I Don't Believe in God Anymore
December 15, 2010 10:58 PM   Subscribe

I have just recently realized I don't believe in god. It's difficult because my father was a Presbyterian minister.

I was required to sing in the choir, teach sunday school, teach bible school, show up to church every time the doors opened. It was required. I was never asked if this what I wanted to do. I'm resentful because really, it was his job, not mine. But I did what he asked. I loved him, but I think he was misguided in using his children this way. He has since died. Now, I find myself not believing in god. I can't believe in a god that just picks and chooses what prayers to answer. Among other things. So how can I be a good atheist? Where do I start?
posted by wv kay in ga to Religion & Philosophy (52 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Um, just do whatever it is you're doing now? Don't kill people? I don't know. Atheists are just people dude, probably have more in common with religious people than not, I'd suggest.
posted by smoke at 11:05 PM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

The only thing you do to be a good atheist is continue being a good person.
posted by sarastro at 11:07 PM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

Hmm... do you have to be a "good atheist"?

There's certainly an atheist community. But it sounds like for you, part of not believing is turning away from your church and your tradition. Are you looking for another community to join?

If not, you might start by just thinking over your past experiences and beliefs and figuring out why you've changed. What do you believe now?

You might like Julia Sweeney's "This American Life" segment called "Letting Go of God," an excerpt from her longer stage show. Like you, she grew up religious and came to realize that she no longer believed. One of the most interesting things for me about this segment is that she talks about how her worldview completely shifted, and she felt like the ground had fallen out underneath her -- if there was no God, then what did she believe, and how could she deal with life? She also talks a little about how her parents reacted.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:10 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I think I overthought this plate of beans.
posted by wv kay in ga at 11:10 PM on December 15, 2010 [10 favorites]

I think it has more to do with your Dad than God, it's not overthought.
posted by lee at 11:12 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Letting go of god is a big decision and one you shouldent take lightly. Lots of atheists (myself included) simpy never had a belief to begin with. We've got it relatively easy.

If you've held beliefs for a long time, they can be really hard to let go of. You can start wondering if all of your upbringing was pointless, or be angry at people who raised you that way, as you seem to be at your father.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say in a roundabout sort of way is if you are truly prepared to take belief in god out of your life, you should do it dispassionately and without intense emotion. Don't get angry at your past but be excited about the prospect of a more personally free future.

Anywho, best of luck to you. And as I said being a "good atheist" is nothing different from being a good person.
posted by sarastro at 11:17 PM on December 15, 2010

So how can I be a good atheist?

"Good" is a loaded term. "Good" in the sense of a good person? "Good" in the sense of being good at not believing in god?
posted by rodgerd at 11:18 PM on December 15, 2010

Learn to be present and attentive while washing the dishes.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:21 PM on December 15, 2010 [15 favorites]

Welcome to a large and growing fold!

How to be a "good atheist": be an ambassador. Don't be the kind of convert who simply has to trumpet his new faith loudly at every damned opportunity, and who has to point out the babbling nonsense in everyone else's respective faiths. You will not be able to argue people into sharing your perspective, and you certainly won't be able to deride them into it. Instead, be pleasant and unassuming about the whole thing; discuss your beliefs only insofar as all interlocutors seem interested in discussing them.

Also: recognize always that although some people unquestionably are religious for no better reason than that they lack the curiosity ever to question what they have been told -- other people are religious alongside powerful intellects. Although you have now reached an important and correct conclusion about the nature of the world around you, this does not mean you are suddenly brighter than everyone who has not reached that conclusion.
posted by foursentences at 11:21 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seems to me you have issues with Your Father and not Our Father. You start being a good good person. The 10 commandments are pretty easy to follow, maybe especially for an atheist. Don't murder, don't sleep with your neighbor's wife, don't steal. They're pretty good rules for Christians, Jews, Aztecs, Space Aliens, and even Atheists.

All those ones about not worshiping idols or other gods? Well, you're an atheist, you're not going to do that. You get off on a technicality.

