By Andrew Schlosser
I believe we are all atheists. If you believe in an Abrahamic god, that is to say God or Allah, then I simply believe in one less god than you do. In my experience, a certain number of people look at and treat me differently once they know that I don’t believe in a higher power.
But I wasn’t always an atheist. I was brought up Roman Catholic and slightly culturally Jewish, and it stayed that way until I was about eighteen. At sixteen, I started dating my girlfriend, Michaela, and together we started our journey towards atheism. Our first step was doubt — something all atheists who were once religious go through. We had questions about religion and God that didn’t seem to add up. For me specifically, there were two questions that I couldn’t accept, one cosmic and one personal.
The personal question was the common belief that those who commit suicide go to Hell. This belief doesn’t seem to hold as much power over millennial believers, but to many older believers, specifically some of my family members, it is very real. I couldn’t understand how anyone could believe that those tortured psychologically or physically on Earth would also be tortured for eternity in Hell. Moreover, I couldn’t understand how an all-loving personal God and creator would do that to one of his creations. I would never do that to someone, and I, a mere mortal, couldn’t possibly be as moral as the creator of the universe.
The cosmic question went something like this: There could be between 150 to 250 million stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Let’s take a conservative estimate and say there are only 150. That means there are 150 million chances that a star in the milky way galaxy could have a planet orbiting it where life occurs. This doesn’t have to be intelligent life, like human beings, but it could be a simpler life form, like small birds or even earthworms. 150 million chances in one single irrelevant galaxy in the universe. Our galaxy resides in something called the virgo supercluster, which is a cluster of galaxies in the universe. Within that supercluster there could be up to 47 thousand galaxies. Do that math — 47 thousand times 150 million. That astronomically large number is how many chances there are for a planet that can support life to exist. The craziest part is that the virgo supercluster is just one of 10 million in the observable universe. The keyword there being “observable”. This means there could be, and, in fact, definitely is, more in the universe than we can actually see. After knowing that I was never quite able to say God exists with any certainty.
Even with this, it took a long time before I actually admitted to myself that I was an atheist. My girlfriend and I first started calling ourselves deists, which means that we believed in a “higher power” but not the Christian God. Then we made the smooth transition from that into being agnostic, which basically means you don’t know if there is a god or not and you aren’t willing to make a claim about it. After about a year of that, we finally decided that we would be honest with ourselves. We did not believe any god existed in any form.
With that, I’d like to answer some “commonly asked questions” put to atheists.
Q. What do you think happens when you die?
A. This is the question that I am most often faced with by believers. The true answer is that anyone’s guess is as good as mine. The point is that no one knows, and no one can know. If I had to guess I would say that the answer is really simple, nothing happens. This idea is really scary to a lot of people and I completely understand that. In response, I’d like to ask a question. What did it feel like before you were born? Nothing. You didn’t know you didn’t exist because you didn’t exist. Therefore, it seems logical to think that you won’t know you’re dead because you’ll be dead.
Q. Why don’t you believe in God?
A. There are many answers to this question, but the most straightforward one is that there is no evidence for the existence of a higher being, let alone the god or gods of any specific religion.
Q. What if you’re wrong?
A. Over the course of human history thousands of gods have been worshiped, all of them by people who wholeheartedly believed in them. We look at Zeus now and know that he is a mythological figure, but to the ancient Greeks he was as real as God is to Christians today. The point is that I could be wrong, but so could you.
Q. Do atheists actually face criticism/hate/discrimination?
A. Yes. In an article for The Atlantic, Abby Ohlheiser writes about the thirteen countries around the world where being an atheist is a criminal offence punishable by death. The United States is obviously not on that list of countries. However, according to an article in The New York Times written by Laurie Goodstein, seven states in the U.S. currently have laws that prohibit someone who doesn’t believe in God from holding public office. These laws are usually not enforced because of a Supreme Court ruling in the 60s, but they exist nonetheless, and still do to this day. hh
Q. How can you be moral without god/religion?
A. This is a very common question and one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The moral code that is handed down by God in the Bible is known as the Ten Commandments. These commandments are given to Moses after he and the Jewish people have wandered in the desert for quite some time. The tablets are God’s commandments for moral behavior on Earth, and therefore they should be perfect. Let’s take two of those commandments, “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal”. Are we to believe that Moses and his people walked for 40 days killing and stealing from each other before being commanded by God to stop? This is obviously silly, but it also means that morals come from inside every human being and not from outside us, and this is something to be proud of.
My goal here is not to convert people to atheism, or dismiss religious people. I do, however, want to encourage open dialogue and criticism of beliefs. In my opinion, there is no belief too sacred to be criticised or even ridiculed, and that goes for atheism as well. I welcome challenges and questions not just because I like the debate, but because I think it is a healthy and important way to learn about other people and what is most important to them. I want to finish by saying that I would do anything for a person’s right to criticise me and my beliefs, but with that, I reserve the right to do the same.