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Jan 31 2012

How I Became An Atheist

I’ve been following and enjoying Pharyngula’s “Why I’m An Atheist” posts for the last few months. I think they’re great, and really give a wonderful view into the diverse, personal paths through which we all find ourselves at this position, and have managed to move beyond the comforts and security of religious belief. Many of the stories are inspiring and beautiful, full of courage, intelligence, strength, integrity and all kinds of human virtues.

But to me, the phrase “Why I’m An Atheist” has trouble connecting. For me, it has never been a question of why. I did not choose to become an atheist, or notice something about it that suddenly made it seem more appealing than other spiritual possibilities. And there was no definitive moment at which I “converted”. In short, there was no “why”.

What there was instead was a process. A set of events, thoughts and questions that led me to the point where I was able to proudly identify myself as atheist. For me, the story of my atheism doesn’t answer a question of why, but instead a question of how.

I was raised in the Anglican church. My father wasn’t religious at all, but my mother was (and still is), though not to a particularly fervent degree (she’s been wonderfully accepting and supportive in regards to both my atheism and my transition). But still my brothers and I did go to Sunday school and Church every week, and were told all the usual stories. I believed in the literal existence of God, Christ, heaven and hell. But I was a strange, precocious, bright and inquisitive kid, and ended up asking lots and lots of questions. Our Sunday school once took us to visit the Catholic church in town, supposedly to educate us about religious tolerance. I ended up asking some kind of horribly inappropriate variation upon “wait, but these people aren’t following the same rules, so aren’t they going to Hell?”. Good point, Little Me. They can’t BOTH be right. Either you accept the premise being offered or you don’t.

I had this friend, we’ll call him Elijah. He was pretty much one of my only two friends, really. We shared the same birthday, we were both skinny and nerdy and awkward, we both were teased and bullied by the other kids, we were both rather clever (at least relative to the very, very small population of children in the South Shore village we lived in), and we both liked Dungeons & Dragons. He was an atheist.

We spent lots of our recesses and lunch hours just talking. Walking around and talking. Lots of it were the Big Questions of philosophy and metaphysics, in so far as anything two 10 year old kids talk about can be described as such. He gradually cajoled me out of belief in God, asking all kinds of questions, and encouraging me in my own. By the time I was 12, I had stopped going to church entirely, and had given up on belief in the Christian interpretation of God and spirituality.

It took me many more years before I ultimately came to identify myself fully as an atheist, first having to go through various phases like taoism. But this was how I stopped simply believing what I was told to believe. But what’s interesting is what happened to Elijah.

Shortly after I turned 13, I moved away to North Carolina with my mom, who had married an American. This left him without any close friends at all. I spent a year down there, it turned out to be a pretty awful year for reasons I’d rather not discuss right now, and I moved back in with my father, back in Nova Scotia, the following summer. There I met Elijah again.

He had just gotten out of a stay in the psychiatric unit of Halifax’s IWK children’s hospital (which I knew entirely too well from my own recurrent, severe asthma attacks). He had pulled a knife on another student at school who had been bullying him, took a swing, missed, then ran home, and had a breakdown, crying uncontrollably. It also turned out that, preceding the emotional breakdown, he had converted to being a born again Christian, now accepting fully the beliefs of his evangelical, hyper-conservative father (divorced from Elijah’s racist and conservative, but secular, mother, whose celtic-inflected Cape Breton accent failed to render charming her questions to me about how bad things were down in North Carolina being “in with all the niggers”).

Over the course of that summer, Elijah’s mental health declined. He began experiencing hallucinations, mostly coloured and shaped by evangelical Christian mythology. He often saw and heard demons, who taunted him and goaded him into violent actions. He was developing schizophrenia. The doctors attempted medications and various inpatient stays, but his condition worsened over time. I’d visit him when I could, and tried to be supportive, but it was all very hard for me. I was young, and stupid, and selfish, and had my own not-quite-insignificant problems I had to deal with.

