I enjoy watching football, but I don’t really follow the sport, which makes it a little difficult for me to comment on the behavior of a particular player. However, I have received a few e-mails asking me to comment on “Tebowing” from an atheist perspective, so I’m going to give it a shot.
As I understand it, Tebowing is the practice of taking a particular prayerful stance in public, named for quarterback Tim Tebow who notably makes such shows of reverence during football games. To get past the obvious question, I’ll state right up front that as an atheist I have no objection in principle to a professional athlete making a religious or other philosophical statement during an event so long as it is:
- In good taste (no obscene gestures)
- Not mean spirited (no taunting or mocking)
- Obviously a personal statement (don’t pretend that your message represents the beliefs of your sport’s management)
- Victimless (don’t waste people’s time or get in their way), and
- Not a violation of the sport’s rules (no modifying your uniform with religious symbols).
I do find it a little irritating when people give God credit for the accomplishments of humans, but I admit that this is a purely personal reaction.
With my perspective as an atheist aside, let’s talk about this from the opposite perspective: is Tebowing something a Christian should do?
The biggest problem I see with Tebowing is that — even if this is not how it is intended — many people take it as a statement of belief that God is in favor of a particular team. Giving Tebow the benefit of the doubt, I assume he does not believe that God determines the outcome of sporting events, because that leads to potential philosophical difficulties (such as how God decides the outcome of competitions between two Christians, the fact that non-Christians don’t always lose, etc.) But even if he does not believe that his religious devotion makes him a favorite of God, his demonstrating thanks in the face of success clearly risks giving people that impression.
I think that giving this impression does a disservice to Christianity in general. I recall seeing a political cartoon after a recent loss by Tebow’s team that implied his losing meant that he had fallen out of favor with God. From a Christian perspective, this is slander.
So if Tebow wants to give thanks to God when he has good fortune, how can he avoid giving people the wrong impression? It seems to me that the easiest way would be for him to remember that he is “blessed” just to be skillful, lucky, and qualified enough to be a quarterback on a professional football team. To show his thankfulness for this, perhaps he should Tebow whenever his turn at being a quarterback has ended — not just when he throws a touchdown or runs into the end zone, but also when the half ends or he throws an interception. He might even Tebow whenever he’s sacked, just to show he’s thankful for not being injured.
Since I have never seen a football game in which Tim Tebow played, I don’t know when exactly he Tebows. Maybe he does do it when both positive and negative (in a football-game sense) things happen. If so, then good for him — his critics have that much less to complain about. But if he only uses Tebowing as a celebration when he scores a touchdown, I don’t think we can blame people for taking his actions as pious snobbery.
Before I close, let’s take a quick look at Tebowing from a Biblical perspective. In Matthew 6:1-8, for example, Jesus speaks at great length about not making public displays of religious devotion, implying that they are intended more to glorify the person than the Lord. Tim Tebow’s shows of devotion are most definitely public displays.
Those same verses also say that prayers should be heartfelt messages to God, not “vain repetitions.” It’s true that we don’t know what’s going on in Tebow’s head when he gives thanks on the field, but his outward manner is of a person who just repeats the same thing over and over — to the point that the gesture has had his name attached to it.
I can’t comment on Tim Tebow’s philosophy because I don’t know much about it. However, I think we can conclude, from the scriptural evidence, that Jesus wouldn’t Tebow.
In: Dealing with religious folks
From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:
My daughter posted your site to her facebook page which gave me the opportunity to read your position.She seems to be quite a fan. I too claimed to be an athiest during part of my youth and I can only share with you my experiences. I was angry and hurt and felt rejected and frankly enjoyed the shock value of telling people of my enlightened opinions and positions. Many of which led me only into more pain and sorrow and increased my burdens in life . My opinions and beliefs changed as I aged and especially after I gave birth to my afore mententioned daughter. I am happy I had the opportunity to grow and learn I was given a receptive heart and spirit. Yes I am a Christian and I raised my daughter in the church. Her rejection began with anger as mine did. I can only pray for her now. And for you too that whatever stumbling block has been placed in the way will be removed.
I agree with you that anger and a desire to shock others is a terrible basis for a personal philosophy. Those who call themselves atheists because they are angry at religion or had a bad experience are, in my mind, just as incorrect as those who call themselves religious because they feel guilty or depressed. The truth of how the universe works is not dependent on one’s emotions.
Personally, I was raised in a religious household but had no negative experiences with religion or the religious community. I became an atheist when in my quest for moral grounding I discovered that atheism made much more sense to me than theism.
I would like to pass along to you my sincere wish that your daughter be able to put aside whatever anger might have spurred her to atheism and consider her philosophy in as reasoned and objective manner as possible (if she has not done so already). Whether she continues to be an atheist or becomes again religious, she will be benefit from having a grounding in reason and clear thought.
I trust that you will love and support your daughter no matter what she decides, and I hope that she realizes what a treasure it is to have a parent who cares for her so much.
Best of luck.
