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Why I am an atheist – Jeremy O’Wheel

It would be a convenient lie to say that I am an atheist because of rationalism, reason and the application of logic. I was an atheist well before I had any idea what those things were. I know that many people like to argue that everybody is born an atheist, and of course, in a sense that is true, but I like to differentiate between being ignorant of religion, and the realisation that it’s false.

I grew up almost completely unexposed to religion. My mother is a Quaker, and sometimes took me along to meetings, but I had no idea what they were, other than a bunch of “old people” sitting around occasionally speaking; not appealing to a 6 year old.

My first school had no religion classes, and I knew nobody religious. I didn’t even know what the word “god” meant for most of this time. But then I changed schools to a (public) school that did have almost compulsory religious (Christian) education classes. If you’ve never been told the stories of Adam and Eve, or Moses, or Jesus’s birth, miracles and resurrection, until an age when you’re starting to think for yourself (10), I think it’s inevitable you’ll be suspicious of such stories. It only took a month of such classes (once a week) for me to realise it was just rubbish. The volunteers taking the classes were unintelligent and uneducated, and the stories were as believable as any of the mythology books we had at home.

At this point, I asked my parents if I could stop attending the classes, which they agreed to, and my life as an atheist activist began, as the (public) school fought hard to prevent me from not attending those classes. Eventually they relented, and I was allowed to spend an hour once a week in the library. I know in Australia now, with the push for ethics classes as a replacement for religious classes, there are many complaints about sending the non-religious students to the library with nothing to do, but for me, that was probably when I started to become such a prolific reader, so in hindsight it was an incredibly valuable experience.

I’m very glad that I came to atheism, and to atheist movements, at such a young age, and basically by myself. I see many atheists now who I think dogmatically accept philosophical concepts for which no proof or evidence exists; “burden of proof,” and various logical “fallacies,” that are actually just names of types of arguments (ad hominem springs to mind). My experience taught me not to believe people, just because they say something is true, but to examine it closely, and make my own mind up. Religion is just a tiny facet of the subjects I apply that critical thinking to.

Jeremy O’Wheel
Australia

Comments

  1. says

    Jeremy, I liked your story. I know several people for whom reading has made a huge difference in their lives and changed the kind of people they became. Congratulations on applying clear thinking to what you were told — ten is actually a pretty accepting age, so you’re a bit unusual. But it reinforces the usual atheist perception that, if looked at with fresh eyes, the bible stories are clearly just myths.

  2. jeannieinpa says

    I wish that Jeremy would explain a bit more. The last paragraph raises interesting questions. What are these “dogmatically accept[ed] philosophical concepts for which no proof or evidence exists”?

  3. gesres says

    I’m grateful that you didn’t start this post with “I am an atheist because….”, for that sort of introductory sentence makes my eyes glaze over and I stop reading.

    Instead, you put some effort into catching the reader’s attention with a carefully crafted first sentence and that makes me think you will be kind to me in the remaining text, so I keep reading.

    Thank you.

  4. wilsim says

    This is a nice story, Jeremy, and I am glad you were never poisoned by religion. Your last paragraph lost me, however. Kinda feels like you had to get a jab in at the most vocal of us, why? Just because we do demand evidence or directly challenge truth claims when a religious person makes them? I am not a student of philosophy, but that does not mean i dogmatically hold to concepts for which no proof or evidence exists, or that i resort to ad hominem.
    I will not remain silent.

  5. madscientist says

    Holy crap – the public schools actually harass the students to take the taxpayer-funded voodoo classes? Goddamn … and here I was thinking that the days of godbotherers harassing people to believe the bullshit were over.

  6. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Like jeannieinpa (#3) I’d like more discussion of “dogmatically accept[ed] philosophical concepts for which no proof or evidence exists” which atheists are subject to.

  7. says

    If you’ve never been told the stories of Adam and Eve, or Moses, or Jesus’s birth, miracles and resurrection, until an age when you’re starting to think for yourself (10), I think it’s inevitable you’ll be suspicious of such stories.

    Nobody knows this more than the professional brainwashers. They know the indoctrination will not be effective unless the victims are very young, age six or younger.

    Imagine trying to teach the miracles of the dead Jeebus to adults who have never before heard of any Christian bullshit. They would never believe it. They would think Christians are idiots and they would be right.

  8. jeremyo says

    Thanks for posting this PZ, and for the compliments.

    Regarding the last paragraph;

    Sometime atheists I’ve met will not discuss or debate an issue without demanding for proof for every assertion. “Burden of Proof” can really be explained as; “If you don’t make a convincing argument for your cause, I won’t be convinced.” It’s not some kind of official debating law. In some cases people (and certainly non-atheists as well) take it too far.

