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.