I was compelled to write this essay after hearing a piece on NPR this week about proselytizing atheists [On the Media, 11/30/08]. One of the things I always liked about atheism is our laissez-faire policy: we don’t look for converts. I was unaware of the extent of this new trend, which I attribute in part to population growth. Although only 7% of the population are atheists, our numbers seem to have reached a critical mass, and we have become a movement. Ugh!
One of the foremost objections my religious friends have with my lack of faith involves my willingness to totally disappear after I die. This, of course, goes against religion’s biggest selling point—the promise of life after death—and is the source of the old saw discussed in the radio piece, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” To me, this is evidence of our urge to seek solace under stress and makes the existence of God irrelevant. I don’t understand how it is an insult, as one of the atheists on the radio insisted.
I am not sure how I will behave when dealing with a threat to my life, but, if I start to pray, I will accept my need to generate hope, a most useful feeling in the face of death. Having been raised in a religious culture, I would not be surprised to use prayer to inspire hope. I do a similar thing sometimes if I am late for an appointment, for example, and the subway train arrives as I am stepping onto the platform. I thank God, not because I believe she exists, but because it is uplifting to feel grateful when luck is on my side. Heaven knows, I have no difficulty feeling angry and put-upon when things don’t go so well. Saying “Thank God” is the way I was taught to express my gratitude. I do not need to change this habit to prove I am a “pure” atheist as I fear the new proselytizers would require. Dogmatism is ugly, whether practiced by religious fundamentalists or committed non-believers.
My dedication to atheism seems to be rock-solid, but I know that all belief systems, even one supposedly rooted in logic, have a strong emotional underpinning derived from our culture, our genes, and especially our parent’s child-rearing preferences. In this, I share a kinship with my religious friends. We also share a desire to be moral and decent. They are led on a righteous path through God’s teachings, while my virtue stems from a desire to feel good and enhance my life. I try to be kind, honest, loving and happy because I have learned that these qualities bring me what I need and want. I suspect that many of the 93% are also motivated in this way and only the most doctrinaire attribute everything to God.
My final point is this: Unless you proselytizers are prepared to offer long-term psychotherapy to your prospective converts, why not let each of us keep the convictions that work for us. Better yet: Atheist heal thyself!
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