It seems to me that you might feel that you had an image of god and a method of worship forced on you by your father. You couldn't decide what you believed in because you had to be a good example to his parishioners.

Want to be a good atheist? Just be good. It's that simple.
posted by aristan at 11:29 PM on December 15, 2010

Being all alone in a cold, empty, unfeeling universe is all the more reason to love one another and create the virtues that would not exist without us. I'd start with not being resentful of your dad.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:58 PM on December 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

The 10 commandments are not brilliant for atheists to follow. Particularly the first few about honouring god (who, for atheists, doesn't exist), having only one god, and not blaspheming.

On the other hand, should you feel in need of a rule, there are many versions of the Golden Rule which you could choose to follow. I personallly like the Wiccan rede although it doesn't have the longest pedigree. Admittedly the Golden Rule isn't a great manual of instructions. But that's good because you're the best person to decide how you should live your life.

I don't think it's overthinking to want a coherent ideal/philosophy to adhere to. Many atheists would also describe themselves as humanist, perhaps that's a place to start?

I'll give a shout-out to both the UUs and the Quakers in case you want organised religion that doesn't require belief in God. Similarly, there's also Ethical Culture and American Atheists if you want an organisation that's avowedly atheist.

But, I think most atheists don't join an organisation about their non-beliefs and just live ordinary, varied lives. Without believing in God(s). It's as simple or complex as you want it to be - and it's as easy or difficult to be good as it is for anyone else.
posted by plonkee at 12:00 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Join the Brights. Memail me if you want a link. And don't bother trying not to swear (if you do) by Jesus Christ. I still do as an atheist of 20 years. I knew a bloke once who was raised as a Presbyterian who converted to Islam as an adult. He told me that after many years in Islam he still swore like a Scottish (which he was) Presbyterian.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:06 AM on December 16, 2010

That's a little like asking how to be a good black person.

You don't have to do anything special, but it would be decent of you to calmly, reasonably, and amicably stand up for atheists when someone implies that all atheists are X (morally rudderless, angry, depressed, satanist, secretly Christian but in denial, unfit to marry my child, unfit to run the country, etc.), because now they mean you and you know for a fact that not all atheists are X.
posted by pracowity at 12:06 AM on December 16, 2010

You already are a good atheist. You've only now just realized it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:13 AM on December 16, 2010 [13 favorites]

I'm not religious, but I like to celebrate the Christmas season doing short-term volunteer projects over my holidays - I've planted native trees in a national park (not fun in Sydney in December!), helped out with admin work for a cancer charity and wrapped gifts in a shopping mall to raise funds for sick children. If this is your first Christmas-without-Christ and you're missing the part-of-a-community-doing-good-works aspect of the church (which I always found attractive, despite being a non-believer), this might help fill that gap for you. Plus you'll earn a whole pile of good-person points!
posted by jaynewould at 12:47 AM on December 16, 2010

Is your question about being an ethical atheist or a happy one?

I grew up in a very conservative Presbyterian church and finally admitted to myself that I wasn't sold on it any more about five years ago. It was really hard at first because I kept remembering all those things they taught us in Sunday school - atheists are cruel, you can't be a good person without god, how can atheists live happily thinking this life is all that they've got.....

I'm happy to report that in my experience, these definitely aren't true. In fact, I think I'm a much better person without the particular brand of religion I was raised with. For example, I can be absolutely thrilled for a friend when she and her girlfriend are soooo cute together. I don't have to feel like I'm endangering her immortal soul by not telling her that she is violating god's plans for sex. Similarly, I can donate to charities that help the needy, without feeling like I need to give only to a Christian charity that would make people pray before they were given food. Without 'god', I feel like I can focus on how to best help people, not necessarily to further a cause.

My new goal for life is to do as much good and as little harm as I can while enjoying, exploring, experiencing whatever time I am lucky enough to have.

