Over at the blog Twisted Physics, Jennifer Ouellette relates her views on an encounter during The Amazing Meeting 7, which prompted me to put out my own viewpoint, just as much for the sake of showing what “the other side” thinks.
In that post, she tells of being approached by an atheist who felt distinctly disadvantaged when speaking with someone who believes in an afterlife, because the atheist outlook seems so bleak by comparison. I blinked at this point, and repeated, “Bleak?”
It might be necessary to remind anyone out there that atheism, like every other standpoint humans possess, is not subject to particular rules and does not denote a specific way of looking at things. In other words, there are happy atheists and depressed ones, just like everyone else. Much as some might not like to admit or recognize this, atheists are human too.
For my sake, however, I found the idea of this being “bleak” to be almost amusing. A significant amount of my mental turmoil bled away over the period of years where I solidified my standpoint as “atheist,” and now I find that I’m more clear-headed and satisfied with myself and my world than ever before.
Some of this might be because of my background. I was raised, loosely, catholic (yes, in the wake of the fantastic transgressions of the catholic church and its behavior towards child abuse, I admitted that in print – so much for my political aspirations). During my adolescence, at the urging of a friend, I attended several outings and services at his baptist church. This church was one of the classic mind farms, a brainwashing facility that liked to start young, and they didn’t seem to have any moral qualms about lying to children if it “brought them into the fold.” I remember distinctly wondering, after a sermon where many esoteric details about a particular biblical passage were related to us by the indoctrinator, where he got his information from. I was reading the same bible he was – did he have a teachers’ edition?
Afterwards, it didn’t take long to recognize that this was the classic religious technique of, “making shit up,” and I’ve seen it every month of my life since. But it did start me paying closer attention to religious scripture itself, rather than those who chose to do their own interpretative dance of it, and I could see that religion had this pretty arbitrary way of viewing things. With, of course, the ultimate punishment for not accepting all of it, a one-way ticket to eternal damnation, no layovers or transfers. I’m not sure you can get much bleaker than that.
Moreover, I couldn’t help but notice some of the definitions of proper behavior seemed a bit counter-intuitive. Homosexuality is a sin? Wearing clothes of two different types? Subjugating women is not only okay, it’s encouraged? Bashing baby heads against rocks is fine as long as they’re enemy babies? (well, okay, I have to agree with this one, because you know damn well, born from a Muslim womb, and they ain’t no hope for you nevermore. Yes, that’s sarcasm). I could go on. And on, and on, and on. Because the amount of absolutely godawful stupid (yes, that was intentional too) things to be found in scripture outweighs the useful moral lessons by about five to one.
It didn’t take too long for me to realize, I didn’t want to hang with people who actually believed that’s a useful guide to their lives. But further, it occurred to me that I was not too shabby about figuring out my own moral guidance. I know a lot of religious people out there can use that last sentence as a jumping point for something about atheist ego and delusions and such, but let me give you an example. How often should you beat your child with a stick? What would be your reaction should you see someone doing this? Our society considers this child abuse now, and good on us – it is! No thanks to the bible, that recommends it. Can you read the passages of Leviticus where the wearing of clothes of two different types is forbidden, and ignore it? Most people do, and can reasonably call it nonsense. You see, we have these things called, “brains,” and they typically work pretty well. Making good choices is simply a matter of thinking about real-world consequences, and it really isn’t hard.
I could go into much greater detail, too, but let’s shorten this down a bit. Scripture reads like contemporary fiction of the time, with vast inconsistencies and poor editing. The concept of eternal reward or punishment is ludicrous – nice for threatening people who don’t think about it, but phenomenally pointless in practice. Many, many people that I’ve seen who want to make it clear that they’re religious and morally incorruptible have been some of the biggest and most self-centered assholes I’ve ever seen (if you miss this, just watch the news for three days). It ain’t working, and it ain’t reassuring to anymore who really examines it.
When I got rid of all that baggage, here’s what happened: I started seeing people as people – driven by internal conflicts from minds that evolved for survival. I stopped dealing with impossible absolutes and started seeing the grey areas that we should actually be dealing with. I realized that the natural world provided hundreds of time as many useful answers as scripture (which raised more than it ever answered). Moreover, it was fascinating, and not subject to whims or capriciousness.
Now, I realize that the original post has more to do with eternity and insignificance, and I’m not talking about that. Or am I? We are, of course, afraid of dying, and we know it’s permanent (well, most of us do). We don’t like facing the idea of an end. Good – that’s a survival trait. Without it, you tend not to care what happens, you know? But using this trait, this drive to survive, to create an afterlife to make us happy is simply denial. And creating stupid rules to coerce others into behaving the way you want them to is asinine – they have brains too. If you can’t convince them with reason, you aren’t sure enough of it yourself.
Bleak? Stop living for the time after you die, and live for now. Be nice to people because it works better for us as a society, and feels good besides (another survival trait, by the way). If you’re worried about living forever, the only way you’re gonna do it is to leave a legacy. Create something, write something, touch a life – even raising your kids with the ability to choose decent values works fantastic in that regard. Feel free to tell me that’s what scriptural morals are trying to establish – I’ll simply tell you the scripture came second. We had it long before books about impossible worldwide floods and flat earths.
If you spend your time worrying about conforming to the ignorance of some shepherds from several thousand years ago, I feel bad for you. You’re missing out on a cool, fascinating world, and you’re letting your brain go to waste.