What it feels like to be an Atheist
I've always been an atheist, I know nothing else. From my earliest memory of considering the question, I'm talking maybe age three or four, I was skeptical as hell. The God stories just didn't add up. I'm amazed everyday of my life that everyone isn't an atheist like me. But they're not, I have no idea why that is, but it is reality. And based on many questions over the years it sounds possibly hard for someone who is not one to understand it. So follow me for a bit if you can. And I'll try to describe the world as seen through atheist eyes.
Imagine that you live in a world where 90% of the people around you sincerely believe in something that appears to you to be downright whacky, if perhaps relatively pleasant on the surface in many respects. Say they believe in Santa Claus; beard, the big red suit, the flying reindeer, the sled loaded with a billion gifts, the North Pole Workshop, Mrs. Claus and the elves; all of it.
But in this fantasy world, they're not content merely to believe in Santa Claus, they want you to publicly agree all the time that you also believe in Santa, in their specific version of same, and they pressure everyone else in numerous ways to pretend that they're not strange or childish for believing in this. They don't just limit it at that even, they insist everyone kiss their ass about their Santa belief every damn day of their lives and if you don't humor them at the drop of hat under any circumstances, you're being disrespectful, you're out of line. No matter how much you humor them, they always demand more.
Imagine, seriously imagine for a moment now, that these people, the vast majority of the electorate, vote for politicians based in large part on what they think Santa wants, campaign speeches all end with "Be good or Santa won't come to visit". And most of these voters won't even consider voting for someone who doesn't believe in Santa Claus and his factory at the North Pole. Yet they routinely congratulate themselves as belonging to the most graciously tolerant and open minded people in all of history.
Imagine that large sections of the country, the majority in fact, reject modern geography and want to teach that Santa lives at the North Pole in a giant Dickinsian factory manned by elves as part of that curricula. They don't just want to teach it at home or in Santa Mass every Sunday, they wanna teach it as geographical fact and they're militant about it. They lobby the schoolboard and stack them with Santa-ists who want to 'teach both sides of the geographic controversy' and let the kids decide if they wanna believe in Santa's Workshop at the North Pole, or not. They want to 'teach the evidence against naturalistic North Polism" and no amount of evidence, no sat photos, no onsite reports, no live North Pole Cams, will dissuade them from this effort.
Imagine that if you even voice the possibility that Santa might be a pleasant legend or some aspects of the story may be more allegorical in nature rather than literal, at the local school board meeting when this issue comes up, you're shouted down, called everything from a Nazi to a demon to a terrorist, exiled from the neighborhood and maybe isolated at work. Because while a bunch of nice things get done in the name of Santa, a lot of nonsense and out and out bullshit also is justified with the same. For example; your kids better not repeat any Santa skepticism, or they'll be teased horribly at the very least and might get the shit beat out of them by other kids from time to time.
Now further imagine; although the underlying story is sweet enough on its own, the actual uses it is put to by various self-serving factions are about as ugly as it can get: The ruling party is supported by a large block of truly radical Santa believers who want to run the entire country like they believe the North Pole facility operates, including sweatshops with kids all busy working away seven days a week 365 days a year in long assembly lines, with hand tools, in the freezing cold arctic winter, all for benefit of a few old men with long white beards who live in complete splendor on that labor. Because that's how Santa wants it, see?
And even though Santa loves children, it is wrong for government to do Santa's work, so really, it would be going against Santa's will to ever just give the millions of working kids a decent meal, but throw a couple of dozen of them a toy once a year you're A-OK with Santa. That's what they want and they're working hard to get it.
On top of that, based on their Santa beliefs, they also want to outlaw all cortical steroids and hormone treatments of any kind for any reason; cancer, growth defects, hormone deficiencies, replacement therapy, arthritis and other autoimmune disorders, muscular dystrophy, and on and on: Because they claim with utter certainty that Santa likes elves. Elves are Divine, and some hormones could be used to treat dwarfism. You might accidentally prevent the normal development of midgets and the bone pathologies associated with it, if hormones were legal and widely prescribed. So no hormonal or cortical drugs, no exceptions. Some them want to reclassify all drugs as hormones ... just in case.
They try to stack the courts with Santists and they stacked the regulatory oversight boards with Santists at every chance and anytime someone rules against the interest of the sweatshop lobby they're labeled Activist St. Nicks. Anyone who presents evidence to the contrary to Santa or any of these government approved concentration/work camps or ideological Santist Policies is viciously smeared by a professional media, most of whom share the same set of Santa beliefs, and that's on the rare, once in a year occasion when someone who will argue against the literal existence of Santa is even allowed airtime. The nation slides slowly towards Santacracy year by year.