As for being at peace with a lack of faith.... I haven't completely mastered that, but then again, I think I was much more miserable as a Christian. It is hard to think of just having one life and then death...but then again, Christianity didn't really offer anything different, did it? The most biblical version of heaven is one where all we would be doing is praising god....forever...like some sort CD on repeat. I think I'd prefer a really happy, if short, life on earth instead.

I read a bit about Buddhism and found it to be comforting - perhaps that would be useful to you, too? I used to do something special and 'spiritual' on Sundays. I occassionally do a psuedo-pagan mini celebration to assuage any need I feel for the church experience. I also wrote out a few lists of things that I hated about the Bible and hated about being a Christian, which was very therapeutic.

And speaking of therapy, it was really useful for me to see a therapist for a few sessions to talk through both my anger at my parents and my issues with guilt. I learned how to talk to myself in a much more positive way and it's been hugely helpful.

Disclaimer: I know there are different versions of Christianity and religion that work well for many people, make them happy, and truly help them to be better people. I wish MeFites with those beliefs all the best.
posted by brambory at 1:02 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Read philosophy. Particularly Proust.
posted by idiomatika at 1:26 AM on December 16, 2010

Come to the realization that you really are a good person due to, if nothing else, your intent to be. Seriously, that's not some workshop pep talk. After I too decided to name what I was as atheist, it took a little work to accept myself for who I was, rather than cringing now and then at being "sinful".
posted by DisreputableDog at 2:01 AM on December 16, 2010

Another book if you haven't picked up already is Godless by Dan Barker.

He was a hardcore Christian missionary/pastor/evangelist who started questioning his preaching, began feeling doubt and kept it secret for several years (while still preaching) before he publicly turned atheist and started advocating rationalism. The autobiography is his path to atheism and it echos what most of the commenters say above. He doesn't regret his religious upbringing and unlike his former collegues he never looks down upon them, which is something I appreciate.

i don't think it's the only book he's written about the subject but i think it is the latest one.
posted by sammich at 2:10 AM on December 16, 2010

and when I say appreciate, i kind of mean that as opposed to people like bill maher, who is a total snobby jerk to christians (can i say holier-than-thou?).
watch his anti-religion documentary if you want to feel worse about it.

posted by sammich at 2:18 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some of the things that you may suddenly lose on becoming an atheist:

- Tools for thinking through how you live your life and deciding what is good and right.
- Planned time for reflection
- Community
- Opportunities to give back to the less fortunate
- Celebrations, festivals, traditions

For me, being a "good atheist" is about making sure I have all of these things. I don't pray, but that doesn't mean I can't set time aside to think. I don't look to religion for moral guidance but I still have strong opinions about what is moral for me, and I try to be open about the possibility of changing my mind based on new evidence. I don't recapitulate all the Christian traditions at Christmas but I do have my own secular Christmas traditions that are meaningful to me.

For you, I guess you may have a journey ahead in finding a new community where you feel more at home. As well, you may need to think through which of the traditions that have been part of your old life still make sense in your new life, and which don't. You might find that some of the trappings of religion still fit you, or you really may need to throw them all off, at least for a while.

It would be a fitting marker of this tremendous change - which is almost a death and a rebirth, I suppose - to take some time to start building some new traditions which are not founded on religion but on things which you personally find meaningful.
posted by emilyw at 2:28 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

"There's certainly an atheist community."

I'm an atheist and back when I was single I went to an atheist meetup once, hoping to meet a nice atheist man. I heard more talk about God and the Bible in those three hours than I had in the previous three decades of my life!

So, OP, I don't recommend the "atheist community" unless your idea of a good time is listening to people preach to the choir (heh) about all the various reasons to not believe in something that everyone present had already agreed that they didn't believe in. In your case, especially, I think it would just make you feel more resentful because then you would spend a lot of time focusing on it, as well as surrounding yourself with bitter, angry people.

If you need a new community, I recommend finding one that's focused on being FOR something positive, instead of just against something.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:56 AM on December 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think I overthought this plate of beans.

