(Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American Atheist.)
Most days as I leave my house I take quick note of things such as the weather and the time. I might hum a song which is playing on a loop in my head or think about a loved one or some plans for the future. I never consider the possibility that I may have done something unlucky such as walking out the wrong door or under a ladder. I am in the habit of not worrying if a curse has been said against me or whether planets are lined up for or against me. I don’t listen for messages in the wind or expect the touch of an angel.
What allows so many of us to walk around not fearing a witch’s spell or a voodoo curse is our Atheist and Materialist outlook. We try to view our surroundings as they are, not adding phenomena where there are none. And we needn’t worry about all that is logically possible; we don’t need to know everything that is or could be happening everywhere. We need only expect natural forces and beings to be at work around us. We can safely do this because nobody has ever found reliable evidence of anything else.
In our universe there are no ghosts or gods, no miracles or curses. We do not look for or expect magic, we expect there to be a natural cause for every occurrence. The English language even hints at this for us; the word immaterial refers to that which does not have a body or physical form and can also tell us that something is unimportant, of no consequence, irrelevant.
Now and again believers in the supernatural will claim that the Atheist view is impoverished (if memory serves, Dennis Prager offered this canard in his debate with Frank Zindler at the 2008 American Atheists convention). The insinuation is that the Atheist is not open to a spectrum of experience and is poorer for it. If this were true than the Atheist would be poorer than one who was open to any of the myriad of myths and claims of the supernatural that are available. We would be poorer than the believer in miracles and also poorer than one who might hold that the Star Wars movies are documentaries about a powerful force.
This argument implies that the more beliefs one can swallow the “richer” one is. So the polytheist would be richer than the monotheist and the 10 deitied polytheist would be richer than the 5 deitied polytheist. I don’t know where a monotheistic psychic astrologer would fit in. Also, if a person with three gods were richer than a person with one god could a believer in the Christian trinity be simultaneously richer and poorer than himself? I guess I will just leave that one for the theologians.
Okay, maybe that last question was a bit flippant but we can seriously leave the theologians on this dead end back road because no supernatural beings have a place in the material universe. They can argue about how many gods one can believe in before one is just obnoxiously flaunting one’s belief wealth until their kingdoms come and we needn’t take them seriously; they are speaking of nothing(s).
The believer in eternal life and a god (or gods) that punishes infidels and rewards true believers must not only fear the wrath of their own god but the wrath of all other vengeful deities, after all what if the neighbors that belong to the “weird” church are right? Foreign belief systems often seem bizarre and unnatural and the faithful sectarian can privately shrug off the claims of thousands of other faraway sects and hold that their own narrow way is the one true path. But when alien sectarians confront previously secure believers with conflicting supernatural claims (and with increasing travel and communications technology conflicting beliefs are encountered more often) the tension is there. Maybe our hypothetical believer can ignore the opposing faith’s claims that he is seriously mistaken. Maybe he can employ some cognitive dissonance and shove the conflict aside. Or, maybe his ideas about the claims of his own tradition will be modified or jettisoned.
In the modern world where people of many different religions interact with each other on a daily basis the belief that one true path leads to some eternal bliss while all other paths lead to an eternity of unimaginable pain becomes harder and harder to maintain. How many people who believe they are holding to the one true road have family and friends who hold conflicting beliefs or no beliefs? What kind of stress does it put on a person to think that those they care about are destined for and deserving of infinite and unrelenting torment?
As an Atheist there is no reason to fear such horrible fairy tale fates created and spread by sadists to scare the defenseless.
Believers and followers have to continuously guard their faiths against the always encroaching outside world. Leaders of all sects fear the sales forces of other organizations and use carrots and sticks of various kinds to keep their flocks in the fold. But despite all of the heavens, hells, threatening, cajoling, and ostracism the possibility always remains that lone followers will be siphoned off by smooth talk and slick presentations. How does the average supernaturalist weigh the claims of one belief system against another?
The Atheist with the materialist view need not fear being confronted with novel supernatural claims. When happening upon or being sold a series of assertions, if we can see that the phenomena in question are distinct impossibilities, complete fantasies with no ground on which to rest, we can leave the whole mess alone. When cult salespeople come with pamphlets, books, videos, or other media telling us of beings that break the laws of nature or exist outside of space and time we can see their presentations for what they are (the same old supernatural con repackaged) and treat these presentations with the appropriate respect.
New discoveries in science are being made and new questions asked on a daily basis and new information coming out of such fields as neuroscience and biology can be a challenge to believers in the supernatural. The problems that anti-progressive religions have made and continue to make for the advancement of human knowledge have been well documented.
On the other hand the likelihood that researchers will find definitive proof of the veracity of some one or another mythology any time soon and we Atheists will have to convert to that cult is extremely (I mean extremely) small and we needn’t lose any sleep over it.
While groups holding dogmatic beliefs wedded to regressive moral codes seek to censor works of art and hamper human thought and expression we Atheists can taste the new and embrace what we find enjoyable. The Atheist can be fearless in what he thinks; sadly this is not the case for many who have been told that even their most intimate and secret thoughts and wishes are on display for a judge which may deal very harshly with them.
We Atheists can be open to new experiences, we can smash taboos, enjoy any art, read any book, we can even eat any food any day we like without fear. We needn’t ignore or actively oppose science and progress. We needn’t fear threats of otherworldly torture. We Atheists can face the world as it is and as we are. Sure, there are things to worry about but there are a lot of things not to worry about. When we don’t have to fret over the supernatural because it is immaterial we are in a nice place. I thank the non-lucky completely natural stars that really didn’t have much to do with it anyway that I’m an Atheist.