Terrible thing, to live in fear.
—Morgan Freeman as “Red” in The Shawshank Redemption
I saw a meme on Facebook that was three check boxes. The first was “Christian.” The second was “Agnostic.” The third—the one that was checked—was “Atheist, and kind of a dick about it.”
I chuckled then thought, Shit, that’s me.
A Life-Saving Experience
Clay Walker has had six songs hit the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. Life was as great as could be, until 1996 when the new father had a paralyzing attack. He was about to go on stage but began to suffer spasms, double vision, and an inability to walk. Two days later, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and told he’d be in a wheelchair in four years, dead in eight.
He was scared shitless.
In an interview for my latest book, Clay told me he had not been a religious man, but the fear and despair dropped him to his knees to pray for help. He said God answered, speaking the words, “I have you,” and delivered an overwhelming sense of peace to the man. The experience gave Clay the strength to fight his condition with everything he had. More than two decades later, Clay is still touring, still bringing joy to his fans.
What Clay experienced was something powerful for him, but I don’t think God talked to Walker, because I don’t think God exists. “Lapsed atheist” is a play on lapsed Catholic: someone who no longer practices Catholicism, though they may still identity as Catholic and even still believe.
For those who like to label everything, put me at a 6 on the Dawkin’s Scale, but know that I no longer practice atheism. Some may proclaim atheism isn’t “practiced,” but the prevalence of atheist organizations in the world suggest otherwise.
However you define it, I’m not the atheist I once was.
Back to Clay for a moment.
Religion was a boon for him, relieving him from a crushing fear that would steal his life. He’ll tell you God saved him; there are many others who would say the same. And an atheist can respect the power of religious belief to change lives for the better without themselves giving credence to a higher power.
I bring this up to encourage respecting and understanding our fellow humans as creatures of diverse experience and understanding so that we might get along better. Because there are myriad cases of religion being helpful for individuals, making them better people, or just helping them live alongside fear of the unknown.
Being “a dick about it” regarding atheism is a confrontational position that goes against the core being of a large segment of the population. You’ll win fewer friends than you do with salad.
The Atheism Spectrum
Dawkins has his scale of belief, I’ll present a spectrum of how atheism is practiced, or “practiced,” if you will.
On one end we have the Pro-theist Atheist. “Hey, I’m happy you have these beliefs that help you live a better life. Let’s hang.”
Toward the middle of the spectrum is the Ambivalent Atheist. “Religion? Who gives a shit?”
The other end is the Anti-theism Atheist.“Fuck religion in every hole. Make it die.”
For the “anti” end of the spectrum, I know some personally, but there are also plenty of loud and famous ones with dedicated followings. For a time, I was one of those followers, and lapsed by evolving from anti to pro. But that comes with an important qualifier: I’m “pro-theist,” not necessarily “pro-theism.”
Before proceeding, a crushing elephant must be addressed.
Organized Religion has a Terrible History … and Present
“The typical Middle Ages peasant was more concerned about going to heaven than getting enough to eat.” This was told to me decades ago by a medieval history professor, an amusing old fellow with a misshapen skull. He often joked of being late for an appointment with his phrenologist.
His words speak to how religion can be used to control people. Faith can be an amazing thing, until it is warped by those who seek power. I examined this in a piece titled The Weaponization of Religion, which I wrote following the 2015 Paris Attacks.
Religion has been the cause of many terrible things, and components of it continue to have a negative effect on society. When weaponized, religion doesn’t just prompt acts of terror, it gets horrible people elected who make bigoted and misogynistic laws. The separation of church and state is unfortunately not that separate. I can hate the evil religion has done and continues to inflict while reaching out to those believers who are decent folk.
At the same time, I won’t decry the kind-of-a-dick-about-it anti-theist who has good reason for being so, because my lack of belief comes from a place of privilege; it was the path of least resistance.
I was raised in a non-religious home in urban Canada. There was almost no exposure to religion. It wasn’t a binding force in my community. There was no shortage of unbelievers to associate with. The easiest thing to do was stay the course, to not believe.
For many others, the path to atheism has been an ordeal. They were indoctrinated by religion, perhaps abused by it, yet it was central to their family and their community. And they had the strength to break from that, to face rejection as a fallen one, and choose a different path. Such circumstances, especially when abuse is involved, can make one bitter.
