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
(Two today because I forgot yesterday!)