We are expected by others and often impelled by our own needs to locate ourselves in the social landscape, that is, to say “what I am.” Sometimes that means what we make our living doing or what citizenship we hold. In small American towns it might entail declaring where we’ll be on Sunday morning. As a half-century member of the unchurched, that latter choice presents me with a small problem. I am happy to say I’m an atheist, but not only are lots of people unclear about what that means, a fair number have the bizarre opinion that no one is really an atheist, so they don’t believe me. (Admittedly, I’m not in a good position to chastise their lack of faith.) Some would like to soften my landing in the conversation by assigning me to the agnostic category under the impression that it is, well, less atheistic. After all, I’m a pretty nice guy, kind to animals and honest with my creditors. So if I choose to tug on supergod’s cape, surely I’d do so with an earnest seeker’s smile.
See, “atheist” only means non-theist; it doesn’t declare there is no god (though it can be used that way), just that I’ve no belief that there is one. “Agnostic” is a way of approaching alleged facts, sort of a Missouri “show me” frame of mind, although you’ll normally only hear it in the context of contentions about the supernatural. That makes me both atheist and agnostic, but I usually stick with atheist to make sure no well-meaning apologist can pretend I’m on a spiritual quest, certain to come to my senses in due time.
So let me summarize that: I have no belief in God, gods, angels, heaven, hell, devils, divinity, afterlife, intercessory prayer, sacred texts, sin, souls, or salvation. Here is what I do believe: first, there is no evidence thus far for any of those things; second, we living human beings are all we’ve got so we’d better do all we can to make our existence as compassionate, honest, comfortable, nonviolent, and free as we can.
Actually, from my perspective that last point is the most important. You see, being an atheist tells you what I’m not, but not what I am; it tells you what I don’t stand for, but not what I do. What that sentence reminds me and tells you is that far more important than being an atheist, I’m a humanist (of the secular variety)—a secular humanist.
So what does secular humanism entail? For me, three things mostly. First is a strong commitment to ethics and the further development of better ethics since we humans haven’t quite got that right yet (and morality derived from religions is as apt to mess it up as to help). Second is to treat the only life we are sure about with considerable care, compassion, mutual respect, and freedom. Third, although nothing human is free from error, is to support the scientific method as the most reliable means yet devised to describe ourselves and our world and to squelch what we’d be inclined to think is so but isn’t.
So what a miserable life it is without religion, without a loving god, and without a pass to avoid the unimaginable horrors that the loving god has in store for me and, apparently, for most of humanity! Not. Don’t fall for the lie about the despair and hopelessness of atheists, even though the propaganda is repeated from thousands of pulpits every Sunday. ’Taint so. Atheists are not less happy or less ethical than their religious friends. But they are less prone to announce themselves because of the social taboo promulgated by believers against unbelievers. In other words, most atheists are “in the closet,” so much that a joke among disbelievers goes this way: Q: Where are most atheists to be found? A: In church pews on Sunday morning.
I got my start in life in those pews as a believer. More about that later. Humans have invented uncountable gods over the centuries; monotheists (like Christians and Muslims) reject all but one. Atheists, as I think Richard Dawkins said, just reject one more god than their religious friends. But I’ll save until later how I became a disbeliever at the age of about 21 except to emphasize that I did not lose my faith. Lose is far too passive. I discarded it along with tooth fairies and Easter bunnies.