That her views are irrational nonsense wouldn’t make her pain any less real.
    Politically, I generally label myself a “liberal Republican,” or generically, a “moderate with mixed views,” for lack of a better label. I’m registered Republican, but vote on both sides of the Republican/Democrat divide, depending on the issue.
    I’m socially far too liberal for a Republican, but definitely more fiscally conservative than not. “Libertarian” doesn’t quite fit as it’s taken to mean concurrent belief in both Right (economic) Libertarianism and Left (social) Libertarianism, and while I agree highly on the social views, I’m most definitely not an anarcho-capitalist.
    I guess what bothers me is that I don’t “fit” easily into a category. They don’t have a handy “label” for me, which shouldn’t matter. But labels (properly used) are a very useful shorthand way of identifying things that otherwise require too much confusing and inefficient explantion. And not having one is sort of vaguely alienating.
    A “liberal Republican atheist” seems like a fairly esoteric concept; I personally know of only one or two others at most. “Too left” for the “real Republicans;” and “too right” for the “liberal Democrats,” the “default” political position among American atheists….So I tend to have an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances, to say the least, from communist atheist to conservative Christian Republican.
    I don’t know why I’m writing all of this. I’m sure you have more to read than you can humanly, possibly handle on here. I’m certain my post is a needle in a haystack, and naturally I don’t expect a response.
    It’s just comforting for me to come across arguments like yours that are so well-executed, especially as I live in an environment where being a totally “out” atheist doesn’t feel like a realistic possibility.

  23. Rollingforest says

    When I was getting my wisdom teeth taken out, I wanted to see how long I could stay awake before the anesthesia put me to sleep (stupid idea, I know. I was about to get my teeth ripped out of my skull. Did I really want to risk being awake for that? But I always want to experiment and this was no exception.)
    I remember them giving me the anesthesia and then saying “okay, we’re done!” I was very confused, never having remembered falling asleep.
    Greta is right. Anesthesia really is how death will be like. But look at the bright side. There will be no suffering after death.

  24. says

    the only problem i see with all the anesthesia is that it cant be how it is exactly when you die. first of all anesthesia puts your brain to sleep which basicly just makes you fall asleep chemicaly, which in turn induces a sleep with no sleep patterns. which means no REM or any other natural layers of brain activity normaly experienced while sleeping. Now me personally, i have problems myself with sleeping in that i dont normally dream like most people. i just basicly black out, much like your experience with amenesia im sure. ive never been put under completely. Ive never had to experience that…displeasure. but i do know what it feels like to lose pieces of time from your memory. To put it simply, i had my daughter, and due to them trying to make me “comfortable” i dont remember most of the time i was in the hospital. Anyways, all i have to say is that, in all truth, until you die you wont know the truth. For all you know one of the many religious cults may be right, or strangely they could all be right in some odd combination. We, as living beings will never know until its too late. On another note, even with this sort of “enlightenment” you received from that incident, you cannot compare empty sleep to death. For instance, when you die its not gonna go all black instantly like it did with the anesthesia. It has been proven that brain activity continues for some time, even if you are say…beheaded. Unless with all our science we somehow create a machine that can translate the thoughts of those people that are dead but still thinking, we will never know the truth until the end. Unless our brain is completely destroyed though, im sure we will have some time to process whatever our minds do when we actually die. I dont mean to be judgemental, please dont think that. i just like to look at things scientificly if possible. and in all rationality, when it comes to drugs, anesthesia or otherwise, it all just messes with brain cycles and functions.

  25. Aardvark Cheeselog says

    While I was reading Part 2, where you described becoming skeptical about the reliability of personal experience through readings about cognitive science, I wondered why the acid didn’t do that for you. But then I suppose acid is like that for most people… less likely to cause them to question the reliability of their perceptions while not tripping than it is to distract them into woo-slinging.
    A few times, acid gave me the nonexistance/”crawling out of the grave” experience. That had major consequences for my personal attitude about death (and yes, it took considerable digesting). Most people who have general anaesthesia seem not to react to it by becoming convinced of the superfluousness of the idea of the soul. There would be a lot more dyed-in-the-wool atheists if that were the case.

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