Russell here. I’ve been feeling left out of PZ Myers’ series on how people became atheists, but I thought it would be greedy of me to try to guest post on his blog when we’ve got our own. So instead, I’m posting my own story here.
My parents are both of Jewish cultural/ethnic backgrounds, with roots in Germany and Eastern Europe. They are also both more or less atheists — my dad more, my mom a bit less.
Continued below the fold…
Mom has some attachment to reform Judaism as well as some new agey “spiritual” tendencies, although on the whole I still think of her as being more skeptical than most people’s parents. My dad and I used to occasionally get taken to temple and we would sit in the back together, making jokes under our breath. Nevertheless, my mom’s influence won out enough to have me bar mitzvahed and to send me through three years of Jewish summer camp, both of which I still view as generally positive and enjoyable experiences. If nothing else, I can still read and sound out Hebrew writing, although my vocabulary is next to nothing.
I first became aware that atheism wasn’t “normal” when I started going to Kindergarten in Alabama, where just about everyone I knew was a Christian — except for some connections my parents made through a Unitarian church. Kindergartners are not well equipped to handle theological debates, so one day after getting in an argument with a friend, I came to my dad, confused. “Daddy, if there is no God then do we think that ‘the nothing’ made the world?” I asked. I don’t remember many details of that conversation, but I assume that he explained some scientific background, and then threw in some background about religious beliefs and why so many people have them. He is, after all a scientist, and anyway that’s what I would do now.
I don’t remember encountering many serious challenges to my atheism until college. When you’re a kid, everything seems very black and white anyway; the information you get from your family is just stuff you “know” to be true. Getting older, I got in a few minor arguments with Christians in the high school debate club, but I also had quite a few unbelieving friends, so it wasn’t much. My freshman biology teacher skipped over teaching evolution, which my dad raised a stink about, but I didn’t have enough familiarity with the topic to care as much as I should have at that point. In senior year, my favorite teacher created a humanities class which brought in representatives of various religions, and my dad became their designated atheist for about 15 years. Unfortunately, I didn’t register for the class myself, but I’ve seen his talk and it’s generally well received.
In college I met a much broader base of people. There was a Mormon in my freshman dorm, who wound up leaving school after a year to go on a mission. I started to encounter religious tracts challenging evolution for the first time. There are a lot of advertisements for churches and religious groups around college campuses. I started encountering those delightfully crazy outdoor preachers who set up shop in a populous area and yell at people to repent.
And, of course, there was the internet. Back in 1993 it was a brand new thing to most people, and there were still a number of private dial-up networks that people signed up for. My family joined the Prodigy network, and I joined the “Teens” board and ran smack into a roiling mass of religious conflict. Needless to say, I dived right in, made myself a stupid screen name, and started offending kids right and left. It was great!
After all this exposure, I experienced a period of self-reflection. After all, I’d been an outspoken atheist all my life, and college is a time when you start re-examining your key assumptions. I saw church marquees as I walked to and from the beach which posed Pascal’s Wager to me: can you really take the chance that you might be wrong? And I asked myself: The vast majority of people I’ve ever met have believed in some kind of God. Surely, I wondered, mustn’t there be some kind of basis for this belief? How would I know if I was wrong?
So I started trying to approach the question scientifically. First thing I did was dabbled in prayer. There’s no shortage of reasons to pray in college. There’s that hot girl on the fifth floor and I’m still a virgin. (My concept of a potential god didn’t include quite so many sexual hang-ups.) There’s a tough test coming up, and I’m not sure I’ll pass this class.
Prayer didn’t help me get a date — as a nerd, it took a few years of self-improvement for me to figure out how THAT field of study works — but it did seem to help with school work. I noticed that after praying for support on a test, I felt calmer and more confident about my chances, and reducing the level of panic helped me focus better. But as tempting as it was to give God credit for that kind of minor success, I recognized that it hadn’t been a good test.
So I picked something specific and unlikely, but within the realm of possibility. I prayed: Some time in the next week, I’m going to get a sign. Someone is going to walk up to me and give me a big cookie. No explanation, no reason, no strings attached. Just hand it to me and walk away. I said that if this happens, I’ll give a shot to that Christian church I saw with the Pascal’s Wager marquee. I figured that it was weird enough that it would be a respectable sign, but not outrageous enough to be seen as demanding favors.
It didn’t happen, so I finally said to myself “Okay, I’m not the crazy one.” And over time, I dropped the idea of praying for help and accepted my atheism as the best bet about how reality works.
I’m not going to hide the truth here: I became an atheist because my family was full of atheists, and I agreed with them. Going along with your family is not a good reason to be a believer, and it’s not a better reason to be an unbeliever either. But since then, I feel like I’ve given religion as fair and objective a hearing as I could manage, and I’ve never found any good reason to switch teams. I don’t accept faith as a good reason to believe something, and I think even most evangelists acknowledge, deep down, that there is not much in the way of evidence or justification for picking their religion. I’ve got a great community of supportive friends here in Austin, and I’ve never been unhappy with the fruits of skepticism and disbelief.