On becoming atheist - the tug of war

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    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 16:43:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Perhaps, if you are a theist, you might not want to read this. If you are nevertheless curious about how an atheist thinks, then please read on.

    I don't think there are any active members of this board who have been atheists all their lives (are there?). I think virtually all of us transitioned into non-belief from a religious beginning. Some were born-ins, others drifted in then out, still others who like me never took the plunge but who came ever so close. At one point in our lives we believed in God and a purpose of life.

    Perhaps the hardest thing to accept on becoming atheist is the clear realisation that everyone loses his or her place in the sun. Not temporarily. Forever. This an atheist comes to accept on the basis of the evidence of history, the evidence of science and the evidence of his eyes. Contrast this belief with that of a present day Jehovah's Witness. He or she has an expectation that

    a) they have a chance at never having to die at all (which would be a really, really good thing), and

    b) even if they do die they're going to be resurrected into a perfect, young body and live in peace and harmony on paradise earth forever and ever.

    Once you realise that a) just isn't going to happen - no rapture, no post-Armageddon - you're left with a belief that is every bit as irrational. There's another flavour of b) that goes something like, yes, everyone dies in body, but their sprit lives on for all eternity.

    Here's were the dichotomy happens. Once you start on the road to atheism and insist on learning about things that are substantiated by evidence and observation it becomes more and more difficult to believe a) or b), or whatever flavour of b). At the same time, you still want to believe at least some variant of b), because it is hard to contemplate that you and your loved ones, beginning at some point in the very near future, will never see one another again. The undeniable fact of the matter is your future awaits. It could be soon, it could be many years away, but next to eternity it is not even a blink of time. You will either die from trauma or disease of some kind or slowly by decrepitation. And then the lights just go out. For a theist, as I once was, it is a frightening thing even to contemplate, let alone make a concerted attempt to understand. But that understanding eventually does come when you finally put aside what you are afraid of.

    And then you find peace and you find wonderment in learning about and understanding how the world really works. The truth is far, far more fascinating and enthralling than any of those ancient fables.

    Scully posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 16:45:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Well, I can say that everyone is born atheist.

    To be a theist, a person has to be taught to be one.

    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 16:46:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    You are of course right, scully. The first transition is not voluntary, but you still have to proceed from there. You were a born-in, no?

    talesin posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 16:52:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    @ Scully ---- yes! that is so smart ,,, I'ma gonna stick that one in the file.

    @ Nickolas --- although a born-in, I never really believed in G*d, and as a child, mostly parroted what I was 'taught'. And of course, the horror stories of Armaggedon and Malawi, and other persecutions terrified me as a child and before I reached the age of reason. Even so, when I was taught evolution in school, it made more sense to me than the creation myth,,, after rejecting the society's teachings at age 17, it only took a few years for me to return to my 'natural state' -- atheism.

    tal

    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:00:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    You got there much sooner than I did, talesin. You are obviously quite bright. (and, yes, I am associating atheism with intelligence. Fire away.)

    M leavingwt posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:01:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    But that understanding eventually does come when you finally put aside what you are afraid of.

    Indeed. I'm still excited about having been born in the first place, and to have lived at such a wonderful time in human history. I've lived fewer than 40 years but if I killed over today, it has been one heck of a ride. Merely having access to 24-hour drug store with pain medicine is enough to get excited about, taken in the context of the billions who have died (and continue to do do) in extreme pain and poverty.

    There has never been a better time to be born or to die, IMHO.

    Sure, I want to live forever. I'd also like the ability to fly and to be really good-looking. I'll lower my expectations and carry on.

    "I was dead for millions of years before I

    was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit."

    -- Mark Twain

    sabastious posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:10:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    For a theist, as I once was, it is a frightening thing even to contemplate, let alone make a concerted attempt to understand. But that understanding eventually does come when you finally put aside what you are afraid of.

    It was your choice to become frightened. Theism is used a security blanket for many which is simply choosing to be encouraged by the unknown instead of fearful of it.

    -Sab

    unshackled posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:18:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    And then you find peace and you find wonderment in learning about and understanding how the world really works. The truth is far, far more fascinating and enthralling than any of those ancient fables.

    Great post, Nickolas. Your quote above reminded me of one by Jon Krakauer from his book Under the Banner of Heaven. It was that book about the Mormons that pushed me to truly scrutinize the Watchtower...

    "In the absence of conviction, I've come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life. An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain – which doesn't strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief."

    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:18:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    I can agree with you completely, sab. It was my choice. But if you are encouraged by the unknown to percieve that there just might be something for you after you die, then you haven't confronted the reality yet. Perhaps you do not fear oblivion because you still believe it may not apply to you.

    tec posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:23:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Even so, when I was taught evolution in school

    Yes, because no one was born believing in evolution either. They had to be taught it. No one was born selfless either. They have to be taught it. No one is born being a humanist. They have to be taught it. I don't mean to be confrontational, but this 'we were all born atheists' is a statement that carries no water.

    If you had to be taught to be a theist, then how did the first person ever become one? (Yes, I know the given answers - superstition, lies, but also that we all seek to know God because God is there... we all get to make the choice as to which we believe - neither choice makes a person good or bad, btw)

    Nick, you and I know how each other feel, and our morals (I think) are not all that different, despite our difference in matters of faith. I am not afraid to die either - whether I get to live on afterward or not. It is not why I believe, and so it does not 'hold me back' from letting go of my belief. I do understand that it might be a reason for some, but I don't know that fear personally.

    Peace,

    Tammy

    sabastious posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:23:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Perhaps you do not fear oblivion because you still believe it may not apply to you.

