Questions About Atheistic
Culture And Belief
Freyja Watson

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <> To: "Freyja Watson"
Subject: Re: please help
Date: Sunday, May 13, 2001 8:36 AM

It is difficult to find answers about atheism because for most atheists, our atheism is not a positive belief but simply the absence of theism. (For most of us, atheism is not even the denial that gods exist, but simply the lack of a god belief; only a few of us go so far as to assert that no gods exist.) In this sense, atheism is the way we distinguish ourselves from theists, and in every other respect we are just like anybody else. Most of us think it is the theists who are different, it is the theists who have added a belief to their outlook. If you can see the various beliefs that gods exist as something additional to the common human outlook, and then see atheism as the simple absence of that additional belief, you will have a pretty good idea why it is difficult to describe atheists as a group.

Positive Atheism, as we advocate it here, is a specific form of atheism, a philosophy that is atheistic and which advocates specific ethics in addition to the rejection of god claims. Secular Humanism is similar in that it, too, advocates a specific system of ethics in addition to the rejection of god beliefs. Objectivism is another philosophy that adds to the core rejection of god beliefs. Others have used the term "positive atheism" to mean different things, but our philosophy is a Westernization and modernization of the core elements of the philosophy developed by Gora and Saraswathi, with the help of Mohandas K. Gandhi and others involved in the struggle to eradicate untouchability in India.

To see how Positive Atheism is distinguished from regular atheism, you are welcome to read our article called "Introduction to Activistic Atheism." But you asked about atheism itself, so I will try to address your questions in the context of regular atheism, and also to show that some of your questions really have no specific answers.

If atheists do not have a god belief, then the only thing we all have in common is that we do not believe that a God or gods created the universe.

Some atheists think the universe has always been here. Raëlians, who are atheistic creationists, believe the universe has always been here, and that life on Earth was created by an extra-terrestrial species. They are just one small group, though.

Most of us who even wonder about these things accept the scientific findings that show that life evolved on Earth, and accept the Big Bang model, wherein the universe came to be when a "singularity" formed spontaneously escaped into a vacuum. Particle physicist Victor J. Stenger explained how this could have happened naturally, without any supernatural intervention, in our interview with him.

Many of us, though, don't even care how the universe formed or how life came to be. We are much more interested in the health and welfare of our children and the political and economic stability of our home countries and all the other day-to-day concerns that are common to almost all humans. Many of us are fascinated by what science currently has to say about these things, but most of us are more interested in seeing science work on curing disease and making equipment that is more energy efficient and things of that nature. Most of us would much rather go to a ball game or see a film or hear a rock and roll show than attend a lecture on the latest developments in the Inflationary Big Bang Theory. And if we had to choose, most of us would opt for research that might some day cure sickle cell anemia over research that might eventually explain our origins. We don't have to make this choice, and can afford to support both forms of research, but if we reached the point where one or the other had to go, most of us would probably opt for curing disease over discovering our origins.

A few atheistic religions believe in reincarnation, but most of us think that this is the only life that anybody gets to live. Again, this is not something that very many atheists spend much time thinking about: we live our lives and hope that we may live long and healthy and happy lives.

But since the conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and processes in the nervous system, those structures and processes need to function properly in order for the "Self" to exist. When those structures are destroyed and those processes cease, we become as if we hadn't been born yet: the "Self" ceases to exist. There is no awareness. We don't even become aware that we have died, because once we die, our awareness is no more.

We reject life-after-death claims not because we don't want to live, but because we don't see how they could possibly be true. Although we think that the believers are only fooling themselves, most of us understand only too well why someone would want to believe in life after death and would want to see their departed loved ones once more. But most atheists don't think that wanting things to be a certain way is enough of a reason for actually thinking that things are the way we want them to be.

Many of us who live in cultures dominated by Christianity and Islam are actually glad that we don't believe in life after death, because those religions teach that God sends certain people to Hell. To believe that this is true can be quite terrifying, even if we know that we'll never end up there: to contemplate that anybody might go there can be very upsetting. But to think that we might somehow slip up or might possibly have been deceived into believing the wrong religion, and might end up in Hell for it -- just thinking about it -- can be a horrifying experience.

Finally, those atheistic philosophies that have a moral outlook in addition to their philosophy disdain the theistic notion of afterlife punishments and rewards. This, to us, is not true morality, but is bribery and coercion. We may not agree as to what true morality actually is, but we tend to agree that the prospect of punishment and rewards is not true morality at all. This is particularly despicable if the punishment and reward is not because of good and evil behavior but for loyalty to the religious organization (such as the historical expressions of Christianity and Islam, both of which place loyalty to the religion over moral behavior).

