The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Bloody Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (a lesser-known entry in the Cthulhu Mythos canon, I assume)
The original was constructed in 2015 after Dawkins had run over someone in a combine harvester or something. This was the updated meme from 2017. It’s probably funnier in context.
Wikipedia defines atheism as –
Actually, before we go any further, I apologise with starting with a quote form bloody Richard Dawkins. Although I’m not sorry, obviously. Quoting bloody Richard Dawkins is not something I do very often and I’m not going to do it again, but the first time I read these words I had that kind of reaction social media tells me is expressed by commenting “This!” possibly in capitals. Or a gif of Thor pointing. Please don’t think it means I look at the man himself with awe and wonder as the messiah of atheism, or have all his books on a little shrine. Bloody Richard Dawkins. Still, if the 2010s have taught us nothing else it’s that we all have to come to terms with “enjoying” stuff written by people who have turned out to be arrogant prick. It’s like having to make peace with your own innate hypocrisy before watching a movie post #MeToo.
There’s going to be a lot of bad analogies in this piece of writing. I apologise in advance.
Like I was saying, wikipedia defines atheism as “in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existance of deities. Less broadly, it is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the belief that there are no deities.” That’s a word doing a lot of work. Gotta respect that much work from a word, even if the three positions outlined look very, very similar. This is a word that turns up in paint-spattered overalls to sign on, and complains about needing to get back to work.
There’s a lot more words on that page. It seems people are a bit divided on what atheism actually is, which is nice to know. It also makes it easier for me to talk about my personal experience of being an atheist. Or just “being atheist” whichever is the right phrasing. Which of course leads into…
Six : The Language is Confusing and Pretty Much Useless
The language of being an atheist is… actually let’s start there. Is it a noun or an adjective? Am I “an atheist” or am I “atheist”? I usually say “an atheist” but sometimes I get twitchy at the tone of strict definition. I find it trickier than “a vegetarian” vs “vegetarian”. Something is vegetarian if it contains no animals; someone is a vegetarian if they don’t eat animals. As wikipedia indicates the definitions of “an atheist”/”atheism” are a lot more wooly.
(Although I’m reminded that you can make the “how do you know someone is a vegetarian?” “joke” about atheism without changing more than a single word. Which is nice I guess. I suppose we’re all just lucky I don’t do crossfit or participate in the territorial army.)
But the real challenge is how you talk about being an atheist. I don’t like saying that it’s about “not believing” because it’s purely negative and it presumes everyone else does believe. I don’t like “believes there are no gods” – that I’m accepting as true something for which there is no proof. Taking the non-existence of gods and spirits on faith, if you will. It may be technically correct but it doesn’t feel true. Yet at the same time “I know there are no gods” feels a bit too arrogant for my shy, retiring English soul (which, obviously, I don’t think I have). “I don’t think there are gods” gets closer but again seems to have echoes of a doubt I just don’t feel. How can I explain this with the dreadful language I am stuck with?
“I grok non-existence of gods” maybe?
Or maybe “I am somewhat saddened that there are no gods, but also heartened by it”? Perhaps German will have a word for that sensation.
And for that matter, what do we mean when we talk about “gods” mean anyway? I also believe/think/feel/know that there are no spirits, no wizards, no fairies, no mediums, no ghosts (probably), no guardian angels, no spells, no devils. No heaven or hell save that we make them ourselves. Is that part and parcel of the atheism thing? Or is it something else. Are there atheists in the world who do accept some of these things into their lives? Am I using the words wrong?
Also, can I use atheism as a verb? Fuck yeah I can! Gooooo English!
Anyway. It’s a minefield. And one I think most people don’t really care about. So let’s move on.
Five) Fucking Thoughts and Prayers
Facebook is the end-of-civilisation made manifest upon the earth, as I’m sure we can all agree. One of the reasons is that it allows people I know to share the fact that they are in pain, suffering, afraid, full of sorrow, consumed by loss and what have you. Often on a daily basis.
I joke about being an emotional cripple but even I get the vague sense that it might be helpful to express some sort of support but what can you do? It’d be easy if I could say something like “I will drive you to the hospital” or “here is the money to get a new car” but those concrete expressions are usually beyond my means. So what do I fall back on?
The best I can usually find is some variant of “I’m thinking of you in this difficult time” and it sucks monkey cock. Sometimes what I really want to be able to say is “you’re in my prayers” and mean it. I’m not just thinking of you in your time of difficulty, and hoping it gets better despite all the maths, but I’m taking the active step of asking a supernatural power to intercede, perhaps in the genuine hope they might.
Except obviously I can’t. So I fall back most often on “this is shit” or “fucking hell” or some other sweary expression of anger and frustration. Which, as we all know, is basically code for “thinking of you in this difficult time”.
