Who’s the Atheist of Them All?

February 1997: Ellen DeGeneres tells Oprah that she (Ellen) is gay.  Bad career move for Ellen… for a few years.  Now Ellen has a successful afternoon talk show.  Time marches on.

December 2012: Craig H. Collins tells anyone listening that he is… atheist!  Atheist!

Oh me of little faith!

Like Ellen, I must have forgotten to step away from the microphone when I said that.  Did I really mean to reveal this dark secret?  I can’t take it back now!  What have I done?

So I am out.  This, the 200th post of The 100 Billionth Person, is as good a setting as any. And Christmas, America’s most beloved quasi-religious holiday, is just around the corner.  What can I say.

• • •

I resist having any label attached to me, whether it is engineer or liberal or retired or funny. Labels summon up preconceptions in other people’s minds, making it easier for a person to be categorized rather than considered.  The atheist label in particular tends to provoke strong and overriding emotional responses: some people recoil and prepare for counterattack, while others feel pity and pray for the poor soul’s redemption.  But today (for this post anyway) I will accept the label, if only to end any ambiguity.¹

Misconceptions about atheists are widespread, so let me set your mind at ease:

• I am not angry.  I don’t live in despair.  I don’t hate everything you stand for.
• I don’t eat atheist peanut butter and atheist jelly sandwiches for lunch.
• I dont flip coins over to avoid seeing the words “In God We Trust”.
• I don’t melt into a puddle of plasma when I walk into a church.
• I never met Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Unlike the other angry atheist tracts you have read², I am not going to either defend it or explain it or pick fights with the more-enlightened (the last is especially futile).  But I will cherry-pick a few facts.  A 2008 study ranked various nations by their disbelief in God: 52% of East Germans say they do not believe, compared to 23% of the French, 18% of the British, 9% of Japanese and 3% of Americans.  Scarce as we are, there are twice as many American atheists as American Jews and four times the number of American Muslims.  String up those garlic cloves: we walk among you.

Three out of four Americans profess the same faith as the one in which they were raised, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jew.  I was not born an atheist³ but evolved into one through a deliberate process over a number of eons.  In the end, I decided that the universe is either explainable by physics or it is not — I cannot accept the co-existence of physics and magic.  I don’t believe in any type of spirit, extra-sensory communications, prayers, vibrations (good or bad), superstition or luck.  Coincidences are only that.  And I cringe when someone says, “it was meant to be,” because it implies that some “meaning” permeates the cosmos.  “Meaning” is a mental construct that entirely depends on who is doing the constructing.

But don’t I find the lack of meaning depressing?  (As if avoiding depression would justify my believing something that isn’t there.)  No, but it would depress me if it were true that people cannot be moral without believing in some supernatural being.  Although 57% of Americans subscribe to this notion, I am not depressed, since I know by counterexample that it simply isn’t so.

Defenders of the faith like to point out that scientists don’t know everything, that scientists disagree with each other, and that scientists change their minds whenever some new bit of evidence destroys the old paradigm.  OK, guilty as charged.  They also say that whatever scientists claim to know are simply “theories” — i.e., provisional truths, not absolute ones.  Faithsayers see this as demonstrating the fragility and unreliability of science, but this is its very strength: scientists make falsifiable statements and challenge others to falsify them, whereas institutions of faith make unfalsifiable statements and often threaten those who do not accept them.  You know where I stand.

One thing I do have in common with religious people is that I think the world would be a better place if more people agreed with me.  The religious feel the same way.

• • •

So Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa to you all.  May you enjoy the holidays as much as I will.  If you like, you can return the sentiments on March 20, General Relativity Day.  (March 20, 1916, is the day Einstein’s masterwork, “The Foundations of the General Theory of Relativity,” was published in Annalen der Physik.)  That is probably the closest thing to Atheist Christmas there is, other than the one we are all about to celebrate.


¹ For my family, this is yesterday’s news — though I was surprised when my wife recently told me that she thought I was agnostic, not atheist.  When I showed her the Registered Atheist ID card that the county requires me to carry whenever I am within 1000 feet of a Baptist church, she was convinced.
² I am being sarcastic, of course.  But the underlying point is real enough.  In a christianpost.com blog titled “Would You Want an Atheist for a Neighbor?”, the writer was not being sarcastic at all when he lamented “the frenetic and uninformed screeds that atheists purchase and read by the truckload.”  Yes, all my neighbors are getting tired of seeing the UPS truck roll into my driveway, delivering more of those atheist screeds.  I wouldn’t want to be my neighbor either.
³ Actually, aren’t we all born that way?
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5 Responses to Who’s the Atheist of Them All?

  1. Bruce says:

    Well ho-ho-ho Craig. Me too. My evolution story is somewhat complicated though it started simply. The nuns did it. In third grade Catholic religious instruction, the nuns were mean and nasty, as expected. But when they told me essentially that my best friend would have to go to hell, I refused to believe that, and soon concluded that that this whole mean and petty “God” thing they were selling could not be real. My friend happened to be Jewish though I didn’t know what that meant at the time, just that he wasn’t Catholic.

    It might seem odd then that I would convert to Judaism before my first marriage. There were practical reasons for this and I have no regrets family-wise. I worked with a Reform rabbi and I was open with him about my lack of belief in God. He said that there was room in Judaism for a spectrum of beliefs in God – look at Einstein and Spinoza (though Spinoza was kicked out for professing that God is really Nature). The emphasis was more on tradition and community and less on the supernatural. What is important is how you live THIS life, not to prepare for some possible future life (I’m still not real clear on what the Jewish view of the afterlife might be, but i think Paul Simon’s recent song “The Afterlife” might have nailed it – very funny song). Reform Judaism seemed closer to humanism to me, compared to Catholicism and its angry, nosy, petty, punishing God.

    The terminology is tricky. I’m ok with atheist though some say this implies complete certainty. Do I absolutely know that there is no God? Close enough for my purposes, though I don’t have proof either way. Agnostic sounds like I have no opinion on the matter. I sort of like non-believer. I don’t believe in Zeus or Thor or the tooth fairy though I can’t prove they don’t exist. Same for the supernatural being currently favored by most Americans, though I’m pretty sure that all of these supernatural things are imaginary. I’m not sure about Dark Matter though. :)

  2. Rob says:

    It’s worth nothing that even people who fear and abhor atheists are atheists themselves about all religions but one.

  3. LRT says:

    I’m not as philosophically sophisticated as you guys but I have one question. What is the origin of the universe (or who created it)?

    • Craig says:

      My answer: Don’t know! and probably will never “know” although physicists keep seeing farther back in time. Thanks for reading, LRT.

  4. your pal says:

    March 20, General Relativity Day, is a good candidate for a celebration. So would be February 12 – not only Lincoln’s birthday, but also Charles Darwin’s!

    P.S. – I’m sure that you and the new camera will do amazing things.

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