One of the fascinating things about embracing atheism for me was the realization that there are other completely different world views out there than the one I grew up with. I'd like to share one of these new views that I now take great comfort in.
A disclaimer: I speak from Christianity because it's what I know. If anyone has insight on other religions, please feel free to share it!
On of the major reasons that many turn to religion is the comfort it offers. It gives you the belief that everything happens for a reason, that the suffering of this life is insignificant in the grand scheme of eternal paradise, and that you will see all of your loved ones again; these can all be comforting things. When there is uncertainty in your life, religion is ready with open arms, caring words, and answers.
I frequently hear disbelief from religious people who are presented with the idea that atheism can offer any comfort. It is depressing for them to consider the idea that everything is just random and that death is the cold, hard end.
When I first realized my atheism, I agreed with this analysis. There were now so many holes in my understanding of the world where my belief in the divine used to sit. I am still filling many of these holes with new understandings, and constantly revising them; it's an interesting journey.
Back on point however, the idea of my purpose and what happens when I die were one of the first things that I addressed ... mainly because the idea of hell still had me terrified, but I'll discuss the afterlife in another post. As I have turned the idea over in my head, I realized that atheism does offer comfort in the face of suffering and uncertainty. Among other things, it offers the idea that our suffering isn't a mystifying punishment or attempt to teach us a lesson. It's simply cause and effect, and we can make reasonable, reality-based decisions about how to deal with it.
I have two examples that I think will help illustrate this; one anonymous, and one personal.
1. Let's look at this series of updates from a Facebook friend who desperately wants to have a baby, over the course of only a few days:
- 'Enjoying the sun shine and the fact that I'm gonna be a mommy!
- Thank you to everyone for the congratulations! We're so excited!
- How come after so long of praying God finally answers your prayers and with a blink of an eye its gone? I wanted this so bad and now my heart is broken.
- Taking things one day at a time. I know all things happen for a reason but I'm still so sad.'
My heart ached for her grief. It seemed to be made worse for her because of her belief that God had answered her prayers and then taken it all away, and that made it even more tragic to me. I haven't been through a miscarriage, or pregnancy of any kind, but I have some understanding of how heartbreaking it would be. Instead of wondering why God decided to tease me with a pregnancy and then rip it away, I can accept the knowledge that miscarriages are a common occurrence. They may be terrible and heart wrenching, but I'm not being punished or taunted, simply joining the ranks of millions of women across the world. I think I would be able to acknowledge my pain, grieve for the loss, and then move on.
2. I actually hadn't thought of this event in this light until working on this post, but I think it helps illuminate the way my view of the world works. For context, I wasn't an atheist at this point, but I had already been drifting away from Christianity.
In 2007 at the age of 20 I was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer. According to everything I knew about cancer and how people reacted to it, I should have been devastated. I know my parents were, my brand new fiance (and everyone else I called) was terrified for me, but for some reason, I wasn't. I took it all in stride. At the time I thought it was odd, but attributed it to not wanting the people around me to worry, because I knew it would all turn out one way or another.
I was fortunate that thyroid cancer is often one of the easiest cancers to treat, the fatal forms of it are incredibly rare, and I had none of the symptoms. It only took three months from diagnosis to completion of treatment. I had to go through a minor surgery, some x-rays, a terrible no-iodine diet (so much harder than you'd think!), and then drink some stale-tasting radioactive water to kill off any thyroid cells that might be left. Not once through the whole process did I wonder why God was punishing me with cancer, ask the agonized 'why me?', or try to figure out what I did wrong. I'm not saying there weren't tears; it was still scary, and the month of being an unmetabolized zombie* was very trying. But I accepted that I had cancer, figured out what I needed to do to get it taken care of, followed the doctor's instructions, and came through on the other side without a problem. I don't think I prayed once; instead I used my own inner strength, the wonderful strength of Mike, and the love and support of my friends and family to get through it.
I'm not saying that religion has it all wrong and that it doesn't offer very real comfort to many. I'm proposing that an atheist world view can also offer comfort. It all depends on how you look at the world. For many, the idea that there is something more powerful than them looking down and controlling the events in their lives is comfortable. For me, 'Everything happens for a reason' but 'God works in mysterious ways' isn't comforting. It just leaves me with more unsettling questions and I need something more tangible. I have evidence of my own personal strength from my encounter with cancer, and very real support from friends and family. I understand that unfortunate events happen indiscriminately to people across the world as frequently as fortunate ones do, and that I am responsible for my own personal happiness. I may not have all of the answers but I can work to understand my questions in a natural sense, instead of wondering about an unknowable divine plan.
And that is comforting to me.
Never stop questioning,
*Your thyroid controls your metabolism, and iodine powers your thyroid. By not having a thyroid or iodine, I had no metabolism and thus very little energy. The grocery store was a trip that would wipe me out for the whole day.
Inspired by Greta Christina's Atheist Meme of the Day