(First a quick disclaimer: I purposely do not capitalize god, jesus, allah, names of religions, groups of religious believers, etc. This is a choice I made when I started this blog. It has been pointed out to me in the past, and again when I had a friend read this post, that this does not follow the correct rules of grammar. I know this is the case but I still, to the best of my ability, do not capitalize these words for a reason. Hopefully those who read this with an eye for editing can get past this minor issue.)
This post is going to be a bit different than my typical posts. Instead of talking about my opinions on some topic or sharing something I find interesting, today’s post (being my 500th on this blog) is going to be much more personal; today’s post is my own story…
I am an atheist. It took me many years and much searching for the right words to describe myself, but I can say it today. I may not fit all of the stereotypes, but I am an atheist. I don’t have any hesitation with the words. I am many things, among them being I am an atheist. I don’t have any feeling of regret, or feel that I am missing out on anything in my life. I am more than just skeptical of religion, I am an atheist.
But I should start at the beginning, where all good tales begin. I was not catholic, but I was raised to be catholic. Despite the fact that both of my parents broke just about every rule of the church possible, they called themselves catholics went to church regularly, and dutifully took the kids to catholic christian doctrine (CCD, the catholic version of Sunday school) and mass every week. I was taught the sanitized version of the bible from before I can remember. Taught to have the patience of Job. Taught to have the wisdom of Solomon. Taught to have the love of jesus. Taught to have the faith of Abraham.
In fact, one of my earliest memories of questioning was related to Abraham. I don’t recall how old I was, but I can remember the room as if it was yesterday. We were being taught the story of Abraham and Issac. The teacher (for lack of a better word) asked if anybody knew Abraham’s wife’s name. Being a bit of a smart-ass I replied “Mary Todd” (Abraham Lincoln’s wife) to get a laugh out of the rest of the CCD class. A few of the other kids chuckled and the teacher snapped at me, which made me just want to push back more.
So I had heard the story of Abraham and Issac before, but had never really given it much thought. And having older brothers, even at a young age, I may have had what some would call a “dirty mouth”. That along with my personality, which some might describe as combative led me to my next comment. As we were being told the story of how Abraham heard a voice and blindly listened to that voice, so that he was willing to kill his own son, I raised my hand. Now some people will recount stories of things they said as a kid and say “I didn’t know I would get in trouble” or “I didn’t think about it, I just said it”. This is not one of those cases. I KNEW I was about to get in trouble for what I was about to say, but I wanted to make a point and “get back” at the teacher for snapping at me for a harmless joke earlier in the class. So once I was called on I said, as sweet and innocent sounding as I could manage, “But doesn’t that make Abraham a dick for being willing to kill his son. If my father had a knife in his hand about to stab me, I’d want somebody to stop the fucker.”
As you may guess, I got in trouble. I was sent to the pastor’s office (and this being a catholic church you are justified in asking, but no I was not raped and/or molested; apparently I was not cute enough or I just got lucky and the pedophile priest had the day off), my parents were called, and I was told that my behavior was unacceptable. I don’t recall my exact punishment (after all these years the punishments seem to run together), but I do recall feeling that it was worth it.
I recount this little tale to show that even as a child I did not conform to what was expected, I didn’t mind causing controversy, and most importantly I questioned things (even from so called authority figures). It’s not a life changing event by any means, but it does give a fairly accurate glimpse into how I think. This incident did not “make me” an atheist. I don’t even know if it could really be considered the beginning of my TRULY questioning religion (because at the time I think I was too young to really understand what I would later come to question). It was just one small incident that has stuck with me all these years.
I had many other run-ins with church authorities over the years, and as I got older I knew that what they were “teaching” was wrong, but it took me a while before I was ready to respond. I continued to go to CCD, I even went through “Confirmation” (a sacrament undergone by mature catholics to show their commitment to the church).
There are two points I’d like to make about this.
First, I did this, not because I believed or really wanted to believe, but because at the time it did not seem like a big deal and I had a few friends going through it at the same time with me.
The second is one I have thought about in the years since then. Most catholics are confirmed between age 12 and 14. This is supposed to be a mature decision to give your life to the catholic god, yet almost nobody I knew at that age really had a mature understanding of their own belief, much less other alternatives. And yet the church pushes kids to do this. I look at it now and it seems quite predatory in a way but at the time I never thought of it as being anything of significance. Part of the confirmation process is to adopt the name of a saint who you admires or feel a special affinity with. We had been given this as an assignment, one which I did not do. So when it came time to tell the priest who our saint was, I just said the first name that came to mind. And I wasn’t the only one in my group to “choose” their saint in this way. Should the church really expect kids who are not making any real effort to be showing their commitment to anything? I’d argue that it’s ridiculous for the vast majority of kids to be asked to make any sort of commitment at this age.
