This essay was originally going to be just the one sentence: “I am an atheist because I am educated.” It’s laconic and full of all sorts of wonderful implications: theists are ignorant, the truth is that there are no gods, if only people could be shown that truth they would all realise it and the abuses of religion would disappear forever. There’s probably a touch of smugness in there too.
As well as being an atheist, I’m a huge procrastinator and between thinking up that as an answer and actually submitting it, I thought about this further and realised that there’s far more to it than the fact that I have been lucky enough to receive an education. To see why education was not a sufficient requirement for atheism I had to look no further than my own family.
I was raised as a Catholic. The church had its clutches on me until seven (although luckily only in a metaphorical sense) and for many years afterwards. Although some members of the extended family back in the old country didn’t appear particularly church-going, I had always assumed that the family had been Catholic for generations, for all I knew going back for two thousand years. It was only a few years ago, decades after the pantomime when I first explicitly told my parents I was an atheist – “I’m not a Catholic.”, “Yes you are.”, “No, I’m not.”, “Yes you are. That’s what it says on your birth certificate.”, “My birth certificate also says I’m not even a foot tall and only weigh a few pounds. I’ve grown up since then.” – they reconciled themselves to my lack of faith and the whole matter was regarded as academic, I had a chat with my grandmother and found out that it’s really only my mother who is religious and the reason why she was such a devoted Catholic daughter to not particularly religious parents.
My mother was an intelligent girl. Even if her parents weren’t religious themselves, they recognised that she had a lot of potential and wanted the best education they could get for her. Unfortunately the best education available was at the local Catholic school. From what I gather the stereotypes of Catholic schools of the era held true there; the teachers were all nuns in habits with a deep devotion to the teachings of Rome, a strong ruler in their hand and a knowledge of how to use it to instill the fear of God into their pupils. What would otherwise have been the best education my mother could have had at the time was poisoned by these black-clad sadistic authoritarians and to this day her mind remains stunted by it.
Compared to the educational opportunities I had as a boy in the seventies in eighties, the opportunities my mother had as a girl in the fifties and sixties would have been limited. The pursuit of maths and science would not have been encouraged anywhere near as much for her as it was for me. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel a huge sense of sadness at the potential wasted when an intelligent woman tells me with all sincerity that praying to Saint Anthony will help me find lost objects, and an even larger sense of rage when she tells me that she believes in a literal eternity of hellfire, and that fear of such makes it very hard if not impossible for her to question what she was taught as a young girl.
Why am I an atheist? The reason why I believe there are no gods – at least the proximate cause – does have to do with the fact that I did receive an education. Without it I wouldn’t have all the little jigsaw pieces I’ve used to make my model of the world, and it’s this model that’s given me an abiding love of the scientific process. It is most emphatically not a religion. It recognises the fact that its description of the universe is sometimes inaccurate or just plain wrong and endeavours to incrementally correct it. It acknowledges that the human brain likes to make patterns even when patterns aren’t really there and tries to circumvent this tendency when it can. It does not say that the Universe is thus because I or a voice inside my head say so and nay-saying will bring forth retribution, but because I did these experiments and made these observations and that you can do them yourself to verify it or come up with your own experiments and observations if you think they’ll do a better job explaining it. It’s because of this that I accept what science says as a fairly good approximation of what the Universe really is like. Despite the charlatans or the misinformed, science has not found any evidence for the existence of gods and until it does I am not going to believe that there are any.
The reason why I find the above reasoning valid – the ultimate cause of my atheism – is harder to pin down. Could I just have easily followed the same path as my mother? Creating a model of the world where Catholicism – or any other theistic religion – had the answer to everything and any inconsistencies could be explained away by evil forces or just ignored for fear of divine punishment? I’d like to think that it’s because I am more independently minded than her, but is that a fair assessment? Maybe it’s because my education had more science lessons and fewer cruel nuns.
The seeds of cognitive dissonance would have been planted when I was about ten or so, before I had any issues with authoritarianism. Religious teaching was no more complicated then “Jesus died for your sins, God loves you, but you need to follow his rules.” Science was a lot of cool facts but little explanation about how we knew these facts. I wanted to know how, if there were these monkeys that slowly turned into men, where did Adam and Eve come into the story. I did not get a satisfying answer. I did not abandon Catholicism then and there – like many I could make an accommodation between religion and science – but it was the first time I could not blindly follow religious and scientific teachings simultaneously and have to choose one over the other.
I was a fan of Jesus, but found his weekly fan club meetings were boring and pointless. Science I mostly got from books telling me – mirabile dictu – that there were beautiful spiral galaxies out there, and planets with spots on them bigger than the entire Earth or that had rings! There’s stuff that blows up if you get it wet, and a gas that will poison you with one breath, but if you mix the two together you get salt! The stuff in my pencil was made of the same stuff as a diamond, just arranged in a different way! We used to be little monkeys before we changed into people! Me and my dog had the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather! One hundred million years ago there were these big lizards walking, swimming and flying around the place!
When I look deeply into the question, perhaps the real reason I am an atheist is because to a ten – or almost forty, for that matter – year-old boy, dinosaurs are cool. Perhaps it’s not too late to tell my mother that.