Prof. Jerome P. Baggett of Berkley is conducting a study on atheists. I first learned about it from watching a video by the YouTuber ZomGitscriss
. Some fellow atheists I've told about the survey have had some concerns that he might take the information and write a very biased paper on the subject. I'll hold my judgement until the paper is done. Just because the guy is a theology teacher doesn't mean he is trying to paint us as amoral baby killers. Anyway, even if the paper turns out to be a dud, I still have my thoughts written down. I can give what I've written to curious relatives who want to know more about my worldview.
THE VARIETIES OF IRRELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Thanks for taking time to respond to these questions. Note that there are no “correct” answers we are looking for and your responses to this questionnaire will be kept strictly confidential. Also, please feel free to provide as much information as you’d like. In other words, we encourage you to provide specific examples in your responses, recount stories from your past, and go into as much detail as necessary to give us a thorough understanding of your experience. We’re more than happy to read all of this because we want to provide the most detailed and most balanced snapshot of American atheists that we possibly can. Thanks again for helping us to do this.
1. Were you raised atheist or did you have a religious upbringing of some sort?
I was raised Southern Baptist.
2. If raised religious – When and why did you become an atheist? What was this transition from religion like for you, for your family, etc.? Was this a quick transition or a slow one? Was it easy for you or difficult?
My parents were religious, but I can’t ever remember attending church on a regular basis beyond weddings. I guess I was more of a deist as a child as organized religion just seemed silly to me. I was even baptized, but it didn’t really have any significance to me. (If you wanted to psychoanalyze me, the obvious reason for this would be my limited exposure to church). My mother and I used to pray the “Now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer every night before I went to bed, but it eventually lost meaning to me as I grew into my early teens. It’s sort of like a word loses its meaning when you say it over and over and over again. You could say that I was somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist by the time I entered high school. The group that made up my friends was a mix of religious and irreligious people. All of my friends talked about religion, and I found that my views tended to agree with those who identified as atheists. I considered myself a full-blown atheist by the time I graduated in 2000. However, it wasn't until several years later that I began to study the evidence supporting both sides of the issue. A freshman-level biology class I took in 2004 gave me a more in-depth introduction to evolutionary theory and opened my eyes to the interrelatedness of all life on earth (this was solidified by further reading on the subject and a senior-level class I took in 2010 after returning to college). I read the religious texts associated with the major world religions, including the Abrahamic religions and the Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, etc.). Additionally, I've studied history, mythology, psychology, religious art, and primate behavior and material culture. All of this has led to me having a better understanding of human origins and behavior and the progression of human culture, which explains the beginnings of religion, why the texts say what they say and why supernatural beliefs persist to this day. The process to becoming an unbeliever was not difficult at all. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the way an older child forgets that they once believed in Santa Claus. The process to becoming what I would call a "well-rounded" Secular Humanist was difficult because it involved years of study and reflection. However, it was a very enlightening experience.
3. If raised atheist – Have you ever been drawn to religion at any point in your life? Why or why not?
Thinking About Atheism:
1. Do you identify yourself as an atheist? If so, what does being an atheist mean to you? Also, how does it feel to be an atheist . . . optimistic / pessimistic, hopeful / cynical, happy / sad, connected to / isolated from other people, etc.?
Yes, I identify as an atheist. To me, atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god or any number of gods. There are no real emotions that can be attached to it as I was never emotionally invested in religion in the first place. Any positive or negative emotions I have stem from being a Secular Humanist. Many religious people often confuse the views or actions of Secular Humanists as being those solely endorsed by atheists simply because many such people are indeed atheist. For instance, I don’t want to remove “In God We Trust” from the US currency or “God” from the pledge of allegiance because I’m an atheist. I want to remove it because the constitution states there is to be a separation of church and state. Plus, this alienates all of the people of other faiths who live or come to settle in America. Likewise, I don’t want to remove any type of so-called “Creation Science” from classrooms because I’m an atheist. I want to remove it not only because of the aforementioned separation, but also because proponents sidestep the peer-review process necessary to legitimize their claims by gluing their lips and money to the ears and pockets of religious politicians. The only time I feel cynical is when I see elected officials, who should know better than to do so, pushing faith-based laws, like those forbidding gays from marriage or legalizing the teaching of creation science on the state level.