But I went through the steps anyway. I had a very good friend next to me and a few other friends in the class, so why not? I mean it’s not like I felt it has any real meaning. I had even been an altar boy before my confirmation, but I became one, not to help the church or to gain or strengthen my faith, but to stave off boredom. If you’ve ever been to a catholic church service, it’s monotonous, dry, and dull. All you do it sit, stand, and kneel at various time. However the altar boys get to walk around, ring bells, actually DO something. So once I was old enough, I figured why not give it a try. This didn’t last long right after being “confirmed” I stopped going to church.
I knew the mass inside and out, I had been “confirmed” and I had been an altar boy. Any reasonable person at that time would have said that of course I was catholic. But I never believed the stories I was told. I never accepted the idea that the bible was the source of morality. I never thought jesus was more than just another “holy man” trying to teach ethics. And most importantly, I had never actually believed in god. But I also had never really cared about god or religion at this point in my life. Sure, just about everybody I knew claimed to be some version of christian. And I certainly did not know any *gasp* atheists. But religion or faith were just meaningless to me. I had assumed that god was like Santa, and at some point the adults would acknowledge what seemed obvious to me that it was nothing more than stories.
Around this time my father (who had remarried) became a born again christian. He believed unequivocally in the power of prayer, he spoke in tongues, and he believed in a literal 7 day creation story and a 6,000 year old universe. My youngest brother was born and for a time my father and his wife believed that he was the second coming of jesus. At least until around age 2 when he broke something and lied about it – then he was downgraded to a prophet. As far as I am aware, when my father died a few years back, he still believed this of my brother; and his mother still believes this about him.
For me, seeing this extreme version of christianity for myself was a bit of a revelation. I knew there were different versions of the cult of jesus, but other than what one learns in history class about the protestant reformation and Martin Luther, I really did not have a grasp on what the major differences were. I went to friends’ churches and noticed that services were a bit different than the catholic church, but it seemed to me to be the same message with slightly different packaging. So for the first time I really started to think about religion and what it meant to believe.
So I was a non-believer, but I also understood as a kid that the odds were against me being right. I knew what I did NOT believe, but I really had no clue what I did believe. In fact, if somebody had ever actually asked me, I would have said that I did not believe in the stories I had been told. If those stories were a description of god, then I did not believe in god either, and the REASON I did not believe was a lack of convincing evidence.
But I did not stop there. I knew I did not believe, but at the same time I assumed I was wrong. I have never been comfortable with being wrong, so I had to find out the truth for myself. I decided to start by reading the bible – not just the passages that were read in church, but cover to cover.
I forget who said it, but the first thing that came to mind was essentially the idea of “if god is perfect, why would god make Shakespeare a better writer than the authors of the bible?”. I mean there are some beautiful passages in Psalms, but overall, the bible is a TOUGH read. Perhaps it’s being too picky to say that a perfect being could write something that itself is perfect, but we’re talking about a PERFECT being here, not a “kinda good” one… How can a perfect being create something that is not also perfect? Any deviation from perfect in the creation shows non-perfection in the creator. I’ve touched on this line of thought before in a previous post, The jewish/christian/muslim god as a bad computer programmer, so I won’t spend too much time going into detail here.
At this time I did not notice all of the historical and scientific inaccuracies in the narrative or all of the contradictions, but I did notice some of the more obvious ones. In the 10 commandments god tells mankind not to kill, but on many occasions tells people to kill (or just does the killing himself) and not just kill those who deserve it, but innocent children. This book, which is said to be the source of morality, condones slavery, teaches mankind how to beat their slaves “appropriately”, doesn’t seem to have too much of a problem with rape, and treats women as inferior to men; plus I still had those pesky issues with the story of Abraham and Issac.
Luckily, even though I had stopped going to church, my grandparents lived across the street from the archbishop of Atlanta, so I had a good source to go to. My grandparents used to have him over for dinner occasionally and sometimes I’d be over there on the same night, and I began questioning him at dinner. It took a while, but eventually my grandparents would wince and try to shush me every time I was about to question the archbishop. To his credit he was seemingly eager to try to answer my questions – I say try, because he rarely gave me an answer that I found satisfying.
