If the written word has a voice—and, at least in my head, mine does—then mine is shaking as I say this:
I do not believe in God.
For years, I’ve been too scared to admit this. In my “Sophomore Columns” folder, there’s a draft called “Atheism.” In my “Junior Columns” folder, there’s one called “Life without God.” But each year before I submitted, I envisioned good friends of mine who go to church every day, Catholic guys I used to date, religious faculty members I respect.
I’d remember how I felt about nonreligious people—before I became one of them. I felt this burning desire for them to see the beauty of God the way I did, this desperate yearning for them to enter the religious community, for only after they entered it could they know its enormous rewards. I remember pitying them.
I didn’t want people to feel that way towards me. I didn’t want to become a project, something that could eventually be fixed given proper commitment. I knew that I would resent them if they started seeing me this way.
But it wasn’t just the resentment. Even more than that, I was scared to be open about my lack of faith because I didn’t want to diminish theirs. As a teenager, I experienced a number of internal struggles in which logic battled faith. And every time logic won (it always did), I could feel my surety in God’s existence slipping away until I could no longer ignore that I was certain of just the opposite.
This was a tragic process for me. God had always been a comfort, a friend. He seemed to make my life better and make me better too, always holding me accountable. And religion gave my life beautiful color, filled it with traditions that connected me to centuries past and communities that connected me to people in the present. I didn’t want others to feel my loss, both for their own sake and society’s. If God was a delusion, I thought, he was a pretty wonderful one.
But now, years into my life as an atheist, I’m seeing the beauty in seeing things clearly, for what they are. And I think we should be talking about it.
Life without God is quieter. There’s no one in my head providing reassurance or reprimand. There’s no “everything happens for a reason” to ease an aching wound, no “the Lord is watching over you” to slow a beating heart, no “she’s in a better place” to fill a gaping hole. It’s just me.
Life without God takes courage. It means confronting the world as it is. It means accepting the fact that there are many things out of your control, and the worst could absolutely happen. It means dealing with the loss of loved ones without vague promises of eventual reunification. It means doing the right thing without promises of eventual cosmic reward or punishment. If the true test of good character is what you do when no one is watching, then it took losing God for me to discover that I had it.
Losing God has made me stronger, and it’s made me smarter.
In this society, religion has led us to explicitly value faith—believing something without the requisite evidence to support it. I worry about incentivizing belief in things that crumble under critical analysis.
Less than half of Americans believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Almost a third believe in astrology. Over one in four believe in witches.
In this era of increasingly rapid change on all fronts, critically analyzing our evolving reality so that we can truly understand it has never been more important. For evidence on this point, look no further than the fact that a majority of Americans deny the existence of man-made climate change.
Meanwhile, while reality can be cold and harsh, it’s also astoundingly beautiful. Looking at everything with a critical eye uncovers mysteries even more incredible than the pleasant fictions we invent.
Better to look up at the stars and see them not as arbiters of unknowable influence over human fortune but as giant spheres of plasma, their light traveling as particle/waves at speeds we can’t imagine but coming from so far away that it still takes years to reach us. Better to see that incredible good humans are capable of being motivated not by promises of cartoonishly exaggerated postmortem reward but by manifestations of a deep impulse to improve the lives of others.
The broad trend with the gods of western civilization seems to be for them to become more and more dissimilar from the humans who created them. Except from some extra abilities, the gods we read about in "Gilgamesh" are almost indistinguishable from you and me—sometimes they can be cruel, sometimes they drink too much. Greek gods are enhanced humans, but they are still prone to critical mistakes. The god of the Old Testament is omnipotent and purports to value goodness, but remains spiteful, prideful and vengeful. The New Testament god outsources human weakness to Jesus, and embodies inhuman love and forgiveness. The logical conclusion is to move even further—to make God not a being at all, but an idea: a vision for good, a shared hope that we can make this world the best place we can collectively dream up.
If we can get there, then maybe I’m not an atheist after all.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity senior. This is her first column of the semester.