I “came out” as an atheist a few years ago, after years of shilly-shallying.
The basic Protestantism of my upbringing yielded, as a teenager, to an orthodox but rather devout kind of new-age pantheism; this drifted imperceptibly into a “spiritual but not religious” phase, followed by a lengthy spell as an agnostic. If people understood the word “agnostic” as it’s meant to be understood — the view that God’s existence isn’t provable one way or the other, so we should reserve judgment — I might have been willing to leave it at that. But in reality, most people think agnostic means “undecided,” as if its proponents just haven’t made their minds up yet. In either case, “agnostic” began to seem annoyingly timid, the soft option. So I took a deep breath and embraced the big, scary “A” word.
In general, I dislike applying ideological labels to myself. I don’t really want to be anything that ends in an “-ian” or an “-ist”; all it usually does is inspire people to put you in whatever stereotypical box the word conjures up for them. But in this case, I wanted to play whatever minuscule role I could in reclaiming the word — which is, after all, a perfectly good and useful one.
In Julia Sweeney’s wonderful one-woman show Letting Go of God, which chronicles her journey from devout Catholicism to cheerful nonbelief, she describes the difficult process of coming out to her parents. For her mother, not believing in God was one thing — but being an atheist? That was beyond the pale.
Sweeney is onto something here. It’s not the concept that shocks people so much; it’s the word. Somehow, “atheist” has acquired a whiff of Stalinist absolutism — even among people who should know better, like Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God. In a recent Huffington Post Interview, Wright said, “. . . I don’t understand how people can call themselves atheists, if the term means you’re sure there’s no God. I don’t see how you can be sure of anything in this world. I’m technically an agnostic, although one with spiritual and religious leanings. But I don’t know anything, and I don’t know how anyone can say they know there’s no God.”
There you have it: the assumption that atheism implies rigid, dogmatic certainty in the nonexistence of God. But why?
When people refer to themselves as Christians, I don’t automatically peg them as fire-breathing fundamentalists who have never entertained the slightest doubts about God’s existence. When people express their political leanings, I don’t take it for granted that they’re intolerant ideologues who will view me as a contemptible fool if I disagree. Unique among isms, atheism is assumed to contain an arrogant degree of certainty.
In my book, certainty is the real enemy. I respect doubt far more than faith. Even the things I’m surest of — such as that I am bald, and wear a size 10 1/2 shoe — I’m only about 99% sure of. A healthy, intellectually honest outlook demands that one percent of doubt, which is not enough to keep you up nights or to interfere with the daily business of life, but is enough to acknowledge that our minds are limited and easily-bamboozled instruments; and that reality as we think we understand it may be a delusion. I’m 99% sure I’m A.J. Mell, but the lunatic in the asylum is no doubt equally convinced that he’s Napoleon.
In fact, the most cocksure people I have ever run across are devout believers. Whenever I debate matters theological with Bible-believing Christians, it’s virtually guaranteed that, at some point in the conversation, they’ll assert that they don’t just believe there’s a God; they know there’s a God. Not through mere reason, you understand — but through some higher, deeper, purer way of knowing.
Well, I beg your pardon, but you don’t know. No one knows, because the assertion can’t be proved one way or the other, and is therefore unknowable. I used the lofty, mysterioso, higher-way-of-knowing canard many times myself, when I was a believer — and it was nothing more than a self-deluding dodge, a way of avoiding the tough questions by throwing up a cosmic smokescreen. And furthermore, where does all that “knowledge” leave the concept of faith? I thought faith, by definition, was a decision to believe in something that can’t be known. If you already know, what purpose or virtue is there in having faith?
The truth is, nobody really knows what’s going on. I expect that, like every other living thing, I have my finite moment of existence, and that when I die I’ll go back to wherever I was before I was born: i.e., oblivion. That said, if I discover that I do live on after death, I’ll be delighted — unless the fundamentalists are right, and nonbelievers are cast into a pit of eternal fire, in which case I’ll be depressed. But just because we can’t be 100% sure of anything doesn’t mean that one philosophy is as good as the next, or that we can’t passionately defend our particular world view. It just means that when contemplating infinite issues with finite brains, a little humility is in order.