As his illness progressed, Elijah’s religious convictions deepened, and he became wholly convinced of the literal truth of The Bible. From his perspective, this was a perfectly reasonable thing, since as far as he was concerned, he had direct experience of the metaphysical entities described therein and knew them to be real. They weren’t just ideas. He saw and heard them.

An important aspect of the clinical definition of delusion is that it must not be a belief that is common or accepted within your culture or sub-culture. So you would not necessarily diagnose a Haitian for being delusional if he believed in the power of the loa (like Erzulie The Great, the serpent Damballah or Bawon Samedi, father of the dead) to possess human beings. But where things get frightening and ethically complex is where a clear mental illness is feeding itself through a structure of magical thinking and paranormal belief that is accepted and encouraged within that person’s culture. How could Elijah draw the necessary lines between reality and that which was a byproduct of his illness when his culture, and likely many of his doctors, accepted the literal existence of the entities he was hallucinating? “Yes, there really is such a thing as Satan, but the one you’re perceiving isn’t the real one”. How could you convincingly argue such a thing?

It wasn’t the most rational or reasoned way for someone to arrive at atheism. It wasn’t like I had read Hitchens or Dawkins and suddenly had an epiphany, or suddenly understood that atheism is the more reasonable position. It also isn’t even a rational argument to use against religion, since there’s no real tangible connection between religion and schizophrenia. But for me, what it was was an experience that produced a strong and visceral emotional reaction, a catalyst. I couldn’t help but connect what was happening to my friend with the religious beliefs into which he’d been indoctrinated by his father. I couldn’t help but see the connection between the beginnings of his illness and his conversion from atheism to born again. This was the person who himself had brought me into atheism, who asked me all the right questions. This was the friend who taught me to think through those issues for myself and arrive at my own conclusions, and here he was surrendering himself in the darkest and most tragic way imaginable to those systems of belief he had taught me to question and reject. Who he was and who he had once been were not reconcilable to me.

There was no way I could ever again regard religion in a positive light, or view it as anything other than a product of human fallibility; our propensity for magical thinking, teleological reasoning, our need to seek comfort and a semblance of understanding, a sense that the world is a secure and meaningful place.

I also became terrified of how easy it is for a human mind to slip away, how the tiniest bit of damage to our brains or slightest shift in their chemical balance can wholly rob of us our selves.

Years later, when we were 17 and I was taking a little trip by myself back up to Nova Scotia to hitch-hike around and catch up with old friends, I found Elijah again. His condition had improved, but not the belief systems. He was still Christian, but had also become a neo-nazi with a specific hatred for Aboriginal Canadians (he tried to justify this worldview to me by referencing the Redwall books we’d enjoyed together as kids. I’ve never been able to look at them the same way since). We spent a week smoking weed (that he showed me actually grows wild in some of the woods in NS) and PCP and smashing his medications into “cocktails” that completely fucked up our heads. One of them had the interesting side effect of almost complete amnesia. A whole week of my life of which I have only vague, shadowy, fragmented recollections. One of the more vivid memories, however, was Elijah propositioning me for sex. He said we wouldn’t remember anyway. I knew from experience that we would. He would have hated himself so much.

But even all that didn’t really leave me an Atheist. Just an Agnostic with a bit of a grudge, really. I had sort of begun to understand the harm of religion, but I didn’t yet understand the benefit of its absence or the benefits of skepticism, doubt and reason.

Developing as a skeptic was of course a big push in the right direction. That was initiated by a few things… probably the most obvious, and the one that makes the best story (which I’ll tell in more detail someday) was how during my first year of college I’d begun believing very much in conspiracy theories. Once I woke up from that I had a much deeper understanding of the degree to which a person is capable of convincing themselves of some really weird things. Other bits and pieces were my studies of linguistics, for me all about not taking things at face value and questioning your implicit assumptions and intuitions, reconsidering the modes of thought you take for granted. Another was my growing distrust of ideology and political propaganda, the ways that we allow ourselves to be deceived, the dangers of not questioning what you believe to be right, and the dangers of believing what you want to believe. Bit by bit, I gradually pieced together a strong belief in skepticism and the value of critical thought, intellectual humility, the moment of hesitation, the ability to accept that you might be wrong, all of it. From that slowly emerged the confidence to happily and proudly describe myself as atheist.