Their entire rationale for this belief system and all the ugliness and oppression associated with it, is based purely on one long Christmas Carol handed down through the ages and some self anointed speakers for Santa--who happen to be in the employ of the wealthy bearded caste--and one or two old children's books.
And BTW it's the same story with various minor differences all over the world; across the ocean are people who reject Santa by name, but who believe in Kris Kringle or Father Christmas or St. Nick with equal or greater intensity than these domestic Santa believers. And some of those pagans are ready and willing to kill each other, kill you and your entire family, in a split-second, up to and including strapping explosives to themselves and blowing up a kids daycare or turning a jet into a missile kamikazi style and plowing it into a factory; all because of that minor quibble over the name and/or suit style of Santa, just to make the point that they really believe their story more than our Santists believe theirs.
Picture your life unfolding in this world: As a child you also believe in Santa because your parents told you to, but as you grow up you become skeptical, some things just don't seem to add up. By the time you're six or seven years-old, you start asking legitimate questions like "How does Santa get down the little chimney, how does Santa get the time to visit each house, how does Santa know the kids who've been good from the ones who've been bad" and so forth. These questions elicit first strangely evasive answers devoid of content and a general sense of unease among the adults you're asking. Over the next few years that moves onto reactions of scorn, patronizing insults, and open hostility. But never, ever one single answer that holds up over time.
Finally you come to suspect there is a real possibility that there is no literal Santa Claus at the North Pole with a toy factory run by elves and flying reindeer. You began gently asking other folks about your concern. But, when you confide in a few of your most trusted friends and closest family members that the whole Santa idea is a nice sentiment to be sure, but it doesn't make much rational sense and there is no evidence for it, the reaction ranges from puzzlement, to pity, to shock, to anger, to open accusations and implications that you're some kind of mental defective for even wondering about it.
You don't understand what's going on, none of this Santa stuff makes any sense and there's zero evidence for it, why can't everyone just admit that? What's the big conspiracy about? Why is everyone pretending there really is a Santa? Then it slowly dawns on you, around age ten or eleven ... the chilling, horrible truth:
They're Not Pretending. They REALLY Do Believe There Is a Santa Claus.
Egads! Holy Shit! You suddenly feel a little bit lonely at age sixteen as you come to realize that you may surrounded by fully grown adults who are delusional incompetents that cannot distinguish fiction from fact and are enthralled by some kind of massive group hysteria! They're most of them all like that! And they all think you're nuts for not buying into their delusion! What the hell is wrong with these fucking people, can't they see how crazy this shit is?
So, being an adolescent who wants to know things and unafraid, you confront people who are trying to convince you about the existence of Santa with the what seem to you to be pretty obvious shortcomings in the story. The result is a torrent of stupidly phased questions, anger, at times hatred, usually disguised as pity or concern, but not always.
"Where do you think Christmas came from? How do you think the idea of giving gifts arose in the first place?" you're asked repeatedly.
Some of the questions you're being badgered with now are utterly exempt of any semblance of logic, "I've seen Santa so how do you explain that one?" or "How do you think the North Pole came to be Santa's Workshop if there is no Santa for crying out loud???? Huh? Huh? Answer THAT ONE Mr Smarty-pants!!!"
And no matter how many times you explain it's more likely Santa was thought up and refined over time by earlier generations, that there is in fact a long historical trail of Santa like characters in the cultures of your ancestors seamlessly leading up to the present day version, you are ignored or laughed at. And over and over the same tired old questions incessantly get thrown in your face again and again as though there was never a response on your part and there is no possible explanation outside of Santa (Or St. Nick or Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, if you happen to be questioned by those respective adherents). It's baffling to you.
Come your college years, more serious folks around now, I'm talking otherwise fully functional adults who hold jobs, sport an array of impressive degrees in Law, Philosophy, Science, or Mathematics, and who make important decisions, bombard you constantly with "Without Santa there would be no reason for us to be good, where do you think morality and ethics come from?; What's your 'world-view' and what evidence do you have for it, if you have no origin for morality?; I mean what's to stop you from going on a killing and raping spree if you don't believe in Santa?"
And no matter how many times you freely state you have no 'world-view' outside of an intuitive 'reality' and that such ideas regarding morality and ethical behavior and what is or is not a crime, likely stem from the culture you are raised in where they're acquired as a child unconsciously and then refined over time as one matures, they ignore you and keep throwing back the same question. The same question over and over in a dazzling variety of slick, pseudointellectual wrappers, while they practically dance in victory with glee every time they hurl the same dumbass question, as though they proved their Santa belief beyond any questionable doubt.