Keep in mind that at this time I knew that I did not believe, but I also assumed I must be wrong. So when I would question him, I was expecting him to show me a way of looking at things that would make it all clear. I figured that few would be better than an archbishop to show me that this religion is correct. Other than having an audience with the pope or jesus, there are not many people who would understand the catholic faith better and be able to show me why I was wrong for not believing. So I’d pepper him with questions: “Why was Abraham willing to kill his son? If my father had a knife and was standing over me and told you he heard the voice of god, would you let him stab me or would you try to stop him? What’s the difference between my father holding a knife over me and Abraham holding one over Issac? But how do you know that Abraham really heard the voice of god? Charles Manson claimed to talk to god, how do you know he’s lying but Abraham was not?” He would typically give some vague meaningless answer which was no answer at all, leading to more questions from me, and eventually he would fall back on one of three themes: “The bible is the word of god. We can’t know the mind of god. We have to take it on faith.”
With my personality these answers were not good enough. “The koran and book of mormon claim to be the word of god too. Why are those false?” “If we can’t know the mind of god, why does the church claim to know that he would be against condoms?” “I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough. I need evidence.” Needless to say these conversations usually ended in my being frustrated and the archbishop being annoyed. I was unsatisfied, and the archbishop was unable to answer my questions, so what was I to do?
I accidentally came across the answer; I’d switch schools. So I enrolled in a catholic high school with the idea that maybe the archbishop was unable to show me because he was not a teacher. It was so simple: who better to show me the flaws in my thinking about religion than religious teachers at a religious school… As it turned out, it was not so simple. The religion class taught all the same things I had learned in CCD and church years earlier. Sure the language sounded a bit more intellectual, but they were cherry-picking which stories to teach and avoiding the difficult ones, which just happened to be the ones I wanted to learn about. So I’d often interrupt class or catch the teacher outside of class and pose the same basic questions I had posed to the archbishop. And unfortunately I got essentially the same responses.
Once again I was left feeling unsatisfied and lacking the answers I was after. I just had to be wrong; everybody I know believes. And my earlier idea that religion and god were like Santa (that as I got older the adults would say “just kidding!!!”) was obviously not coming true. Tese people I had been talking to REALLY believed. They had certainty and I craved that level of certainty. Knowing what I did not believe was not good enough; I needed to know what the truth was. I had always been the kid who was not only good at math and science, but enjoyed them. It was easy to my mind. If there is a right and wrong answer, then I can find the right answer in those areas. But I couldn’t find the answer to religion and it was really starting to piss me off. I do not like to lose or be wrong, and here I was sure that I was wrong, and despite my efforts I was not able to see why.
It was then that I flashed back to what I had first realized as my father became more and more of a fundamentalist christian: there are multiple versions of religion. Maybe the reason I was not able to “get it” was that there was a flaw in the catholic teachings and understandings. What I needed was to look at religion and god from a different point of view than the one I had been brought up with. I now had a plan and this time, of course, it would work. There was a protestant church down the street from me, not more than a quarter of a mile, and it had a school as well that went through 12th grade. I’d enroll myself there, and learn christianity from a different perspective: and then I’d finally understand.
Little did I know that it would be even more unbelievable than the teachings of catholicism. I was told the earth is 6,000 years old, that noah’s flood really happened and caused the formation of the Grand Canyon and other features of the planet, and that jesus was coming back (most likely in my lifetime). After checking with them a number of times to make sure that they were serious and it was not some elaborate joke or I was going to be on the next episode of Candid Camera, I finally came to accept that they really believed what they said.
Up until this time I had questioned “authorities” about what the bible said and what they believed, but I never really talked openly about what I myself believed. Since I assumed I was wrong, why would I confuse the issue with my own beliefs? But now I finally pushed back. I was no longer content to ask questions about what did not make sense to me. I was no longer content to assume that others had their reasons for believing and that I should learn from them. I read the bible again, this time looking for ammunition to use against my religion teacher (who also happened to be a pastor at the attached church). “Why does the bible claim Pi is 3? We learned that Pi is 3.141593… and yet this supposedly divine book can’t do simple math correctly.” “Why do both the old and new testaments condone slavery?” “If Adam and Even had two sons, who was the mother of Adam’s grandchildren? Were Cain and Able fucking their mom? How do you know the answer to this without it being in the bible? If you can know something from a source other than the bible, doesn’t that imply the bible is not the source of all knowledge as you claimed in one class?” “Who wrote the first few books of the bible? If it was Moses, then who wrote his death scene? Nobody else was there to witness it, and he certainly was not writing it down after the fact.” “Why is the order of creation different in the first two chapters of Genesis? And why does the order not correspond with what we know of the processes that created universe, the sun, the earth, and all life?” “Who created the creator? Well if the universe can not always have existed, then why can god always have existed?” “How do you KNOW that the bible is true? Well don’t muslims give a similar explanation for KNOWING that the koran is true? Why is your book real and their book is fiction?”
