Navigating the World as an Atheist: 6 Helpful Reflections
“Always beware of a sinner turned saint,” my mother used to say. We’ve all suffered the boring verve of a blabby convert, whether to an actual religion, yoga, Apple, or whatever they’ve become smitten with. I did it when I decided to make the leap of no faith to atheism.
To be clear, I consider myself a de facto atheist, which is defined by the Scale of Theistic Probability as someone who strongly believes there is no god, but is fine with not being 100% sure. I also consider myself to be charming and gregarious, so I was really bothered by a study that found atheists are viewed by Americans more coldly than almost any religious group.
Far worse, a study out of the University of British Columbia found that atheists are considered to be about as trustworthy as rapists. Seriously. That means if these respondents had to ask a neighbor to feed their cat while they were away, and Daniel Radcliffe lived on one side and the convicted serial rapist Christopher Evans Hubbert lived on the other, they’d have to flip a coin to pick who to trust to go in the house and feed Mittens.
Study co-author Ara Norenzayan of UBC said in a statement that a possible reason for this marked distrust is that “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them.”
In any event, atheists need some better PR.
I don’t think I helped when, excited to discuss my newfound disbelief, I nattered on about it a little too long to a friend who listened patiently and then told me that God was a very comforting thought to him when life threw its sucker punches, which I knew it had done quite a bit lately.
This surprised me a lot. My intention wasn’t to be a big, wet, godless blanket tamping out the solace of a dear friend, and certainly not to make atheists look worse. Maybe it would help for people to know that non-believers sometimes need comfort in this mad world, too; we just find it a little closer to home. Here are some examples of things which, in the absence of the supernatural, help me move along when I’m having a long, dark night of the soul.
1. Watch your language.
“Back to real life.”
When we come home from marvelous vacation to our tedious jobs we say “Back to reality.” We talk about the super rich as knowing nothing of “real life.” When we’re shown only a town’s tourist features we wonder about the "real" city. The way we talk you’d think everything beautiful, happy and comfortable was pretend and that shabby drudgery is all there is on earth.
Dammit, that is not fair. I’m not reality’s biggest fan but my perfect days on the beach are just as real as the time I spend doing my taxes. Language matters and our habit of referring primarily to the tiresome as "real" can make it seem like what’s real is never good.
And it is good. You were there: you probably took pictures, pictures you don’t want your mom to see! That’s real, baby.
When I need an air bag between me and an emotional crash, one of my comforts is to reflect on the very real happiness I’ve had, the glorious places I’ve gone, the breaks, friends, lovers, jobs and experiences it’s been my privilege to have known. Look at it that way and it’s not a slump-shouldered, "Back to real life,” it’s “More real life, please! And make it snappy!”
2. The afterlife party.
What do I find comforting when faced with “real life” endings? Also known as death?
Truth? I never think about it. Not ever. I worked at a funeral home and never gave any more thought to my own death than what music I want at my long, sad service (it’s this).
Pondering where, if anywhere, I will go when I die seems to me like a similar quandary as looking for one’s glasses: your own state makes you a lot less likely to find what you’re looking for.
When this problem arises I usually just put in my contacts, which I can see; the glasses will eventually present themselves.
3. Someone I don’t even know is trying to help me.
Humans have a wide range of suffering: huge things, tiny things and everything in between can cause us angst. I’m comforted by the knowledge that there’s someone working on it.
Someone bothered to do the math, literally, to get advanced degrees in life-saving and life-improving fields and they’ve been at work helping us for many, many years. There are people figuring out how to help people save their eyesight; how we can regenerate our teeth; and how to change people's lives through digital technology in ways its creators may never have imagined.
Oh, and everything comes in pumpkin now.
This gives me confidence in human beings and their ability to see darkness and attempt to illuminate answers.
4. Navel gazing redefined.
On a lighter note, a few weeks ago I was stuck at one of those traffic lights that’s so long you might as well sign onto the web and get an online degree while you’re waiting. The temperature was in the '90s, my car is unairconditioned, and these things have a tendency to fill me with worry, frustration and general angst.
Then a vision jogged by: male, shirtless, dark-haired, about 25 years old. My mind went as blank as a shaken Etch-a-Sketch. My thoughts weren’t lascivious: I had no thoughts. I was thinking what my friend Bob once told me men are always thinking: nothing. For the rest of the day I was in the calm, thankful state one associates with people who look for inner peace, not people like me who are more likely to be looking for their phone.
A little while ago a concept called “awe therapy” made the Internet rounds; it describes times when something deeply beautiful, from a view of the Grand Canyon to a happy memory, radically shifts the perspective of our nattering minds, making us peaceful, appreciative and possibly even nicer. I submit that natural wonders can come in human form, too. Having redefined navel gazing as gazing at a man with no shirt on, I’m content to make that the only kind I ever do again.
5. Nothing personal.
In the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog profiles Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the grizzly bears he loved and hoped to protect. Herzog compares his own impression of the bears to Treadwell’s, saying, “in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
I find the idea of an indifferent universe incredibly freeing. Thinking it has a consciousness, like a god, makes you feel targeted when things go wrong. If nature looks at you with the same blank apathy the grocery store cashier does, the terrifying things it brings, like sickness or thunderstorms, seem more random and democratic. And it makes the grand things it brings, like dogs, dopamine and Canada, that much more amazing.
6. Somebody down here likes you, too.
My mother went into the hospital in May 2005 for a bout of pneumonia with complications that would do her in five months later and my days were spent between work and hospital. At one point, my friend Hilary insisted I go out, just for dinner and a movie, saying, “You need to remember that there are good things, too.” She was right. I went and nobody died: a phrase that means a lot more under some circumstances than others.
After that, I decided that the pending loss of my mother sucked so much that everything else in my life had to be great, and I did everything I could to make it that way. Looking back on that five-month period, even in the shadow of death, there are good memories mixed in with the tough ones.
This is just one of the innumerable times a friend shepherded me through something that seemed unbearable. Existential crisis or a stolen car battery, friends are always the first line of comfort. This is even true of my dead friends. My memories of them are so vivid I can still draw solace from those bonds. And that's all the comfort that’s necessary.