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Why I am an atheist – Tricia

The reason I am an Atheist is a very simple one: It is very important to me that the things I believe, are true. I accept that it’s logically impossible to prove a negative, but considering that in the entire history of humanity, nobody has ever found any good evidence for the existence of supernatural entities of any kind – and it’s certainly not for want of looking! – it seems reasonable to be just as certain that there really are no gods, as that there really is no ether and no phlogiston.

How I got here is a long story. Ironically enough, the seeds for my escape from religion were planted by the church I attended as a child. My family went to a Mennonite Brethren church, which was composed mostly of families like mine – Mennonites whose parents or grandparents had pursued an education and become city folk – as well as people of other ethnicities who had joined over the years. What we had in common with the Colony Mennonites was eating and singing, and a commitment to non-violence and social justice. A common theme of lessons and sermons was, “The Truth Will Set You Free.” Of course, the main “truth” they were talking about was salvation, but it also came up in the context of social justice, for example fighting prejudice, or using science to fight hunger and disease. The result of all this was that I was a very idealistic little girl.

Of course, I didn’t stay a little girl, and the idealism got squashed pretty hard. My church, and my extended family, either took a pretty hard swing to the right, or maybe they were always there and I hadn’t realized it. The messages changed, from “God is Love” and “We are called to a ministry of serving the poor and the sick and the oppressed,” to “Hell is awful and the Rapture could be any second” and “You are personally responsible for every sinner who goes to hell because you didn’t witness to them.” The graphic descriptions of the torment of hellfire and the horrors of the Tribulation were more than I could handle, and I often woke up from nightmares. To compound my terror, this particular brand of Evangelicalism makes one testable prediction: if you pray to accept Jesus as your personal saviour blah blah blah, then something (though it’s never described eactly what) is supposed to happen. A feeling of inner peace or connection with God or love or something. You’re supposed to Just Know you’re Saved. I prayed and prayed for years, with increasing desperation, and nothing happened. I never felt Saved. Clearly there was something wrong with me. I didn’t dare talk to anybody about it.

At the same time, other discourse in the church was giving me some ideas about why God might not want me. In the 1990s, in a church that considered itself radically progressive, there was a heated and divisive debate going on about whether women could be ordained as pastors. When it came down to a vote, the decision was the Bible said no, so that was that. There was plenty of anti-gay rhetoric going on as well. Plus a developing streak of dogmatism that frowned on asking questions and came with a goodly dose of anti-intellectualism on top. I came to believe that my existence was a massive case of entrapment: if God made me, and he hates queers and uppity women and people who can’t seem to stop asking “why”, then he deliberately made something he hates and I would be going to hell unless I somehow managed to not be what God made me as. What a setup!

I spent a few years as a straw atheist: I believed in God and was deeply afraid, and I hated him. I sat down to really read the Bible, to see if God really was the monster I’d come to believe in or if my church had gotten it wrong. Of course, what I learned was that if my church had gotten it wrong, it was by painting a far too rosy picture.

As I grew up, I got access to more and more books, and then the Internet, and learned about how the Bible actually came to be what it is today, and it looked less and less like the Divinely Inspired, Unerring Word of God, and more and more like a collection of confabulations selected to support a particular ideology.

I majored in psychology when I went to university, and we talked a lot about epistemology and the philosophy of science, and I learned about Karl Popper and the idea of falsifiability. Something clicked. I decided that if there was no scenario in which any possible outcome could prove there was no god, then God, for all practical purposes in this life, is irrelevant. I decided to live my life now, according to who I feel I am and what I believe is right and wrong, regardless of afterlife consequences. After all, it’s noble to stand up for what you believe is right, even at great personal cost. I’d take my martyrdom in the afterlife – but that’s another thing that’s impossible to make falsifiable predictions about.

Though I didn’t become a neuroscientist, I did take a lot of neuroscience courses towards my degree, and that sent mind-body dualism to the intellectual rubbish heap. If my mind is a function of my body, then it dies with my body and there’s nothing left to burn for eternity, so I have nothing to fear. The truth had set me free.

I haven’t escaped unscathed though. My depression probably also has genetic roots because it’s all over my family, but subjecting a child to that level of fear, accompanied with a heaping dose of self-loathing, can’t have improved matters. I have to really fight against thoughts like “I’m a depraved sinner who deserves to die.” I still have nightmares though they’re decreasing, and I have to be careful about stories featuring end of the world scenarios – I wasn’t old enough to see Terminator when it first came out, but I tried to watch it a couple years ago and had a panic attack during the opening credits and nightmares and flashbacks for a good week after. And I’m still angry – not at God but at the people who force the poison of religion on children’s minds.