I get that, so I’ll not lambast the anti-theist who has personal stake in hating religion. But neither will I advocate for tearing down houses of worship.
Again, I’m a privileged one, so I can sidestep much of the fuckery organized religion has visited and be all “Let’s get along”-ish. That doesn’t mean I didn’t put some thought into its value.
Picking the Right Fight
Admittedly, my initial impetus to move away from the more anti-theistic members of atheism was the racists and misogynists, and there are many of them. Conversely, there are plenty of socially progressive theists. “Being religious” isn’t a terribly accurate variable for determining the quality of one’s humanity. Behavior is.
Plenty of atheists voted for Trump. The alt-right (including Nazi Richard Spencer) and self-styled “men’s rights” activists are primarily atheist. Conversely, plenty of religious people despise Trump, and decry supporting him as unchristian.
Trump support is a behavior I abhor. I’ll befriend the Trump-opposing Bible thumper long before I’ll sit at a table with atheist Trumper.
There is a larger reality to consider.
The Reality of the 85%
At present, only 15% of the world population is “non-theist”. Among the other religious 85%, many are just going through the motions, while others are most devout. It’s a spectrum of belief for any religion.
But for many, their beliefs are a big deal. It’s tied to family, community, sense of purpose, personal well-being, and more. You attack that, and the circle of friends, and allies, from which you can draw becomes small indeed.
“Who needs them?” you might say.
My favorite stand-up comedian is Jim Jeffries. This man is no fan of religion. In one of his bits he presents humanity as a train, with the front car—the engine—being the scientists, who are mostly atheists, struggling to pull the entire train forward. The next car is the agnostics, who Jim criticizes for lacking mental stamina, referring to them as “wishy washy fucks.” And behind that are many cars full of religious people who Jim says are holding us back, and that we’d be better off if we could just pull the pin, leaving them behind to rocket into a science-loving future.
It’s a funny bit, but humanity doesn’t work that way.
Despite its numerous flaws, I’m a fan of humanity. Belief is part of who we are and that won’t change any time soon. We can’t pull the pin and leave them most of the population behind.
A society of only atheists won’t be some utopia.
Some of those closest to me, people who are better humans than I, have religious beliefs. I don’t want a world without them in it, and it’s pretty ridiculous to imagine the banishing of religion from society.
But what we can imagine is a society where religion and progressive social values aren’t at odds with one another. I recently visited Ecuador, a nation that is 77% Roman Catholic. In July 2019, the country legalized gay marriage. Go Ecuador!
We can’t make a better world by ignoring a fundamental and often driving characteristic of such a large portion of our fellow humans. The reality of the religious 85% must be incorporated.
To Believe is Human
As I examined in my previously-linked weaponization of religion piece, humans are primed for belief. There is an evolutionary / genetic propensity in homo sapiens toward believing in the fantastical. As an example, the health industry is rife with pseudoscientific quackery. Whether it’s bullshit cancer “cures,” an extreme diet, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina eggs, some people embrace that shit with religious fervor.
A propensity for believing in the unscientific isn’t a good thing. (Vaccinate your crotch goblins!) But if we turned that off, would we still be human? Everyone has their pet bullshit, and perhaps such a trait is what makes us good at transforming the seemingly impossible into reality.
Humans believed they could fly, and then they did.
I figure we’re just a bunch of semi-sentient stardust meat sacks, but I’m also fond of my species. We’ve done some cool stuff and appear to be getting better. And a minority who reject the idea of gods isn’t going to get far in furthering humanity via segregation.
Letting Go to Embrace
With the prevalence of Nazi atheists, it’s fair to say lack of religious belief isn’t a rational dividing line as to what qualifies one as a decent person.
I mentioned moving away from anti-theism. I did my time on that side and admit the rise of Trump has made my embracing of believers an ongoing challenge. With the adoration by many Christians of one of the worst humans alive as their leader, it’s tough to not backslide a little.
My opinions regarding the otherworldly have been stable for some time. I am most skeptical about the existent of any gods and believe the universe to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. Prayer may be meditative, but I don’t think anyone is there to answer them. I expect that when we die, that’s it. Game over, man.