Sadly, I have to start this post with an apology. I recently received a very nice e-mail from a Christian that I thought was very worthy of response. I put it aside while I thought about how I’d answer and in the interim managed to inadvertently permanently delete it in a spam purge. I’m going to do my best to recreate this person’s argument and give it a fair response, but I’m hoping that the correspondent is watching this blog and can post the original in the comments (or resend it to me).
Now I have to apologize again, this time for having to start this post in such a lame way.
In a nutshell, my correspondent’s argument was that there is no reason Christians and atheists can’t get along if we just stop worrying about trying to prove that God exists. If God is absolutely infinite, completely unrestrained by anything including the laws of logic, then He is undiscoverable by the finite human mind. If we can agree that there is no possible proof that God exists, and we can agree that it is impossible to prove the negative statement that God doesn’t exist, then we can just stop arguing about trying to prove or disprove God’s existence and use our time more productively.
To the best of my recollection, that is a fair summary of the argument (although the original was explained in more detail).
Now for my response.
As much as I admire the sentiment here, I think that the argument fails on a number of points.
First, most Christian scholars (at least most of those I am aware of) do not consider God to be infiinite in the sense proposed by my correspondent. Generally, they believe that God has infinite power but that this power is limited by two things: the rules of logic (God can’t make “A” equal to “not A”) and His nature (God can’t do anything that God wouldn’t do; e.g., evil stuff). I think these are reasonable limits, particularly since allowing God to violate the rules of logic opens up many ridiculous possibilities (such as him being able to overcome any possible obstacle, including nonexistence).
Second, there are many religious scholars who believe that you can indeed prove that God exists. Granted, they are generally not trying to prove that a God of unbounded power exists, but rather that an infinitely powerful but limited God (as described in my previous post) exists. The correspondent would have to prove to these scholars both that God is unboundedly infinite and that their proofs of God’s existence are spurious.
And third, I think the correspondent’s argument leads rational people to atheism. Here’s why:
Given that God is unboundedly infinitely powerful and that it is impossible to prove to finite beings that God exists, we can conclude that God wants His existence to be unprovable. (If God has no limits on His power, he could make it possible for finite beings to prove that He exists.)
If it is impossible to prove that God exists, then we must live in a universe that does not appear to need a creator. (If we could tell that it needed a creator, then it would be possible to prove that God exists.)
If the universe appears to not need a creator, then either it really does need a creator and God has hidden this fact from us, or it does not need a creator. If God is hiding this fact from us, then He is being purposefully deceptive, which does not seem to agree with the widely held Christian belief that God is completely good. If God is not hiding this fact from us, then we live in a universe that has a creator but does not require one.
If the universe does not require a creator, then a human could believe that the universe exists without a creator or that it exists with a creator that is unnecessary. A rational person, preferring the simpler explanation, would conclude that God does not exist. Someone preferring the more complicated explanation would not be behaving rationally.
So, given the correspondent’s conditions, I’d be led to conclude that theists must either give up belief in God or admit that their belief is not rational (and, by extension, that any conclusions based on that belief are not rational).
I don’t think that this is where the correspondent wanted the conversation to go, so a revision of the correspondent’s argument is likely in order.
Young, rich, intelligent, beautiful — Kirsten had everything going for her. She was kind to animals, generous to those less fortunate than her, and sought diligently to make the world a better place, both for herself and for those around her.
It might seem that she had everything going for her, but, sadly, Kirsten was an atheist. She did not believe in God and had not accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior or been bathed in his blood. That meant that, even though she tried to live a good life, every little sin Kirsten committed counted against her, and without the forgiveness born from Christ’s sacrifice to balance the books, she deserved Hell as much as the vilest murderer. True, Kirsten thought herself a good person and believed she was living a moral life, but with death would come a bitter truth.
It was on the day after her eighteenth birthday that Kirsten received her reward for a sinful life. She was driving a shiny new convertible sports car that was a gift from her parents, enjoying the California sunshine warming her long, blond hair as she sped down Pacific Coast Highway. Then, all of a sudden, a large rock broke loose from the hillside to her left and sped down the slope toward traffic. Kirsten didn’t see it when it was sent spinning into the air after colliding with another rock, and didn’t even have time to register pain when it slammed into the side of her head.
Even though Kirsten was an atheist, many philosophers would argue that she was both body and mind. Her body might be punished by physical things, but it was her mind — her spirit — that would receive the punishment due for her sinful ways.
Here’s what happened to her body.
The impact of the rock blew Kirsten’s skull to pieces like a snowball hit with a baseball bat. Her lifeless hands continued to grip the wheel, but steered the car into oncoming traffic, resulting in a head-on collision that seriously injured to a couple vacationing from Vermont. Kirsten’s body was restrained to the best of the seat belt and airbag’s ability, but as the car rolled, and rolled, and rolled again before coming to a rest within the doorway of a fancy seafood restaurant, it was so horribly mangled that the quick near-decapitation was effectively a blessing.