I do feel isolated sometimes knowing that most of America and the world is religious. But I take comfort in the fact that anatomically modern humans lived for around 150,000 years before the earliest shamanistic religions appeared. We lived for around 195,000 years before the major religions started popping up. So we have lived much of our existence without religion. Plus, atheists have been around since the dawn of religion, which means living as an atheist is in no way “abnormal.” Most importantly, studies show atheism is on the rise, while religion is on a decline. According to “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” poll conducted by Win-Gallup International, the number of atheists in America rose from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012, and the number of religious people dropped from 73% to 60% over the same period. The statistics for other countries are similar. Overall, the number of people worldwide who identify as “convinced atheists” rose from 10% to 13%. The number of people worldwide who identify as “religious” dropped 9%. The study also found a correlation between a country’s economic prosperity and the religiosity of its people. Poorer people tend to be 17% more religious than their more prosperous counterparts. Likewise, they found a correlation between a country’s level of education and the religiosity of its people. People with college degrees tend to be 16% less religious than their less educated counterparts. I see such trends continuing as economies improve and people gain more access to education. The Biopsychologist Nigel Barber has suggested that religion will disappear by the year 2038. That seems a bit soon to me, but religion will fade from the mainstream eventually.
It’s important to point out that there are currently far more atheists across the world than any poll would be able to determine. I’m not talking about “closet atheists” either. I’m talking about the billions of people who believe in one or more gods, but reject all others. These people are in effect atheists towards the gods they don’t believe in. I simply take my lack of belief one god further than they are willing to go. The way they feel about, say, Shiva, Zeus, or Huangdi is the way I feel about all gods. I consider supernatural beings to be non-entities just like Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and leprechauns.
2. Why do you think most people in the United States believe in God, practice some form of religion, and do not identify themselves as atheists?
I would say the most honest answer to this question is that they were indoctrinated as children and were raised in the religion of their parents. I’ve run this argument past religious people in the past. Many rebut that they have had “personal experiences” that told them, for example, the Christian god is real. To their mind, it has nothing to do with the fact that their parents were Christians. My counter-argument is that their experience is no more different than the followers of other religions. Hindus, for example, experience what they call Darshan. This is when they perceive their god and, so they believe, are simultaneously perceived by their god. This lets them know that their god is real. So if every religion has such experiences, it negates this as an argument for why someone follows a particular religion. They would not have had an experience regarding a particular god if they had not been indoctrinated by their parents in the first place.
3. Do most people who know you – family, friends, co-workers, etc. – also know that you’re an atheist? Why or why not?
Many of my family, friends, and co-workers know that I am an atheist and don’t really have a problem with it. I have “atheist” listed as my religious affiliation on Facebook. The family members that I haven’t told (most likely because I don’t see them very often) have probably seen it, they just don’t feel the need to “witness” to me. That is rather surprising as I have some super religious family members—their faiths run the gambit from Jehovah’s Witness to Catholicism. I would like to think it’s because they love me too much to push their religion on me. Or, it could be that they just don’t know and would witness to me if they had the chance to.
4. Are most of your friends atheists? Why or why not?
I’d say my friends are evenly mixed. As I explained above, my high school friends are religious and atheist. Many of my military friends are the same.
5. Have you ever been treated differently by people because you’re an atheist? If so, please describe this in detail.
Yes, but it depended on where I lived. When I attended high school in the south, the two most common reactions were threats or on-the-spot witnessing. A few people even tried to rough me up on different occasions, but, thanks to previous experience in martial arts, I showed them that I was not a person to be pushed around. By the end of high school, most people, even the few who didn’t like me, accepted me for who I was. I’ve never really had a problem as an adult since I live in the north where it is not as socially dangerous to be an atheist. All of my co-workers know that I am an atheist and have no problem with it. This is primarily due to my jovial personality and good work ethic. They might think otherwise if I was mean and a poor worker. Although, I will say that a previous co-worker said that I was “one of the friendliest atheists” that they had ever met. I have a feeling that they had not met that many atheists. Their perceptions of atheists were most likely formed by negative caricatures propagated in religious circles. Hopefully this study will dispel these caricatures.
Thinking About Religion:
1. Overall, would you say that other people’s belief in God is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?
It can be a good or bad thing depending on the person. It can be good for those people who feel it gives them a sense of community or tradition. Conversely, it can be bad when people feel that belief makes them superior to others or gives them the right to force their views on another group, punish those who break a particular tradition, or to avenge some perceived injustice through violent acts. As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’ve seen the kinds of negative things that faith can make people do.