Adding to this, of course, was the position I ended up in in relation to my sexual orientation and gender identity. I find it’s sort of interesting, the way that a queer person can end up approaching atheism in comparison to that of say a heterosexual cis man. For the latter, it’s an issue that’s often primarily intellectual in nature. It’s a matter of integrity, ethics, and the fact that the religious position simply isn’t the correct one, and is additionally a very dangerous mentality. Many such atheists will also further accept the issues of how religions have a tendency to undermine or hold back human rights. But it becomes a slightly different thing when you yourself are the target, the object of hatred the religion’s are pointing to, the person whose human rights are being undermined. When an aspect of your identity you’re not really able to do anything about is perceived as the sin, you as the sinner, you as emblematic of everything the religion despises and wishes to cleanse from the Earth, it ends up making the question very, very personal and unavoidable. Integrity, ethics and truth are important, certainly, but for us it is often a matter of survival.

“Which beliefs are least likely to result in me getting murdered?”

Transsexuality adds additional questions and problems. If there is a creator God, he definitely fucked up when he made me. If he created me like this on purpose, he is immensely cruel. If this was “tough love” or a “test of faith”, he’s not only cruel but also a patronizing jackass. But those questions weren’t quite particularly significant for me since I didn’t begin to understand and acknowledge my gender until after I’d already abandoned the theistic, Christian mindset. But there absolutely had been metaphysical implications.

One of the ones that has interested me a lot is the issue of being at odds with the reality you’ve been presented. My favourite novel and favourite literary hero is Don Quixote (Elijah was reading Don Quixote one of the times I visited him in hospital, actually. It was the first of many times in my life in which I was compared to Sancho Panza). Don Quixote refuses to allow reality to tell him who he is and how he is to live. He refuses to simply be the gentleman of La Mancha. He is a knight errant! And he doesn’t care how many people deny that, or beat him up, or exploit him, or ridicule him, or take advantage of him. He goes right on being a knight. And he ultimately is a knight, a perfectly noble and courageous one, a paragon of every virtue that identity represents. Who would deny that? He couldn’t find fulfillment in the life and identity he’d simply been handed, so he went out and crafted his own. His opponent in Part Two, Bachelor Carrasco, assumes as his identity and role, tellingly, The Knight Of The Mirrors, trying to show Don Quixote who he “really” is. I find that Don Quixote is almost the perfect hero and analog for transgenderism.

Who would be a better arch-villain for a trans person than a Knight Of Mirrors?

I permitted myself to find the reality and life and body and identity I’d been given not enough. I permitted myself to not simply accept it. And so much of Christianity, so much of religion, is about simply humbling oneself before one’s lot in life and taking your lumps. “Sure,” it says, consolingly, “things might be awful for you in this world, but they’ll be better in the next!” or “Maybe you THINK things aren’t good enough, but what do you know? Who are you to ask questions? God knows what He’s doing” or “What? You think you’re body is ‘wrong’?! How dare you defy and question the designs of your lord God! This is how he made you and that’s that”. This amounts to only one of the many fundamentally, inherently harmful things I perceive in religious modes of thought, but it’s one that is of tremendous personal significance to me. People should not have to simply accept things. They should not be told to simply wait for things to be okay after they’re dead. They shouldn’t be told that they’re in no position to question the Will Of God. They should be encouraged to want to make things better, in this world, for themselves and for others, to ask questions about it, to not just accept the reality they’re presented as it is, to carve out a better world for themselves. Even if it means being beaten up, exploited, ridiculed or taken advantage of. We can be protagonists in the stories of our lives, not simply background characters in the story of Christ or Muhammed or Israel or Samsara and Karma or whatever.

