I had a truly great upbringing, with two loving parents, in a Christian home. I regularly attended our local church and its Sunday School group, and I shared in our community’s belief in God.
One day, after a particularly uneasy lesson, I decided that I had absolutely no reason good enough to believe in God anymore. It’s kind of a big commitment, after all. Although I fully admit that perhaps one day I will find a reason to believe in God that is good enough to satisfy me, nearly a decade later that day has still not yet come.
I am a spiritual atheist, and I’m here to tell you why religion is unnecessary in my life, and why it is becoming unnecessary for humanity as a whole. I also want to assuage some of the more negative feelings and stereotypes of atheism in the U.S.
I am not attempting to paint us as victims, but there is definitely an underlying mistrust or coldness that the word “atheist” can contain.
According to a July 16, 2014 Pew Research Center article titled, “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups,” randomly selected U.S. adults were asked to rate different religions on a feeling thermometer, where zero reflects a negative and cold rating. Atheists received a well-below average warmness rating of 41, on a scale of zero to 100. The article further explained this low rating, and said “Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist.”
So, hey, we’re really not so bad once you get to know us. Our image, however, could certainly use some work. Not all atheists are smug, immoral or trying to steal Christmas away from you (well, we’ll bide our time at least … until Bill O’Reilly lets his guard down).
Now that I’ve hit this point with statistics, I don’t feel so bad saying something anecdotal. I am personally saddened by how many times I’ve heard people share things with me like, “I might be atheist too, but I’d rather not have the stigma.”
Let’s get away from perceptions of atheism for a while and focus on the role of religion I’ve found in my own life. The Pew data shows that the key to feeling more favorably towards atheists is to get to know them (huh, understanding someone helps you to trust them).
What are some of the ideal products of religion in life? Those would be things like beauty, gratitude, morality, community and love. I firmly believe the religious and nonreligious are both trying to reach a similar understanding of these things, only using differing strategies.
Some find awe and wonder in a perfectly created existence by an all-powerful something because they have a designed place in it, which would make humanity special. I find much more beauty in the idea that the universe is random and only aware through our own consciousness; that there’s no sentient force driving the universe. This idea is much scarier and more precious to me because of just how astronomically lucky we are to be here and know that we’re here, and this leads right from beauty to gratitude.
If our existence was simply the tiniest of cosmic blips or the inevitable result of the multiverses, or if it came about through chance instead of a destined plan, then our gratitude for being would shift from one towards a benevolent designer to one where we can be grateful to the universe itself.
This has shifted the focus of this feeling away from the heavens and to the people around me; in other words, instead of prayers of thankfulness, I try to embody this thankfulness in disposition. As for morality, community and love, I see how religion strives to instill these in humanity, but ultimately doesn’t it seem a bit limiting to have to rely on it for them?
Many people use their religion as a moral template, or least a guide. I have read the Bible (including taking a Bible class here at K-State), the Quran, many books on world religions, study philosophy and even regularly attend a Bible study. I gather morality from all of them and other sources. Humanity constructs morality; it isn’t a set thing laid out in a book.
How many of us would say that the morality espoused in the Bible matches our moral sense today? For instance, if we had to agree on a modern Ten Commandments, wouldn’t you think despicable acts like rape or enslaving an entire group of people might make the list? Hopefully there would be less page space dedicated to disrespecting our benevolent creator or wearing polyester (Leviticus 19:19).
For some, constructing our own morality sounds dangerous and an excuse for abandoning it entirely, but to me it instills a sense of ultimate responsibility for it. Morality isn’t handed down to us on high to easily follow; it is hard work building it ourselves. Morality falls at our feet, not the other way around.
Just as you can gather lessons of morality from religion, you can also find community and love, but again, doesn’t it seem unnecessarily limiting? If we didn’t need religion for these things, if it didn’t serve as our crutch, we could find community and love amongst all people, everywhere, not just in our church. I realize that sounds overly idealistic, but I truly believe it is possible, because while I don’t have faith in God, I do in people.
Carl Sagan once said that, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” So maybe, instead of dividing ourselves into our respective religious corners, we should all strive to love ourselves, love humanity and love the universe we exist in.
Jonathan Greig is a senior in anthropology.