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15 June 2008

Why Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics Find Joy in a Godless Existence


It’s impossible to count how many times atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers are told by religious folks of various faiths that we will regret our ‘godless’ or ‘sinful’ life sooner or later. I can honestly say I haven’t had any regrets for my decision to trade in what I perceived to be the miseries of traditional Catholicism for the pleasures of freethinking. Since no regrets have surfaced in the twenty-five years that have elapsed since making my secular choice, I doubt they will surface any time soon.

Theists often write and speak of the wonders and happiness their religion provides, citing miracles, doing good works for others, and security in the belief that they’ll ascend into a place called Heaven when their lives end. I have no doubts they’re sincere, and if this is what truly makes them happy, then it’s a good choice for them.

However, what many theists tend to overlook, either by accident or by design, is that atheists and agnostics are just as happy, and can find the same joy in our world without following a particular faith.

Most of us have been asked at some point what pleasure can we have in such a ‘godless’ existence. What happiness can we hope to find without a particular faith or god to guide us? Since there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, I can only explain the pleasures of life I experience myself, as spiritual outlooks vary from person to person.

Pleasure #1 - Kindness
A common misconception that many theists labor under is the belief that the only kind people are those who follow a particular god or religion. To this, any atheist or freethinker with common sense will no doubt reply ‘rubbish.’ British philosopher Bertrand Russell, a well-known secularist himself, made the following statement in his essay ‘The Faith of a Rationalist:’ “Men tend to have the beliefs that suit their passions. Cruel men believe in a cruel god and use their belief to excuse cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly god, and they would be kindly in any case.” In other words, one doesn’t have to believe in a god to be a kind person. Many atrocities in past history have clearly demonstrated that religion and kindness were worlds apart.

Pleasure #2 - Knowledge
It is well known that traditional and fundamentalist religions place certain restrictions on the kinds of knowledge their members are allowed to pursue. Traditional Catholic and conservative Christian parents tend to isolate their children from their secular peers as much as possible so no “unwelcome elements” are allowed in. As a result, these children grow up ignorant in many things, which may severely limit them in terms of finding suitable employment when it is time for them to look for jobs. Some extremist faiths keep their girls and women ignorant of almost everything, believing that the only suitable occupations for women are marriage and motherhood. We have no such restrictions. In fact, we are free to obtain knowledge on any subject we want, to use for our benefit and often the benefit of others too.

Pleasure #3 - Happiness
What happiness would this be? This is simple; that which comes from the absence of stresses, anxieties, and worries burdening people who don’t have the freedom to make their own life decisions. For example, a couple with no ties to a conservative church or faith can decide for themselves whether they will become parents or not, and if they choose parenthood, how many children they can comfortably manage and afford. A traditional Catholic or conservative Christian couple generally feel they have no choice in the matters of sex and reproduction. Their faith demands that all sex must be ‘open to life.’ In other words, it means that sex must lead to children sooner or later, and preferably sooner.

If a couple is financially strapped with just the two of them working, things are going to get a lot worse when one or two children enter the marriage, especially if the wife’s income has to be sacrificed to become a stay-home mom. The husband may have to work one or two jobs to make ends meet after the wife’s income is lost, resulting in his being away from home more often and spending less time with the children he has. However, all of that means nothing to their church.

Obedience to the faith is the church’s primary concern, not the physical, emotional and financial comfort of individuals. I can’t imagine anything more unhappy for a married couple than having to bear more children than they can handle, both physically and financially. For a child growing up in such a home, maybe resented because she’s ‘another mouth to feed,’ chances for happiness are slim to none. For the Catholic church and other conservative faiths, personal happiness isn’t on the priority list for children or adults.



Pleasure #4 - Choice
Anyone who has voluntarily left Catholicism and other conservative faiths will no doubt cite lack of freedom to make individual choices as one of their chief reasons for seeking a different path. I was no exception. In my personal experience, there was no pleasure in being told that I would have to remain celibate until marriage, even if for some reason I chose never to marry. I didn’t see the point of having the church decide the circumstances under which I could have sex, whether it be as a single or married person. I thought it both absurd and intrusive that a church had the arrogance to tell me I should never use certain kinds of birth control to prevent pregnancy. Or that I couldn’t indulge in certain sexual acts that avoided pregnancy altogether.

Since I valued my freedom more than observing the arbitrary and cruel rules of Catholicism, secularism was by far the better choice.

Pleasure #5 - Power
Having the freedom to control our own destiny is very powerful indeed. Whether we use that power wisely is entirely up to us. We can use it to make good choices in life to benefit ourselves and others. Conservative religious leaders often argue that power should only be in their hands, and we must trust them to use the power they have for our benefit. What a terrible idea! Too often in past history, leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin have used this power for cruel and terrible purposes. Those who trusted them paid the ultimate price, by sacrificing their own lives.

To surrender the power we have to others is a dangerous course of action, especially when leaders tend to have only their best interests at heart, not ours. Of course we’ll stumble and make bad choices sometimes, as a result of keeping our personal power. But we still must keep it ourselves, not hand it over to ‘leaders’ without question. We cannot, as Benjamin Franklin warned us against, give up our personal liberty to have a little safety. When we do, we usually end up losing both.

Pleasure #6 - Health
When we are free to make our own choices in life — within the bounds of secular law that is — we are in fact very healthy, both in body and in spirit. We don’t have priests or pastors looking over our shoulders telling us that what we are doing is ‘wrong’. We aren’t forced to attend church, since there are no civil laws on the books saying that church is a must on Sunday. Therefore, our Sundays are free to use as we choose, whether it’s to stay home and read a good book, indulge in wild, unrestrained sex with our spouses or significant others, have lunch in a good restaurant, or go to the beach in the summertime. We can dress in our nicest clothes, or wear little or no clothing at all. Naturally, the last option assumes we’re in the privacy of our homes at the time.

Pleasure #7 - Tolerance
The final pleasure of freethinking, as I see it, is the freedom to tolerate and accept philosophical or religious differences. Every secularist I’ve known is perfectly happy to allow others the liberty to practice their own faith or philosophy, as long as those others aren’t insisting we must trade our beliefs for theirs. Hard-line theists insist that secularism will eventually lead to anarchy. A few believe we already have it. If that is the case, I haven’t noticed.

Law breakers come in all shapes, sizes, philosophies and religions. Meaning some criminals will be atheists, while others won’t. Speaking for myself, I haven’t had as much as a traffic ticket, let alone committed a major crime. So let’s put the absurd notion that a theist is a better citizen than an atheist or secularist to rest, since there’s absolutely no truth in it.

Personally, I consider the pleasures of atheism to be far more effective as teaching tools than the ‘seven deadly sins’ associated with conservative and fundamentalist religions. The words kindness, knowledge, happiness, choice, power, health and tolerance reflect a far more positive outlook on life than the negative thoughts associated with ‘deadly sin.’ To atheists and secularists around the globe, they come together to shine on the most important pleasure; freedom. Is there anything better in the world to have?

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