They say there are no atheists in foxholes. For those raised in a society where most people believe a deity created the Earth and maintains a special relationship with humans, this could be true. In times of crisis, even the most ardent disbeliever might, understandably, cast reason aside and cry out for help from beyond.
I was brought up in such a society: the USA. My upbringing was largely secular, however; my family celebrated Christmas and some Jewish holidays, but did not attend religious services. I began to doubt the existence of God by the time I was old enough to think critically.
At the age of 16, I determined that God was created in the image of man, and not the other way around, and thus declared myself an atheist. I’m now 50, and while I’ve explored various religions over the decades — and identified as a Buddhist for about 20 years — I’ve never seriously wavered from atheism. The Western concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing deity that listens to humans and intervenes in our affairs is simply too incredible for me to believe.
Yet, at times I do find myself wondering if there is some powerful entity out there who can guide humanity. It would be a true shame if humans were the most advanced lifeforms in the universe. We are a violent and deeply flawed species, bent on dominating and destroying our planet rather than sharing it peacefully and sustainably with each other and our fellow animals.
But when we call out for help, how do we truly know anyone is listening?
Friday the 13th of March was my last day working at my office for the City of San Francisco. My co-workers and I were all preparing to begin telecommuting the following week, as health authorities began issuing stay-at-home orders. During a break I strolled around the neighborhood, musing on how I had grown accustomed to commuting to this new job I started in January, after many years of self-employment and volunteer work.
I was growing increasingly unsettled about the Coronavirus pandemic, now that the threat of contagion was affecting daily life in my community. I found myself silently reaching out, asking if there really were a god out there, now would be a good time to show themself, to guide our way.
Then I realized, as I always do, that seeking help from a god was a fruitless exercise. If I did hear an answer — a voice in my head — there would be no way to verify or prove that this voice was coming from another entity. Even if that voice said something unexpected, or something I did not want to hear, it would still be indistinguishable from me talking to myself.
Those who follow Judaeo-Christian traditions would say that one simply has to have faith. But from my perspective, what that’s really asking is that I have faith in long-dead humans—overwhelmingly men — who heard voices in their own heads. They and their followers wrote down those words and created rules and hierarchies and institutions.
To have faith in the word of God, I must take the word of men.
While I’m an avowed atheist, I’m not an anti-theist; I do not seek to dismantle religious institutions. I’m fine with other people believing in and worshiping gods, as long as their practices do not harm or oppress others.
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Many scientists, doctors, and others working to combat epidemics are devoutly religious, but do not simply leave the fate of suffering people in the hands of gods, or elevate religious beliefs over reason. I was struck by this when watching the Netflix documentary series Pandemic, released just as the seriousness of the Coronavirus outbreak was becoming evident. This series — which is about influenza, not COVID-19 — features practicing Christians and Muslims, among others.
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Unfortunately, others do allow religion —the words of men —to override scientific and rational guidelines on reducing exposure to pathogens, thus endangering everyone in their communities. This includes church leaders who violate orders to hold in-person services, state officials who allow nonsensical exemptions for religious services, and a president who wants to end stay-at-home orders prematurely so that Christians can celebrate Easter.
Maybe some of those who believe in an afterlife aren’t too concerned about themselves and their fellow believers becoming infected, even if they die from the illness. This thought gives me no comfort.
Without a god to pray to, and physically separated from our fellow humans, where can atheists find comfort in these trying times?
Speaking for myself, I find comfort in the knowledge that life will go on without us. Putting most humans under quarantine for a time might be just what the Earth needs right now; a breath, a chance for the countless other species who share this planet to live and thrive without our interference.
I find comfort in the Sun. The star at the center of our solar system is our universal constant and source of life. It was formed before the Earth, and will continue to exist long after all life on Earth is extinguished.
I find comfort in the hope that humans will evolve, and potentially overcome our aggressive tendencies. I could not go on living in such a violent country without that hope.
Though we will always remain ignorant of the full workings on the universe, humility in the face of that ignorance is our strength. We do not need to fashion gods out of our own voices. We can look to our fellow animals, the trees, and the stars. We have much to learn from them.