We’ve had this conversation quite a bit, have we not? Just what do we mean when we say “I am an atheist?” There are numerous connotations that jump into people’s minds: we are humanists, skeptics, maybe cynics, some of us liberal, some of us libertarian. The one thing we all have in common, the unifying facet, the main tenet of being an atheist: an atheist says, “I don’t believe in god.”
I have a small Monkeysphere of atheist friends who send me private messages every now and then about their experiences being an atheist out in the wild heavenly yonder. Many of them have a central theme of being hated simply because they were acknowledging their lack of beliefs. This latest message from my good friend Michael is a pure, glistening, shameless, and infuriating example of just that.
Hi there. Thanks to all of you who took the time to read and comment on my previous post. Sharing our stories, no matter how bitter or miserable, no matter how positively or negatively they paint our friends or families or the ones we have lost, does better to honor their memories than any tepid religious service ever could.
Back to what’s going on in this secular world – have you guys and gals heard about Ryan Bell? The Californian ordained minister, Christian teacher, and former pastor “trying” atheism for a year?
Of course you have, but just in case: a former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor, Bell found he couldn’t teach some of the church’s more hard-edged doctrines sincerely. Bell had, until the start of the year, been adrift, not really attending church, praying, or studying the Bible. And at the start of the new year, Bell had begun living as an atheist. In his own words, for one year,
I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances.
He then had some trouble finding work – makes sense if your job for the previous … lifetime had, as a line item in its classified ad, “Belief in the Judeo-Christian God a plus!” Then he got a bunch of surprise money from some atheists. Since then things have died down, but he’s still plugging away at trying on atheism like it’s a pair of fashionable-yet-stubbornly-ill-fitting pants.
Ever since hearing about this story, and its subsequent fallout, I’ve struggled to put into words just how I feel about it (obviously – it’s been just about four months and this article is just now being written?) At face value, I’m more than a little miffed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I and other nonbelievers should be insulted, but it’s easy to be cynical when I hear about a pastor “trying atheism.” If atheism were simply “not going to church,” or “not reading the Bible,” or “not living like Christ,” then guess what – 95% of all Christians are functionally atheist. I mean, they already mostly are, to all other deities, but that right there proves my point – going through the motions, or, more accurately, NOT going through them, isn’t atheism. I would say that for most nonbelievers, the journey is a difficult and often times painful one, unless you happen to be raised in a non-religious household. Breaking free from indoctrination is ROUGH, and can have lifelong consequences. When I see Bell write that he’s going to “read the atheist ‘sacred texts,'” or “speak with as many atheists as possible,” I respond that A) shouldn’t leaders of faith be doing that ALREADY, ready to put their One True Word up against some misguided atheists, especially if our eternal souls hang in the balance? and B) none of these actions are atheism – none of them tell me that your belief, your core, formerly-unwavering faith in a supernatural creator, is gone. To suggest otherwise for a year-long experiment would be ludicrous – what, will his faith be reactivated on December 31st?
I’ve argued quite a few times in this blogspace that atheism goes hand-in-hand with a lot of other ideologies, or that it can lead to what I feel are very similar philosophies. But at its base, atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. The end. Secularism, humanism, all those goodies come later, and it’s unclear as to whether or not Ryan Bell will reach that part on his journey, because I can’t help but think that, underneath the blog posts and the discussions and the not-doing-this-anymore and not-doing-that-anymore, there will be a remnant of faith. It takes time to change what was a life-long, firmly held truism about the world and the nature of life itself – to turn on a dime betrays that the turn may be surface level only. Deep down, Bell most likely still believes in a God that is looking out for him and hearing his prayers, even if he’s not actively sending any for the next 12 months. Hell, I frequently slip into frustrated requests to God to fix things when shit hits the fan, and I consider myself an antitheist – how likely is Bell to do the same?
But like I said, it’s easy to be cynical. Really easy. Like, I-just-did-so-for-the-last-several-paragraphs easy. Perhaps this choice of Bell’s should be viewed with admiration.
