Why I am an atheist – Sarah Otto Marxhausen


I became an atheist for incredibly stupid reasons. To be fair, I was ten years old.

As soon as I started reading well at about age four, my parents started throwing books at me. Anything I showed the slightest interest in, I was allowed to read, and I tore through everything. When I was nine, I was given a huge ton of books to call my own after a family friend died and everyone decided that a lot of his books were appropriate for me. It was the complete Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, plus some of the Lang fairy books, plus a lot of books about mythology:Greek, Norse, etc.

I read them passionately; I still believe to this day that a lot of those fairy tales are really genuinely cool stories. My family is and was very religious — my father is a minister — and so I was also well-versed in Christian mythology. I slowly started realizing that the supernatural forces in the stories I was reading were gods just like the god I went to church every Sunday for. And, honestly, a lot of the things the Christian god did were nowhere near as awesome or interesting as the things the non-Christian gods did. And since they were all gods, and worshipping god was the important thing . . .

I took what to me was the most logical step, and made up my own religion. One with really fucking awesome gods. I don’t really want to describe it, because it’s really deeply embarrassing now, as are most “profound” decisions that you make when you’re ten years old. They were awesome at the time, okay?

The important thing was that I was faithful. I made up my own rituals and obesiances, and followed them piously. I prayed to and thought about my religion all the time. I prayed – begged, really – for specific things to happen, and none of my prayers were ever answered, no matter how hard I believed or how rigorously I followed the ritual I’d created. I eventually came to the decision that my religion was obviously false, because it showed no results. And if my religion, with its incredibly awesome gods that was much better than Christianity, was false, then probably all religion was false. So I began atheism while sulking prepubescently about not having my prayers answered.

I did say it was a stupid reason.

I clung to that reason, though, through adolescence; in retrospect, I’d say I believed a good and true thing for stupid and awful reasons. Which, you know, happens a lot, maybe for most people, so I’m not beating myself up over it too much. But because I was already invested in the belief, I started to read about atheism in high school. Everything was so incredibly interesting — Christian theology is, in a lot of ways, like a long string of logic puzzles — that I got hooked. I became so deeply invested in those puzzles that I eventually got a BA in philosophy at a small religious university that specializes in theology and basketball. I got four years of theology classes there, too, and they simultaneously provided me with pleasure in giving me new logic puzzles to worry at, and distressed me because they also provided me with very loud classmates who would declare indignantly that it was wrong to question the Bible. Those courses also gave me good reasons to stay an atheist. Those logic puzzles almost inevitably worked out to disfavor the supernatural, and those theology courses that were intended to teach me about religion as a social force for good ultimately taught me a lot about how religion can be used as a bludgeon. I believe now the same thing I believed when I was ten – both versions of me are atheists – but now I have better reasons.

I have a very good theological education, and I don’t regret a minute of what I learned, even though some of what I learned was hard — particularly the parts where I was informed by classmates that I will never be anything but an godless dyke cunt because of my gender, my sexual preferences, and my religious beliefs. (They would, of course, never say those awful words, but it was … made clear. ) The unconditional love of my religious parents in no way prepared me for the way that other people would judge, and sometimes abuse me because I was unapologetic about having learned that religion was fiction.

I’m working on a PhD now in English literature (because that’s where the real money is, har, har). I’m starting to hate the process of academia, but I still love the work of unpacking texts. It’s a gorgeous exercise, to me, working with fiction; it means we, meaning those in the profession, are looking at lies to see how much truth we can get out of them. It’s sort of a game, a social joke, a logic puzzle. Knowing a lot about Christianity — about, in fact, all mythologies — is an immense gift for what I do. It is intensely frustrating, as an atheist, to teach a classroom full of undergraduates who mostly identify as Christian, but who are so deeply ignorant about the Bible that they cannot understand literary references to it. I can grudgingly accept that I have to explain the Trojan War so students can understand Yeats’ poems, but I get very angry when I have to explain, for example, the book of Job so people can understand TS Eliot to a room full of people who say they’re faithful Christians. They are prepared to believe in their religion no matter what, but most of them do not understand what it is they’re swearing fealty to.

Ultimately, I am an atheist because my lovely, loving, faithful Christian parents let me learn too much. When I asked questions they didn’t know the answer to, they would say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you go see if you can learn the answer?” And I would — sometimes poorly, but I would try to track it down. They are wonderful, loving people, and loving them has taught me that just because you think someone is wrong does not have to mean that you think they’re stupid. My parents are not stupid people, and they taught me to be curious and demanding in how I interpret the world, which I think makes them incredible parents. I am proud to say that they are such good and responsible parents that they helped make me an atheist.

