Death and What Comes After

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called “life”

Electric word, life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else,
The afterworld

A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night

So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
You know the one, Dr. Everything’ll-Be-Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby

Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life,
You’re on your own

-“Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince

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Stephen Hawking’s quote about the existence of an afterlife has been making the rounds of most of the atheist blogs that I read. Haven’t read it yet? Here, I’ll help you out. It’s from his interview with The Guardian:

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

This is a concept that I actually do struggle with. I don’t believe in God anymore, and that was a slow, tough process. What has been even tougher is accepting that this means there is nothing after my body dies.

My life has not been all that hard. I’ve never faced starvation nor homelessness. I’ve never been physically assaulted. I know that in so many ways I am a very lucky person. But, on the flip side, my life hasn’t been an ongoing party, either. No one’s is.

But during those particularly rough times when I felt helpless and hopeless I could comfort myself by believing that even if I were to die from the anguish, there was always something else – the ‘afterworld.’

While I don’t think I’d like to see the sun day and night (I like the stars, thank you very much, Princey) I hoped that after death would come the ultimate freedom – that my ‘spirit’ would be able to go and do whatever it wanted. I wanted to float around the universe and see all the stars, galaxies, planets, life – everything – that is out there. I hoped to meet people that I had admired during life that had also passed on. I wanted to create my own mansion with lush grounds full of flowers and fruit trees. And my libraries would contain every book ever written, every film ever shot, every piece of music ever heard.

But now, that seems less likely to happen. Once I die, that’s probably it. Done, finito, bye-bye.

I have heard the theory that since energy can’t be destroyed, then the energy that makes up our consciousness will simply transform into something else – that perhaps I will get to float around the universe and take in the sites. But, it’s just a theory and one I won’t be able to prove or disprove until I’m dead.

Either way, it really doesn’t matter. If that theory is correct, yay! Rings of Saturn, here I come! But if it’s not correct and I just go ‘bloob’ and I’m gone, I won’t be here to care anymore. It will be over and the world will go on.

So, in the end, I’m undecided about what I think happens after death. I will just have to not dwell on it and make sure I make the most of the time I have in this life. Fortunately, Prince is wrong on this one. In this life, I’m not alone.

This I Believe…

(Yes. I totally ripped off that title from the NPR program.)

Part 1: The Confession

This little essay will probably disturb a few of my friends and acquaintances and it will no doubt upset my mother but it’s something I feel that I need to get out there.

I am an atheist.

Phew. There, said it. It’s something I’ve known for a while now but have never really come right out and flatly said.

This is not something I arrived at easily or quickly. I suppose it started way back in college when I was heavily involved with the Church of Christ group set up to service the college students at my university.

When I’m in a bitter mindset I see those years as a waste of time but in reality, it was not. I learned more about the Bible and various Christian religions than ever before and knowledge really is power. That knowledge led me to where I am today. I know what the Bible says and I know why I don’t believe it anymore. This realization was a gradual thing.

Part 2: Growing Up Christian

I was raised by a god-fearing mother. She wasn’t a regular church goer but her belief in God was never in doubt. She was (still is) a Christian but I don’t remember her talking about Jesus as I grew up. Maybe she did and I just don’t remember. I had no interest in religion before high school. The only time I went to church was when I didn’t want to be left behind. Wherever my mother was, I wanted to be.

When I was twelve we moved to Southeast Texas. Anyone who listens to the news nowadays can probably glean that Texas is a rather conservative state. This never bothered me at the time. I was a rather conservative person, especially in the area of personal conduct. Premarital sex was not right; drinking was a definite no-no and all good people believed in God. I was your stereo-typical goody-two-shoes.

I tried several churches while I was in high school, mostly Baptist. Mainly, I was following boys around. The first church I regularly attended was the largest. Before I could become an official member, I had to be baptized. Even at the time this bothered me. I was told what baptism was with a couple of short sentences and then dunked in water in front of everyone in the congregation. No emotion, whatsoever. It was just something I had to do to become a member of their club. And of course this had to be done before the service, which meant I had to spend the rest of the night with wet hair. Not my most flattering look.

I had crushes on several boys at that church and I stayed there for at least a year. (Yeah, I know that doesn’t sound long, but when you’re in high school a month can feel like an eternity.)

I next attended a Pentecostal church – once again following a guy I was crushing on. Finally, I had found REAL religion. I first attended during a week-long revival. If you’re not familiar with the term ‘revival’ in this context what it basically means is a special event in hopes to ‘revive’ faith and bring new life a vitality (and hopefully new members) to a church. When you believe, they can be very affirming and it’s very easy to get caught up in the heightened emotion.

