I run a blog that is for the most part dedicated to skeptical matters. I write about the problems with ‘ancient aliens’ hypotheses, or why chiropractic is a poor use of one’s money, and every now and again I write about skepticism with regards to social movements, philosophies, or belief systems. It’s fun, it gives me a chance to exercise my critical thinking skills, and it allows me to interact with people I might never otherwise deal with.
Running a blog also opens me up to criticism from people who think that I’m wrong, in the pocket of “Big Insert_whatever_I_hate_here”, or that I’m an evil, hell-bound sinner. I’ve been called everything from an egomaniacal fascist, to a ‘boy-raper’, to a dead man. Yep, actual, honest to Vecna death threats. Apparently some people think that I deserve to die in horrible ways for daring to question the efficacy of homeopathy. Moving on…
One of the things I don’t often write about is atheism – specifically my atheism. It’s not that I am ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it; it’s just that I don’t find it to be a particularly important part of my life. Yes, I understand that it can be very important to other people, but it’s just not something that’s very central to my self-concept. I was a skeptic long before I acknowledged my atheism, and it was through skepticism that I lost my faith.
I was surrounded by religion growing up. My mother is religious, almost her entire family are religious; while my father is atheist, his family are all active members of their religious communities. In the center of all of that faith was my home where Sunday mornings we went to mass, on Wednesdays we went to catechism, and the rest of the time we spent doing whatever we wanted. My dad didn’t hide his atheism from anyone, and my mother never hid her faith, just as my dad never hid his stanch conservatism and my mother never concealed her proud NDP roots. Mom used to protest things, and Dad used to arrest people who protested things. My home was a study in conflicting values and, if I am to believe the tales from the internet, should never have even happened – apparently it’s impossible for atheists and theists to live together (so sayeth Reddit’s r/atheism). I grew up loving dinosaurs and space and science and books, and my faith was interwoven into all of it. Dinosaurs were God’s creations, just as we were, and we all lived in a universe that he created and continued to watch – like some sort of reality show, maybe. We talked about the Bible sometimes at our mandatory family dinners, where dad would smile and say ‘Religion is fine, so long as you don’t believe in it’, and mom would say ‘oh hush. Let them believe what they want and you leave them alone.’ And so we did, and so he did. I guess they felt that so long as they made sure to teach us how to think about things, the rest would follow naturally. I think for them it was more important for us to be good people and positive contributors to our society.
My mother believed – and continues to believe – that the Bible is a collection of parables, fables, and metaphors. We are to think about them, learn from them if we can, and avoid treating them as though they were the literal Words of God. To her mind, even if God is perfect, humans aren’t and a perfect message filtered through imperfect beings will always result in an imperfect translation. She’s a pretty bad Catholic when you think about it, and that makes her the best kind of Catholic to me. Dad on the other hand, thought the beliefs of the church were silly, but he recognized that faith gave a lot of people comfort and hope, and he’s never been opposed to that. He looks at mom’s faith as a quirk of her personality, not the whole of it. They’ve been married over thirty-five years.
I lost my faith in university. I began my post-secondary career as a believer and an ardent conservative; I was opposed to abortion and gay marriage, was in favour of wars of aggression and retribution, and figured that leftists of all stripes were misguided, ‘overly-PC’, and weak.
Losing my faith was a gradual process that began largely due to my love of philosophy. I wanted to be a philosopher when I was younger (before I learned that I love politics more than any other form of theatre around), and so I took as many courses as my schedule would allow. And I did fairly well too. It wasn’t long before I was applying my new-found critical thinking skills to everything – science, medicine, politics, society, advertising, everything. Except religion. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree, I was a socialist and a lover of all things Foucault. In my third year, I met a wonderful young woman named Sarah and we started dating soon after. She and I are still together and pretty damned happy about it. She’s a believer and considers herself to be a bad form of Catholic. And that’s fine with me.
I found the skeptical movement in the summer before I began my graduate studies. I found the Skeptoid podcast while randomly clicking through the iTunes store, and after listening to an episode, I was hooked. The more I was drawn in to the world of skepticism, the more critically I began to look at my beliefs and it wasn’t long until I ran up against the wall I had built around my faith. Breaking through that wall took relatively little time or effort, but abandoning the ideas I found there took a while longer. When I finally accepted my atheism and ‘came out’ to my mom, her reply was ‘well, okay. Are you coming out to visit soon? I have eggs and meat for you to take home (my folks have a farm).’ Sarah didn’t care either – she had known long before I had, apparently – and her family (all staunch, orthodox Catholics) were disappointed but steadfast in their assertion that they still loved me, which was nice, I thought.
Looking back on it, my loss of faith was just about as easy as it could have been. I lost no family over it and few friends; my partner didn’t care, and my family seemed indifferent. Mom still goes to mass, dad still doesn’t. I’m still welcome at Christmas and holidays, and when I go I respect their traditions even if I don’t share their beliefs. I have no objections to faith per se; I have serious problems with some expressions of it. I appreciate the many wonderful things that people have done in the name of their religion – from the Hagia Sophia to the Sistine Chapel, from The Divine Comedy to Gregorian chant. Religion can foster some pretty vile attitudes, beliefs, and practices – the crusades, inquisitions, witch-trials, and genocides of the past few millennia can attest to that – and as a lever of control, it is without peer. But I’m not the sort of person to call for the enforced removal of faith or religion from people’s lives; if you believe in God, a god or gods, then fine, have at it. If your belief in said being drives you to act in ways that I find repugnant, then we’re going to have a problem. I care less about what you believe than I do about what you do.
I’m an atheist because I have no good reason to believe in God. I can find no evidence of his existence, and so without evidence – without a reason to believe – any belief I might have in God is not justifiable. My skepticism led me to my atheism, and I don’t see much chance of it leading me out again.
Other people are free to believe what they’d like about religion or atheism; this is what I happen to believe.