Sarah Otto Marxhausen
United States

(Two today because I forgot yesterday!)

Comments

  1. lizdamnit says

    Hi Sarah! Ohhh, the DIY kiddie religion took me back – I did the same thing :)

    Furthermore, “When I asked questions they didn’t know the answer to, they would say, ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you go see if you can learn the answer?'” Those are some of the best words that can come out of parents! Good on them for teaching you how to think!

    It’s distressing – but unsurprising- to hear proclaimed faith without at least a glancing familiarity with biblical references. At the very least one should understand what one’s signing onto with a religion (or without one, as the case may be). And in students, too! Somehow it’s more disappointing in undergrads, I’m not sure why. But keep it up!

    Lastly, take heart with the English studies…I have to do history lessons a lot. Last term saw quick and dirty rundowns of the bombing of Dresden (Slaughterhouse 5), Japanese Internment, Italian Fascism & the Holocaust (Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz). Most of that was news to people. And don’t even get me started on Jonathan Swift. O_O

  2. chigau (同じ) says

    Teaching the bible to Christians! So sad.
    Good essay!
    If you put your religion-of-a-ten-year-old into writing, you could be the next J.K.Rowling.

  3. mck9 says

    Your reasons for becoming an atheist weren’t nearly as stupid as the usual reasons for becoming a theist.

  4. Lars says

    I don’t know if it was all that stupid.

    You had a hypothesis. You put it to the test. The result came out negative. You accepted the result, even though it disappointed you.

    For a ten year old, that’s a pretty scientific approach, if you ask me.

  5. KG says

    The invented religion reminded me of Saki’s Sredni Vashtar, which you are surely familiar with – but there was a god who did answer the devotee’s most fervent prayer!

  6. Jack Krebs says

    I really like this one. I am stealing this line edited slightly: “It’s a gorgeous exercise, working with fiction; it means we …are looking at lies to see how much truth we can get out of them.”

  7. jaranath says

    Sarah, that’s an AWESOME reason. You recognized that your much better religion was false. Yeah, maybe that didn’t prove other religions were false merely because they were less awesome, but it did tell you that their gods and dogmas, real or not, were seriously flawed. You should be proud of spotting that at ten.

  8. cowalker says

    So you studied all that complex theology (unlike those illiterate New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins) and you STILL claim to be an atheist? Well, at least believers would have to concede that you have a RIGHT to be an atheist.

    Thanks for the very interesting and well-written essay, Ms. Marxhausen.

  9. otrame says

    Oh, I love these essays. This tickled the hell out of me. And I am delighted by your unswerving love and respect for your parents. While I am a dyed-in-the-wool non-accommodationist, that only works for the professional Liars For Jesus. The honest beliefs of good-hearted people don’t bother me much as long as their gullibility is limited to that one area of life. You were lucky to have such great parents, no matter what their beliefs are.

  10. karellen says

    Stop judging your thoughts and actions as a 10-year-old in the light of your mid-20’s maturity and wisdom.

    No-one else expects you to have had the insight you have now back then. You don’t need to expect that either.

  11. mck9 says

    ibyea @ 11:

    And what exactly might “the usual reasons” be?

    The most usual reason is “I believe it because my mommy and daddy believe it.” For a child, that’s not a stupid reason; one’s parents may reasonably be regarded, at least by default, as reliable sources of information.

    For an adult, it’s a pretty stupid reason, once you think about it. In order to protect the pre-existing belief, people find other reasons, such the argument from design, the argument from first cause, or even some form of the ontological argument if they’re feeling ambitious. These reasons may not be stupid, exactly, but they’re certainly fallacious, as the denizens of this blog are fond of pointing out.

    (I didn’t mean to imply that Sarah’s reasons were, in fact, stupid. That was her characterization, not mine. As Lars said, she followed the scientific method, and accepted the result. That’s not stupid.)

  12. jameshotelling says

    Wow- this alleviates me of the burden of writing up my own “Why I am an atheist”. I mean, point for point, right up to (and including) “got a BA in philosophy”, this is pretty much my story, except well-written and engaging. I did it all- learned to read at four, got into Greek, Norse, etc. mythology at nine or ten, made up my own religion shortly thereafter, and made the logical step to atheism after that. Thanks for taking that off my shoulders!

  13. Crudely Wrott says

    Sarah, your story is wonderful and made me feel nice warm and in good company as I read it. Thank you so much.

    My parents too, especially my mother, had the habit of putting books in my hands from an early age. By the time I was eight I had read a full set of encyclopedias. Ma signed up for a book club subscription for a series of books called All About. There was All About Volcanoes and Earthquakes, All About Reptiles and Amphibians and many others. Why, the first Martin Gardner book I ever read was a parental gift. So much knowledge and wonder! And so easily assimilated.