Tricia
Canada

Comments

  1. allencdexter says

    Fear of thinking is the pathway to slavery. Honest clear thinking delivers us from that fear. You will notice that the first threat thrown your way by those who want to enslave you is that you will go to hell. I’ve learned to laugh that one off, to the frustrated anger of my antagonists.

  2. plainenglish says

    Very grateful for this,Tricia. I too endured some vicious nightmares in my early years, bone-cooking imagery of eternal damnation…. begged my preacher father to get me saved and he did… Well, I-got-the-feeling-in-me quite a few times, saved, resaved, really saved, really really saved… many times. I too detest what is done with children in these torture chambers and I do not forgive the perpetrators, and yet have found some peace in knowing and saying out loud to them, You peddle woo-woo and you’re coo-coo. They pray for me because like modern America, their war must go on… never ends… the machine refuses to be idle for long. Your comments really rang me regarding the depression… it is strong in my family too. There are deep feelings in this for some of us who are now atheists while others (from the stories here) seem to glide ride out of the religio-shit-storm with a smile on their faces, a smile that shocks me a bit like Schwartzenkiller in Terminator. There is sometimes great harm done at such a young age through brainwashing: Protestant, Catholic, you name it. You must memorize the words they want to hear and lose yourself… You are taught to pray for loss of self; more of Jesus would I know, (as the hymn goes)…. more of Him and less of me. Get down on your knees! For some here, it all just seemed stupid…. Scared me bad. Have a wonderful ’12, Tricia! Harper will give us many new prisons this year to finally defeat the devil… he has it all figured out. My extended family is praising Jeeber for a believer Prime Minister! The punishment paradigm wins another one…Aw Fuck. -Brian V. (in B.C.)

  3. Simon says

    Thank you for a moving and insightful piece of writing. Your explanation for your Atheism is as clear and logical a description as I’ve seen, and shows your strength of thought and character. I admire your courage and intelligence. I hope things improve for you. – Simon

  4. otrame says

    if you pray to accept Jesus as your personal saviour blah blah blah, then something (though it’s never described eactly what) is supposed to happen

    Yep. Me too. Since I was told that if you prayed with all your heart it would happen, and I did pray and it didn’t happen, I gradually realized that it probably hadn’t happened to anyone, that they were kidding themselves or out-right lying. I honestly believe that is where a lot of the fervor in the more rapid versions of Christianity comes from: the awareness that nothing happened when you asked God into your heart and a desperate need to have everyone else think it did.

  5. madscientist says

    Just one thing Tricia: it is *not* logically impossible to prove a negative. For example, I have a green banana. I can prove my banana is not red.

  6. saguhh00 says

    Your testimony reminds me of Hypatia’s response to the threat of Hell.
    “To rule by snaring the mind with the threat of torment in another world is as low as using force.”

    If Jesus was actually God, he would have been much more understanding and have no need for threats. I prefer Hypatia because she never threatened to torture me.

  7. Olletho says

    Madscientist…. are you sure you can prove that banana is actually “Not Red”? Or can you only prove that it is “More green then it is any other colour”? :)

    I for one have never seen an absorbtion band take then entire red portion of the spectrum. And for that matter where is the edge of “red”? :)

  8. frankarmstrong says

    From your post I am reminded of the Church of the Quivering Brethren from Cold Comfort Farm. I especially appreciate your statement

    “if God made me, and he hates queers and uppity women and people who can’t seem to stop asking “why”, then he deliberately made something he hates and I would be going to hell unless I somehow managed to not be what God made me as. What a setup!”

    What a setup indeed! The best way to vanquish the demons that were planted in your mind is to no longer fight or fear them–laughing at them might help. Best of luck in your journey beyond the clutches of the anthropomorphic demiurge…

  9. says

    Many of the problems with (organised) religion are identified in your post, Tricia; the manner in which people are scared into believing, or perhaps more insidiously, into the pretence of belief, is one of the more horrific legacies of a church-childhood. Every such scarrified person is one too many.

    It is worth stating clearly: There is no Hell except that which we make on this Earth, in this lifetime. Like attending church, for instance—that’s my personal definition of hell :-O

    Good on you, and Happy New (Atheistic) Year!

    Donald Oats

  10. great1american1satan says

    As someone who never had to deal with dire religious upbringing, threats of hell never felt real to me and I have literally zero fear of it. This is something religious people sometimes find hard to imagine, hence Dawkins & others still fielding the same ridiculous question: “What if you’re wrong?”

