A few weeks ago, I had a loyal viewer email me this question. The question kind of went like this:”How do you stay positive as an atheist? I find it hard to be my naturally bubbly self now that I’m an atheist and I envy my theist friends who can live so blissfully ignorant.”
I think it’s a powerful question, one that actually resonates with me personally. For a good amount of time I have struggled with this question as well. Somewhat implied in this question is this notion that maybe if I never became an atheist then my life would have been easier and happier. If I stayed as a Christian, then perhaps staying positive wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
This notion hits home, I think, largely because both the person that asked this question and I myself are apostates – we were once religious and believers, but now we identify as atheists.
In fact, I think that’s the case with a good majority of atheists. We used to not be atheists. We used to be followers of a certain religious faith, usually that of our parents or of our primary caregivers, and then we’ve had to deconvert. Of course, not all atheists undergo deconversion. I wonder how those atheists would react to this question, but I will speak for myself here and I have to admit, the deconversion process was not easy. It was quite painful actually, coming to realize that so much of what I had believed to be true and essential no longer make any sense.
My dad has been a Christian pastor since before I was born. Hence I was raised to be a passionate born-again Christian. To me, that identity as a Christian was the most important one. Up to the point I was a seventeen-year-old teenager, nothing else mattered than being devoted to God, than having a relationship with Jesus, and sharing his love to everyone else. I thought the meaning of my life was in glorifying God. So as I began to question this huge part of my identity – a huge part of myself – I began a long and painful journey of self-reflection.
The entire process was quite shattering. It had to be. Becoming an atheist for me wasn’t just an exercise in logic and rationality. It was more personal and emotional than that. It was a shedding of what was then the most important part of myself. It was an abandoning of years and years of reassurances and indoctrination. It hurt. A lot. Religion was the one positive guiding force in my life, and when I came to turn my back on it, I will not deny that there was left this feeling of emptiness.
I think that experience is may explain a good deal of why this question poses a challenge to me. Arriving at the destination of atheistic humanism required of me a transformation. Transformation often comes with a cost you know, and that cost involved a comfortable reliance on absolute morality and faith. I might have an easier time with this question perhaps if I never had to deal with deconversion. If I was always an atheist, maybe I wouldn’t worry too much about how positive I’m now compared to how positive I was back when I was a kid. Maybe this question only really matters to someone who had to undergo a massive transformation like this one.
Although, here’s the thing about this question: the premise is wrong.
The question implies that we should strive to be positive, that staying positive is a good thing. In some ways, there’s merit to that implication, but taken as a whole, i think it’s a dangerous mindset to have. We don’t necessarily have to stay positive. In fact, sometimes, not being positive and feeling shitty and angry is a powerful source of motivation.
Here’s an example I give out often. Imagine a recently wed husband and wife. A year ago, they gave birth to this adorable little baby girl. Unfortunately, the baby had complications in labor and have been in pain since birth. The baby had to undergo many surgeries over the course of the year until eventually after 1 year of struggling to live, the baby dies from heart failure. Doctors explain to the couple that this was because of a genetic defect, for which there currently is no cure or treatment. The parents are of course devastated, but not only that, the medical bills for all those surgeries have been quite a burden. Now the couple is in a really bad situation financially and their marriage isn’t so great because with all this stress they’ve ended up arguing with each other a lot.
So with this scenario – and I don’t think it’s a very far-fetched scenario – I can imagine the parents asking, “Why did this have to happen? Why did my baby daughter have to die this way?” How do you stay positive in the face of tragic events like this?
I expect a religious person to come up with reassuring positive answers like, “The baby is in a good place now, with God” or “God has a reason for everything.” Or maybe, “How can we understand God’s will? God works in mysterious ways.” That’s definitely one way to try to stay positive in the midst of a great tragedy like this one, and it’s something that religion can help provide.
But think about that more deeply. Seriously? There’s a reason that a 1-year-old baby had to suffer and die from the moment she was born? There’s a reason the family of that baby had to go through such pain and suffering? Somehow all this was because God has some mysterious will that we humans can’t possibly ever understand? I’m bewildered by this response because these religious reassurances, in an effort to stay positive and optimistic, tries to force even tragic events into mysterious possibly positive ones.
To me that’s a disappointing mindset. Dangerous even. As an atheist, when life gives me shit, I don’t necessarily see the value in pretending that shit is gold. Bad things happen in life. I think it’s better to accept that disappointing reality, better than trying to distort reality and stay positive. Because with this acceptance I can grow as a person to better understand why and how such negative things could have happened, and work to figure out how to resolve the situation and if possible, to prevent it from happening again as much as possible. When a 1-year-old baby dies from a genetic disorder, I don’t resort to saying that God had a mysterious reason for it, but I learn more about the genetic disorder, learn more about how it happens and how it can be treated, and what I can do to honor the death of the baby. To me, that kind of constructive thinking and action is more valuable than trying to be cheerful and feel positive. Because in some situations, it may as well be that being blissful does more harm than good.
