A touching question and a touching response

By on January 15, 2013

On the social media site Reddit, a mother asked users who were atheists how to deal with her son “coming out” as an atheist.  She asked how to deal with such an immoral proposition that she had no idea how he could have reached.  The user iopha put a touching reply that, especially as a classicist, I could not help but share:

Hi Unsuremother,

First, off, though I am an atheist myself, I want to empathize a little: this must be difficult for you and your family. Your faith commitment is an important part of your life and it is bewildering to have your own child turn away from this. I don’t know exactly what you believe, but you might be worried about his soul in the next life, or his behaviour in this one. If you don’t believe in God, how do you know right from wrong? If you reject God, how will you be reunited with Him in the next Kingdom?

The most important thing to understand is that these kinds of concerns, while very vivid and real to you, only make sense within a belief system your son no longer accepts. There is no sense in making threats of Hell or damnation anymore: atheists do not believe such a place exists. We don’t believe such a place could exist. The thing that is important to remember is that while we no longer believe that there are places beyond the world, the world he lives in has now become all the more important. That’s all we have. That’s all we ever have. His world is family, and school, and friends: all these things structure his life and he will need them more than ever. He needs you. He’s still a kid, and he’s a kid dealing with Really Big Questions in the only way he can: honestly and critically.

Most of us have come to this point honestly. This must be emphasized. We’re not angry at God, we’re not trying to get attention or going through some cultural phase. We looked at the arguments on both sides and came to the best conclusion we could. We only have 70 odd years on this planet. We make mistakes, too; we are fallible creatures prone to error and haste. We do our best. And sometimes our best is ‘well, I don’t think any of this is right.’ I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t rightly know where the universe came from, or how life began at first. But I don’t need all the answers to know that some answers are the wrong ones. I don’t know, and I don’t think Christians, or Muslims, or Taoists know either. They claim to know; I claim to not know.

Suppose I’m wrong. Suppose your son is wrong. I’m standing outside the pearly gates and St. Peter, or God Himself, gives me one chance to explain myself. What would I say except “I’m sorry–I got it wrong. I really tried. But I got it wrong. I saw all the different religions, each saying different things, all changing over time. It seemed just a part of human culture, not ultimate truth. I saw unnecessary suffering and couldn’t make heads or tails of it, if you were good and all-powerful. It didn’t make sense to me to posit something existing to explain existence: that gets it backwards. I’m sorry, God, that I didn’t believe in you, but it wasn’t malicious–I just–I just screwed up.”

What would Jesus say to that? Would he send me to suffer forever? Do I deserve to be tortured eternally because I read Lucretius as a young man–the 2,000 year old Roman poet who professed his atheism before Christ ever walked desert sand? Because I looked at the ontological argument and found it wanting?

Or would he press me to Him and forgive me? And wouldn’t I desire that forgiveness—?

If there is a God that would send me to Hell for making this mistake, I don’t want it in my life. Nothing justifies torture. Nothing at all. And He would not be worthy of worship–or even respect. If He is merciful, then I will apologize. If I am right–and he doesn’t exist–then I live my life as a free man.

And that is how atheists live: under actual freedom. The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote that ‘freedom isresponsibility‘–genuine freedom. I am responsible for the consequences of my actions. So: how do I live? What do I do? Do I want to live in a society where everyone does what they can get away with? What standards do I hold myself up to? This is the essence of the atheist’s morality: his freedom, his rationality.

Before even Lucretius wrote his atheistic treatise De Rerum Natura, there was another man, Socrates, who asked a simple and startling question: Does God say something is Good because it is good, or is something good because God says it is? We must be careful here. If what is good is whatever God says is good, then we have no morality at all, but caprice. If God says: kill your son! it is good to kill your son. If God says: from henceforth, children shall be murdered–then it is good, by definition, that children be murdered. But that’s not morality. That’s authoritarianism. And if you say: “But God would never do that,” I ask: why? Because if there is a reason, then goodness is independent from God after all. It is grounded elsewhere. In what? Well: maybe in reason itself? Or maybe morality is just part of the universe–a different kind of part, not like your sofa or TV or the moon is part of the universe, but the way numbers, or relations (like ‘equal to’)–an abstract object, none less the real.

There is a very, very long tradition of ethical thinking that is, in fact, older than Christianity itself. In philosophy classes we teach wisdom that was recorded a millennium before Christ. If it is impossible to be good without God, there wouldn’t be one virtuous atheist. Yet there are millions of us non-religious men and women on the planet, and we live our lives, as best we can. Atheists don’t fill the newspapers with tales of carnage or debauchery–clearly we can figure it out on our own.

Well. Not quite on our own. We have each other. No one else–just each other. And that’s enough. So be there for your son.

All the best.

You can see the rest of the dialogue here.  Did you face similar problems “coming out?”  Or perhaps are you a believer who had trouble understanding why someone became atheist?

Discussion

Paul

Hi Tom,

Can you or your colleagues recommend a good academic history of atheism?

Thanks

Travis L.

