What Would an Atheist Do, Part One: Religious Language and Cultural Artifacts
What Do Atheists Do Without Belief in God to Guide Their Every Word and Action?
Quite some time ago a Christian writer on HubPages posed a long list of questions as a way to try to understand atheists better. I thought I'd tackle the list of questions both to help that writer learn one atheist's answers and to help him see which questions may be the product of misinformation or propaganda.
You should read his list of questions, too, both because there are many more than I'll cover here and because they're guaranteed to give you some insight into the mind of a believer. I found it really helped me to see how he sees atheists, and how he sees his own ethics and morality.
Since the writer had so many questions, some with multiple parts, I've decided to answer them on a series of pages rather than on just one. I've decided to sort the questions into what sort of topic they address and answer the related questions on pages together. I've chosen to start with the questions that deal with religious artifacts in our language and culture.
What Do Non-Believers Say Instead of 'God Bless You' and How Do They React When Someone Says 'God Bless You' to Them?
I generally say Gesundheit, which is German for 'wishing you good health.' It's sort of like saying I hope you aren't sick.
When other people say 'bless you' to me when I sneeze, I say 'thank you.' It's part of being polite and I doubt most Christians are thinking they're literally praying for the person who has sneezed when they say it.
How Can Atheists Use Profanity or Swear if They've No God Against Which to Blaspheme?
I don't use "God damn it" because it upsets believers. In public, I usually use some fake profanity like "razzenfratzel" or I just say "Doh!" like Homer Simpson, because some people will be upset or judge me as a terrible person if they hear me swear and write me off as a potential equal permanently. In private, I use real curse words like "oh, balls" or the f-word or maybe even a long string of them if the pain is particularly awful or if I'm yelling at myself for having done something particularly stupid.
For non-religious people, swearing is merely the emphatic use of words known to be rude during times of stress or high emotion.
What Do Atheists Teach Their Children About Historical Figures like America's Founding Fathers Who Believed in God?
When my parents taught me about the Declaration of Independence they told me that many of its writers believed in God and that 'endowed by their creator' meant the rights were innate, inborn, and didn't have to be earned. Many of the Greek philosophers also believed in Gods and Goddesses, but they still had many great ideas to share, as did our country's founders. Historical figures can't be judged by modern standards and they can usually be expected to have been products of their time.
The Declaration of Independence was written by human men who were all the products of their time. Some were even slave owners! To a child, the fact that some of the men were pretty awful human beings is more likely to be upsetting or troublesome than the idea that those men believed or claimed to believe the religion they had to be seen believing in to be listened to at the time in history in which they lived.
Politicians have to believe in or pretend to believe in God to get elected even in the 21st century. There's nothing surprising about the fact that the same thing was required hundreds of years ago.
How Do Atheists Celebrate Holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving?
I find it deliciously ironic that you use those three holidays as examples.
Christmas as now celebrated bears more resemblance to Pagan celebrations and ancient non-Christian religious holidays since the Catholic Church moved the celebration of Jesus' birthday to a time that conveniently lined up with them. Lambs aren't born in December. So as a Christian, you're celebrating Pagan and Roman festivals when you celebrate Christmas in December. If you have no problem celebrating Saturnalia as a Christian, why should atheists?
Easter is literally the name of a Pagan Goddess whose celebration is held on... guess when... Easter. The eggs and Easter bunnies are Hers. Easter Sunday is the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the Spring equinox to honor Easter, a Goddess of Spring and fertility. I've long wondered why Christians didn't call Easter something else instead of just naming it after the Goddess who had a celebration going on when Jesus was executed.
Thanksgiving is the celebration of what the Native Americans did to keep the Pilgrims alive their first difficult year in America. The Native Americans were thanked for their generosity and neighborly (but not Christian) spirit with a feast or so and then with forced religious indoctrination that included the stealing of Native children well into the 20th century, not to mention a side order of genocide and massive cultural theft.
I don't get into the capitalism and waste of traditional American Christmas so I don't do the traditional things like maxing out my credit cards or buying injection-molded plastic junk that will go into a landfill. I just spend time with my family and cook nice things for us to all share. When I was young and healthy, I used to volunteer to help poor and homeless people because the holidays tend to make the divide between how much our society cares for the haves compared to the have-nots particularly wide, stark, and obvious.
On Easter, I sometimes participate in egg hunts and I definitely eat some chocolate eggs or bunnies even if I don't believe in the Pagan fertility Goddess associated with the holiday. Setting up fun activities for children on days a lot of people get off from work and eating chocolate shaped like eggs or animals doesn't mean I believe in Her. I also often make a ham with lots of nice side dishes because my family likes ham. The very best hams are most easily found in supermarkets near Easter.
On Thanksgiving, I cook a turkey and we celebrate the good people and things in our lives. We talk and do loving things for each other. Sometimes we say what we are thankful about to the people we are thankful for having in our lives. I also sometimes send thank you notes and/or small gifts to people who have made my life easier, better, or more pleasant. It may be the friendly mail carrier, the nice man who owns the neighborhood convenience store, or the woman who sent me cheery emails because she thought I was feeling down. It's perfectly possible to be thankful toward and nurturing toward other human beings. If you think about it, you are sure to realize that you do need the people around you and they do make your life better. It's also possible to feel gratitude toward people who are no longer living or for things that have gone our way without a person behind them.
Do Atheists Avoid Using Words Related to Religion, Do They Make up Equivalent Words to Use Instead, or Do They Just Use English?
I don't avoid commonly used words derived from religious sources because they are part of our language, and they have come to have much broader meanings than they originally did. I don't believe in the supernatural, and I have no fear of using such words, so no replacements are necessary.
If you are honest with yourself, you'll realize you don't mean something is literally like the Hell you believe in if someone calls it hellish and you don't think a child described as angelic is actually like the Angels you believe in. If I call a bite of cheesecake heavenly, I really only mean it tastes extremely good and I'm pretty sure that's what you'd mean by it, too.
It also doesn't mean I believe in the root source of those words if I use them any more than it means you worship Saturn, God of war because you use the word Saturday or that you worship Thor because you use the word Thursday.
All of these things are cultural artifacts to me and likely to most atheists. If you carefully consider them yourself, you may see them more as cultural artifacts instead of as part of your core belief system.
If I call a bite of cheesecake heavenly, I really only mean it tastes extremely good and I'm pretty sure that's what you'd mean by it, too.