23 February 2012

Why I'm an atheist, Part 1: A History

Over on his popular blog Pharyngula PZ Myers has asked for submissions on the topic of "Why I am an atheist." He's gotten enough of a response that he posts one every day, picked at random. The following is what I submitted. It's basically a summary of my experiences with religion and atheism in my life. In Part 2 I'll discuss the particulars of my outlook.

Why I'm an atheist 

If I had to put one reason above all the others, it'd probably be dinosaurs.

I absolutely loved dinosaurs as a preschooler and kindergartener (and still do, though perhaps not so obsessively). Any worldview presented to me that didn't include dinosaurs and their epic reign over the Earth was doomed to fail. But my interest in those ancient beasts was also the seed of a passion for and understanding of science in general. From a young age, the fact that dinosaurs lived tens and hundreds of millions of years ago was an almost mundane matter of fact. And even if I didn't really understand the methods, I could at least see that scientists presented arguments for assertions such as the age of rock strata that seemed to be based in the real world.

Perhaps because it had to compete with things as obviously awesome as dinosaurs, religion never appealed to me in any way. When I was young we went to a Methodist church somewhat regularly. But all the words just sort of bounced off me. I'd love to claim that it was because I was some sort of precocious, incredulous youth, but what I really think it came down to was that I just didn't give a shit. Attending church was a chore. The stories weren't interesting. There were times when I'd notice that the other kids in Sunday School seemed to have committed some of the stories to memory, and even seemed to think they were pretty important. And I'd wonder if perhaps I should feel that way too, but in the end they'd still just be a bunch of stories about shepherds and their sheep, and any motivation instantly evaporated.

Furthermore, the whole social environment of the church unnerved me. One credit I will give my younger self is an instinctive aversion to group-think, a trait I may well have inherited from my mother. I probably wouldn't have been able to explain it then, but the whole idea of this group of people participating in these rituals that seemed to have no basis or purpose in the world that I knew outside the church left me uneasy. Maybe it's just because I'm inherently a bit of a loner, but I never had the sense of community from church that people often go on about. The whole place and experience felt alien to me. I could feel like I belonged in my family, and I could feel like I belonged at school, but I never felt like I belonged in church.

The fact that there was no religious pressure at home also no doubt helped. My mother has since told me that she brought us to church because that's what she'd come to think good mothers did. These days she sees that she wasn't a believer herself, but it's only been since I've come out proudly as an atheist that she's been able to do the same. When I was young she didn't push one way or the other, so religion had to stand on its own against things like dinosaurs, and clearly that was a hopeless struggle. Just to get me and my siblings into the church she had to bribe us with the promise of a trip to Dunkin' Donuts afterward. And so for me at that age "religion" was basically the boring time before doughnuts on Sundays.

As I got older I devoted a little more thought to the concept of religion. I knew other kids who talked about church experiences different from my own, such as attending CCD. I began to wonder just what it meant to be "Methodist." From what I looked up, it seemed like Methodists were committed to a more literal interpretation of the Bible. I was coming into adolescence at this point, so I had a bit more of a desire to be part of a group, so I tried to be proud of that definition of a Methodist. "Well, if we're going to think the Bible is holy then ya, it's probably a good thing to treat it as literal." The problem was that I didn't think the Bible was true, and would have been a lot happier to hear that my particular sect took it with a grain of salt. (To be honest I still don't know if what I found back then is a good definition of a Methodist, but to this day I can't be bothered to care. Whenever I start to read about quibbles of religious doctrine, my eyes just glaze over.)

By this age I had also come to the realization that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into my station in life. I had an idea that there was great suffering in other parts of the world, and I realized I hadn't done anything to earn being a child in the United States rather than in some other, less fortunate part of the world. I eventually came to the same realization in terms of religion: that had I been born into another life, I could very well have had another religion. Furthermore, all these religions were equally convinced they were right, and with nothing that I saw as evidence for any of them, I wasn't prepared to say any single one was more correct than the others. And that of course led me to consider that none of them knew what they were talking about.

Even if the specifics of religious doctrine seemed foolish to me, the idea of a deity was still somewhat appealing. An omnipotent being who sees your problems and has the power to intervene definitely sounds like it could be a source of comfort, and I knew that people around me saw it as such. But to me "God" never felt like anything more than a stranger, and I didn't like the idea of a stranger being in my head and controlling my life. And how could he ever be anything but a stranger? How was I supposed to relate to an omnipotent being, or it to me? I can relate to people, but people have hopes and fears and bodies and homes and beginnings and ends. And names. "God" isn't a name, it's a category. This alleged "person" in the sky struck me more as a thing and, more than that, a thing that I couldn't see or feel, and that didn't have any effect on my life that I could discern.

