Why am I an atheist? Such a question would have seemed ludicrous to me just a few short years ago. And if you told me that it was the deepening of a religious belief that led me to such a position, I would have been completely baffled. But that is, in fact, what happened. Allow me to explain.
My earliest memories of religion were quite weird. My parents were not initially religious, and I was left to form ideas on my own. The occasional religious pamphlet, ranging from tattered old Jack Chick comics to slick copies of the Watchtower, was about all I had to formulate an idea of the supernatural. I can remember my father answering a question about god by talking about the energy inherent in all matter. The practical upshot was that I was basically an honest agnostic at a young age. The question didn’t seem relevant or soluble.
That all started to change around the time I was eleven or twelve. My father would occasionally take us to this strange ceremony being held at a local Catholic church called a Mass. I didn’t understand a bit of it, and found it completely boring. I was even signed up for an odd event called a “lock-in,” where I was literally locked into an apartment with a group of children I didn’t know. All very strange, but I wasn’t yet tutored in Catholicism or required to participate in their rituals.
That all changed when we moved across states and into my grandmother’s house. Immediately, I was enrolled in catechism classes, and the indoctrination began in earnest. I discovered that I had been baptised as a baby. I was forced to pray the Rosary with my family in front of the Marian shrine my grandmother had built. Attendance at Mass became mandatory. I was brought to Confession, and forced to tell these strange men what I thought I had done wrong that week. I argued with my father that I didn’t believe in a god, so I shouldn’t be forced to do this. His only reply was that until I could disprove the existence of god, I was going to go. During this time, my otherwise moderate mother, raised a Baptist, became a Catholic. My younger sister was also baptised and forced to participate.
This went on for several years. As I left home and entered college, my father racheted up the pressure. He began telling me about how I was going to be damned for all eternity. In addition, I felt an increased desire to connect with my father as I entered adulthood, but given his focus on religion, this was increasingly difficult. The two pressures seemed intolerable, and it was at that time that I enrolled in an introduction to philosophy class. The teacher of this class was pushing C.S. Lewis’ arguments, and I fell for it. Within a short time, I succumbed to the pressure and started acting more religious. I embraced the idea of apologetics, and quickly became one of those obnoxious evangelizers with whom we are all so familiar. By this time, I was married, and I inflicted these arguments on my wife until she, too, converted.
This went on for several years. My faith was only deepening, and I was beginning to think that I was being called to a life of ministry. I watched 9/11 happen, and my faith was unshaken. I was proud of the fact that MY beliefs were grounded in rational thought, not like those other religious people. I integrated myself into the local Catholic church, and was on my way to a typical unthinking lifelong acceptance of Catholic dogma. Ironically enough, the thing that made me reevaluate my beliefs was my father’s deepening religious feelings.
He began to think that the Catholic church was wrong, and that the Eastern Orthodox religion was correct. And he and I began to fight in earnest. I arrayed every argument I could think of against this apostacy, and I thought that I was winning him back to the True Faith. But, he kept going back, and eventually declared that he was leaving the Catholic church.
At this point, I realized that I was deeply offended by this, and that realization struck a nerve. I thought that I was a Catholic for logical reasons, not simply because I felt that it was right. Maybe I was the wrong party here. I had not given either side a chance to stand on its own, having always argued from the premise that the Catholic church was correct. So, I took a step back. I consciously tried to ignore my bias, and to evaluate the claims of those competing religions from a neutral standpoint.
The problem was that neither side stood up to the scutiny. When I subjected both to the same level of proof that I demanded of other truth claims, and especially other religious claims, they both withered. I was devastated. I spent many hours wrestling with this problem alone. Then, I told my wife of my doubts. Finally, I admitted to my father that I was no longer a believer. This has been a constant source of discord between us, but it can’t be helped. My wife and children were all too happy to shed their religious personas, and we quickly became a happy little secular household.
If my sojourn in the Catholic faith had any positive effect, it would be that I was immersed in various religious arguments, and it makes it a lot easier to recognize and undermine the various tactics that religious evangelists like to use.
Midwest, United States
(I put out a simple call for your explanations for why you’re an atheist, and I’m still inundated with submissions. This will be a daily feature on Pharyngula.)