I hope my friends, off- and online, would agree that I’m not generally aggressive in my atheism. By-and-large, I keep my beliefs to myself unless challenged or incensed – and that’s rarely.
Purely objectively, that’s less true of people of faith. There’s an element of evangelism inherent in every major religion because they are all exclusive. Whatever the contemporary rhetoric, every religion condemns those who hold another faith (or no faith) to damnation at best and at worst, violent death.
Being an atheist I don’t believe in damnation or come to that, in eternal partying in a celestial candyshop. The accumulated evidence of my own life and of the lives of thinkers I respect suggests that upon death, consciousness winks out of existence and our bodies mulch down in what seems to me to be a fitting and poetic conclusion to life.
Neither do I have any time for religious dogma. I don’t believe that women are the vessels of sin, or that God expects us to spend a month in every year dehydrated or that we should refuse blood transfusions (this is not to say that I don’t think people should be allowed to follow articles of faith if they choose; just that I find it unhealthy for religious institutions to impose them as the ‘will of God’) . I don’t believe that it is acceptable to sell my second daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7) or that I have a duty to kill everybody who doesn’t comply with my faith (Quran 2:191-193). In fact, I believe that everyone else on the planet has as much right to life and dignity as I do. While the key religious tracts may well hold wisdom, they also contain the redundant dogma of a time long past and have to be read with that historical context in mind. They are not the word of God, they are the words of people as fallible as you and I.
I don’t believe there is any evidence that a god or gods affect the world. Good and innocent people live and die subject to painful and arbitrary injustices. Evil people thrive and expire in their beds. The opposite is true, too. I see no evidence that leading a godly life results in favour on earth (if anything, there is evidence to the contrary); or that a divine hand intercedes in times of natural or human disaster. A deity that stood by impassively in the face of misery and injustice would not strike me as a deity worthy of praise.
What atheism does offer me is the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions. I don’t have any rule book other than the law of the land – which has never bothered me too much, because it has largely been written by bad people for their own advantage – and my conscience, which seems to me to be the one quality above all that defines me as human.
And being guided by conscience is not easy. It does not have the clarity of a tablet of commandments – quite often, things that seem conscientious from one perspective can become much more occluded from another angle or in the face of additional information. Some Issues of conscience can be changed by time or geography; and some cannot be changed by any variation in circumstance. The one and only bottom line is; I must make up my own mind and live with the consequences of my own decisions.
As a consequence, I frequently find myself to be in the wrong. That strikes me as healthy. Conscience is a compass rather than a map. It does not set out a destination and a route: it just indicates a direction of travel.
I’ve never feared death, so I’m unsure whether faith helps people who do. I’m scared of continued and endemic pain, but oblivion has always seemed to me to be not an unpleasant prospect. Taoism – the spiritual philosophy for which I have the greatest empathy (and which is equivocal about the existence of a deity) – sees death as a return to the source; the river flowing back into the sea.
I don’t believe that hell is other people, or that hell is within ourselves: I just don’t believe in hell. Neither do I believe in heaven. All available evidence leads me to believe we’re here now, gone tomorrow; and that the best thing to do in the face of a dragonfly-short span on earth, is to make the best use of our time we can, according to our consciences.