Mark Hertzog's "Howdy!" Pages

"Life After God: An Atheist’s Religion"

A lay sermon given by Mark Hertzog
to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, Maryland
Sunday, 24 January 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Mark Wm. Hertzog. All rights reserved.

I could talk about this subject for a good hour or more, but I only have a few minutes and besides if I tried to go on for an hour you wouldn’t stand for it. So in these few minutes we have together I’d like to address the important points:
  • First of all, what is an atheist really, and why am I one?
  • Second, how as an atheist do I answer some of the eternal questions about life, death and the Great Beyond?
  • Finally, if I don't have a god or any other supernatural backup, how can I possibly have a religion, and what is it--and what does it mean in my life?

There are five "eternal questions" with which all religion and philosophy are concerned. It’s how we answer these questions that make up the substance of a religion. I’ll come back to these five questions from time to time. Think if you will for a brief moment about how you would answer each of them:

  1. Who, or what, made me?
  2. What am I doing here?
  3. Why must I and others suffer?
  4. What will happen to me when I die?
  5. How, then, shall I live?

As were most Americans, I was raised with traditional Christian religious beliefs, and I tried to hold to them for more than three decades. In the last decade I also was trained as a social scientist. My job is not merely to create plausible theories about why we behave the way we do in my particular field, but to test those hypotheses rigorously, and to rule them out if the evidence is not extremely strong in their favor. Where there is no clear evidence, a scientist is obliged to draw no conclusions.

There is no one procedure or process we can call the scientific method, but it contains as its basic elements the requirement that claims of knowledge be tested in a valid, reliable and repeatable way, such that one phenomenon is found clearly to be related to another, and that other possible explanations for the relationship are excluded. It is the best method we have for filling in the gaps in our direct experience and determining whether one event in fact causes another, because anybody using the same materials and methods in the same environment should get quite nearly the same results.

If you hold a scientific outlook, your certainty about anything is tied directly to its probability--both in the sense of its provability and in the sense of the likelihood that one explanation of some phenomenon is better than another. A credible scientist never promises the last word on anything; she only offers the world the most probable explanation for any phenomenon, given our ability to interrogate the world at that particular point in time. People who take scientific discoveries as absolute truths--as some folks in the mass media tend to do--are bound to be annoyed repeatedly when scientists discover better explanations down the road and change their story. Science and the rule of probability, therefore, have a tough row to hoe against the absolute certainties--be they probable or not--of traditional religious dogma.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill reported a conversation between his father as a young man and an older relative who was in the clergy. "Who made the world?," the elder Mill asked. "God made the world, of course," the minister said. "Well, then," Mill’s father asked, "who made God?" Whereupon the minister changed the subject.

But in confronting that first eternal question, "Who, or what, made me?," Mill states my central problem: Which of the following is more probable?

  • That way back in the primordial ooze, a few small one-celled creatures spontaneously came to life, and through hundreds of millions of years of accidents and merging and dividing and false starts, resulted in you and me and the living world we see around us? That’s the first option.
  • The second option is that, way back before all the stars and planets, a being as big as all the galaxies, and having all the knowledge and power and wisdom to will everything into existence, spontaneously came to life.

If you look at the probabilities, it’s infinitely more likely that those minuscule one-celled critters emerged spontaneously, and led by painfully slow stages to what we see today, than that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being emerged spontaneously and made it all happen by choice.

So increasingly I had to ask myself: How could I rely on reason and the scientific method in most less important spheres of my life, yet duck back into accepting supernaturalism and dogma with respect to those areas of my life which were the most important--answering those five big questions? I had found reason and science to be the most valid and reliable means by which I could know what was accurate, right or true. So how could I accept dogmatic, mystical or supernatural assertions or explanations in any form, unless and until they were corroborated by reason and science?

If there is a superior being or beings, then that god or gods gave each of us a built-in truth detector--a mighty powerful mind. Far from demanding that we forego its use a good part of the time, I should think the superior being(s) on the contrary would demand that I always use, and keep in good shape, the built-in truth tester she/he/it/they gave me.

