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How Being a Traveler Made Me a Better Atheist

by Matt Hershberger Nov 5, 2014

Like many atheists, I wasn’t born this way. I left the Catholic Church in my teens in a great huff of self-righteous fury that, at its core, had more to do with how much I hated sitting through an hour of mass every week than any moral stance about the Church’s take on gays, women, or pedophilia. The beauty of discovering morality in your teens is that you instantly realize it can be used as a smokescreen to help you avoid doing things you don’t want to do. I was intoxicated with this new power.

I became the worst type of atheist. I got into shouting matches with family members, I condescended to people, and I started expressing contempt for any tiny religious thought, even in the most inappropriate forums. I was like a hormonal Bill Maher.

At the end of my teens, I started traveling. I had done my reading — Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris — so I knew that, in order to be open-minded, I had to be equally contemptuous of all religions, so as I entered each new country, I tried to take in the cultures without taking in their religions.

I failed miserably.

Culture without religion isn’t a thing

One of the first things I noticed when going to certain countries was how inextricable the religion was from the culture. In South Africa, I got to see Nobel Prize winner and famed anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak. He said, “When they colonized us, they took away our freedom and they gave us a Bible. But this was a mistake. They did not realize that the Bible was a tool of liberation.” He then went on to talk about how important Christianity was in the fight against apartheid.

None of this had to do with whether the Bible was technically, rationally true or not — but the church provided activists like Tutu with a pulpit that they would not have had otherwise, and they united communities in a common space with common values. Christianity, which has been such a central part of colonial conquest of the third world, could be used against colonialism. This was my first lesson: any philosophy can be subverted. It’s true of atheism, too. The far-right libertarian loony Ayn Rand was an atheist. So was Stalin. So was humanist and leftist Kurt Vonnegut. Lumping them together is as ludicrous as lumping Desmond Tutu and Christian Afrikaners together.

People use religion for reasons other than belief

My second lesson was in Brazil. After a long dinner with all-you-can-eat steak and wine, me and my friends went to a small town’s Carnaval celebration. When I eventually left, seven hours later, I was soaked in sweat, wine, beer, and possibly a couple of other bodily fluids I’d lost track of. It may have been the best night of my life.

During the party, though, I kept seeing statuettes of a crucified Jesus and endless crucifixes. It was perplexing imagery to have coupled with at a party to say the least — the next day was Ash Wednesday, one of the most somber days in the Christian calendar. But these people were fucking rocking it like people who don’t believe in Hell, sin, or heavenly oversight. They were just having fun. And that’s when I realized: in many cases, religion is just an excuse to get together with your friends and party. It’s just not something I could ever pit myself against.

Traveling atheists

I’ve been traveling for ten years now, and I still don’t believe in a god. I’ve met a few other nonbelievers in my travels, but I don’t particularly like talking to them. In my experience, my fellow atheists have more of a chip on their shoulder about their beliefs than most believers, and it makes them difficult to be around. Which isn’t to say I’m not still on their side, It’s just to say that I can understand why people would not want to be on our side.

What travel did for me — what travel should do for everyone — is it slurped all the contempt right out of me. It’s hard to fully participate in a culture, see where people are from, how they live, and why they do the things they do, and really feel anything except warmth for them.

In the first act of Hamlet, Hamlet says to his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” You just can’t be all that rigid about your philosophy when you’ve seen some of the things that don’t fit into it. And that’s true as much for believers as nonbelievers. You are better than no one, travel taught me, and there are things you don’t know and will never know.

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