I certainly did. At this particular church I was told that in order to be saved I had to speak in tongues. To be completely fair, I don’t remember who told me this and I could very well be remembering that statement out of context but at the time, I believed it.

And I couldn’t do it. My best friend – who did all those ‘bad’ things I wouldn’t including drinking, having sex, etc. – claimed that she had. I didn’t personally hear her but she never lied to me. On top of that, she started dating the guy that I had gone to the church for in the first place.

This didn’t diminish my faith, however. One thing about me, I can be beat down emotionally but I just keep coming back for more. Usually this isn’t a good thing and it was a very bad thing for me in high school.

I was baptized again at this church but this time it meant something to me. The baptism was a private affair with just a few of my friends in attendance and it felt right and good. As far as I remember, this church didn’t even have an official membership roster so it wasn’t something I had to do to be blessed by their fellowship. With those people, I had it no matter what.

My time at this church didn’t last long, maybe a few months.  The whole speaking in tongues thing was still bothering me. My mother, who had been raised Pentecostal, assured me that someone had either lied to me or just misdirected me. Even though we were having our differences at the time, I believed her.

I was also starting to see the ridiculous restrictions put on believers, especially women. You were always supposed to wear a dress, never cut your hair and make-up was a sin of vanity. I didn’t recognize it for this at the time, but I balked at the misogyny of the whole thing and finally left the church. To the members’ credit, they were always the same with me even after I left. Not once did someone rebuke me for leaving.

After leaving that church, I didn’t go to any church regularly for a while. I might have gone back to the previous Baptist church occasionally but I honestly don’t remember. I do remember switching to another Baptist church my senior year – again, to follow a crush. I vehemently denied this fact when confronted with it but even then I knew I was lying to everyone and myself.

I tell you, though, I really liked that guy. I even sang in public for him which is something I could never do today.

My senior year was…interesting and mid-way through was the last time I attended church for another two years. I moved from Texas to Arkansas and finished the last half of my senior year there, although I officially graduated from my Texas high school – Marching Band did not count as a PE credit in Arkansas, which is just insane. Do you know how much physical work goes into regular marching rehearsals and shows?

But I digress.

Part 3: The College years

One of my favorite people in the world is the woman I was paired up with in the college dorms my freshman year of college. She was very good for me in many ways. I was quite introverted and pretty browbeaten by about everyone. She was not. She helped bring me out of my shell and I started standing up for myself, even with my parents. It may not seem like much but I felt very proud of myself the first time I told my step-father to ask me to do something, not tell me.

Leslie was also a Christian but neither of us attended church regularly. I remember trying a few out with her but none of them really struck a chord and regular church attendance seemed to be out of my life. While I often felt guilty for this, it was never overwhelming and I didn’t worry about it too much.

My second year of college changed my life in many, many ways and it pretty much can be attributed to one person and yes, it was another man. I was always known for my ridiculously emotional crushes, but nothing compared to what happened with Robert. Except for my husband, I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to anyone and this was both good and very, very bad.

He was a year younger than me and a French horn player. My college roommate was also a French horn player so I came in contact with him through association. You see, he asked her out first but it was me he became close to. About a month after we started hanging out, he invited me to the Church of Christ Student Center, a place where he spent a lot of his free time and a place of which I was, quite frankly, jealous.

Of course I went.

I spent the next five years of my life in that place. Except for my college roommate, my best friends in college were made there. I attended church regularly, even though I often missed Sunday mornings and there were times when I was depressed and avoided everyone and didn’t go, but these times were few and never lasted more than a few months.

I also learned that Bible. I wasn’t a die-hard scholar, but I was determined to learn what it actually said. The first year or so I was okay with it. We sang songs based on the ‘good’ parts of the book, emphasizing the positive aspects of Christianity and it felt right to me. I was baptized AGAIN, but this time I was sure it ‘took.’

I never was in complete agreement with this Church’s teachings, even in the beginning. I have found that each Christian denomination has at least one belief that sets them apart from everyone else. For the Pentecostals it was the speaking in tongues, for Baptists it was the excessive fellowshipping. For the Church of Christ it was the fact that they believed using instruments in worship was a sin.

Being a music major and having played my clarinet in church services before (I believed I was glorifying God) I never accepted this.

