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The Considerate Atheist
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Life after death

When I was sixteen years old my mother let me go to Bend with Kari, David, and Stephanie (pseudonyms). Bend, OR (boasting 35,000 residents in 1997) was a thriving metropolis compared to our zero-stoplight town of La Pine and worth every minute of the 30-mile drive to get there. There wasn’t a lot to do in Bend, but La Pine High School students enjoyed going there just so they weren’t in La Pine anymore. We made plans to see a movie and grab a bite to eat afterward.

It was a bit out of the ordinary that I ended up with them that day in the first place. You see, these high-school students weren’t the kind of kids I usually hung out with. Or maybe I should say that I wasn’t the kind of kid they usually hung out with. I was used to hanging out with other Seventh-Day Adventists or other Home Schoolers or the combination of the two, which is what I was. They were…well… It’s not like anything was wrong with them, they were just…worldly I guess. Sinners maybe? I had heard a rumor that Kari wasn’t a virgin. And Stephanie wore lots of makeup and earrings. Still, they always seemed to be having a lot of fun. And after my initial nervousness I actually found them extremely easy to hang out with. Perhaps it was because I didn’t feel any pressure to be Godly. It just seemed a little easier to be myself.

After the movie the girls sat in front and I rode in the back seat with David. David was a senior. He was soft-spoken, earnest, and always landed a role in the dramas and musicals. His quiet unassuming demeanor made him well liked by just about everybody. We chit chatted about various things until the topic of my religion came up, as it often did in my conversations. After telling him a bit about my beliefs I asked him if he believed in God. “No,” he said. I almost chocked on my bean burrito. “You don’t?!” I asked. He shrugged and repeated that he didn’t really believe that there was a God. He had the conviction (or lack) of someone who didn’t think it would rain tomorrow. Not exactly passionate, just didn’t really think so.

I chewed on this new information as I chewed on my burrito. Was this the first live atheist I had ever met? Should I try to save him? Should I just witness to him and show him Christian Love? I felt crippled in my ability to witness to him because, quite honestly, he seemed to be more at peace in his life than I was. My Christian life tormented me on a daily basis, and he seemed so relaxed with the world. Did I really want to bring the burden of Christ’s cross upon him? If I cared anything about his eternal soul, then of course I would need to tell him. But it still didn’t make any sense. David was one of the nicest kids I knew in the whole school, and he had been very nice to me that day. Slightly troubled, I let go the notion of saving him. For now.

Two weeks later David was killed in a car accident after his car hit some ice on highway 97. The treacherous roads in Central Oregon seemed to take one high school student every winter, and it would always hit the small community really hard. The next day I was finishing my shift at Subway when my co-worker Amanda (also a senior) commented on how she was still in shock. She knew David well. “At least I will get to see him again someday in heaven,” she said. My mind raced. I thought about how I had missed my opportunity to save him. I thought about how he wasn’t going to be in heaven. I thought about how much I had regretted not saying anything to him in the car, and that I should never be afraid of speaking the truth. Not wanting to miss another opportunity I suddenly blurted out, “You know he’s not going to be there.” Amanda looked at me like I had just slapped her grandmother. “What?” She said. “He’s not going to be in heaven. I talked to him a couple weeks ago, and he said he didn’t believe in God.” I don’t remember how she responded, I just remember going home feeling sick. Sick to my stomach. Is this how it felt to witness? Is this how it felt to spread the truth? I hated myself for being silent, and then I hated myself for speaking up.

I am still embarrassed for talking about David that way the day after he was killed. But the fact is that death can be a very scary thing for true believers. Eternal consequences/rewards are at stake.  I didn’t like the fact that one of the best kids in the school was not going to heaven, but I was told I had to accept it.  And if taking a stand for truth made me look like a jerk, then so be it.  I can’t tell you how liberating it feels to be free of such ideas.  I know now that David does indeed live on.  He lives on in the memory of those who were touched by his goodness and generosity.

Brilliant

I love Matt Dillahunty. What a great call…

Chris Stedman coming to UIUC

Christ Stedman is coming to The University of Illinois. Here’s the details:

7:00 pm February 14th
Illini Union Room 314 A
University of Illinois

I’m going to be there, and here’s a clip about Chris:

Breakthrough

This is a long conversation, but it’s nice to see how mike’s conception of atheists changes throughout the conversation. Tracy and Jen handle his questions beautifully.

We believe in humanity

This is a great speech.  To often we atheists are quick to talk about what we don’t believe in.  Joss explains what we do believe in, namely, education and hope for humanity.

Everything I needed to know about Atheism I learned from Christianity

My road to Atheism was paved by Christians.  And I don’t mean that their dogmatic narrow mindedness drove me away from faith (although that certainly helped), I mean that their values were so attractive, I decided they were worth adopting.  This merits an explanation:

It seems to me that Christianity today does not have a very distinct and consistent set of values.  Christians in different camps and denominations interpret the bible in such random and different ways, each claiming that their version of Christianity is the correct one.  Because of this, one can find almost any value or viewpoint if they just look for it.  For example:

Christians believe that the bible is the inspired word of God (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe that homosexuals are evil people (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe in Heaven and Hell (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe that we should be compassionate to the poor (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe we should be tolerant of other faiths (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe in science and logic (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe in evolution (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe that we should think for ourselves (except for those Christians who don’t)
Christians believe in the separation of church and state (except for those Christians who don’t)

I grew up surrounded by Christians for nearly my entire life.  Some were liberal, some were conservative.  Some exemplified love and grace.  Others were judgmental.  And with each church I visited came a different set of values and beliefs.  Slowly I found myself being changed for the better by the Christians around me.  With each competing set of values that were presented to me, I would simply choose the option that seemed the most attractive.  When Christians told me that homosexuals were not evil, this seemed to be the most attractive proposition.  When Christians told me that there probably was no such thing as hell, this made lots of sense.  In the end, I found myself embodying values that seemed to be uniquely my own.  I had borrowed values from every camp of Christianity that I had visited, and had come to something that was unique.  I believed in science, logic, and reason.  I didn’t believe in the scriptures, hell, or that Jesus was divine.  I also thought that going to church was a little bit silly.  Of course I soon found out that atheism is the closest thing that embodies all these values.  And it was about this time that I changed my title from being a “unique” Christian to being an atheist.