    We all hope you get over the nightmares. I hope that seeing people with no such fear helps bolster your confidence that Hell is a shitty fairy tale and nothing to fear.

    Really, honestly, it would never cross my mind to question for a fraction of a second that hell could possibly have even a tiny amount of truth to it. It’s nothing. Dig.

    -

  11. McCthulhu's new upbeat 2012 nym. says

    “I decided that if there was no scenario in which any possible outcome could prove there was no god, then God, for all practical purposes in this life, is irrelevant.”

    QFAKTT (Quoted For Ass-Kickingly-True Truth)

    I thought saguhh00’s Hypatia quote in #8 was fantastic as well.

    Many of these Why I Am pieces contain some nice quotables. If only I had a Hitchens-esque memory. I could compile these into enough ammo to mushify theologists into the same consistency as the pablum they try to dish up as argument and apologetics. Sadly, I have the retention of a sieve.

  12. rizdek says

    “The graphic descriptions of the torment of hellfire and the horrors of the Tribulation were more than I could handle, and I often woke up from nightmares”

    Indeed, this is one of the most vile and absurd aspect of the Christian ideology…”love me or else.”

    Once I got to the other side, it amazed me how many folks still cling to the possibility, much less the likelihood of afterlife. It seems they just never stop to think of the actual logistics of eternal life…anywhere. And to think there might be an afterlife where someone/something has prepared eternal torment is absurd. It just ain’t gonna happen.

    To me, the concept of eternal life is far more absurd than the concept of some sort of pervasive spirit (some sort of god). I don’t think a god/spirit exists, but it could. However, the existence of said “spirit” still wouldn’t equate to any kind of eternal life for us. They are two totally different concepts and nothing that I can think of necessarily relates them. IOW someone could easily be some sort of theist but still not believe in an afterlife/eternal life with or without reward/punishment.

  13. raven says

    The messages changed, from “God is Love” and “We are called to a ministry of serving the poor and the sick and the oppressed,” to “Hell is awful and the Rapture could be any second” and “You are personally responsible for every sinner who goes to hell because you didn’t witness to them.”

    Interesting. We have a fair number of Mennonites on the Pacific coast. They vary all over the place. A few still wear the old Puritan looking dark clothing. Others are peace activists.

    The changing message is typical. A lot of religions hate the word “evolution”. Which is odd because the churches evolve and sometimes quite rapidly. They speciate. Some go extinct.

    They also mimic each other a lot. Probably the Mennonites copied the US fundie’s central ideas of Imminent Rapture, hating whoever they can, and threats of eternal torture.

    Wasn’t their best idea IMO. Hate works or the churches would not use it as their basis, but it just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. They will only attract the dumbest and ugliest of our society by doing that, which is what is happening.

  14. mikelaing says

    Olletho says:


    31 December 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Madscientist…. are you sure you can prove that banana is actually “Not Red”? Or can you only prove that it is “More green then it is any other colour”? :)
    I for one have never seen an absorbtion band take then entire red portion of the spectrum. And for that matter where is the edge of “red”? :)

    I guess he can prove it is not exactly red, which would mean that it is visible from 620 to 749 nm only. (BTW, you both can now prove that your comments are 100% read and/or not not read)

    Seriously, I have a friend who suffers (now infrequent) nightmares of going to Hell as a result of her JW parents’ threats.
    You’ve made many great points: the idea of religion evolving, the concept of God being irrelevant, your statements if you pray to accept Jesus as your personal saviour blah blah blah, then something (though it’s never described eactly what) is supposed to happen and if God made me, and he hates queers and uppity women and people who can’t seem to stop asking “why”, then he deliberately made something he hates and I would be going to hell unless I somehow managed to not be what God made me as. What a setup!, and much more.
    I find you extremely interesting and intelligent. Thank you so much for your words and ideas, Tricia!

  15. Steersman says

    A very moving testimonial Tricia and a very detailed, persuasive and credible justification for your conclusion with which I agree entirely:

    And I’m still angry – not at God but at the people who force the poison of religion on children’s minds.

    And along that same line and just as odious, and similar to the quote of Hypatia by saguhho (#8), I’m reminded of a scene in Slumdog Millionaire where a young boy is blinded to make him a more effective beggar. In each case a child is crippled – mentally or physically – just to satisfy the entirely selfish ends of those doing so.

    And one might argue that the mental crippling is far worse than the physical as the latter is at least deemed “socially unacceptable” – though it might at least be understandable as a consequence of poverty and a desperate fight to survive – while the former has transformed an egregious and odious vice – motivated by an even deeper and more profound poverty and an even more desperate desire for “eternal survival” – into a socially acceptable “virtue”.