So much for her body; what about her spirit?
Here’s what happened to Kirsten’s soul.
Nothing, because there’s no such thing as a soul.
Before we even get started, I need to ask all atheists to move along, just this once. This post contains secret information that is for the eyes of Christians only. Sorry about that.
Okay, now that we’ve got all the atheists out of the way, I’ve got a few tips for you Christians — particularly those of you who are evangelicals and would like to convince atheists that the Christian way is the right way. You see, there are a few little mistakes that many Christians make when trying to change the minds of atheists like me, and these mistakes — small as they are — can undo a great deal of good, honest work.
So, when you’re in a situation where you’ve got an atheist’s ear and want to spread a bit of the word, keep these tips in mind:
- Remember that atheists generally consider atheism to be a religion only for purposes of legal classification. We think that laws regarding freedom of religion apply to atheism, but reject attempts to place atheism in the “religion” philosophical category. Some religions are worldviews, but not all worldviews are religions. Get used to that.
- Atheists say that atheism isn’t a religion, but rather a lack of religion. You’ll get nowhere with “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” “you believe as many things without proof as I do,” etc.
- While we’re on the subject, don’t insist that atheists believe certain things or discount certain possibilities just because they make the atheist uncomfortable. For example, don’t argue that atheists would embrace creationism if we just got over our bias toward supernatural causes. Atheists generally believe what we do because of evidence, and most of us are more than happy to consider whatever evidence you may have that the supernatural exists. When we show you why your evidence is nonexistent, incorrect, insufficient, or badly interpreted, don’t claim that we’re discounting it for no reason. That just makes you look willfully ignorant.
- Don’t ask how an atheist can prove that God doesn’t exist unless you’re prepared to prove that the Easter Bunny, fairies, and the secret brother you never knew you had don’t exist.
- Don’t try and use the problem of evil argument on atheists. To us, “good” and “evil” are descriptive terms, not things that have some kind of existence of their own. When we say we don’t believe in the supernatural, we mean it.
- Speaking of which, those of us who are strict determinist don’t think that free will being an illusion is a justification for avoiding punishment for bad behavior. We also attempt to fix broken machines, corral mad dogs, and put out fires even though we don’t think they have free will. Don’t even ask us about this while making the assumption that we’ve never considered the question. We have.
- I know you’re used to dealing with deities, prophets, holy men, etc., whose words are as good as law, but atheists aren’t. Atheists don’t consider Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, or anyone else to be infallible, so we really don’t care if you can point out something they were wrong about. The same goes for deathbed confessions — even if you did have proof that a famous atheist became a Christian on his or her death bed, we wouldn’t much care. It proves nothing.
- Quit it with the “there are no atheists in foxholes” thing. Why would you want to argue that even a rational person might agree with your point of view when exhausted and stressed out? You need to argue that a rational person would agree with you even while calm and well rested.
- Don’t misrepresent what atheists believe. We don’t all think that there is no such thing as morality, that might makes right, that pleasure is the only good, etc. We don’t secretly believe in God, and we aren’t mad at God or any other thing that doesn’t exist.
- Evolution isn’t a tenet of atheism, and neither are humanism, liberal politics, communism, or materialism.
- We aren’t all atheists because we’re mad at religion or had a bad religious experience. Asking us what happened to us that made us reject God is just plain insulting to our intelligence.
- We don’t all think that religious people are stupid. If we disagree with you, don’t act like it’s an insult or a personal affront, or that we’re not listening.
- We certainly don’t worship Satan. Don’t even ask us about it. (See the above point about our not believing in things that don’t exist.)
- In a similar light, make sure you have a decent working knowledge of any topic you want to address. Questions like “If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” are more statements of massive ignorance than they are difficult questions about science.
- Quit trying to say that Hitler was an atheist. It’s not true and insisting that it is true just annoys us.
- Same deal with arguing that atheism has caused more death than religion. You’re never going to win this one.
- When you’re giving evidence for religion or against atheism, don’t misquote. We pretty much all have access to libraries and the internet, so if you quote Darwin (or whoever) out of context, we’re going to figure it out and conclude that you are either a fool or willfully ignorant. If you’re going to quote from a book, a speech, or whatever, read it — or, at least, read enough of it that you understand the context of what you’re quoting.
- Even more important, don’t misquote the Bible or try to bolster your argument with verses from the Bible that are ambiguous or seem to have a different meaning when isolated from their surrounding text. When you misuse the book that you think is the most important text on the planet, you’re convincing us that you don’t know what you’re talking about and practically begging for ridicule.
- While on the subject of the Bible, remember that atheists don’t consider it an authority on anything but, at most, some aspects of middle-eastern history. Saying that something philosophical or supernatural is true just because it’s in the Bible is a nonstarter for us.
- Don’t insist that atheists would be Christians if we just treated the Bible the same way we treat any other manuscript. The fact is, we do indeed treat the Bible the same way we treat other ancient document — with skepticism. Yes, we do this for non-Biblical texts, too (and so do you — at least those of you who don’t think that some humans are descendents of pagan deities). The Bible isn’t special in this sense.