Since I have no cultural roots, but come from an extremely varied background (and a long line of atheists on both sides of the family), I have never dealt with rites of passage (except weddings -- our family does not even do funerals) and other rituals that certain cultures take very seriously. I can only imagine what it would be like to live in a country where one must practice religious rituals with the rest of the community in order to even get along. But America is varied and religion is still very private -- despite what you hear about Fundamentalist Christians trying to make Christianity the national religion. For example, of the 32 families who live in my apartment complex, I know one couple who is Mormon (but not very serious about it), and another couple who practices New Age Paganism, and a third family who are obviously Rastafarian. I'm sure that some are nominally Christian and a few might be devoutly Christian, but I really cannot tell what the people here believe.

The entire country does close down for Christmas, of course, but most of us just get together with the family or indulge in strong drink even if we are religious. In other words, atheists are not much different from religious people in this respect. If we have kids, Christmas is for the kids, and the children determine what Christmas means to the rest of the family. Most of us put up a tree, stick a turkey in the oven, pour a little whatever into a glass of eggnog, and think very little of the religious meaning that some people attach to it. (Even many Christians think very little of the religious meaning behind Christmas, but focus on the nonreligious elements; only a handful of fundamentalists make a big thing about it being Jesus's birthday, and most Christians openly admit that it's not really Jesus's birthday anyway, so let's party.)

If we don't have families, if Christmas is just another day, there's always Chinese food, as the Chinese do not honor Christmas; enough of us need to eat on that day that the Chinese restaurants can justify staying open on Christmas. The Chinese places are always very busy on Christmas, and this shows that many people (such as myself) consider Christmas just like every other day.

In some countries and cultures, rituals and festivals and rites of passage are shared by the entire community. In Greece, for example, the Orthodox Church is the focus of Greek cultural identity, and the various festivals are very important to the national and community spirit. If you go back far enough in history, the same festivals existed but had not yet been given a Christian context: many Christian festivals are simply ancient pagan festivals that were renamed during the Dark Ages to accommodate the Christian religion. Many Greeks do not believe in the Church at all, but almost all still participate in all the Church rituals and rites just because that's what Greeks do. To the atheists, the rites do not mean anything beyond identifying them as Greeks and as a way to commune with their fellow-Greeks. A few Greek atheists see this as hypocrisy and have tried to change the focus of cultural identity to something else, such as ancient Greek history, but it is hard to go against a national trend. When religion dominates and defines our culture, we atheists often face very tough decisions.

In America, we don't really have this problem because no one culture dominates. Even Christianity is very factionalized here. Most communities slow down on Saturday and Sunday, but that's because people get the weekend off and has little to do with religion. It started out being religious, and we still take those days off (the majority of us, anyway), but the reason why we originally took those days off is considered only by a few very devout religionists. For example, right now it's Saturday night, just past midnight on Sunday morning, and I will finish this letter and walk down the street and eat dinner at a bar that stays open all night on the weekends. If I want to, I still have time to do some drinking, but I doubt I'll be drinking anything tonight. I can sing karaoke or play pool or darts until 4:00 A.M. if I want to, and that is also within reasonable walking distance. Within a few miles, there are three or four large supermarkets that are open 24-hours (except Christmas, of course, and some stores are even open then). And even on Christmas, I can walk from my home to two or three places to grab a bite to eat if I need to. Sunday morning might be a grand day to go play around in the river (since I don't go to Church), or get some gardening done or do some household chores or visit friends or go shopping (since almost all the major stores are open). I will probably go out to breakfast and eat a large meal and drink a few bloody marys and take a nap. If I don't do that, I will go outside and play with my cats. If I had more friends than I do, I'd probably spend that time with my friends. But I am very much of a loner, and spend most of my time working or studying or practicing my music or being with my cats or walking in the park nearby. When there is no religion dictating certain times of our week, we are resourceful enough to find productive or entertaining things to do with our time. If we once were religious but have left the religion, we don't miss having to spend our time with rituals; if we never were religious (such as myself) these times mean nothing to us.

Most of the weekly, monthly, yearly, and life rituals that people practice (if they do practice them) are very personal. America is still and open and free culture, with many different types of people. True, there is still lots of intolerance coming from certain groups, but most of us let each other live our own lives. Of course, if you are an immigrant, you tend to gather with those who speak your language and understand your values, and will tend to adhere to these rites and rituals as a center for the community and as a focal point for cultural identity. Religion almost always plays a role in cultural identity, but often the people practicing the rituals do not believe in the religion, they just practice the rituals.

This is all I can say, because if the reason for these rites and rituals is absent, an individual will fill those gaps up with whatever is important to that individual -- even if what is important is to practice the rituals for the sake of cultural identity. But most of us take those times that are "sacred" to some and treat them like we would any other time. We don't attach any special meaning to them.

We have several letters and articles linked from our FAQ Index, and the first several articles from the "Gems From The Mailbag" section discuss some of these questions, and others that you might not have thought to ask. This letter will likewise eventually be linked from our FAQ section and will be added to the top portion of the "Mailbag" list.

Since my views are constantly changing, I will always field the same questions even if they are already addressed in the FAQ section. These responses have a different focus than others. Hopefully you will find enough to get a perspective on what atheism is and is not.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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