I say I am an Atheist
Claudia Ziebis, March 5, 2006
At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, New Bern, NC
Today I’m going to try to answer two questions: Why I’m an atheist? And why I say I’m an atheist. Those are two separate and distinct questions, and, of the two, I think the second one is really the more important.
First I have to define atheism. The dictionary says atheism is “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of God.” The word comes to the English language via the French who got it from the Greek a-theos: “a” is the Greek prefix meaning “without,” theos is the root word meaning
What does G-O-D mean? Well, as far as I can tell, God is a concept having 4 elements. God is a supernatural, omnipotent being which created the universe and intervenes in men’s affairs. I can tell you with assurance that if I say to the average American that I believe in God, he or she will understand that sentence to mean that I believe there is a being that is supernatural, omnipotent, created the universe and intervenes in men’s affairs. You are not “average;” you are UUs. I’m talking about the average English speaking person.
Susan Jacoby in her book “Freethinkers – A History of American Secularism” points out that the fastest growing “religious” group in the US is comprised of those who do not subscribe to any faith. But she says few people actually use the word atheist to describe themselves because of the opprobrium attached to the
This fear of the word atheist is ironic in a country founded by so many freethinkers. American history resonates with the words and deeds of people calling themselves agnostics, deists and –yes -- unabashed atheists.
Jacoby cites a long list of American Freethinkers who all shared a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence – a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural
Let me read the stirring words of the deist Thomas Paine.
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.
It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than
Every time I read these words I am awed by the integrity within them. Here was a man of awesome intellectual honesty -- of clarity and passion. I do not have the intellect or eloquence of such a man. But I can try to have some of his honesty. That is something I can emulate. I can do that by stating clearly and simply that I am an atheist.
I’m an atheist because of nature and nurture.
I assume theists are theists also because of nature and nurture. Because of nature they are better able to put faith before reason than I can, and because of nurture they are able to maintain that faith.
That’s it. That’s the simple answer. I’m an atheist because I was born that way – it’s the way my mind works. That’s the nature part of the answer: I’m not a theist because I never found the switch or button in my mind that I could turn off so that I didn’t think about the definition of God in concrete, literal terms. I could never find a way to put “faith” before “reason.” The nurture part of the answer is that I’ve decided to admit I don’t have that switch and not pretend to believe something I don’t.
If someone asks me “do you believe in God.” I first have to figure out what God is. So I look up the word and put the concept into an equation: God =’s supernatural + omnipotence + created the universe + intervenes in men’s affairs. And I examine each one of those elements – and I find each of those elements is not logical or coherent to me. The equation doesn’t work and so I can’t use the tool of theism to make decisions or understand the world around me.
I’m sure you’ve heard these logical conundrums before – “If God can do anything, he can make a rock so big he can’t move it.” “If everything has to have a beginning and every beginning has to have a cause, and God caused the universe – then what caused God?” “Why does anything have to be “super” -- ie outside of – nature.
In my mind there are no round squares. Round squares are not logical. Round squares don’t make sense. I don’t use round squares.
Theism is not intrinsic to me – there’s no brain operation to install that switch I referred to. In all honesty, I simply cannot become theist. I could pretend to be theist, but I can’t voluntarily become theist. “Belief” is not a voluntary act – only the pretense of belief is voluntary.
Here is another analogy for you… being left-handed or right-handed. I once knew a grandmother who wrote with her right hand. But if you threw her a dishtowel, she’d catch it with her left hand. She explained that when she went to school being left-handed was considered not “normal” so she was forced to write with her right hand. As a matter of fact, if the teacher caught her writing with her left hand he’d whack it with a ruler. Now would you say she’s a right-handed person? Or would you say she’s a left-handed person pretending to be right-handed? It’s true that I could pretend to be theist. But how do I actually become one?
I don’t use the concept of the supernatural to interpret the world around me or make decisions. I use my senses and logic to understand the world – if I can’t use sight or sound or touch or smell or taste to think about something and I can’t use logic to think about it – then I just can’t think about it. And if I can’t think about it – I don’t know what to do with it.
Let me go back to that quote from Thomas Paine because it addresses the issue of voluntarily pretending to believe something you don’t believe. Paine wrote: “But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.
It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.”
A long time ago, I met a UU who told me he used to be an atheist but now he calls himself a theist because he defines God as a kind of macro-organism: the sum total of all life. I respect the man’s decision to call himself a theist. The societal pressure to pretend to be a theist is enormous. I’m grateful that he articulated his definition and his reasoning so clearly. I wish G-O-D were defined that way in dictionaries and common English. But personally, I can’t get around the fact that to the vast majority of people – that is not the definition. I’d be deceiving people. I’d be mis-communicating at best, lying at worst -- pretending to believe something I really don’t believe. Isn’t this the “mental lying” Paine was talking about? Where is the line between stubbornness and emulating Paine’s integrity?