- It’s okay to suggest that an atheist read the Bible, but it’s not okay to say that an atheist who has read the Bible somehow didn’t read it correctly. Similarly, don’t try to imply that an atheist who doesn’t have an extensive working knowledge of Biblical text is therefore ignorant of the Bible. We have no compelling reason to make an extensive study of the Bible, and I’ll bet you can’t recite chapter and verse of every book you’ve read either.
- The following phrases should be added to your “never use” list: “Just trust in Jesus,” “Try believing,” “Give Jesus a chance,” “Look in your heart.” Atheists don’t turn beliefs on and off like light switches. If you convince us that your point is true, we’ll believe it. But before that, we can’t try believing you’re right, just to see how things go.
- For the reasons given in the previous tip, you never need to haul out Pascal’s wager again. Atheists don’t change our minds because of threats or because there might be some reward for belief. We change our minds when there is compelling evidence we are wrong.
- Quit assuming that atheists are depressed or think that life has no meaning. When you say things like this, it just shows you have very little idea how an atheist thinks about the world.
- Stop saying you’re oppressed by non-Christians. We atheists are more than aware that we don’t have the power to control the country — in the U.S., we have trouble even winning a major election — so when you imply that we’re keeping you down, it makes you look like you have a martyr complex.
- Before you try an argument out on an atheist, do some research. Odds are excellent that atheists have addressed your argument before, and you should be familiar with our responses (and have counter responses ready) before bringing up the subject. If you can’t think of counter responses, consider the possibility that your argument is deeply flawed. And there are few things that bring on an atheist eye roll more than “I’ll bet you’ve never heard this before,” followed by an argument that was familiar to our great grandparents.
- Don’t use arguments you don’t agree with or aren’t prepared to support. For example, if you’re arguing that the laws of thermodynamics somehow preclude atheism, make sure that you agree that the laws of thermodynamics are true — even though they might be used as evidence against your point of view.
- Don’t bother using arguments that you don’t find compelling. If you don’t believe in God because of the cosmological argument, don’t try to use the cosmological argument to convert an atheist. Instead, use the argument that convinced you — it has to be the best argument you have, right?
- If you believe in God simply because you believe in your heart that God exists, go ahead and say so. Don’t misrepresent yourself. But you should be prepared to defend personal feelings as a source of knowledge.
- Similarly, for any pro-God argument you bring up, be prepared to answer this question: “If it can be proven that your argument is false, would you consider changing your mind about whether or not God exists?” If the answer is no, then the argument can’t be that compelling. Don’t use it.
- Use your own arguments, not ones you found online or in a book. If you want to use someone else’s argument, at least study it enough that you can put it in your own words. There are few things more foolish looking than a Christian who has memorized a list of “zingers” that atheists are supposedly unable to respond to trying them out on an atheist who has no trouble responding to all of them.
- If you use an argument and an atheist has a response to it that you can’t counter, stop using the argument.
- If an atheist demonstrates that something you said is wrong, admit it. That will demonstrate your intellectual honesty.
- If you’re e-mailing, texting, or posting online, check your spelling and grammar. Seriously.
- Most importantly, if we tell you that we don’t feel like discussing religion, stop.
That’s about it for now. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be converting atheists to Christianity in no time. Good luck!
From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:
It’s completely laughable how much atheists s**t all over themselves making excuses for not believing in God. The second that Darwin came up with evolution, the atheists rushed to join the club because with evolution there is no need for any God but determinism. You have to ignore so much evidence to believe in evolution that it’s plain as day that it’s all just an excuse.
Darwin was a despicable character, too. He flopped out of divinical school and declared himself a scientist even though he had no degree at all in science of any kind. Then he stole the idea for evolution from his father who was a known alcoholic and used it to excuse his Godless lifestyle and that of others. He originally, for example, came up with evolution so that he could sail around the world for free while doing his “research” (really just collecting souvenirs from the exotic places he visited). Will you even admit any of the hundreds of things that Darwin got wrong like saying that whales evolved from bears, or are you rushing around trying to put together one of your “evolution stories” so that it looks like he was right “again”? Even Darwin admitted that some things couldn’t have possibly evolved, like eyes. It is widely believed that he finally gave up the lie on his death bed because he couldn’t keep the secret any longer, but no matter what the reason was for his recantation, it didn’t save him from Hell and believing in him won’t save you from Hell.
Scientists (“scientists”) today are not better. They claim that dinosaurs lived hundreds of millions of years ago which is impossible due to the evidence, and then try to back it up with carbon dating that is based on a theory that is nothing but the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. In hundreds of years of hunting fossils, archaeologists and anthropologists have never uncovered a single transitional fossil even though Darwin “predicted” that there were be huge numbers of them (the Bible warns against false prophets). Every fossil ever found to date has been a complete creature ready and able to live in its natural place with no sign that it is straining or transitioning to some other animal. Darwinists still believe that every embryo shifts through all the shapes of the “ancestor” creatures that are lower on the biology tree than it, even though with modern camera techniques we know for a certainty that this is not the case. You won’t let the textbooks be updated with this new information though, will you? If it weren’t for the conspiracy among Darwinist scientists to expel or keep silent dissenting voices, this would be well known.