It’s easy to feel powerless, is what I’m saying (something not just limited to atheists but this is my list so if you don’t like it you can fuck off and write your own list without being so needy. Christ).
And to wish you had more comfort to offer to other people.
Four) Many Atheists Appear Awful
Google searches are just one of the many ways to jam your dick in a toaster the modern world offers each and every one of us.
Alright. I’m mentioning Richard Dawkins again. Mostly because he’s the obvious candidate for “most recognisable celebrity atheist”. I hear Christopher Hitchens is also dreadful, but there’s only so many words I can write before I lose the will to live so I’m going to focus on Dawkins. Because I am lazy.
Maybe this is just me, but many “public atheists” appear awful. Richard Dawkins said some stuff that I intuitively agree with… but he also appears to be a bit of a cunt. That seems to sum up a lot of people the media are keen to canonise as Saints of Atheism. One of my earliest memes on Facebook was about apologising for Richard Dawkins – a possibly over complex play on the idea that Muslims are supposedly meant to publicly apologise every time some fuck knuckle blows themselves up or flies a plane into a building.
One of the things that unsettles me in particular is the way some atheists spend an inordinate amount of time taunting people who believe in things. As if not grokking gods is about being a smug bully. As if atheisming is defined by opposition, which I’m not convinced it is, really. I don’t need people who believe in things to exist to not believe. I certainly don’t need people who believe to be unhappy, or persecuted, to be who I am. Bleugh. I’m not wording well this morning.
Some of them, mind, seem to have understandable reasons for their anger. I know one atheist who still appears to be all tangled up emotionally with their Catholic family background and seems to have a visceral need to denounce Christianity at every turn. No it’s not me, incidentally. While there is Catholicism in the background it is very much in the background; my da abandoned the family faith over the thorny implications of dead unbaptised babies and consequently raised us pretty agnostic. For which I thank him. Even if his mother did once denounce a six-year-old Raff as a “heathen” in a fraught moment that still sticks with me today. I digress.
Worse, there’s apparently a disturbing correlation between atheism and misogyny and sad white men touching themselves about how awake and unsheeple they are. I hate the superior attitude; the need to feel special in your rejection; the sadly familiar urge to force your lack of belief on other folk. I’ve got nothing in common with these people.
Three) I’ve Got Nothing In Common With These People
Here’s a lament I suspect a lot of people understand in their own context. Atheism doesn’t really feel like a creed, or an after school club you can belong to. It doesn’t feel like a neat box. It doesn’t mean I have anything in common with other atheists. Which obviously is something the Modern World has no time for.
Another analogy might be being gay. Maybe? I’m in choppy waters here and regretting starting this paragraph. In the best traditions of being a man, however, I’m going to forge ahead despite the concerns of the rest of the crew and worry about the iceberg later and this has gotten away from me a bit. Focus Raff!
“Gay?” says the media. “Here is a gay person that represents you. All of you. Even though all you really have in common is romantic attraction to the same gender, we will use that single fact to assume all sorts of other things about you. Now say thank you.”
Although actually I suspect this is a poor analogy as I’m not sure I’ve ever met a gay person who didn’t have some shared experience of discrimination which just doesn’t seem true for the non-existant atheist community. Like I said, it’s a morning for bad analogies.
To be fair, most active atheismists I actually know – if I even know their life contains atheisming because despite the joke it just doesn’t come up all that often – are just people who get on with things. Much like most of the religious types, just getting on with getting on and going to Church (or doing live-roleplaying rituals in damp fields way too early in the morning/late at night depending on their leanings). The people shoving things down other peoples’ throats? They’re out there in the wide world not here in my comfortble bubble.
Sometimes, people claim atheism is a religion and then go “aaaah” like they’re Jesus explaining what fishers of men means to his disciple Ian on a 90s comedy show. I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. Even if there are sectarian divisions between the proper atheists and the wishy-washy agnostics. There’s no unifying belief here – not as I would understand belief – despite the need for the wider world to say “you both don’t think there’s a god so that’s the same as following the ten commandments!”
As near as I can tell, atheists don’t generally get together in study groups to discuss being atheists. Actually maybe they do. People are weird, and I’m very much aware that my experience of atheisming is not and cannot be universal. I struggle to imagine what that would even look like, though.
“Today in Atheist Study Group we’re going to talk about how the God of Abraham doesn’t exist”
“Probably doesn’t exist.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Tom, you agnostic backslider! Fuck off back to the agnostic church round the corner and leave us proper atheists to get on with the important work of singing hymns about how random chance and poorly understood physical laws govern all things!”
“Today we’re going to talk about how the God of Abraham doesn’t exist.”
“What about the Norse God Loki? Does he exist?”
“No. We’re talking about how Loki doesn’t exist next week, Tom. Did you not read the fucking syllabus I sent you? Christ!”
