Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What do Atheists Feel?

Believers, especially evangelical Christians, seem to be immune to logical arguments against their beliefs.  My theory is that they believe for emotional reasons, as their emotional "arguments" for belief indicate.  I have enountered many completely emotional responses to my rational arguments.  It's like we speak two different languages.  Atheism as a non-belief position rather than a systemic response to existential fears and feelings, so it offers nothing for them.  In fact, they actually accuse atheists of believing in "nothing."  To them, our worldview is dark, depressing, and nihilistic.  So I thought I would answer some of the questions I've heard and seen coming from the other side.

Isn't atheism depressing?

Not unless you're being discriminated for it.  Depression is depressing.  Grieving is grieving no matter whether you believe in God.  Believers must really work their rationalization skills when bad things happen to them.  Whatever happiness or comfort they get is as much from their social network as from the "answers" they get in their religion.  Why else would funerals be universal amongst religious practices?  Religion gives comfort, and we atheists recognize this.

But whether a belief is comforting doesn't have anything to do with whether it's true, and my atheism is based on a desire to know what's true, not to hear comforting words.  I suspect that many believers, when pressed on the tenets of their belief system, would deny quite a bit of it, but they cling to their religion as a salve for their uncomfortable feelings.  The "Problem of Evil" (which is really the Problem of Things Not Going My Way) is a real conundrum for Christians.  Why would a loving God allow child rape, plane crashes or cancer?  Those things aren't "fair."  For the Christian whose rationalization muscle isn't strong enough to answer this question, their worldview actually causes them more sadness and angst than the atheist position would.  Chance occurrences are "fair" in that all of us are equally at risk for bad things.  When something devastating happens, it doesn't "mean" anything except that something devastating happened.  That "fairness" brings me quite a bit of comfort.

Depression with a big "D" is a disease, and also a chronic mood.  The extent of "depression" depends on genes and other factors for atheists as much as it does for believers.  In the modern age there are proven psychotherapies and drugs that can address depression.  Social networking has also gotten a bit easier.  An atheist who is an avid racketball player may find a social network in this activity that is comparable to that of believers' networks.  The fact that so many staunch believers in the U.S. live in rural areas with fewer opportunities outside of their churches tells me that the community aspect may be the real reason they cling to belief.  As more people live in urbanized areas, they will find more ways to connect with others of similar interests, and the need to belong to a religious group will decline.

Aren't you afraid of hell?

Nobody wants to die.  It's an instinct.  And so of course the idea of an afterlife is very appealing.  Justice is also a universal desire.  We want to think that we will be rewarded for our goodness and that horrible people will be punished even if they got away with their crimes in life.  Christians have the odd theology that states that belief itself is enough to decide who receives reward or punishment.  They seem only to hold that belief when encountering atheists, however.  When they encounter believers who have done something terrible, they want them to go to Hell.

Judgment Day for me is my last moment of consciousness.  I want my last thought to be "I did what I could with the time I had."  I think a lot of atheists feel that way.  Having a finite lifespan makes our actions in life that much more urgent and important.  I don't want to think that Gandhi is in Hell for disbelieving the Bible but Karla Faye Tucker is in Heaven for accepting Christ.  Hitler never renounced his belief in God.  As a Catholic, he would be in Hell for committing the mortal sin of murder.  In evangelical Christianity, he'd be in Hell for not being "born-again" rather than for his actions, if he were to go to Hell at all.  Where's the justice here?  As far as I'm concerned, Gandhi, Hitler and Karla Faye Tucker are all dead and that's that.

You just want to sin.

Most prohibitions that are called "sins" are just common sense in a human society.  Other sins really don't matter in the grand scheme of life.  Is it really a big deal for women to go out with their heads uncovered?  Is it really a big deal to eat shellfish?  Is it really a big deal to decide which day of the week you want to take off from work?  No.  As the diversity of societies proves, these religious practices don't affect society at all, nor do they affect the individuals.  Men who are bald should cover their heads to prevent skin cancer.  People with shellfish allergies should avoid shellfish.  And all people should take a day off from work at least once a week to refresh and rejuvenate themselves.  You can decide these things for yourself without any penalty whatsoever.  People do it every day.

But... is it a big deal to kill people, lie to others, and make enemies of your neighbors?  Of course it is.  Any society has rules like this, including secular societies.  And atheists on the whole don't really want to do these things any more than believers do.  Note that believers have been guilty of many things considered "sins" universally, so being a believer doesn't really protect them from acting on their baser feelings.  The odds are pretty good that most people in prison were indoctrinated with religion as children, considering how overwhelming the "majority" is.