As you begin your adult life, marry or have a family of your own, the arguments don't get any better, they in fact get noticeably worse at times. Irate e-mailers demand, "How do you explain Rudolph's glowing red nose?"
And no matter how many times you patiently explain that Rudolph's existence and his nose is no more rational or supported than Santa's, that the question exhibits a fundamental logical fallacy by assuming the premise, you are ignored as if your response is invisible to your questioner and the same question is thrown endlessly back in your face as if it's a dead-cinch proof of Santa. You begin to understand that these folks aren't only whacked in the head, they're either liars or unable to think beyond the level of a toddler. Because it really is like arguing with a two-year old most of the time, only these aren't two-year olds, these are grown educated human beings. And you start to really worry now; what if most people are insane and you just happen by the luck of the draw to be one of the few sane ones? A lucid person in a world gone mad?
Hey, maybe you've not given this Santa thing a fair shot. Maybe if you talk to a pro, or meditate or think on it long and hard, something will click into place you're missing. So you embark on a multiyear voyage asking Santa ministers and reading the theology of Santa. You look at other beliefs like the ones who worship St. Nick or Father Christmas, you try, you really try to make it work. You play with altered states of consciousness and talk to people from other cultures about their version of the Santa belief.
And sure, you learn some useful tips, like how to distinguish fresh blotter acid from stuff that's been laying around turning into strychnine, and you might be able to lower or raise your heartbeat using biofeedback after a few sessions. But you find in the end none of the actual Santa like beliefs make any more sense than your own homegrown version. And you can no more force yourself to believe any of them, than you can flap your arms and fly away.
Still, incessantly they recruit you, incessantly they beat you down anytime you open your mouth and try to engage in a real, honest, thoughtful discussion, with the same damn cheesy worthless lines you've been hearing for years now. And from time to time, when you finally convince someone, say someone who is trying to recruit you to accept that Santa is a real entity and really does all those amazing things, that you're not buying it merely on their say-so, they stalk off screaming things like "OH I get it! You HATE Santa Claus and you HATE Christmas and you HATE getting presents, and you're trying to get even by pretending you don't believe in Him. Well, I'll be laughing this Christmas when I'm opening my presents and your only gift is a brand new brain tumor for being bad".
Imagine, as you puzzle your way through this temporal menagerie called life, full to the brim with more of the functionally insane humanoids that make the fabric of experience; bosses, girlfriends, pals, enemies, and role models, that Santa reminders are on every coin, every paper dollar, on every street corner, on every news show, on every cable network, that there are radio and TV stations that are dedicated 24 hours a day to extolling the virtues of Santa and the power of his mighty Sled. Every now and then you come across a fellow traveler who also marvels at the insane people, and you might become friends, compare notes, and laugh about the crazy mother fuckers, but it's a rare thing to meet them in person.
And in every one of those Santa reminders on every five cent piece and every dollar bill, lurks a tiny hint, a latent glimpse of those ugly components of Santaism and open wounds of rival Santa-like beliefs that are always at each other's throats; the wars justified and condoned, we're assured, by Santa; the sweatshops and pagan suicide bombers and the political opportunists who want to outlaw a huge class of life saving drugs based on Santa belief; the crazies who want to enact laws forcing everyone else to suffer horrible pain and disfiguring fatal diseases, all to humor their belief in mythological elves. Sometimes as you get older, all you can do is laugh so that you don't cry at the immense human tragedy of it all.
And sure, you're used to it, it doesn't really bother you most of the time because you just don't think about how totally fucking nuts the people around you are or what easy prey they are for the shameless predators of this loony jungle, as long as they're kept from hurting you or enacting their crazed legendary tenets into law and screwing up your life, but it's every damn place you go and it's getting worse and worse. The Santa Clausians are becoming more demanding, more powerful, more delusional and more arrogant every year. You grew up swearing your allegiance at the start of every school day that America was One Nation Under Santa from kindergarten on, and now some people are questioning the usefulness of that tradition, and pointing out it could be seen as blatant brainwashing, and they're being attacked day and night by Santa apologists and compared to pedophiles in the process. The entire Congress shuts down to pass a unanimous amendment supporting saying Santa in the Pledge in School and recites it on the steps of the capitol, shrieking the word Santa out, playing to the cameras and the demented Santa believers on the other side of the optical pipes they're attached to. Which is more comforting? That the leaders of the nation are lying and pandering to Santa believers? Or that they actually believe it also? Hell of a choice, eh?
