Friday, March 6, 2009


I'm always surprised at how shocked many people are when you tell them you don't believe in a god or gods. "You don't?" they ask, eyes wide like those of a child hearing a really spooky story. Frequently, they ask you why you're "mad at God," as if god was kind of a pissy authoritarian dad who'd handed down some extra-heavy punishment for forgetting to put your bike away for the night.

So you explain to them that you can't be "mad at God" because you don't believe there's a god at whom to be mad. Then they think you must be really sad. "Don't you feel empty inside?" they ask. "No," I say truthfully, adding, "Actually, going from agnostic to atheist was the most freeing moment of my life. Going from wanna-be believer to agnostic was the second most freeing moment."

The simple truth is that my mind was not at peace when I was trying to make myself swallow some mythology or believe that there was some great force moving behind the scenes of our day-to-day existence, looking down on us and noting every naughty thing we do as well as every good or holy thing we do so as to jot it down in some sort of cosmic ledger. My brain was able to clearly recognize that this was stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. To try to force one's mind to believe things that are clearly against reason is painful.

Of course, there was never any chance that I could believe in any of the actual mythology of any religion. Anyone who can actually swallow the Noah myth, for example, is either nuts or a total moron. Anybody who thinks the earth is only 6000 years old is either stone ignorant where science is concerned or is afflicted with a critical case of denial. I knew this when I was a young child. How anyone swallows this silliness is impossible for me to understand. I don't mean to pick on Christians alone, mind you. All creation myths are silly, although some are much prettier than others.

I liked the aesthetics of Catholicism when I tried to be one during my teens. I loved the candles, the incense, the flowers, the liturgy. Loved the responses from the pews to the priest's "peace be with you," all those voices replying "and also with you." I never had a negative experience in the church. But I never believed in it. Not even a little bit. Could not. Later, when I tried to embrace Wicca, I had somewhat better luck. It makes much more sense to honor nature and accord holiness to the earth that nurtures and bears. The sun, the sky, the moon and the rain are, after all, real things which can be observed and tested, and they hold an obvious power. If you grant the first absurdity, that these things are sentient and aware of us individually, the idea that you might be able, through some sort of worship or incantation, to harness or direct that power for your own ends seems a fairly reasonable one.

But it's granting the first absurdity that trips me up. I'm unable to swallow it, and ultimately I really believe that is a good thing. Voltaire said, "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities." This is true. If one can convince people that some invisible force exists that holds the keys to paradise, then those people can be convinced that this force wants them to kill people who hold a different belief in another invisible force. That few people see what a dangerous and terrible thing this has been for humankind is, to me, frankly terrifying.


  1. I have an issue with Paganism/New-Ageism/Woo/whatever-you-wanna-call-it as well. My issue is that, my family and freinds include a lot of New-Agey or Pagan people, and actually some of the most New-Agey people are some of my favorite people. Which makes me feel sorta dumb, as an atheist.

    I'm such a bad atheist. I just want people to enjoy themselves. And I sometimes find superstitions entertaining and enjoyable. I'm probably too likely to say, "OK sure. Crystals have mystic powers of divination." or "OK sure. The trees have spirits."

    But I'm glad that you ultimately can't. Because you're right, ultimately that's a good thing.

  2. My mother has taken on a superstition about crystal divination. I think she picked it up from my stepfather. Every time either of them can't decide something, they take out a little crystal on a chain and swing it like a pendulum over the thing that they are unsure about, while asking a question. They believe that the crystal will signal the best answer to their question by altering its swing. If the answer is yes, it'll swing as an oval, and if the answer is no, it'll swing straight. Something like that.

    I am sympathetic about the difficulty of decisions in an unsure universe. Whenever they do this, I simply let them carry out this ceremony and come to their decision. I've never seriously considered telling them just to decide. I'm not sure it would be productive.

  3. I have to confess, I used to be so bad at making up my mind that I would flip coins. I must further confess to sometimes doing the two out of three flip. Now, you'd think if I didn't like the first flip that I would then realize I didn't care for that option, but no . . .

    I used to cast the I Ching. I have to say, as a method of divination I know - intellectually - that it was bollocks, but it was so eerily accurate on occasion. The situations with the I Ching are so specific. Sixty-four hexagrams, and each hexagram has the potential to change via changing lines into a new hexagram. Fascinating reading, the I Ching. As a means of focusing on a problem, it's probably a fairly useful tool, but apparently I'm just too obsessive to merely meditate on something. I got to the point where I wouldn't make a move without throwing the coins. I knew the hexagrams by sight and most of the changing lines. I once had too much time on my hands.

    I love my New Age friends and co-workers, too. They tend to be earnestly interested in doing what is right, in ethics, in a healthy planet. I worry about them, though, when they forsake good solid science in favor of alternative medicine. I just saw a kind old man die because of this very thing. It's hard to talk to them about it, because they get very defensive. It's scary. There are lots of bad people willing to take advantage of someone's trust.