    I took a similar approach with my own children, knowing that a mix of fertile, questing, young minds and simple explanations of curious things leads to more capable and happy adults. It works!

    Best wishes to you in all your endeavors. I see that you’re off to a good start. =)

  14. yellowsubmarine says

    I think it’s wonderful that at the tender age of ten you were able to recognize that your prayers weren’t answered where an unfortunate percentage of the society in which I live has failed to come to that same conclusion in their adulthood. I mean, seriously, every time I hear someone say that when they pray god says to them “yes, no, or wait”, I just want to pull my hair out and scream at them “REALITY SAYS YES, NO, OR WAIT”.

  15. raven says

    If you put your religion-of-a-ten-year-old into writing, you could be the next J.K.Rowling.

    Or the next Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Mohammed, St. Paul of Tarsis, or Manichee.

  16. chigau (同じ) says

    raven

    Or the next Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Mohammed, St. Paul of Tarsis, or Manichee.

    Quelle horreur!

  17. robinc says

    I too was raised a Lutheran but drifted away at a young age. Life moved along quickly and, never giving it much thought, I chose “agnostic” as my label when asked. So less confrontational.
    Wanting to be married at home in Illinois at an outdoor wedding but not wanting to commit to religious indoctrination to accomplish it, we found an accommodating Lutheran minister. Many years later we saw his name in the news as the minister to one of the Columbine families.
    I have long since acknowledged myself as an atheist. Interesting to see his name pop up here with his daughter writing so eloquently about it.

  18. carolw says

    I made up a religion a a kid, too. How funny! My little brother and I prayed to “Umumum” so that we would fish out something on the yardstick when we stuck it under his dresser. Sophisticated theology for a seven-year-old, eh?

  19. kristinc, ~delicate snowflake~ says

    Seems like a lot of us made up our own gods! I specifically remember asking my mom if she thought God (yahweh) would really be angry at me if I decided to worship a different god (her response: probably not. She was a very lax Lutheran).

    I agree with Sarah, the relative awesomeness of some of the gods I read about versus yahweh had a lot to do with my desire for an alternative. I suppose I might have started worshipping Zeus or Hera instead, but even as a kid it must have been pretty obvious to me that all those dudes were jerks even if they were badass. (Yahweh as he was presented to me was not a jerk, just milquetoast and boring.)

  20. ibyea says

    @kristinc
    Yeah, you read the mythologies of all religions, and one can’t help but think that the Gods were designed to be the perfect assholes.

  21. ottomaniac says

    @robinc:
    . . . wow, small world after all. Yep, that’s him (and this is OP). I’m kind of regretting not using a pseudonym when I sent this in, but I don’t think I put anything too awful in there, and it is wild to see connections like that spring up. You do NOT want me to get started on the Columbine mess, seriously. Ain’t no fight like a church fight.

  22. Azuma Hazuki says

    Sarah, awesome :) As another bible-geek lesbian (and mythology geek in general) I know a lot of what you went through, though my road was, and is, rather more traumatic.

    Being able to tell exactly what is wrong with these peoples’ beliefs is infinitely better than all the Dawkinsite bon mots in existence. It’s an amazing feeling. Have you seen any of Carrier’s work? He’s also big into the text and evidence thing and was instrumental in my deconversion. Congratulations on your escape!

  23. jentokulano says

    most of them do not understand what it is they’re swearing fealty to

    Exactly, well put, and great post.

  24. skmarshall says

    Sarah:
    Great essay!

    carolw:
    your made up religion now goes by the name of “Word Faith” or “prosperity gospel”. you should be raking in big royalties!

    “Oh Umumum, please let me fish a brand new Geo Metro from under this dresser, pleeeez?”

    Darn.

  25. richcon says

    Sarah,

    You reasons were not incredibly stupid at all! I actually think that it’s incredibly ingenious for someone of any age, not to mention a ten-year-old. You realized intrinsically that religions are made up anyway, so why not invent something even more awesome and live by that. So you already were a humanist.

    You just still believed that even if they’re made up, they still serve a spiritual purpose and prayers can still be answered. That’s a very new age-y philosophy and is where a lot of people go when they first move away from religion. But since you set your own terms, you weren’t bound to someone else’s imagination.

    Kudos to adult you for thinking like a scientist and abandoning your childhood fantasies when you realized that they weren’t really working, and kudos to ten-year-old you for realizing that if they’re just fantasies anyway, you might as well come up with your own and practice on your own terms.