It seems strangely ironic to me that when I adopted the very best traits from all walks of Christianity, I was immediately shunned by all walks of Christianity.  There is nothing like the word “atheist” that strikes fear and prejudice into the heart of a Christian.  And yet I still assert that there is nothing that I believe that cannot be found in Christianity today.  Atheism is the freedom to pick and choose one’s own beliefs, to think for one’s self, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Alas, I am left in a strange place where I am both indebted to and hated by Christians for my beliefs.  All I can say, I suppose, is thank you for the insight, and I’m sorry you don’t like it.

Good News!!

Evangelicalism has gotten a really bad rap lately.  And rightly so.  Nothing says “your ideas are crap” like an evangelical trying to save your soul.   This term evangelize has been used now to describe not only Christians, but atheists as well.  And I will concede, each camp does have their dogmatic wing nuts.

But let’s be considerate of these preachers now, shall we?  Let’s put ourselves in their shoes.  If you believed what they did, wouldn’t you also be out trying to convince people? I think you would.

Let’s look at the evangelical Christian for a second.  As Gina Welch put it so nicely  in her book “In the Land of Believers,” Evangelical Christians sincerely believe that there is a god who is going to burn people unless they are told about Christ.  If you sincerely believed this, then wouldn’t you be out preaching to people too?  You’d be doing them a favor, right?  You’d be saving them from torment.  Let’s say you saw a car headed towards a cliff.  Wouldn’t you be good enough to tell the unsuspecting passengers about the cliff in order to rescue them from certain death?  These are the motivations of a Christian.  Deep down they are just trying to save lives.  This is altruism at its best.  Their hearts, I believe, are in the right place.

Now let’s look at “evangelical” atheism.  Atheists say there’s no such thing as hell.  And yet they are puzzled to see so many people are frightened of it.  They’ve tried to find evidence of this inferno, but alas, they find none.  If you sincerely believed that people were scared of something that wasn’t there, wouldn’t you try to free them of this fear?  Imagine you saw a person scared to drive his car out of the city limits because he was scared an evil man in the clouds was going to shoot them with a laser if he did.  Wouldn’t you be kind enough to tell him there is no man in the clouds?  That he can drive wherever he wants?  These are the motivations of atheists.  Deep down they are just trying to set people free of fear.  This is altruism at its best.  Their hearts, I believe, are in the right place.

I am proposing that the desire to convert is not in itself a bad thing.  Christians and atheists are just trying to rescue people from death and fear, respectively.  The problem is not the desire to convert but the assumptions on which those desires rest.

Christians often label their message as “the gospel,” or “good news.”  They offer the world a savior.  But before they can offer a savior, they first must convince you that you need saving in the first place.  Their entire message of salvation is based on the assumption that you, by default, are lost, and that a scary fiery place is in store for you if you don’t accept their creeds.

Atheists simply say you’re fine to begin with, and nothing bad is going to happen to you.

My question is this:  Who really has the good news?

Coming out of the Closet

It seems as though I’ve been preparing for this moment for most of my life.  A moment where I can accept and be proud of who I am.  A moment where I can be honest with my friends and family.  Most important, though, I want to stand up for what is right.

I know that many of you will be disappointed.  Some of you won’t care.  Still others (who are still in the closet) will wonder what it’s like to be truly “out.”

I’m not talking about orientation, I’m talking about beliefs.  I believe in reason and science.  I believe in thinking for one’s self.  I believe in morality.  I believe that a human’s highest calling is to find a spiritual peace with himself and others.  I believe in generosity.  I believe in the pursuit of happiness.  I believe in compassion.  I cannot claim these beliefs to be uniquely my own, for humanity has been striving for these things ever since the dawn of consciousness.

The stand that I am taking today is not simply that I believe in the afore mentioned values.  The stand I am taking is that I believe in the unique solidarity of these values.  That the study and contemplation of these values can stand alone without being attached to a particular tradition or dogma.  For too long the study of morality has been attached to fairy tales.  For too long compassion has been handicapped by myths.  We cannot afford to let this continue.  If we are going to make any progress at bringing peace, love, and relief to a world that is hurting, we have to be willing to pursue ultimate Goodness and Truth, aside from our tribal traditions and myths.

The problem with traditions and myths is that they cannot be proved.  Neither can they be disproved.  They are simply cerebral ideas and concepts that we hold onto at all cost.  But the cost of such loyalty to these ideas is starting to add up.  Humanity’s desire for peace, justice, and Truth is held back by differences in opinion over things we cannot even see or study.  Our absurd loyalty to constructs of the imagination is turning us against one another.  Judgment is replacing friendship.  Accusations are replacing openness.  Violence replacing civil discourse.

I, for one, am choosing to not form opinions over things that cannot be seen or studied.  I am deciding to pursue Goodness and Truth on their merits alone, detached from any mythical claim that has no basis in reality.  If we as a global community decide to do this, it will set free the study of ethics and morality from the nonsensical dogma that has held them back, allowing them (and us) to flourish.

Many others have taken this stand before me.  I follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, Karl Sagan, Dave Matthews, Robert Schumann, Thomas Edison, Claude Debussy, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Aaron Copland, to name only a few.

I am a person.  I am a human.  I am an atheist.

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