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The Heart of an Antheist

By Ben Love ~

English: Military dog tags with religious (bel...
English: Military dog tags with religious (belief system) designation: ATHEIST. Dog tags posted on Flickr by sister of military member and uploaded to wikipedia with permission of both the member and his sister. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When most people, who are otherwise decent people with regular everyday lives and dreams for the future that are not unlike mine, learn that I’m an atheist, they seem to treat me as though I have the plague. I don’t think they even know they do it. I think it is so ingrained within everyday Americans, even the ones who aren’t particularly passionate about religion, to think that an absence of belief in God simply must translate into a dark, unhappy existence. I don’t know if it is like this in other countries. But I know that, here in America, when the average Joe or Jane encounters an atheist like me, this unspoken (and sometimes rudely spoken) sense of regret almost takes them over, as though they are in the presence of someone with terminal cancer and the sympathy just comes pouring out of them. It’s like,“Oh, you’re an atheist? Oh you poor thing. If only you weren’t so confused. If only you knew the truth. Something terrible must have happened to you. Why else would you choose that? No, you’re just misguided, poor soul. I feel sorry for you.”

One gets used to it, I suppose. After all, being a minority is something many people on this planet must deal with. Oh, you don’t think atheists are a minority? Again, I don’t know about other countries, but recent polling in America, over the last decade, suggests that most Americans have “consistently indicated a negative opinion of atheists and nonbelievers. Even in this enlightened twenty-first century, where we’ve proved ourselves ready for a black president and welcomed elected officials representing every group, approximately half of all Americans say that would refuse to vote for a well-qualified atheist for public office. In other words, one out of every two Americans admits to being prejudiced against fellow citizens who don’t believe in God. No other minority group in this country is rejected by such large numbers.” [i]

Still, even as an atheist I can somewhat sympathize. Believing in God has been part of the human mentality for so long throughout history that to not believe in God seems to go against the grain on the fabric of our identity as a species. For so many people, the existence of God is simply taken for granted due to the very presence of the natural world around us. Very few actually go deeper into those mysteries of existence and probe them with sound logic, good reasoning, and an impartial desire to know the absolute truth. And of those few, even fewer come out the other side having shed all belief in God. I don’t say that to insinuate that atheism is an unlikely conclusion for the honest seeker, I mean only to imply that even most honest seekers would rather find some other alternative than to reject God altogether. After all, it’s not easy to be an atheist. I know this from personal experience.

But easy or not, I am an atheist, and I am one for good reason. My atheism is not the result of anger or rebellion or a desire to somehow indict God for crimes against humanity. If I wanted to indict God, I’d be admitting by default that I still believe in him. No, I am an atheist because I honestly and sincerely cannot reach any other conclusion that accounts for all evidence, all the data, and all the questions that one could ask. Moreover, I know of no other stance that one can accept without forcing oneself to accept blatantly contrived answers, or forcing oneself to perform self-serving mental gymnastics. I don’t say that as a judgment against believers, I say it as a testimony that I myself have found to be true on my own particular journey. Perhaps your journey yields a differing testimony. That’s your business.

Oh, you’re an atheist? Oh you poor thing. If only you weren’t so confused. If only you knew the truth. Something terrible must have happened to you. Why else would you choose that?
However, I would like to set the record straight about a few things. To be an atheist, while being incredibly difficult,[ii] is not akin to having the plague. It is not an emotional death sentence. It is not a state of affairs so grossly unfulfilling that it needs your sympathy. An atheist is not bereft of his humanity. An atheist is every bit as human as you are as a believer. I cannot speak for all atheists, obviously, but allow me to at least speak for myself: My unbelieving heart is just as tender and soft as yours is as a believer. My eyes, having beheld a hauntingly beautiful sunset, are just as amazed. My skin, having just embraced my lovely wife, quivers just as profoundly with love as yours does. My arms, when they hold her, feel the same magic you do as a Christian. I can stand on the same mountain, in the same ocean, at the mouth of the same cave, or in the most luscious golden field of sunflowers, and sense my aliveness on this planet just as much as you can. My heart is not empty. My mind is not cursed with black thoughts. My atheist eyes do not keep me from recognizing beauty. The deepest recesses of my psyche do not casually ignore the great existential questions of life. My food tastes as good as yours. My lungs receive the wonderful air of life much like yours do. When my head hits the pillow at night, I mentally wrestle with the same aspects of daily life as you do. When I make love to my wife, am I not transported into a transcendent realm of unspeakable ecstasy simply because I, unlike you, don’t believe in God? When I dream about the future, is it only cancerous thoughts of utter desolation that characterize my hopes? No. I’m not dead inside. I feel like Shakespeare inquiring whether or not I will bleed if you prick me. Yes, I am an atheist, but I’m not lost, I’m not hurting, I’m not hopeless, and I’m not some interiorly diseased pariah simply because I don’t believe in the same God you believe in. And for you to think otherwise here reflects a tremendous lack of understanding and education on your part.

Do not overlook the heart of the atheist. In fact, if you took the time to explore his heart, you might find tremendous courage, passionate honor, and much more joy than you could have imagined.

[i] Taken from Good without God, by Greg M. Epstein

[ii] By “difficult” I mean that it is never easy to be a minority, to be subject to the mockery of others, to be seen as some kind of outcast, or to be labelled with all the negative connotations that “atheist” seems to invite.