It causes me no fear, then, to say today that I am an atheist. I do not assert that there is no God, only that there is no valid or reliable evidence for a supernatural being who created us and the world and who directs our lives. In that sense I am technically an agnostic, as are all professed atheists who are intellectually honest. However, I think the possibility of the existence of any supernatural being is so unlikely as to be negligible.

Further, the evidence of the world around me tells me that, in fact, we are here as the result of a series of happy accidents, billions of years in the making. This fills me with a childlike sense of wonder and awe which far surpasses the contemplation of a god who did it all by design.

Therefore, I use the definition of an atheist that Canadian writer Paul O’Brien employs in his series of articles collectively titled "Gentle Godlessness: A Compassionate Introduction to Atheism:" I choose to live my life as if there is no god and no supernatural world.

This ought not to be shocking or dismaying. All of us are atheists with respect to every god of history--save for the one or more in which we personally believe, or have been brought up to believe. Like all Christians and persons raised in the Christian faith, I always have been an atheist toward Vishnu, Ra, Aphrodite, Jupiter, Isis, and Allah, and in no instance have I feared that I’d be cursed with plagues in my life and thrust into the Fiery Furnace afterward by any of them.

But it took three and a half decades to get over my social conditioning that Yahweh was somehow different. Accepting atheism is a relatively recent development for me, but only because it has taken me years to get over my social conditioning. I also had strong discomfort associating my name with the stereotype of atheists as negative, rude, cynical, mean-spirited religion-haters. You can find some real-life examples of the stereotypical attitudes among some atheists. (I was surfing the TV dial recently when I came across a program showing a group of atheists singing a ditty to the tune of "Hark!, the Herald Angels Sing" with lyrics such as: "All religion is a cancer / Atheism is the answer." That didn’t really sit well with me.)

I remain religious in the sense that I use the answers to, or uncertainties about, the first four eternal questions above to answer the fifth: how shall I live? As part of this, I belong to this Unitarian Universalist congregation, because it’s a terrific community where my atheism is welcomed (or at least tolerated) by fellow freethinking seekers after truth, the good life, social justice, and unconditional love.

I did not come to this conclusion as the result of anger or resentment over my life, nor because of the obnoxious attitudes of a great many of the traditionally religious. I did not reject God, nor to my knowledge has any god rejected me. My life in most respects is very happy and fulfilling. In those few respects in which it is not, I strive to accept the unchangeable and work to change what I can. I certainly don’t believe that my accomplishments are mine alone; they’re the result of lots of wonderful people who have taught, nurtured, criticized, encouraged and helped me, compared with which my own efforts, although important, seem pretty small. I just honestly don’t buy the idea that a Celestial Critter was the helper behind all the other helpers.

Like Paul O’Brien, I certainly do not criticize those who make the choice to live their lives as if a god does exist. Whether the supernatural exists is beyond the ability of reason and science to rule in or rule out in an absolute sense, so the question of whether a god or gods exists remains open. If believing makes one feel better and more hopeful, if it helps one face the world more courageously or cheerfully, if in times of pain and hardship it gives more comfort and strength than does a more non-theistic outlook, it is better for one to believe. For example, I would much rather have an alcoholic or drug addict believe in God and get clean and sober than to disbelieve and stay drunk and drugged.

I do strongly object when, on the basis of supernatural, mystical, or dogmatic notions, anyone seeks to restrict my freedom or deny or negate my humanity. This, I think, is the source of the strongly anti-theist attitudes of many atheists, and these attitudes are understandable. For all that fundamentalist Christians believe they are being "attacked" by secular media and education, it is clear that atheists have it far worse at the hands of the conventionally religious, be they fundamentalist or not. It is annoying in the extreme to be labeled and treated as an instrument of Satan out to corrupt and destroy people’s children. But it is important to reiterate that what we as atheists object to is not belief in a god per se, but the accompanying blind acceptance of religious authority and of dogmas that run contrary to the evidence before our eyes, and which conditions one to accept authority and dogma in other realms of life, often with deadly consequences.

