Atheist by default


Over on Sean Hannity’s blog there’s a thread entitled “Anybody else here a reluctant atheist?” Someone calling himself Poptart posted the following, which happens to explain my own thinking rather well:

I didn’t choose to be an atheist, because I am without belief by default. I don’t “choose” my beliefs. My beliefs evolve from a combination of experiences and/or evidence which convince me that something is logical or reasonable to believe in. Just because your (theists’) claims have not convinced me to leave this default state does not mean I have made any kind of “choice” to be what I have always been. I would have to have convincing evidence for me to leave the state of unbelief.

… I can’t make myself actually believe in god. My beliefs are arrived at based on something convincing me of its truth. I cannot just choose to believe out of the blue. Nothing has convinced me yet of god’s existence, so I do not currently believe. It doesn’t matter if I “want” to believe in god …, because my beliefs aren’t arrived at based on what I “want” to believe in. Heck, there are some things that I believe in that I would rather not believe, but have no choice based on the overwhelming evidence.

Even if someone were to offer me 10 million dollars to believe that I was a porcupine, for example, I couldn’t make myself actually believe. Would I want to believe it? Heck yeah! Could I “try” to believe? Yes! Could I pretend to believe it? Sure! But would I actually believe it? No. Like I said before, wanting to believe something does not change the fact that I do not actually believe it.

Of course it would be nice to believe. It would be convenient and, I assume, comforting. It would make me part of the majority instead of part of some nebulous minority that seems so scorned and hated by so many people that I rarely even mention the subject. After all, what’s there to discuss? I don’t happen to believe what most people believe, but why should that concern them? It has always seemed to me most uncharitable and un-Christian to revile someone for not believing something, for being unable to believe; I would think pity or sympathy more in order.

I suspect part of the revulsion and hate comes from some fear that “godless atheists” are organizing to take over their churches or their country or something (“organized atheists” is a great oxymoron). In any case, I’m not part of any organized group and don’t want to be. Why should others care what I believe or don’t believe, as long as I don’t bother them?

Some of their concern may stem from the notion that somehow atheists cannot be moral, ethical, good people if they don’t believe in a god. Why would they think that? I have free will and I choose to try to be a good person because that’s who I am; that’s how I was raised. Life is easier and more pleasant if I play by the rules, am kind and honest, and try to get along with others. That’s how human society evolved, actually. Cooperation helped ensure everyone’s survival and well-being.

I don’t want people preaching to me or trying to “save” me, and I’m certainly not out to convert anyone else to my way of thinking. It does puzzle me though, that so many people can’t seem to grasp the concept of someone not believing in something. They should ask themselves how easily they could choose not  to believe in God. (Or, perhaps, how easily they could convince themselves they are porcupines.)

It’s not like I didn’t try. I was raised Presbyterian and was taken to church almost every Sunday. The church had 18 years or so to make its case with me, and failed. I went off to college still trying to believe, still trying to find the “right” church where something would finally “click” and suddenly I’d be a believer. But it never happened, and eventually I stopped going to church. It seemed the height of hypocrisy to go when I didn’t believe, to parrot a bunch of responsive readings (don’t think, just read), or to recite prayers to something or someone I didn’t believe existed.

When my dad died, I’d have given anything to be a believer, to have that comfort, that solace, that conviction that I’d see him again. I struggled to find some consolation in memories and in the things he’d done that will remain long after I’m gone. And I found some measure of peace in knowing that I am very much who I am today because of him, and that in that way he will always be with me. And while there may or may not be a heaven, there is most definitely an incredible universe all around us. We all began as “star stuff,” Carl Sagan once said, and we’ll all eventually return to that state.

Star stuff in lieu of heaven? I can live with that.


27 thoughts on “Atheist by default

  1. Me too. It was as though you were writing for me, Pied, and you did it beautifully. For the Campbell’s Soup condensed version, I favor a statement made in a comment to me by a blogging friend, H. L. Gaskins:

    “It’s better to believe in what you know than to know what you believe in.”

  2. Between you and Poptart, we have something we can trade with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when they come around with their latest issue of the “Watchtower.” Sometime back in the mid-ninety’s I wrote an article trying to explain why I didn’t need a church membership to be a good person. For what it’s worth.

    1. While I tend to think most religions are simply a way for the few to coerce the many, that’s probably not going to fly with proselytizers of any flavor. Yours it a good example of a situation where I just don’t engage. (I don’t even talk to door-to-door people; I just shoo them away.) However, it might be interesting to see them try to knock down the porcupine …

  3. I love this post, Piedtype. I’m of your mind: everyone has their own perspective, and they need to be true to that. Persuading or recruiting people to another way of thinking shows such a lack of courtesy, like inability to respect personal space. It’s taken me half a lifetime to shake off the ideas others thought they were doing me a favour implanting. I love your star dust too.

