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.