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Atheism in the Third Millennium

It’s a familiar story now. Young Christian was born into a God-fearing household. He learned to read from an illustrated children’s Bible (one of those with the sex and nastiness carefully bowdlerized). He went to a Christian school. He joined a Christian group in college. He got into an argument with an atheist and found his knowledge of the Bible wanting. He set out to study the Bible in greater depth, so he could answer the atheist’s objections all the better. He found the Bible hopelessly flawed and suffered a crisis of faith. He went to his church so his faith might be restored, but found no convincing answers for his questions. He left the church, convinced that there was something wrong with him, which made him unable to believe and left him eternally damned. He discovered that there was life after religion, and that it wasn’t all bad, and that there are more things in heaven and earth than his priest ever told him about. Now he calls himself an atheist.

I have read hundreds of stories like this, from both men and women. Each story has its unique details and deviations, but the similarities between them are still remarkable. I find them fascinating, because I am a second generation atheist and I did not have this deconversion experience. I have never felt that sensation of having the rug pulled from beneath my feet. God was never real for me. Santa-Claus and the Easter Bunny were, because they left presents and chocolate in the night–but God never did that. And, of course, everyone knows what Santa-Claus and the Easter Bunny look like. God is just some sort of formless blob in the sky. He doesn’t seem to have a personality (until you get your hands on a real Bible and read all of those nasty passages that were left out of the children’s version).

For me, as a child, atheism was just a natural state of mind. God did not register. Superman was better, Star Wars was better. Batman and Battlestar Galactica occupied more of my time and loomed larger in my mind than God ever did. When I was seven, someone bought me a book on robots, and I spent more time reading that than I ever did reading the Bible–even though both were equally available to me.

I admit that in my teenage years I became fascinated by Christians. They were strange people who talked breathlessly about love, who clasped their hands together and looked up at the sky a lot. They all seemed impossibly pure, impossibly innocent, and impossibly well scrubbed–kind of as though they used twice as much soap as ordinary people. At the time I thought them harmless enough (though I know better now). I was also fascinated by that mesmerizing, uplifting kind of feeling you have when they get you in a room and talk God at you for an hour. But I always knew that it was more hypnosis than holy-spirit, because even then God was no more real for me than Doctor Who or Darth Vader.

I was never a Christian, but always an atheist. So it was kind of embarrassing in school when I came top of the religion class and won an award. This was the Catholic religion class. I was only in the Catholic religion class because when I started at that school I couldn’t remember which denomination I had been in my previous school. So when I had to fill it in on the form I just guessed (and got it wrong). So why did I come top of the class? It may be because I was the only one paying attention. But now I suspect it was more because they had their eye on me, and thought I was good material for the priesthood. But there was no chance of that. I was an atheist. I always was. For me, God was never real. He didn’t even come close to reality. (Mind you, atheism may not necessarily be a drawback for a Catholic Priest.)

Second generation atheists are different from those who have personally fought their way out of religious superstition. It is surely difficult to leave the church you were born into, but not all that difficult to stay out of the church when you are born outside of it. If, as a child, you are never taught to fear your thoughts, then there is no reason to acquire such a fear later in life. Freethought, and asking impertinent questions becomes habitual. So the behavior of people inside religious organizations seems bizarre and unfathomable. For me, and I suspect for other people like me, the danger of falling back into the hands of superstition seems slight. So while I enjoy reading logical defenses of atheism and recognize their great importance, such defenses have no personal dimension for me. They are not vital to my sense of self.

On the other hand, I grew up outside of religion. So there are issues I have become acutely aware of, which probably wouldn’t occur to a first generation atheist. When I was at school, atheism lacked identity. It had no symbols, songs, stories, or heroes like the Christians had. I would have loved the Darwin fish and I would have scrawled it everywhere, if I had known of such a thing. But there was nothing like that. Atheism wasn’t an identity, just an empty word.

And still today, we atheists are culturally weak. We have some small things, it is true–heroes like Robert Ingersoll and Giordano Bruno, the Darwin Fish (though it is not really ours), atheist Christmas carols, the invisible pink unicorn, atheist parables, summer camps, and more–but overall we lack pomp and ceremony. We have no rites. We celebrate no anniversaries. We have no liturgy. We have no sanctuaries where we can retreat from the bombardment of religion every Sunday morning. Of course, some of you first generation atheists may think this is a point in our favor. After all, this is probably the sort of stuff you left behind. But as a second generation atheist, I feel the lack of it. And I know it is this lack of cultural depth that will hold us back, no matter how logical we can prove ourselves to be.