This gets kind of complicated so I hope I can make this clear. The Church of Christ I attended taught that both the Old and New Testament were relevant, but that the New superseded the Old. Any commandments, rules, etc. made in the New overwrote any inconsistent commandments, rules, etc. in the Old. Also, if it wasn’t in the New, it wasn’t law.

For example, the Old tells us not to eat unclean animals such as Pork. In the New, Jesus made it okay for us to enjoy bacon again. Yay Jesus!

So, even though David told us in the Old Testament to worship with instruments, because it wasn’t mentioned again in the New Testament, it was wrong.

Even then, I knew this was ridiculous.

One Sunday, the minister of this church gave a sermon, teaching us about an expected behavior in all Christians and used Old Testament scripture for proof. I can’t even remember what the subject of this sermon was about, but it bothered me so I searched the New Testament for more information about this subject. Lo and behold, this subject is never even alluded to in the New Testament. I confronted the minister about this and never got an answer. I doubt this was the first seed of doubt laid in my mind, but it was a big one.

But even then, it wasn’t a doubt in God; it was doubt in men (as in humans, not just males) and the Bible itself. At the same time, I was having real difficultly with the teachings of Paul. His attitude toward women, homosexuals and sex were things I could not accept. Even though I was rather prudish by society’s standards, I had no problem with sex itself. I was rather looking forward to it. But Paul talked about it and marriage as if it were a necessary evil and something to be avoided whenever possible.

I started having private study time with the Student Center minister, a man who I still admire even though I no longer agree with almost any of his beliefs. He was extremely intelligent, knowledgeable about his chosen field and he was a pop-culture geek.

I learned a lot from him and he did his best to keep my faith intact but my mind works differently. In many areas I was very emotional. When it came to relationships I was so needy, I’m embarrassed to think of my passive-aggressive behavior. But when it came to knowledge and learning, I was pretty logical.

Part 4: After College

After graduating from college I had some financial problems and moved back to North Little Rock with my parents. This was one of the worst times of my life. Looking back I can see how much of a wreck I was, even more clingy and passive-aggressive than before and it’s no wonder to me that after I moved I didn’t hear much from the people I loved so dearly. My church was an hour and a half away and I stopped going, although I tried to keep in touch with my friends. But they had their own lives (two of them were newlyweds with a new baby) and it just wasn’t possible to be as close as before.

This was heartbreaking for me. I was mourning the camaraderie I had lost and it truly felt as though my friends were dead. I could no longer see them daily, or even weekly, and they were all that had kept me going.

Eventually, I started to heal. I had a new job and was making new friends – my first real friends outside of a church environment since I left high school. There was no guilt, no high expectations, and no disappointment in failing any trivial Christian test. I didn’t realize all of this at the time, of course, but it was true nonetheless. I couldn’t see this at the time, but my secular friends were more accepting of me than my Christian friends had ever been.

Don’t take this as beating up on those Christian friends, that’s not what I’m doing here. As a Christian, I understood that my brothers and sisters in Christ were supposed to hold me accountable for my actions – or inactions – and that’s something I still understand.

Part 5: Changing Attitudes

What I’ve never understood is when Christians start trying to make other people live up to their own standards by trying to pass unconstitutional laws. Even when I was heavily involved with the Church I was a firm believer in separation of Church and State. I understood what so many Christians just can’t seem to grasp – that ever-so-important amendment doesn’t just protect the heathens, it protects the believers as well.

I could see the dangers of government involvement in religion. Historically, fleeing government meddling in personal matters was one of the reasons the Europeans even came to this place. Logistically, it would be a mess. How do you decide which religion is the one the government will support? It can’t support all of them since so many of them are fundamentally different.

And, to come back to that first point, religion is a PERSONAL matter. I know human beings are, in general, nosy busy-bodies but there are some things that just shouldn’t be the concern of others. And even if you just can’t keep your nose out of other people’s business, that’s no reason to try to make the government as intrusive as you.

Remember that Robert fellow I mentioned before? Well, turns out he was gay. I saw the signs from the beginning but chose to ignore them because I did not want to fall for yet another gay guy. It was a pattern with me up until Robert. (After Robert, my taste in men changed dramatically and I haven’t had this issue since.)

While we were in college, I clung to the belief that homosexuality was a sin. Robert was more devout than I was and I sincerely hoped his faith would ‘cure’ him of his inclinations. I never even threatened to withhold friendship from him, but I know that I helped convince him that he was in the wrong for his feelings.