No. Thinking is all you have now. You must think about it - all of it, all of the time. "Just be good, it's just that simple" is awful advice. What does it mean to be good? If it was easy, we'd probably all do it, and we'd all be happy, but it's not, and we're not. You're now living in a world where 'good' isn't a ten dot point Powerpoint presentation, where good (and evil / suffering, for that matter) isn't the arbitrary will - the 'picking and choosing' - of a supernatural being.

You should read lots and lots about moral philosophy. You should read lots and lots about thinking. You should read lots and lots about science. If I had to pick three books to start with:

Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness - an approachable translation of one of Stoicism's greatest works

The Consolations of Philosophy - an introduction to dealing with life's ups and downs using your mind and relationships with people, rather than, say, prayer

A Short History of Nearly Everything - because science is infinitely more awesome than Genesis

Bonus book - The Philosophy Gym - because you might need to think about issues like abortion, euthanasia and even consciousness a little differently.

Welcome to a world that's brighter and darker, more hopeful and more terrible. Do't be down that it's just us. Be happy, inspired and driven to action because it's just us!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:47 AM on December 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

This question is asked, and answered, quite a lot here. Go read some threads there...
posted by DreamerFi at 3:59 AM on December 16, 2010

Or, if you're not excited about a long reading list on moral philosophy, you could instead just watch lots of Star Trek: The Next Generation and then whenever presented with a moral dilemma ask yourself, "What would Captain Picard do?"

That's been working pretty well for this atheist for most of her life. :D
posted by Jacqueline at 4:00 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I remember when I was first doubting God, and I told my mother I was an atheist. She responded, can't you at least be an agnostic.

She was right. Spend a little time as an agnostic. Agnosticism is the belief that existence of God can not be proved or disproved. Fence sit for a while. Spend a few years in the state of theistic doubt.

Why rush into a new philosophic position?
posted by Flood at 4:02 AM on December 16, 2010

So how can I be a good atheist? Where do I start?
Keep calm, and carry on.
posted by dougrayrankin at 4:31 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Now that you have realized that there is no heaven after you are dead, time to start creating a paradise here on earth. I believe ethical atheism demands action to rectify inequality and decrease suffering in the world, because this world is all there is. You can no longer argue that those poor, oppressed, long-suffering people will get their reward in the afterlife.
posted by hworth at 4:43 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

wv kay, I am sorry about your father's death, and also about the way in which you were compelled to live out his profession and beliefs. At least in my book, that's a quiet kind of violence done to an independent being, and I hope that you will talk with somebody about how you're dealing with it.

As others have said, there seems to be an overlap between feeling betrayed by your father, and your choice to give up on God. The mechanics of not believing must seem difficult in the wake of losing structure, answers, ritual and community--and I'm not sure there's a prescribed path to "be good" in the absence of these things.

I don't have God, so I have a bunch of small, self-imposed rules-of-thumb that are working so far. Comfort a crying child, and help a lost child find his or her mother. Let cars into traffic flow when practical to do so. Be genuine in passing interactions with people. Support the public library, which helps so many that need it. Encourage empathy in my own children. Support the local Humane Society. Eat/shop more consciously, not ignoring the wider impact of each bite and purchase. And so on.

Being good without God (also the title of a book out of the Harvard chaplaincy; link) is a process for me, and I fail at it sometimes. But I find that I'm not happy without some sort of ethical structure, as makeshift and contradictory as it is. KokoRyu has it right: Present and attentive. Be mindful of how the small things connect to larger issues, and act as though your tiny contributions might make a difference.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:14 AM on December 16, 2010

I grew up in a similar (but not as intense) family situation. We would go to church even when the radio said "stay home", even when the roads were packed, even when other important things needed doing. Even when the priest turned out to be a child molester (see the ND section). My grandfather was like your dad, so "religious" that he disowned our family for not going to Catholic school, forever separating my mom from her mom. I'm telling you this only to let you know that I know how awful it can be and don't take your question lightly.

