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From Whence Comes the Unbeliever’s Happiness?
by Betty Brogaard
The subject of atheism and its meaning have been covered eloquently and clearly by many *freethinkers. My purpose, therefore, is not to reiterate what atheism is or what the word means. At this juncture, I simply want you to know why atheism as a life philosophy increasingly appeals to more and more people who are dissatisfied with religion in general. My goal is to spotlight religion’s negative impact, usually through guilt, in day-to-day lives of ordinary people. My aim is to tell you how atheism enhances one’s life – more specifically, my life.
Atheism was not a “choice” for me. I did not decide between atheism and theism in the way I choose vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, or bubblegum flavors at the ice cream parlor. (And, yes, there is a bubblegum flavored ice cream.) I progressed into atheism through research, religion comparison, much contemplation, and reason.
Someone has said, and I agree, “I’m not a devotee of reason because I’m an atheist; rather, I’m an atheist because I’m a devotee of reason.” The more I studied, the more the atheistic philosophy made sense to me. It sort of crept up on me!
Either intentionally or unwittingly, however, theists usually overlook the fact that unbelievers find joy in this world of ours without following a particular faith. “How can this be?” they often ask us. “What possible happiness or purpose can you have without a god in your lives to direct you?”
Do Atheists Have A Belief System?
Recently one of my in-laws was going through a particularly rough spot. She, apparently, was questioning her own viewpoints about life and god. She asked me, “Since you don’t have a belief system, what is your goal in life?”
The question surprised me as I realized that she simply had no understanding of me and my philosophy. You see, I DO have a belief system – it simply doesn’t include a god. I believe that each of us, when the time is right, should determine our own goals in life. Many succeed, and many fail in the achievement of their individual hopes and dreams. Life is frequently hard. It doesn’t always flow smoothly for anyone. I don’t believe, however, that people are born to achieve purposes designed by an outside source, i.e. a god, before they die. Our experiences, our environment, our associates, everything and all whose lives we touch and everyone who touches our lives contribute negatively, positively, or neutrally to what we do with the time we have.
Throughout our years here on earth, education increases, not only through academic pursuits but through experience. Circumstances change. We may watch our plans and goals come to naught. At some point, we may need to switch goals altogether, expand or modify them, or take another path toward achieving them.
Some people choose unrealistic or foolish objectives and then become embittered by their disappointments in people or circumstances but do nothing about rearranging their plans for a better existence.
Others never have any earthly goals. They just sort of “roll with the punches” through life, deceiving themselves into believing they are following some sort of plan outlined for them by a god. Often this type of individual depends on someone else, a revered “guru,“ if you will, for direction, thinking that they are being led and will be provided for by some sort of divine entity. How do I know this? Because I was once one of those “others.” I took the path of least resistance because I had the distorted view that my god would take care of me and provide my needs.
So, basically, I informed my in-law concerning my “belief system” that I now believe in myself. I exist. I interact as charitably as possible with others who, also, exist – not with an entity whom I cannot see, cannot dialogue with, cannot touch, and, apparently (according to Christians), cannot understand. One of the basic tenets of my personal belief system is: Try to treat others the way you want to be treated. This is a universal concept. What a difference our world would be if we all put it into practice.
You’re On Your Own!
Unbelievers experience as many setbacks as believers do, but we don’t expect that a supernatural being will “make it all better” for us. When we “fall” because we’ve screwed up, have been deceived or wronged, or get knocked down through rejection, debilitating disease, illness, or accident, we know that, if at all possible, getting up and moving forward again is up to us. And this is often easier said than done. Sometimes help from others is required, and that takes courage and humility to seek and ask for it. .
We don’t all have the same physical and mental strengths. We don’t all possess the same natural, inherited, or acquired abilities. Depending, however, on personal determination and interest, practically everyone is endowed with the capacity for achievement in varying degrees. Consider the brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking, a self-declared atheist who is on record as saying, rather equivocally, “I do not believe in a personal God.”
For example, on the Larry King Live TV program aired December 15, 1999, Professor Hawking was asked pointedly by the host: “Do you believe in God?”
Hawking replied, “Yes, if by God is meant the embodiment of the laws of the universe.”
At age 21, Professor Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive, incurable motor neuron debility. He has been married and has children and grandchildren. Presently in his 60s, he has extremely limited physical power; yet he has learned to adjust as he becomes more and more incapacitated by paralysis. In his specially equipped, motorized wheelchair, he communicates through elaborate computerized instruments. He has authored numerous scientific papers and books. He lectures to scientific communities throughout the world. He is a remarkable but physically flawed human being.
I don’t believe, however, that Professor Hawking or anyone else was chosen for the accomplishment of a particular task in life. I believe we develop, as said before, through heredity, relationships, circumstances, environments, interests, and willpower. We are all on this earth by some quirk of evolving nature and not because of the whims of an imaginary god. This puts everyone on more or less equal footing in that we can progress at our own speed according to our individual situations and inclinations.
Joy Comes from Doing, Not Believing
No matter how many times I’ve been told by religious people that sooner or later I will, at the final judgment, regret my godless life, I know that I have a good life now. I’m not wealthy by even modest standards; I’m not exceptionally robust nor devoid of all physical problems. I am definitely not a genius as Steven Hawking is! I am, however, happy with my philosophy. And, yes, I, as an unbeliever, from time to time experience disappointments and adversity in my life just as believers do. I mourn the personal loss of loved ones because I miss them. I cry with others who experience tragedy. I am outraged at senseless killing and war.
