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Why I am an atheist – Scott Portman

I’m an atheist for all the standard reasons of logic and evidence that others have already articulated, but I’m also an atheist because of a feeling that religious belief can blunt one’s sense of wonder. As a child, the things that struck me as most beautiful and awe inspiring appeared to be off religion’s radar screen. Where were the giant sequoias in the bible? The Grand Canyon and the other National Parks? Bears? I would have been a sucker for religion had my parents been Mormons or animists. My grandmother showed me a 3-D postcard of Christ wearing a bloody crown of thorns. My mom didn’t like this, so grandma revealed the postcard as if it was pornography, something hidden and very special. I didn’t get it. Jesus would blink his eyes open and shut as you tilted the postcard. This freaked me out a little; normal kids prefer live people to dying ones. Even as a five year old, I can remember being revolted at the cruelty of a doctrine that had no place in heaven for cats and even considered the question ridiculous. Richard Dawkins called religion a crime against childhood. That resonates with me, although I grew up without much distortion from religious education.

I married a lapsed but still religious Catholic. (We all have criteria, and I drew the line at Republicans or smokers.) Charles Darwin is a bit of a role model for me in terms of reconciling my total lack of faith with my dear wife’s residual attachment to her religion. He lost his faith, but loved his wife enough to support and accept that she retained hers. Anyway, like Darwin, one of the crosses I bear is occasional attendance at church. Last Easter, the priest was talking about the miracle of the resurrection. My usual Church-service meditation on the history and sociology of the Hellenistic world wasn’t doing it for me. I actually listened to the priest, and I was getting pissed off. Torture is not some abstraction. It is a grotesque crime with nothing redeeming about it, and real people suffer their entire lives from having been tortured. The Father tortured the Son to death and then resurrected Him to free us from sin? That’s obscene. What kind of manipulative organization would glorify it? And why would anyone pick an event like this as the foundation to build some elaborate theological structure and claim that it reflects something fundamental about the universe?

Just when I thought I could stand no more, a warbler appeared outside the window, gleaning insects off of the forsythia bush. Call it a miracle: A bird weighing less than the change in my pocket flew from Colombia en route to Canada. It makes this journey twice each year, and it can do this for a decade. Here was something of tremendous beauty, real and tangible and available to anyone with curiosity. The priest would probably offer some Hallmark sentiment about God’s love for all of His creations, at least until they fly into windows, or toss off a phrase about the beauty of God’s creation that has the effect of stifling inquiry more than encouraging it. To be fair, the Catholic Church accepts evolution and there are Jesuits who have a pretty solid understanding of biology. But even they would insist on Easter Sunday that the defining event in all time was the brutalization of a man during the expansion phase of the Roman Empire.

I don’t get it. I’ve never heard a believable rationale for separating religion and science, and the whole progression of science pretty much proves we’re not the center of the universe. This warbler seemed like a small but welcome messenger from the vast and impersonal universe outside the church. The mysteries of the resurrection and the volumes of theological speculation built upon it seem like weak tea, pale and downright unimaginative compared to the remarkable fact that this warbler and I share the same basic architecture and chemistry, that the warbler has even more in common with the tyrannosaurus down at the Field Museum, that a creature so small uses the stars to navigate, or any of the millions of other things that can be known or asked about both human and bird. The church has nothing emotionally or intellectually satisfying to say about the terrifying vastness of time and chance that created me, the world’s most easily-entertained mammal, or the warbler I was observing. I am an atheist because the universe is unexpected and beautiful in ways that bear little relationship to the myths or beliefs humans create to interpret it.

Scott Portman
United States

Comments

  1. michaelpowers says

    Einstein once said, “When describing the truth, leave eloquence to the tailor.” I’m glad Mr. Portman decided to ignore that advice. If he doesn’t write professionally, he should. It takes a certain talent to articulate another’s feelings (in this case, mine) better than they themselves can.

  2. ricklongworth says

    I can appreciate that. My wife dragged me to mass for many years until she said, “you just think its all superstition, don’t you.” I didn’t reply. After a while she stopped dragging me and then she began spending Sunday mornings in the back garden with me.

  3. says

    A brilliant question about the resurrection of the dead Jeebus:

    And why would anyone pick an event like this as the foundation to build some elaborate theological structure and claim that it reflects something fundamental about the universe?

    The question is important because there’s about two billion gullible people on this planet who believe the whole ridiculous thing.

