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.