Lapsing anti-theism is about letting go of my distaste and even anger toward the faithful to get along better with my fellow human, to see the best in them regardless of their beliefs, and to focus on how people behave as the metric for evaluation rather than what they worship.
I know atheists who see the religious as weak-minded fools who believe in invisible sky fairies. Conversely, they view themselves as intellectually superior for their lack of belief.
Historically speaking, when one group sees itself as superior to another, it doesn’t turn out too well.
Change Comes from Within
An atheist decrying religion will neither make it go away nor improve its practices. Those within are the ones with the power to change it.
It’s early Saturday morning. Someone shows up on your door selling God, and you are even less interested in that than you are in joining Amway. How do you treat them? I mean, fuck them. Right?
What if, instead, you took a moment to try to understand them?
What if they’d been programmed to do this since childhood? What if they’re young and impressionable and were never given much choice in the matter? Conversely, they may be converts who had an amazing experience like Clay Walker did, and wanna share the joy.
I mean, please share that joy somewhere else, but I’m happy for you that you’ve got it.
Anyway, here is the old-lady-from-The-Matrix–bake-your-noodle part: It might be that the church they’re representing actually wants you to treat them like shit.
Atheism is a spectrum, and so is belief. There is the “Hey these people are pretty chill” end, and the “You need to get the fuck outta here with that bullshit” end, and everything in between. If your church engages in the behavior of sending you to my door, I suspect it’s one of the less chill / more controlling variety.
Yet the conversion rate for door-to-door God sales sucks. No rational company would continue with such a marketing campaign based on those results. Yet they continue to do it, because sending people door to door is less about getting new clients than it is for retaining current ones.
Noodle, meet baking.
A young, impressionable, God-loving person is told by their church to come to your door and do their best to save your soul by bringing you into the fold; they believe they’re doing you a favor. They have a smile on their face as they do the Lord’s work to save you the way a paramedic rescues the victim of a highway crash. Except their efforts are even more valiant, because we’re talking about eternity here.
They come to your door uninvited and maybe you’re tequila hungover and all “GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE JESUS FREAK!” Or maybe not but we both know some people do that. Hypothetically, you were an asshole. So what?
You isolated them, that’s what, which is what their church quite possibly wanted.
Everyone on the block says no, many of them in less-than-pleasant ways. On the other side is their church saying, “No one will love you like we do,” and you were part of helping prove the church was right by being a dick.
You made it harder for them to see things their church doesn’t want them to see. You helped their church keeps its grip tight.
Unless you’re selling something tasty and high in calories, I’m never thrilled with someone just showing up at my door, but I try to show some extra compassion and kindness for the religious visitors, because I want them to feel like the world isn’t necessarily out to get them, and it’s okay to explore beyond the boundaries of their church.
Because then they can learn some things to be a voice for progress within that church.
In case you haven’t noticed, Earth isn’t doing so hot right now. We need allies to stay alive, and we don’t have time to wait for humans to go post-spiritual.
Desperate times, desperate measures.
Being a Model Human
Christopher Hitchens was a famous anti-theist who proclaimed religion is: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
That sounds like humanity in general, not just the religious. And Hitchens’s commentary appears hypocritical when you consider he was in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The reality is we’re tribal as fuck, and some of those tribes suck, whether God is part of the equation or not. The point is to be part of a tribe that is into kindness and compassion and cooperation, and not being a total cock.
My tribe is mayo not Miracle Whip, butter not margarine, and maple syrup not that fake ass shit. But you do you.
What Happens Next?
You’re gonna die.
Death is coming for you. It’s coming for us all. One day, we’ll all be fertilizer. Cue Elton John: It’s the circle of liiiifffffeeee — and it rules us aaaaalllll.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. What happens next?
Maybe nothing, maybe something. I lean hard toward nothing, but we just don’t fucking know.
Regardless of whether an ethereal reward awaits, the best life now is to be found in being decent whenever you can, modeling good behavior for others, and getting as many humans as possible, atheist and believer alike, to move this train forward.
I have faith, faith in the future of humanity. I have high hopes that together, we’re going to do some amazing things, and that hope keeps me going.
On that note, I’ll close with another Shawshank quote:
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
My new book THE HOLY SH!T MOMENT, is now available. GET IT HERE!
James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog has millions of readers and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.