This is going to be a long diary. The first part will be about how I came to be an Atheist and the second section will discuss some of the differences between two major branches in Atheism the Ayn Rand Objectivism version and the more popular and common Humanism that I practice. If you don't care about my journey than feel free to skip below the fold...
All my life I've been working toward becoming an Atheist and it finally took in the early part of the new Millennium. My father was a strong and vocal Atheist and I always wondered how he could be so sure. I dabbled in Buddhism, Taoism and read a fair amount about Christianity. My favorite form of fiction has always been that which manages to blend religion and science fiction as the great author Roger Zelazny did so well. His two seminal works, Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness helped shaped my early philosophy as an adult and sent me on the road to learning more. Robert Heinlein also was an early and powerful force in creating my belief structure, but I ended up outgrowing him.
After Dad passed away suddenly in January 1999 I found myself adrift and missing my anchor. Dad and I were very close, doing lunch weekly for most of the previous decade. After my hearing loss, in 1996, Dad carried me at one of the lowest points in my life. After his influence suddenly disappeared from my life I found myself wanting to learn more about Dad's conviction. As I said, Dad was an Atheist and a card carrying member of the AHA. He had long before accepted that we are all one and done. There ain't no god; there ain't no afterlife; there's only this life then we're worm food.
Like many other people it was hard for me to make that leap and accept that truth because the fear of running out of time is strong. The survival instinct is powerful in all animals and the self-aware human animal knows the end is coming. Everywhere we turn, people are promising us life everlasting and eternal joy. Join the right religion and do something special and when you die there will be hoards of hot nubile virgins just waiting to do whatever you tell them. And of course for those who don't believe, there's that flaming pit of eternal agony waiting for you. It isn't easy being an Atheist we don't get much positive press and many of us still live in the closet afraid to come out to friends and family though in recent years it's becoming more common thanks to some positive marketing work by the AHA and writers like Richard Dawkins.
For me the final steps in accepting there is no god and that the universe is a purely natural phenomenon came from two sources. One was an article my sister found on how to view our death from a natural perspective. In short it eloquently stated that death is merely our prepaid admission to the wonderful ride we call life. If you don't buy the ticket, you can't ride the ride and eventually everyone has to turn that ticket in. The second was an article which had a purely natural explanation for the beginning of the Universe. One little random quantum fluctuation, under the right conditions and pop, 13+ billion years later, here I sit at my keyboard typing to all of you. Between those two formative articles as well as some other explorations plus my memories of conversations with and articles/magazines from Dad through the years I was finally able to put aside my dabbling with other religions and accept that I was an Atheist.
Edit: It turns out the article my sister sent me was actually from Dad (go figure) and she managed to dig it up and then find a link to it online. Isn't the Internet wonderful? So here's that first article on how to think about our purely natural and inevitable death.
Recently Atheism is back in the news and unfortunately much of what's being presented is Ayn Rand's version. I admit I've never read her books. I've never done more than peruse quotes from Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I have no desire to do so either. However, the recent selection of Paul Ryan for GOP VP nominee brings Ayn to the forefront of any discussion on politics, libertarianism and Atheism and thus I have been doing some research on her writings and attempting to find out exactly what the hubbub is all about.
In a short article summarizing her beliefs Ayn states:
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.This is the core of Objectivism and the basic premise behind Libertarianism. Everyone get their own and don't worry about the other guy. I do agree that seeking one's own happiness is important, but the simple fact is the rest is pure crap. It doesn't even stand up to scientific analysis because if you truly believe that humans are a natural creature caused by billions of years of evolution than you have to reject this philosophy on the surface because humans are primates and primates are pack animals. The one thing humans have done is expand the concept of what constitutes "our pack". In fact, we are as close as ever to the day when we view all the humans in the the whole world as one pack. Pack animals (and primates in particular) don't only look out for themselves. They all eat. They all drink. No animal goes hungry or thirsty and the sick get looked after (at least in primate groups).
Humanism on the other hand accepts those facts and then takes them another step forward. In the Humanist Manifesto it states:
In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.and
We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.Those choices are pretty self explanatory, Objectivism calls for everyone to watch out for themselves first, last and always while Humanism calls for people to work together to help each other out and act cooperatively. In fact one of the driving aspects of Humanism is to argue that it doesn't take god to be good, that ethics have been around since the first Hominid evolved and will continue to be around long after humans have gone extinct or evolved into whatever comes next. Objectivism clearly doesn't get that and even argues for laissez-faire capitalism.
From that above linked article:
The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.Now I imagine this is the section that really draws in the small government/Libertarian crowd. I also imagine it's the part that caused Paul Ryan to claim Ayn was a major driving force in his philosopy until he disavowed her this past spring after the Catholic Church called him out on the nasty way his budget hammered the poorest Americans. The simplest point of all though is when you combine self interest with little government oversight into economic transactions, very shortly the rich run off with all the money and leave the poor to fend for themselves. We've seen this exact situation play out in the last few decades as we've cut back regulations and lowered taxes and watched the rich get VERY rich while the middle class has taken hit after hit after hit.
Now compare that to the Humanist philosophy:
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.It's almost like the rallying cry for the 99% and the polar opposite from the "everyone get their own" version of Atheism that Rand was peddling. In addition, Humanism works best with a strong secular government that promotes innovation, ethics and fairness.
This is the basic difference between Humanism and Objectivism. One asks us to be part of a cooperative, collective society where everyone has a chance and the other calls for everyone to do what they want so long as they get theirs and for the government to let that happen. While I do agree people and the government should only be using force in retaliation to force used upon us, I cannot condone the sad selfish world that Ayn Rand (and at least at one time Paul Ryan) believed in. Just because I don't believe in god doesn't mean I don't care and that's not only because I'm a Humanist, it's because it's the best way for our species to advance and fulfill our destiny to colonize the solar system and then outward to the stars. As an Atheist I hope someday we outgrow the need to put our faith in god first and learn to trust in ourselves, but I also hope believers can come to accept that not all Atheists are Ayn Rand acolytes and maybe we can find a way to reach across the aisle and build a better planet for us all.