    Likewise an “Ad hominem” is a type of argument, rather than a logical fallacy. It means that you’re using a personal trait of that person to suggest their argument is false. It has to be phrased along the lines of “Because you are [personal trait] therefore your argument is false,” rather than “Making that argument means you are an idiot,” or just “you are an idiot.” In some cases ad hominems are logical fallacies and in some cases they are not; “His testimony should be dismissed because he’s the brother of the defendant and he has been convicted of perjury in the past” – is an ad hominem that is not a logical fallacy.

    I feel that some people, atheists or otherwise (but I notice mainly with atheists, because that’s who I mainly have these kinds of discussion with) don’t have a deep grounding on these kinds of concepts and accept them to apply dogmatically.

    I hope this clarifies my position. It was probably an unnecessary, and badly worded paragraph to include.

  9. bhownsall says

    I would like to point out that being an atheist and rejecting religious teachings are not necessarily the same thing. Someone could believe in the existence of a divine being, yet find no existing religion which describes the being that they imagine, and they wouldn’t be an atheist. I’ve always found that atheist is a little too…certain of a word. It usually implies an absolute certainty in the lack of existence of any god figure, and I don’t think that absolute certainty is a particularly reasonable position on a question that can not be answered. A divine, supernatural entity is a very large unknown to claim certainty about, and if you can never know the being’s capabilities, you can never prove or disprove its existence. Theoretically, any theist that you find yourself in a debate with could dodge any evidence you provide by postulating new and unheard of powers for their god figure, and no concrete evidence can be offered to shoot their claims down. I would say most theists prefer their god dwelling in a certain degree of unknown, or as they say “mystery”, as a safeguard against disproof.
    I don’t think that the primary problem with theistic belief is its tendency to cling to dogmatic and irrational suppositions, but its attempt to claim absolute certainty in those suppositions based primarily upon internal feelings. No degree of certainty is proof without evidence to support it. It’s about honesty, and religious faith is inherently emotional, not rational, so to claim certainty in a religious belief as FACT is dishonest. To harbor a %100 percent conviction in a belief which is not based is objective reality is often all it takes to come to conflict with reality, sometimes violently. It is doubt that should be fostered, not faith. Doubt encourages introspection, encourages the search for truth before action, while faith urges that you march blindly forward disregarding thought and criticism and petty ‘truth’, because fact has no effect upon faith. The truly, truly faithful can not be swayed.

  10. yaksfacto says

    Saying that evidence is needed to convince someone is true, but not quite what burden of proof is about. It relates to making a non-null hypothesis or claim like that, in which case the claimant bears the burden of supporting that claim or agreeing it has no merit from evidence. If you agree with this then I do not know what it means to take it too far. Some examples might be good.

    You might need a better example for your argument about ad hominem. There is reason and evidence why a relative, or a known perjurer, should be treated in the first case as a less credible witness on their unsupported claims. Probable truth is not always pleasant but that does not make it ad hominem. Ad hominem is where you try to denigrate the other party without establishing both that your claim is credible and that there is a causal link from that defect to the argument being made. Without both of those you have an ad hominem argument, just a diversionary tactic.

    Whether you call these logical fallacies or not is unimportant. They still look like rational things about discussion. Do you have something that would explain the dogmatism better?

  11. jeremyo says

    Sure;

    Ad Hominem;

    http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ad+hominem

    As you can see, it’s not defined as “denigrating the other party” at all. It’s defined as either “relating to or associated with a particular person,” or “directed at a person rather than the position they are maintaining.”

    Look at the wikipedia article;

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

    “Doug Walton has argued that ad hominem reasoning is not always fallacious, and that in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue[12], as when it directly involves hypocrisy, or actions contradicting the subject’s words.”

    (Interestingly wikipedia gives the same source (Doug Walton) for the claim it is a logical fallacy.

    The point, of course, is that your definition is not supported by the dictionary. Why do you believe that definition then? Evidence, or just because that’s what other people said “ad hominem” means?

  12. yaksfacto says

    Well, the internet Oxford says “an argument directed to a person instead of a position they are maintaining”, and a downloadable version adds to that “appealing to the emotions and not to reason”. Your wiki link says “attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it” and “insulting or belittling” which sound denigratory in my opinion, but please do not pick out a few words from my sentence and say that was a definition. My sentence and position included that you needed to establish both truth of the allegation and a causal link to the argument or else it was ad hominem, as defined, a diversion and not about the argument. You refer to Doug Walton who says “in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives etc are legitimate and relevant to the issue, as when it directly involves hypocrisy, or actions contradicting the subject’s words.” Same thing. Truth and a causal link to the argument, position or evidence in question.

    You seem very aggressive about this. Have you had trouble with ad hominem before? If that is true then I should not be trying to help because I can not see any point in getting dogmatic about it.

  13. yaksfacto says

    I see what your link says love moderately. It looks like we agree on what constitutes the argumentative fallacy but disagree on the labelling. That’s fine by me. I am happy to use language the other person understands (if we do j/k). I am more interested in getting the arguments right, and not letting people use emotion instead of argument by taking pointless pot-shots they cannot justify and hardly ever try to.