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Column 26
Destroying illusions, celebrating life

Why preach atheism?

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 799 words
Publication date: July 31, 2005

Why, a friend asked me the other day, do you want to destroy people’s illusions? Even if there is no God, belief in an afterlife or a benevolent deity may be the only thing that provides comfort in some people's lives. Isn’t it cruel to deprive them of that?

It’s a good question and not the only one that could be asked about this column. Since I object to the attempts of Christians and others to convert me to their faith, why do I try to persuade them of the error of their ways? Isn’t it hypocritical to preach atheism?

My initial response to both questions is that most of the time I don’t. I’m actually not very interested in religion or atheism. I only think about the issues once or twice a week when writing this column or wondering what topic to cover next.

Most of my time is taken up by other work, friends, books, films and the pleasures that come from being middle-aged, healthy and solvent. I mention the column when people ask what I do, but I only talk about atheism with family, friends or strangers, when specifically asked.

There are several reasons why. One is that I find the idea of God so ridiculous – or the natural state of the universe so obvious – that to discuss it seems as pointless as to question the notion that one plus one equals two.

Secondly, I don’t like starting conversations that I cannot finish. Faith is usually based on emotion and rationale. Untangling the emotion, pointing out the underlying discrepancies in people’s thinking and asking them to question their basic assumptions, in a respectful rather than confrontational manner, can take a long time. Either that, or believers cut the discussion short, afraid of what might happen if they lose their faith.

Which brings me to my third reason. I have no need to deprive people of their emotional security blanket, at least not before they are willing to release it. For many people who are unhappy or lonely or recently bereaved, God and the afterlife may appear the only comfort they have.

On the other hand, let’s be realistic. I write this weekly column with the express intention of pointing out the absurdity and dangers of religious belief. I see an atheist world as a considerable improvement on the one we currently live in. There would still be poverty, disease, overpopulation, environmental degradation or the threat of war, but a primary underlying factor –  religious myths competing for primacy – would no longer exist.

That means I want to dismantle, rather than destroy, the illusion of comfort that some people get from religion, because I am convinced that illusions which masquerade as reality are at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.

As we see all too often, taken to extreme, the idea of God leads some men and women to kill others and themselves. Yet even believers who see God as no more a benevolent father and Heaven as a welcoming home do themselves no favors.

Life is short and full of wonders; the more we turn our minds away from reality towards a fictional deity, the more we lose opportunities to involve ourselves in that reality. We should  focus on and celebrate the here and now, not the maybe later. The only exception I would make would be for those whose lives will never be free of mental or physical pain; in such circumstances I sympathize with anyone who takes refuge in whatever fiction consoles them.

Faith itself is second-best. It is not God that the lonely need, but friends and family. The bereaved do not want the vague promise of an afterlife tomorrow; they want the lost one returned to life today. The sick do not want God’s love. They want to get out of their beds. Placing faith in God is tantamount to delaying the healing process and prevents us from getting on with our lives.

I am not arguing that atheism is an alternative to religion because to do so would give religion more importance than it deserves. Atheism is lack of God. That is equivalent to lack of the Tooth Fairy, lack of Santa Claus and lack of Wookies. Religion is escape from reality. Atheism is acceptance of reality.

So what is the purpose of these columns? Beneath the occasional hyperbole I am only trying to do one thing. Get people to think. To look at the world clearly. To assume nothing. Question everything. Enjoy the life we have, not the afterlife that will never come. It can be a wonderful, exhilarating experience – and above all, it is real.

Whenever possible Martin Foreman responds to intelligent questions on aspects of atheism. Send an e-mail.

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

wear the Scarlet letter

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