The scarlet letter

I’m going to admit something about myself that may… disturb some of you.   Some of you may be appalled by it; some of you may never forgive me for it; some of you may find it incomprehensible. And, of course, some of you will not be surprised in the least.

I’m a member of the most distrusted and despised minority group in modern America.

It’s the group about which then-Vice-President George (Dubya’s Dad) Bush declared “I don’t think [they] should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.”1 More recently, a 2006 poll conducted by the University of Minnesota2 (and more or less backed up by the Pew Research Center) ranked them as the Number 1 group when it comes to “agreeing not at all with my vision of American society” — at 39.6%, compared to the next worse offenders (Muslims) at 26.3%.   The same poll also shows that almost 1 out of every 2 Americans would disapprove of letting their kid marry anyone belonging to this group (47.6%), while the odds drop to about 1 out of 3 if the proposed spouse-to-be is a Muslim (33.5%), and 1 out of 4 if black (27.2%).

It’s time for me to come out of the closet.

No, not that closet.

I’m not gay, although I feel compelled to point out in Seinfeldian fashion: “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”   There’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, on the simple and utterly obvious fact that there’s nothing wrong with love… you fall into it with whoever you fall into it with.   Nevertheless, I am not gay.   One need only observe my complete and utter lack of fashion sense (Hawaiian T-shirts and Doc Martens everyday?   Really?) and unhealthy fascination with Karen Gillan to determine this.

No, I bear the scarlet letter.

No, not that scarlet letter.

I’m not an adulterer.   The Queen B could do far better than me, and I am ever grateful to her for being my best friend and my wife.   Plus, I’d hate to have to deal with that greasy host guy on Cheaters.. blech.   (Love you honey, by the way!)

No, I’m worse than that, too.

I’m an atheist.

(I guess it was that scarlet letter after all.)

I know, I know.   The mere mention of the A word has probably cut my loyal readership in half.   (Thanks to the three of you that still remain.)   The following comic (from Pharygula) pretty much sums up the general reaction to the word:

What is scary about that particular word?

Believe it or not, being an “atheist” does not automatically make one some amoral, nihilistic, Satan-worshiping, God-hating, baby-eating liberal.   Well, maybe the “liberal” bit, but all the other claims our just plain false.   I believe in morality, and I pretty sure have a fairly accurate moral compass, and I’m damn sure its better adjusted than, say, the ones used by the upper echelon of the Catholic Church.   I definitely am not some grim nihilist, but instead enjoy   a joie de vivre that emphasizes the profound   beauty of nature and knowledge and friends and family.   I obviously don’t worship Satan, on the grounds that I don’t believe Satan exists.   Similarly, I don’t hate your God for precisely the same reason.   And finally, I don’t eat babies, because they’re fatty and a bit hard to chew.

And yet the very word “atheist” conjures up all those ghastly associations and more, although I’m not exactly sure why.   Sure, there are less horrifying synonyms out there — nontheist or nonbeliever or agnostic (which I once heard humorously defined as “atheist without guts”) — but even they still bear the stigma of atheism.   The requisite insidious connotations are particularly paradoxical when one considers that the word “atheist” (or its more palatable synonyms) shouldn’t even exist. There isn’t a word for people who aren’t plumbers, or people who don’t play the lottery, or people who who don’t believe in astrology, or ghosts, or goblins, or unicorns, or whatever else. Why is there a word for people who don’t believe in deities?

I mean, you yourself don’t believe in most of deities that other cultures have (and perhaps still do) embraced.   You believe not in Adamas (the Gnostic creator god) nor Baal (the Semetic fertility god) nor Cakresvari (the Jain learning god) nor Devaki (the Hindu mother goddess) nor Enki (the Mesopotamian creator god) nor Faraguvol (the Haitan creator god) nor Ganaskidi (the Navajo harvest god) nor Hao (the Ethiopian creator god) nor Ilmatar (the Finnish creator god) nor Jupiter (the Roman high god) nor Kuan Ti (the Taoist war god) nor Loki (the Norse mischeif god) nor Mahamantranusarini (the Buddhist guardian god) nor Nuandu (the Celtic war god) nor … nor Xochiquetzal-Ichpuchtli (the Aztec fertility goddess) nor Yum Cimil (the Mayan death god) nor Zues (the Greek high god).   Some you may not know (like the Buddhist physician god Survarnabhadravimalaratnaprabhasa); others you discount as myth and stories (like the Norse god and frequent Avengers team-mate Thor), but in any event your lack of belief in them is pretty much par for the course.   As Richard Dawkins said, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

I think, however, the problem is that most folks equate a-theist with anti-religious and, more particularly, anti-everything-I-believe-in.   Perhaps it is precisely because most folks have been brought up their whole life to believe in some form of Magical Sky-Man that they are simply unable to even conceive of any other worldview.   I sympathize with this idea: being an atheist means you reject the God Hypothesis, but that in turn means you are likely to reject many of its corollaries, such as The Afterlife, The Soul, The Divine Purpose of Life, Divinely Arbitrary Moral Law, and, of course, the accompanying Instruction Manual, or “Holy Text.”   If you toss out those, what do you have left to believe in?

Well, lots, actually. “A lack of belief in deities,” the dictionary definition of atheism, is usually a starting point to other worldviews.   For example, by ceasing to worry about the whims of an inscrutable Creator and the imagined pains of eternal punishment, atheists can devote their energy to the concerns of flesh-and-blood human beings right here, right now, a worldview loosely called humanism.   Being free of ancient dogma and superstition means that atheists are not prisoners of divine thoughtcrime, and instead are free to question and ponder anything without authoritarian prohibition, a worldview called freethought.   Without the supernatural to explain away the universe by magic, atheists typically embrace rationalism and skepticism; moreover, they can find joy and contentment in reason and science.   I don’t mean to suggest that all nonbelievers share some common Official AtheistTM vision of the universe. Rather, the point I wish to make is that the universe still makes perfect sense and is still every bit as wondrous and full of meaning even without the default three-word-answer of “God did it.”

Said differently, unshackling my mind from years of ingrained dogma has given me a profoundly different and wonderfully invigorating understanding of the universe around us.   To paraphrase Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Scarlet Letter, I had not known the weight until I felt the freedom.

Update

This post has changed a bit since its original publication.

It is an unfortunate fact that the stain of atheism does not taint just the person who professes it, but it bleeds over to their friends and loved ones.   If you have questions about my worldview, I will be happy to answer them as best I can; if you wish to debate a point of contention, I shall endeavor to be a worthy opponent; and if all you can muster is a tsunami of condemnation, I am prepared to weather the storm.   But not my family, not my friends, not my colleagues.   Me.

I do not wish for anyone to be the collateral damage of the ill-will my personal non-belief invites.


1 Madylin O’Hare’s history of the remark

2 Read the paper by Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann

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