If Atheism is Unsatisfying,
Why Don't You Just Believe?
Trevor McDonald

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Trevor McDonald"
Subject: Re: A question
Date: June 06, 2004 21:57

Let me just start by mentioning that there's something to be said for believing a proposition because it's true.

Besides, I have discovered that during those times when I have been (or appeared to be) on the brink of death, my mind still naturally occupied itself with the matters that remain here. I did not find myself beginning to imagine (or worry about) what it may or may not be like for me after the moment of death. Rather, when my candle had begun to flicker, it seemed all the more that my brain would wonder things like, Who will take care of my loved ones after I'm gone? What will happen to my work and my possessions? As the reality of death looms, the luxury of pondering such subjects as claims for an afterlife all the more evade my grasp: my mind tends to consider the more mundane subjects.

This is how my mind works when my shift is hittin' the fan. This is not something I try to do, this is just how it happens to work out. When I finally wrote about it, in my column titled, "I Can Think of Life, and Nothing Else" (January, 2002), I concluded that my mind does not occupy itself with death because life is the only state that I know. My mind is simply incapable of seriously considering anything other than the only reality that I have ever experienced.

During those times when I have the luxury of pondering what I will, then I can imagine these things and many others. I can even become quite distressed, as I have mentioned numerous times on this Forum. But imagination is not what happens when the reality of my own mortality has me in its grip.

And I still don't know how she pulled it off, or what was on her mind, or anything (I wasn't raised with a religious background), but a former friend's wife suddenly and very quietly announced to him that she'd recently joined him in his atheism! This happened during her late 60s or so. She was so happy! Why? She found a great deal of relief in her new-found atheism simply because she no longer had to deal with the prospect of an afterlife. And she was thinking about "Heaven" rather than "Hell"! Go figure! I don't pretend to be able to understand this, but this is precisely what her husband told me!

Finally, given that the deities currently being discussed are, to a man, what we call "hidden," I don't think I'd look very silly for going along with the best evidence, which is, that either "God" is playing "Hide 'N' Seek" with humankind, or that the "God" being claimed is the object of much mythmaking on our part.

No, I disagree: whether or not there is, in fact, a deity is the entire question, here.

However, this is not a question that I have raised. Others raise the question, but the question happens to be whether or not any of the religionists' claims that a deity exists (or that multiple deities exist) are truthful claims.

Who is arguing? Sometimes people write in and make this or that claim. At such times, I'll tell them what I think about their claim. But you won't see me logging on to religious web sites and badgering their readers on the boards and such.

I have absolutely no reason to grant assent to the claims of the religionists. For the most part, not even their moral values impress me. There are a few exceptions, but even then, being religious has no advantages that I can think of except that it provides one with a faux community from which one might be able to find a few friends. That's it. Life simply is. My value as a human being is based upon the fact that I have a skeleton and a pulse. Apart from the sheer fact that I am alive, I don't need to possess or to accomplish anything in order to know that my value as a human is limitless. (At all times, mine is the final word as to my self-worth!) But at this point, all talk about self-worth becomes meaningless, "out of context," as I so often hear in this Forum! I love my life in spite of the setbacks I've been dealt, not only lately but throughout my life.

I'm simply trying to mind my own business! I have no interest whatsoever regarding the claims and fantasies of religionists.

I wish they would leave me the fork alone!

But they do not, they will not.

That's fine and well, but why tell me about it? I'm not spending any time or energy "believing that there isn't" an afterlife: that is not something that I have ever done, really. As I have tried to point out in every Reply to every Letter we've received on the subject, I do not sit here and think about the claims that religious people make. What people like this think is not a subject that interests me. It means less to me than does the question of which product offers a woman the greatest freedom during those days of discomfort. You might say I'm entirely indifferent to the specific claims of the world's various occult practitioners. In other words, I don't give a rat about religion!

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For the Sake of Discussion

But let's assume for the sake of argument that your presupposition were true, that one cannot be happy unless one believes in an afterlife (which is the assumption behind your question, by the way): Why would somebody buck against the notion of an afterlife? Why not simply claim to believe?

The answer, for me, is very simple: I follow truth wherever she may lead. If I were to try to claim that there is an afterlife, I would be lying to people, because I don't know that there is such a thing. If I say that an afterlife exists when the truth is that I don't have reason to believe that there is, I would be lying to others (and perhaps to myself). This is the basic reason, for me. I don't think I could live with myself if I did that -- even if what you say were true, and that faith in an afterlife actually was efficacious toward eliminating depression or even toward removing the angst brought on by awareness of life's finality. For me, to escape that angst is not worth living with my having been so dishonest with myself -- if it were possible for me to fool myself like that (and in some respects, this is fully realistic goal: I've even done it for reasons similar to what you describe).

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I'd have a tough time pretending that the afterlife exists even if I had a valid motive for so doing. A realistic one in my case would be an attempt to free myself from this life-long depressive disorder. (Faith, even in an afterlife, does nothing in this regard: take my word for it! I spent three years trying, earlier in life, to no avail!)

