23 April 2012

So, you're an atheist. Now what?

Some time ago I was having a discussion with a Christian friend of mine, and he mentioned (as he often does) the proliferation of various Christian charities, and that it is (supposedly) rooted in a sense of religious duty. Deriding atheism, he said, "So, you're an atheist. Now what?" I didn't have the chance to respond as I would have liked in that conversation (it was about a completely unrelated subject), but I've had this retort pent up in me ever since, and I want to set it free.

Essentially, he was knocking atheism for its nothingness. While Christianity, he would argue, calls people to be charitable and kind and whatever, atheism is just one big vacuum. And it's true! Atheism has no creed, no philosophy, no dogma, no doctrine, no decrees. It just means you don't believe in gods. But for someone who's been swimming in Jesus-love their entire life, atheism can probably seem pretty dark, because it can seem like you're not just rejecting God, but all of the things that believers associate – no matter how wrongly – with God. And y'know, truthfully it's not such a bad question at all. So here's the answer:

You have to think for yourself.

Crazy, I know. But instead of being told what is true and right, you have to figure it out. You actually have to think of good, rational reasons to be kind and charitable instead of... well, instead of being a dick. Fortunately, it turns out that there are lots of good reasons to be a kind, charitable, loving person. That's right – no more doing things because God commands it, which really isn't moral at all anyway. Doing something because you're commanded means you're doing it out of fear of punishment or the desire for reward. That's why, as Penn Jillette has noted, atheists are more moral than believers. Because when we are kind and charitable, we're doing it because it's the right thing to do. Because we recognize that we're all in the same boat in this life, and that we're all depending on each other – and that we'd like to live in a world where if we or our loved ones were the ones in need, others would reach out to help. What better way to create that world than to lead by example?

Psshhh... that's just a snack
Besides, the whole "religion = love" canard smacks of so much cherry picking, it's absurd. Let's not forget that while Christianity is spread with peace and love these days, for the bulk of its history it was spread through tyranny, conquest and coercion. And frankly, I flatly reject the notion that most people who do take part in various missions or religious charities are really doing it out of a sense of religious duty. I'm willing to wager that most people are doing it for the same reason non-religious people do that sort of thing: because it feels good to make a positive difference in other people's lives. It makes us feel valuable, like we are positive contributors to the cooperative social hierarchy of which we are all a small part.

Jesus wasn't the first to spout the Golden Rule, and the reason cultures the world over have valued it (regardless of whether they have canonized it) is because it's pragmatic. Whenever you have pragmatic reasons to do good, it removes the need for religion entirely. And if there aren't pragmatic reasons to do good, then religious commandments are totally arbitrary anyway. Either way, religion adds nothing to the equation.

That's why lots of religious people feel threatened by the new atheist movement, and by the decline of religion in general. Because we're rejecting religious dogma, but we're not jumping off bridges, going on crime sprees, or wasting away in despair. We're happy, fulfilled people living perfectly normal lives. Those countries that are the most atheistic, like Sweden and Denmark? Those are some of the most peaceful, happy countries on Earth. I'm not saying rejecting religion is a guarantee of happiness; happiness can be a complex thing. But we "nons" the world over are living proof that religion is antiquated and unnecessary. We can think for ourselves, thankyouverymuch, and we're better for it.

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