Academic Study of Atheists

AronRa responded to this study so hey, we all know how much I like to answer questions so here’s my answers as well.  I have no idea where the original link at Berkeley is, AronRa didn’t link to it and a quick Google search didn’t make it obvious.  If anyone finds the original link, please post it in comments.

1. Were you raised atheist or did you have a religious upbringing of some sort?

I was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran from birth to about 17 years old.  During that time, I went to all private Christian schools and for at least some of it, I was seriously interested in becoming a minister.  The rest of the story, I’ll tell under #2, just to keep it organized.  After rejecting evangelical Christianity, I maintained some form of religious belief, albeit very liberal Christian belief, until about the time I was 21 at which point I recognized that, no matter what label I tried to slap on myself, I really had no beliefs in religions or gods and properly labeled myself an atheist.

2. If raised religious – When and why did you become an atheist? What was this transition from religion like for you, for your family, etc.? Was this a quick transition or a slow one? Was it easy for you or difficult?

As I said, I was an evangelical Christian considering a life in the ministry, I was, in every way, “on fire for the Lord”.  I had read the Bible cover-to-cover several times and I could cite large portions of it from memory.  I remember being impressed that my pastor could do it, any book, chapter and verse you wanted, he could spout it so I wanted to be able to do the same.  As I said, I went to private religious schools and I carried a Bible everywhere.  It was, however, my religious high school that really made me start to question my faith.  See, I strongly believed that anything worth believing had to be factually true.  At the time, I had no doubt whatsoever that the Bible and everything in it was absolutely correct.  I wasn’t an inerrantist but in broad strokes, the things in the Bible had to be so.  Also at the time, I had friends who went to public schools, including my girlfriend.  She used to come over after school and we’d do homework together and I ended up paging through some of her textbooks from time to time.  During my Junior year, I saw in her book mention of something called “evolution” that I hadn’t been faced with.  It sounded interesting so the next day in biology class, I asked the teacher what it was.  It certainly wasn’t intended to be an attack or an insult or anything like that, but he went off on me to the point of screaming in class.  I was never permitted to think about that subject again.  Evolution was evil and the work of the devil and he had better never year me bring it up in his classroom ever again or he’d have me suspended.

Bad, bad idea.  Not the idea that evolution was evil, but telling me not to think about things.  As I said, things that were worthwhile believing are absolutely worthwhile investigating and the idea that I had to avoid something because some guy in a lab coat said so… not a chance.  So I started investigating on my own.  I went from public libraries to college libraries and rudimentary online searches (the Internet was just getting it’s start about that time and this was long before the advent of the World Wide Web) and the more I found, the more convinced I was that evolution was true.  All of the evidence fit.  Not only did it fit but there wasn’t really a place in the mix that needed God, in fact, it seemed absurd that God would have operated in that manner and taken billions of years to evolve mankind.  I started looking into the Biblical narrative in detail, believing absolutely in my heart that I’d confirm everything I already believed about the Bible.

Unfortunately, I didn’t.  The more I looked, the farther I went, the less likely most things in the Bible seemed.  There just wasn’t any evidence to support most of it, unlike in science where evidence was everything.  I spent a lot of time talking to my pastor about my doubts, about the holes in his theology, about reality just not matching up with my faith.  I’ll give him a lot of credit, he wasn’t an ass but all he could really do is keep stressing I shouldn’t lose faith.  Why the hell not?  There wasn’t anything there to really have faith in!  So my faith started to crumble.  I tossed out the creation stories and the flood myth, they clearly weren’t real.  But if they weren’t real, if there was no Adam and Eve then there was no fall and if there was no fall, there was no need for a redeemer.  So why did we need Jesus if original sin didn’t exist?  I drifted farther and farther into more esoteric Christianity and finally just gave up and dropped it all.  It was a reasonably slow process with a couple of very quick transitions.  It was emotionally difficult for me because I had such a vested interest in my religious life.  I went to church on Sunday and Wednesday, I was involved in the youth group, I was involved in a Bible study group, all of my friends were, outwardly at least, very religious although today, I wonder if they really believed or were just putting on a show like I ended up doing during the transition.