Needless to say at a fundamentalist school, with my combative attitude, I was a bit of an outsider and not exactly the favorite student of the teachers. But I had finally come to realize, just because seemingly everybody I know believes something, doesn’t mean that I am wrong for not believing it. I finally accepted that perhaps I was right all along, but I understood that I could not say yet for sure. I still had more research I needed to do on the subject, but I had a new direction to look now. Obviously judaism is a lot older than christianity, so maybe it was christians that had corrupted the truth. I’d go to the source and see what I could learn. But for once, I was not going in to be told where I was wrong, I was going to see what they had to say so I could evaluate it myself.
So I found a temple not too far from where I was staying and began questioning a rabbi there occasionally. Obviously I left out any questions relating to the new testament, but all of my old testament questions were still valid. And I heard something I had not heard before: “It does not matter if god exists or not; what matters is if the torah helps you live a better life.” A rabbi who admits that god might not exist? I was dumbfounded. All I had come across in my search was certainty and no answers, and here I was given answers, but no certainty. He admitted that many of the stories were just that: stories. He told me that the issues I found were ones he had struggled with himself. He explained that the torah (and by extension the old testament of the bible) was never intended to be taken literally; it was not a history book and should not be read as one. He told me to take what I could from reading the book, and whatever did not fit into a moral view of the world I should understand was written in a different time when society was not as evolved as it is today. Finally I had a way to understand religion and take from it what I could, without compromising what I knew to be true.
With my new-found outlook on religion, I decided I should take the time to look into a few of the other major ones in the world. I set my sights on mormonism, hinduism, islam, and buddhism. However at that time in Atlanta, at least as far as I was aware, I was not going to have an easy time finding teachers. But I could at least go to the library and look for their books. I checked out the koran and the book of mormon to start, since at least I had heard of those two, and began to read.
I would like to be able to say I studied these religions and these holy texts as in depth as I had done with christianity and judaism, unfortunately I can’t. I had kind of burned out on the religion and god questions around this time. Also since I now had an entirely new outlook (thanks to the rabbi) that allowed me to not believe in any religion, but still appreciate and use some aspects of it. I read some random passages of both the koran and book of mormon, but I did not read the entirety of either book or talk to experts as I had done previously. In the back of my mind I knew I was doing it half-assed, but I expected that I’d go back later and study more in depth. I just wanted to be able to say I had studied islam and mormonism, so I did the minimum I could so I’d feel comfortable saying that. At the time it seemed to me that it was more of the same I had spent years thinking about, and I kind of just wanted to get it over with and move on to the next “thing” in my life, whatever that would be. Also I never got around to reading about hinduism or buddhism at that time; in some way they just seemed too foreign and I did not want to put in that much effort then.
So I ended my search for the truth about religion for then; and finished my high school years comfortable in my understanding of god. I did not believe in god. I accepted that the bible and other holy texts were the work of men (and not a supernatural being) and that, while there may be problems with those texts, but they have some valuable things to teach. I was of the opinion that other people had the right to their own views. While I was convinced that there is no god, I could see that others believed and I could understand some of the reasons why people might believe. I was 17 years old (maybe 16) and I had answered one of the most difficult questions that has faced humanity, and that answer made sense to me and seemed to fit all of the facts. And this worked for me, at least for a while.
For the next few years I thought very little about religion. I got married (and later divorced) and, due to her family’s strict catholic beliefs, I agreed to do it in a catholic church. I’d have preferred a different location, but I went along because it didn’t really make too much difference to me. I celebrated christmas for the first time in a few years (her birthday is December 25th so christmas time has always been a big deal for her) and even went to church on christmas eve with my in-laws. I did not enjoy going, but I did not gripe about it; I just day-dreamed during mass about almost anything else. When the topic of religion came up with friends I would not shy away from what I believed, but I did not aggressively question them on their beliefs and I was almost certainly not the one to start the conversation. I did not believe in god, but if anything I was mostly apathetic about religion.