There have been some flippant answers in this thread. They only sound flippant because being an atheist doesn't have any real rules or structure. You don't have to be upset with religious people or religion to be one. You live your life much the same as before, but with a layer of bullshit and guilt peeled off the top. You are closer to existence now because you are able to see that the way you frame your life, in the absence of religious structure, is yours to choose. Having read your post, I can sense that you are already a good person who has been through a lot of pain, and a good person who doesn't have religious beliefs is by definition a good atheist. You have a lot of work ahead of you, figuring out all the new ways you fit into the world (many of which will be the same as before) and what doing good for others means without god (I find that doing good in the world is vastly more satisfying now, FYI). Most of these questions will come up organically; you don't need to go reframing everything all at once and there are few right answers.

That whole mess is just to say that you have three tasks:

1. You need to reframe the parts of your life that were previously framed by religion. Don't be afraid to love everyone and anything without God. Banish guilt at every opportunity. Ignore and defuse nagging fears about Hell. Do all this at your leisure -- there is no pressure and no time limit.

2. You need to keep your atheism from widening the cracks in your family that religion created. Love your siblings to the best of your ability. Keep in touch with them. Pick and choose friends wisely. Don't be afraid to DTMFA when they hit you with a guilt-bludgeon, or reject you on the basis of religion.

3. Invest in yourself, because being a good atheist is simply being a good person. You are already a good person and a good atheist. Invest in the person part and the atheist part can only get better. You don't need religion to be good to other people, to have a good life, and to make change in the world.

If you want to talk, memail me.
posted by fake at 5:23 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was raised Catholic, left the church by the time I was 14, but I kept what I felt were the good parts of it -- the golden rule, charity, and so on. Just because the church is full of hypocrites, that doesn't mean you have to be. If you think the gospel is full of good morality and life lessons, then keep following it. Every decent religion or philosophy teaches basically the same things, anyway.

I think my first suggestion is to start reading non-christian philosophy and reading about other religions. As a start, I'd suggest Karen Armstrong's A History of God. Another suggestion is watching the Joseph Campbell PBS special - The Power of Myth. The best part of being an atheist is that you now have the freedom to pick and choose the best parts of every philosophy and religion that anyone has ever followed.

You might also want to read some Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris, but they're fairly anti-christian and might be off putting. They don't speak for every atheist, either.
posted by empath at 5:45 AM on December 16, 2010

Plonkee: The 10 commandments are not brilliant for atheists to follow. Particularly the first few about honouring god (who, for atheists, doesn't exist), having only one god, and not blaspheming.

As I said, you get off on technicalities. You won't have other gods before God or keep graven images. The only ones you might have trouble with are blasphemy and keeping the Sabbath holy. Would you prefer I had said that 7 out of 10 commandments ain't bad?
posted by aristan at 5:57 AM on December 16, 2010

Take a break. Take a breather. Let the resentment fade somewhat. It's easy to bounce from one orthodoxy to another when you're emotionally invested; live with yourself for a while, without any pressure to believe or disbelieve any particular thing. If you can let your faith or lack thereof grow organically into whatever it's trying to become, rather than racing into the next thing and trying to force it, it'll go easier. You'll wake up one morning and go, "Oh. I AM a good atheist. I loved my father, I respected his faith, but this is the right thing for me. Now where'd I leave my glasses?" Or you'll wake up and think something else. Any of those things is okay.

Not that this is easy advice to follow. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:22 AM on December 16, 2010

Something to remember is that absolutely nothing has changed about the world, but your own perception of it. Everything good is still good, everything bad is still bad. You didn't kill god or anything, he was never there.

One prayer that I've held onto, despite being atheist, is the Desiderata, particularly this part:
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
(emphasis added)
posted by empath at 7:24 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

My father was a Presbyterian minister, and I came out to him as an atheist at about age 11. I was lucky, and I guess I had a much easier situation than you.

My father's faith, he told me once, was more in people, in community, than in a specific conception of god. He was not just liberal politically and theologically, he was also committed to christianity as a kind of intellectual (as well as spiritual) endeavor. His sermons were my first lessons in scholarship, in rhetoric, and in pedagogy.

