We the People

Today, I have another insightful guest post. Dennis lives in San Diego and is not yet out to his family (check out his bio at the end). His post addresses many of the questions and issues we all struggle with. Thank you, Dennis, for sharing your thoughts!

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Renowned biologist, professor and heralded champion of atheism, Richard Dawkins has written extensively of the world as it relates to evolution through natural materialism; the notion that the world in which we live with all it’s complexity and diversity can be explained by the simple laws of physics and chemistry as played out in living things. Of such a world governed by materialist evolution he says:

Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of 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 we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. — Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden; A Darwinian View of Life 1995

No rhyme, no reason, no justice — A world filled with pitiless indifference. Sounds pretty bleak, I admit. If I had to live in a world like that, I’m not sure I’d have a tremendous desire to carry on, to persevere, or to even think that I had the remotest chance to make a difference.

Yet as I consider Dawkins’ assessment, I find little with which I can mount any parade of disagreement. When I visualize the vast open spaces of the world where the elements conflagrate with wildlife, weather and the cycle of life, it is indeed a place of pitiless indifference. Plants are frozen out of existence. Soil is baked to the point of cracking. Animals reproduce more young than possibly survive under the conditions. Some die slow, agonizing deaths with  their life forces squeezed out of them by drought, extreme temperatures, floods or fires. Others suffer painful, horrific torture literally being eaten alive by predators.

I really need not even to venture in my mind to the remote, uninhabited corners of our planet for I can see the same drama played out in little vignettes in my own back yard. A lizard drowns in my pool, a grasshopper is caught in a spider’s web, a red-tailed hawk swoops from its lofty perch to snatch a lingering gopher (THAT was so totally cool to see! Does this bespeak of my loathing of gophers… oh well!).

I watch the human existence around me play out in similar fashion. A loving husband and father is snuffed out in a tragic traffic collision. A construction worker suffocates when the earth collapses around him and his colleagues cannot dig him out quickly enough. A child is taken from us by lymphoma after a lengthy battle. An elderly couple, in love and married for over 60 years is run down by a drunk driver returning home from a party the night before while taking their long-standing ritualistic morning walk together. These senseless, tragic, everyday occurrences challenge our sense of reason and justice. But if we live in a world governed only by the simple, unaffected laws of physics and chemistry, is there really any other alternative paradigm?

Can there possibly be any meaning to life or reason for living given these godless facts of existence? Many would argue that there must be a higher power that gives purpose and meaning to this brief vapor of existence we all traverse. Some find that the only comfort they can derive from this life is that there is a supreme existence that leads and guides, comforts and encourages them through their journey. While there is no evidence for such a being, millions upon millions of people across the wide stretches of this planet will die before denying the existence of this yet unproven being of omniscience, omnipotence, goodness and love.

So how then do those of us who have no belief in any such supreme being cope with the seemingly meaninglessness of this life? How do we carry on with day after day of “no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference?”

Since I have given up my religious beliefs, I have found more meaning and purpose to my daily living than ever before. So omnipresent was the promise of a better life after death that I gave nearly as much thought to the prospects of that existence as I did to my real existence here on earth. Now that I’m freed of those divided loyalties, all of my focus is here. Today! This very moment!

I greet each new day with the prospects of this one life I have to live. There’s no hope for heaven. There’s no longing for some problem free existence where there no more tears. (sounds like a Johnson’s Baby Shampoo commercial) All I have is today. And when my todays are run out, it’s over. With only the prospect of this limited number of solar cycles I have to spend here, I’m thrilled for today.

Who can I meet? Who can I love? Who can I touch? Who can I inspire? What kind of trouble can I get into? What can I learn? What can I experience? What joy can I experience and share with others?

I’m not rich, world famous, or in a position of great influence. I have but a few people on this planet who even know or care that I exist. But therein lies the magic of living. I have my immediate family: my beautiful wife, my three grown children, their spouses and five grandchildren. I have a few very close friends, a dozen or so regular friends, and maybe another handful of acquaintances with whom I interact on at least a semi-regular basis.

Living my own life to the fullest coupled with the opportunities to interact with and make a difference in their lives gives me all the meaning I’ll ever need in this life. It’s the people who have and will continue to fill my life with design, purpose, and goodness. With these sacred beings around me, I will not suffer blind, pitiless indifference but rather a visionary, compassionate zest for living that will fill my days with wonder and meaning.

