My name is Michael and I am about to start Nursing school in North Carolina.
Originally from New York City, I was shocked when I discovered the sheer number of Christian churches around here. You could be driving around on a long road out in the middle of nowhere and still pass three or four churches. People are also much more vocal about their religious beliefs here - at least, the Christians are. In New York City, it seemed that people were far more humble about religion, and kept their beliefs to themselves the vast majority of the time.
To avoid the public education system, my parents sent me to private Roman Catholic schools up until high school. After a while, I began to question what I was being told, and by the time I got to high school, religion class had become a sort of confession about the flaws of the religion as a whole. Strangely, they explained to us how the stories in the bible were hand picked by people, and other sections were removed. The told us about how certain traditions were created simply to make it easier for people of other religions to convert.
By the time I met my girlfriend, who introduced me to the pagan religions, I realized something I think is key for any atheist. Since the dawn of religion, people of practically every belief system have convinced themselves that they have experienced "the divine" first hand. From the ancient Egyptians all the way up to the modern Satanist. Thus, the argument should never be 'does God exist' or 'is Christianity that one true religion' because in fact monotheism and Christianity are just one incarnation of religious fantasy that spans thousands and thousands of years. The Christian God is no different than Neptune or Ra, except that it is the most fashionable deity of the day.
That said, a true atheist should never become a death-bed convert because unlike many people, we acknowledge that it's not 'God or no God,' it's 'religion or no religion.' We may as well convert to the Egyptian religion on our death bed, especially when you consider the fact that their religion lasted thousands of years longer than Christianity (I may be wrong on that, but I'm pretty sure - not relevant anyway).
When the religious bring up the notion of the 'God-shaped hole,' I think what they're referring to is human insecurity. Simply put, there are questions out there we do not have the answers to. Religion is used to calm our naturally curious human minds into thinking we have the answer. We are sad when our loved ones die, and we fear death, so we can choose to live in a fantasy world where our loved ones still exist outside our memory, and death is just a passage into the next world where we'll be surrounded by everyone and everything we ever lost.
The truth is, life is scary. Death is scary. Loss is painful. We would do better learning to deal with those emotions directly rather than trying to fantasize a world where they don't exist.
Now that I am in an atheist community, I can finally get all that out so a group of people who actually get it!
Indeed, "god-shaped hole = insecurity". Very good.
I think the idea that our dead relatives and friends are not being judged, be it for the better or for the worse - "they are just gone" is more comforting than the prospect of judgement. One thing that disturbs me slightly is that an evangelical friend of mine almost boasts that he is hell-bound because he is not worthy of salvation. Strange.
You make a good point. It has interested me quite a bit that it seems that the religious are strangely comfortable with the idea of heaven and hell. I've never known one to believe that some one they cared about could have been sent to burn rather than to spend eternity in paradise.
Imagine briefly that they were right about judgement. If they went to heaven but found out that their child was sent to hell for failing to report promptly at church every Sunday, it's difficult to imagine paradise being a very peaceful place.
That is strange about your evangelical friend ...
Exactly. I'm sure the consensus is that Hitler would have been sent to burn, but I'll bet his parents, close friends and family would have argued otherwise. It's just another example of how religious revelations always seem to be in favour and support of he who receives the revelation.
Another strange point on the same subject about my evangelical friend; he will argue that, despite the fact that he is hell-bound while having lived a "good" life, that god is just. I wish he could hear himself speak.
Seems more and more researchers are finding the god shaped hole (aka human insecurity) is just brain chemistry.