Growing up, I wasn’t raised under any specific religion. I was allowed to explore the various facets of religion but, for the most part, I was on my own when it came to God and heaven and all that jazz. I tried church for a while – many of my friends at the time were Christian – and I prayed every night. However, as I got older, I lost someone very close to me to suicide and I got further away from religion. I decided that it wasn’t for me, so I’d just forget that it existed.
Once I hit undergrad, though, I began to actively learn about religion. I learned about the Bible and the history behind it; I learned about the bloodshed and the lies, but I also learned about the healing powers of religious belief.
Eventually, I became comfortable labeling myself as an atheist. I became involved in the interfaith movement on my campus, soaking up every word I could from Eboo Patel and Chris Stedman and excitedly listening to them speak when they visited campus. I realized that, apart from the specific beliefs, being an atheist is no different from being a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. It is a set of beliefs and viewpoints central to my life. But that doesn’t stop people from gawking at me when I say that I am an atheist. Here are answers to the questions I know you want to ask… Because people have actually asked me all of these questions.
1. What exactly is atheism?
People often picture atheists as rude, loud-mouthed and God-hating. I don’t exactly know why this is, but I can speculate that it is because so many people are afraid of calling themselves atheists – obviously, people who are loud about their beliefs will be noticed above those who are not, despite how firmly either group believes what they believe. If you’re going off of the dictionary definition, atheism is simply “the disbelief in God or any other deity.” I think that each and every atheist would define atheism differently, just as any two Christians would define Christianity differently. I speak for myself, then, when I say that my beliefs are as follows: I do not believe that there is a god or higher power who created us or is determining our fate. I believe that we were put on this earth to live a true, honest life full of love and hope. I believe that awful things happen to us and to the people we love, but I don’t believe that any higher power is sending these bad things as punishment for our sins. We are here, and that is enough.
2. If you’re an atheist, how can you justify celebrating Christmas?
I’m sure some atheists don’t celebrate Christmas but, in modern society, Christmas is more societal than it is religious. To me, Christmas is about celebrating togetherness. It is about being surrounded by family, listening to holiday tunes, drinking eggnog and eating way too many sweet treats. To a lot of people, Christmas is no longer all about religion and Jesus Christ – it is commercialized, and it is about celebrating the good in the world. I think that everyone – no matter their religion and no matter what winter-type holiday they choose to celebrate – can agree that the holiday season is about finding the goodness in our lives.
3. Why do you hate Christians so much?
Again, some atheists are extremely vocal and intense about their beliefs (or lack thereof). However, there are radical Christians and Muslims and [Insert Religion Here] as well. Every set of beliefs is going to have a set of radical believers to go along with it. Just because I identify as an atheist does not mean that I hate those who believe in a higher power. I see all religious faiths as equally right and equally wrong – just because you believe in something and I don’t doesn’t mean that I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong. But, that being said, I hope you would respect my beliefs in return.
4. Aren’t you worried that you’re going to go to hell when you die?
Well, no. I don’t believe in hell, so why would I worry about it?
5. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, what’s the point of living at all?
I honestly haven’t ever been able to come up with a good answer to this question, and it’s asked a lot. I believe that the point of life is to be open and good, to fall in and out of love as many times as you can, to travel and engage in as much dialogue as possible. But that doesn’t mean that all atheists believe such things. Just because I don’t believe that anything happens after we die doesn’t mean that I believe we should just give up living.
6. If there is no God, how do you explain unexplainable things?
Often, people are referring to “miracles” when they ask me this question. I don’t know that I believe in miracles, but I obviously can’t deny that unexplainable things happen. People recover from illnesses when no one thinks they will. People survive falls that should have killed them. Things happen, and we don’t know why. I believe that the human body is an extravagant machine. I won’t try to explain things that do and don’t happen, because I simply don’t have the training or knowledge-base to do so.
7. You don’t have a moral code to follow, so what keeps you from killing and stealing (etc.)?
First, there is a big difference between following the 10 Commandments and having a moral code. I think that killing and stealing and just plain being a dick is wrong. I just don’t believe that, if I were to do any of those things, I would go to hell or need to seek penance, though.
8. So, you want to get rid of all religion?
No, absolutely not. I think that religion can be a wonderful, powerful thing. I think that many people have better lives and can get through difficult times more successfully because of religion. Obviously, it’s sad to think that religion is often the cause of discrimination and hatred. I work in an elementary school and, on numerous occasions, have been told by six-year-olds that they’re being mean to each other because “God just made us this way.” Meanwhile, adults use religion to tell other human beings – coworkers, friends, family members – that they are living incorrect lifestyles. I don’t think that religion should be used as an excuse to hate each other, but I do not, by any means, think that religion is evil.
I firmly believe that dialogue is one of the most important forces to let into our lives. Whether you believe in a god or higher power or whether you don’t, engage in dialogue with your peers. I have had plenty of discussions with friends who believe just as strongly in God as I don’t believe. I know that I won’t be able to convince them of my viewpoints and I know that they won’t be able to convince me of theirs. So, the key to true dialogue is to erase the entire idea of “converting” each other. Talk about what you believe and why. Learn about the other person’s beliefs and be truly interested in them. Be open to the world.