    However, I might refer to a bit of folk wisdom: “Don’t get angry; get even.” And as a method of doing so I might mention (again) that most countries of the world – with the notable exceptions of the United States and Somalia – have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, among which is a right to “freedom of conscience, thought, and religion”. Seems to me that that is an ideal tool with which to curtail the rather odious “indoctrination” that passes for the religious education of many children.

    Finally, as an aside, I certainly think it a possibility that sending the “mind-body dualism to the intellectual rubbish heap” might be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While I certainly don’t have any difficulty in rejecting all of the literally thousands of anthropomorphic gods that have crossed the world’s stage over tens of millennia, the straight “party-line” of materialism and reductionism still seems to come up woefully short in providing an explanation for the phenomenon, the profound miracle, of consciousness. Resting or insisting on that position seems a shade dogmatic and quite likely to lose, allow to fall through the cracks, the one thing that makes us more than automatons and “zombies”, that makes us human.

  16. KG says

    eems to come up woefully short in providing an explanation for the phenomenon, the profound miracle, of consciousness. – Steersman

    No, it really doesn’t. Modern cognitive neuroscience has at no point seen any need for or advantage to postulating anything like a separate soul or mind distinct from the physical world, and its progress continues apace. Studies of various states and pathologies of consciousness* show that consciousness is not the unitary immaterial phenomenon dualists take it to be, but has a complex structure, parts of which may be missing or faulty (and the fault can sometimes be localised to damage to a specific brain region), and results from multiple interactions between different parts of the brain, the body and the external world.

    * Consider vegetative state, deep sleep, light sleep, dreaming, depersonalisation/derealisation, split-brain patients, Korsakov syndrome, Capgras syndrome, epilepsy, drug-induced states…

  17. Steersman says

    KG said (#21):

    Studies of various states and pathologies of consciousness* show that consciousness is not the unitary immaterial phenomenon dualists take it to be ….

    I certainly wouldn’t deny that the mind is crucially dependent on the physical parts of the brain, but more or less as the substrate on which the phenomenon, the process, of consciousness takes place. The same way that, for example, the Mona Lisa is crucially dependent on the canvas it was painted on it – the painting’s substrate – and the pigments used to create it. But I expect you would agree that such pictures are quite a bit more than those quantifiable and objective features and that there is an additional and largely unquantifiable and subjective element – the phenomenological experiences of those who have seen and enjoyed such pictures, their “qualia”.

    Seems to me that, in spite of the very significant advances and results from neuroscience, the “hard problem” of consciousness is well named and anything but trivial.

  18. says

    Great descriptive story Tricia and thank you for telling it. The whole faith saves thing came to me slowly, initially as an Emperor’s new clothes story, but I realized over time that it is really an everyone’s new clothes thing. Nobody wants to admit they don’t feel at all saved, but to admit it means telling everyone else and as long as you’re convinced that everyone else IS saved that makes you the odd man out.

    Since we are all taught to be part of the bigger groups in society the idea of being left out is terrifying, and it takes real courage to get past the feelings of fear and even abject terror and finally admit to yourself that gods and afterlives don’t make any sense at all – so we keep ourselves terrified of absolutely nothing but ignorance by maintaining our ignorance. I can remember nights of cold sweats and shaking from real terror as I finally accepted that bible-god can’t possibly be real, and again as I finally accepted that 3-in-1 jeebus-god-ghostie-man can’t be real either. Once I got past the fear the real joy of free-thinking is quite amazing – you can even say eye-opening :-)

  19. KG says

    Steersman,

    I expect you would agree… that there is an additional and largely unquantifiable and subjective element – the phenomenological experiences of those who have seen and enjoyed such pictures, their “qualia”.

    No, I wouldn’t. If these “qualia” can be described, or can influence behaviour in any way, then they are not unquantifiable and subjective. If not, what is it you’re talking about?

    Seems to me that, in spite of the very significant advances and results from neuroscience, the “hard problem” of consciousness is well named and anything but trivial.

    Seems to me you’re wrong: it’s a pseudo-problem.

  20. mikelaing says

    KG
    No, I wouldn’t. If these “qualia” can be described, or can influence behaviour in any way, then they are not unquantifiable and subjective. If not, what is it you’re talking about?

    What??
    If they are purely physical, then they are quantifiable and objective. So, Mr. incompatibilist, relay your experience of the color red so I can compare it to mine. Color influences my fashion selection, therefore it is quantifiable, according to you.
    Tell me what quantity, of what, exactly, you aim to measure.