This is the second part of my blog posts about being an atheist.
So, if you read the last post you got a little glimpse into what made me an atheist. This part is about how I dealt with suddenly being in a world that had no god. For those who are agnostic or atheist and read this you’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal?”. When you’ve believed as long, and as deeply, as I did; it is kind of a big deal. I know some religious people who can’t even fathom a world without god, it just doesn’t make sense to them.
(I want to take a moment here to make it clear I don’t speak for any other atheists but myself. Just as I don’t believe any one Christian speaks for all Christians.)
Living without God
This was not an area where television or movies could help. If you look at TV and movies, they have no idea what atheists are like or how they think. House, MD was the closest media has come to accurate portrayals of our beliefs, but they clothed those ideas in a drug-addicted narcissist. That’s a role-model. The most famous and beloved atheist is probably Joss Whedon.
But that’s now. When I was turning 18, I couldn’t even name an atheist. People who didn’t believe in god were evil (or highly illogically, satanists). So I had to find my own way. Fortunately, I was exposed to existential philosophy at this time thanks to a great High School English teacher. Here were a group of people who were finding ways to exist without god.
Philosophy of the Absurd
When I was in High School they happened to offer for one year a class called Humanities. It’s where I first read Paradise Lost (a favorite epic poem), Dante’s Inferno, and The Stranger by Albert Camus. Discovering Existential Philosophy was to have a profound impact on my life, specifically Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd.
I loved the Stranger, and I immediately picked up The Plague and the Myth of Sisyphus. To give a ridiculously simple explanation of Absurdist Philosophy: If life has no meaning imposed upon it by external/supernatural beings, then we must impose our own meaning on life. The premise Albert Camus starts with in the Myth of Sisyphus is if you discover there is no point to life, no Ultimate Reward (heaven and hell), then is it justifiable to commit suicide? He argues that while this is a valid choice, it’s the wrong one. Camus argues that you should live in spite, or to spite, the fact that life has no meaning (imposed externally).
Like I said, that’s over-simplifying it, and it’s my interpretation, but that’s what I got from studying his works. You should go out and enjoy life, because there is nothing after. This short period of time you have on Earth should be enjoyed to the fullest, because there is nothing else. You’ll not be rewarded with anything but oblivion by working yourself to death in a job you hate. Find a way to do what you love, because this is all there is.
I’ve tried as much as possible to make most of my decisions based on that view of life. I enjoy my job and the work I do (I wish I got more recognition for my accomplishments and more money, but don’t we all). I enjoy my free time. I don’t get involved with people who will test my patience or annoy me.
To quote a line from Joss Whedon’s Angel: If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.
Moral Living, or “What stops you from robbing banks?”
The one thing that really fascinates me about religious people’s view of atheist is the idea that we can’t live moral lives without rules from GOD. Every government class I took, from High School to U.T. made us read John Locke and his Two Treatises on Government. The reason for this is that he laid the foundation for natural laws that didn’t require a deity.
Now John Locke wasn’t an atheist. He was a religious person who believed that atheism would lead to chaos. However, he believed you had to separate religion from government. He preached tolerance for all religions and knew how a theocracy could lead to tyranny. So he came up with laws that could be universal and free from religion.
Basically, and again I’m going to grossly over-simplify his writing, we all are free to do whatever we want, as long as we don’t interfere with other’s rights to do what they want. Governments are created to ensure that “might doesn’t make right” when deciding whose rights are violated. So theft is wrong because while I may have a right to own a television, by stealing yours I’ve violated your right to own a television. Likewise, murder is wrong because it would violate your right to live. He also goes into explaining punishments, but I won’t get into that here.
So Locke set out a political philosophy that gives an intellectual, not a religious, grounding for moral behavior. There are many other philosophers who did the same, but Locke’s principles are ones that guide me, personally.
Oh yeah, there are two other reasons I don’t commit murders, rape, or rob people. First: I have no desire to do those things. Stealing, murdering, and any crimes for that matter are just something that don’t have any appeal to me.
Second, there are laws at the local, state, and federal level that you have to follow whether you believe in god or not. I don’t want to spend ANY time in prison or pay any fines associated with doing whatever the hell I feel like.
Moral living is surprisingly easy without God.
Life is Precious
One of the other really illogical misconceptions about atheism is that life is more precious to those who believe in God and Heaven than those who do not. This never made any sense to me. If you believe that life begins at conception, that the moment sperm meets egg a soul is implanted, and that this soul will live on Earth for about 80-100 years (barring some major accident or illness), and after that will live for ETERNITY in Heaven, why is life precious?
This soul, uniquely implanted, did not exist for billions of year (or thousands if you’re really hardcore fundamental), will only inhabit an earthly body for at most a hundred years and will spend infinity in the afterlife, why would it care about “life”. It would be like a person placing undue importance on the first 2 years of their life.
Now granted, the first two years a child’s life are really important, developmentally. And maybe that’s it. Our earthly life is important because it’s essentially our “try-out period” for whether we get to go to Heaven or Hell. But, that doesn’t explain why funerals aren’t joyous affairs. Why don’t we celebrate with singing and dancing. As far as we know, our loved ones made it to Heaven. It should be celebrated with parties and drinking. It’s like getting into your first choice college, marrying the love of your life, and getting that big promotion all rolled into one! Everyone should be super-happy and only bummed that the deceased got to go there first.
I know why I spent hours depressed and drunk after my best friend died. They now only existed in my memory. Their consciousness has been wiped from existence. I will never again hear their voice, share a joke, go drinking, or share a secret with them. They’re gone.
So for me life is EXTREMELY precious. It’s all we have. There is nothing else. To take someone’s life is to delete them like a file that can’t be recovered.
It’s yet another reason to enjoy life as much as you can. You could cease to exist tomorrow, and you won’t even get to have regrets, because you’ll just be gone.
Dealing with Death
As depressing as that last section was, I’m going to get even more depressing. As you can imagine I have a hard time dealing with death. I don’t want to die, not ever. I hope for the singularity and some way to extend my life beyond it’s natural expiration date.
I sometimes get panic attacks at night as I realize that no matter how long I extend my life, at some point due to entropy, I will cease to exist. It’s frightening to contemplate nothingness. The only consolation is that when it happens, I won’t have to think about it, because I will no longer “think”.
I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong about the afterlife. I’d endure an infinite number of “I told you so’s” coming from family and friends.
I’m a little jealous of family who found consolation in the idea that grandma and grandpa were watching over them, or that through prayer they could communicate with them. The idea that, “we’ll all be together again someday”.
I just don’t believe that.
Mind you, I don’t disabuse them of their beliefs. I’m not an a-hole. I just can’t join in. It would be easier for me if I could believe, but you can’t go back.
As depressing as all that last part about death was, I’m actually a fairly happy individual. The other part about Albert Camus’ writing is that it was about enjoying life. There is a freedom that comes from realizing that “life has no meaning”. I try to do the things I enjoy as much as possible. My pleasures are fairly simple and easy to achieve. I love books, movies, and television. I love working out. I enjoy spirited debates with my other best friend. I enjoy tasting new foods, being exposed to new ideas, and, hopefully down the road, seeing new places. I enjoy challenging myself to be better at my job. I love my current apartment and being surrounded by my 700+ books (I dislike moving, but enjoy that I make enough money to pay people to move my ridiculously heavy books for me).
So while death may be like this entity waiting on the edges to take me, until it does, I’m going to enjoy every minute that I’m here on this lovely planet. And I hope you will, too whatever your beliefs.