Now we are entering into the new millennium, it seems a natural time to stop and ask the question, what shall the future of atheism be? Must all our literature remain squarely focused on religion, or can we also focus on the consequences and constructs of our atheism? Must atheism remain a ghetto for the disaffected, or can it truly become a lifestyle in itself? Must atheism remain the preserve of a tiny minority, or can it be given broader appeal?

I propose that in this coming millennium we atheists focus our efforts on two fronts. The first is the work that we do now–exposing the weaknesses of religion, upholding the separation of church and state, justifying our position with logic and reason, and helping those who would free themselves of religious superstition. This is all vital work that must continue. It is also the natural preserve of first generation atheists, who know what it is to experience religion from the inside, and who possess the insights and sympathies that second generation atheists lack.

The second front would be cultural. It would establish atheism as a way of life. It would address the feelings and sentiments that arise from living as an atheist, and the way we deal with a world that contains no gods, ghosts, or demons. It would address what it means to be an atheist, and the humane concerns that accompany this life. Out of this will rise the art and the literature of the atheism. Out of this will rise the stories, the celebrations, and the symbolism of atheism. This too is vital work, if atheism is to be anything more than an academic curiosity. And this is the natural preserve of second generation atheists, like myself, who know what it is like to live every day of their lives as atheists, and who can be in tune with the subtleties of the atheist life.

In the long term, I see no reason why our atheist lifestyle cannot be made better than anything religion offers. Already we have the advantage of a firm logical foundation, built and maintained by first generation atheists. And the thoughtful creativity required to build a culture of atheism is encouraged in us, rather than suppressed, as the religious suppress free thought in their children. When it comes to cultural richness, I see no reason why we cannot match religion, point for point, and then surpass it.

Christians are proud of their book. Okay then, let’s have our own book. Better still, let’s have several books, or a whole library full of them. There is no need for us to say “this is the only book an atheist need ever read.” I’ll write one myself if anyone’s interested. I’m sure there are many people out there who can write books that are more truthful, honest, humane, and moral than the Bible is.

Christians are proud of their morality. Okay then, let’s have our own. Let its first principle be: to take responsibility for one’s own life and actions. After all, this is what atheism is all about. When we become atheists we quit hiding behind lame excuses like “god made me do it” or “satan made me do it” or “this life is not important, but the next.” We put all that nonsense behind us and take responsibility for ourselves. And because we are all alone in the universe with no one to help us but other human beings, let our second moral principle be: do that which benefits humanity, either one’s own humanity or someone else’s. If at a stretch I had to come up with a third moral principle, it would be: embrace life. So there we go; we have three moral principles, as opposed to ten, and not one of them begins with “thou shalt not.”

Christians are proud of their ceremonies and celebrations. Okay then, let’s have our own. Of course, many people are already married in entirely secular wedding ceremonies, but I see no reason why we can’t have secular ceremonies for other milestone’s in life. We could have secular funerals, baby naming ceremonies, and coming of age ceremonies. And people already have solstice parties, so nobody has to miss out on the fun at Christmas time. Now surely we atheists can throw better parties than Christians can? We can even start our own traditions for these parties. We could have Robert Ingersoll readings. We could tell religious jokes. We could burn televangelists in effigy. We could hold superstition breaking parties every Friday the thirteenth. There’s any amount of fun stuff we could do.

My point here is that, in the third millennium, we atheists should begin building up a rich cultural life; for only by doing this can we make anything lasting of this philosophical conviction we all share–that there is no God. As things stand, there are those who could embrace atheism, but who do not, because it seems so shallow without all the usual trappings of culture. And there are those of the second or third generation (particularly women) who will abandon their atheism in search of something richer and more psychologically nourishing if they cannot find depths in the convictions of their elders.

Building a culture out of atheism might seem an impossible task to some. Wouldn’t it be difficult to find common ground between atheists, given they are so disparate? I don’t think so. After all, we share our atheism, and at the end of the day, we are all human beings with human aspirations. And I am not really talking about the sort of culture that exists within a church group, where there is hierarchy, and authority, and rules worked out to the smallest detail. When I say culture, I am thinking of something more robust–art and literature reflecting the atheist lifestyle, events that can be celebrated (or not) as one pleases, and symbols and monuments of our atheism.

To build such a culture requires only a little skill, some insight into the lifestyle of atheism, and the conviction to carry it forward. The rest comes with time, as it all accumulates and forms itself into something with depth and history. At the moment we stand at the beginning of this process. With luck and with commitment, atheism might come to rival religion sometime in the next thousand years. It can be as deep, as humane, and as inspiring as any religion is today. And then some.