Hilariously awesome featured pic aside, I can already feel a swell of apprehension from family, friends, and the readership at large in response to my writing about this topic. That’s okay. This is a touchy topic in its own league of touchiness.
And this, my friends, is exactly why I’m writing about it.
I’ve sought to write about the topic of irreligion for a while because, quite honestly, I don’t think being non-religious should be a big deal. Like the many legions who proudly proclaim adherence to the many religious schools of thought out there, I, an agnostic, am a human being who is hardly that different from any other human being out there, religious or otherwise. In fact, I have my own belief system, too – it just happens to a “belief in my own lack of brainpower”. Let me explain.
Being agnostic means that I neither confirm nor deny the existence of a higher power. I belong to no religion and have zero obligations in the name of religion. I can hope and wish that there is someone watching over me or that there’s life beyond this one, and even in recent times, there have been times that I have (“Alright, Tutu [my grandma’s lifelong nickname], promise me I WON’T DIE doing this pole trick. Or that I die instantly. Either way, make it not hurt. Thanks!”). But I have no idea for certain and I’ve had nothing happen to me to confirm any of these beliefs (aka, no miracles for Ms. Corners). In fact, I think that even if there IS a higher power – and I may never find out if there is or isn’t – I’m in no position to be privy to this information or even have the capacity to understand how this world was created, how it runs, who’s behind our universe, or what happens after I pass from life.
The fact that I feel this way is unimportant to most people. Some people find it weird. Occasionally, people are devastated.
And I get it. When you believe that you have something watching over you, that your good deeds will be rewarded, and that you’ll (hopefully) go to a better place someday, it’s probably a bummer when someone doesn’t feel the same way. Especially someone you love. You just want to reach out and help them. You hope that they have some type of value system in place. Perhaps, you wonder whether they are living their life in accordance with your religious value system.
I’m not here to disparage people for doing so. I, for one, love to be loved and cared for! I happen to have friends and family from a wide variety of religions, though most ascribe to the three primary Abrahamic ones of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This entry isn’t about bashing or disproving any religions, but about validating my own system.
Although there have been plenty of books, articles, TV shows, movies, and probably plays written in the name of this topic, I feel it may still be necessary to dispel common beliefs people may hold about those who are atheist, agnostic, or who have what I deemed an “undefined faith”. From here on out, I will refer to this group of three types as “non-religious people (NRP)” for simplicity’s sake. I also feel it necessary to explain a little about how NRP make good choices without the guidance of God or religion. Finally, I feel that it’s absolutely imperative for me to outlines ways in which we as the non-religious can be as respectful as possible, as I feel we are sorely in need of less vitriol in this day and age.
Alrighty then, let’s get started with:
A Primer on Non-Religious Belief Systems
Rather than run through a full history of this topic as I have in the past with others, I’ll be very brief here: irreligious thought has been around for a while. Today, the condition of not being religious is more common in certain places such as, say, China or the Czech Republic, where 47% and 30% of people, respectively, consider themselves a “convinced atheist”, according to the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism. This is in stark contrast to places like Ghana, where 96% of people consider themselves religious. For those curious, our good ol’ US of A has a religious population of about 60% as of 2012, with only 5% stating their status as a convinced atheist.
Speaking of atheism, let’s get something straight before we continue: there is a different between being atheist, agnostic, and “not religious”. Atheism is a firm belief that there is no high power. They have conviction and rely heavily on science to demonstrate that the existence of a higher power is illogical and unnecessary. Agnosticism is the assertion of a lack of knowledge of whether higher power(s) exists. In other words, it’s not really a “belief” at all. Agnostics have no proof either way, and aren’t going to assert to a higher power existing or not existing.
To make matters more confusing, there are people who consider themselves “agnostic atheists” or “agnostic theists”. The former is someone who doesn’t know that a higher power exists, but also doesn’t think it’s likely; I would consider myself to be in this category. An agnostic theist actually does believe there’s probably a higher power, but doesn’t want to assert the exact number/nature/history of this power (these powers).
Finally, those who describe themselves as not being particularly “religious” can fall into the agnostic theist category or any number of other categories that aren’t tied to one religion. They often believe in a higher power, but you won’t usually find them going to church, reading scriptures, or contemplating their decisions under a religious lens. For instance, my friend who was raised in a Muslim family doesn’t observe Ramadan or go to mosque, but she occasionally does pray and doesn’t necessarily deny a belief in a higher power. Another friend of mine believes in God and describes herself as “culturally Jewish”, immersing herself more in Jewish history rather than keeping shomer shabbos or keeping her milk and meat in separate fridges.
I hope I haven’t lost you yet, because now we’ve got to tackle:
The Many Assumptions about Atheists and Agnostics
A year’s worth of trolling on the internet would not suffice for gathering up the numerous assumptions people have about us non-religious folk. Allow me to debunk the big ones.
- “Non-religious people hate religious people”. This one is sadly perpetuated by NRP who go around posting incendiary crap like this:
or this (note: you’ll probably have to double-click on the pic to zoom in):
Atheists/agnostics: STOP DOING THIS. You’re not helping our case at all. Do we believe in religion? No. Do we need to openly be complete douchebags about it? Absolutely not. Our goal shouldn’t be to try and make other people non-religious, let alone to completely ridicule those who are. Our goal should be to live our life in peace, and let others live theirs.