I had just come to understand the basics of evolutionary theory, and I asked him how he reconciled science with the creation story in Genesis. He gave me a beautiful speech about metaphor, and how holding Genesis and Darwin in mind at the same time was a challenge but also really beautiful. I said "great speech, Dad," and then told him I still didn't believe in god. He said "OK." I still had to go to church and to Sunday school (where I got in arguments with my teachers over interpretations of texts I didn't believe in), but my father had either accepted my non-belief or was simply waiting me out.

(He did later in life have a less tolerant patch over one particular issue, but by the time he died I think he'd achieved a very thorough reconciliation to the world as he saw it and the cosmos as he wanted it to be.)

Again, maybe I was lucky, but I had no problems getting by as a covert atheist, and once I got out of my home town and to a tolerant university atmosphere I even took a class on the book of Genesis out of a nostalgia for biblical exegesis! I've never felt I needed to "replace" god or faith with anything else. I think part of that is actually that my father, in modeling how to be a "good christian," mostly modeled how to be good.
posted by Mngo at 7:25 AM on December 16, 2010

I realized that I didn't believe in God after looking up the word "atheist" in a book when I was in 5th grade. I immediately felt that I was going to hell. Those old religious rules about being "good" to get yourself to heaven aren't going to go away all at once, and I think that's ok. Religion exists in this word for a lot of reasons, but one is to give people a framework and meaning to their lives. Its hard to just dump all that and be a perfect atheist without practice and part of that is finding new meaning based on your new beliefs. I still have instances of magical thinking, and I either examine those instances, or acknowledge and move on.

And I want to add to the comments here saying that you're not over-thinking, at all. Think more! The Portable Atheist is a good read.
posted by santaslittlehelper at 7:54 AM on December 16, 2010

Hm, I wish I could edit that comment. I meant that I think your focus on being "good" is a religious construct, and that you'll let that go in time, or the meaning of that word will alter.
posted by santaslittlehelper at 7:58 AM on December 16, 2010

I'm an agnostic with theistic leanings, but I know a lot of good atheists. They're very ethical people and I respect them tremendously. They do have a tendency to preach and look down on people who aren't atheists, though, and that's the one thing I find problematic about them. I suggest you don't do that.

I haven't read it, but there's a book called How to Be a Good Atheist. You might want to check it out.
posted by xenophile at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2010

Religious people do not get their sense of right and wrong purely from religious teaching. Religious people pick and choose the tenets of their faith based on their personal sense of right and wrong, based on their instinct and their upbringing. You still have that personal sense of right and wrong, and you will continue to use it just fine.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

In my opinion the most important part of not believing in a god is the art of remaining respectful to those that do. Building on that, a lot more people in this world do believe in a god than don't, so another aspect is to remember that there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with them.

Other than that just remember that you don't need a thousand years of dogma to be a good person. Your post paints you as a nice, forgiving, and caring person. So many people think these traits are dictated from on high or subservience therein, but in reality the only entity responsible for you and your actions is you.
posted by Gainesvillain at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think part of being a good atheist is accepting that your life has value, because the concept of "value" originates in the human mind. By definition, your life is the only thing you will experience, you only get one try, and the things that you consider "valuable" and "conducive to your wellbeing" are the most important things in the world. That sense of wellbeing will increase by doing good deeds and sharing in our common humanity.

You have not lost anything by rejecting superstition. You have gained the truth. The question "Why does God exist" is not easier than the question "Why do we exist". God is a way of postponing questions about our existence, not of answering them.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:24 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am also going to recommend Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God". I have it as an audio book and it is very entertaining. I have listened to it on long car trips more than I care to admit. I was raised by very devout Catholics, liberal open minded people, but firmly entrenched in the ritual that being a devout believer requires. As such I started off my days with early morning mass before school and said a rosary every late afternoon. I still find myself making a sign of the cross when an ambulance goes by to offer a prayer for those in need. I have not believed in god in a very long time but my early life has equated prayer with some kind of good vibes thing and it is hard to know what to do when you don't have access to MAGIC.