Doubt is often painted as a less-than-desirable trait. The heroes in action movies don’t deliberate, don’t postulate and consider their actions and their motivations, they just go. Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer. A computer specifically built for targeting.
But you and I know full well that doubt is an incredibly admirable trait – it shows intelligence, skepticism, and self-preservation. And allowing doubt into your mind, allowing it to stand up to our most firmly-held ideas and beliefs, and allowing those thoughts to go toe-to-toe with doubt is the mark of a well-rounded, questioning intellect. While Bell’s experiment may not be as deep-diving or hard-hitting as any real atheist might like, shouldn’t he be just a little bit celebrated for even entertaining the idea? By even opening himself, a pastor of over 20 years, to the notion of “trying on” atheism for a calendar year, isn’t he subjecting his most firmly-held tenets to self-reflection, introspection, and doubt?
By going through this publicly (you can follow his journey on his blog, Year Without God), he’s also opening himself to the scrutiny of picky atheists like myself and the worrying cries of his religious brethren and sistren. Unless, as I mentioned above, you happen to have been raised in a predominantly religion-free household or environment, you, like I, probably have family or friends frequently telling you that they’re praying for you to change your mind, to re-accept Jesus into your heart or whatever the “act” would be to get them off your case. At least we have the strength of our convictions and the tenacity of our pursuit of evidence to write these pleas off. Imagine that you had announced to your colleagues or family that you were, instead of “an atheist,” “trying atheism for a year.” Bell claims he’s already had people openly worry about his eternal soul, I guess in case he passes away before the big ball drops at the end of the year. Living ritual free may open Bell up to, if not a deep personal awakening into the true nature of the universe, exactly what public life is like for those who have embraced a life without a controlling deity at the helm. Perhaps his exploration of a world free of prayer and tithes and reverence to a mystic creator will open his eyes to what life really is like for atheists – what it’s like to be the most despised minority in the country, to be woefully underrepresented in the political sphere, to be portrayed so odiously by Hercules. The less-than-desirable practices of his own particular denomination are what led him to this journey in the first place – Bell could very well become a poster boy for recognizing the repellant behavior of faith institutions, leading massive walk-outs nationwide! Gotta start somewhere, right?
So, it seems that after months of hemming and hawing, I’m on the bloody fence about the whole thing. Sure, like a die-hard Bowie fan, I know there’s more to being a member than slapping on some androgynous makeup and claiming a love of Changesone. But I also want to embrace the slightest act to try. What do you folks think? Is Ryan Bell to be commended for opening up his mind, not a differing religion, but the very antithesis of his entire life’s work? Or should he be chided and derided for assuming atheism is something one can test drive? I’d love to hear your thoughts as always!
Kyle Van Son
I typically pride myself in my ability to have effective, non-confrontational religious debates online.
This last example, however, left me a bit disappointed in myself. How would you have responded to this all-too-common and all-too-disappointing argument in favor of the power of prayer?
[Name removed]Here’s an example in my life. A few years ago I needed a “new” car. I had very specific criteria. It needed to be safe, fuel efficient, low mileage and under $6000. I also had some things I wanted it to have: cruise control and a manual transmission (not often found together), a CD player, manual locks and windows, not be red and have a sun roof. I realized it was highly unlikely that I was going to get everything or almost everything I was looking for.
After much prayer and “challenging” God, I went out looking. After making several stops, a sales exec at a dealership said “I think I have something.” He pulled up a blue Ford ZX2 with 32,600 miles on it – just back on lease return. The car met all my needs, had all my “wants” except the sun roof and was the right price. It was also a few days from being sent to auction because it had been on the lot a while.
We put a deposit down so they would hold the vehicle while I continued to look. There was nothing like it in the whole city and I even had other dealers tell me that offer was impossible. In some ways, it sounded too good to be true. And yet, it was.
Do I think it was coincidence that I got that car? Not even a little bit.
Seven years later, the car is still running. I put over 80,000 miles on it. We’ve replaced mostly minor things and only had one major repair due to negligence on the part of a repair shop. My sister now has the car.
