I was recently reminded of an old argument I used to hear about the pitfalls of atheism, which asserts that atheists must have an inherently low self-esteem if they believe in evolution because who could have a high self-esteem and believe they are descendant from apes at the same time? (Presumably we have a higher self-esteem if we can conceive ourselves as being created as a result of a magical dirt act performed by a benevolent, omniscient creator). I remember that I agreed with the idea once upon a time, I did spend plenty of time within the four walls of church after all. Yet, having removed myself from religious influence and declaring myself an atheist (I did my own research and thinking) I can solidly testify that the reality is the opposite – atheists tend to have a better and more mature self-esteem than those who would defer to an invisible entity.
The premise of having low self- esteem as a result of being descendant from monkeys is really a demonstrative sign that a total lack of understanding evolution is evident. Once one takes the time to study the process of evolution (monkeys and humans share a common ancestor, we did not descend from them), we realize how incredible human life and consciousness really are and such a realization only serves to increase one’s self-esteem. The understanding that we humans have overcome thousands and millions of years of challenges, including surviving harsh environments and genetic setbacks, fills me with dreadful awe every time I think about it. The mind-blowing immenseness of space and time compared to the smallness of this compilation of stardust called Frankie stirs within me both deep humiliation and determination: humility in the sense that I was given a shot to perpetuate my genes and have an influence over the future of our species, and determination in the sense that I understand this is my only shot and by god, I’m gonna make it count. Both emotions only serve to bolster my self-esteem. YAY! My millions-of-years-of-tested genes will live on, AND I actually have the opportunity to make an impact in my world because I am one of a few animals who have attained consciousness. I’m all that and a bag of chips. Truth is….. we all are.
Understanding my invaluable – ness within the framework of evolution and the vastness of the universe is only a part of achieving a healthy self-esteem as an atheist. The second component of an atheist’s healthy self-esteem is derived from acknowledging that there is no god. By doing so, we recognize that we are responsible for ourselves. Once I decided that I was on my own I not only felt the greatest of freedoms, but I also discovered the greatest of burdens – that of accountability. See, I could no longer blame sin, the devil, or some demon for my inconsistencies since I had cast those fictional characters off of my radar along with angels and a god and a savior. The reality is that I am the one who has to deal with my fallacies; I am the one who must face them on my death bed, and at the end of each day. The result: I am wholly more conscience of my actions, words, and deeds; therefore I am much more careful with each of them. They mean more as well since I am motivated by an innate sense of ‘rightness’ instead of a set of rules put in place by a sketchy deity and dogmatized by religion. There is a massive amount of self-esteem gained from the recognition that I have the power and ability to express morality merely on the basis of my own consciousness, without an outside influence.
It’s a big step of maturity to take, for sure, when one outgrows the confines of religion and takes personal responsibility for their deeds. It’s also a big bolster to one’s self-esteem when realizing that yes, we can behave well, totally on our own without the motivation of reward or punishment. We learn that we can trust ourselves, and there is no better foundation to a healthy self-esteem than to be able to trust one’s self.
I can easily take the ‘trust’ factor a step further. One of the issues many of us deal with along the road to understanding is the idea that Jesus story is really only one of a thousand myths told over and over throughout our history, clear back to our ancient ancestors (Joseph Campbell’s Heroes With a Thousand Faces is a great resource for this notion). It occurred to me while I was ruminating over this idea that we humans are a tenacious lot. In each of our hero stories, in all of our movies, in the many narratives we hear, good always overcomes evil. We simply do not know any other way to plot the story line. When I realized this, I gained a massive amount of self-esteem. We humans clamor for right and justice. We always choose good over evil. We know nothing different. We can therefore possess a deep sense of trust in our species.
There’s another perspective to the self-esteem issue that I’ll include here and it addresses the thought that somehow having a benevolent creator lends itself to a higher self-esteem. “I am special, I was created individually by almighty god himself,’ goes the presumption and by being singled out by an omnipotent being I am supposed to have a higher self-esteem. Instead, we get stuck in an egotistical mindset that everything revolves around us. We threw a fit (for centuries, mind you) when someone asserted the possibility that the sun does not revolve around us. We become demanding to the point that we insist others abide by our set of rules. We also abuse our earth-home because, well, after all, we were created to rule over it. Demanding, egotistical, and abusive….these are not the traits of a healthy self-esteem.
Then too, when one is always deferring to another, how can we know ourselves enough to establish a healthy self-esteem? If I am only focused on an outside force, I have no way to realize the good within myself which is inherent in all of us. I have no real opportunity to develop self-esteem if I am unable to make decisions on my own and learn to trust myself.
There is a need to come to terms with the misconception that one’s self-esteem can only be realized within the framework of a creator when the opposite appears to be true. From my individual experience and by way of testimonies of hundreds of others, living without a creator begets a healthier and more mature self-esteem than living with one does.