3. If raised atheist – Have you ever been drawn to religion at any point in your life?  Why or why not?

Not relevant, but as AronRa did mention his son, I’ll mention my daughters, both of whom have been raised entirely without religion.  We’ve never specifically tried to push atheism on them, they’ve just picked up a lot of  skepticism on their own.  I remember, years back, when they attended a pseudo-Christian day care (the lady said she put “Christian” in the title to attract the religious but had no religious content), some of the other children talked about God and my kids just laughed.  Just a few days ago, my daughters started school again and my youngest daughter came home with a writing assignment, the standard thing of “what did you do over the summer, what do you want to do when you get older, what’s one thing you could teach your classmates by the end of the year” stuff.  She took one look at me and said “The last one is easy, I can teach them that Christians are idiots!”

Thinking About Atheism:

1. Do you identify yourself as an atheist? If so, what does being an atheist mean to you? Also, how does it feel to be an atheist . . . optimistic / pessimistic, hopeful / cynical, happy / sad, connected to / isolated from other people, etc.?

I openly identify myself as an atheist.  To be honest, atheism, in and of itself, means very little to me because it’s something that I shouldn’t have to identify as.  It’s like having to call yourself an a-leprechaunist.  That ought to be the norm, not the exception.  I can’t say that being an atheist really makes me feel anything specifically, it’s just a lack of belief in something ridiculous.  The aforementioned a-leprechaunist position doesn’t make me feel anything either.  It is as a consequence of being a skeptic that I become pessimistic and cynical of humanity in general, living in this day and age and still believing in imaginary friends in the sky.  Luckily, since I am such an open person about my lack of beliefs, I rarely get into situations where people I actually care about react negatively to my atheism.  Anyone who is going to freak out that I’m an atheist finds out at an early enough stage that there is no emotional attachment to that person at all.  They go crazy?  I don’t need them in my life.  Move on to the next person.  Therefore, I have plenty of friends who know about and accept my lack of belief and my family, the ones I care about, have never given me a moment’s grief about it.

2. Why do you think most people in the United States believe in God, practice some form of religion, and do not identify themselves as atheists?

I don’t really think most of that is true.  I think that while it is true most people claim to believe in a particular god and claim to practice within a particular family of religions, most people really have no demonstrable beliefs in these things.  In America, Christianity specifically and religion in general isn’t just a religious belief, it’s a social force.  People are expected to believe these things and therefore, in an attempt to fit in, many people claim that they do.  However, I’m willing to bet that if you took those 80%+ people that claim to hold religious views and tested them on the views they profess, a good percentage of them would fail the test.  There is a difference between claiming you believe something, even if you’ve deluded yourself into actually thinking you do, and being able to demonstrate that you actually know a thing about what you claim to believe.  These are people I’ve termed “social Christians”, people who say they believe so they’ll look good to the neighbors.

3. Do most people who know you – family, friends, co-workers, etc. – also know that you’re an atheist? Why or why not?

I don’t hide the fact that I’m an atheist, it depends on how close we are whether or not they know that.  Work is not a place to discuss religion, pro or con, so it’s just not a subject that comes up.  I know that there are people there who are openly religious, it doesn’t bother me, but I don’t attack them or challenge them, it’s just not an acceptable place to do so.

4. Are most of your friends atheists? Why or why not?

Honestly, most of my friends are theists, albeit extremely liberal theists.  Most acknowledge they are theists in name only, their beliefs are so weak that, given the right impetus, I feel confident that they’d drop them.  I think most believe because of tradition, they’ve always believed, therefore they continue to pretend that they do.  We’ve all had many, many religious discussions and they openly admit they have no credible reason to continue to be religious.

5. Have you ever been treated differently by people because you’re an atheist? If so, please describe this in detail.

I really can’t remember a time where I was really treated badly because of my atheism, mostly because it doesn’t bother me at all.  I just don’t care.  I’m going with the evidence and the evidence for the factual existence of any deity has not been presented to me.  As such, if someone wants to attack me because I’m not gullible or credulous, that’s absolutely not important to me.  Attack away!  You just make yourself look foolish.

Thinking About Religion:

1. Overall, would you say that other people’s belief in God is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?

I would say it’s a bad thing.  Our beliefs inform our actions and when one’s beliefs are faulty, their actions can’t help but be faulty.  It is beliefs in God that have lead to great social evils like racism, sexism, discrimination against transgendered people and, of course, refusal to allow gays to be married.  For any of these claims, invariably, religion is involved, it’s really virtually impossible to come up with a justification for any of these claims that doesn’t include imaginary friends.

