Kylyssa is an American atheist with high-functioning autism trying to navigate a mostly religious world with no well-beaten path to follow
Why Should You Ask an Atheist?
Once I could read I had access to hundreds of religious texts and religious books as well as books on philosophy and nature. I read them voraciously, trying to figure out this mystery called belief. After reading many books about beliefs and belief systems written by brilliant people and talking with a few pastors and a minister, I came to the conclusion that God was probably not real.
When I was ten, I was "outed" as the child of an atheist by a teacher who then made an ignorant remark that set the tone for years of abuse both physical and emotional. She said, "[She] is an atheist and that means that she hates God."
If the teacher had known what an atheist was or if the children's parents had, I would have been saved years of suffering. As an adult, I have found that many people in America still don't have a clear idea of what an atheist is and it bleeds into society. It affects the way atheists are treated to this day.
Most people in America learn about atheism, not the way I learned about belief, but by word-of-mouth from religious parents and peers who learned the same way. Most of the things I've heard when religious people discuss atheists come from fear and speculation. The lack of understanding makes people hate and fear atheists.
To educate people about atheists and spread tolerance through education I'm offering to answer your questions. I'm hoping that instead of basing your opinion of atheists on hearsay you'll choose to ask an atheist instead.
Why Do Atheists Care About Religion? - Part One, Politics
Atheists in America care a lot about religion. This is primarily because religious groups in our country have a great deal of political power. Religious groups in America have successfully created religious laws which the entire populace, religious or not, must follow. These laws include the ban against same sex marriage, blue laws, and anti-cohabitation laws.
Conservative Christian religious lobbies are also trying to insert Christianity into public schools in place of science education. They have succeeded in getting "abstinence only" rather than science based sex education into public schools, paid for entirely with taxpayer money. Fortunately, President Obama re-allocated the budget for religion based sex education to fund science based sex education though it looks like taxpayer money is still funding some religion based programs. Even after a congressional study showing the abstinence only programs ineffective and costly, the Christian right is still fighting fiercely to keep and expand the religion based abstinence only programs still paid for with tax money. America was paying $75 million per year on a single abstinence only initiative before the cut, with more going to other, smaller programs. It seems a lot to pay for programs which are not only not science-based and not results-based but religion-based (though the material is written using scientific-sounding jargon) but, according to several additional studies and reports, may also increase the risk of STDs and reduce the likelihood of teens seeking treatment should they contract an STD.
Additionally, religious organizations are granted tax-free status even though they are politically powerful and often use their influence to create legislation or to support specific political candidates. While religious organizations do not pay taxes, they benefit from them. This means that people who are having laws passed to discriminate against them by religious lobbies are required to pay the taxes that benefit the very organizations behind the discriminatory laws.
Why Do Atheists Care About Religion? - Part Two, Society
The most popular religions in America have subsets which teach that those who do not follow their specific belief system are sinful, evil, and immoral. This leads to intolerance, not just of atheists but of all people who don't share the same belief system or don't practice it exactly the same way they do. This does not affect atheists alone, but, to one degree or another, all non-Christians plus many progressive and moderate Christians in America.
People's behavior is affected by their beliefs, sometimes even dictated by their beliefs. If people have beliefs that are different from mine and antithetical to mine, I have a great reason to be concerned. I believe in freedom of expression, human rights for all, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. These beliefs are the polar opposite of the most visible Christian conservative beliefs.
Prejudice against homosexuals, people of other religions, and women often stem from religious belief. White supremacists and other such cults have a religious basis. While not at all representative of Christianity at large, Westboro Baptist Church provides a good example of of a Christian-based hate group. Christians are not exempt from their religion-based bigotry. We are all affected by bigotry, regardless of our belief or absence of belief.
Another piece in the puzzle is that atheists are concerned when other human beings are mistreated just as any other decent human beings are. There is a visible amount of religiously motivated child abuse in America - people who deny their children medical treatment, people who punish their children physically for perceived sins, people who deny their children an adequate education, and "parents" who discard their children for being gay or for converting to a different belief system - all in the name of religion.
Because religious people make up the majority in America, and because some powerful and loud few of them try to use the weight of that majority to step on minorities, including atheists, of course atheists are concerned! Maybe you should be, too?
Why Do Atheists Care About Religion? - Example
This videos show an example of how casually some religious people express their bigotry towards non-religious people. This behavior is the result of a difference in beliefs. The video also shows how clearly religion has dominated politics in America.
Did Being Homeless Make Me an Atheist or Did Being an Atheist Make Me Homeless?