The answer is you and me and the people around us. The answer to a meaningful life is indeed, We The People!

As A. C. Grayling puts it in his introduction to The God Argument, “the most wonderful resources for good and flourishing lives lie in the intelligence, the experience, and wisdom and insight of our fellows in the human story.”

The purpose of life is simply to live it. And it’s the people around us who make all the difference.

Dennis lives in San Diego, CA. He’s spent the better part of his life in the world of fundamental Christianity. He’s taught both adult and high school Sunday School classes, led men’s retreats, and he’s served as both a teacher and a worship leader for camps and conferences throughout southern California often in front of thousands of people. The last two years he has taken the journey from faith to the free-thinking realm of atheism. At 62 his perspective is seasoned with a deep understanding of committed church life. He is not yet “outed” to his wife, three married children and five grandchildren who all continue to serve as pastors and leaders in several local churches. As he says, “This atheist thing is a tricky tightrope in my patriarchal position… pray for me!”    (Humor.. don’t leave home without it!)

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35 responses to “We the People

  1. Yes! Thank you for sharing this, Dennis. I hope the day comes when you are able to reveal these thoughts with your family in an open and honest reflection on life as you now accept it. Best wishes.

    • Me too, Michelle. Likely will be quite some time before that’s a win in any sense of the word. Probably going to happen in little conversations here and there.

  2. Since I have given up my religious beliefs, I have found more meaning and purpose to my daily living than ever before.

    This rings so true. I gave up on religion earlier in life than Dennis, but I experienced the same thing. When the religionists tell us that without religion, life has no meaning — when they say that, they are completely wrong. It is religion that destroys meaning.

    Thank you Dennis, for sharing.

  3. This is so beautifully, logically written — and all the more poignant knowing that you are a closet atheist. May I ask some blunt questions? I don’t mean to sound ‘attacking’. I ask these things because in my own life, my enjoyment is often tarnished because I can’t be me. My life situation makes me almost a recluse and though I yearn to have conversations with someone other than my husband, I find that the contention that invariably ensues is not worth it. When I was younger, I was a Pollyanna Optimist but now I understand those great minds who say that life is mired in misery and a sea of struggle. So I ask: how are you able to be happy when you cannot express/show the real you to those who mean the most to you? Does it cause you any anxiety thinking about what could happen IF you came out and your family rejected you?

    • What GREAT questions, Trisha. Thank you for posing them. I can surely empathize with your struggle although my perspective might be a little different. I was the guy who brought everyone to the dance and then became disenchanted with the music and checked out.

      How can I be happy without expressing my feelings to those who mean the most to me? Truth is that it’s so much easier (which contributes to everyone’s happiness including my own) NOT to say anything. I’m pretty much of a joyful introvert so I’m VERY happy with my own thoughts within my own headspace. I do have a couple of friends with whom I can discuss my thoughts, but there’s no intersection with them and the rest of my “church life”.

      Do I have anxiety about being rejected? Simply put, no I don’t and I’m not sure exactly why I don’t. Generally, introverts don’t really crave the approval of others although immediate family is a very different story. I think they would all be really sad more than mounting an outright rejection. I don’t really want to cause that kind of sadness so I just keep my thoughts to myself, read on my Kindle (which is a big help), and I don’t share my thoughts on Facebook either. My sweet wife, who is a VERY devoted and fundamental Christian (reads/studies her Bible EVERY morning….), knows that I’m questioning everything. It was a little hairy at first, but she seems content not to discuss any of it and just focus on all the many wonderful things we enjoy together, ie family time as everyone lives within 20 minutes of one another, hanging out watching ‘Walking Dead’ or ‘Scandal’. (good Christian shows….), etc.)

      I find that I actually prefer to read, study, explore and figure all of this out on my own without a lot of discussion with others. The great authors of the genre (Hitchens, Dawkins, Coyne, etc) are my ‘discussion partners’. They speak to me and I write either encouraging or nasty comments in the margins (or notes on the Kindle) as appropriate.