    I married a lapsed but still religious Catholic.

    Perhaps if your wife read your excellent post she might consider throwing out her death cult.

    This is off topic: It’s about a city in Rhode Island that is infested with Catholic thugs and the courageous young woman who forced them to respect our constitution. Of course everyone here has seen PZ’s post about her. I just discovered some things about her in the New York Times. From today’s 2/1/2012 NY Times an editorial A Brave Stand in Rhode Island and three letters to the editor The Atheist Who Challenged Cranston. From the 1/27/2012 NY Times: Student Faces Town’s Wrath In Protest Against a Prayer.

  4. coralline says

    Very nicely done. A small but welcome message from the vast and impersonal internet outside this blog.

  5. niftyatheist says

    Oh my. Nearly all of these essays have been enjoyable to read, and some were very well-written. This one is so beautifully written, and captures so perfectly the wonder and beauty and complexity of the natural world – and that we belong to/in it! – it actually brought me to tears.

    I hope you are a writer, Scott. I would very much like to read more of your writing.

  6. Brownian says

    If he doesn’t write professionally, he should.

    I LOLed more than a few times reading this one.

    Thanks, Scott.

  7. Brownian says

    Er, LOLed at the post. I agree with michaelpowers’ comment, if that wasn’t clear.

    This is why I don’t write professionally.

  8. niftyatheist says

    This should be shared profusely today, gang. Great entry, Scott. Astoundingly articulated.

    I had the same thought, Thomas. Although I have a small number of Facebook friends, I think I will share this anyway.

  9. Gunboat Diplomat says

    Its pretty hard sitting through a mass when you lose your ability to zone out. Worst in my case was at my nieces christening when the priest decided to tackle head on the question of child abuse by saying there may have been one or two little problems in the church recently but we should not be afraid to remember Jesus’ exhortations to “suffer unto me the little children.”

    Says the Catholic priest.
    In Ireland.
    Fucker.

  10. pooder says

    —wow—

    Thanx for that, Scott!

    (I’ll be thinking of your little bird during the next wedding or funeral I attend . . . .)

  11. kemist says

    Its pretty hard sitting through a mass when you lose your ability to zone out.

    Like, totally. Not that this has happened to me very often.

    I was very lucky to have a very high capacity for this as a child, when my parents – mostly my mother – would insist on going to church every damn sunday. I would sit there, eyes glazed, entertained by stories entirely made up by my brain. The endless vaccuum-cleaner like droning of the priest even seemed to help me get in that state. I would “wake up” only when it became too quiet.

  12. Happiestsadist says

    This is beautiful.

    Oddly, I had a somewhat similar gain of perspective also involving a warbler. The type is now tattooed on me.

  13. dliz says

    I had tried to get myself to faint at a (hindu) funeral in order to escape the horrors. It didn’t work.. I was the (atheist) daughter-in-law of the deceased.

    Glad to hear everyone looks for escape routes.
    People like Scott look for beauty amidst delusion.
    I guess you have to ‘know’ in order to appreciate beauty. Scott knew how to identify a warbler and knew about its migratory habits. Without this, it would have been just a cute little bird to him. But to take it to another level of beauty and awesomeness, knowledge seems to be the only way. Thanks Scott for this wonderful post.

  14. lobotomy says

    Wow! You have written an outstanding explanation of your atheism, Scott. I’m giving it ten out of ten for content and turning the style up to ELEVEN.

    I cannot say that I have read even most of the “Why I am an Atheist” articles here, but this is certainly the most literate and moving of the bunch I have read.

    Well done and thank you.

  15. ikesolem says

    I like fantasy writing, Tolkien etc. But imagine some authoritarian creep screaming at you to memorize Tolkien, recite passages on demand, and donate 10% of your money to the Tolkien Religious Society. That would put me off Tolkien permanently.

    This is why many people become atheists, isn’t it? I often wonder, however, if the people who actually wrote the Bible (and yes, they were people, not supernatural fairies) intended it to be viewed in this way? Maybe they knew they were writing fantasy, and someone else came along later and claimed it was the ‘literal truth’?

    What Scott points out in excellent style is that the natural world around us has a lot more to offer than any old text, no matter how well-written it is. And of course there are also other books to read, too. Very nicely done!