I ultimately think faith is a bad thing for several reasons. First, beyond the reason discussed above, it makes people complacent about the suffering in the world (see the last question below for more). Second, it gives them a false sense of dependence. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting things done on their own, they clasp their hands and pray for divine intervention. A good example of this is when Texas Governor Rick Perry gathered 30,000 Christians at Reliant Stadium in 2011 to pray for an end to America’s “national decline.” Now imagine what could have been done if, instead of gathering civilians, he gathered elected officials with the expressed purpose of thinking of ways to improve the nation. This would have been a far more fruitful usage of time and tax payer dollars. Third, faith makes it difficult for the religious to accept people’s accomplishments, including their own. You often hear someone thank god when a friend or relative pulls through a serious surgery. But this completely disregards the skill of the operating team, which was developed through years of practice, study, and hard work. Likewise, you often hear athletes thank god for winning a game. But they should be thanking themselves for the blood, sweat, and tears they poured into honing their skills. They should be proud of what they have accomplished without the need to point to the heavens. Fourth, and most importantly, it hinders progress. This is because it causes people to accept supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. People who accept, for example, the Genesis account as historical fact are less likely to read about the scientific explanations for the universe, earth, and man. This means their children will most likely be just as scientifically illiterate as they are. This is a danger to America’s future as some of these children will grow up to be our elected officials. Congress no longer has an official science advisory board (Newt Gingrich dismantled it in 1995), so the decision to implement responsible healthcare, climate, and technology policy based on sound scientific evidence falls squarely on the shoulders of these elected officials. Obviously someone with no scientific background is going to make the wrong decision, especially when the possible outcome conflicts with their religious ideology or the views of their big industry contributors. Do you really want people like Todd Adkin, a pro-life senate hopeful who mistakenly thinks victims of so-called “legitimate rape” can’t become pregnant, deciding the future of women’s healthcare? I certainly don’t. This will also hinder our ability to lead the world in scientific discoveries and technologies. Why is this dangerous? Because things like Polio vaccines aren’t created by the average Joe on the street. Scientifically literate people are needed to create the next round of vaccines that will save millions (or billions) of people, as well as the technologies that will make our lives easier in the decades to come.
2. Overall, would you say that organized religion is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?
Organized religion is interesting from an anthropological perspective, but it doesn’t serve a necessary purpose in the modern world. As social animals, humans can still come together and feel a sense of community without the need of religion. Heck, we did it for about 150,000 years before religion first appeared. I see it as a bad thing because it strengthens one’s belief in a deity, which leads to the problems I listed above.
3. If not a religious person, do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Why or why not?
No, I do not consider myself a spiritual person. Spirituality denotes some type of mysterious underlying metaphysical nature to the universe. This is something I strictly reject (otherwise I wouldn’t be an atheist). Just because something can’t be seen with the (flawed) human eye doesn’t mean it is not a part of this physical universe. For instance, I can’t see quarks, but these fundamental particles make up the atoms of my body and all matter in the universe. The universe is a vast ocean of mysteries that I find to be so utterly fascinating. These mysteries can only be unlocked through scientific study, not prayer or meditation.
Living as an Atheist:
1. Many people say that belief in God provides a foundation for their morality. As an atheist, on what do you base your morality? How do you decide what things are good or bad, whether you’re behaving rightly or wrongly, etc.?
My upbringing surely played a part in my moral compass, but my morality is ultimately derived from two sources: societal laws and innate social morality. Some of today’s laws may appear to have come from biblical sources, but cultures all over the world have had very similar laws. Some are younger than the bible; however, a scholar would be hard-pressed to prove an influence of some kind. Some are older than the bible; this might suggest the Hebrew people were influenced by these sources (which is possible since the cultures were in close proximity). But these overall similarities point to societal laws common to “human” culture. Such laws came about many thousands of years ago when humans were living in tightknit hunter-gatherer societies in ancient Africa. Things like killing and stealing endangered everyone within a group because it weakened social bonds and lessened their ability to survive. People who committed such crimes could be killed or, worse, ostracized, which meant they would slowly die on their own. Thus, groups lived under the assumption that there are certain things that you just don’t do unless you want to get in trouble. When humans began to leave Africa 50,000 years ago they brought these notions of right and wrong with them as they splintered and spread all over the world. These were the precursors of modern laws.
Early humanity’s notions of right and wrong are ultimately derived from innate social morality that evolved in our proto-ape ancestors who lived millions of years ago. Modern chimpanzees, our closest genetic cousins, are very good models for how our ancestors lived. Chimps have been shown to be highly empathic, compassionate, and cooperative, with a sense of fairness, reciprocity, and reconciliation. Chimps have saved the lives of unrelated conspecifics. They also adopt children that aren’t their own, care for those who can’t care for themselves, and mourn over and protect the bodies of deceased group members. These are things that come naturally to them as highly social animals need social mechanisms that ensure continued cooperation and growth. If a group of chimps is an engine, then this innate social morality is the oil that keeps it running smoothly. For more on animal morality, see the TED talk “Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals.”
Furthermore, I would like to add that I don’t go around killing or stealing because I’m afraid of heavenly or civil punishment. I don’t do them because I don’t feel the need to. Feeling the need to kill or steal beyond a means of survival (e.g., a war zone) is clearly a psychological disorder that needs to be treated with meds and therapy. The average person, atheist or otherwise, is not a psychopath. This is why I find the average caricature of an atheist as an amoral baby killer extremely silly. If this was true, ALL crimes would be perpetrated by atheists alone. However, statics show that atheists make up a very, very small portion of the American prison population. The majority of crimes are committed by people of faith. Also, secular countries tend to have lower crime levels than their more religious counterparts. See part 2 for the rest