I was raised Catholic, and as a kid with an overactive imagination and a tendency toward neurotic behavior, I took it quite seriously for some time. I remember praying almost compulsively, afraid that if I didn’t list someone in my prayer, I would be responsible for their death.
I excused religion from my life as a teenager for various reasons. I found out my best friend was gay, which at the time was at odds with Catholicism (maybe in the future it won’t be). This came after meeting an evangelical circle who claimed they could become “drunk in the holy spirit,” finding themselves compelled to speak in tongues publicly. I was forced to either pretend I could do this too, or just admit that God didn’t talk to me (or through me) at all. As a poor actress, I found the latter much easier. I also, as do most teenagers, became interested in reading about philosophy and science. Do this enough, and you will find yourself having a hard time arguing that Christianity is more correct than say, any other religion.
To become an atheist or an agnostic? That is your next question. Many people find pronouncing themselves agnostic more logical. We all don’t know, really! Claiming a stance of not knowing is about as honest as you can get. Louis C.K. explained this well on SNL:
“I’m not religious. I don’t know if there’s a God. That’s all I can say, honestly, is ‘I don’t know.’ Some people think that they know that there isn’t. That’s a weird thing to think you can know. “Yeah, there’s no God.” Are you sure? ‘Yeah, no, there’s no God.’ How do you know? ‘Cause I didn’t see Him.’ There’s a vast universe! You can see for about 100 yards — when there’s not a building in the way. How could you possibly… Did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom? Where did you look so far? ‘No, I didn’t see Him yet.’ I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet; it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’m just waiting until it comes on cable.”
But to some of us, agnosticism just feels a bit close to being diplomatic for the sake of being diplomatic. “Western religion is an incredibly destructive and sexist force, but hey, what do I know? Maybe it’s all true!” I’ll acknowledge that there may be a something-or-other (higher power, order, point, something like that) to the universe, but is it a male father figure who is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, a fan of female submission and keeping tabs on your every bad move? Gonna go with no. Please believe that if you want, but my I am personally less neurotic without that worldview.
Does not believing in God make you a bad person? As a kid (ok, even as a teenager) I genuinely believed this. What makes someone compelled to act morally if they don’t think the guy upstairs is watching and judging them? Turns out just the ability to think for ourselves is enough of a moral compass (you might say an even better one). Developing empathy by reading about or talking to people who may be unlike you does a wonderful job of teaching you not to treat them like shit.
Yet despite knowing this for themselves, a lot of atheists feel compelled to prove to the world that atheists aren’t evil satanists who secretly don’t recycle and enjoy abusing little puppies in the privacy of their own homes. This New York Times opinion piece urges atheists to develop their own “theology” and moral philosophy in order to be able to elect an atheist leader in government. Even more eerily reminiscent of religion, a recent contest set out to declare the 10 Commandments of Atheism.
I have always found the idea of “moral philosophy” a troubling concept. Philosophy means “love of wisdom” and as a discipline seeks to discover the truth about life. Moral principles are less concerned with facing the truth and are more concerned with controlling and policing human behavior.
So why do so many atheists feel compelled to create rules around atheism? Beyond that, they want to create rituals, like public gatherings that, in the NYT article, feel a lot like church. Maybe some atheists appreciate and miss the community aspect of religion. Maybe some of them want to use atheism as a force for good. Those are nice ideas, but I would hate for atheism to become organized in any way similar to an organized religion.
To me, atheism is a refuge for people who don’t enjoy groupthink, anyone who felt odd singing camp songs or reciting the pledge of allegiance every day in school. Why do we want to turn atheists into some kind of unified group that polices itself and cares about its image or reputation to the outside world?
Don’t get me wrong. I think the “10 Commandments of Atheism” I linked to earlier are all really smart, open-minded and just plain nice ideas. But my atheism will politely sit out any attempts to prove that atheists are great people. To my skeptical mind, any organization touting how moral and good it is usually becomes ridden with hypocrisy. I will continue to leave the rules out of my own version of atheism and let it stay a non-organized non-religion. That’s what I like about it.