Ah, but I could put on a good show if that were what it took to save the lives of my family, were America ever to become a "Christian" Nation! In addition, I would never usurp any parent's right to teach their children whatever it is that they believe in this respect; in other words, I would never cop out to the kid that the religion was a buncha molarkey. A child has the right to be able to trust its parents and to discover the truth when the time is right.

(Many if not most Evangelical Christians wouldn't hesitate to introduce my kids to their faith, knowing we are an atheistic family, but I still would never commit the same crime in kind against the families of Evangelicals! If someone's kid approached me, asking questions, I'd say, "What do you know about God? Does your family let you talk about God to people who are not part of your family?" If yes, then I'd say, "Well, my Mother and Father taught me never to discuss these things with anybody who is not part of our family!" And I'd leave it at that. I'd raise challenging questions about whatever subject the kid wanted to talk about, teasing and goading him to think for himself. But if I detected that the subject was religion, the discussion would reach the cul-de-sac I described above.)

To conclude the discussion about my potential "valid reason": Believing in an afterlife (rather, trying to psych oneself into believing) does nothing toward calming the ravages of a lifelong depressive disorder. In fact, I tried this for almost three years in a single stretch during my 20s. I can assure you that it just plain doesn't work. I was no better off than I am now with my current health problems. The difference is that I'm not hiding behind a religion, pretending that I should have friends, be happy, etc. What I have today, in that respect, has come from a dozen or more years of grueling self-therapy using the best techniques I know about plus the best medical care that an impoverished American can wring from The System.

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For the Sake of Discussion

Here's an exercise that I found to be most revealing regarding the belief that there is such thing as an afterlife. Does it provide the solace you seem to think it does? Try this one out for a while, for the next year, say, and see what you come up with.

The next time you read about a teen who was killed in a car accident or taken out by some horrible disease -- the next time a young man or woman from your town gets killed in the line of duty -- see if you can attend the funeral.

If you try to do this twelve times over the next year, you won't have any more questions in this respect. I promise!

Note how many of the parents are religious and then note how many of them are actually happy that their son or daughter is in a much better place! that they haven't really lost the child, that the child hasn't really lost his or her life.

I promise you that "when push comes to shove," very few people who believe in an afterlife act as if they go along with religion's claims that there really is such thing as an afterlife. Some do, and many others make a good attempt to put on an act like the Wake, etc. But the religious people I've seen, even the ones who will look you in the eye and declare confidently that their departed loved one is "in Heaven" or "with The Lord" or wherever, tend not to be nearly as calm, collected, and Stoic about it like my atheistic Mother was when she lost her toddler son.

This doesn't work with older people who have lived full lives and who have extracted from their frail bodies as many extra moments as anyone would even care to live. Even atheists tend to be overall more grateful for the life lived than sorrowful that such a life had to come to an end. Rather, if you really want to test the notion that belief in an afterlife brings any comfort whatsoever, become involved with people who have just lost loved ones who were young, in the prime of life, or who weren't given the opportunity to live at all.

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A Word About My Mother

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I'm going to talk about Mom for a bit, or, what little I know about this wonderful woman. As pain-free and healthy as her own life has been, Mom is no stranger to acute, chronic pain. Very early in my life she became traumatized by multiple tragedies to where it seemed as if she had virtually lost the ability to express who she was, to show her true feelings in response to the situations around her. This is to be expected, I would think, and I'd expect others to fare much worse given similar circumstances. My Mother, by her life, can, I think, show us why phony solace often addresses an entirely different axis than most of the pain that life tends to dish out. (We are dealing with pain for which one would need or seek comforting.)

Mom knows the value of an accurate understanding of nature and biology, the meaning and usefulness of a firm grasp on how we came to be. She has studied and observed the forces and situations that culminate in our even being conceived, much less born, going back to our existence as a species and even back to the existence of life and of the Universe. She would never claim to know much, often denying that she knew anything on this or that subject, and she may not have a mind to "discuss these thing in English." (Discussing a something in one's native tongue is my metaphor to describe a conscious awareness of a subject as opposed to simply having a working yet wordless intuition.) But I am confident that she knows, more than most, how a clear picture of how our world works does much more to help us endure tough times and to compete against the elements. Mom's down-to-Earth acceptance of herself, her environment, and the role she plays in that environment helped her to keep herself and her family intact during these times than the more superficial religionists would have us believe is even possible without religion, without their brand of religion.

Mom was savagely violated, emotionally, by life itself. No poet, no sage, no theologian, no philosopher, no friend, not even her own Mother could explain it. And to my knowledge, none dared even try. As wounded as she was inside (where nobody else had to see), Mom recognized that no human could ever have known life unless the process of natural selection worked the way it does. (My Mother has a degree from UC Berkeley and was a medical professional for several years before they adopted me.)