These were all pieces in a puzzle for me, a gradual process. I never made a decision to be atheist. What I instead had were a set of questions, experiences, stories, struggles and positions into which I was placed. Over time the themes overlapped and interweaved, in weird and chaotic and often very dififcult to articulate ways. Somehow this process led me to atheism, though I really have no recollection at all of a definitive, singular moment where I ever converted. My beliefs simply shifted, bit by bit, into a shape that was most adequately described by the A word.

One day I made a Facebook page. It asked me what my religion was. For some reason, I felt okay saying “atheist”. I haven’t looked back since.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    Our ‘official gay man’ in Sweden is Jonas Gardell. He is also a devout Christian. I read a book where he tried to reconcile the two and all I could see was Winston Smith trying to prove that 2+2=5. It was tragic because I know he’s an excellent writer and a smart guy.

    Personally the Jehova’s Witnesses turned me atheist. We discussed things to and fro over a period of eight months and at the end I was convinced I had two choices – either accept that the Bible was the word of God and had to be correct, or accept that the Bible had no more truth than e.g. the Hesiod’s Theogony. And when I looked at the evidence (especially for evolution), I could not believe the former. I have later encountered people who tell me this is a rough and clumsy way to approach matters, but I find it beautiful in its simplicity.

    As for old friends? You cannot step into the same river twice. Sad, but true.

  2. 2
    Jadehawk

    Transsexuality adds additional questions and problems. If there is a creator God, he definitely fucked up when he made me. If he created me like this one purpose, he is immensely cruel.

    I always figured this to be a typical perspective on religion by transgender and transsexual people, so whenever I read about deeply religious transsexual people, it doesn’t compute very well. A few of the articles on Transgriot are like that.

    Meaning, I can just about wrap my head around transsexuality, but religious transsexuality is entirely beyond what my brain is capable of “mirroring” well enough for me to understand the thinking/feeling going on

    - – - -

    Anyway, that’s completely beside the point, just some random musings on my part. That was a very interesting story. Kinda feel sad about your friend Elijah… seems like once his mental health got less-than-perfect, his parents nasty beliefs overwhelmed his brain :-(

    1. 2.1
      Almulhida

      When I was religious I fervently believed the trans and gay bits of me where the devil whispering in my chest, how God created me never entered the picture.

  3. 3
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    This is just an excellent post.

  4. 4
    Rasmus

    The thing that these stories on Pharynga have taught me is that I’m basically an incredibly privileged fuck.

    I would write my story, but all it would do is waste time that I should rather spend writing thank you letters to my parents, teachers and others who have gone above and beyond their duties to give me an education.

    Take for instance my fifth grade teacher who asked me why I was an atheist and when my answer was that “most people are atheists” she did not say that I was wrong, but she explained two reasons why that is a crappy argument and challenged me to come up with something better.

  5. 5
    Chris Hallquist

    Wow. Awesome.

  6. 6
    Deanna Joy Lyons - Mentioner of Patriarchy

    Thanks so much for telling your story, Natalie. I was compelled to share it. Great writing, too!

  7. 7
    ttch

    On the lighter side, just a little something I thought I saw here, a visual miscue:

    By the time I was 12, I had stopped going to church entirely, and had given up on belief in the Canadian interpretation of God…

  8. 8
    Arctic Ape

    Thank you, I love your writing. I’ve read skepchick occasionally but don’t remember you from there. Anyway, this blog is awesome and truly brain-wrenching for a cis guy like me.

    On cannabis growing wild in NS… Now I imagine a revised version of Canadian flag…

    1. 8.1
      Alexis

      Before my friend Kate released herself from religion, she had the idea that if she died without transitioning she would appear before god at the last judgement, and god would ask her “I gave you just one task when you were born. How dare you come back to me and still have that thing between your legs?”

      1. Alexis

        This should really be a reply to Jadehawk, cascadeuse féministe above.

  9. 9
    Michael Halila

    Finally found my way to this post, and just wanted to say it’s a great piece of writing. Thank you!

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