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Nov 01 2011

Why I am an atheist – Kirsten Seymour

I grew up in a largely secular household. Although I was christened in the Anglican church, my exposure to religious ideas was limited to a children’s book of bible stories (from my grandmother), occasional visits to church (when my parents were out of town and I had to stay with gran), and a week every summer spent at church camp. The bible stories I treated just as that – even from an early age, I recognized them as stories only. My occasional church visits I found entirely boring and I don’t remember ever actually listening to anything that was said.

Church camp was probably the most influential religious experience I had. I should say that I only ever went to church camp because there was always a week in the summer where my mom went out of town and my dad worked and my parents thought it would be best to send me off to camp with other kids. There were very few (if any) live-in summer camps in our area that weren’t run by churches, and my parents were of the opinion that a week of religion wouldn’t kill me. For the most part they were right. There was the one summer where a scheduling conflict forced them to send me to a Pentecostal camp instead of the Anglican camp that I usually went to. Pentecostal camp featured 4 hours of church every day, which included adults speaking in tongues and performing “miracles” on demand, and lots of kids with their hands in the air, crying (literally) for Jesus. I remember being bitter that I wasn’t allowed to listen to my new Natalie Cole cassette tape because it wasn’t about God. I found that camp creepy, and my mom was pretty shocked by the stories I told when I came home. Needless to say, I never went there again. The Anglican camp was better. There was always some sort of short service each day (usually held outside in a little clearing in the forest), but for the most part we played games, sang songs, swam in the ocean and did normal kid stuff. I enjoyed camp, and it gave me the impression that believing in God wasn’t all that bad. I enjoyed the camaraderie with other kids and the feeling that we were all a part of something.

In all my life, I don’t remember ever having a fervent belief in God. I thought it was tradition to be a part of a religion, but I didn’t realize that you had to actually believe in it. As a teenager, I started to philosophize on religion and what I really believed. At first, I came up with the argument that “god” or “gods” were present in all societies around the world, so maybe there was something to it. But I didn’t think that any one religion had it right. I guess this was my phase of “spirituality” where I thought there might be some higher being, but I couldn’t subscribe to any one belief system. In university, I spent a weekend at a friend’s house and devoured the book “Conversations with God”, which is written on the premise that the author is actually able to communicate with God, and God explains why there are all these contradictions in the world – why babies die, why some parts of the world experience extreme poverty and suffering while others were relatively prosperous, why God doesn’t show himself. I thought the book made some sense, and I remember thinking that if there was a God, I’d like to think that he’d be practical and merciful like the author of that book explained. Of course, I realized that the book didn’t jive with any religious doctrine that I knew of, so I was back to thinking that there might be something out there, but no religion had it right.

I think that my “spirituality” dissolved gradually through university as I strengthened my science muscles. I took a class as an elective towards the end of my B.Sc. that focused on society and the environment. The class was full of hippies and “spiritual” folks who had an idealistic view that “alternative reasoning” could solve all the world’s problems – I would have fit right in during high school. In the course, I heard the argument all the time that “if we just let go of our western ideals and ways of thinking and take a holistic approach to environmental management, we’ll save the environment”. Nobody ever explained what that meant. Meanwhile, I’d spent 2 summers as a research assistant investigating how land use affected fish populations in different regions of the province, and finding that the “doom and gloom” opinion that most environmentalists had regarding logging and the environment didn’t apply to all ecosystems. I was thinking critically, investigating claims, and finding that science had more answers to everything. I think it was around this time that I ditched the idea of a god entirely. In the same way that I couldn’t envision how “non-Western thinking” could solve the world’s environmental problems, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of a man in the sky, responsible for everything, meting out vengeance on anyone who didn’t blindly believe in his glory. Even “spirituality” seemed silly and childish – I was fed up with woo, “alternative thinking”, eastern/western reasoning, etc.. In the end, it all comes down to facts, and the fact is that no higher being has ever presented me with a single reason to believe he exists.