I could start wrapping up my speech now, but I can’t resist saying even more on this subject.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, the village I was reared in was atheistic. Most of the adults who mattered so much to me so long ago are now dead. But in a real, rational, logical sense they are all speaking to you right now.
They are telling you that their lives had meaning and purpose. For them, the purpose of life is life itself! And individual consciousness gives meaning to life. Their lives were just as valuable, as rich, and as awesome as those of any theist I have ever met.
I am alive and I am conscious of being alive! The enormity of that is often overwhelming.
You can feel the sun on your face, hear the insects, see the butterfly flit across your path, taste soggy pancakes ….. You are aware of these things; you are conscious of being alive! You can think about everything your senses perceive. We can experience the sheer joy and exhilaration of thinking! I have reveled in that sheer delight ever since I can remember … and those old atheists reveled with me. They delighted in showing me the world, and the stars, and the ideas of the people that existed before me.
The atoms, protons, electrons, quarks in my body are the same as those in the earth and grass and butterflies and stars. The same. There is no chemical or atomic particle that is “human.” I am stardust. We are part of the universe. You are universe. Your senses can perceive that. Logic can analyze that. Think about it, feel it, know it. They never taught me how to divide this enormous sensation of life into “spirit” and “matter,” “supernatural” and “natural,” “perceived” and “mysterious.” It’s all one and it’s all real.
My intellect can comprehend the universe and myself because of the way genes organized the synapses of my brain -- and because of the nurture of those atheists decades ago.
Hindu scriptures thousands of years old mention “nonbelievers.” Jewish, Christian, Moslem, writings talk about “nonbelievers.” There have always been humans who have found the tool of theism with difficult to wield. Humans with minds that do not have a “literal-analysis off” switch.
Because of nature, I am without theism; because of nurture, I stand before you and say it because I think it’s important to do so. Important for my own integrity and for yours.
I was amazed to find this denomination. A denomination where intellectual honesty was valued! Doesn’t Unitarian Universalism exemplify Tom Paine’s ideal of morality based on honesty? “Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.” Isn’t this raw, courageous honesty the very thing that Unitarian Universalism is based on? Is it not based on an honest examination of personal belief and an honest expression of belief?
A couple of years ago I had two experiences that brought both Tom Paine and this denomination to mind.
My favorite cousin came to visit me and told me he had joined his local Catholic church. He explained that his son wanted to join the one and only soccer team in his town and that team is run by the Catholic Church. Only Catholics can play on the team – so he reclaimed his Catholicism.
He told me about how “all the other Dads” don’t believe God exists either -- nobody believes it, so it doesn’t really matter. He told me about all the positive experiences his son would have by playing soccer on this team.
When he was finished I said “But someday he’ll realize you’re faking this. And you’ll have to explain to him why pretending to be Catholic is OK -- and where you draw the line about pretending to be something you’re not.” He squirmed. I remembered Tom Paine’s warning.
Only a couple of months after that, a major in my office told me about a club in a high school in Virginia where every member of the club is called “president” so that they can all claim the title “president” on resumes.
The major discovered this because several of the Air Force Academy applicants he interviewed listed themselves as president of the same club. He knew one of these kids because she was a member of his Christian church and he confronted her. She explained what the club had done and acted as though there was nothing wrong with it.
The Major was incensed. He was appalled at this lack of integrity. And Tom Paine’s warning echoed in my head. I wonder how many of those kids have parents faking belief? And if some of them are faking it, then what’s the difference between pretending belief in Christianity and pretending to be president of a school club? Where do you draw the line?
If those parents sat in UU pews, would they have to pretend?
Do UUs pretend? Do they inadvertently say it’s OK to pretend to believe something you don’t ?
And is it OK to redefine the word God? What’s the price of doing so? Do we then lose the ability to clearly communicate ideas about God, ethics, morality, our place in the universe? Do we lose the ability to articulate and examine the tools that we actually do use?
Intellectual honesty matters. Clarity of thought and expression matter. Integrity matters. Whether you’re filling out an academy admission form, or explaining to your son why you joined a church, or just standing in front of a mirror with your own thoughts --… “it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society.”
Thank you for listening.
i American Heritage Dictionary
ii Jacoby, pp 6-7
iii Jacoby, pp 4-5
iv Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Part First, Section 1, 1796