This is something I still feel ashamed of. I can’t really blame religion for it. I was a feminist even when the Bible told me that I should submit in all things, but I used those anti-gay passages to keep my hopes up for a relationship with Robert. It was a cruel thing to do to myself but an even crueler thing to do to the person I claimed was my best friend.

The romantic feelings I had for Robert took a very long time for me to change into something different. It didn’t help that he used my feelings to try to rid himself of his own feelings. I don’t hold any of that against him because I know how badly he wanted to be the man his family and friends wanted him to be. But still, it wasn’t fair for either of us.

When those emotions started transforming into nothing but platonic feelings, I started seeing things much more clearly. I know sexual inclination is not a choice, and even if it were who cares? It’s none of my business if Jane wants to hook up with Sally. And even when I did think it was wrong, I never wanted to pass laws to make it illegal.

Part 6: The Upward Spiral

The loss of faith was gradual. I didn’t even notice it until the fourth year of my marriage. I consciously became aware of it when I was sitting in my office one day and I glanced up and saw the Bible that Robert had given me years earlier sitting on the shelf. I remember thinking, “I don’t believe in that book anymore. The only thing I should even concern myself with is what Jesus said. Nothing else really matters. Paul was a bigoted, homophobic asshole. He just followed Jesus around. Doesn’t make him Jesus’ spokesman.”

From there it all just kind of snowballed. I eventually realized that ‘the word of God’ was nothing more than ‘the word of men who want to control others and therefore tell the world that this is the word of God.’ Even I, a rather gullible person at times, could no longer buy that a book that had been translated over and over again throughout the years was immune to politics and the base nature of men and that God made sure that his intent remained intact. How could anyone believe that when the intent of that book is so heatedly debated among people who worship in the very same building week after week?

So, from there I went to not believing in the Bible at all but still believing that God was there. However, I saw him as an indifferent God. I mean, how could anyone blame any deity for ignoring the human race? We suck.

So, why did I still believe in God up to about two years ago? Basically, I couldn’t get my head around how we all got here – how the universe was created, how we gained sentience, how to explain the great diversity of life on this one little blue planet. I’ve since made a point to read up on what other atheists believe, I’ve started reading science blogs. While there will never be a definitive answer to all of it, I’m satisfied that it could all have happened without some ephemeral being muttering ‘Let there be light.”

It was personally difficult to accept that this was it. That this life was all we got and there was nothing beyond it. It is still something I struggle with and, quite frankly, something I honestly hope most scientifically minded atheists are wrong about. I don’t want to just end. I don’t want to live here forever, but I don’t want to blink out of existence either.

But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. When it’s over, it will be over. I won’t be conscious to care anymore. So, if this life really is all that we get, then that’s all that we get. I personally hope our consciousness goes on in some form. Back when I believed in God and the afterlife, I hoped that after death I would be allowed to meet all the greats that came before me – Mozart, Lincoln, George Harrison, Fred Astaire, etc. – and after that get to float around in space and see all the wonders out there.

I still hope for that but it’s not something I believe in anymore. And yes, that makes me sad sometimes but I have always been one to want truth over stuff made up to make me feel better. That was one of the things I hated about Christianity even when I was a Christian – I could never tell who really liked me and who was just being nice because it was their Christian duty. I hate hypocrisy and especially loathe it when I see it in myself. It’s everywhere but, in general, truth seekers and those who don’t use a deity to excuse their behavior are less hypocritical than most.

So, now I am an atheist. I do my best to not be obnoxious about it and respect the views of my still-faithful friends but to be honest, it’s sometimes very difficult. I find the concept of an all-loving and all-knowing God guiding our lives to be naïve. When things go our way it’s through perseverance, our own work and sometimes a lot of luck. Coincidence is not a miracle in disguise – it’s just coincidence.

The reason I feel the need to ‘come out’ and confess this is because, as I mentioned before, I don’t like hypocrisy. I haven’t lied to anyone about what I believe in, but I feel that I’ve been hiding it from people I care about who are still believers in God. I do still care about those people – that hasn’t changed in the slightest – I just don’t think the way they do anymore and I want them to know that. Sometimes hiding something is just as bad as lying about it and I don’t want to be a liar.

I can only hope that my faithful friends can be as tolerant of my disbelief as I am of their belief. Only time will tell.

Sounds reasonable to me

Copied from the Atheist Ireland website

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

  • We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
  • We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
  • We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
  • We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
  • We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
  • We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
  • We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
  • We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
  • We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
  • We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths.  We oppose state funding for faith schools.
  • We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

Please circulate this as widely as you can among people and groups who advocate a secular society.