You can also tell that evolution is false because scientists keep changing it. If it was right, why would they keep changing the story? Dinosaurs are extinct? Dinosaurs don’t fly? Dinosaurs are birds? Make up your mind!
Other parts of evolution like the “Big Bang” are equally laughable. Atheists think that at one point there was nothing, not even time, but that suddenly everything appeared in a big explosion without any reason in a one-time event that has no relation to anything we have ever experienced, and they think that this makes more sense than the universe having a cause. So tell me, atheists, how do you explain the fact that this “Big Bang” created oceans, trees, and mountains when experience teaches us that explosions only destroy things, not create them? Dynamight doesn’t put up bridges. You can’t stick a firecracker up your ass, light it, and expect it to explode you a new tail. Atomic bombs didn’t replace Herosmima with a shiny new city. It’s stupid to even think so.
In science, a law is something that is shown by evidence, while a theory is someone’s speculation of what might be the reason for the evidence. The theory of evolution violates all the laws of thermodynamics, including the Conservation of Entropy which rules that entropy can never be destroyed but only created, but evolution would destroy entropy. The only exception to this law would be divine intervention, but Darwinists won’t even acknowledge that possibility.
Even if we pretend that evolution is true, it is false within itself because it contains so many impossibilities. How do you explain that there were a few tiny organisms with just a few cells and then suddenly in the Cambrian Explosion all the types of animals we know today appeared basically overnight? How can mindless creatures like insects and bugs figure out what they need to “evolve” into? If males of a species evolved, how would they reproduce until females evolved? How can mutations create new creatures when mutations are always harmful? If creatures evolve then where does the new information in their genes come from? If evolution really happens, why have we never seen it? There’s much crowing about how many genes humans and chimps have in common, but if all life comes from the same place and then evolved, shouldn’t humans share most of their genes with a banana, too? If humans all evolved their abilities and there is no supernatural, then how did Jesus evolve the ability to walk on water and raise the dead? How can you explain consciousness when consciousness exists separate from physical bodies? When there are so many possibilities, what are the odds that humans would just happen to have evolved to be able to breathe the exact kind of air and need the exact kind of food found on Earth? It doesn’t make a bit of sense.
Darwinism is also morally void. “Survival of the fittest” implies that the creature that wins is best, which implies “might makes right.” So of course atheists think that the winner of a battle is superior and the loser deserves to lose. This is why atheists so often turn to the police and court systems to try and force their beliefs on Christians, because they think that if they win in court it proves that they are “naturally” correct. It also explains why so many atheists think it is only natural to kill “less evolved” humans. Darwinists also think that humans are “just animals” and unimportant (we kill and eat animals all the time). This is where we get genocide, abortion, forced sterilization, concentration camps, corrupt government, terrorism, Islam, and mass murder. I know that it’s an online joke to mention Hitler, but “Hitler.”
There’s much more where this came from if you care to look. Grow up or die.
It’s difficult for me to know how to respond to a message like this. Frankly, it is so riddled with errors and misstatements (I’d be hard pressed to find a single significant sentence that doesn’t have something wrong with it) that I’m suspicious it might be a hoax. On the other hand, I’ve certainly met and read religious people who had these ideas, and there are plenty of sorely misinformed folks out there.
The message didn’t come with a valid e-mail address, so I can’t ask the author to verify his or her sincerity or try to engage in a discussion. For that reason — and because I think it would take a book-length posts to address all the problems in this message — I’m not going to touch it.
If any of you want to try a hand at counting how many logical fallacies and errors of fact it contains, though, I’d be very interested to know what you come up with.
From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:
Hi. I was wondering if you would be able to offer some advice. I agree with pretty much everything you say on this blog, thus, I normally derive a lot of satisfaction from reading the comments and emails you receive from both like-minded individuals and atheist-haters. My family have never forced religion upon me or any of my siblings, my primary school, however, felt otherwise & I think the head teacher was/is a Christian and deemed it necessary to drill religion and songs of praise into every pupils head, regardless of their background. I’m 21 now, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been happy living my life as an atheist, but more recently I’ve had a bit of a problem with thoughts of death, and I find myself thinking about it more than can be healthy. I think one of the notions of Atheism, in that ‘there is most likely nothing after we die’ is scaring me more than I can handle, and has been for several months now. When I look at the grand scheme of things in this context, and how insignificant we all are, I find it harder and harder to see any point to anything, and this brings me down: I don’t want to feel this way. I read somewhere that this fear I am experiencing has something to do with my ego’s selfish desire to be remembered by someone or anyone after I die, because I am unable to accept the reality of my fate. This scares me even more. Have you ever felt the same? If so, any tips on how to deal with it? I have asked several people close to me and they all seem content with responding with ‘I try not to think about it’ which in turn pushes me further away from them. And while this may very well be the same advice you’ll give me, I know you’re far more opinionated than a lot of people out there. Perhaps it’s a symptom of manic depression or maybe I’m going through some kind of transitional period – who knows. It would just be nice to get some feedback on it, with a bit more in depth advice or for someone to say that they feel/have felt the same, so I don’t feel so isolated! Thanks :P
I have heard from more than one atheist who had this sort of problem, and I’m happy to share my thoughts on the subject.