It’s like during Thanksgiving time, people are always saying that you have to remind yourself of the things you’re thankful for. I do agree that there’s great value in that, but at the same time, I think being thankful about everything (as Christianity often preaches) is not right. There are things and times where feeling resentful is warranted. To try to deny that emotion, to force yourself into feeling thankful and positive, I think that’s an effort at denying a natural human emotion, and is not healthy at all.
Being blissfully ignorant is only good for the person who is ignorant. It can be very harmful for the person and the environment surrounding the ignorant person. Not being unaware about the environmental harms about animal agriculture means that you can enjoy a turkey burger guilt-free. But unbeknownst to that person, the turkey killed for that burger has suffered, the farmlands exploited to raise that turkey has suffered, the human workers paid awfully and maltreated in factory farms have suffered. Likewise, Christianity or any other religion can bring about that blissful ignorance, but when people practice religion without being aware of its real harms, their bliss comes at a high cost. I’m not willing to pay that cost. Being aware of our actions and consequences is important, even if it means we might not be able to feel positive about ourselves.
Staying positive as an atheist places a lot of responsibilities and burdens on ourselves. I do admit that at times this can be really overwhelming. Can it be overcome? I think that’s not the proper question to ask because it’s not a matter of overcoming or not; but more about what these burdens and responsibilities mean. These responsibilities are the price we pay for liberation and freedom. Yes, I am essentially saying that religion is slavery. Religion enslaves the soul to an unseeable, unknowable deity being who’ll reward/punish based on a standard that we can’t ever understand. If you read the Old Testament, you can see how people who disagreed with God were treated, like flimsy toy things that could be killed or ostracized at will. I actually think New Testament is worse because it claims that people are to be punished even after death. Eternal torment in hell or eternal slavery to God in heaven, those are the choices given by Christianity. If I chose Christianity to stay positive, then I have chosen either of these things. It’s a choice I will not agree for myself.
For me, life is more precious than what God deems it to be. It’s this life that I have right now that matters the most, not the afterlife which no one knows exists or not. I will not be a plaything to a deity. I will be my own responsible self. As overwhelming as this burden is, it’s a burden I have chosen for myself, and thus it’s ultimately a burden that gives me strength and courage. If I make mistakes, I hold myself accountable for it; I do not blame non-existent forces of the devil. If I accomplish good things, I can take pride in myself and appreciate the support I have received from those beloved people around me, instead of praising an invisible being for making it happen for me. I can make choices that I deem are moral and virtuous, such as refusing to eat anything with meat and dairy and choosing to make and eat a cheap kale salad for myself. I struggle and I stumble a lot of times, but I value my short time here in the world, and that as much as it depresses and terrifies me, it also gives me a lot of hope.
Some times, it’s impossible to stay positive. I can accept that. But I personally see my atheism as a source of liberation, as a starting point for my humanism (treating all sentient life with respect, being moral and virtuous as possible), and the reason d’taire for my absolute belief that this life we have is previous and should be cherished. There’s great value in negative human emotions like guilt and anger because they can fuel us to do things that matter. Perhaps what’s more important than staying positive is doing positive things. Instead of trying to force ourselves to feel positive, we can try to understand why we can’t stay positive, how things have come to be this way, and try our best to change things for the better. If, in the midst of all the shitty things about life, we can find things we’re passionate about and do them, then what can be more positive than that?
Of course, I do realize that this can be overwhelming. So it’s often good to realize that we human beings are social creatures. We’re surrounded by other human beings who can feel joy and pain like us. As we strive to help other fellow human friends and family, they help us as well. It’s good to have some sort of support network you can trust and that trusts you. I don’t think it matters if people in that social circle are religious as long as they appreciate you and love you. Support can be found in all kinds of people – family, friends, teachers, mentors, therapists, pastors, a vlogger on YouTube you regularly watch… Or it can come from things: music, books, poems, sports…
You know what’s ironic? I find hope sometimes when I read from the bible, such as some verses in Leviticus chapter 25 which has laws about how the Israelites are to take care of its poor people. I like that part of the bible a lot, and am glad that it’s had quite an impact on the modern social welfare system. As an atheist, I’m okay with cherry picking the good parts off the bible and condemning its many illogical and immoral parts. I’d argue everyone already cherry picks from the bible; I just don’t feel bad about doing it, because to me bible is just another book written by human beings. Sometimes I feel good listening to Christian rock music because I like the guitar riffs and the sus chords that’s played. Practically the only songs I know how to play on guitar are praise songs. That’s not because I like Christianity, but because even as an atheist, I can appreciate what I appreciate, and argue against everything else.
So that’s my response in a nutshell, that staying positive as an atheist is often quite difficult, but that can actually be a good thing, a powerful thing, and when things do get too overwhelming, it’s important to have sources of support, whatever that may be for you.