I find joy, however, in the fact that I am not bound by religious rules and “thou shalt nots.” I take pleasure in helping others, doing my bit in protecting the balance of nature and in repairing the crumbling wall of separation between religion and the U.S. government. In whatever small ways I can do these things, I do so without thought of pleasing a god. There is such deliverance in “doing good” because I want to without the fear of hell or a vengeful spirit being punishing me if I don’t. I cherish my emancipation from a church that tells me what is “good” or good for me. Exercising my power of self-determination without trampling over others and without a sense of guilt contribute much to my joy and happiness. This is not rebellion; this is freedom.
Before and After
I studied the Bible avidly when I was a Christian. And that was the big reason I was not very happy in the believers’ world. You see, despite the wonderful proclamations and assurances in it, I, also, knew what “holy” scripture said God would do to me or those I love if we didn’t meet *"his" confusing criteria. I was much too serious, inquisitive, and too informed for my own peace of mind as a Christian.
Having been reared by a religious mother and indoctrinated primarily by two legalistic religious organizations – one cultic, and one, later in life, orthodox – I can attest to the fact that for years my religious training had a profoundly detrimental effect on me psychologically. I was never “good” enough. I could never “do” enough to thank the Jesus of the Bible for giving his life for me (even though I was taught that “works” do not count for righteousness and that we cannot “pay“ for salvation).
As a young Christian adult, I received many mixed messages from studying “the Word.” This diverse information from reading the Bible and books about the Bible and listening to various ministers and their differing opinions caused much emotional turmoil for me. My efforts to understand the “truth” about how God wanted me to live stirred up questions about the Bible’s contradictions and its validity for my life. And finally, after many years of trying to make sense of it all, I questioned even the existence of God who seemed incapable of making “his” instructions crystal clear.
In spite of all my personal doubts, for many years I did feel privileged to be a Christian, to be “chosen” by Almighty God! I believed what Jesus supposedly said in John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him….” (Zondervan NIV Study Bible).
But the more I studied, the more questions I had and the more I wondered: What if “he” didn’t truly “draw” me to “him”? What if I was just an interloper? After all, as I had been taught, because “he” is so far above us and “his” thoughts are not the same as ours, we can’t understand the mind of God. We can’t thoroughly appreciate “his” methods for bringing about “his” magnificent plan. No wonder I was so unsettled in the Christian world.
As a believer, however, I did find certain pleasure in the company of individuals whom I thought were Christians working towards “getting it right” just as I was. I enjoyed participating in the “communion of the saints” (so-called) which was stressed as paramount to staying on the “straight and narrow path.”
But now, I enjoy participating in the “communion of nonbelievers,” i.e. the sharing of a meal or ideas, books, experiences, etc. I treasure the fellowship with those who are not offended by different points of view and who do not threaten, warn, or preach to me about offending what I consider is a make-believe deity. I am grateful that I no longer fear a being who could send me off to a place of eternal torture for using my brain and forming personal opinions through research and study. I no longer worry about not fulfilling requirements for salvation.
I confess, therefore, that when I was a Christian, I was much less happy than I am now as an atheist. My fear of not making it into the kingdom of God as a cultic believer or into heaven as an orthodox Christian was paramount in my thinking. I was immensely sincere and strove for the high ideal, the lofty standard of perfection that the God of the Bible sets for "his" followers (Matt. 5: 48). And, yes, I still want to be the best, most loving, most sincere person I can possibly be in this life. I no longer beat myself up mentally or emotionally, however, when I fail to live by my own personal, live-and-let-live standards. And I do fail in that regard far more often than I like to admit. I am human, after all; but now I’m relaxed over that fact.
Happiness: Not A Reward for Belief
Believers, somewhat like my aforementioned in-law, may ask, “What is your hope, your goal? How can you be happy when you don’t believe in an afterlife?”
In his book, Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith (one of my freethinking heroes) astutely notes that “…there is a gross dishonesty involved in offering happiness as a motivation for believing in a god. Theists who appeal to happiness as a reward for belief display a shocking disregard for intellectuality and the pursuit of truth.”
The continual and limitless “pursuit of truth” has become one of the delights of my life and is one of the sources for my happiness as an atheist. I know the elation of living free of religious chains.
If, perchance, this day is my last, it holds no dread for me. I know that my life has been full and in many ways privileged simply because I was born in a comparatively free country. I have not fought in wars nor battled physically with another human being for my life or that of a loved one. I have not lived in a disaster-stricken region nor in a war-torn nation as so many of the world’s citizens do today. I agonize vicariously with them; but I can only imagine what it’s like to lose everything – family, home, livelihood, parts of my body, the will to live – everything!
I have, however, experienced many things that much of humanity does during a lifetime. I have suffered rejection and encountered love. I know from experience what being poor is and how much better it is to have even a modicum of prosperity. I understand disappointment as well as satisfaction, failure as well as success. I have lived through fear and acquired courage. I have been tortured by loneliness and comforted with companionship. I have endured physical pain and have found sufficient relief to keep going. I have been assailed with depression and confusion and gained contentment and insight.
My abiding happiness, therefore, is greeting each new day with anticipation. As long as I have the wherewithal and the legal right, I can read anything, listen to anybody, and go anywhere I desire without fear of an authority figure – earthly or heavenly. My hope, indeed my enduring goal, is to understand more today than I did yesterday.
Religion is the illusory attempt to find
security and happiness
in an inherently insecure and unhappy world.
--Walter Requadt -- http://www.rationality.net/religion.htm
(This article is an excerpt from a new book that Betty Brogaard is currently writing.)
Copyright ã 2006 by Betty Brogaard
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