      • Dennis, thank you for such a nice response and for taking my questions in the spirit intended. When you say you brought them to the dance, it makes me assume you became a Jehovah’s Witness?? That’s my background:) You have 5 years on me — perhaps in that time I will mellow out more myself. I just lack tolerance for people with black and white thinking, who prefer pat answers instead of living with questions or doing some critical thinking. I am envious of the balance you have achieved walking the tightrope. When I get flustered, I try to bring myself back to center with my ‘mantra’ that “life’s too short to waste it on this.”

        • Trisha, No, not JW, just your plain, vanilla, run-of-the-mill fundamental Baptist type Christian. Changed gears a few times in the last 40 years or so flowing usually to a more liberal interpretation of things. For awhile, if you can believe it, we even bought into the no drinking, no dancing, no Santa stories…. Sometimes I feel so stupid for having bought into all of it, but then I just consider it as part of my journey.

          Just watching my own journey, I’ve seen that the questions have to come from within. I’d never expect any Christians that I know to begin questioning things because of some fancy argument that I might present to them to “convince them”. Furthest that I’d probably ever go is something like, “I’m questioning a few things and here’s a couple of the books I’ve read, if you’re interested.” And let it go at that.

          You’re right… life is too short to fret over all of this! People should be free to believe whatever they want as long as it doesn’t impinge on my freedom to believe what I want to believe. (of course, there’s that whole discussion about all the problems, wars, deaths, etc that religion has caused over the centuries, but that’s a whole ‘nuther story probably for another discussion….. 🙂 ) Sometimes this is all just too much fun!!!! LOL…

  4. This is a great post! I felt the same after losing my religion…liberated!

  5. This is beautifully written, Dennis. I am one of the lucky ones – my husband, almost-adult children, and parents are all agnostic/atheists. It must be very difficult to keep those feelings inside, but I understand how hard it can be. (My in-laws are rabid Catholics who have no idea how we really feel, and would be mortified. They would spend the rest of their days trying to save us from eternal damnation.) Thank you for sharing, and know that you are not alone.

  6. Dennis, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree w/ every word of what you said. I come from a fundamentalist Christian background too & am not really out to my family either. It’s amazing how leaving that behind has freed me to really enjoy my life in new ways & to just feel more alive than I ever have before.

  7. “Since I have given up my religious beliefs, I have found more meaning and purpose to my daily living than ever before. So omnipresent was the promise of a better life after death that I gave nearly as much thought to the prospects of that existence as I did to my real existence here on earth. Now that I’m freed of those divided loyalties, all of my focus is here. Today! This very moment!”

    THIS.

    Thank you for your beautifully written thoughts.

  8. @Dennis What a wonderful post, and many thanks to you for sharing it with us.

    Other people have sort of raised this point since you wove it into your text, so I run the risk of joining the chorus (not a bad thing). It seems like so many religions are death-focused and discount what living is supposed to be about as the adherents wait for after-life. Therein lies the problem: “the after life.” What about the “now-life” as you so eloquently ask. It was the worship of death and the end of days that drove me from religion. I prefer instead to live and share life.

    Thank you for reminding me of this.

    • I so agree, Derrick. All this talk of the present moment and living in the now reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from years ago… goes something like, “The past is history. The Future is a mystery. The present is a gift. Why do you think they call it the present?”

      Might be a little on the corny side, but I like it! 🙂

      • Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places, my friend we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty, let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space? ~ Criswell — “Plan 9 from Outer Space”

  9. Marvelous insights, Dennis.

  10. Thank you for sharing that.  Dennis, well stated.  That is one of the best articulations of a secular life that I have ever read.  I remember coming across this idea in college, in the form of French existentialism, namely, what they call “existentialist engagement.”  That is, we humans create on our own meaningful worlds and our own conscience guides into a life of value and charity (the basic point of Camus’s the Plague).  Raised as a Catholic, this was my aha moment.  Ever since, it’s been an engaging and fulfilling life full of love, friendship, and charitable actions.  Religion, ironically, would have likely distracted me from all that.  Dennis, well said.  I honestly believe we are the majority, counting all those who “participate” in religion but only superficially.  

  11. Well said and a great explanation of how we atheists easily find joy in existence without needing the reassurance of an afterlife or the threat of ‘fiery hell’ if we don’t behave ourselves!!!

  12. Dennis, thank you so much for sharing your story. It shows there’s no age limit to learning to find a new perspective! Maybe there’s still hope for some of my family members, after all.

