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Why I am an atheist – Frances

I can tell the story of my atheism in steps. It’s a bit of a revisionist history; now, when I look back, I can see that something had a huge impact on my life, that its repercussions influenced me in many ways. But at the time, I never thought of what happened as a step. Each day I felt like the same person as I was in the one before it. I never felt as though I had experienced any major change, or that I was a new person. The events I describe happened, and in this order, but as they were happening I didn’t think of them as significant.

In the third grade, I learned that there were other religions. This shocked me. As I had understood it, there was one god, and one word of god, and his word was the truth. The fact that there were other gods and other truths had eluded me until this point, and merely learning of their existence gave me some doubt. Why were there other religions? Why hadn’t god spoken to these other peoples like he spoke to Noah, or Moses? Why were their different Christianities? Suddenly, my childish notion of hell became far more upsetting. Before I had thought it a place for the people who did bad things; I assumed that they knew god’s commandments, and were thus knowingly defying their duty. To go to hell, one had to go about it intentionally, or so I thought. Suddenly, this wasn’t true. You could go to hell for believing in the wrong god, or for not even knowing that god existed. Intentions didn’t matter as much, only that you’d picked right. These ideas troubled me, but I couldn’t put them into words. In the end, I fell back on the idea that god loves everybody, so I must be missing something significant.

When I got to high school, I had been getting sexually harassed for two years already, and the boys in my year had also been touching me in ways I found uncomfortable, but during class. Their timing made my own studies more difficult, obviously, and it rendered me mute. I didn’t really know how to tell the teachers what was happening, and I didn’t know how to interrupt because frankly, I could hardly believe this was happening myself. So, the teacher would drone on, occasionally look at me, perhaps notice my discomfort, and proceed as if nothing was the matter. In the present I like to think that they also couldn’t understand what was happening, although I’m less sure of that.

In the first month of my freshman year, though, my best friend was raped. She later tried to kill herself. This was clearly more devastating for her than it was for me, and I only bring it up because it seemed very obvious to me as a result that rape was horrifying. There didn’t seem to be anything I could do to help her, and she was just fading away. I have never seen anyone as unhappy as she was. I realized that what was happening to me was probably also bad – it had always made me feel awful, to clarify, I’d just never known that anyone else would think it was bad. I still didn’t talk about it, though. It was much less bad than what my friend had been through, and I now knew that if no one took her experience seriously, they probably would laugh at mine.

I wondered where god was in all this. Not in an angry, he-should-have-my-back sort of way, but in a literal way. I went to church every Sunday for my entire life, and as near as I can tell, god has no opinions at all on rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or actually any of the issues women have to deal with. I knew the church was against abortion, premarital sex, and being gay (I was raised catholic in an area with lots of fundamentalists), but beyond that, there was literally no guidance. There were no ethics relating to this at all, or if there were, the priests were very tight-lipped about them. When my friend tried to go to the police, the school administration, anyone, she got no help. People thought she shouldn’t have been hanging around this guy, and she shouldn’t have had a beer beforehand. What did she think would happen, people demanded. And also he played sports and was a good student. Nobody seemed to consider her rape a problem, let alone an evil. At some point I concluded that if ‘thou shalt not rape’ hadn’t made god’s top ten list, god was wrong. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet become an atheist. I still believed in god, I just thought I’d been in the wrong religion. I left the catholic church, which may sound like a big change, but it didn’t actually feel like one at the time. I had simply compared what I believed to what the church believed, and found that we didn’t match up very well. I had never made the comparison before because I’d never been pushed to. Catholicism was part of my identity. I’d been confirmed, I’d confessed, and I truly believed in god. I had felt that my catholicism was something I’d earned and a part of who I was. I didn’t question it until then.

Thus began my mission to find a religion that didn’t hate women. Ideally, I hoped to find one in which women were equal to men. This, clearly, would be the one true religion, because it would address everyone’s needs, and it would have a god who loved everybody. I hoped it would have some answers for me, too. I do want to add that I considered science briefly as a possible recourse, but not too seriously. The popular image of science and scientists is pretty unfriendly to women, as is the history of science and women, and picking something that seemed to also dislike women would have gone against my goal. I wound up looking into neo-paganism and a bucketful of woo, these being the religions that were kindest to women. The trouble with this was that I couldn’t actually make myself believe that magick was real, or that ritual was important, or, well, much of any of it. Only a few months into this new religion I found myself unable to continue because I came to a really obvious conclusion. If I could just make religion up as I went along, if I could pick and choose as I saw fit, why did I think religion was real? By definition, making shit up is not the truth. This thought was immediately followed by a far more uncomfortable one: what if there is no god?

I couldn’t face that thought; it was completely devastating to me. It wasn’t just that that would mean I was essentially alone, or that there would never be any kind of justice in the next world, or even that there might not be any answers, then. These thoughts sucked, though. I was mostly horrified at the idea that this would be it. I’d never see my deceased grandparents again, I would only have access to what my body and mind could physically and mentally accomplish, and everything that I’d previously considered meaningful would simply vanish.

So, I didn’t face it. I went to college and I studied the humanities and social sciences. I hoped to learn more about what it meant to be human, and more specifically, how that related to what it meant to be a woman (I’d gotten the notion that people thought they were two different things, go figure). Somehow between learning statistics and learning about how anthropologists conduct field research, I started to realize that nothing had actually changed. If there wasn’t a god, there had never been a god. That would mean that my life had been deep and meaningful to me for other reasons. It was still deep and meaningful.