As an atheist, I agree that there’s no reason to believe in any kind of life after death. The problem is that our culture places a very high value on eternal existence, and any time a culture places a high value on something that doesn’t exist, it’s going to bring anxiety to those who realize the truth.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking about death, and I disagree with those who advise you not to think about it. Death is a part of life, it is something you have to deal with, and hiding from it does no good. That said, an atheist has nothing to fear from death. Being dead doesn’t hurt, and dead people have no cares or concerns. Dying itself can be painful, but that’s another issue. Atheists can, at least, take comfort in the fact that no matter how bad a sickness or injury, suffering cannot be permanent.
Certainly if you are obsessing about death as opposed to just thinking about it, that might be part of a larger problem. There’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling or talking it out with friends or loved ones if you fear that you are becoming obsessed or that your thoughts about death might be a sign of some underlying condition like depression. Certainly you should seek help if the idea of dying seems increasingly appealing. However, just thinking about death is not, in and of itself, evidence that there’s anything wrong with you.
You said, “I read somewhere that this fear I am experiencing has something to do with my ego’s selfish desire to be remembered by someone or anyone after I die, because I am unable to accept the reality of my fate.” I don’t think that this conclusion is necessarily true — one can have a healthy ego and want to be remembered even if there is no trouble accepting the reality of mortality. I certainly would like to be remembered, or at least to make a difference in the lives of others, because that’s the only kind of immortality available to us. (And as an aside, if anyone has ego problems that impact their view of reality, I’d say that it’s those religious folks who think the entire universe is without meaning unless they personally are immortal.)
Now we get to the big question: If life isn’t eternal, then what’s the point?
I’d say, if life isn’t eternal, then enjoying — or, at least, wisely using — what you’ve been given is the point. If you have a modest income, you plan carefully and save up for the things that make you happy; you don’t say, “I’m not a billionaire, so why should I bother?”
This doesn’t mean that your life is a failure if it isn’t a fulfillment of all your dreams. A person could be an abject failure but take satisfaction that even though they didn’t get what they desired, they at least took risks and gave themselves a chance or helped others along the way. You can be fulfilled by knowing that you have done what’s right, even when the universe didn’t give you everything on a silver platter.
Is that not enough for you? That’s okay — it doesn’t have to be.
As you pointed out, people often say that we can find a kind of immortality by being remembered. I’d say you don’t even have to set the bar that high. There are many ways you can make a real, tangible difference that will last beyond your death, even if nobody remembers you: Create something. Fix something. Try to change minds about an important issue. Do work for charity. Help someone who needs help. Do something nice you aren’t required to do. Help an animal. Even if nobody remembers who did these things, they will have been done and will have improved the world, even if just a little.
I’m going to give you some examples from my own life of things I do that I feel give my existence meaning. These may or may not be the kinds of things you’d do, but I’ll bet you can find equivalents in your life that are as meaningful as these are in my life.
Some things I do for a meaningful life:
- This blog. I specifically try not to talk about who I am because I want discussion and ideas to be the star, not me. If I can get people to think about morality and reality, I’ve improved their lives, even if I haven’t changed their minds.
- Along those same lines, I frequently engage with people offline in discussions of religion and morality to help create a society full of thoughtful people.
- I live a moral existence. As a moral atheist, I can feel satisfaction that I am being ethical to the best of my ability. Sometimes this is hard, and sometimes it makes me do things I don’t really want to do, but at the end of the day it helps me feel I’ve accomplished something good.
- I set a good example. I think there should be social pressure toward moral behavior, I want people to have difficulty saying “All atheists are immoral” or any such silliness, and I want people who think atheists are weird or evil to have their beliefs sorely tested when they discover I’m not religious.
- I pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I sometimes feel like I’m in a race to understand as much as I can in the little time I have, and every time I learn something new it’s like I’ve won a prize. New scientific discoveries and mysteries make me giddy (seriously).
- I have a teenage son, and I take great pride in trying to prepare him well for the future. He does not always make the same decisions I would have made (e.g., he’s been a vegetarian since he was four), but I am proud that he is thoughtful, honest, and independent.
- I try to make good things happen for other people. For example, I am a huge Disneyland fan (I also run a Disneyland blog), and when I’m in the park I look for opportunities to do things for others that will make their day memorable. I might buy a bottle of water for a teenager who I overhear worrying about whether she has enough cash for a drink, help someone find something if they’re wandering around looking puzzled, point out interesting things that might otherwise go unnoticed, do magic tricks for people stuck in a long unmoving line, or join in a game where there are bigger prizes if there are more players (and give my prize to a child if I win).
