I’m afraid due to scheduling problems this will have to be a shorter letter than you are used to. I promise to make the next one longer, and since I will be discussing Percy Shelley and a delightful little pamphlet that got him expelled from Oxford University, I promise you that I’ll have plenty to talk about.
Recently I suffered a minor spiritual crisis (spiritual in the sense of my life’s spirit and energy, not supernatural) and was helped by many of the people that I hold most dear in my life. Many of these people happen to have two things in common: 1) they care about me, a mental condition which I am grateful for but am still attempting to figure out, and 2) some of them believe in god. Why bring this up you ask? Well, in their effort to aid and abet me they brought in to play their own experience with “being low” (that’s the only satisfying description of depression I like or trust) they would mention their belief in god and their gratefulness to him. They would immediately footnote their stories with the fact that they understand I am not a believer to which I always shake my head and tell them to speak honestly.
This I believe is what makes me distinct from the contemporary image of atheism.
No doubt you recently heard of the study that informed you that a little over half of Americans would never vote for a President if he or she happened to be an atheist. Whenever the issue of political correctness comes into play atheists are blamed. The yearly “War on Christmas” (one of the greatest social self satire performances you will ever witness) is amusing to watch but expect a few stings your way if you’re a non-believer. And if I may further contribute to the list of experiences, I am sometimes confronted by friends or strangers who stumble at my moral sensibilities. In fact I have been asked on one occasion how I believe in morality at all. What does it matter to you? You don’t believe in god, so what do morals even mean?
All of these questions contribute to a perception that the public seems to be buying and no doubt you yourself have experienced. It is the idea that atheism is synonymous with nihilism.
This is bullshit.
Now it is not my effort to damn the individual who brought in their own experience, for she has been crucial for my development as a student and intellectual, and the pair of us enjoy conversations immensely (especially when we discuss the divine). My effort is to understand why people believe that atheism is a condemnation of morality.
The pseudo-religious mindset(by this I am referring to the most fundamental variety, the wacko’s if you need further clarification) is built upon the perception that god is the hub of morality and kindness, that he is the source of all goodwill known to man. To turn your back on him is to reject virtue. This I believe is rooted more in anthropology than it is in genuine theology. Within culture studies there is an idea of “the other” and this figure represents the antithesis of everything your society stands for. “The other” is less than human and threatens your way of life because he or she or it understands a different reality or worldview. This violates your own sense of reality and so hate is inspired towards the “other.” I know this sounds like a special on NPR, but an understanding of history and literature demonstrates that this concept is not inaccurate, but a real reality of human existence.
If you will exam racial slurs, they are the epitome of dehumanization. Take the word nigger. It revolts me to my core to even type the word, but it is the most potent example I can work with (there’s a reason Huckleberry Finn is one of the most banned books in history but that is for a later essay). When a man calls another man a nigger there is a list of implications suggested.
- You are not a man, you are a nigger.
- Because you are not a man, you are a nigger, and I can hurt you physically or emotionally and not feel any remorse for it.
- Because you are not a man, you must be an animal therefore I possess more rights than you.
- Because you are not a man, I am more important than you.
- Because you are a nigger and not a man, my opinions and ideas possess more merit than you, I may have a say in what governs the paradigms of society.
- Because you are not a man you have no voice, and if I believe you are a threat I can ignore you and remove you without fear of social reprisal.
Before I continue with this idea let me be clear, in no way am I comparing the annoyance atheists feel from minor ignorant questions with the long fucked up list of travesties that African Americans have experienced. To make such a claim would reveal me only as an idiot(which some may already feel I am but let us at least agree there is a special kind of idiot uses such language without remorse). While some atheists have felt the lash and the fires of the pseudo-religious, their conflict has no where reached the body count that blacks have. But this notion of the other does certainly manifest. The distrust many people, whether they be Christians or not, feel concerning atheists reveal their ignorance of what atheism is.
I do not reject virtue. I encourage it and aspire to it. When Christian friends talk of their faith I do not open my mouth and tell them to silence themselves, they have every right to speak. I may not believe in god, but that does not mean I have abandoned my moral compass. There are some who believe that I have, but that in a way demonstrates a kind of weakness on their part. Goodness and kindness is not located purely in a supernatural being that may or may not exist. Virtue, real virtue, manifests in behavior, in the psyche. I choose to be a good person, and if I should feel “low” I do not turn to a supernatural force, instead I turn to what matters most: my friends, family, and colleagues. Men and women who respect me, who are willing to be honest with me, and who will attempt to aid me as best they can.
This B—– is the best I can truly offer you in the way of satisfaction. As I said before, atheism is not synonymous with nihilism, for if it was, then the notion of religion seems all the more vile in my mind. If god is the only deciding factor of virtue then the divine being is not the benevolent figure sold to you in Sunday school, he is a malevolent child with an ant farm and a magnifying glass. Those that play the game enjoy the spoils of his grace, and those who reject him are simply broken and therefore empty vessels he may employ in his twisted amusements. Some may suggest that I should simply believe to stave off eternal damnation, but in this suggestion is totalitarian sentiment. I refuse to acknowledge threats, but now I am chasing a rabbit.
Allow me to regain focus.
The public distrust of atheism is rooted in the idea, that as an atheist I refuse to acknowledge virtue and general “goodness.” This idea is ignorant as it is self
denying. I have employed the term anti-theist before, it is far more satisfying to my ear because ii does not denote an “ism.” All it suggests is that I do not believe that theism or supernatural beings for guidance.
It is likely that you will encounter one of the varying shades of the ignorance here provided B—–. I cannot instruct your behavior, for you are your own person, and I am always wary of people freely dispensing advice. All I can offer you is a maxim:
Don’t be an asshole.
Simple. Short. Sweet. With a touch of refinement.
Yours as always in the best of confidence and support
Joshua Jammer Smith
P.S. I am almost positive I have come across as condescending and pompous in this essay. Please forgive me and just take comfort that soon enough we’ll be talking about literature again soon.
P.P.S I know I promised to smile, but I can find no instances in which I do not appear to be some demonic monkey. For the time being I’ll just have to look arrogant or bored.