"The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life" ~Sigmund Freud
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary atheism is defined as; a disbelief in the existence of deity. For the sake of discussion a deity is defined as; the rank of essential nature of a god (or goddess). Yet this definition of atheism is not so simple when talking with the masses, as the idea of what an atheist is can become quite construed from reality. To the point that atheists are seen more as villains, hate-mongers, heathens, and sinners than they are seen simply as people that do not believe. So this brings up the question, what are atheists if they are not all these things? The dictionary definition seems too simple, because atheists are much, much more than just people that do not believe.
The following was a post on Facebook, it needs no introduction.
"Just as someone who doesn't believe in God doesn't understand how someone can...it's just as difficult for someone who does believe to understand how someone can't. I think it must be a sad empty life to not have belief in anything bigger than yourself. If you're a parent you must look at your children and think they're far too amazing to just be some scientific happening...I know mine is!;)"
This is the stigma often times placed on atheists as a whole. That we are some sort of self-centered miscreants without any belief system at all. Unfortunately this could not be further from the truth and I hope that my writing this can shed a little light on what many believe to be a dark place.
This post from Facebook introduced me to a brand new form of hatred from someone that called herself a Christian, and the conversation that ensued was far from anything that I would associate with the Christians that I know. Let's look at the first real issue of her post, and something that is far from true of the atheist community.
When I think about someone living a sad, empty life I think about someone that never experiences freedom, love, compassion, kindness, and joy. Without those things, I believe that sad and empty could be used to describe someone's life, but not with the choice of being an atheist over the choice to be a Christian (or other religion). Could someone really have a sad empty life just because they do not have "God" in their life? I personally do not think so.
Then there is the idea that an atheist does not have belief in anything bigger than him/her self. Many atheists also consider themselves humanists as well as environmentalists. They have a deep love for humans, as a species, and for the health and well being of nature on this planet. Not to mention the love they have for their families and compassion for others. The universe, the planet, nature, wildlife, mankind; these are all things that are much larger than us as individuals, and these are all things I have a lot of belief in and love for.
Atheism did not come to me early in my life, as I was raised going to church every Sunday for nearly 16 years of my life. I have read the Bible from front to back probably three times total, and that does not count the research that I have done aside from reading it to try and better understand the stories. I did not come to the conclusion of being an atheist as soon as my family stopped attending church, but I started to question the validity of it. Eventually I began telling people I was agnostic, not that I really knew that that meant because I still was not able to tell anyone what I really “believed”.
It was not until I picked up the book ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins that I really started to lean towards atheism. I realized that being agnostic was really just a transition phase into being an atheist. Many people will say that there is no proof one way or another as to whether God is real, and they consider themselves to be agnostic. I just got to the point where I said, “Well there surely is more material that says he does not exist than there is to say he does”, so I made the best educated decision I could make and took on the tag of atheist.
This is the sort of decision that can make or break many relationships; family, significant others, friends, children. My parents were very supportive, despite the fact that they believe differently from me. I did not get the same response from my spouse and in-laws. Over time things have simmered down, but there was one question that really stuck in my head that my spouse asked me. “How are we going to raise our children?”
For me the answer was simple. We have not once attended church together, even before our child was born. Nothing was going to change now that children were in the picture. We would raise them to love and respect other people, and teach them everything we know, and eventually they will have enough information to make their own decision on the matter.
Atheists battle these sorts of things every day, because atheism is not “accepted” yet in many circles and communities. Marriages, friendships, and even families have been lost to individuals that actually expose themselves as atheists. Times are changing though, and the numbers of people that do not believe are growing every day. Australia even has an atheist prime minister.
We are not heathens, and hateful people. Are there atheists that can come off this way and give the rest of us a bad name? Yes. But there are plenty of “Christians” that do a wonderful job of that as well, think Pat Robertson and Alex Jones. People from all walks of life have those that give their “group” a bad name, but that does not mean we should stereotype the entire group of people based on those few.
The best thing you can do if you do not understand an atheist, is to simply engage them in conversation. Most of us are more than willing to talk and answer questions, or have discussions about why we believe or think the way we do. Many Christians would be surprised to learn that there are atheists who know a lot more about the Bible than they do themselves. There are many times I have been in discussions with others and gotten the response, “well I don’t remember that part, I’ll have to go back and look at it sometime”. That is just a clever way of covering up that you do not really know as much as you think you know.
The reality of the false perception is simple. Atheists are people, just like Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. We have many of the same morals, and principles that we live by as these other groups of people. We just do not buy into the idea that there is an invisible guy in the sky listening to every prayer, and ignoring most of them. We believe in action over prayer. We believe that one pair of hands can do much more to help than 1,000 prayers. Many atheists are activists, actively involved in saving the environment, promoting green products, promoting clean energy, and helping the less fortunate. I did not say a prayer for the people in Oklahoma when the tornado surged through, I made a donation to the atheist mother and her son that lost their home. I am not knocking prayer, if the person doing the praying is also a doer. I just believe that if you try, or do, twice as hard and often as you pray, you might find that you have better results.
This stigma around atheists will diminish eventually, as we slowly begin to melt into the pot and start mixing in with the rest of the people around us. I am a firm believer that the atheist movement is just beginning, as there are a lot of atheists out there, many have just been too scared of what others might think of them to come forward. We have not faced the sort of discrimination as other minority groups, but it is still an issue and something that many people fear because they do not want to put their relationships with others in jeopardy over something as simple as believing or not; so many choose to just keep their thoughts quiet.
I just hope that the perception of who and what atheists are is just a little bit more clear for some people that might have previously struggled with the idea of atheism. We love people just the same; the belief in a deity does not change that.
“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived” ~Isaac Asimov