Not very long ago, comedian Ricky Gervais posted an image of himself on Twitter as an atheist Christ—a photo that also decorated the cover of an issue of the New Humanist late last year. Gervais went on to field questions and spar, gently enough, with some who questioned his atheism. The open forum illustrated his point that any expression of atheism often leads to challenges most people wouldn’t direct at members of another faith group. As a member of the faithless group, Gervais defends his position on religion with humor and keen reasoning, and all steeped in secular humanism. He’s also been highly visible in jousting on Twitter with bigots who should be offended and dismayed every second they’re awake. A round of applause is due for this, at least.
None of this is new—not Gervais’s outspokenness on the subject or the reverberations on the Internet. Disbelief in God or gods must be as old as belief in such things. There is something deeply human about both, which should make the tension in between less surprising, I suppose. The issue is still thorny (forgive me) and one that registers a big response wherever it appears. Non-believers gather in organizations like American Atheists and Atheism UK. Challenges to atheism can be found on such sites as Conservapedia (which includes, among other wild claims, a hilarious suggestion of a link between Asperger’s and atheism) and New Advent. And so on and so on.
I’ve been an atheist since I was a kid. My parents raised me without religion, my father being a non-believer and my mother a Presbyterian with notions of God independent of church attendance. I’m also personally inclined toward skepticism. I count among my heroes Carl Sagan, secular humanist of the highest order, in whose book Broca’s Brain I discovered the story of the Fox sisters that inspired my novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead. I look at James “the Amazing” Randi debunking this and that supernatural claim, and I am a fan.
Just to get this out of the way: I have long meditated on the matter and find no compelling reason to believe in God. Tradition and popularity have never seemed to me like good reasons to embrace any idea. I sense an absence where many others sense a presence—it comes down to that. I have no quarrel with another person choosing religious faith, except when I see religion being used as a weapon against people’s freedom to think and conduct their personal lives. Oh—and as an excuse to kill each other. Not on board for that, either.
Over the years, I’ve been in many discussions, debates, and arguments about my atheism. Often, I’ve been outed when the subject of faith comes up and someone in the group says, “Paul doesn’t believe in God!” [Gasps all around.] “Why?” people want to know, often with genuine concern in their eyes. It seems to me that believers often find atheists to be spiritual buzzkills, unfeeling drones to science and reasoning. In many of the conversations I’ve mentioned, this notion was either implied or hurled as an accusation.
One of the most memorable confrontations took place when I was in middle school. I must have been 12 years old. A few minutes before the bell rang to end the period, my science teacher (yes, life is funny) made some reference to God or belief and a kid in class offered me up as a curiosity. Definitely a needle-screeching-off-the-record moment—and this wasn’t even a parochial school. My teacher was aghast and made no effort to conceal it. She questioned me with the whole class looking on, her tone showing astonishment and distaste that anyone could conclude such a thing.
I held my own okay. It wasn’t fun to be put on the hotseat, but it certainly wasn’t the first time the revelation had landed me in a similar place. I told her I saw no compelling reasons to believe, etc. At one point (and I believe the bell had since rung and the conversation had moved into the hall) my teacher told me she felt sorry for me. The condescending pity of the barb, absolutely delivered to sting, has stayed with me through the years. This drone to science and reason had feelings then, which went from surprise, to a lump in my throat, to outrage.
In true little wiseass form, I said I pitied her for needing a crutch. Again, it wasn’t my first exchange on the topic. I also may have heard my father express this sentiment. Anyway, that could have landed me in the principal’s office, if she hadn’t been the first to go way over the line. She had fired a cheap shot, and I fired one back. It’s a shame it often comes to this.
Reasonable people, religious and otherwise, understand that this isn’t a matter to lock swords about. There’s nothing to gain in belittling one another. Believers and non-believers have no reason to feel sorry for each other—or maybe every reason, as co-inhabitants of baffling reality and subjects to gravity. “You’re not going to hell,” Ricky Gervais assures us. “But be nice anyway.” Yeah—what he said.