Friday, May 21, 2010

Coming Out

After all these years I have decided to finally come out of the “closet”. No, I’m not gay… I am declaring openly that I am an Atheist. I have recently placed the “scarlet A” on my blog sidebar.

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.


Gorilla Bananas said...

I'm not at all comforted by the idea that God exists. The God of the Abrahamic religions is a jealous, bad-tempered old tyrant. May the talismans of the gorilla faith protect me from his wrath! Amen!

Charlie said...

If things don't turn out well tonight, you may have to change your name to Robert Burns.

I am with you on aetheism: I prefer the concepts of evolution and logic over a mythical "God" and the zealots who use myth for there own purposes (power, control, and money).

In a way, I'm "coming out" on your blog; if I do it on mine, it will be blogus disappearus.

Charlie said...

"their", not "there".

Anonymous said...

In discussions that I have had with friends, the comment that constantly comes up is, "what if you are wrong?" My comment back is "What if YOU are wrong?" I understand the belief vs knowledge conundrum. I respect others' need to believe. I am just not there with them.........but no red A yet.

I'm Jane said...

Good luck! Let us know how it goes. If it starts to get ugly, maybe Christopher Hitchens will swoop in and save you like an Atheist Superman.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas I am comforted that you and I share a common ancestor, my friend.

Charlie Fortunately we are trying to pull this off in the relatively secular and progressive Pacific Northwest. Were we in South Carolina, I might be also a more visible supporter of the 2nd Amendment.

BackRow This is essentially Pascal's Wager: Being a believer to essentially hedge one's bet. Some do that.

I am alright with people believing what they want to. However, for me, the rising imposition of religious believe being forged into public policy has motivated me to start pushing back.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jane Barring, of course, the prospect of anyone bringing in a large hunk of "Kristian Kryptonite"

Penny said...

That's one of those questions that could make for very lively discussion.
Like Charlie, I wouldn't dare "come out" publicly.
God to me is that nebulous feeling we get when something is wonderful or marvellous. So I might, for instance, invoke "God" when looking at glorious scenery. But that's an emotion, not a "thing".

Robert the Skeptic said...

Last night's meeting stats:
Our "Ask and Atheist" seminar, which I moderated, went well and we received all positive comments. I may post more on this later but here are the numbers -

We counted about 50 in the audience (not bad for a Friday night).
33 people completed the feedback form

People who claimed they were -
Atheists: 19
Christian: 4
Other Faith: 3
Undecided: 3
None (left blank) 4

Two of the Christians came up to us afterward and shook our hands and told us they felt respected and that they had ample opportunity to speak.

The Mother said...

I added the Scarlet Letter to my blog recently, too.

Not that anyone who knows me is surprised--I've been a vocal atheist around my real world for some time now.

We are, yes, reviled.

secret agent woman said...

I talk about my nonbelief in a god at times on my blog. But I don't feel a need to add a big A, since it seems like only a small part of my beliefs/practice.

Jingle said...

I don't have certin theme fixed...
Glad that you are confident enough to start a bigger one...
Have Fun!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom Reviled indeed, which motivates me to try to connect a person to the idea in the faint hope of possibly changing a mind.

SecretAgent I shared your sensibilities for some time as well. For me the "A" is kind of like the way people on motorcycles wave to each other when they pass on the road... staking some kind of an identity, I guess.

Jingle I'll accept support wherever I can find it. Thank you!

Murr Brewster said...

Well, good on you. I'm one of those in the "I believe I'll have another beer" camp, but now I've cut down. How pathetic is that? I guess we can just conclude that I'm not devout. You're in Oregon? Where you at? I'd have come to that liberry.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Murr Corvallis.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't surprise me....the area where you live is comprised of mostly secular people.

Hopefully you aren't one of those atheist's that "get's offended" by the symbols or rituals that Christians practice (especially since this country was founded on such beliefs).

Robert the Skeptic said...

Anonymous Actually not true, we do live in a more liberal part of the country, but using the word "most" is quite incorrect.

No my family has a Christmas tree and our grand kids do Easter egg hunts, it's all good holiday fun. But we don't believe that Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, Zeus, Poseidon, Osiris or any of the gods for which I assume you are an atheist about as well, exist. You see You are an atheist like me, only about one less god than I.

Though a commonly repeated myth, historical scholars confirm that this country was NOT founded on such beliefs. In fact the founders made a POINT of that by enshrining that no religion become the religion of our government.

From the US Constitution: Congress shall make NO law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...

Besides, you don't really want our country founded on a particular religion, do you? You see, it might not being YOUR particular version of Christianity... assuming it would end up being christian.

Count your blessings the founding fathers were pretty smart guys. Thanks for reading/commenting.