There is a certain sense of safety, security, and comfort that those who believe in a loving God retain in their lives even amid great change and uncertainty. Just knowing that God is there, that He is aware of you, that He loves you, and that He knows the trials and tribulations you are currently facing will ultimately prove to have been for your good … how can that not help you face whatever comes with anything but hope and optimism and added strength? And conversely, how can you face even small difficulties in life if you lack the conviction that it all means something, that it will all work out in the end, that somehow God will even the score, even if it has to wait until the next life? That’s one of the more difficult questions that I’m asked, and because of everything that I’ve lost when I lost my belief in God, this has left the biggest hole and I still find myself mourning it from time to time.
Yet I have found a place I’m comfortable with. Perhaps it’s not quite Abraham’s bosom. Perhaps it’s not even the location of my final destination in my relationship with deity. But it’s a place that I’m comfortable with today, from which I can face each new day that comes with a sense of optimism and hope. At least for now, it’s my view of Life, the Universe, and Everything. If you’ve got a few minutes, I’d love to share it with you.
First of all, even though it probably shouldn’t need to be said, I recognize that I won’t change anybody else’s viewpoint. This isn’t a compelling argument against religion. That’s been a conversation too long in the making for me to have any illusions about that. I know that people who want to believe will read this and perceive all sorts of shortcomings in my logic. That’s okay. I’m not trying to convince anyone. I’m simply stating where I am right now. If it doesn’t interest you, that’s fine. If you read it and feel a need to argue, I guess that’s fine, too. But it’s not my purpose.
I think the most difficult part about being Mormon and evaluating Mormonism objectively, and maybe even being Christian and evaluating Christianity objectively, is that the default mindset is: this is true, and anything that wants to say otherwise will have to overcome monumental obstacles to even begin the discussion. Being raised Mormon, I was subjected to repeated attestations of the importance of protecting my “testimony” of the truthfulness of Mormonism. I was assured that Satan, the great enemy of my soul, wanted me to disbelieve, and that he would attempt all sorts of devious tricks to beguile me and lead me away from my conviction that my religion was true. So not only was I given assurances that my religion was true, but I was warned in dire tones that I had to guard against any evidence that would lead me to doubt its truthfulness. I don’t mean to offend any Mormons, but that’s like convincing a prisoner that if someone attempts to free him, it is only a plan of his enemy to be able to harm him. You hardly even need the cage any more. The prisoner is his own guard. Very effective.
A little objective thinking can really go a long way to combat this. Not that this was an easy process for me. I was extremely wary of any evidence against my religion. But I found that if I looked at it as if I were an outsider, everything became much more clear. If I pretended that similar claims were being made about a new religion and that my daughter was telling me about it, and that I were evaluating those claims in light not only of their truthfulness but also of the effect they would have in my daughter’s life if she believed them, then I was better able to be skeptical of some of the more outrageous and unbelievable claims. I was better able to see ulterior motives. I was better able to see the man behind the curtain. That was how I was able to free myself from being both prisoner and guard.
I didn’t look at it like this at the time, but I have since realized how ridiculous it is to believe in the religion of our parents, which, unfortunately, is the default case in this world. After all, how many different religions are there on this planet? What is the chance that your parents just happened to believe the correct religion at your birth? What is the probability that the majority of the rest of the individuals on this planet are deluded, but luckily, thank God, you happened to be born in the correct religion? It’s a ridiculous thought, yet it’s what most people think–although probably, to be fair, without really thinking about it; it’s part of our nature to believe our parents. But let’s be rational. Just statistically, it’s far more likely that whatever religion you were born into is not the one true religion and the rest eager but ineffective interlopers. What makes you confident in rejecting, for instance, Vishnu or Allah, while accepting Jehovah?
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. Richard Dawkins
When I have talked to people about this, by far the most common response is that it’s just one God but many different religions. When people talk about Vishnu or Allah, the argument goes, it’s just their name for God; but it’s the same god that we call God. While this is a comforting idea, it doesn’t hold up to a little scrutiny. If it were just one god, why couldn’t he get his story straight? Which animals are the ones we can’t eat, pigs or cows? What do we sacrifice to show our allegiance, animals or virgins? Is it the penis or the clitoris that has to be cut if we want to be saved? How many wives is too many? There is far too much inconsistency among disparate religions–not even mentioning the mess still left even only considering Christian religions–for there to be one god in charge of it all. The believer’s response to this, then, is that humans have taken god’s religion and have messed it up. This is starting to get closer to what I can buy. It’s man-made. Yep. But even supposing that there is this one true god who gives us direction, the fact that so many people have messed it up in so many different directions should make one pause and ask how, then, can any of us be sure that our religion isn’t just as messed up as everybody else’s is?
