Every once in awhile, I get a thoughtful email from a religious student asking for help with an assignment. Usually, it’s an assignment for a philosophy class and requires points of view from various types of people, including atheists. I am always happy to oblige. This time, I got a list of questions from a religious student who needed an atheist to answer them for her theology class. I jumped at the opportunity and asked if I could also blog my answers to her. She agreed, so here are the questions:
1. What is your religious background? Did you grow up in a religious home?
My family has never been religious, no. I am the third generation of atheists on my Dad’s side (possibly fourth!), where the lineage is packed with religious detractors, rebels and critics all the way back to Anne Hutchinson. My great, great, grand ancestral Auntie Anne, of course, is known most widely for her banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 and her ex-communication from the Puritan church in 1638, all because she’d dared to criticize their dogma. She promptly told them, “fuck yas!” and went off to found Rhode Island.
On my Mom’s side, we have some Catholics who are really only Catholics when they die or get married or have babies. The rest of the time, they’re heathens who call themselves Catholics, with the exception of my distant relative Judge Earl Warren, who was a Freemason and, according to Alex Jones, conspiring with lizard men and aliens to bring forth the New World Order. The most infamous of his efforts to this end being the lone gunman theory. If it weren’t for Unky Earl, tin foil stocks would be in the gutter.
2. Was there a time when you were open to Christianity or another religion?
I’m open to anything for which there is evidence. I will happily change my mind on just about any topic if its truthfulness can be demonstrated.
3. Did you have an unfavourable experience with Christians or people of another religion that turned you off?
The main thing that turns me off about any theistic belief or religion, is the absolute lack of evidence for its factuality. Even if no one used their religion to oppress, abuse, control or affect the lives of others, I would still be put off by it because there is nothing to say it is, in any way, true, outside of personal experience and the accounts of ancient storytellers who may or may not have been telling the truth or recalling correctly.
4. Which religion do you take most offense to and why?
I’m not really offended by religion any more than I am offended by The Lord of The Rings. To me, religious belief is made up of stories. Some of them are really great, entertaining stories that took some serious imagination to come up with. Of course, horrible things happen in the Bible, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining or any more offensive. They shot Marvin in the face -there was freaking brain matter all over that car- and I still loved the fuck out of Pulp Fiction.
What I object to is that some people believe these tales to be the truth, and want everyone else around them to believe it and behave as though they’re true, too. They want laws that govern us all to center around these stories being true, and if you don’t believe these stories are true, they want to knock on your door or leave their storybook in your hotel room or accost you on the street with their stories until you do believe they are true. They force their children, using the threat of eternal torture, to believe. They disown, shun, excommunicate and sometimes jail or kill those who refuse to believe or who stop believing. Of these crimes, today, Islam is the most guilty, but Christianity has a bloody past that is going to be hard to one-up.
I think the religion I take the most offense to, is the one in the name of which, any single, solitary person has lost their life or freedom, either voluntarily or involuntarily. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a religion that doesn’t fit that description.
5. What is your primary objection to the Christian faith?
Lack of evidence for its claims.
6. Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
Well, I don’t believe the supernatural is a real thing. If what you mean to ask is, have I ever had an experience I have been unable to explain, the answer is yes. However, to suggest that my knowledge should be enough to dismiss all of the natural possibilities and conclude, definitively, that what occurred was entirely paranormal, is to be so full of myself. I might as well be an orange in the oval office. When I say I can’t explain it, I mean I can’t explain it. I don’t mean there is no possible explanation that skilled, educated researchers might be able to discover. I didn’t examine the events in a controlled environment, test hypotheses, eliminate all possibilities and find out what the truth is. Shit just went down one day and I found myself at a loss as to how to explain it. I also find it hard to explain why I continue to love the Cleveland Browns. It doesn’t mean there’s no explanation, it means I don’t have the skill nor commitment to find it out.
7. If there is no afterlife and we cease to exist after death, do you believe your life has purpose and meaning beyond the survival of the human species? In what way?
I believe my life has purpose and meaning to those whom I have affected in the human species and other species on our planet I’ve worked for, cared for and loved. I don’t need there to be any other purpose. That is a grand enough purpose for me. My fellow human beings are worthy of this purpose. Our planet, and the life that thrives on its surface, is all a worthy enough purpose. I want a better world for my fellow human beings. I want a better world for the other species that inhabit this rock. I want a better world for the world’s sake.
When people say they need more purpose than that; when they say that they need to please an omnipotent creator in order to feel purpose, they are essentially saying that their own species, their own planet and their own animal neighbours are not purpose enough for them. I think that’s a really sad, destructive way to think.
8. How would you describe your worldview?
Ever-changing with new information.
9. Do you believe in right and wrong? What determines the ethics you live by?
My ethics are determined by my innate compassion, my conscience and real-world consequences. I don’t refrain from killing because I fear hell. I don’t kill because I know how terrible it would feel if someone I loved was killed and I wouldn’t want to bring that pain on anyone else. I see and recognize pain in the eyes of my fellow human beings as well as other species, and I work to avoid that pain as much as possible. In fact, so do you. I doubt that in the event your Bible was proven wrong, or you found out your god was not real, that you would suddenly go around killing and raping people. No, you’d probably be just as peaceful and kind as you are now, only this way, you know you’re doing it because you care for your planet-mates and you’re no longer convinced you’re only doing it to please a deity.
10. Do you consider yourself a good person? Why or why not?
Yes, absolutely. Because I have always since I was able to, worked towards a better world for my fellow human beings and animals. I have been an outspoken activist since the dawn of the internet, and I have volunteered my time for many non-profits and worked hard for others. I believe in the power of humanity, and the value of human life. I believe in my human rights and yours, and I have fought and would fight for them until the day that I die.
That said, I don’t think that people who are not activists are bad people. I think if you do your best, consider the feelings of the people around you, give love as much as you get love and try to avoid causing harm, that you’re a good person. In fact, it takes a whole lot for me to think you’re a terrible person because I believe very strongly that even the most wretched people can be taught to be decent.
It’s because I believe in the power of people… because I am a humanist. No gods required.
What are your answers to these questions? Pop ’em in the comments!