It is a tricky and I almost sad to have left that behind. I guess it is a kind of grieving. Julia Sweeney adds a comic touch to this conundrum that I appreciate.
posted by readery at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another part of being a good atheist is reading His Dark Materials. :D
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:47 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

You might find it helpful to explore where on the spectrum of atheism you fall. Do you just want to be left alone about religion? Or do you find yourself agreeing with Hitchins/Dawkins when they assert that religion is fundamentally dangerous? (You could explore whether you agree that idea by watching Bill Maher's Religulous - here's a trailer.)

Do you have family who expect you to show up at church still? The UU church may be a decent compromise - I'm an atheist who sometimes attends and occasionally speaks at our local UU church, though I'd still describe my relationship with even that most atheist-friendly of churches as less than satisfying.

Do you have kids? Dale McGowan writes books on non-religious parenting.

Could you use a good laugh? You might enjoy the serio-comic antics of Tim Minchin. I already mentioned Bill Maher's movie, but he had a bunch of relevant bits in his standup and TV work.... George Carlin occasionally spoke on the subject.

Do you want to ensure that your charitable contributions go to organizations whose work you agree with? Of the well-known charities, some have religious missions (e.g. Salvation Army); some are founded on religious principles but do primarily non-religious work (e.g. Habitat for Humanity); some are a-religious (most environmental charities); some are specifically atheist (the relatively new Foundation Beyond Belief is one that comes to mind, more here).

Personally, I find that I'm at my happiest when the practical implications of "atheist" boil down to "I really don't think about religion much at all." The more militant stuff is one side of an, ahem, holy war that I really don't want to spend my life fighting. But one occasionally gets dragged into it, and it's nice to have a few places to turn for relief on those occasions. Hopefully, some of what I've listed above will help. Good luck, and welcome!
posted by richyoung at 8:51 AM on December 16, 2010

the most important part of not believing in a god is the art of remaining respectful to those that do.

This is excellent advice.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:56 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like your issue is with your dad, not with god.

I think that, to an extent, all parents push their kids to do things that interest the parents, or that fulfill the parent's requirement of what it means to be a good person. The fact that in your case it was all wrapped up in religion makes this harder to wrap your brain around. But it's really no different than the friend of mine whose parents informed her that she would be majoring in a STEM field in college, or the way that my mom told me I had the "choice" to take one after-school activity and then informed me that my "choice" was piano lessons (I hated piano lessons and never wanted to do it at all).

It's also not terribly far off from the way that I was pushed into childcare for my younger siblings (I'm the oldest in a huge family). I like kids OK enough, I guess, but now the whole thing seems like a colossal waste of my time. When I was babysitting I could have been doing so many other things which would have interested me more and provided skills for later in life. Now it looks like there's a good chance I'll never have children of my own, so, yay, massive waste of time learning to change diapers and defuse temper tantrums.

But, sure, if you don't believe in god, stick with that. I just wouldn't torture yourself over your childhood and the way your parents raised you.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2010

Atheism is not a belief system. It isn't any kind of system. It's simply the absence of a particular sort of belief system. Deciding to stop believing in god has nothing to do with whether you're "good" or "bad".

The fact that you even ask the question makes me suspect you may have been swayed by a certain sort of anti-atheist propaganda to the effect that atheism is a belief system. You will see statements such as "It takes a lot of faith to be an atheist". This desperate nonsense comes primarily (but sadly, not exclusively) from the religious, and it's actually pretty funny because it means they want to criticise atheism on the basis that, err, it has the same intrinsic weakness as religious belief. It's as if they're saying "Yeah, we know we're full of it but...so are you! And in the same way!". It's basically the rubber/glue game. However, the claim doesn't stand up to a moment's serious analysis so don't be taken in by that noise.