The response I usually get to this is that, sure, if you just look at things intellectually, there is no way you’d ever in a lifetime of studying be able to look at each religion and figure out which is true, but there is a better way: just pray and ask God to reveal it to you. “I know,” I am told, “because I have felt something that I can’t deny.” And if that’s the case, I don’t want to take anything away from that. For those who have a conviction that deep and heartfelt, how could I possibly want them to live their life a different way? I’m all about personal integrity and doing what you believe to be right. But I’m not going to let another person’s conviction of deity determine my life. So why, then, don’t I spend as much time as necessary trying to get my own personal conviction of the existence of that person’s god? After all, they’ll tell me, I know he’ll answer you if only you’ll ask in faith. Okay. So I have to believe before I ask if I should believe?
This is a version of Pascal’s Wager. The basic reasoning is: if you choose to believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you lose nothing, but if you choose not to believe and he does, you’ve lost everything. Finite risk in this life for potentially an infinite reward in the life to come. It seems a no-brainer, even with relatively low odds. And especially to those who believe, it seems like a mighty good argument. The main problem that I have with it is that there are competing gods to whom you could equally apply the wager. How are you going to decide which god to choose as the one you believe in? Here we get back to the god of the religion of your birth. The response to Pascal’s Wager might be called the Atheist’s Wager, which is basically that when faced with competing gods, each of whom will punish you for believing in the wrong god, you are better off to believe in none and simply live a good life, trusting that a merciful god will reward goodness over adherence to dogma–and that a god who wouldn’t probably isn’t worth your devotion anyway.
I’m an atheist. I’m happy with my atheism. Some people ask me why I claim to be atheist, since that seems to say that I believe that there isn’t a god rather than that I believe that I don’t know if there is a god. I suppose strictly speaking, I may be agnostic rather than atheist. But only in the sense that anything is possible. I do not know what is the ultimate cause for the existence of everything, why there is a universe at all instead of just … nothing. I think it’s a bit ridiculous to say, though, that this unknown first cause is God. Not only does that give you only a god of the gaps, but it also completely disagrees with the idea of god as being an anthropomorphic, roll-up-his-sleeves, involved-in-your-life kind of god that would care about whether you believe in him or not. Do I believe that there are things we don’t currently and likely will never understand? Yes. Do I call that God? No. I actively disbelieve in the God of the Bible. If the Bible stories are true, I couldn’t believe in an omniscient and omnibenevolent god as depicted in the Bible, one who condones wanton slaughter, who can’t get his stories or his morals straight, who is jealous and vengeful, who cares about all the wrong things. Or if I could believe that a character like this really was a god, I certainly wouldn’t want to worship him. (And if the Bible stories aren’t true … or if you have to pick and choose which Bible stories to believe … you may as well not even have a Bible for all the good it’ll do to resolve questions about God’s nature.)
So I am atheist about an anthropomorphic god, and I am agnostic and frankly dismissive about an impersonal ultimate-cause-of-the-universe god. I recognize that people who believe in God will find my disbelief sadly short-sighted. I have only one thing to say to that. Don’t try to save my soul and I won’t try to unsave yours.
Where do I find hope and optimism in this? I am actually much more excited believing in a universe that obeys natural laws and contains the wonders that we see around us, all of which came to be as they are through the sheerest chance. There is an amazing sense of wonder and awe in being able to unlock at least some of these secrets and discover startling facts about the universe. I am actually much happier knowing that life has no intrinsic meaning, no externally imposed meaning, that any meaning that it has is what we decide to give it, and that I am free to determine my own meaning as much as anyone else is free to determine a different meaning. I am actually much more motivated to action knowing that life is even more precious since it can’t be fixed in “the next life.” Anything I want to achieve as a person, I have to do now. I can’t wait around for someone else to make everything all better for me after I have died.
Yes, this means that I approach things differently now. This means I no longer believe and thus no longer act according to certain notions that religious people have. This also means that I feel it important to examine my life where possible and determine for myself how I want to live. Sometimes I will make choices that others will view as wrong. But in cases where I decide to live differently from how I lived before, I do it with my eyes open, taking responsibility for my happiness, not to try to please anyone else. To shorten Nathan Hale’s famous last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose.” If I had more than one life, I could spend a few of them making somebody else happy. Since I have but one, I have decided to spend it the best way I know how to make myself happy. Call me selfish if you want. You can live your own life the way you want to.
Every morning, though, I roll out of bed onto my knees and thank God I’m an atheist. Then I get up and live my life.