    “That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.” – P.A.M. Dirac

  16. ikesolem says

    Actually, atheism would probably be the normal basic state of the human mind. You’d have to invent some kind of alpha-chimp analogue (aka “God”), and the only reason to do that would be to explain natural phenomena you didn’t understand (lightning and thunder: the alpha-chimps are fighting in the sky), which would naturally be an extrapolation of your own social circumstances in your primate social group.

    Which is to say, if you’d never been introduced to this collective mind-fuck known as organized religion, you’d never bother with atheism, would you?

  17. says

    The mysteries of the resurrection and the volumes of theological speculation built upon it seem like weak tea, pale and downright unimaginative compared to the remarkable fact that this warbler and I share the same basic architecture and chemistry, that the warbler has even more in common with the tyrannosaurus down at the Field Museum…

    I truly enjoyed reading that sentence along with the rest of your essay, Scott. Thanks.

  18. Tony says

    Scott:

    The Father tortured the Son to death and then resurrected Him to free us from sin? That’s obscene. What kind of manipulative organization would glorify it? And why would anyone pick an event like this as the foundation to build some elaborate theological structure and claim that it reflects something fundamental about the universe?

    -I loved your post, but the above just stands above and beyond the rest.

  19. edmiller says

    As a life time church attender and non-believer, what I can’t give up is the sense of community and the relationships built over many years. I care about those folks and they care about me. Still, I have been looking around for humanist/freethought alternatives without much success. Unfortunately, the few out of the closet atheists I’ve encountered have a sort of abrasive one man wrecking crew approach to life …not really my style. I hate to admit it, but that question asked by Snoopy in a Peanuts comic, “have you ever considered that you might be wrong?” has become sort of personal starting place for me. It’s a question for free thinkers and the religious alike.

    You say that, “The church has nothing emotionally or intellectually satisfying to say about the terrifying vastness of time and chance that created me.” I agree with that. I would say though that there can be something very emotionally comforting about being part of a community of people who actually care about one as a person and who will be there for you when you need them. I sometimes joke with my church friends who ask me why I continue to go to church that sometimes a fellow needs help moving his piano. That kind of community doesn’t have to be in a church. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be a lot of other options, at least in my neck of the woods.

  20. usagichan says

    edmiller @ 30

    Unfortunately, the few out of the closet atheists I’ve encountered have a sort of abrasive one man wrecking crew approach to life …not really my style.

    The fact that you mention “closet Athiests” suggests to me you are probably living in the US – where it seems to me (at least from what I read) a certain thick skinned abrasiveness is almost a requisite to overcome the social censorship engendered by the religious establishment.

    As to

    that question asked by Snoopy in a Peanuts comic, “have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”

    like most here I have – and once I might have even suggested the standard of evidence that would change my mind – but having read and thought a bit more deeply about it, I have yet to find a logically coherent proposition within religion, therefore before considering my position “wrong” I would need to establish that there was an alternative position – not as easy as you might think.

    Of course, as you say there is

    something very emotionally comforting about being part of a community of people who actually care about one as a person and who will be there for you when you need them.

    That is the in-group experience. If the price is belonging to a group that actively pursues policies that persecute minorities, well at least for me I prefer to be alone than make that sort of moral compromise (of course you may agree with the attitude to minorities in which case you are almost certainly in the sort of community in which you belong, and certainly the community here will find your Ethical judgement lacking).

  21. edmiller says

    @usagichan 31

    Thanks for your response. You are correct, I do live in the USA and particularly conservative area of it. I don’t dispute anything you write. It all makes sense. I do have a question though about this statement:

    “If the price is belonging to a group that actively pursues policies that persecute minorities, well at least for me I prefer to be alone than make that sort of moral compromise.”

    I guess I’m just wondering to what degree disassociating ourselves from those with whom we disagree is actually possible. I agree that I would not want to be part of a group that actively pursues policies that persecute minorities. But, that doesn’t really describe the particular group I relate to. No, they aren’t perfect, but neither are they thuggish fundamentalists seeking to impose their beliefs on anybody. Of course, I am troubled by the association with the broader Christian religion but that is an association “once removed.”

    The complexities of modern life mean we interact and associate with all manner of people. I don’t think I can agree with every position my particular political party or my employer takes or my local football club makes either. I don’t consider myself responsible for every decision made by someone with whom I have an association of some sort, voluntary or involuntary. I guess the question is where to draw the line.
    Is there ever any point to staying engaged with flawed institutions and organizations and yes, people, in the hopes of making them better?