Actually, the non-existance of Loki is probably one of the worst things about atheism all by itself but I’m already well over my word limit.
Two) Death Can Fuck Right Off
I mean, I tend to assume the existence of death is reasonable proof that the universe is not put together for the benefit of thinking people. Being permanently separated from people you love? Yeah. Fuck your blind watchmaker in the ear.
There are few times when I want to not atheism as much as when someone dies. It’s pretty tough to say something comforting like “they’re in a better place” when you know damn well they aren’t.
It feels like a form of self-inflicted cruelty to be aware in your belly that it’s over. That person (or cat) will now exist only in your fallible memories until you also die and are gone for the rest of time (barring Ringworld). Rage against the dying of the light because there is nothing more, and no hope, and everything ends in tears and if you were just a different person you’d have the comfort of heaven or reincarnation but you’re weak and sad and…
This is cheery right? Maybe I should skip ahead. The last paragraph is bound to be more uplifting.
One) No excuses, No hope
There was going to be a Delta Green quote in here somewhere. Might as well be this one.
Really though, the bit where atheisming really bites down is that there’s no excuses. All the evil in the world is down to human beings being semi-articulate vermin. You can counter that all the good comes from the same place, but I have to tell you that (to use another shaky analogy) all the nice feedback in the world doesn’t balance out one complaint. There’s no excuses. “God made me do it”? “The Devil made me do it”? Fuck that noise.
As soon as you take the supernatural out of the equation it feels like everything becomes several orders of magnitude more complicated. Is it society that made those parents play World of Warcraft so obsessively their baby died? Is it nature or nurture that caused that child to be raped? Is the urge to unload automatic weapons in a school a genetic characteristic, or is it because of too much/not enough breastfeeding? Who has the answers? WHO!?
There’s also no real reason to hope, whatever the fucking sunbeams in the “quality of life is better than it has ever been!” brigade try to tell you. There’s no heaven, and no hell, and often no consequences or rewards. The absolute best of us are doing good deeds in the dark where nobody is there to see or care, and what kind of a way is that to run a cosmos?
Sure, my regular bouts of crushing despair might not be a direct result of atheisming too much, but for me at least they’re tied up in it. Our deific Da is not going to catch us if we fall off our bikes. Our cosmic Mum isn’t going to swoop in at the last moment and stop us setting fire to the house. It’s just us, by ourselves, wearing our parents’ shoes and acting like we know what we’re doing. Every day.
Remember. This isn’t a list about how great atheism is and how its definitely making everything better just because its most likely correct. Jesus, look at me, being all forthright and arrogant and what have you. Like one of those bad people who stands on their soap box and tells religious people that raising their children to believe is the same as child abuse.
And there’s another problem right there, one I don’t like to look at because it leads to nowhere good. Sometimes there’s an insidious little voice at the back of the brain that whispers “If you’re right then these people are wrong and don’t you owe it to them to tell them so they can stop doing it wrong? huh? What kind of a man are you if you don’t have the courage of your convictions?” and the best I can come up with in response is to mutter “Get thee behind me atheist Satan” in a weak and feeble voice and go spend another hundred hours on Path of Exile.
It’d be enough to drive you to drink. Unless being driven to drink is actually a result of your genetics. Or an incident you don’t remember when you were five involving a box of chocolate liqueurs and not choking to death on your own vomit, an incident from which you learnt nothing. Who knows? Who cares?
Floppy haired professor and musician Brian Cox said “The biggest threat to our planet is human stupidity” which is depressing as fuck. And this from the man who tried to trick us all by claiming “Things can only get better” in the early nineties. It’ll all end in tears, indeed. No excuses and no hope.
It’s just us.
Until we’re gone.
And people sometimes ask me what it is I find appealing about the cosmic horror genre.
In Summary : It’s All Donkey Bollocks
I think we can all agree that what we need right now is a cute donkey. Who is eating flowers that probably aren’t poisonous. And who we can all imagine isn’t going to be worked to death, or turned into sausages, or have his bollocks sucked by an atheist. Or at least not anywhere we can see it happening.
In summary… I have too much time on my hands. Also I’m feeling a bit sad at the moment so obviously it made sense to try and make other people sad too because as we say at the First Church of Atheism on Temple Street “Misery loves company and also there is no god”.
This was actually meant to be a piece entitled “Why you can’t let the cockwombles get you down” from a prompt over on the Patreon provided by Clive Evans. It started out as that, but then turned into something else pretty quickly, and now I’m afraid you have nearly three thousand words of bad analogies and a fat bearded man failing to express himself clearly about something confusing he’s not equipped to talk about. But as a man, that’s what I do best so…
I opened with a quote from fucking Dawkins, but I’m going to close with a quote from someone I think is a much better writer and philosopher. It comes from an often underrated meditation on the nature of good, and evil, and football.
The Patrician took a sip of his beer. “I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals