September 7, 2016

The Big Questions of Atheism

questions
I find myself thinking about atheism this morning and wondering about the big questions which nearly all atheists ask themselves at one time or another. I realize this may sound a bit vague, so I'll throw out a specific example right away. I think that one of these big questions that every atheist considers involves how active one wants to be in opposing religious belief. That is, do I want to take an active role in trying to undermining religious belief, or would I just prefer to distance myself from it and have as little to do with it as possible? Another way to frame this question might be as follows: Do I want to promote atheism as a better alternative to something I perceive as detrimental (i.e., religious belief), or am I content just to not participate in religion? I think this is precisely the sort of question that almost every atheist living in a country with a religious majority answers sooner or later.

A few years ago, I wrote about the big questions that divide atheists. Admittedly, those questions have some overlap with the sort of questions I am now considering; however, I was thinking more about the sort of disagreement that might produce conflict among atheists when I wrote that post and the series that followed it. Now, I am thinking more about the sort of questions we ask and answer for ourselves individually as we decide what sort of atheists we want to be. There is overlap. Undoubtedly, some of the questions are likely to be the same, but I suspect that the manner in which we answer them may be a bit different.

My answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph has changed a bit over the course of my life. For the first few years after I realized I was an atheist, I would have said that I had little interest in undermining religious belief or doing anything active to oppose it. I viewed religious belief as irrational but not necessarily harmful. For the most part, I just sought to distance myself from it. The idea of promoting atheism in any way would have struck me as a strange concept. What I most wanted was to be left alone by religious believers. Had this happened, I probably would be a very different sort of atheist today.

More recently, during the past 15 years or so, I came to believe that religious belief was in fact detrimental to humanity and was something that made sense to oppose. I believe that this shift in attitude resulted primarily from me beginning to pay much more attention to religion and the behavior of religious believers than I had previously. It was bolstered further as I begin to read more about atheism and related topics. And yet, I never went quite so far as to perceive my role as one of working to eradicate religious belief. In 2013, I wrote:
My efforts lie with secularism, atheist civil rights, and the promotion of reality-based education, critical thinking, and skepticism. While I do imagine that success in these areas could lead to a gradual reduction in religious belief, I certainly don't expect much more than that.
This continues to reflect my current view fairly well. I do see myself as opposing religious belief, but I prefer to focus my efforts on promoting secularism, critical thinking, skepticism, freethought, and the like rather than attempting to fight religion head-on.

Still, the struggle to fully resolve this question to which I referred in that 2013 post remains. I have weeks where I am interested in promoting atheism, and I have weeks when I really just want nothing more than not to be involved in someone else's religious delusion. Another thing I mentioned in that 2013 post that has not changed is that I still believe that this is a question without one right answer. I am not going to think less of any atheist who answers this question differently for themselves than how I have answered it for myself. I welcome atheists who really just want to steer clear of religion, I welcome those who are strong anti-theists hoping to make a real dent in the influence of religion in the modern world, and I welcome everyone in between.

What other big questions do most atheists ask themselves at some point as they figure out how they are going to navigate atheism and religion? I'm sure there are plenty of others. 

As I think about this and other big questions individual atheists ask themselves as they decide what sort of atheists - and ultimately what sort of people - they want to be, I cannot help but feel encouraged and even a bit optimistic. By considering such questions and thinking through them, we learn more about ourselves. By comparing our answers with the answers of others, we learn even more. In so many ways, I see this as among the real perks of a reality-based worldview. We aren't content with being spoon-fed answers from some ancient book; we need to discover many of them for ourselves.
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