Fortunately, most non-religious people do not hate religious people at all. Are there a few non-religious assclowns out there who get a kick out of beating down believers? Yes, more than a few. But there are plenty of us out there, like myself, who not only respect religious people, but actively engage with and love them.
Unless you’re Kim Davis. I can’t say I respect her. She needs to just stop.
- “Non-religious people have no ethics or morals”. Okay, okay, I get it. When murderous villains like Stalin, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-il are history’s shining examples of atheistic thought, people are bound to think “Maybe these non-religious really are a bunch of douchcanoes, damn.” But conversely, look at people like Osama Bin Laden, the Westboro Bapist Church, or the ultra-orthodox Jewish man who stabbed several people at an Israeli pride festival – not once, but twice. All are or were deeply religious people who have irreparably harmed or killed people in the name of their belief. At the same time, we can each name many more decent folks on each side of the fence. Generalizations sweep everyone in a particular group into one unfortunate, messy dust pile. The fact is, most of us don’t belong anywhere near that pile.
As far as how we, as NRP, develop ethics and morals, we can develop them through a combination of (a) addressing our human needs for harmony and love, (b) observing laws and social mores and (c) gleaning life lessons from the family we are brought up in. Through doing this, I’d say that most of us turn out just as “good” as our religious counterparts, even if our motivations for being ethical and moral are a little different.
Philosophers, writers, and thinkers from a wide variety of backgrounds including Immanuel Kant, Albert Camus, Greg Epstein, and Richard Dawkins have detailed thoughts about how we as humans can determine whether the decisions we make are good/evil. I would encourage anyone who wants to dig deeper into the topic of ethics without religion to check these guys out.
- “Non-religious people are devil-worshippers.” No. Just…no.
I’ve never met or seen a devil-worshipper, let alone one who describes themselves as an agnostic or atheist person. By our very definition, we don’t even believe in the devil, so how can we worship them?
- “Non-religious people want to destroy Christmas.”
If only for the epic family times and, admittedly, the vacation money I get around that time of year, I love Christmas. I don’t believe in the religious background of Christmas and I’m blasé towards the lights, the decorations, and the music, but seeing my family happy (and actually getting to see them, which I don’t as often as I’d like) is something I never want to stop doing. Most NRP actually do celebrate Christmas for this very reason!
For those who don’t, they’re probably too worried about other things to worry about destroying Christmas, don’t ya think? My guess is that on Christmas, a non-Christmas-celebrator’s to-do list might look something like this:
- Feed the cat
- Skype Grandma (she misses you!)
- Vacuum the living room
- Buy butter and apples at the store
- Write that one e-mail you’ve been putting off (yes…THAT one)
- Buy Judy’s baby shower gift
- Fix the dishwasher and then send the bill to the landlord wahahaha
To be fair, “Destroy Christmas” *might* be on there – but it’s usually a few thousand places down.
- “Non-religious people are unhappy, jaded souls who’ve had a bad experience with religion and that’s why they don’t believe.” People have often said things to me like, “Maybe you’re just turned off by all of the nuts out there? We’re not all like that, I swear”. Trust me, I know you’re not. When I see the Westboro Baptist people, Kim Davis, or Rick Santorum, I realize that they are the vast minority.
The fact is, I’ve been questioning religion since I was 12 years old, after I had had nothing but good experiences in my Catholic school environment. Being part of a religion didn’t necessarily disturb or harm me, I just started to realize that I was blindly moving through it without actually believing a word they said in church. That’s when I knew I was had to respectfully bow out.
How to NOT be a Douche Towards Religious People 101
Obviously, there are plenty of militant atheists out there who have been giving us NRP a bad name. Here’s how to not be one of those people:
- Don’t insult someone’s intelligence simply because they’re religious. Albert Einstein believed in a type of God. Wickedly smart actress/neuroscientist Mayim Bialik is a modern Orthodox Jew. One’s preferred faith doesn’t render them any less intelligent than you. They might even be a lot smarter than you.
- Don’t try and convert people to atheism/agnosticism. You know how annoying (and futile) it is when people try and convert you to their belief system? Exactly. Stop.
- Understand that religion is extremely beneficial for some people. Yes, religion is the cause of most of the major conflicts in this world, but many people really do turn their lives around when they find religion. Good on them. Celebrate their happiness and success, rather than focusing on the negatives.
- Understand that many religious people could care less what religion you are. Most people aren’t trying to convert you. Calm down.
- Take time to learn about other religions. Whether you believe in them or not, other religions are fascinating with their wide-ranging histories, accompanying cultures, and iconic figures. Learning about other religions will also help you answer questions or dispel myths you may have heard about them (e.g., no, Sikhs and Hindus are not the same at all; no, not all Mormons are polygamists).
- Respect others’ religious beliefs. Don’t make your Jewish employees work on Yom Kippur. Don’t suggest a barbecue restaurant when having lunch with your friend who follows Jainism. Don’t drag your Jehovah’s witness mother-in-law to your Protestant church. Simply being cognizant of one’s religion is a sign of huge respect and really isn’t that hard.
Normalization on the Horizon
Again, my hope is that we can move towards an era where NRP are seen as a completely accepted part of society. We don’t need to be “mainstream” or attract new NRPs in droves – in fact, we should resolve to not care what others’ views are at all, provided they are not harmful or infringing upon our health and safety.
I don’t know what’s out there. I don’t know what comes next. And I will never assert that I know anything until I see it with my own eyes. If religious people can accept this, and other non-religious assertions, then we’re already on track to having a more harmonious existence.