To follow up my statement a couple of posts ago about wanting to be understood, I wanted to share something that might help others understand what atheism and being an atheist means to me. Atheism is one of those words that has a lot of connotations (often negative ones) attached to it. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the Mormon/Christian approach to life but I know that when I was an active Mormon I had a slightly skewed understanding of atheists. Most people probably still have a skewed understanding. Some social psychology research came out in the last year that showed that, in North America, atheists are mistrusted to the same degree as are child molesters. Personally, I definitely don’t think that level of mistrust is warranted. Hopefully, some of what I’ve included below will help illustrate why atheists are no worse than anyone else. I’m not intending or expecting to “convert” anyone with the following, I just hope you understand me a little more afterwards. :)
*NB: All of the videos below were created for or presented to predominantly secular audiences. In my opinion, none of them are intended to be offensive to religious believers but it’s quite possible that they contain things to which a religious person might take offense. Nor do I intend to offend by sharing any of these videos. Even if you disagree with the beliefs and/or politics of these speakers, I think you can agree that all of them want people to get along.
All together, the videos represent about an hour of viewing time and I understand if you don’t want to commit to that, so I have briefly summarized each video. Also, this is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of my thoughts on atheism, rather it is just a sampling of things that I think are important and represent me.
Sam Richards: A Radical Experiment in Empathy – This one is less about atheism and more about my worldview in general but it is certainly relevant when it comes to bridging a religious/secular divide. In this video, Sam Richards uses an analogy about nations invading other nations for natural resources to illustrate why it is so important to try to see things from the point of view of other people. Empathy is what will allow people of all different beliefs, from all walks of life, to peacefully coexist.
Instruction Manual for Life – This is a relatively short animated video that uses a metaphor about cupboards and instruction manuals to illustrate the importance of being open-minded when it comes to the beliefs of others. The message is that there are many different ways to live one’s life and all of those ways have value and being too narrow-minded can cause you to miss out on appreciating the value in others and their beliefs.
Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0 – In this video, Alain de Botton describes how many atheists are missing out on a lot of the good that religion has to offer and how atheists can benefit from adopting (in a very broad sense) certain religious traditions and rituals. The message is that people of all beliefs should implement good ideas and life strategies, no matter where those ideas come from.
Phil Plait: Don’t Be A Dick – In this video, Phil Plait is speaking to a very secular audience about the best way to convince others to believe as they do. This video is probably the most likely to offend a believer, not because of the core message but because of some of the asides that are included in the talk. Remember, he is speaking to an audience of skeptics and non-believers. However, the message of this talk is one of the most important. The take away is that no matter who you are or what you believe, you’ll never convince someone of anything by being a jerk to them. I believe this message applies to everyone and I, personally, take it very seriously. I learned the same lesson as a Mormon missionary, in fact. But it’s probably much easier for people to imagine a nice Mormon than a nice atheist. So I wanted to share this version of the message to demonstrate that not all atheists and skeptics are jerks and that we do, in fact, care about being nice to others and not just jamming our beliefs down other people’s throats.
Humanist Manifesto – Although I don’t describe myself strictly as a Humanist, I very closely identify with this description of Humanism and its aspirations.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.
This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:
Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.
Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.
Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.