    My father is so focused on the after life, it definitely ruins his present. All he can think about when his thoughts turn to me is that his family will not be together in heaven. As I find this attitude intolerable, his family isn’t together now, either. It’s his focus on religion that keeps us apart, not his belief. If he could keep his belief to himself instead of insisting that I join in, I think we could have a really nice time together.

    Your thoughts do make me wonder how things would have been different if I had not “outed” myself to him. On the other hand, given the surveys that have been shared on this blog on the number of people who “go along to get along”, I wonder what would happen to the churches (not to mention the political dialogue) if everyone who didn’t actually believe just stopped pretending.

    • Diana and Trisha… Thanks very much for this comment. Trisha asked me earlier today, ” how are you able to be happy when you cannot express/show the real you to those who mean the most to you?”. I gave her an answer but your comment really helped me clarify WHY I’m so content to keep quiet.

      You said, “My father is so focused on the after life, it definitely ruins his present.” That REALLY made me think. This exactly why I don’t talk about atheism or anything very spiritual. I don’t want to ruin the present. It’s just NOT that important to me!! I don’t have any agenda to get anyone to not believe in god, I just don’t believe myself. To me it’s a non-entity, a non-subject to talk about something that I am convinced does not exist. Why would I spend time discussing the non-existence of unicorns, fairies or Zeus. There’s simply no point!

      It would indeed ruin the present, so that’s why I’m happy just to enjoy my own thoughts and share them with very cool people like you and the others who enjoy Debbie’s blog here!

    • Diana and Trisha… Thanks very much for this comment. Trisha asked me earlier today, ” how are you able to be happy when you cannot express/show the real you to those who mean the most to you?”. I gave her an answer but your comment really helped me clarify WHY I’m so content to keep quiet.

      You said, “My father is so focused on the after life, it definitely ruins his present.” That REALLY made me think. This exactly why I don’t talk about atheism or anything very spiritual. I don’t want to ruin the present. It’s just NOT that important to me!! I don’t have any agenda to get anyone to not believe in god, I just don’t believe myself. To me it’s a non-entity, a non-subject to talk about something that I am convinced does not exist. Why would I spend time discussing the non-existence of unicorns, fairies or Zeus. There’s simply no point!

      It would indeed ruin the present, so that’s why I’m happy just to enjoy my own thoughts and share them with very cool people like you and the others who enjoy Debbie’s blog here!

  13. Outstanding, Dennis! I could add no words to this excellent post. I, too, am a former Christian– conservative evangelical. Since losing my faith (the bible says faith is a gift of god, so I guess he just stopped giving!), I have felt more peace, contentment, love for others and acceptance of myself.

    Thank you for such a wonderful expression of the freedom of being released from religion.

    • Thanks, Matt. It was a great “shakeup” call, wasn’t it? I remember the day I was reading something and I remember thinking something like, “Hmmmm… what if all this sh*t I’ve been doubting all these years really ISN’T real?”

      It all started with a simple, eyes-open examination of the story of Noah’s Ark. ….FAKE! Then it went directly to the creation story. With a BS in Zoology from many years ago, studying evolution was a natural for me. That investigation is going on a year and not finished yet. Conclusion? Creation story …. FAKE!

      Then I went to, “Well, if there’s no Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden, then there’s no “original sin.”…………… (sound of atomic bomb going off in the background) Well, you can imagine where it all went from there.

      Feels so good to use my brain once again in the area of science, morals, ethics, perspective, life, and on and on….

  14. Dennis, I found your post to be so inspirational. When I went to grab one of your most poignant quotes, I could not. There are so many. Yes, we all have fears, but we’re united by them: the fear of illness, death, of losing someone we love. The good–the fact that we can think and breathe and love and build relationships–outweighs the bad for most of us, fortunately.

    You might remember me mentioning that my mother is a devout Catholic and my father identified as “nothing” (he would tell us). He didn’t know about god. My mom left him to his thoughts, and he went to church with her at times and supported her in her belief. I asked my mother if it ever bothered her that he wasn’t a believer, and she said, “No.” Part of having a successful marriage is knowing that you don’t always have to be right. That it’s okay to be different. But I guess this all hinges on what religion you believe in and if you think that atheism is a sin.

