What I Mean When I Say I Am an Atheist
The following piece is adapted from one that I wrote in November 2012 for The Existentialist, my congregation’s newsletter. I’m posting it on my blog in part as a response to an attack made recently on a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Florida and in part to answer a question I was recently asked. Someone said, “Atheists are always saying what they don’t believe. Tell me what you do believe.”
In explaining why I call myself an atheist, I want to clear up a few things. First, many people assume that if you’re an atheist, you believe in no ethics or morals. “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted,” a character of Dostoyevsky’s said. Now this is not me by a long shot. I believe in ethics. “How can you have ethics,” some people ask, “if you don’t believe in a God who gives rewards and punishments?” But do people do the right things only because they want rewards or fear punishments? No, most people who do good things genuinely want to help someone, or they want to live in a community where people think of others, not just themselves.
Another assumption is that atheists think science has all the answers. We are supposedly so rational that we have no use for mystery, poetry, metaphor, or what can’t be explained. Looking down our noses at messy emotions, vague intuitions, irrational loyalties, or mystical spirituality, we imagine that nothing has value unless its value can be proved by hard facts or logical arguments. That’s not true of me. I like logic, and I hold facts to be important. I think there is such a thing as truth, even if we can’t grasp it. Yet I also believe in mystery, in things that can’t be explained. I value feelings, affection, loyalty, friendship, love—often in spite of reason.
Atheists are sometimes seen as angry at religion or religious people. They often are. Many people of my generation raised in Christian families in the South revolted against the racist, sexist, unjust beliefs that surrounded us. When I was growing up Baptist in North Carolina, I was surrounded by people who claimed to be Christian yet who had no qualms about expressing the most appalling race prejudice. Even the mildest could not see that our way of segregated life went counter to the teachings of Jesus. I felt they were not only wrong but that their words and actions were deeply repugnant to my sense of right and justice. I didn’t rage against them; I just quietly withdrew. The people who were angry were better than I am, for they were in the forefront of the fight for civil rights.
But I’m not angry at Christianity nor even at Baptists now. I respect honest attempts to find meaning and community that are based on compassion and the desire for justice for all. I belong to a liberal Unitarian Universalist congregation that originated independently, based on Existentialist and feminist principles. I also attend a racially diverse women’s spiritual discussion group.
By saying that I am an atheist, I simply mean that I don’t believe in a conscious, aware, thinking, directing, non-physical being who created everything and who is aware of us, a being known as “God.” True, many Christians (and Jews) don’t believe in such a being either. They believe that God is universal love, or nature, or a life force or energy. I’ve often said I wished I did believe in the arc of the universe tending toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did. Or in karma, as my partner does. But I find it highly unlikely that justice is built into the structure of things. We are responsible for bringing it about; it will not happen without our efforts.
So why do I call myself an atheist? Because I want to be honest. If I don’t say anything, most people assume that I believe in God, since most people say they do. I would escape the opprobrium and disapproval shown to atheists. I could shelter under that wide, protective umbrella.
What do I believe? I believe that we act in freedom, and that we define ourselves by how we act. I believe that with freedom comes responsibility, and that we are responsible to others, for we live in community, not alone. Even if we think we live alone, we cannot live without others. As for what happens after death, I just don’t know. No one does. There may be no meaning on the large scale, but meaning is here and now, for we create meaning. What we do matters. And I am grateful to my congregation, the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta, in providing a place where people can talk, think, ponder, reflect on what we believe and how we live our beliefs.