It was a direct blessing from God. A miracle maybe even. You may consider it a “lucky coincidence” but I couldn’t have gotten a better vehicle if I’d designed it myself. I see the hand of God in it. You can see whatever you want.
And here is my admittedly reactive response.
[Brian Govatos] That’s arguably one of the most petty, laughable, shallow, and pathetic examples for the power of prayer that I’ve ever come across. I’m hoping you’re being deliberately ironic and in which case, I applaud you! If not, you have to realize that in you’re saying that god cares whether or not you have a manual transmission and a CD player. Meanwhile, infants are being raped by family members in Uganda. Maybe you should start praying for things that matter instead of your petty desire for a sweet ride. You are morally hideous.
Yes, I definitely let my fury get the better of me, and I should know better. Nothing good comes from it in a forum such as Facebook. But COME ON — sometimes enough must simply be enough! It feels to me that any level of sugar coating would have been patronizing.
What do you think? How would you have replied? Comment below.
I was working out of town when my mother called. She had been trying to get in touch with me throughout the day, and when I finally had a free moment to return her call, she vocalized her hesitation to relay her news. I pressed her, and she relented – my cousin had passed away in his sleep the day before. No one is quite sure exactly what the cause of death is (even now, months later, we’re still waiting for toxicology), but it is assumed that the cocktail of prescription drugs he was taking for his various behavioral and psychological issues is to blame.
Yes, he had issues. To the point where I really didn’t enjoy associating with him. Not that I often had the chance – by the time my parents got divorced at age 8 and both moved to new housing, I saw him with less and less frequency. The divide was strengthened when my mother and his came at odds over some business (one of those family dramas to which, I assume, I’ll never have all of the details). But for the first part of my life, Continue reading
A quick apology-thank you combination: this blog has been clinically dead for a while now, and it’s all your fault. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to allocate the amount of time I feel this space deserves, but, again, it’s mostly your fault. You see, we had a MASSIVE holiday season, causing numerous instances of delays, back-orders, and grumpy attitudes at our shipping headquarters. The headquarters is just me and like two other people. I’d say slow down, but we like your money too much.
So, thanks y’all for a kick-ass holiday. Back to our regularly scheduled secularism.
I sit in a crowded bar as I write this, a sports bar. It is Monday night, and one squadron of vegetables-in-waiting are giving it good / receiving it harsh from the opposing force. The fans around me are resplendent in their garb and their cheering is fierce. Sports fans.
A commercial comes on, because the ball moved a bit and it’s time to take a break. Bud Light desperately attempts to equate its particular domestic swill (the finest of the three light American lagers) with camaraderie and good times. But this ad is different – this ad endeavors to convince that the absurd superstitions Continue reading
We put a lot of thought into our designs. Even our really stupid ones (maybe that’s all of them). Here’s our thought process behind a shirt intended to do two things: reach our across the aisle to our brothers and sisters in arms, and create an awesome portmanteau:
1. gaytheist (n.)
A person who is both homosexual (or possibly bisexual or transsexual) and an atheist.
This is a mark of pride, not an insult, though it’s best used when referring to oneself.
Education and health care systems in shambles. An ever-growing budgetary problem with no solution in sight. Climate change debate without agreement. Energy crisis. Immigration. Gun control. Unchecked government power. Privacy invasions. Security VS liberty.
There are a metric shit-ton of issues the United States government could spend its time tackling. How is it, then, that an overwhelming majority of that time is spent arguing and legislating morality – specifically, the behavior of homosexuals? Continue reading
We put a lot of thought into our designs. Even our really stupid ones (maybe that’s all of them). Here’s our thought process behind one of our more deceptively simple shirts:
The world is filled to the brim with misinformation, so full that it’s tipping over the sides. Shake it one way – ghosts, river monsters, and creationism spill onto the floor. Knock it the other – homeopathy, the notion that sports are important, and eighty percent of all the dietary information you’ve ever heard get all over your nice, clean pants. There’s one bit of misinformation that bugs me all the time – atheists have zero beliefs. No belief system whatsoever. We are stoic, emotionless creatures who are attempting to sap the planet of all joy and majesty. Where the religious see glorious sunrises and prancing puppies, atheists see equations and evolution – the harsh, empty, dull and dreary science of the universe. What dismal, dim creatures that can just ignore God’s wonder!