Not to mention, what about all the pedophile priests & ministers, the evangelical preachers caught practicing homosexuality or cheating on their wives with a prostitute?  "You want to sin" is a case of psychological projection.  They refrain from antisocial behaviors because they want to refrain from them, not because God is looking over their shoulders.  Atheists refrain from hurting people for the same reason.
Atheists are just angry at God.

How many Christians are angry with Vishnu or Thor or Zeus?  A lot of atheists harbor anger toward religion or individual members of their previous religions.  But it's impossible to be angry toward a god that you don't believe exists.  And yet this is one of the most common accusations I've heard.

This meme comes from the God-as-Santa-Claus fantasy held by many Christians.  They themselves wrestle with the issue of God not answering prayers, so they assume others have failed to adequately rationalize this for themselves and then left the church in a huff.  It's certainly possible that some people came to their atheism from this starting point, but from the atheists I've known it just doesn't happen often.  Christians will switch denominations or parishes out of anger, or they'll stop going to church for awhile, but they usually don't stop believing altogether.

A lot of things do anger atheists, but this has more to do with Christian hypocrisy (in the U.S. especially) and intolerance.  Check out Greta Christina's long list of things that make her angry.  Believers should be angry at these things too.  There are also some atheists who feel they were snookered by their former religion.  After you come up for air, you realize what you've missed during the years of needless self-deprivation and emotional self-abuse.  The more extreme the former religion, the more snookered former adherents may feel about it.

Rejection of God is an intellectual position rather than an emotional one.  This is hard for believers to accept.  As long as their religion makes them feel good they can't understand others not deriving the same happiness from belief.  Evangelical Christianity understands this, and this is why love-bombing features so prominently in their activities.  The other trick they use is to offer so many activities through the church that members' entire social lives depend on their church membership.

Believers "think" with their feelings, so they project onto us atheists the only feeling they can imagine driving them away from their feel-good God.  As Matt Dilahunty often says on The Atheist Experience, it matters to us whether something is true.  An atheist doesn't find the "arguments" for religion compelling, and believers' appeals to emotion do nothing to prove their religion true.

Doesn't atheism make you feel lonely?

Yes, it does sometimes, especially in the Bible Belt.  This is why there are so many "closet athiests," who belong to a church and take part in its activities despite not believing in any of the tenets.  Some of these closeted atheists are even pastors, priests and rabbis.  They are perhaps the loneliest atheists.

Fortunately for us, this is changing.  We have the ability via the internet to find each other, and there are groups popping up everywhere.  This includes schools.  We don't have rummage sales, spaghetti dinners, or softball leagues, but that may come some day!  We do have "retreats" in a sense, with the few conferences we can attend.

Again, feelings don't prove the truth of a position.  Feeling comfort from your religion is very, well, comforting.  That doesn't mean there's a supernatural sky-daddy looking in on you.  It's a comforting fantasy, but just a fantasy.

Belonging to a megachurch that offers dozens of weekly activities may stave off loneliness, and that's a good thing.  Having a "prayer circle" that checks in on you when you're in the hospital is a very nice thing.  Having dozens of people show up at a loved one's funeral makes it easier to go on with life.

We don't dismiss the comfort that religion brings, only the tenets that religion requires.

You worship Dawkins (or Darwin or whomever).

Atheism is a rejection of supernatural religious beliefs, and for some people those beliefs are grounded on respect for authority.  If you have an authoritarian viewpoint, naturally you would expect to substitute another authority for the law-giving God.

"Worship" for many Christians is really just synonymous with admiration, or else this accusation wouldn't come up so often.  It seems to have lost its supernatural definition for them to think we could "worship" a mortal being.
So if we use the word "admire," Christians have a long list of people they admire, and not all of them are church leaders.  Likewise, atheists can admire any number of people.  We can also admire ideas, laws, principles, and even religions.  Once you open your mind to looking for the best that humanity has to offer, you can experience an even greater sense of awe than you experience from a fairy tale.

How can you look at the stars (nature, babies, etc.) and not feel that there is a God?

Easy.  We look at these things, admire their beauty and feel awe without giving that feeling a supernatural origin.  The mind is a tricky thing.  You can have an aesthetic experience that seems supernatural, but it really isn't supernatural.  That takes nothing away from the good feelings you get from these experiences.  If you are open to beauty you will be open to beauty no matter what your cultural upbringing or system of beliefs.  The beautiful things of life are admirable on their own.  In fact, imagining a supernatural being behind it all takes away some of the awe.  Billions of years of astrophysical events are much more amazing to me than the thought that some superpower caused it with a wave of a magic wand.