There were a couple times when I tried praying, but never with serious expectations of a result. There were plenty of times I issued challenges to this "God," though. I'd think, Alright, God, if you do exist, prove it by moving this object in front of me in 3, 2, 1, NOW. Needless to say, nothing ever moved. Add to that the fact that there was enough suffering in the world that it didn't seem like anyone else's prayers were being answered either, and I wound up without much reason to believe that there was anyone sitting at the other end of the line. I occasionally worried myself over the notion that this being was constantly judging my thoughts and actions, but I eventually realized that I had no good reason to believe that there was anyone else in my head with me. Take out the supernatural rewards and threats and I still feel happy about doing good and guilty about doing wrong. My conscience is entirely internal.

A real freeing moment was when I came to the conclusion that any god who would condemn an otherwise good human being to an eternity of suffering simply because that person didn't believe in it wasn't a god worth worshiping. I know now that it's a pretty basic argument, but I had to come to it by myself, and in doing so I felt a weight lifted off me. All I had to do was lead a good life. I didn't need to concern myself with this God, and if a good life wasn't good enough for him, well then I'd only know for sure that I'd been right all along in not worshiping him. The idea of an eternity in Hell still sounded pretty terrible, but my own integrity mattered more.

Meanwhile I'd gone from wanting to be a paleontologist to wanting to be an astronaut, and my passion for outer space and the nature of the universe continued what dinosaurs had started. Now I was accustomed to a scale of many billions of years and the unremarkable station of Earth among the cosmos. Even if I couldn't always follow the precise reasoning, science's explanations seemed to have a good sense to them that religion couldn't hope to approach. Science's conclusions were based in the world in which I lived.

At some point in middle school my siblings and I were at a summer program at another local church. It was reasonably fun for the most part; I recall very few religious aspects. But at one point they had us all gathered around for some songs, and one guy came out with an acoustic guitar and opened with, "Oh, there's no such thing as evolution..." At that point I just threw my hands in the air, declared "DONE," and walked away for good. Figuratively, anyway. I wish I could have done it physically as well as mentally, but in any case it was a (perhaps the) major breaking point from religion for me. I just couldn't deal with the blithe ignorance-of-reality set to song any longer. And for a while after that I just didn't think about religion at all. Quite happily, I might add.

It started to creep back into my consciousness in high school as I started to notice the role it could play in politics. At that point I called myself agnostic, and started to accumulate better reasoning for my non-belief. I gradually became more outspoken about it, but it wasn't until college that I really adopted my non-belief as a significant part of my identity. Part of the impetus was an increased exposure to the dire depths of stupidity plumbed by creationism/intelligent design in my experiences as a biology major. Another major factor was a girlfriend who was incredibly outspoken in her own atheism, and didn't shy away from that term, whereas I had still preferred agnostic. The last big thing was StumbleUpon; the arguments I saw while Stumbling through the atheist/agnostic category cemented my own convictions about the inadequacies and perils of religious thought. I also became more comfortable with the term "atheist" when I saw that most who adopt it don't claim to know with certainty that there are no gods. By my assessment, most just assert that there's no compelling evidence for any gods, so in all probability they're not there or else just completely irrelevant to our lives, and that's my feeling as well.

As attested by this harangue, there have been quite a few factors that led up to my eventual self-identification as an atheist, and no single one of them is "the" reason. But I think an early passion for the truths of the natural world—exemplified by my early love for the dinosaurs—laid an important groundwork for my later intellectual growth, and gave me a compelling reason to resist the efforts of religion to poison my mind before I could reach a sufficient age to approach it logically. And I would of course be remiss not to thank my parents for encouraging dinosaurs and all my other interests and for letting me explore my options and come to my own conclusions. I'll do my best to do the same for my own kids someday.

In Part 2 I begin to discuss the particulars of my identity as an atheist.

1 comment:

  1. I was so afraid that I was condemning you all to an afterlife of hell if I didn't bring you to church. I certainly didn't want to be responsible for that.

    So, I did what I believed a good and responsible mother would do. I had you baptized, even though it didn't really mean anything to me. It was more a family tradition, and hopefully a ticket to heaven, in case I was wrong. I took you to Sunday School and thought how cute you were in the Christmas pageant, even though the story it told seemed more a children's fable than a true story.

    Of course, I took you to church against your will and against all your protests, especially your youngest sister's loud complaints. I soon learned bribing you with a trip to Dunkin' Donuts was the key to getting you there quickly and quietly.

    I sat in the pew one Sunday morning among all the "believers", feeling like an outsider, and it occurred to me that I didn't feel like a "good mother". I felt like a hypocrite. I wondered how I could continue to force it upon you, when you were just as miserable as I was with our Sunday morning routine.

    I do have my children to thank for "giving me permission" to accept myself for who I am. None of the church's teachings ever rang true for me, but it was so hard to let go completely. I still wonder how many "believers" actually do believe, or only say they do, just in case.

    It took decades for me to reach this point of accepting my own atheism, but listening to the sensible things my teen-aged children had to say helped me to let go completely. I have never felt freer, nor more at peace.

    I love you.

    P.S. I still like Dunkin Donuts on Sundays, except now I know it's OK to sleep in first.