This is nice. I wrote a similar letter to my father a couple months ago. I’ve been openly Atheist for around ten years now, yet he still insists that I will find God and that my thoughts are just immature ones. I never insult his religion or his beliefs but I have made zero progress in getting him to just understand my standpoint. Each and every time that I make an attempt to illustrate clearly what I believe it ends in my just reminding him that I love him and that nothing, with respect to our relationship, has changed at all. I even still get prayer emails from him now and then, or emails with religious messages. It seems impossible to to get through in even the slightest way. So I continue to keep it simple and break certain aspects of Atheism and non-belief down as iopha has. I don’t know what else you can do in cases like this. I do know that it is not worth destroying a relationship over. As an Atheist I am as confident as I can humanly be that there is no God and no afterlife, and like iopha said we just have this one, so I refuse to press to the point that it harms our relationship in any way. It is just sometimes frustrating because I have opened my eyes and lived a much fuller life and become a much stronger person because of it, I just wish I could do the same for him.

@Paul: There are lots of ways to go about this, but one good read is The Portable Atheist — this is a collection Hitchens put together that goes through a lot of readings that are, in his view, important. The readings also give a sort of chronological approach to the development of atheism or atheistic ideas. I’ll try to think of some other pieces or literature that fit what you are asking for and some of my colleagues might have some ideas. Let me know if that suits you. Best of luck and thanks for checking us out.

@Travis: I am sorry for what you have had to go through. It’s unfortunately common for parents to even kick younger children out of their home for being atheist, or in some circles to entirely shun them. This is especially the case for Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other groups. I agree with you about how important it is to see their position and relate to them. Fortunately, I have never experienced family tension like you have. Some of our other contributors have had some experience with it. This division between families is one of the things that really spurs me to have such ill will towards the concept of religion. I wish you luck.

Paul

Thanks Tom I’ll check it out. I’m thinking of a historical synthesis of the development of an idea sort of history, more epistemological less ontological if that makes sense.

Robin Marie

Paul — Jennifer Michael Hecht has a book called Doubt, which I suspect is probably a good read and along the lines of what you are looking for. I have not read it myself but I saw her speak at TAM 9 and she was a very engaging speaker.

If that is not very rigorous, I’m not sure where else to point you to; historians tend to treat atheism as so intertwined with other developments they are more interested in so they don’t often give it center stage. However there are some histories of the early Enlightenment that engage with it in more detail; I would recommend Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment but it is a massive book with a huge amount of detail, a lot of which has nothing to do with atheism.

Paul

Robin Marie: Thank you for the suggestions. I will definitely check them out. It would appear that the history of atheism might be a worthy pursuit. In any event it’s a topic that needs historicizing. No?

You my atheist enemy are WRONG.

Our Founding Father’s Principles

Clearly, our nation’s heritage is deeply rooted in religious principles. This was at the core of our founding fathers’ beliefs. Our forefathers took God’s Word seriously. They established a nation founded on biblical principles that publicly acknowledged God’s headship and providential protection.

This is the exact opposite of the school curriculum today. The courts in this country have revised the First Amendment, thus erecting a wall of atheism around every public school in America, where in God is not allowed to be mentioned. This is not the same wall that Thomas Jefferson envisioned.

http://www.free2pray.info/5founderquotes.html

http://www.wakeupamericainc.org/ministrymessage.html

Travis L.

@ Hell on Wheels: I’m an atheist; I wouldn’t call someone I have not met an enemy of mine, especially just over words. But then again I don’t go around calling myself a portable infernal-region of make-beleive.

Ease up bud.

A seperation of church and state as called for in our Constitution is not a “wall of atheism”. It’s a seperation of church and state, as called for in our Constitution.

Terry M

@ Hell on Wheels: You say that our nation’s heritage is deeply rooted in religious principles. Which principles are those? Catholic, Protestant? If Protestant, which branch – Lutheran, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian?

If you want religion taught in schools, which religion would you pick? I personally am fascinated by the teachings of Swami Vivakananda, who is credited with introducing Hinduism to the United States. I think students would benefit from his teachings. Perhaps the Bhagavad Gita? How would you feel if your children were forced to study these teachings in school?

The fastest growing religion in the United States is Islam. Would you want the Qur’an to be taught in public schools?

The First Amendment neither lifts one religion over another, nor does it thwart one religion over another. This has always applied to the Federal government and the US Supreme Court interpreted this to apply to States as well.

I have a degree in religion and am an Atheist. I find a number of beautiful principles in most religions, but I would never want any of them taught in public schools.

Terry M

You also might be interested in reading Article 11 of the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli, written under the Presidency of George Washington and signed under the presidency of John Adams. – It begins, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…” The treaty, with this article, was approved by the Senate.

There is a statement on the treaty by President Adams which reads, “Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof.”

Ghazali

Very cogent and honest letter.

My biggest difficulty with atheism has always been its apparent ability to put the vanitas vanitatum out of mind.

To my mind, the very word “have,” as it is used in this letter, is meaningless from a materialist perspective. We “have” each other, that sort of thing. All the things, people, places, opportunities, successes, joys that I’m told I have have always felt to me like so much sand slipping through my fingers.

How do you deal with this? I can see the rationale for saying “oh well, nothing I can do about that,” but then doesn’t the responsibility implied by freedom become itself arbitrary, ungrounded caprice. What answer must I make for my actions to a handful of dust and shadow?

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