Monday, April 16, 2007

In which I come out of the closet

It is a cause of much discomfort for people of my ilk (Brights, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists, heathens and non-believers in general) that a reality-based world view seems to be regarded by believers to be worthless.

Indeed, everyone with a point of view automatically believes that everyone who doesn’t agree with them is either stupid, ignorant or both. But when it comes to religiosity, true believers seem to subscribe to a sort of hierarchy of wrongness:

1. Joe is a Catholic. He therefore thinks that all other Catholics are right, and all non-Catholics are stupid and/or ignorant.

2. Since Catholicism is a branch of Christianity, Joe probably believes that other Christians are more-or-less right, and are probably not going to Hell, because what they believe is pretty similar to Catholicism.

3. Joe probably believes that Jews and Muslims are going to Hell, because they’ve got the entirely wrong idea about all of it, but at least they’re praying to the right god… sort of.

4. Joe probably thinks that Hindus, Scientologists, Buddhists, Deists, Zoroastrians, Mithraists and those sorts of people are definitely going to Hell, because they don’t pray to the right god. However they do believe in a “higher power” of some sort, so they’re probably not too bad.

5. When Joe considers the position of a non-believer, he thinks it contemptible and paramount to Satanism. To deny the very existence of God is blasphemy to Joe… a crime worse than treason and punishable by death. To Joe, there is nothing worse than an Atheist. Atheists must be evil people because, without God, how do they have any morals? A perspective shared by many believers, not just Catholics, or even just by Theists.

I’m not going to go into arguments for objective morality right now (read the Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer). My problem is that my belief system (even if it is an absence of belief) is regarded as contemptible by believers. They’re willing to tolerate each others’ mutually incompatible beliefs most of the time, but when it comes to having no beliefs at all there is suddenly a travesty.

I too think that believers (and even some non-believers who disagree with me) are stupid and/or ignorant. But despite that, I tolerate their beliefs. I have no choice but to do so. I reserve the right to be able to criticise the beliefs of others, as I respect the rights of others to criticise mine. I reserve the right to try and promote my worldview to others, as I reserve their right to do the same (although I try not to do so, especially when inappropriate).

The thing that really gets me riled up is when I am called a “non-believer” as if it’s an insult. Yes, I am a non-believer… or at least I aspire to be. It’s a worldview and a perspective that I have considered very carefully, and one that I have arrived at by means of a very long and difficult process of deliberate evaluation, investigation and introspection. To me there is no other perspective that makes any sense. It may not be correct, and I acknowledge that possibility, but it appears to be the best option available.

Not only has that position been thoroughly considered, but it is still something about which I still spend a lot of time thinking. I frequently ask myself whether or not I might be wrong. And I don’t always have an answer. This is not a comfortable state to be in.

If anyone thinks that it is easy to go from being a True believer to a Non-believer, they are sorely mistaken. It is a hazardous and strenuous journey: examining each of your most prized and cherished beliefs, and finding that most of them are false. Although there is comfort in knowing that ideas of vaporous substance have largely been eliminated from my world-view (through a process of looking at them long enough until they disappear), the uncertainty of having to construct a new world-view from the ground up does little to enhance one’s sense of security.

The path to freethought is not one that I would recommend to anyone. Unless you have friends or family who are already on it, my advice is to steer clear of that wretched and pitfall-ridden road. Stick to your beliefs and leave the truth alone. You will be isolated from your friends and loved ones. You will experience no end of guilt for wanting to share your family’s joy in their celebrations of their religious traditions of choice. You will be ridiculed and despised by those closest to you. You will be alone, fearful of allowing others learning your opinions.

Had I known how difficult it would be, I would have chosen this path anyway. I’m not the sort of person who can look for the better story. I refuse to live my life based on a lie. I am the sort who must find the truth… or if there is no truth to be found, to remain undecided.

I am an Agnostic Nontheist. From my perspective, it’s the only reasonable thing to be. Live with it. I have to.