  22. John Phillips, FCD says

    edmiller, there is always possibilities when dealing with people, the organisations, not so much. The problem with any faith, i.e. evidence free, based system, is that the very faith that sustains the moderate also sustains and justifies the extremist. In other words, the moderate’s reliance on faith is an enabler for the extremist’s reliance on faith. After all, when either side of that divide criticices the other, they are only arguing about interpretation, not that either’s faith is ultimately unjustified.

    And yes, I could be wrong, for all knowledge, or truth, is provisional. But without any evidence at all to guide me, which evidence free system do I accept as possibly true. Logically, with zero evidence to support any of the myriad religions, the only rational choice is the null hypothesis until such time, if ever, as actual evidence is shown for one religion or another.

  23. John Phillips, FCD says

    Oh and Scott, superbly written. I enjoyed every word and understood you perfectly, as it mirrors many of my own thoughts on the matter.

  24. IndyM, pikčiurna says

    Lovely essay, Scott.

    I had to comment because I also had an experience with a warbler–and it really moved me. I live in Manhattan, and after I got out of the gym one morning, I started walking home. Around 34th & Madison, I saw a teeny tiny green bird sitting on the sidewalk. It just sat there, and its eyes were closed (they soon opened, though, so I knew she wasn’t dead). Since I don’t know birds AT ALL, I thought that it was someone’s pet who had escaped. It was too pretty and too small to be a “city bird”–and I couldn’t believe that it was just sitting on the sidewalk like that, not doing anything. So, I gently picked it up and decided to take it to my vets for advice (I couldn’t bear to leave such a wee defenseless thing in the middle of rush hour foot traffic).

    It was my first time ever holding a bird. The tiny creature fit in my palm, and I held it gently with my other hand cupped over it. It was about a half hour walk to my vet, and about 20 minutes into the walk, the little bird “woke up” (she didn’t fuss too much, though). When I reached my vets, they said that it was a wild bird–a baby warbler. She was in fine condition and could fend for herself (she even flew around the vet clinic a bit), and they told me that they would release her in their courtyard, which was a more protected area. She was probably just very tired from her long migratory journey.

    Anyway, I had recently lost my job, and was in a kind of stressed and depressed funk, and experiencing that beautiful little jewel of a bird totally lifted my spirits. I agree: who needs ancient torture tales when nature and science are far more fascinating and gorgeous?

  25. usagichan says

    edmiller @ 33

    I agree that you cannot be held responsible for the behaviour or opinions of everyone with which you assosociate (indeed it would be a poorer world if we all shared the same opinions and affiliations). Nor do I believe that all religious groups necessarily promote the curtailment of minority rights – in the UK I knew several clergy that actively pursued minority rights, so I am very much aware that these attitudes are not necessarily a part of the religious community.

    My point was that a church is an organisation, and like it or not joining that organisation associates you with its ideals and objectives. Even if as a member you feel you are trying to change the organisation from within (although this strikes me as a dangerous moral path to take as you would need to be certain that any good you achieved more than offset any harm the organisation was doing). That the individual members with which you associate are charming, supportive and helpful would seem to me to only make the moral question harder to answer – if the organisation to which you belong is working to limit the freedoms of minority groups (be they the LGBT community, single women (especially reproductive rights), migrants etc) or even if the organisation takes a political stance, whether you actively support the aims and goals or not, you lend support by association.

    I realise that in practice, withdrawing your support would be no more than a gesture, and no doubt a futile one at that. I do not think that there is any practical change that you will make, nor do I think that you would find understanding or acceptance for making such a stand. Rather I was trying to say that for some people, making that moral decision is more important than the social comfort of conformance. And should you come across people that make their choices based on the ideals and actions of the organisations themselves rather than the social qualities of the members try to understand that for some people that moral decision, however hard to take, is the one that must take precedence – and having taken that hard path, they will naturally see your position as at best sympathetic to their opponents, and will naturally be far more robust than I in their condemnation.

    As for me, I am fortunate enough to live in a society where religion is hardly an issue (the Japanese tend to have a flexible attitude towards the matter of faith, but barring the odd Mormon Missionary or itinerant begging buddhist monk, religion is hardly mentioned outside births/ weddings & funerals (and even then it tends to be a choice of which has the best ceremony rather than a particular group attachment)), so it is not a choice I have to make. I do however admire those that make the hard choices.