- I look for opportunities to do good things in daily life, too. I might anonymously leave a treat in the break room at work for everyone to share, offer to help someone struggling with groceries, pick up a bicycle that’s fallen over on the sidewalk, retrieve a child’s ball from the street, or compliment a stranger who I saw do something particularly nice or entertaining.
- I support the arts by purchasing books and music from artists I enjoy, donating to podcasts, and letting those who create things I love know that they are appreciated. Even when there are free alternatives, I feel like I am helping foster creativity by rewarding it.
- I write, both fiction and nonfiction. That’s my little bid for the “always be remembered” kind of immortality. But frankly being remembered that way isn’t as important to me as making people happy while I am around to enjoy it.
So, to sum up: think about death but don’t worry about it; create meaning; treasure what you have.
I hope something in here is of use to you. Let me know.
When I was in grade school, I was really interested in UFOs. I read every book in the school library about them, watched every TV show I could find about them, and had long conversations with my friends about space aliens and ancient visitations.
Then, as the years went by, I discovered more skeptical books and articles about UFOs. I also learned to better use my developing powers of reasoning, and realized that it was far more likely that stories of alien visitors were false, and tales of mysterious lights had more mundane explanations.
I found this change in belief exciting. It was much more thrilling to seek out real answers than to accept everything at face value. It was my first major experience with the joy of scientific discovery, and I happily shared it with anyone who was willing to listen.
Now here’s the interesting part: No matter how many people I told that I no longer believed in visitors from outer space, nobody ever asked me why I had rejected the aliens and turned my back on the UFO community.
Nobody asked what horrible thing had happened in my childhood that made me so cynical. They didn’t insinuate that I was being skeptical because I was a rebellious teenager, or as a way to strike out at my parents. Nobody told me that, while young people might disbelieve in aliens, when I was a little older and knew more, I would understand that they were real.
I never had a friend say that their mother believed in UFOs, so if I disagreed, I was calling her mother a liar.
Nobody asked how I could go on with life without the meaning that confidence in the existence of super-intelligent aliens brought. Nobody told me that, even though I professed disbelief in aliens, I knew in my soul that they were real, or that if I just opened my heart I would believe.
I wasn’t told that the books I was reading were evil, or that the explanations of how UFO photographs were faked were the work of the devil. Nobody’s ever implied that my lack of trust in UFOs meant that I must be a Satanist.
I’ve never heard anyone say that ghosts, fairies, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, dowsing, homeopathic medicine, perpetual motion, spontaneous human combustion, faith healing, and psychic phenomena might not have any scientific evidence behind them, but that I should believe in UFOs because they aren’t silly like those other things.
Nobody asked why I had “chosen” to disbelieve. They didn’t say I was only disbelieving in aliens because I wanted to be able to do bad things without worrying about being judged by creatures from another planet, like in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
I can’t remember anyone saying, “If you really didn’t believe in UFOs, you wouldn’t spend so much time and energy talking about them” or “You can’t prove that no alien has ever visited Earth.” I’ve never heard anyone say that everyone’s beliefs about UFOs are equally true, so I should just let people believe what they want to and not worry about it.
When I was a kid, it was popular to believe that aliens had helped construct the pyramids and other ancient wonders, but nobody called me illogical, unscientific, closed-minded, or bigoted for thinking these beliefs didn’t belong in the classroom. They didn’t argue that I was biased for only wanting to teach one side of the “controversy.”
People didn’t accuse me of blindly “worshipping” Philip Klass. They didn’t say that you had to believe as many weird things to disbelieve in UFOs as you did to believe in them.
When I said the state might have to step in if parents wanted to use messages from aliens to make critical health decisions for their children, nobody questioned my morality or tolerance.
Nobody said I couldn’t play with their children because I wouldn’t acknowledge fealty to aliens. Nobody told me that to be a good parents I have to at least give my children the gift of belief in space creatures.
Nobody ever cursed at me for not believing in aliens. I’ve never been spat at, yelled at, punched, shunned, or scorned for not being a UFO fanatic. My lack of belief in aliens has never caused anyone to not invite me to a wedding or exclud me from a party because the presence of an unbeliever might upset some of the other guests.
I was never looked down upon for not believing every word of Erich von Däniken, and I wasn’t taken to task for not living by the principles taught in Chariots of the Gods? by people who hadn’t even read the whole thing themselves.
When talking to other people’s children, I’ve never worried that their parents might become upset if I admitted to not believing in visitors from outer space. I’ve never stressed out about whether I might lose my job if my employer found out I was a skeptic.
I’m not worried that, when I die, some misguided relative will erect a monument to aliens on my grave because he’s sure that, in death, I finally believe.
I wonder why.
