The main story in the “Faith & Values” section of last Friday’s Columbus Dispatch profiles several local atheists. Instead of making a cameo appearance in yet one more article devoted to theists (or, worse, yet, being demonized by those theists without having an opportunity to defend ourselves), we finally have been given the chance to present and explain ourselves at length without interruption or immediate, knee-jerk criticism.
And congratulations to all involved! :-)
Godless By Choice
For some, idea of Supreme Being just seems implausible
Friday, September 08, 2006
Dennis M . Mahoney
John Sterling grew up in the Grove City area in a religious family, regularly attending services as a member of a Church of Christ congregation. But Sterling, now 38 and living in Clintonville, had a conversation in his early 20s with a friend who had given up religion. That set him thinking about his own belief in God. "The more I studied and thought about it, the more I disbelieved in it," he said of Christianity. "It seemed less and less likely that the Bible was the literal word of God. And it started seeming more and more likely that morality comes from culture and biology." The church had been a good home to him, Sterling said, but once he concluded there is no God, he made a break.
"I left the church not because I didn’t like it," he said. "I left it because I thought it wasn’t true."
While dwarfed by the number of Christians, Muslims and Hindus in the world (about 4.3 billion altogether), those who don’t believe in a god number 500 million to 750 million, according to sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s survey, published in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism last year. That makes the godless the world’s fourth-largest segment in religious surveys.
In the United States, the proportion of nonbelievers is smaller than in many other parts of the world. Zuckerman’s survey put the U.S. total at 3 percent to 9 percent, or between 9 million and 26 million people.
But the Rev. Martin Marty, an author, Lutheran minister and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said that number probably is low. Some surveys of professionals, such as surgeons, show the number to be as high as 60 percent to 70 percent, he said.
Among nonbelievers, Marty said, there are many more agnostics (those who say there is no way to know if a god exists) than atheists (those who actively declare the universe godless).
"Atheism is a commitment," he said. "For some people, it’s a defiance: ‘There’s too much God around; I’m going to show you.’ But for more, it’s a philosophical thing that you really come to."
Sterling — a programmer for Chase Bank with a degree in physics from Ohio State University — was among those who studied and pondered his way to atheism.
When he first left his church, he was troubled by the idea of a world without divine purpose. He was depressed for a time, he said, but discovered that life still had meaning.
"I just kind of realized after living and getting up every day it’s like, look, there’s more reasons to live than because God tells you to, or God provides purpose," Sterling said.
"Our emotions and our culture and our attachments to other people create things that we as humans need and want. And that’s where our goals come from."
Cassandra Cox, 28, of Gahanna, grew up in a military family, spending much of her earlier life in Virginia.
She had been raised a Roman Catholic, but doubts surfaced when it came time to have her oldest son baptized. She decided against it, upsetting some family members; eventually she found her way to atheism because it "makes more sense to me."
The idea of a god "seems as likely as a Santa Claus," Cox said. "It’s absurd to think that somebody comes to your house and delivers presents. And I guess it’s the same thing that somebody’s listening to prayers."
Cox — who spends some time blogging on her Web site www.theatheistmama.com — said she and her husband, Robert, will give their children, now 4 and 2, a Bible to study when they get older. But they also will have companion books of mythology, she said.
"We’re not going to tell them they can’t believe in it (God)," Cox said. "We’re going to allow them to go to church with their friends, as usually happens with kids. We’re not going to say there’s anything wrong with it, but we’re going to tell them what we believe and why."
Amanda Warner, who lives on the East Side and runs a tutoring center in Granville, said being an atheist doesn’t cause friction with her family or friends.
"I have friends who are very Christian, and they are fine with it," she said.
Warner, 23, said she attended a United Methodist church growing up. She wasn’t angry at religion, she said, but as she grew older, she concluded there just wasn’t enough evidence to convince her there is a god.
With today’s politicians courting religious constituencies so heavily, Warner said she sometimes feels ignored.
"I think we’re almost like a group no one wants to appeal to," she said. "I think they’re scared of us, and I can’t figure out why."
Like many atheists, Garry Kirkland II, who was raised in a Baptist home growing up in Cleveland, said lack of proof is the bottom line in his disbelief. The North Side resident, a Columbus State student who wants to study chemical engineering at OSU, called the concept of God "an invalid idea."
"It’s almost like asking somebody, ‘What color is Saturday?’ " he said. "It’s like we say God, (but) we don’t know what a god would be.
"We don’t know what its form is; we don’t know what its function is; we don’t know what its location is. So, if something came down and said it’s God, we have no idea whether to believe it or not."
The 27-year-old Kirkland, an Army veteran, said he resents people trying to legislate their religious views onto others. But he doesn’t look down on those who have strong faith.
"If a person feels that they need Jesus to live a moral life, that it’s going to make them a good person, well, by all means do that," he said.
Marty agreed that nonbelievers get short shrift in the country and people of faith get all the attention.
"Religion is favored in the U.S.," he said. "There’s a kind of sense that as long as we’ve got something, then there’s an anchor. I think there’s that kind of prejudice.
"I don’t think there’s any prejudice against the atheist next door. ... In general, most Americans don’t butt in on each other."
Marty doesn’t see a future where people move away from faith and become nonbelievers.
"I think the big, big trend is not toward atheism but toward individualized spirituality," he said. "It’s do-it-yourself. You have a repertory of all the religions of the area, take the things you like from them, reject the things you don’t."
For their part, the nonbelievers interviewed said it would take strong evidence to get them to change their minds about God.
"If there was some kind of proof out there that there was a god, I would definitely be open to believing in that," Cox said. "But I don’t find that likely. If the Rapture happens, then I’ll definitely think that something’s going on."