Why I am an atheist.
By Steven Wolfe
After much contemplation, I'm ready to get the messy stuff out of the way: I am an atheist, or a humanist, or a naturalist. Some mornings I’m a nihilist. Sometimes right before coitus, I am convinced that there is a God, and I am He. I guess what I mean is I’m not sure, and I'm pretty sure no one else is, either. Does that make me an agnostic? I don’t like that very much because I like to think I’m pretty smart, and that word literally means “without knowledge”. I don’t care for that at all, because I may be a lot of things, but I don’t think I am without knowledge. I like to think that I am an atheist as far as I know now. So far no one has given me adequate proof that any of the gods suggest better than a tiny probability of existing. Therefore, it makes no sense for me to proclaim any faith and give up the satisfying sense (possibly an illusion) that I have power over my own life.
The audience for which this is intended is certainly familiar with all sorts of epistemological arguments that exist and the wealth of debate surrounding them. There are great points on all sides, but, like I said, to me it comes down to proof. That’s because I am incredibly selfish. That’s it. That’s the thesis. The reason I am an atheist is because I put myself first in almost every situation possible, and it just doesn’t feel natural to me not to. Some might contend that this is unethical, but I disagree. I think it is natural, and I do not think that a solid personal philosophy of self-centeredness necessitates immorality. When religion is so irrational and prohibitive, and you’ve exercised your methodological doubt to its conclusion, this is a perspective that makes a lot of sense. The problems that selfishness seems to encounter is when it violates the harm principle, but I think that, historically speaking, organized religion has scarcely made the problem any better.
I am not a strident atheist. That being said, I am a sensitive and intense person who often finds himself thinking he’s funnier than he is and overstepping a line. But, I don’t have a problem with people having their own versions of spirituality. I think that it is very likely that some variety of transcendental mental exercise is vital to our ability as humans to thrive. Prayer may accomplish this for a portion of the population. For some, it’s yoga; for others it’s the New York Times crossword. And you can and probably should have as many as you like. Mine? Well, I have had “spiritual” experiences of all manners. I grew up Southern Baptist in Mississippi, so I’ve felt the Lord’s presence in the form of mass hypnotism and loud, bad music. I was convinced a couple of times that I was a part of something I could never quite describe, but I later realized it was just mild brainwashing – nothing that just a little bit of critical thinking couldn’t shampoo out.
As a poet and songwriter, I have felt a connection with something beyond my mind and my understanding of the physical world when inspired creatively. I meditate, but I’m not that good at it. A few times when meditating, I have felt an ineffable calm and peace come over me. I have felt the mystical powers of lysergic acid diethylamide as it deceived my senses, and I have had the illusory confidence of deity momentarily via the mescaline of the poisonous peyote cactus. The ritual of putting a black, vinyl disc on a turntable gives me a strong sense of harmony between mind and matter; man and machine. Sometimes, when I am afforded the opportunity watch a whole baseball game without interruption, I feel a bliss that must be similar to the ancient poet’s ideation of heaven. Back then it was probably a different pleasure, but a “spiritual” one, of no different nature than my own.
Religion prohibits so many behaviors that I find immensely fulfilling and others that I’ve never gotten to try. I have been a vegetarian for about a year now, and I’m about as good at it as I am at meditating. I didn’t become a vegetarian for moral or ethical reasons. There are plenty of those sort to be found, and it is a comfort to know that there is less ammonia and steroids in my diet as a result, but my motivations were strictly selfish. My girlfriend, who is gorgeous and fit and 10 years younger than me is a vegetarian, so that was my primary motivation; to make our dates more enjoyable for both of us. I’ve also lost close to ten pounds since meeting Ashley, I’ve stopped smoking as much, and I don’t drink nearly the amount of high fructose corn syrup-based sodas. The point is: I love bacon. I don’t eat it as much anymore (though I sneak a burger on the sly occasionally), but I sure as hell wouldn’t give it up for anything less than a real thing. Bacon is a real thing. Why would you give up bacon for an imaginary thing? I am not and have never flirted with being Jewish or Muslim, so I’ve never actually been prohibited from eating pork. The initial doubt that was planted in my mind as a young Christian was put there because of the irrational prohibition of sex and, even more immediately devastating to my pubescent self, masturbation. All popular religions seem to be diametrically opposed to sex. I won’t go into my own personal tastes. But, let’s just say, I like sex more than bacon, and Southern Baptists were NOT prohibited from eating bacon, if you know what I mean.
