On May 13, 2012, Mother’s Day, I happened to glance at a paid obituary in the Redlands (California) Daily Facts for Mary Russo McCormick, born in 1934 and died on May 6, 2012. She had penned it herself. It read, in part, “Mary did not have a courageous battle with anything and did not pass on, go to join anyone, or go to a better place. She died.” After recounting her life and love of family, friends, and travel, she wrote: “A convinced atheist, she wanted a private and unceremonious cremation and she did not want a funeral. Anybody who’s interested can come to her interment in Redlands, followed by lunch at Lupe’s on her. She had a truly interesting life, and she enjoyed it, which is all anybody can hope for.”
I wrote a short letter to the newspaper saying that I found McCormick’s obituary utterly engaging, full of humor, and honest and that it had made me smile and even giggle with delight. So, with such a letter, did I come out of the atheist’s closet? I think a close reading would intimate that I was sympathetic, but I didn’t say “I’m an atheist too,” did I?
Well, here I come, once and for all, out of the closet. For me, denying the existence of God is the only thing that makes sense. I have utter faith that no God exists. It really is part of how I think of myself. I know, for instance, that the universe is about fourteen billion years old and that the earth is about four and one-half billion years old. I am well aware of how in all likelihood life got started and how the process of evolution works. I’ve also just read biologist E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, which confirms many of my views. I know that chimps and humans have common ancestors and that we Homo sapiens beat out the Neanderthals. I know there are no virgin births or any other such nonsense. I know that human beings belong to the animal kingdom.
The suffering that is a part of all conscious life, whether just a happenstance (starvation, disease, a drunk driver), the result of the will to survive (the suffering of the mouse being swallowed by a snake), tragedy (sudden infant death syndrome), or intentional cruelty perpetrated almost 100 percent by humans (gendercide, genocide, rape, murder, torture) is much too pervasive to be part of any loving creator’s plan. God and suffering simply don’t compute.
I understand perfectly what death is. I didn’t exist for the first fourteen billion years of the universe’s existence, and I didn’t miss a thing. Well, I won’t miss a thing after I die, either. While I’m alive, I lament this human condition. Would I love to spend eternity loving my family, reading good books, and playing golf twice a week? You bet. I really don’t want to die, to lose all consciousness completely and forever. But one thing I will say for sure is that I want to be living or dead, but not dying. I might want a little help at the end. Humanity has got to grow up about death and dying, not only to save billions of dollars but to be kind. There is no reason for suffering at the end of life.
The religious impetus is a mixed bag. People do wonderful, selfless, generous things because they believe that this is what their God calls them to do. It’s all in their heads. Many expect heavenly rewards. I am also utterly convinced that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism and all of their offshoots and branches and sects ad infinitum have been to a large extent silent witnesses to the greatest and most costly evil on the planet, that of pervasive gender inequality. The cost to people and the planet has been incalculable. Think about it. There has never been a human being who has not come out of the womb of a woman, yet around the world, girls are fed less, educated less, and valued less—that is, if they aren’t aborted in the womb or killed as infants simply because of their gender. Where is the religious outcry? Where is God? When the world takes care of women, women take care of the world.
Agnostics and atheists also do wonderful, selfless generous things because they see a need—because, genetically, humans are social beings possessing empathy. But they also can be just as blind as any believer to the scourge of gender inequality.
Here is a tricky part for me. For ten years I have been, more or less, a public person, being cofounder of 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund. (Please see www.34millionfriends.org.) As a guest of UNFPA in Mali and Senegal, we called first on the local imams. Did I say, “Je suis athée”? Of course not. Many people have told me I’m doing God’s work. What am I supposed to say in reply?
UNFPA is adamant about working with religious leaders so that they educate their own people about reproductive health. Realistically speaking, this is a crucial element of their work. It’s the right thing to do. But I could say that I advocate for UNFPA because I’m not religious. I would like to do a tiny bit to leave the world a better place when I die. 34 Million Friends is what I’ve chosen to do. Would some people be less likely to support 34 Million Friends if they knew of my atheism? Perhaps so.
If the money now spent on wars over water, land, energy, and gods—and, with the planet careening toward 9.3 billion people in the next forty years, if the money that will be spent on wars over water, land, energy, and gods in the future—were to be spent on education, health, and gender equality, oh my God [joke], what that could mean!
In the twenty-first century, family planning and legal safe abortion remain controversial, because of religion. Isn’t access to family planning a huge scientific and humanitarian advance? Isn’t it psychological terrorism to preach to some illiterate exhausted mother of six that God doesn’t believe in contraceptives? After all, there is no God to care one way or another.
Hasn’t abortion always and ever been a human activity since humans evolved the brain that figured out that it was possible? There are twenty million unsafe illegal abortions performed in the world every year, seventy thousand deaths, and over five million cases of injuries, hemorrhages, and infections requiring post-abortion care (PAC). It has its own acronym! The fact that abortion is so condemned by much of patriarchal religion is a crime against humanity and particularly against women.
Being born is the greatest lottery conceivable. There is no right to life. On the contrary, trillions of sperm and billions of eggs never make it.
Isn’t it clear that sexuality and sexual orientation are matters of genes, not of gods? Isn’t it true, as E.O. Wilson points out, that women are open to intercourse at all times, and isn’t this a biological adaptation to keep the male around because human babies demand such a long commitment? Isn’t this why humans have the institution of marriage? Marriage is, at its core, a good human invention. Monogamy is probably a good idea. Can’t we worship common sense?
And then there’s the small stuff. I don’t bow my head and pretend to pray at invocations. I don’t say “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I abhor it when presidents say “God bless you” and “God Bless America.”
I know there are millions of us atheists on the planet, maybe even a billion. I’ve often thought of the huge hypocrisy of many church- or temple- or synagogue- or mosque-goers. They go mostly to win the approval of their “tribe,” as Wilson would say. Or they may appreciate the call to conscience, or the beautiful music. But what if, for instance, Queen Elizabeth, as head of the Church of England, has figured out that God doesn’t exist? What is she supposed to do?
We atheists are everywhere. We have figured it out. It’s time we said so in whatever way feels right to us. The more we say it, not out of the blue of course and not gratuitously but when the occasion arises, the more people will feel comfortable with us. They may join us. Voilà, I’m out of the closet!
Jane Roberts is a lifelong champion of gender equality and all it entails, including access to reproductive health care. In 2002, she cofounded 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund, a grassroots movement that over ten years has garnered over $4.2 million by asking thirty-four million people to contribute one dollar each.