I received the following follow-up to this post:
I talked to her today, it didn’t work out, she ended up saying I chose not to believe in God and Im a bad person for it. She then said I just piss her off and walked off. Im so mad right now, I dont really want to be friends with someone who thinks Im a bad person so I guess it worked out for the better. Thank you for the advice though.
It sounds like this was a lost cause, but you gave it your best shot and that’s what’s important.
Personally, I think that someone this closed minded is so pathetic that she’s not even worth being mad about. I feel sorry for her; her pride in her ignorance has cost her both a friendship and a chance to learn. Anyone who would so willingly give up either is a fool.
Now go and make some real friends.
In: Atheists' problems
From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:
Ive been an athiest for 2 years now, I recently met a friend, for a little over a month we were friends, she knows Im athiest, she’s christian. I got a journal for me to write it, I thought it was cute, it just happened to be a christian journal. I cross off all the quotes at the bottom of every page, on the cover I covered up the quote by writing Love in marker over it. I unthinkinly (is that a word?) show it to my friend while my christian friend is present. She see’s what I did and gets angry about it, she tells me Im wrong and I piss her off and just because Im athiest doesnt mean I shouldn’t have a little god in my life, (I couldn’t help thinking that thats exactly what bieng athiest means, having no god in your life) so as not to say anything I’d regret I just walked off to cool down. Later I tried to talk to her but she just got angry and said “Now you want to talk to me after walking off earlier?” and tried to start another argument. I left apparently were not friends anymore, I find this completely frustrating, what do you think?
What an unusual problem. I certainly agree that it must be frustrating!
Before I go any further, though, I want to make sure we’re on the same page. I assume that the following are true:
- You’d still like to be friends with this girl.
- You had no intention of insulting her.
- You crossed out the quotes in the journal because they did not relate to your beliefs or did not represent you as a person.
If that’s all true, then I think we have plenty to work with if you want to try and rescue the friendship.
I’d start off by apologizing to your friend (I’ll still refer to her as your friend because I don’t think you should give up hope quite yet) for the misunderstanding and for upsetting her by walking off. Tell her you didn’t mean to make her feel bad, and that it has upset you that you inadvertently did so. Note that I’m not saying you should take blame for anything (it doesn’t sound to me like you did anything unethical), but you can still express your regret over the situation.
I think you need to tell her that you still don’t really understand what you did to upset her, but that you’d really like to know. Then — and this is the tricky bit — listen to her explanation without getting defensive or arguing. Concentrate on trying to see the situation from her point of view, no matter how strange it sounds or how much you disagree with it. If she tries to put you on the defense (“Why did you walk off like that?”) don’t take the bait; just let it slide. If it matters, you can argue your side later.
Once you’re sure you understand where she is coming from, you can make an informed decision about how to move forward.
If it was a misunderstanding — she thought your crossing out the quotes was because you “hate” God or were intending to be blasphemous, or something like that — you can explain that this was not at all what you intended. Hopefully, she’ll accept that.
If she thinks that your crossing out the quotes was an insult to her religion or to God, tell her that you honestly never thought of it that way and certainly didn’t intend to be offensive. If seeing the quotes crossed out is going to continue to bother her, write in the journal at home or get another one. You could even invite her to come with you to pick out a new one.
If she didn’t realize that you were an atheist or didn’t understand what “atheist” means, tell her that you don’t believe in God, but that your atheism doesn’t mean you dislike her or look down on her for being a Christian. I’m guessing that, if this is the situation, there’s a good chance she’ll try to argue (e.g., “But how can you not believe in God?”). I’d suggest that you try not to get into it at this time, but tell her either that you’re happy to talk about religion later but don’t feel like it at the moment, or that maybe it would be best for your friendship if you decided to “agree to disagree” on the subject and not focus on it.
If you get the impression that none of these are true and that she has some larger personal issue that you somehow triggered (for example, maybe her parents have threatened her with punishment if they find out she’s associating with atheists), you’re going to have to play it by ear. There are tons of possibilities — I’ve seen plenty of them — and there’s no way for me to guess which might be the issue.
All of this assumes, of course, that you still want to be her friend after hearing her explanation.
It’s quite possible that she’s so religious that there’s no way you can have more than a polite acquaintance, or that she’s such a wingnut that you can’t possibly have a meaningful relationship with her. If that’s the case, I’d suggest you just thank her for explaining things and say, “No hard feelings? See you around” (or whatever people say these days — I’m old so I haven’t a clue). If she still wants to be friends, she can work on the relationship from her end and you can decide if it’s worth giving friendship another shot.
As an aside, it can be quite valuable to have a religious friend who is willing to discuss religion intelligently. You could try reading the Bible together using one of those “read the Bible in a year” plans, or something like that. In my experience, such exercises help all concerned and help the theist get a better handle on their beliefs (or abandon Christianity entirely). But the two of you have to be very intellectually open and empathic for this to work.
I hope I’ve been helpful. Readers may leave comments with further suggestions, and I’m hoping you’ll leave a comment to let me know how things progress.