    Why would I have reason to fear oblivion? I have reason to avoid it, but not fear it (not that I don't fear it sometimes, I'm just speaking pure logic which I aspire for yet have not obtained it yet). I will admit that I feel weird about the thought of my body decomposing or just the fact that I wont be here anymore, but there is no reason to fear death in itself. However, TYPES of death on the other hand are harder to reconcile. I surely don't like the idea of a slow agonizing death of which my family has to watch take place over many years.

    -Sab

    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:24:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    I'll have to add that one to my list of books to read, unshackled. (I'm just about done "The Selfish Gene" and have "The Greatest Show on Earth" in the queue.) There is a degree of uncertainty in what I believe about life and death, but it's pretty small. I'm a 6 on the Dawkins scale. But it really just doesn't matter. That which I do not know, cannot know, will never know, is almost infinitely greater than what I think I know to be true. If there is a spiritual world I don't perceive it. If someone else perceives it and says he knows what goes on in it I hope I will be courteous enough to allow him beliefs that are important to him. If he insists that I can't be "saved" unless I believe what he does, well then we have a problem.

    talesin posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:25:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Nickolas --- there's a reason why one of my nicknames is Spock. ;)

    It always surprises me that some highly educated, even brilliant folks are theists. Even Einstein confessed to a belief in God. Go figure? I have come to think that the need for a 'reason to be' has been cultivated in humanity for so long that many people either overthink the issue, or just believe that what they were taught as children must be true. Does believing in a deity really make us superior to the animals? hmmm,,, I think not.

    sab --- did you know you are paraphrasing Karl Marx "religion is the opiate of the masses" ;)

    tal

    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:27:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    I agree with you, sab. You should not fear oblivion. But to have reason to avoid it is inconsistent with not being fearful of it. Why avoid it? You can't. It's inevitable. So you need not avoid it at all. Embrace it.

    SweetBabyCheezits posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:28:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Fine post, Nick.

    A lack of belief in afterlife is definitely the most unpleasant aspect of my non-theistic view. That said, my mom passed away last month and while it was more painful and difficult to accept than I could've imagined, I didn't fall into a pit of despair. In fact, I really don't think my sadness is any greater than it would be if I had my old JW perspective.

    This may sound cold but there's a certain peace that comes from accepting death as normal, as opposed to "the enemy" as JWs teach. Of course, when a loved one dies too young (my mother was 64), it's tough not to feel cheated. And I'm sure the younger the person is, the greater the perception of injustice.

    These are some "scriptures" that give me comfort:

    "It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."
    (Carl Sagan)

    "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia."(Richard Dawkins)

    "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."
    (attributed to Mark Twain)

    “We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”
    (attributed to Chuck Palahniuk)

    EDIT: Sorry, LWT, I'd started this post when there was only one reply to Nick. I just doubled-up on the Twain quote!

    sabastious posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:29:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    sab --- did you know you are paraphrasing Karl Marx "religion is the opiate of the masses" ;)

    Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give uop a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the hal.

    ^ Thanks talesin I have never read that before. Interesting take on religion by Marx.

    -Sab

    Nickolas posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:33:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Tammy, I might offer the same observation to you as I have to sab. I respect both of you and I am honoured that you have contributed to this thread. But what I might appreciate understanding is how one can simulaneously hold out a hope for eternal life and say he has truly confronted the notion of oblivion? In order to confront it, you have to believe it.

    sabastious posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:33:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    I agree with you, sab. You should not fear oblivion. But to have reason to avoid it is inconsistent with not being fearful of it. Why avoid it? You can't. It's inevitable. So you need not avoid it at all. Embrace it.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with avoiding death. If one takes on such a task they would do well to consider the fact that no human has done it yet. Obsession with the avoision of oblivion is what religion is for, which is one of the reasons I avoid religion. I'm not too concerned with avoiding oblivion, I am more concerned with what happens after we die.

    Have you seen Hereafter? It's a facinating take on life after death and how people cope with it as well as a small amount of science.

    -Sab

    sabastious posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:34:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    Tammy, I might offer the same observation to you as I have to sab. I respect both of you and I am honoured that you have contributed to this thread. But what I might appreciate understanding is how one can simulaneously hold out a hope for eternal life and say he has truly confronted the notion of oblivion? In order to confront it, you have to believe it.

    Keeping eternal hope on one's table is not the same thing as ignoring one's own mortality.

    -Sab

    talesin posted Tue, 09 Aug 2011 17:34:00 GMT(8/9/2011)

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    @ tec I do not mind confrontational! It's a good thing, and fosters rigorous discussion. :D

    That being said, I hope my answer 'reads' respectfully, because that is my intent.

    Yes, because no one was born believing in evolution either. They had to be taught it.

    Evolution is science. It's like chemistry. I was not born understanding what H 2 O means either.

    No one was born selfless either. They have to be taught it. No one is born being a humanist. They have to be taught it.

    I disagree. First off, is 'selfless' a good thing to be? As a JW, I was taught to be selfless, and it gave me low self-esteem. Now, I'm not trying to twist words, but here's something I learned in therapy. We need to be 'selfish' to take care of ourselves. Being 'self-absorbed', however, is a whole other thing, and means caring about one's self to the exclusion of the good of others. If we don't take care of ourselves first (selfish), how can we help others?

    And I have been a humanist since I was a child -- once I cast off the guilt and perfectionism taught by the principle of 'original sin',,, I was free to love and care for all people (myself first), and all living things. That feels much more natural to me.

    tal

    I'm off to visit a friend for the day,,, looking forward to reading when I get home... ttfn !

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