I’m still an environmentalist, but instead of standing in a cutblock, smoking weed and chained to a tree, I’m actively involved in the science that goes towards managing environment effectively for everyone. And instead of hanging out in a coffee shop discussing god, spirituality, and the driving force behind nature, I’m discussing with everyone who will listen the reasons why I’m an atheist.

Kirsten Seymour
Canada

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis

    The only way in which this trope about “overcoming Western thinking” could contain some truth is in it’s application to how we run society and on what values we base it, i.e. maybe if were more conscious of our spiritual connection to the earth or whatever, we wouldn’t do as much damage to it in the first place. That being said, like in medicine, “alternative reasoning” that actually yields results is simply called reasoning.

  2. 2
    Predator Handshake

    I went through that “reject Western thinking” thing myself for awhile during college after reading The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. This was at a time when I was really starting to actively dispose of the religious beliefs I had been raised with and was basically looking for something to fill the void; I must have been particularly impressionable at the time because immediately prior to getting to that book I had gone through a brief libertarian phase after reading Atlas Shrugged.

    The thing that broke me of that thought process was watching “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and sort of cross-referencing the point of view of that movie with my two semesters of physical chemistry (yes, I was briefly seduced by alternative “reasoning” despite having the scientific background that should have led me to reject it).

    I think the difference was that TCitCE only presented a framework (as far as I can remember; this was several years ago) for thinking outside of scientific reason and in some parts reinforced skepticism of belief, while What the Bleep was actively pushing a dissectible claim.

    The final nail in the coffin was when a friend loaned me a book called Nothing in This Book is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are. That book gave me a glimpse to where this “alternative reasoning” stuff would ultimately lead: if reality is formed by each person’s own perceptions, nothing is potentially false and everything imaginable is real. The author earnestly uses examples from Star Trek to make his points at least three times in the book that I can remember, and I finally realized that this type of thinking was ultimately useless.

  3. 3
    Anj


    There is something to it. From what I can tell, if a society had no religion, they would create something that resembled religion. A significant percentage of the population has a need for the various things religion offers:

    inclusion in a group that has easy admittance
    (it’s no harder to join a religion than it is to be a fan of a sports team)
    regular meetings that reinforce common beliefs and goals
    (again, see sports fans)
    periodic celebrations that give an excuse for feasts and parties
    (again, see sports fans)

    If you look around, you can find religion analogs that fill the same social needs as religion does. Minus the spirituality. I’d claim that sports fans definitely have faith, or they wouldn’t be loyal to a losing team.

    As for myself, I think I lack the proper neurobiology for religion. I’m not a sports fan either.

    Are those two things related? Perhaps we should study it.

  4. 4
    Anj

    Sorry, I should have used preview. My apologies.

  5. 5
    Glen Davidson

    In the course, I heard the argument all the time that “if we just let go of our western ideals and ways of thinking and take a holistic approach to environmental management, we’ll save the environment”.

    Like China did.

    Although, they may not be true non-Westerners.

    Glen Davidson

  6. 6
    redwood

    It’s always interesting to see the different phases people go through on the way to atheism. Some, thanks to their upbringing, have a short journey, others, much farther to go. I also like seeing which books influenced people along the way and how their ways of thinking developed. Thank you for a nice summary of your trip, Kirsten.
    As for Anj, I’m a sports fan without religious feelings, but I have to admit to being a fickle one. With the exception of the baseball team I grew up listening to–Go Cardinals, You Rock!–I don’t mind changing teams to cheer for or even sports. I’ve recently gotten into cricket, under the influence of my best friend, who is Australian.

  7. 7
    Eric RoM

    “Holistic”, as in “whole systems”, is still a valuable concept for dealing with ecosystems, versus the older tradition of thinking of one thing at a time.

  8. 8
    ManOutOfTime

    Darn you, Canada, with your rationalist show-offs! I’m sure you have your share if idiots, but Canucks are looking good on this blog.

  9. 9
    treefrog

    Anj:

    If you look around, you can find religion analogs that fill the same social needs as religion does. Minus the spirituality.

