The word “atheist” is fluorescent light clinically accurate. Here’s the formula: a [without] + theos [god] = without god. Godless. God not present, not in thought, word, deed, or intent. Add ist [one who is, does, or makes], and an atheist is someone without god — a godless person. Add ism instead [system, doctrine, practice], and atheism is godless practice.
I never thought I’d be without God, a godless person, or engaged in godless practice. But now I’m all three.
“Atheist” usually calls up the notion of belief or lack of it – we say that an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. The corollary assumption is that God is out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter, waiting for us to get with the program. If we don’t get with it, we’re an atheist.
That’s the way it usually goes down. It’s not the way it was with me.
“Without God” is risky. You need to be careful of your surroundings. Aatheism is punishable by death in thirteen Muslim countries. Hindu regions offer up lots of gods you can get crosswise with and ways to make you pay if you do. In a quarter of countries around the world, being an atheist won’t get you killed, but don’t go having an attitude about it or the anti- blasphemy laws will get you – which is currently the case in Pakistan, where it’s okay to be an atheist but a 26-year old woman was recently sentenced to death by hanging for posting caricatures of Mohammed on her WhatsApp account, joining 80 other prisoners currently held under sentences of death or life in prison for violating anti-blasphemy laws.
Here in the USA, patriotism is the state religion, fueled lately with heavy doses of Christian Nationalism. We have our own iconic images that you don’t desecrate – some of which are caricatures of themselves – like football field sized American flags or the line “one nation under God.” As for God, we, like the Muslim countries, aren’t too concerned with offending Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna or the rest of that bunch, but mostly concern ourselves with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – minus the Muslim modifications and plus the Christian ones.
You really need a good guidebook if you want to practice safe religion.
But belief is invisible, so how could anyone know what somebody else believes? Well, they could make like Pope Sixtus IV and authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to round up Jews and Muslims who acted like Christians but were obviously faking it, and let the Grand Inquisitor’s 28 Articles torture the truth out of them. The Inquisition started in 1478 and didn’t end until 1834. That’s a long time to torture the invisible belief out of people. The USA declared itself into existence about fifty years before the Inquisition finally ended, and several former colonies passed laws banning atheists and ministers from public office to ensure separation of church and state. Presumably a minister would admit to being a minister, but I wonder how forthcoming the atheists were. It took a couple hundred years, but the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared those laws unconstitutional in cases decided in 1961 and 1978, but some of those laws are still on the books, and lately Republicans have been trying to get the minister ban lifted. The atheist part? Not so much.
And then of course there’s always the Taliban to keep the world pure.
Moving right along…
About the time the Inquisition had gotten several decades of brutality under its belt, French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote an essay in his Pensées (thoughts) that deals with the high stakes God vs. without God issue. His resolution is known as “Pascal’s Wager,” and people still rely on it (although I’m guessing most don’t know it by name – I never did, not until I became on atheist).
“God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline?” Pascal asked. Trouble is, “Reason can decide nothing here.” Uh oh. At least in this country we like to do our own research and make reasonable decisions (on things like Covid vaccination vs. horse de-wormer). But now here’s this French guy telling us we can’t reason our way to God. Yes, there are people who claim they’ve done it, but somebody else always comes along and makes them look stupid. So now what? “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is,” Pascal suggests, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”
Ironically, although you can’t reasonably determine that God exists, it’s reasonable to bet that He does. (The Bible’s God definitely uses male pronouns, and with initial caps – kind of like referring to yourself in the third person.) Since we can’t know if God exists, we can save ourselves by believing that He does instead. It would be unreasonable not to, since the consequences of not believing are so bad. If God exists, we’re good, and if he doesn’t then nothing ventured nothing gained. But if God exists and we don’t believe, we’re seriously screwed.
It’s not reasonable to think God exists, but it is reasonable to avoid punishment. And oh by the way, that punishment happens on the other side of death’s door, so there’s also no reasonable way to know if it’s actually waiting for us when we snuff out.
Pascal’s Wager is Basic Childhood 101 – the religious version of “Wait ‘til you father gets home.” The threat of being eternally subjected to the Grand Inquisitor? No way to know. Better play it safe.
Just take the Wager, Dude. It’s not that hard. Anybody up for pizza?
I never heard of Pascal’s Wager when I was a Christian, and never settled my God issues that way. I just unthinkingly bought the assumption about God being out there waiting for me to get with the program. We used to claim that our faith was reasonable, but looking back at it, it was reeaonable only in the same way that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable – you start with belief, and reasons steps in to clean up after that fact. It’s reasonable to believe in order to acknowleddge the existence of God, which can only be done by believing. After that, every “reasonable” thought falls in line with what belief got started.
Okay. I think I got it.
But then the unthinkable – the unreasonable in light of beief thing – happened: I became an atheist, but not by choosing to not believe in God anymore. God vs. not God was never the issue – not when I became a Christian and not when I un-became one. The whole thing went down the way Screwtape told Wormwood it would: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It all happened — slow and ( not always) easy like. Life changed, I changed, and along the way God just kind of… went away. It was like being on a road trip, taking a rest stop, and realizing a ways down the road that God hadn’t gotten back in. For years I tried to figure out how to go back and find him, haunted by a proverb I’d heard at church– “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” If God hadn’t gotten back in, it was my fault. (That’s how it works in Christianity – it’s always your fault.)
I never did find the way back. I went seeking for it but did not find it. I thought maybe God would do the seeking and finding – you now, flag down a passing motorist and chase me down – a modern version of Jesus’s parable about the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one that wandered off.
Apparently the expiration date on that parable had expired.
In the absence of finding or being found, my life made a slow motion U-turn from “with God” to “without God” and neither God nor I seemed to mind.
Years later, I had the most stunning thought: I made that happen by not believing.
I know, duh. But stay with me.
Belief was the common thread in all of that torturing and law passing and philosophizing, also in my first believing in God and then not believing anymore. None of that happened without belief or lack of it. Either way, belief rules – by its presence or by its absence. God goes away if there’s no belief in him. That makes belief more powerful than God. I bring God into my life by believing in him. I delete God from my life when I don’t believe anymore. God present or God absent, and all the things the human race does and has done in the name of God – all of it depends on belief. Belief is more powerful than God – it can bring God close or send God away.
The Inquisition? Dying for lack of belief in Allah? Laws against blasphemy that threaten you with death by hanging? Laws against ministers and atheists holding public office? None of it needed God to happen. None of it needs God to keep happening. Belief made all that happen., and belief can take it from here. Belief does all the work. There doesn’t need to be a God out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter. By believing, we rule.
I didn’t abandon God. He wasn’t out there, existing apart from my opinion on the matter, waiting for me to say I was sorry and take the first step, rev up the belief again, reach out to him and reconcile. I thought God would care, would make the first move, but he didn’t. Now I realize I did all the work, by believing or not. God was irrelevant, absent.
Hell wasn’t on the other side of death’s door.
My old man wasn’t going to come home and give me a whoopin’.
And Pascal just probably needed some time off.
The self-helpers and life coaches love this stuff about the power and primacy of belief. They’ve been telling us we can believe the Italian villa with the Lamborghini out front into existence for some time. But let’s not go gently into the good night of Napoleon Hill’s “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” It’s dark over there. Belief has a dark side that poses a greater risk than Pascal’s Wager.
Let’s talk more about it next time.