"I've noticed that many of your pages revolve around two topics: that you are an outspoken atheist, and that you have had a very difficult life including homelessness. Have you ever considered that there may be a connection between the two? Have you ever asked yourself "What if I'm wrong?". I wonder if you gave your life to God whether he would have taken you down the same path. Were you always an atheist? Did you have a bad experience with a church or a clergy member? Do you feel that if there was a God he would have preventing certain things from happening, and so therefore chose to believe He does not exist?"
"I've noticed that many of your pages revolve around two topics: that you are an outspoken atheist, and that you have had a very difficult life including homelessness. Have you ever considered that there may be a connection between the two?"
No, but many religious people have told me that not thinking God is real caused all of my (well-deserved in their opinion) suffering. I believe that my difficulties were not a punishment from a non-existent God. Many people who are devout believers have even worse lives than mine so that logic doesn't hold up. Additionally, if I analyze what happened in my life, I can pretty well see why things happened the way they did.
As an atheist, I believe that autism is a real thing. I ascribe to no ideology that causes me to reject the existence of learning disabilities and emotional problems as real. Having been diagnosed with autism, I tend to believe I am autistic. There is a known connection between inability to perform in social interactions and autism. In fact, that's almost the definition of autism. My autism was not properly treated when I was a child and, like almost every other autistic who receives no special assistance, when left completely on my own I experienced difficulties. I was a stranger in a strange land. I had no familial support and had formed only the most inadequate of friend support structures in school.
When this left me homeless, I was the perfect victim for predators. I was incredibly naïve and socially inept. I had no "common sense" to keep me from dangerous situations. I reacted to harmful stimuli (beatings, rapes, and other frightening encounters) by withdrawing into myself instead of reaching for help as most people do. That entrenched me more deeply into homelessness - a shell-shocked autistic isn't the best at navigating the hard road out of homelessness.
"Have you ever asked yourself "What if I'm wrong?""
You assume one thing that most Christians do - that I don't want to believe in God, that I never considered it. When I was homeless there was many a night when I longed to think of God as real. What complete and total idiot wouldn't want someone or something to exist that loved them in that situation? The physical deprivation and pain of homelessness is dwarfed by the emotional pain, heartbreak, and crushing loneliness of being homeless. I often prayed, saying, "God, if you are real, please just let me think that you are." I was not able to convince myself that God was real. Even by pretending and acting as if God were real, I couldn't.
Maybe it's the autism but I have a basic inability to believe in (or even understand why other people believe in) things that I don't think are real. No matter how desirable a thing is, if I don't think it's real, I am unable to make myself think it is.
" Were you always an atheist?"
I never thought God was real. I thought I could fake myself into believing if I acted like I did (I had to pretend to believe in God anyway, to get services and to avoid abuse), you know, how smiling and acting happy can make some people really be happy, right? But I couldn't. Don't you have any idea how desirable belief is? I mean, to actually think that there is a perfect justice waiting for us? To think that the good people will be rewarded with paradise? To think that the people we loved who died are not truly gone forever? Those things are all incredibly desirable but again, I can't force myself to believe in make-believe, not even for just a time. I even watch a movie and see actors and special effects most of the time, I see art and craftsmanship, I don't experience suspension of disbelief.
"Did you have a bad experience with a church or a clergy member?"
Yes, but I didn't think God was real beforehand. After I was beaten by schoolmates because my parents were outed as non-Christians, several pastors showed up to the hospital and to our home to berate my parents for not raising us as Christians. One pastor showed up to try to convert me through fear when my parents weren't there to protect me. He insisted that while the kids weren't right to beat me that it was just a taste of the pain I'd experience if I didn't accept Jesus into my heart. He told me my dead brother was suffering in Hell because he hadn't been raised Christian - forever and ever and that it was all my parents fault.
" Do you feel that if there was a God he would have preventing certain things from happening, and so therefore chose to believe He does not exist?"
I don't think God is real but if a God were real, I would not presume to know what it would or would not do. As explained earlier, it's not really a choice at all to think something is real or not.
Give it a try yourself - think of something you think is make-believe, something lovely and desirable, like a unicorn perhaps. Now believe that it's real. You can't, can you? Now imagine your only child is dying a horrible, slow, and painful death and a bunch of people have told you that unicorns are real and the touch of a unicorn could save your child's life. Do you believe in unicorns yet? Now imagine someone you loved told you that not only are unicorns real and their touch can heal any sickness but that if you don't believe they are real you will be tortured for eternity. On top of that, imagine that a bunch of really old books say that all of that stuff about unicorns is true. Now, ask yourself why don't you believe in unicorns and you'll have the answer as to why I don't believe in God.
How Can Atheism Account for the Existence of Morality?