This very simple process of nature works remarkably well, and is astonishingly efficient given the raw materials with which it has to work. But nature extracts a very stiff price for the privilege of becoming sentient beings at all. In this sense, anybody who gets to live does so precisely because nature did not wring from him or her this heavy toll. Notwithstanding, our family, like many families, was blindsided several times as nature imposed upon us The Levy of Life.

The natural selection of random mutations works only because almost every mutation that strikes us as a species ends up causing somebody to undergo a premature death. Somebody's child must suffer great pain and undergo premature death, just so the rest of us can live. More children never make it out of the womb alive than ever get to grow up and have children of their own (with or without legalized abortion).

Childhood mortality most often follows a very painful life (if it be proper to call such a tragically short stay here a "life")! I have said many times that if I were God, no parent would ever have to bury her child. I think Mom was touched to the quick over the agonizing pain this little guy had to go through -- more so, I am sure, than over the fact that he really didn't get to live much of a life at all. Given the pain, life's end was surely an act of mercy.

A year before my Brother's condition became apparent, her father was struck with a condition which wrought in him constant, acute pain, "like corkscrews twisting in and being pulled out of my flesh," he told me. By the time my Brother was gone, Grandfather's condition was diagnosed as permanent, like "Phantom Limb Pain," except this was in the neck and shoulders following a wild attack of Shingles. I won't get into the numerous ear infections I had, when she would hold me and rock me as if trying not to let go of me, as it were.

In spite of all this, the woman who joyfully welcomed me into her life on two or three hours' notice, who then did a heroic job at raising me as her own, was able to recover from these tragedies to lead a wonderfully fulfilling life. In spite of her denials I'm sure the memories still come.

Interestingly, each of the ladies who would came to visit during these times, to offer solace and other things, later ended up turning to my Mother for strength when each woman's own life threw her for a loop, when the deity and the congregation just didn't seem to come through for them.

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As I mentioned above, I wish the religionists would stop pestering me about their religious obsessions, but this is not something that they do.

This includes personal intrusions, twenty-four days in County Jail for refusing a court order to undergo religious instruction in a faith-based rehabilitation program, way too many (successful) attempts to legislate religion and religious values by law, a ubiquitously successful push to force me (as a taxpayer) to fund religion's voracious appetite for financial and political gain, a wholesale attempt to create a double-standard wherein religious people and organizations are not held to the same strict standards to which nonreligious individuals and organizations must comply: mission accomplished, and finally, thousands of (amazingly unsuccessful) attempts to weasel me into going along with their immoral schemes.

What part of "Well, I can't buy that, man!" don't you understand?

So part of what I do is provide younger, less experienced people with the tools to fight off the slick, subtle, and dishonest propagandizing efforts on the part of organized religion and those who have been taken in by organized religion's wiles and turned into willing tools of organized religion's masterful effort to gain political, financial, and social power over the citizens of our country.

I wish I was merely paranoid. I started doing this work in 1988 as a form of self-defense, after serving the above-mentioned time in county jail and nevertheless required to spend three years involved in wholly religious activities which, by the way, so thoroughly programmed my mind that I still fight off the urges and fears and panic attacks that resulted from this government-enforced religious indoctrination! The more time and energy I spend studying this problem and working toward a solution, the more frightened I become for my fellow-humans. Admittedly, the average individual does not field attempts at religious indoctrination in the amounts and with the intensity that someone in my position will as a matter of course. (I now take in over 600 e-mails per day, though over 80 percent of that is spam, viruses, and harassment moves -- but what's left after that would still boggle anybody's mind.)

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The thought of conscious awareness ending forever at physical death is a monumentally depressing prospect for those who have been raised to think there is an afterlife. The temptation to quell these feelings through dishonesty is often quite compelling. Add to that the unremitting pressure from our fellows to "give up" and "go along" with the schemes of the religionists (in believing that there is an afterlife) and you have a type of pressure that most would be unable to endure. Although their "r dishonest and empty of true logic, their arguments are nonetheless oppressively irresistible in their attacks on our emotions.

The organized religions are expert at waging these attacks: I would go so far as to state that religious recruiters and apologists are more skilled at manipulating people's emotions to their own ends than any other group is skilled at achieving any goals they might set out to accomplish. The religions have studied and developed and honed and perfected their various mind-control methods, having garnered thousands of years of collective experience; they know what works and they know what doesn't. And all this advantage is distilled into each encounter or presentation with a prospective convert.

Meanwhile, I am just one man who is attempting to mind my own business.

Granted, I, Cliff Walker, happen to have made learning how to resist this onslaught a small part my life's pursuit for over the last twenty years: I happen to have more experience than most at retaining my own sense of emotional and intellectual autonomy. It also helps that as a child I was not programmed by my parents and (those who would have been) their religious leaders. In this, however, I am very much the exception.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight-and-two-thirds years of service
      to people with no reason to believe

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