As far as science goes, you and I know that understanding the inner workings of why and how the sun rises or exactly how and why we came to enjoy cute baby puppies makes the world MORE wondrous and beautiful. We most certainly do believe in things – we believe in love and wonder and joy, in heroism and honor and good. Yes! Atheists believe in good, in the good that comes from human beings. It’s a simple statement that some people just can’t comprehend. There’s some kind of firewall on the brains of a lot of believers that makes the notion of an atheist being – SOMEHOW – a good person more irrational than an inexplicable creator god or a subterranean dimension of hellfire.
No. Face facts, everyone – atheists don’t believe in god, but they do believe in good. Grab this shirt right here. Makes a great gift for that special heathen in your life!
Kyle Van Son
We put a lot of thought into our designs. Even our really stupid ones (maybe that’s all of them). Here’s our thought process behind a design that’s sure to turn a few heads (heck – it’s got the word “fags” emblazoned right in the middle!):
Atheists are often accused of being morally bankrupt. Sad state of the world we live in, but somehow being rational enough to acknowledge that grandiose claims of the supernatural, up to and including a creator god, means that said person making said claims is monstrous, a menace to society, unfit to hold public office or drive a school bus. As we know, it’s simply not true – we’re currently voting on a few folks who are atheist and do demonstrable good works! And even though we can point to numerous places in which nonbelievers find their moral compass without religion, should we even have to? It’s massively evident that a religious upbringing does not automatically make one moral. The strength of one’s faith does not correlate to the strength of one’s ethics.
In no person is this “ideal” more picture perfect than the religious militant. No one denies the existence of muslim extremists calling for the lashing and imprisonment of rape victims, yes , victims. We are all familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, those god-fearing good Christians who frequently picket the funerals of homosexuals or outside abortion clinics. People bomb buildings. People call for the murder of doctors and authors. And these people are of the strongest faith – in fact, if there’s one thing to take from the behavior of the faithful, it’s that unwavering faith is NOT a virtue.
There’s no such thing as a militant atheist. There’s no such thing as a fundamental atheist. There are no battles fought in the name of atheism, no fatwas or jihads. There are just atheists – some may say “live and let live,” some may argue until they’re blue in the face. Some may actually be closer to agnostics or, deep down, even deists, and some are staunch antitheists. But none of them are threatening believers with violence. None of US are filled with the blind fury and madness that seem to fill the hearts of these stalwart believers. There’s just something about a resolute dogma that fills folks with violence and ire whenever threatened by differing ideas. But an atheist knows that ideas are just that, and they can change. So while the world may be, for the time being, filled with militant folks of all faiths, the militant atheist remains a myth, captured with artistic license here.
You can grab this shirt right up in heres. This design is also in our clearance section, with a bit of a different layout and on different fabric, right over heres. We apologize if your size is sold out – it is clearance, after all.
ALSO – still taking votes for our Atheist Doing the Most Good Contest! These folks ARE militant – about being really decent folks! Hy-UCK!
Kyle Van Son
We put a lot of thought into our designs. Even our really stupid ones (maybe that’s all of them). Here’s our thought process behind an incredibly “controversial” message:
Our wide world is filled with fictions. Before the birth of language and the wellspring of consciousness, true consciousness that followed, there was no such thing as fiction. No animal, even our hominid ancestors, was spinning yarns about events that never took place, creatures that never existed, or places beyond what their eyes could perceive. Now, I’m no history major, I’m no anthropologist, and I have no idea when the practice of telling stories – false, made-up stories – came to pass (if you DO know, drop me a line! I’d love to hear it!) But I can as sure as sugar Continue reading