    Agreed, except that I guess I’m more comfortable saying that religious activities often fulfill certain social needs that can just as easily be met by any number of alternatives.

    As a lifelong atheist, I did at one point in my life admire the sense of belonging that church people seemed to have…until I realized that I can get that in other places. For example, it was cheap & easy enough to sign up for volleyball, and in no time I became part of a close-knit group of people who welcomed all newcomers, who laugh & socialize outside volleyball, etc etc. Got my fellowship, as it were.

  10. 10
    Peptron

    Funny, what made me officially leave Christianity was the “What, you mean it’s not just tradition, people actually believe that stuff?” moment. It took me a long time where I live before I met Christians that actually said they believed in the precepts, including those that made no sense. Up to then, most Christians I met said they believed in Jesus much the same way they would say they believed in Socrates.

  11. 11
    Kirsten

    Woohoo, I’m published! :)

    Eric @#7, you’re right – holistic thinking in environmental management has its merits and I should have chosen different wording there. My best example from that course was the argument (from everyone around me) that western philosophy is the cause of all the world’s ills and if we use eastern ideals we’ll do much better. My argument was that you can go to almost any “eastern” country in the world and find much worse examples of environmental management than you can find in Canada. The point is, science holds facts that should be used to base policy on. Science is not perfect, but science can be updated to reflect new findings, thus influencing policy. Religion and woo are rarely updated and generally hold only myths that should be discarded as such.

    Thanks PZ!

  12. 12
    Rich Woods

    @anj #3:

    (it’s no harder to join a religion than it is to be a fan of a sports team)

    I could no more stoop to supporting Manchester United than I could to converting to Judaism or Islam, but I’m pretty sure Man Utd wouldn’t insist that I cut off my foreskin in the process.

  13. 13
    kohldamunga

    Most of these “Why I am an Atheist” stories are coming from Canada. Is atheism spreading more rapidly in Canada than other parts of the world?

  14. 14
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Is atheism spreading more rapidly in Canada than other parts of the world?

    Nope, just Canadians were picked by PZ. Your mysticism is, like Xianity, on the downturn. Find another blog for your fuckwittery.

  15. 15
    kohldamunga

    Nope, just Canadians were picked by PZ. Your mysticism is, like Xianity, on the downturn. Find another blog for your fuckwittery.

    What is with this ‘My mysticism’ thing? Where did I mention mysticism?

  16. 16
    tushcloots

    @Rich Woods
    Man U? Leeds is the only United. ‘Cept for the 70′s, Jan3 2010 was the greatest day in history!
    Mostly, though, cheering for the Whites convinced me that there is no God.

  17. 17
    raven

    What is with this ‘My mysticism’ thing? Where did I mention mysticism?

    I called it mysticism. To be polite.

    It’s more New Age though.

    Kohldamunga, this is a hard headed militant atheist blog. Many or most of the commenters have advanced degrees in one thing or another.

    Feel free to post whatever you want, this a Freethoughtblogs. But you are going to be disappointed.

    BTW, on the right margin, right below the photo of PZ Myers, is a link, called Quick link to the Endless Thread. Off topic, miscellaneous, and extended subjects end up there. You might want to read it.

  18. 18
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    What is with this ‘My mysticism’ thing? Where did I mention mysticism?

    Here:

    Who said anything about such “mystical” experiences having no physical roots in the body? Or no ‘scientific’ explanations?

    Two things, we are smarter than you, and we have good memories. Try another blog. You are off to a very bad start here…

  19. 19
    kohldamunga

    What is with this ‘My mysticism’ thing? Where did I mention mysticism?

    Here:


    Who said anything about such “mystical” experiences having no physical roots in the body? Or no ‘scientific’ explanations?

    Two things, we are smarter than you, and we have good memories. Try another blog. You are off to a very bad start here…

    I was referring to that Scientific American article. They called NDEs “mystical” experiences. I was just using their language. That’s why I put the word “mystical” in quotes. There is no mysticism here as far as I am concerned. Maybe a lot of ‘mystery’, but definitively no ‘mysticism’.

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