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.