We do feel that there's something bigger than ourselves, but we don't personalize it.  Gravity as a force is pretty awesome.  The circle of life is awesome.  The delicacy of a hummingbird or a flower is awesome.  Period.  That's good enough, and it's pretty good!

You are your own God

I assume from this accusation that they don't mean the supernatural aspects of their deity.  From conversations with believers, I have deduced that this accusation refers to the law-giving God.  Rejection of the supernatural is the one and only thing that atheists agree on, and we don't attempt magic tricks to substitute for your God. It's true that without a cultural God, atheists must figure out right from wrong on their own.  The good news is that most of what believers take to be wrong is wrong for everybody.  Killing other people is considered wrong everywhere, with the exception of killing during war, which is considered right virtually everywhere.  Telling a lie is considered wrong.  Not keeping your word (e.g., cheating in marriage) is considered wrong.  The belief-centered Commandments and the food rules of the Old Testament can be thrown out without changing much about how people get along in society.  And getting along in society is what gives people, atheists and believers alike, a sense of security and well-being.

A lot of Christians are more like us in this respect already.  Christ's sacrifice supposedly granted them forgiveness from breaking God's laws, so what really keeps them from running amok?  Parents can inculcate a conscience in their children without reference to "What would Jesus do?"  After all, Jesus did some strange things so he's not the best role model anyway.  If you feel like having a fig and the fig tree isn't due to produce figs for several more months, would you set it on fire?  No, of course not.  You'd eat something else.  Christians should give themselves more credit for their own common sense and respect for humanity.  If they did, they'd realize atheists are pretty much the same.

But what about things like homosexuality and abortion?  Some sects of Christianity leave it to their believers to figure out their own positions, and some are "liberal" in the sense of not viewing these things as sins.  Atheists can come to various positions based on the way they frame the questions, just as Christians can.  For a lot of us, not being told what to believe by a supernatural authority figure presents an interesting intellectual problem.  But some of us are as emotional as believers are, and may decide that homosexuality is wrong based on projection of feelings: i.e., fighting their own urges, or feeling revulsion at the idea of sex with someone of their own gender.   As the high number of anti-gay evangelicals who have turned out to be gay themselves shows, there is more to the question than reading some ancient text.  Anyone who has actually read the Bible knows that there are many, many prohibitions against a lot of things that modern Christians don't pay any attention to at all.  How many evangelicals refuse to eat shellfish because the Bible says it is an abomination?  In reality, believers pick and choose which "laws" they will follow based on whether they want to do those things or not.  Personally, I don't eat shellfish because I think it's icky.  I don't have sex with women because I think that is icky too.  I don't care if other people do either of those things, though.  My own feelings on the subject guide only my own life, and I don't think I should dictate the actions of others.


krissthesexyatheist said...

Epic work as usual my interbutz friend. Also...the pictures are so funny. Stay warm,


LadyAtheist said...

Thanks Kriss. Half the fun is searching for pix! You stay warm too my pal!

Plasma Engineer said...

Very nice. I'm enjoying your blog a lot - will post this onto Facebook on the Something Surprising page too.

LadyAtheist said...

Thanks, Engineer!

Infidel753 said...

Again, very sensible observations. Religionists often seem almost incapable of thinking outside their own boxes and grasping a world-view that simply doesn't start from theistic premises.

LadyAtheist said...

I think we will get through to them better if we can find emotional reasons to disbelieve, or at least offer them some comfort. The more extreme ones seem so anxiety-ridden over the idea that they might do something "wrong" that I really do feel sorry for them

Ahab said...

Excellent post. I've found that Christians (particularly fundamentalists) really don't understand non-Christians, which makes their proselytizatiobn efforts especially amusing.

I'm convinced that at least some Christians never bother to find out how atheists think and what they really believe because it would force them to step outside their worldview. In other words, it's a defense mechanism.

LadyAtheist said...

Yep, I agree. They have to deny that any worldview other than their own can have validity in order to stave off doubt.

If we give some thought to their misconceptions we can be ready to counter them if we ever find ourselves conversing with one that will listen.

Anonymous said...

Ahab & LA: Can theists even step out of their own narrow little worldviews? I'm beginning to think it's totally impossible for them: a defense mechanism, to be sure, but one that's built-in to their basic nature. I honestly don't think they consider atheism a 'religion', or insist that we're simply 'angry' with their particular deity of choice simply to piss us off. It's just that they're entirely incapable of seeing things in any other terms.

Pete Moulton

LadyAtheist said...

Pete, considering how many fundies have become atheists, I think there may be hope for more of them. There are even quite a few former preachers who are now outspoken atheists.