2. Overall, would you say that organized religion is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?

Organized religion is perhaps the single worst thing on the face of the planet.  It is a means to organize people who believe the above, yet organize and mobilize them into a force for craziness.  People, unfortunately, fall into group-think when exposed to large numbers of people who believe the same thing.  It must be right, lots of people believe it and in order to fit in, you have to believe it too!  That one skeptical guy finds it hard to stand up and say “wait a minute, this doesn’t seem right to me…”  Organized religion gives cover to the delusional individuals who harm others because churches don’t want to be exposed to scandal.  Yeah, maybe the priest is diddling little kids, but admitting it, even to fix the problem, will just make the parishioners look bad so we’d better not open our mouths!  The worst abuses come from the organized churches, the ones who may be critical of the sins of their own members but won’t prosecute them for fear of the taint rubbing off.

3. If not a religious person, do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Why or why not?

Absolutely not.  As a child, I did go through a phase where I believed in the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot and alien abductions and the like, I read von Daniken and even had the book on the right.  I didn’t ever believe in ghosts or witches or that kind of thing, I thought it was absurd and conflicted with my religious beliefs.  I really don’t see spirituality having much meaning.  Certainly, you have people who are using the word in place of religious terminology, mostly because religion is becoming rather hackneyed.  People are rejecting traditional religious institutions but still want to embrace the same kinds of woo that marks theism, they’re just being religious without calling themselves religious.

On the other hand, you get some atheists who call themselves “secularly spiritual”, trying to explain emotional reactions in terms that have traditionally belonged to the religious world.  I think that’s inherently dangerous, not because these people are trying to embrace the spiritual realm, but because they’re giving the wrong impression to the world.

Living as an Atheist:

1. Many people say that belief in God provides a foundation for their morality. As an atheist, on what do you base your morality? How do you decide what things are good or bad, whether you’re behaving rightly or wrongly, etc.?

I get my morality from the same place as everyone else, even theists.  The thing is, I actually understand and acknowledge it, theists misidentify the source of their morality as some imaginary friend in the sky.  The fact is, we all get our morals from within, not from some imaginary God who forces them on you.  Our morals and values ultimately come from the society in which we live and represent many years of social evolution and cultural health.  Those things that tend to produce a better society tend to survive in the societal consciousness.  Different cultures, with different evolutionary paths, come up with different concepts for morality, although on the big issues, since we’re all human and all have similar needs, they tend to shake out in very similar rules.

What actually harms morality is religion.  That might sound counter-intuitive, but only because most people are indoctrinated to see morality as a set of rules handed down from on high.  Where religion ruins morality is that it posits morals as important to an invisible father figure in the sky, not important to the people who actually have to act as moral beings.  That’s where you get hate as a moral virtue.

2. Many people consider belief in God and religious practice to be essential for raising well-rounded children with a connection to a tradition that helps them to see meaning in the world. What’s your opinion about this viewpoint?

Well-rounded children?  Well, if you consider an inability to deal with reality on reality’s terms well-rounded, then sure.  However, that’s not what rational people ought to want.  Tradition for the sake of tradition is ridiculous.  Slavery had a long tradition in this country too, should we try to go back to that for the sake of our children or should we know that such things are not acceptable today and move on?  The same is true of religion.  Maybe at one time, when we were primitive and ignorant, religion served a purpose, but that purpose is long since gone today.

3. For many people, belief in God provides an explanation of how the world came into existence and why we’re here. As an atheist, do you have answers or insights pertaining to these questions? If so, what are they?