I started learning about how scientists looked for the truth, and how social scientists looked for the truth, and I became quite taken with the scientific method. I graduated, read The Demon-Haunted World, became aware of feminism, and just kept thinking and reading. Finally, when I was 26, I reapproached the question of god. It didn’t hurt anymore, and I found I could give it serious thought.

Truth is no longer something I have to believe in, it is something I can see and study. Doubt isn’t a character flaw anymore, and neither is not knowing the answer. I realized that there was no reason to believe in god, that everything I’d attributed to him in my wonder is explainable through evolution, the movement of glaciers long ago, the tilt of the Earth on its axis, and other natural phenomena. And, even more surprisingly, that these natural phenomena are even more wondrous than god was. The strange gaps in god’s commands regarding modern issues, his obliviousness about rape, and his really strange dislike of certain foods were more easily explainable when I realized that there probably wasn’t a god. The idea of a god doesn’t explain anything, actually, and in fact raises many uncomfortable questions. Especially if you are a woman. It also turns out that feminism and atheism go together really well.

So, as you can (hopefully) see, this is a story about how I didn’t actually change that much at all; I only changed how I thought.

Frances

Comments

  1. stonyground says

    I found the point about finding out that there were other religions apart from Christianity interesting. I can’t really recall when I first found this out, by the time it happened I had a fairly relaxed and tolerant attitude so I must have stopped taking religion very seriously by then, if I ever did. Religious Education in the UK in the 1970’s was exclusively Christian, there was obviously the ‘Judeo’ part in there but Judeism itself was never mentioned. Now my daughter is doing RE, every major religion is covered as part of the National Curriculum. Hopefully this will be another nail in the coffin of religion as even the less bright kids can work out that they can’t all be right but they can all be wrong.

  2. monicaflynn says

    I too came to atheism by way of feminism.

    And I too had those same questions as a kid– “Wait a minute– there are other religions? And if I had been born in Iraq, I’d believe a different religion? But they all claim to be the ‘right’ one? Hmm . . .”

    I’m sorry you and your friend experienced such violations. It’s never right. Sounds like you found your voice now though. Keep speaking– there are other girls and women that need to hear it!

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. says

    Damn shame the school authorities couldn’t see the harassment that was happening in front of their eyes. Probably it was tied up with their warped ideas of morality.

    Comparative religions opened my eyes, too, but it took a lot longer for the ideas to bear fruit.

    Congratulations on making the journey.

  4. generallerong says

    Thanks, Frances, this is an inspiring read.

    Choice quote:

    “The strange gaps in god’s commands regarding modern issues, his obliviousness about rape, and his really strange dislike of certain foods were more easily explainable when I realized that there probably wasn’t a god. The idea of a god doesn’t explain anything, actually, and in fact raises many uncomfortable questions.”

    One such uncomfortable question being why religion is so often a misogynist boys’ club.

    Your comment about misogyny and Science also demands attention.

  5. sadunlap says

    I find it interesting how your environment taught you to look at “humans” and women as somehow separate and different. You may have already read an essay by Dorothy Sayers called Are Women Human in which she expands on this concept and its pernicious effects. Her writings are still in print (but not in the public domain so not available for free on the internet). For those who haven’t read it I highly recommend it.

  6. razzlefrog says

    Why capitalize “atheist”, Tualha (Cmt 1)?

    You capitalize formal titles. “Uncle Sam” gets capitalized. “Bob” gets capitalized. “God” gets capitalized.

    And before you get all flamey on me peeps, 1) the English language is shitty enough as it is without us senselessly adding complications because we feel like it, 2) God doesn’t get any more or less non-existent because of our collective grammatical choices, and 3) I don’t suppose anyone lowercases Thor or Zeus or Odin or Apollo? At the risk of inflaming our rebel sensibilities by sounding too bound to any tradition, I think we ought to leave standard writing conventions well enough alone; they are not the enemy to progress. We just look trivial and needlessly provocative.

    Point is, it’s “non-stamp-collecter”, not “Non-Stamp-Collector”.

  7. razzlefrog says

    Also, in that same vein, I find myself wanting to strangulate Christians who spell it all-caps GOD. (“ Stop screaming at me online, for chrissake!“)

  8. says

    Thanks for writing your story, Frances. I really identified with the uncomfortable feeling of learning that there are other religions and that the believers of these are doing nothing worse than being brought up in the wrong part of the world.

    Just one addendum: The bible isn’t completely silent on the subject of rape. Deuteronomy 22:23-30 basically says the following:
    a) It’s wrong to rape a maiden *if* she’s bethrothed to be married.
    b) It’s wrong *to be raped* if it happens in a city and you don’t cry out. (Doing so might cause the rapist to kill you. So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t).
    c) The punishment is death by stoning. (A really nasty way to go).
    Oh, and this text also says something about raping a maiden who is not bethrothed to be married. It doesn’t say whether it’s good or bad, but it does stipulate that the rapist should marry the one he raped.

    This is “the old law” I know, but I couldn’t find a damn thing about this in the new testament. I just wished I had read the bible when I was 11-14 years old. It would have made my transition to atheism so much easier.

  9. leonpeyre says

    At some point I concluded that if ‘thou shalt not rape’ hadn’t made god’s top ten list, god was wrong.

    Right on! That’s going in my top ten list of quotes about religion.

  10. Jamie says

    I too enjoyed this story of atheism through feminism. I think I’ll use the point about god raising more awkward questions than answering them in future discussions, and how if there was a good that was just, there should also have been a commandment against rape.

  11. Jamie says

    @razzlefrog: I don’t think that comment 1 is asking for “atheist” to be capitalized, that seems incidental to “atheist” being the first word after the question. Comment 1 was asks to change the spelling of “athIEst” to “athEIst,” which seems to have been corrected.