    1. Unfortunately the world is full of discourteous people. Or at least, people who think their ideas are the only ones worthy of respect. More than one war has started over that lack of respect for others.

  4. “It has always seemed to me most uncharitable and un-Christian to revile someone for not believing something, for being unable to believe; I would think pity or sympathy more in order.”

    You are so correct!!! It is unloving to revile anyone and grieving is more in order! Your post AND Pop Tart’s is well written and I can understand completely. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Your line about trying to save people really resonated with me. I wrote a post recently about the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell. It was a line parroted at me by my physio to help me remember to put the good leg first going upstairs, and the bad leg (broken ankle) first going down. In fact, as you would expect, the bad leg goes first upstairs to heaven equally as well as the good leg. But the whole point in reciting that to you, is that out of the woodwork popped some religious person (I hadn’t tagged it religion) telling me that Jesus would save me, and quoting, John or Corinthians or some such.

    I politely replied saying I didn’t want Jesus to save me, so he could get on with saving all the ones who believed in him. So some such similar. I’d visions of me new pal coming back to convert me, but it seems I’m not worth the effort. C’est la vie.

    1. Too many people, being religious themselves, just can’t seem to help imposing it in some way on others. Seemingly it never crosses their minds that someone might not share their faith. Of course, I don’t mind those who do it inadvertently nearly as much as those who try to make their religion the law of the land.

  6. I’ve always found it interesting reading when, as we occasionally hear in the news, some group or other threatens another group to convert or die.

    Do they really believe that works? That someone faced with getting decapitated would suddenly sprout genuine belief in some god or other?

    I think an atheist might go along, not being bound by a dogma that says “die rather than renounce your faith”.

    I for instance, would likely go along with it, maybe even raise to prominence in whatever faith I’m forced to join . . . but all the while I’d be plotting to kill the bastards. Not because of competing faith, or loyalty to ‘atheism’, but because they threatened to kill me, and in doing that they showed themselves to be less worthy of life than most politicians, lawyers, and malaria-carrying mosquitos.

    1. I agree. You can’t compel belief in someone else. It’s that simple. You might force someone to act like they believe or pretend they believe, but there’s no way to make them actually believe. And yet, some keep trying. Go figure.

  7. With all that said you obviously believe that Jesus Christ never existed or was a raving lunatic or a lair or insane…and that is pretty sad for a learned scholar such as your self.

    1. Don’t put words in my mouth John, nor make unwarranted assumptions about me, nor denigrate what I think. I wouldn’t do that to you. I think Jesus probably existed and was probably a pretty normal guy. But I do not believe he was the son of an imaginary man in the sky and I do not believe his resurrection was possible.

  8. You can not be an atheist by default. You were born with a clean slate for memory purposes. You then formed an opinion through education in one form or another. You then declared yourself an atheist and set you default line there by choice. You had choices!

    1. Of course one can be an atheist by default. Everyone is born an atheist because at the moment you are born you have no beliefs. No religion, no anything, is the default position. It’s the clean slate you mention. You then begin to learn. You may remain an atheist, not accepting any religious beliefs, or you may come to believe some or all of the religious tenets you are taught. Sure I had a choice; I chose not to believe the religious stories I was told. I was never convinced. I remained as I was born, without religious beliefs, an atheist.

      I did not, as you seem to think, accept religion at first and then later decide to reject it. I never accepted it in the first place. Atheism is not a religion. It is the absence of religious belief. It is everyone’s default position because it’s the way everyone is born.

      One of the simpler explanations I’ve seen is that you and I were told the same story. You believed it. I did not.

      1. Just found your blog and this post. Very well said and expresses exactly what I have always felt. All of my family and most of my friends feel as I do. There are more people who feel this way than you might think. Many are reluctant to express it because of “thinking” like John. When some religious people try to force their beliefs on you through intimidation and judgementalism, it’s because at root, they have doubts too but can’t admit them to themselves ever …something they would be incapable of dealing with.

        1. Thank you. I’ve no idea how many people there are like me because people like me do nothing to call attention to themselves. We don’t picket, we don’t proselytize, we don’t go to church, we don’t do anything of a religious (or anti-religious) nature, and we rarely go around talking about our disbelief for precisely the reasons you mention. We see no need to because we don’t care about those things. If someone else does, that’s fine. To each his own. Live and let live. Mutual respect. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?

... and that's my two cents