So much for the atheist part. Now, how on earth can I have an "atheist’s religion?"

Let me return to those five "eternal questions," the answers to which make up the substance of a religion:

  1. Who, or what, made me?
  2. What am I doing here?
  3. Why must I and others suffer?
  4. What will happen to me when I die?
  5. How, then, shall I live?

Now what does my atheism tell me about the answers to those eternal questions?

First, it tells me that the universe, and myself as a relative flyspeck within it, were the result of a long series of billions of happy accidents resulting in my mother and father coming together and creating me. No being in the heavens chose that I should be born, what I should look like, or what my purpose in life should be. (I doubt anyone would have designed me to be a middle-aged survey researcher and single gay man with a receding chin who’s president of a tiny rugby club.) Nor was it true of any of us. In that sense, we are here for no particular purpose.

But does that mean ours is a meaningless existence and that we are worth nothing? Certainly not. Indeed, in the absence of divine intervention, it is fundamentally true that your being here and my being here are miraculous. It is amazing that we are alive and can feel and can think and can learn and can communicate and can love. Without any resort to the supernatural, it is a miracle.

The next miracle is that my life, your lives, all our lives are entirely in our hands. We do not choose the circumstances in which we are born or grow up, but we can choose what to do with what we have been given, and ultimately we can become, within our physical and mental limitations, whatever we choose to become. No god has a plan for us; what becomes of the world is the direct result of our own individual and collective choices.

What that tells me is that, given this tremendous freedom, I also have an incredible responsibility not to misuse my life. The stereotype some people have of atheists is that we are all wanton hedonists, concerned only with ourselves and with instant material gratification. Some may be--just as some supposedly Christian people are (I won’t name names)--but most atheists take a much different view.

The main reason for that different view is clear when you consider the hardest thing about atheism: the recognition that, if there is no god and no heaven, then there is no such thing as immortality. That means that when my loved ones die, they die; they’re gone; and there will be no happy reunion on the other side. It also means that when I die, while I will not go to Hell, neither will I go to Heaven.

Beyond that, it means that there is no divine justice. One promise of theistic religion that makes it so appealing is the idea that evildoers in this life will get their just desserts from God, and that those who have been abused, neglected and abandoned in this life will see full recompense in the loving arms of the Holy One. An atheist has no such comfort.

Further, most of the conventionally religious tell us that, if the fear of God did not restrain us, we would all become wicked. I will point out only that the fear of God seems to have no effect on Saddam Hussein, nor on the murderous, drug-dealing, gang-member sons of many good Christian mothers who did their best to raise them right. Nor did the absence of a fear of God dissuade Margaret Sanger, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan and others from devoting their lives to the welfare of humankind in accord with conscience.

In some ways, though, it is harder for an atheist to make the sacrifices needed to achieve justice--precisely because she has no belief in an eternal reward. Gandhi wrote repeatedly that true nonviolence in all aspects of one’s life necessitated a belief in God--for who would be willing to give up her freedom, her property, her very life for others or for a cause, if she believes she will simply be extinguished? Being conscious of the miracle of her own individual life, an atheist has naturally far less willingness to part with it for some greater cause.

Yet what makes me a religious atheist is the recognition that I am connected inextricably, and not by any cosmic or mystical means, to my family, my neighbors, and the world I live in. I am conscious not merely of the miraculous nature of each individual life, but, on a very scientific level, I am conscious of how fragile the whole thing is. My fate and your fate are to a great extent bound up together. It may be enlightened self-interest--after all, the next person in trouble could be me--but I think it is more than that. As an atheist who believes there is no god who is going to take care of us, I am far more conscious of our need to take care of each other and this fragile environment in which we make our home--and far more conscious that, if I don’t do something, that something is not going to be done. I have to pitch in because I’m part of the family.

And that, in sum, is one atheist’s religion. Thanks for letting me talk about it.