This is a preamble to saying what others have said: you be a good atheist by being good in the same way you would if you weren't an atheist. You figure out your morality by using your brain. If you're a reasonably normal, thoughtful human specimen with something close to the usual allocation of human qualities such as empathy, compassion, consideration, honesty, love and so on, you'll probably reach more-or-less the same conclusions about what's "good" as most of us do.
posted by Decani at 11:38 AM on December 16, 2010

More-or-less lifelong agnostic here, and I want to help you address the following part of your question:

I was required to sing in the choir, teach sunday school, teach bible school, show up to church every time the doors opened. It was required. I was never asked if this what I wanted to do. I'm resentful because really, it was his job, not mine. But I did what he asked. I loved him, but I think he was misguided in using his children this way.

You might not be to this point in your journey yet, but for me, thinking about my own religiosity has included acknowledging the good that religious institutions can do in some peoples' lives. Now, that's not to say that these things overwhelm the bad--the history of violence and oppression. But there are reasons religion exists, and not all of them have something to do with power.

For example, many religions teach lessons about community and charity, obligation to one's fellow man. They are a source of beauty (see: choir music, centuries of religious art) and respite for community members, places of quiet contemplation and, for many, acceptance. Is this resoundingly true? No, of course not--we can look at the "love the sinner, hate the sin" to see how illusory some of this is. But still, most churches have, at times, comforted someone, often at very difficult times in their lives.

So I'd think about what values your dad was trying to instill in you when he made you do these things. Was he trying to help you feel more connected to his community, and his higher power? Was he trying to teach you responsibility, or to see the beauty of his church's ceremonies? Are these values that are really so bad, in and of themselves? Can you see that your father probably didn't realize what he was denying you when he did those things, that he was likely acting out of a sense of love and what-he-thought-was-right?

Know that it is incredibly difficult for even some atheist parents to know how to raise children who are inclined to believe in religions not their own. When one has chosen to believe a certain conception of the world is correct--be it secular humanism or Presbyterianism--it can be difficult to open a dialog with one's children that offers the possibility of different world views. There's some sadness inherent in this (I'll never have an open conversation with my Jewish mother about my thoughts on the likely lack of an afterlife), but it's also the natural progression of things when a child chooses a different religion from their parents. You and your dad loved each other. That's what matters. He was trying to do his best for you in his own way; now you have to figure out what you value and learn to do the best for yourself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:21 PM on December 16, 2010

I'm not a believer, but I don't strain at details. Handling money with In God We Trust doesn't actually bother me, and I love Christmas. The secret to successful atheism is to not take all the religiosity personally. I sneeze and some says "Bless you", I don't get into a snit, but thank them. It's not a competition--if you don't believe, you don't believe. There's no equivalent to holier than thou.

If you're pissed off by Presbyterians, try something a little less harsh--maybe a deity that answers all sincere prayers. Or make up one yourself. And most kids have chores--yours were just the religious kind. Beats feeding livestock at 5 am.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:43 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful and helpful responses. It's a struggle, but good to know I'm not alone.
posted by wv kay in ga at 8:56 PM on December 16, 2010

In the last 20 years I have gone from pursuing Christian ministry, to atheism, to agnosticism, back to belief. When I share my beliefs, generally I get a universal response from non-believers and believers alike. "You can't do that, picking and choosing like that!"

Here is the conclusion I have come to - It's all made up. No one has a lock on the truth. Thousands of years of religious and philosophical thought and it all boils down to some one having and experience and coming up with an interpretation of it and at some point it gets written down. Some are more interesting or comforting than others. Atheism prides it's self on it's rationality, which may be well founded, unless it turns out there actually is a God. There is no real way to know, just a ton of ideas.

Where this leaves me is that instead of dismissing it all, I have gotten really interested in all of it. I sift through it and look for the gold in it. There are things that are empowering, inspiring and beautiful in all of the world views out there. Start on your own journey, find what inspires and moves you now. Don't live your life based on anyone else's beliefs but your own, more over don't adopt beliefs that are simply and antithesis of them either.

"Statements will lead you to another state, questions will lead you on a quest."
- Brian McLaren
posted by empty vessel at 10:31 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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