Until recently I generally referred to my beliefs as Agnostic. Now the loosely documented rule of thumb denoting the difference between Atheist and Agnostic was that the latter contended that, at some point of reductionist reasoning, the question of whether god exists was supposedly unknowable. But as someone recently pointed out to me, the sum of all knowledge yet to be acquired is NOT knowledge of god.
Until now, being an Agnostic allowed me to hang back on the sidelines, keeping my beliefs (lack of them actually) quietly to myself. But recently I have been feeling more compelled to stand up and be counted. It’s not often a comfortable stance as a non-theist; we are not very popular with the religious majority. It is said that atheists are vilified more deeply in this country than child murderers. Yet polls are showing that the number of people claiming to be non believers represents a significant percentage of the US population; if you count those who claim they are not religious, the numbers are even greater. More significantly, these numbers are increasing.
Of course, I recognized that one of the great appeals of being a “believer” is that they can surround themselves with like-minded, affable, friendly, community-spirited individuals. There is a comfortable payoff to being among a group of people who appear to be like you; a sense of “belonging” is deep in our psyche. Conversely, Atheists are often not big on joining. Taking an invidualistic point of view can leave one feeling as though you are left to twist in the wind; outside of “conventional” acceptance. Not always a comfortable place to be.
For a number of years I have attended meetings of the Corvallis Secular Society. There are perhaps a dozen of us “regulars” who meet once a month. Yet elsewhere in town thousands of people are regularly going to all manner of Christian churches, a mosque, a synagogue, often several days a week; and new LDS “wards” are regularly popping up all over town. But Atheists do not have a strong need to congregate; we don’t need to bolster one another’s beliefs. To us, “None of the Above” is not a choice – it is an absence of choice.
The thought that atheists are a threat to believers, in view of the disparity between our numbers, is quite laughable. But we represent something that believers find insidious and fearful: doubt!
Of course the other benefit of being a believer is the feeling that an omnipotent being is going to somehow act as a mediating force between you and the harsh randomness of statistical chance. The numbers are pretty clear and quite telling; the probabilities that some of us will come down with ugly diseases or die or are injured in accidents, has remains fairly constant and predictable. The belief that praying for divine intercession to ward off some of these unhappy events; well, I can certainly understand the attractiveness of holding onto such an idea.
When I was a kid I had a teddy bear. "Ba Ba" slept with me at night and gave me comfort from the dark, from the monsters hiding under my bed. I could hold Ba Ba close and bury my face in his comforting cotton fur. But Ba Ba eventually wore out... as did my belief in god. I recognized Ba Ba for what he really was; cloth and stuffing and thread.
I am left, as are all atheists, with a tough choice. Is it better to fool ourselves into believing in the "comforting lie", or deal honestly with the harsh realities of the real world? For me, as comfortable as it might appear, I cannot return back to embracing a Ba Ba; my heart and my brain both tell me it is the wrong choice.
It is said that it is much easier to “believe” than to “know”. Doing the easy thing has seldom proven to be the right choice in my life.
Footnote: Tonight I moderate a local public event called "Ask and Atheist" at the public library. It is an open forum where members of the public can ask questions about the positions of non-believers. The topic tonight is where does morality come from. If some of the vehement anonymous online comments to the announcement to the newspaper are any indicator, it could prove to be an interesting evening. If I am not burned at the stake, I will post a recounting of how it went.