Like everyone these days, I too can find meaning looking to the sky. I am not referring to a religious experience, however, even though I have often thought that in this day and age if the clouds parted and a voice from on-high spoke to me, I’d be more inclined to wonder how ‘they’ did that than to think it was something supernatural. No, looking up to the heavens in this burgeoning Pittsburgh spring, during a time of year saturated by religious ritual and dogma, I am compelled to point out that as a non-believer, a freethinker, and humanist, that I too can perceive beauty and derive meaning from all that life has to offer. When it comes to belief in gods, I am an agnostic about what I can know and an atheist in what I believe.

The meaning I derive from my reflective look skyward in this instance, stems from contemplating the clouds passing by, considering their genesis and finding the shapes of animals or familiar objects in the otherwise amorphous shapes. This human tendency is called pareidolia and it is not limited to the pop-culture phenomenon of seeing Jesus in a cheese-doodle or the Virgin Mary is the grain pattern of a wooden door. Our brains are designed to seek out patterns and assign meaning, even where there is none. This can be seen manifesting itself as a component of the familiar Rorschach inkblot test; where you see a butterfly, perhaps I see a tree.

When I make observations about the natural world or am presented with evidence, my conscious will not allow me to simply be overwhelmed by the wonder of it all, influencing my world view for the worse. Study and analysis have revealed that the aforementioned clouds, for example, are not too complex to be understood or to have happened without design. Clouds are the product of the water cycle, evaporation and condensation, temperature, humidity and altitude, etc. They are not a mystery to us any longer. Critical thinking skills, fact-checking and the scientific method have yielded tremendous benefits for humanity, therefore I urge fellow Pittsburghers not to abandon these tools that make sense in every other aspect of our daily routines when evaluating religious beliefs… if you ever evaluate your religious beliefs. Truly, what do you believe, and why?

For those three-river denizens for whom the foggy cloud on the ground has already lifted, by now you may have enjoyed the likes of authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Barker, et al. If not, they offer several must-reads. For those of you who have not yet come out of the closet, rest assured that you are not alone. Consider the study ‘Preachers who are not Believers’ by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, readily available to read online. It is possible that the clergy you follow have already come to the conclusion that you are leaning towards, but they are stuck by cultural norms, and a lack of a 401k. Being an atheist does not, and should not define who you are. And as one of my favorite YouTube artists, NonStampCollector, likes to point out in response to a common claim, “If atheism is a ‘religion,’...then Not Collecting Stamps is a ‘hobby’.” Other YouTube must-views include TheThinkingAtheist, Thunderf00t, and TheAtheistExperience, among so many other incredible talents.

Pittsburgh has plenty of people who think just like you do on these issues. A quick internet search with keywords ‘Pittsburgh’ and ‘atheist’ will connect you with several of them. There are larger networks to plug into as well like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Center for Inquiry, or online at atheistnexus.org. A lack of belief in a god or gods has no bearing on your moral compass. It is my hope that my religious friends and neighbors are not murderers, liars and thieves only due to a fear of damnation in an afterlife; they are not these things because on the balance it is mutually beneficial to social beings as we are not to be. It is time to get your head out of the clouds and to challenge your beliefs, most likely the same beliefs as your parents or guardians, because being good has more to do with being human and a member of a community than any ancient text.