    Reading the comments, I also feel so privileged to be part of such an incredibly supportive group of people. Wow. You want a great example of humanism, people who are kind without promise of reward or of a god’s approval, just look at the above remarks….

    • Debbie, Thank you so much for the opportunity to share a few of my thoughts with this tremendous community of kind, thoughtful and engaging people. I have been both affirmed and challenged in ways that add color and texture to the shadows of the hollow and sometimes vacuous words I used to hear in church.

      Living where the “rubber meets the road” without any mystical deity to cushion the raw reality of life brings one a zest for living that is unequaled in the sheltered confines of religion.

      Thank you for your tireless and brave presence here. You are making a difference!

  15. I always wonder what it would be like to not have to take responsibility for things.bi could just give all my worries up during prayer and not have deal with it anymore. Having religion, in my opinion, is giving yourself a free pass that will not ever work. How can you think that praying for your troubled marriage will fix it? Take responsibility and fix it yourself. This is what I thought about after reading this guest post. Why waste your time hoping someone(thing) will fix it for you. Go out and live your life well. People who believe in all that waste a lot of time because they think everything will be magically better one day. Imagine if they just lived every day like there was nothing in the afterlife. Being mean and rude then asking for forgiveness is not the same as knowing there is no one to forgive but the person you wronged. This was kind of all over the place…… Thanks for letting me post some thoughts!

  16. Thanks Dennis. Is it not odd how it is still considered strange when a person discards superstition? In my country religion plays very little role in everyday life so leaving faith would in many cases alter nothing on the outside. I cannot even begin to understand the contradiction you live in – I know and understand that it is not nice to hurt people but would your loved-ones truly be hurt if you came to them with truth? At which point does the need for honesty overcome convenience?

    Ain´t it wonderful how modern technology has brought us these mediums with which to share and support. I have found it great to be able to find out who I really am by discussing with others – I was 36 before I finally found the need to be honest with myself and tell that I am an atheist or unbeliever.

    If we only trusted enough in ourselves and others – no religion would ever be needed.

    • @ saab93f… Thanks for the kind thoughts. What is your country?

      The problem with my family is that if I “came to them with the truth” they would immediately discount it as they are convinced that THEY have the truth. They would be anguished over the damnation of my eternal soul. While I would love to lead them out of the bondage of religion, I don’t really believe that my orchestrations of the arguments would turn their thinking. It has to come from within. So for now I remain quiet seeking for the greater good of harmony.

      I sense that one or two of them might be questioning as I am so when it’s appropriate I may hint at my own questions and see where it goes. I want it to be THEIR idea to dig deeper, not mine.

      • Hi Dennis. I live in Finland.
        I can somewhat understand your dilemma – hopefully you can at some point reconcile things. If not then as long as you are happy, it is enough.

  17. This is the essence of what this blog should be about. It is about how to live this life not about what others are doing wrong. Thank you for a refreshing insight.

  18. Hey Dennis! Goodness, what a brave story to share! Hope someday you can be out with your family and be open about your thoughts. I know how tough that is! I’m sending warm thoughts and virtual hugs your way in complete support!

    • @Rachael… Thank you, Rachael. I hope too someday that I can discuss this openly. But, as I mentioned to another commenter, for now I’ll remain quiet for the greater good of harmony. 🙂

  19. The pessimistic view of the human condition is that it is in a sense “absurd”. Absurdity is seen as an ontological mismatch between our desire for meaning and fulfillment and our inability to find or sustain those things in the world, or as Camus puts it: “a divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting”.

  20. Logical positivism and scientism paved the way for neopositivism , analytical philosophy , structuralism , and naturalism . Neopositivism and analytical philosophy discarded classical rationalism and metaphysics in favor of strict empiricism and epistemological nominalism . Proponents such as Bertrand Russell emphatically rejected belief in God. In his early work, Ludwig Wittgenstein attempted to separate metaphysical and supernatural language from rational discourse. A. J. Ayer asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements, citing his adherence to the empirical sciences. Relatedly the applied structuralism of Lévi-Strauss sourced religious language to the human subconscious in denying its transcendental meaning. J. N. Findlay and J. J. C. Smart argued that the existence of God is not logically necessary. Naturalists and materialistic monists such as John Dewey considered the natural world to be the basis of everything, denying the existence of God or immortality.

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