It starts getting uglier: Imagine that one very loud group of Santa believers regularly demands that you move to another country and/or that you be prevented from giving or receiving gifts or having Christmas Day off because you don't believe in Santa, while members of the same group are attacking you in an even louder voice claiming you are trying to ruin or cancel Christmas, and they demand that you be forced to celebrate it and participate in each and every Santa Claus ritual they personally deem requisite. It's pretty clear to you now: These seemingly normal people are not just fucking insane when it comes to Santa, they're incoherent, dangerously unbalanced, demanding mutually exclusive sets of behavior from you that would be impossible to comply with.
Now imagine: Just two or three-hundred years ago it was totally SOP to take folks, men, women, children, who didn't believe in a specific version of Santa and stick red-hot steel objects into their rectums and vaginas, boil their limbs, beat them senseless with padded clubs, tear them apart with teams of horses, cut open their stomachs and rip out their intestines while they're still alive in front of their loved ones, or slowly burn them alive in public; all in the name of Santa's good will and often on the mere anonymous allegation from some two-bit ten-year old kid or a crazy deranged nutcase suffering from schizophrenia that you once said you don't believe Santa can really fly. Now imagine that that still goes on in some parts of the world AND there's a whole bunch of people in your country who are clamoring to bring that all back.
Imagine that when your mom or dad or heart surgeon or teacher or your best friend tells you they firmly, devoutly, believe in Santa replete with the flying reindeer and the ability to get down every chimney in the world in one evening, that you'd better believe also or you won't be getting a damn thing in the will or in life from them ever, or maybe they'll just treat you like shit in front of the rest of the family, AND THEY'RE NOT KIDDING IN THE SLIGHTEST ABOUT ANY OF IT.
You are under a barrage of Santa believers from the cradle to grave who act everything from shocked to disgusted that you don't believe in Santa, they're getting increasingly militant, yet not a one of them has the slightest bit of evidence that an entity called Santa really exists; not one of them is willing to explain why the North Pole is nothing but a barren, frozen wasteland, except maybe to vaguely explain that the "Workshop" is incorporeal or not meant to be taken "literally"; a claim which other Santa believers disagree with vigorously. Not one of them offers up the slightest tidbit of convincing scientific rationale for how reindeer fly and tow an arial sled, or how Santa reads the minds and keeps tabs on 2 billion kids, and visits them in a single 24 hour period once a year to deliver toys built at his workshop by magic miniature toymakers. Not one of them can offer any compelling real-world reasoning for why Santa would want to do this anyway, what he gets out of it, how he obtains supplies, feeds himself and his workers, treats disease, avoids old age and death, or how they all came to play this role in the first place. And yet you are portrayed as an imbecile and one chip short of Adolph Hitler for not believing it.
Pretty ridiculous, huh? A world gone bonkers, populated and completely run by a majority of people who are frankly clinically insane, dangerously immature, often violent, historically monstrous, completely irrational, closed to any internal questioning, convinced you're either stupid, evil, or dangerous, and hoping for all they're worth to infect you with the same mimetic virus. Can you even imagine how whacked it would be to have to deal with that kind of shit? To have to go through life walking on eggshells on the subject of Santa lest you offend a believer and they blow their stack at you, target you for persecution for political purposes, and/or question your worth, your job, your very life?
Well, if you can imagine all that, you know for just a few moments how it feels everyday to be a grown adult surrounded by wishful childish thinkers clinging to nonsensical myths as if they were real and insisting, in fact force feeding, that mythology to you; people who sometimes turn quite violent, get downright nasty if you express the slightest disagreement with their specific version of the Jolly Old Guy; people who happen to wield incredibly powerful arsenals of WMDs and massive traditional military might as well as running everything from the local police department to the IRS; people who are now are reopening torture chambers and gulags with armies of pundits cackling with delight at the very thought of returning to the good ole torture days.
It's not like we're living everyday in mortal fear, but it's nevertheless a little nerve racking that we find ourselves surrounded, defenseless, and at the mercy of hordes of people that for all the world appear to have lost their minds. And it's a bit depressing that this is the best the human species and/or our own nation can do or has done in millennia, especially now given our potential and the technology/knowldge now at our disposal.
And in the end, you can either pretend to be a Santa believer, basically live a lie 24/7 and try to avoid any showdowns over it that would expose you. Or you can be yourself, embrace reason, live truth, and take your chances, thanking your lucky stars the whole time you don't live in the past or somewhere else in the present; hoping to hell that the Santa believers don't completely dominate everything and go on some kind of anti-Santa purge.
That's kind of what it feels like to be an atheist. If you try and imagine further why you don't believe that Santa is real regardless of how nice a story it is or all the nice things about Christmas you enjoy, you'll be ahead of the game for tomorrow's post on why I don't believe in deities, including yours. More then.