I am a libertarian. I don’t think that people need government or religious authority to decide what is best for their lives. I think plenty of people rely on religion and government to do that for them, but I imagine most of that is laziness and the rest are well-intentioned and intelligent people who have just been wronged so harshly that they never recovered their trust in their fellow man. There have certainly been injustices that do not warrant the forgiveness of those against whom those actions were taken, but, people often neglect, these injustices are perpetrated by theopolitical powers more often than not. I believe that there are moral and immoral things, and basically, for me it comes down to if you do something that harms somebody else, and you mean to harm them, you have committed an unethical act.
If you know you’re going to harm others by your action, and you regret it but don’t avoid it, then you are guilty of a violation as well. However, if you don’t mean any harm, but harm accidentally comes to others as a result of your actions, you are not guilty of more than ignorance which is worth being ashamed of, but ignorance is slightly less shameful than evil. Furthermore, I think, that since that is allowed, so, in my system of ethics, should it be allowed that if you intend someone harm, and no harm comes to them by complete accident, you, as well, are not guilty and can go on about your life considering that it never happened. I doubt, for some people that intend to harm other people, that this exemption will be appreciated as the opportunity to walk away from a bad situation, and for others, for whom some act was an impulsive and regrettable isolated event, it will give their guilty consciences little comfort. Also, most of the time when people want to hurt one another, they are regularly successful. Aggression is a well-refined human talent. Nevertheless, these are my godless ethics, and they make sense to me.
I’m not perfect by any means, but my selfishness does not lead me down a path of sloth or deceit or violence. I have come to conclusions based on an ever-expanding collection of references from experience and introspection, and my metaphysics have lead me to certain decisions regarding how I should live my life. This ethical foundation is perpetually under construction, but, to me, the two main principles I try to live by and find most important in maintaining my happiness are 1)moderation and 2)balance. These are almost certainly subjective projections of my own perspective. That’s why there’s not a principle of certainty or universality in there. I am not certain that my way to live is the right way to live. I do not think there is a universal technique for being a human that would work to maximize everyone’s happiness and minimize suffering. I feel like there is a limit anything we can experience; even happiness. A balanced and moderate life implies that it is a life with a little of everything spread across a palate that I can always have the freedom to combine. Different experiences resulting in greater knowledge and understanding and applied to life. Be a little generous – be a little greedy, a little open-minded – a little stubborn, a little brave – a little chickenshit, and so on.
My selfishness also serves moral purpose by inspiring me to put forth my best effort at making the people around me happy. I try to be generous with my friends; evolutionarily, my "clan" as it were. This obviously serves a selfish purpose for me, but it requires me to concern myself with the affections of my close friends and family. Their happiness, perhaps effected by my actions, can have a positive impact on a complete stranger who I would have never been concerned with. The Golden Rule can be and should be applied without any authority. I think it is the most natural and evolutionary moral truth, evidenced by the "mirror neurons" in our brain if you're an empiricist, and by clear and distinct ideas if you're a rationalist. Either way, you don't need a god.
I guess it comes down to proportion a lot with ethical concerns for me, as well. It is true, like we’re told growing up, that a single person can make a huge difference. There are so many examples of revolutionaries throughout our long history of societies. But, actually most people; most individuals in the world, don’t make a huge difference in the course of reality. There are not dozens of Martin Luther Kings and Ghandhis and Jesuses (Jesi?) born everyday, but there ARE thousands and thousands and millions and millions of babies born all the time. So, no one individual is probably going to change the world. That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. On the contrary, it means there is more responsibility on each individual to do a little bit. If I can do a just little bit of good, being a just a little part of this world, I can sleep easy. Religion relies on complacence while waiting on either a hero or the afterlife to justify indifference towards bullshit in this life. Not only do I find that logically flawed based on the probability of a heaven or a Hercules, I think it is dangerous. That’s why, a little bit of generosity, thoughtfulness, compassion, or other act of selflessness (whenever I can find the time) combined with not being a jackass most of the remaining time makes more sense to me than faith in a deity or an afterlife.
Again, I’m not saying that this is the right way for everyone to live, but, it works for my life. If religion works for others, that’s fine. I might think the metaphysical conclusions are ill-reasoned, but that doesn’t make religious people inherently wrong about matters of ethics. I have a problem justifying my pluralism about religion, though, because it is hard to find morality genuine when it is based on bad metaphysics and cheap bribery. At best, it seems, religion is unnecessary. But, I think that, what I have resigned myself to for now, is religion and its various followers can be observed on a spectrum. Like lawyers and cops and beers – some are better than others. I wouldn’t use the word “true” when describing any single one of them, though. That’s why I call myself an atheist when asked such an awkward question, but I’ll usually respond to Steven as well.
I have enjoyed the class, and I will try to keep in touch on the blog after the semester. Good luck, everyone.