The problem is, it provides a false explanation.  You don’t get to just come up with any cockamamie idea you want and declare it to be true.    The Christian version of creation is no more valid than the original Hindu creation story, detailed in the Reg Veda, where Purusha, the god with a thousand heads, eyes and feet, surrounded the Earth, until he pissed off the other gods who decided to kill him.  When they were done, Purusha’s body oozed clarified butter which created all the birds and animals, his body formed not only the continents, but the Hindu gods Agni, Vayu, and Indra.  That’s not the silliest creation story by far, you should check out the Japanese legend where the god Izanagi pushed his “jewel encrusted spear” into “the primal ooze of our planet” and, when pulling out, “spilled a salty substance” that created the Japanese island of Onogoro.  If the jizz-created island where Inzanagi and his wife Izanami settled wasn’t enough, by having sex, they generated another 8 Japanese islands.  However, one of these “children” was Homusubi, the incarnation of fire, which roasted her genitals and caused her to die a horribly agonizing death.  In her death throes, her bodily functions went crazy, spitting out various gods as she excreted, urinated and vomited uncontrollably.  Yes, the Japanese have official urine, feces and vomit gods.

And you expect me to take any of these insane stories seriously?

4. For many people, belief in God provides hope or comfort with respect to suffering in the world and to the inevitability of death. As an atheist, how do you come to terms with these things?

The reality is, God doesn’t provide hope or comfort or anything else.  God is a delusion.  God no more provides comfort than Santa Claus brings presents.  It’s *BELIEF* in God that provides hope or comfort.  The problem is, belief in God is no more valid than Dumbo believing that the feather allowed him to fly.  God is a placebo, nothing more.  It allows people to go through life without having to deal with a potentially unpleasant reality, but that is inherently dangerous.  It’s what permits parents to watch their children die of easily curable diseases because they’re convinced some magic man is going to miraculously cure them.  It’s what allows fanatics to fly airplanes into high rise buildings because they’re convinced Allah is going to give them 72 virgins in an imaginary afterlife.  It’s what encourages religious zealots to murder their children for some bizarre form of “honor”.  If you have to believe in something that’s not true to get hope or comfort, you need serious professional help.

So how do atheists deal with them?  They deal with them!  I accept reality as it actually is.  It doesn’t have to make me happy.  It doesn’t have to make me comfortable.  It just is.  And here’s the kicker, it doesn’t matter what you believe, at the end of the day, reality is still what it is.  You can believe in gods or ghosts, alien abductions or monsters, but those things either exist or they don’t and how strongly you believe or how much you wish it was true doesn’t  change that.

I accept that one day, I am going to die.  I’m going to go out like a light bulb.  So will everyone I know.  Everyone, without exception, dies.  When you die, you’re just gone.  No afterlife.  No heaven.  No hell.  You will never see them again and that’s just the way it is.  All the kicking and whining, bitching and moaning in the world isn’t going to change that.  Why not just deal with what is and flush all the absurd nonsense that would be otherwise floating around in your head?

Conclusion: No questionnaire could possibly cover all dimensions of this topic. So, do you have any additional information or any further reflection that could help us to understand your experience as an atheist better? If so, please feel free to add this now.

To be honest, I don’t know how much more I can add.  Certainly, in all the decades I’ve been openly debating religion, I’ve never lost a job, gotten into a fight or been injured in any way because I’m an atheist.  I’ve been threatened many times but none of the threats were serious.  I’ve been called every name in the book but I just laugh at things like that.  It doesn’t bother me, I don’t see why it should.  As soon as people pull out meaningless threats and meaningless insults, it’s a clear sign they’ve lost.

There are a lot of loser theists out there, I’m afraid.

Any other questions, just ask.

4 thoughts on “Academic Study of Atheists

  1. I am glad to find your web site. I am the organizer of a "Meetup" atheist, agnostic, freethinker, etc., etc. group on Whidbey Island, an island in Puget Sound off the Washington State coast line. We are small but growing, firm and tolerant. Humans have been steeped in religious belief for thousands of years. We are just now growing up and realizing we are alone (unless their are aliens we can't yet reach on other star systems) in the universe. Time to stop praying and preying and realize we are reaching childhood's end as a species. Let's call it the beginning of adulthood.
    My recent post Attend & fill out planning doc (now posted under "more" or available by email).

    1. Welcome, that's a wonderful sentiment, one I very much share. I wish you all the luck in the world with your group and hope you can become a large, thriving community of skeptics and freethinkers.

  2. It's amazing how people will go from one extreme to another, never considering the futility of their own thoughts, the bias of their own experiences, and not realizing that it could all be upended in a moments time. If God exists, then he certainly doesn't owe you or anyone an explanation of anything.

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