Then the terrorist attacks of September 11th happened and I lost my apathy. Other people’s religion was no longer their personal matter as far as I was concerned. I was open about criticizing the beliefs of people, even my friends. Once again religion had become a subject of interest for me and, this time, I was more aggressive than I had been in the past. If I knew somebody had beliefs that I considered to be especially ignorant, I’d happily challenge them to explain their beliefs and I’d point out all of the flaws in their world view; however, for your typical run-of-the-mill liberal christian, I’d typically not bring up the topic of religion myself (that’s not to say I’d remain silent if they made the mistake of bringing it up).
At this time when asked what my beliefs were about god, I would reply something along the lines of: “I can’t see how god is required to explain any aspect of the universe and, without some type of evidence that can only be explained by god, I just don’t believe. That doesn’t mean I can prove god does not exist – just that there is no need for god.” If asked about my thoughts on religion I would have said something like: “Religion was created by men to explain the unknown and to help justify the power held by such a small group of people over the majority.”
My ex used to cringe when religion was brought up, because she knew that once I started, I was like a dog with a bone. I was not willing to “agree to disagree” or to “show some respect for somebody’s faith”; instead I would not rest until I was proven wrong or the other person (or people) admitted not just that they were wrong, but WHY they were wrong. Needless to say this caused more than a few arguments with my ex, who does believe in god, and over time she essentially refused to discuss certain topics with me. So between my friends and coworkers “learning” not to bring up religion and my ex refusing to talk about religion or god with me, I really had no outlets to discuss what I felt was an interesting and important topic.
I called myself agnostic, but admitted I did not believe in god or any religion (which now I see as a contradiction). In fact I now had many specific reasons that the religions I had studied were false. My own views were fairly well established by now, but I still felt I had more to learn.
At some point I was given a copy of a book that would accidentally get me started on my quest again. I’ve always been a fan of Tigger and somebody (for the life of me, I don’t remember who it was) gave me a copy of the Tao of Pooh. It sat on the shelf for a while, but one day I picked it up and started reading; the next thing I knew I was at a book store buying The Te of Piglet and a handful of other books on Taoism. It made so much sense to me that without meaning to, I was becoming a Taoist. My early understandings of Tao taught me to not concern myself with why, but only with how to make my way through life’s journey. I devoured book after book on Taoism and in a short time began to think of myself as Taoist. Now I never got into the meditation aspects of Eastern philosophies (although I tried a few times), but many of the principles and ideas made a lot of sense to me so I adopted them.
I liked many of the ideas of Tao and even called myself a Taoist. I liked the idea of a deistic god. Not that I believed it, but it would help to explain the origins of the universe. I liked the idea of learning more about islam, mormonism, hinduism, buddhism, etc. Even scientology. But with no outlet to discuss my ideas I mostly internalized my thoughts and did not do much new research on the subject.
Then in 2005 I got a new job, one where a large number of my co-workers were not only non believers (the first non-believers I had ever met, as far as I knew), they were very vocal about their views. We openly talked about the dangers of religion in the office and, for the first time, I had kindred spirits when it came to views of religion and god. A co-worker turned me on to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. It took me a while to get around to buying it, but once I opened up End of Faith I read it that weekend. Before I finished the book, I called myself an atheist for the first time. I instantly ran out and bought The God Delusion, and read it just as quickly. My ex came home one day with a copy of Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell, saying the guy at the book store said I’d like it. At first it did not seem quite what I was looking for, but I decided to give it a shot. I was hooked: not only was the book tremendous, but many of the questions I had, but had never thought to ask (or knew how to ask) were answered for me. The next year (I believe) Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great was released and I went through it just as quickly as I had the others. By getting this job, for the first time I had found other people who shared my views on religion. It’s hard to explain how liberating that was – to know I was not alone.
Since that time I have becomes very active in “the community” – joining groups like American Atheists, American Humanist Association, the Center For Inquiry, and more. I have become an advocate for Secularism and I have learned about Humanism (so I no longer have to only define my views by what I don’t believe – I can also define what I do believe to be of value). I have spent much more time studying the literature on atheism, theism, and deism. I have done yet more research into religion and learned about the origins of some of them as well as their holy texts. Everything I have learned has led me to one simple conclusion.
I am an atheist. This journey had taken me almost 20 years, but today I can say; I’m not just a non-believer… I’m not agnostic… I’m not just skeptical of religion… I’m not just searching… I am an atheist.
It took me almost two decades of study to say those words, but now it comes easily.
I am an atheist.