There's atheists, and then there's Atheists! Dan Barker is one of the latter, an activist, in-your-face, eloquent promoter of "Who knows?" over "I have faith that..."
I've mentioned Barker's book, "Godless," in quite a few previous posts. (To find them, scroll down and use the Great Genuine God Google search box in the right column of this blog; type in "Dan Barker.")
Barker speaks of what he knows when he writes about religiosity, because he used to be an ardent evangelical Christian preacher. Eventually he saw the light and became an atheist agnostic.
If that sounds funny, Barker explains:
People are invariably surprised to hear me say I am both an atheist and an agnostic, as if this somehow weakens my certainty. I usually reply with a question like, "Well, are you a Republican or an American?" The two words serve different concepts and are not mutually exclusive.
Agnosticism addresses knowledge; atheism addresses belief. The agnostic says, "I don't have a knowledge that God exists." The atheist says, "I don't have a belief that God exists." You can say both things at the same time. Some agnostics are atheistic and some are theistic.
...Agnosticism is the refusal to take as a fact any statement for which there is insufficient evidence... Basic atheism is not a belief. There is a difference between not believing there is a god and believing there is no god -- one is the absence of belief and the other is the presence of belief.
Here's some selections from Dan Barker's final chapter which I liked.
On the increased value of human life when you don't believe
We atheists believe in life before death. Before we were born, there was a very long time, perhaps an eternity, when we did not exist, and it did not bother us one bit. The same will be true after we are dead. What matters is that we are alive now. These living, breathing, hurting, singing, laughing bodies are worth something, for their own sake.
...If life is eternal, then life is cheap. If we waste any moment of our precious lives on the hope of an afterlife, we rob ourselves of real joy and value in the here and now. Our lives are all we have, and we should enjoy them to the fullest, minute by fragile minute.
On the purpose of life
"If there is no hope of eternal life, then what is the purpose of life?" is a question we atheists often hear. My response is that there is indeed no purpose of life. There is purpose in life. If there were a purpose of life, then that would cheapen life. It would make us tools or slaves of someone else's purpose.
Like a hammer that hangs on the garage wall waiting for someone to build something, if we humans were designed for a purpose then we would be subservient in the universe. Our value would not be in ourselves. It would exist in our submission to the will of the toolmaker. That is slavery to a master, or infant dependency on a father figure. Besides, if there is a god, what is the purpose of his life? If he doesn't need a purpose, why do we?
...There is no purpose of life. Life is its own reward. But as long as there are problems to solve, there will be purpose in life. When there is hunger to lessen, illness to cure, pain to minimize, inequality to eradicate, oppression to resist, knowledge to gain and beauty to create, there is meaning in life.
A college student once asked Carl Sagan: "What meaning is left, if everything I've been taught since I was a child turns out to be untrue?" Carl looked at him and said, "Do something meaningful."
On the reality of spiritual experiences
"But my personal religious experience of knowing and loving God is so special," believers will often say, "that I feel sorry for you atheists who have nothing like that." Oh, really? I play jazz piano.
...Suppose I were to say, "Oh, you poor non-jazz musicians; you don't know what you are missing. I can't describe it to you, and even if you listen to us you are not going to understand what is happening in our minds. It's very real and you'll just have to take our word for it."
You would understand that I am talking about something that is happening to me, not to you, and the fact that you lack my inner experience is no threat to your own self-worth or worldview. What if I were to say that the only way you can have true meaning in your life is if you practice piano for four hours a day for 20 years and learn to play jazz, like I did? You would think I was joking, or seriously deluded.
I do not deny that spiritual experiences are real. They happen all over the world, in most religions. I deny that they point to anything outside of the mind. I had many religious experiences, and I can still have them if I want. As an atheist I can still speak in tongues and "feel the presence of God."
...I know some atheists who pooh-pooh religious experiences, thinking they are all made up, purely psychological tricks of an unsophisticated mind. But they are wrong. Religious experiences are very real. I had them as a believer, and I can duplicate them as a nonbeliever.
Most of us have had convincing dreams. Suppose you had a horrible nightmare that a bogeyman was crawling in your bedroom window. You sit up screaming, waking up the rest of the house. Your hands are sweating and your heart is pounding and your breath is shallow. No one would deny that you just had a very real experience. That nightmare was a powerful moment, with physical consequences. Based on your behavior alone, we would conclude that something happened to you.
But there is no bogeyman crawling through the window. Once you realize it is a dream, you can relax and go back to sleep. That's how it is with me. I have realized that these religious experiences that I had, and can still duplicate if I should desire, are all in the mind. Of course, why would I want a phony religious experience -- especially the nightmare of hell? -- when I can have something more beautiful playing the piano?