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What’s it Like to Be an Atheist?

What is it like to be an Atheist? “It’s a lot like being the only sober person in a car full of drunk people and they refuse to pull over and let you drive.”

This little gem has been circulating through Facebook like chicken pox through the anti-vaccine community.  It’s catchy and hits home with a lot of people.  But all snark aside, what is it like to be an atheist?  I’ve thought of a few things from my own life:

  • When I was a theist, my vision was split.  Through one eye, I watched the world and the people in it, and saw cause/effect.  Through the other eye, I always had to question what I thought was real because I never knew when God, or Satan, or a Demon was manipulating reality through magic.  I never knew if I could even trust my own senses, since I myself might be under some nefarious supernatural influence.
  • When I left theism, my vision became focused.  Reality isn’t always kind, but it is consistent.  I may not always be correct, but when I look at the world, I look for cause and effect.  The laws of nature.  Of logic.  Of science.  And even though we discover from time to time that we’ve been wrong, there’s always a good reason.  It was never the capricious whim of an inscrutable ghost.  We had the wrong information.  Or we made an error in logic.  Or we let our emotions cloud our judgment.
  • When I left theism, I became responsible for myself.  I’ve said “I’m sorry” much more frequently as an atheist than a theist.  If I screw up, it’s my fault.  I can’t blame it on God, and I can’t say that my misdeed is justified because there’s a “higher plan” that I’m privy to.
  • By the same token, I’ve taken credit for my own success.  When I got that paper done at 6 in the morning, I gave credit to my own perseverance, and the wisdom in purchasing a six pack of energy drink.  God wasn’t magically boosting my metabolism.  I was.
  • I’ve taken responsibility for others.  Despite my snarky exterior, I really do care about other people.  One of my greatest regrets is how much of my life I spent praying for other people when a little elbow grease would have fixed the problem.
  • I question everything.  “Because I said so” is no longer an acceptable answer for me.  If there’s a logical explanation for something, then explain it to me.  If not, then stop trying to sell it to me.
  • I no longer fear death.  A very close friend and I had not seen each other for most of a decade.  After a few hours of catching up, she looked at me quizzically and said, “You’re not hanging on so tight these days.  It’s been good for you.”  Death is a natural part of life, and I’m not worried about heaven or hell.  I don’t look forward to the process of dying, but death itself?  Nothing to worry about.  So on the one hand, yeah, I’m taking a few more risks than I used to take.  After all, this is the only life I get, and what’s the use of living without being alive?  But I’m also being a lot smarter about living for the long term.
  • Everything about morality changed for me.  In a nutshell, if I can’t come up with a logical cause and effect reason not to do something, I don’t tell other people not to do it.  I’ve been able to live a far, far wider human experience since I left my Holy High Horse at the door and began observing people through the lens of their own perspective, not some Extra-natural Inquisitor.
  • I’ve accumulated 10% more wealth than when I was a Christian.  Easy money.
  • And finally, I have learned more about humans and human nature than ever would have been possible when I believed we were anything more than processes of evolution.  It is impossible to exaggerate the paradigm shift when one searches for a natural scientific explanation for every single human behavior.

These are just a few changes off the top of my head.  There are many more ways I am different now.  But there’s a neat thread uniting all of these things together, and it boils down to exactly one perspective shift:

When I became an atheist, I experienced a fundamental shift in cause-effect.  I went from “What SHOULD BE creates what IS” to “What IS creates what SHOULD BE.”

There could hardly be a bigger shift.  Evolution exists, and it is the single, unalterable causal force in the human experience.  If something exists, it evolved to exist.  If I believe that something “should be” a certain way, it is because of my value system, which evolved.  Rather than trying to fit a preconceived model of an “ideal universe” onto the real universe, I try to discover what really exists now, and what changes are possible.  From there, I can decide what is reasonable to try to change, and what I need to learn to live with.

It would be almost impossible to describe how liberating and empowering this single change of perspective can be.




7 thoughts on “What’s it Like to Be an Atheist?

  1. When I was a theist, I was snarky, bitter, and self-rightous. Now that I’m an atheist………. ok, maybe that’s not a good example.

    But anyway, I’m re-evalutating some things, I’ve had my first drink a couple months ago and am trying to be more open to… other things.

    I can’t honestly say I’m happier or better off, I still have anger outbursts, but at least I’m mad at worldly things.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 14, 2011, 7:27 pm
  2. But anyway, I’m re-evalutating some things, I’ve had my first drink a couple months ago and am trying to be more open to… other things.

    I have a sneaking suspicion you can get there. And by there, I mean a place where you experience a little more of the human experience and start taking yourself and others less seriously. You haven’t truly given up hope yet, and that’s your problem. Color me Zen for a moment, but until you give up hope for the universe, you can’t have hope for yourself.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 14, 2011, 9:19 pm
  3. I about shit myself laughing with the quote at the top Hamby. Jennifer was lol too.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | February 14, 2011, 10:58 pm
  4. I think all of your points apply to me as well, with one exception–I haven’t saved 10% of my income. My wife still makes church contributions and I contribute a similar amount to secular charities. I do consider that a benefit, though, because the money is probably doing much more to benefit people who need help.

    All those other items, though…right on.

    I like the quote, too.

    Posted by Joel Justiss | February 15, 2011, 12:20 am
  5. Hamby, that was indeed Zen and like other Zen statements I don’t know what it means or how to interpret it.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 15, 2011, 4:41 pm
  6. LOL. I admit I was being intentionally vague. I’ll tell you what I mean.

    There’s a neat place some people get to, where in a very real sense, they’ve “given up hope.” That doesn’t mean they are truly hopeless for a good life. Far from it. It means they have given up trying to force the world into the frame they’d prefer, and chosen to “play the cards they’ve been dealt” without regret or bitterness. Admittedly, this usually seems to come with age, but some people get there earlier than others.

    In your case, you’re touching your toes in the water and realizing that drugs, sex, and a certain amount of debauchery are just part of the human condition. You may discover that your notions of “clean, honest living” have been a reflection on the way you want the world to be, much more than the way it really is. And one day, you may find a balance that makes you happy.

    I’m not saying drugs and sex are the answer to your anger issues. I dunno. But I know that the research is clear on regular sex’s contribution to long term happiness and health, and I also know that drugs are just chemicals, and our bodies are just chemical factories. Dopamine is dopamine, and we’re all addicted.

    I think you still see the world as a lot of dichotomies. People who use alcohol and drugs are not as “good” or “healthy” as people who don’t. People who have lots of uncommitted sex likewise. I’ll leave abortion to the side for the moment…

    Once you’ve lived a little, and seen the *real* effects of some of the things you’ve avoided like the plague, I think you’ll be able to think in more shades of gray. Which would be good for you, in my opinion.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 15, 2011, 5:16 pm
  7. Right on. George Carlin said it best:

    Posted by Workshy Joe | February 16, 2011, 9:28 am

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