I believe that morality is relative and created by humankind. Hundreds of years ago, most Christians were OK with using force to control their wives, OK with slavery and rule by nobility, and OK with beating their children. Today, most Christians oppose all of those things wholeheartedly, they find them immoral. Society has evolved and morality has changed - even for those who are religious. The more everyone listens to their sense of empathy, the more humane we become as a society, religious or not.
If morality were absolute and Christians follow that absolute, then why don't all Christians agree on morals?
A while back I wrote a more in-depth article about where I think morality comes from which you can read at Without Heavenly Decree, Threat of Hell or Promise of Heaven - Where Might Morality Come From?
Ask Some Other Atheists
"I perceive atheists act (behavior wise) like religious people, in the sense they belong to something. And it feels somehow exclusive. Now, tell me objectively, have you noticed that?"
It may be the area of the country I live in but, until recently, I never even met a person who I knew to be an atheist outside my own family. When an American could go a lifetime without meeting someone in person who admits to being an atheist, it's kind of hard to feel a sense of atheist community.
I'll admit that I was excited to meet my first non-family member atheist; it's nice to be able to talk openly and to not have to navigate a conversation laden with religious references that one must pretend to also believe to avoid offending anyone.
But I get that kind of conversation with my liberal, non-atheist friends, too.
All atheists really have in common is absence of belief in God. Beyond that, there's not much held in common among atheists. Most atheists are upset by religious laws, religion based discrimination, and religious practices that infringe on human rights but then again most non-atheists are, too!
What I see among online atheists (the only type I interact with regularly) is more a type of understanding of certain situations atheists in America encounter rather than a sense of community. When I relate my experiences with anti-atheist bigotry to my liberal religious friends they express shock and sometimes disbelief but most other atheists I've conversed with have had similar experiences. Many American atheists can relate to the problems of biting your tongue to keep a job or having friends or family disown you if you are "outed" as atheists. They can relate to the vandalism and the death threats, especially atheist writers. Even if they've never had the specific action performed against them, generally they've experienced something in the same spirit.
While this might not create a sense of community it does tend to inspire activism. When I see a negative behavior among people as just my own experience, I tend to just take the indignity or abuse without raising a fuss. But when I see that the behavior isn't just aimed at me, and is deemed acceptable to my society, it outrages me. I think that is the something some atheists do belong to - a desire for positive change inspired by shared negative experience. But it is by no means exclusive. You don't have to be an atheist to be part of it. Just speak out against unjust religious legislation - anti-gay laws and anti-science education laws (religiously motivated legislation to alter the teaching of evolution, geology, history, and/or environmental sciences in public schools) are all in legislation right now. Speak out against religious discrimination against non-Christians and gay people in the workplace. Object when people slander homosexuals. Protest religiously motivated discriminatory child custody practices. Protest the medical and educational neglect of children. Any of these will make you a part of it.
What was Before the Big Bang and What Prompted It?
My answer to this is - I don't know and I don't think it is necessary to know to be an atheist. There will always be unanswered questions but simply because we don't have an answer yet, it doesn't necessarily follow that we should give up looking for one and put every unknown in the category of "God must have done it".
Historically, mankind has attributed things it doesn't understand to God. With time and a few people unsatisfied by a simple "God must have done it" many of these unexplained phenomena are now explained. Human civilization has only existed for a short time and science for an even shorter time. It seems arrogant to assume that everything we haven't answered yet must be unanswerable since we've been in the business of looking for answers using the empirical method for such a short period of time. We have yet to unravel the mysteries of such things as diseases even though we have a sound basis and have germ theory and whole divisions of biology devoted to the study of diseases. If we have yet to puzzle out such relatively simple matters, why is the assumption that if we haven't figured out more complex matters with less accessible physical data such as the origin of the universe that the answer can be nothing other than God?
In my opinion this question would be better aimed at a physicist several hundred years in the future, rather than at an atheist today.
Can You Be an Atheist and Believe in the Law?
One commenter asked this question, "Can you be an atheist and believe in the law?" To me, this question has a few, extremely simple answers.
Yes, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of laws. But rather than belief in the law, I think the real question here is, if people don't believe in God, why would they follow the laws.
First, there's empathy. The majority of people possess empathy so many laws make perfect sense to them such as laws against hurting people. Then there is reason. It can be reasoned out that it's a good idea to follow the laws of the land. Most laws are clearly written in an attempt to keep the world safe and fair. Also, there is a system of punishment in place if one does not follow the law.
For those who think Christianity is the origin of all laws, I suggest you look up things like the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu which are some of the earliest declarations of law. They, like the Bible, appear to record the laws of the time, such as those pertaining to slavery.