It would be fanciful self-flattery to assume that coming to atheism was all my own doing, based solely upon some youthful intellectual shrewdness and critical thinking abilities. Of course, we all can lay claim to unconsciously filing away in our brain any signals and inconsistencies we encounter over time. But of course there were outside influences as well that helped me along the way. I have appreciated this process of reflection upon the more significant causal factors in my youth that helped me clear my mind of a childhood of supernatural nonsense.
I was raised to follow a religion, raised to believe in a god and all the attendant supernatural accouterments. Fortunately, mine was not a fundamentalist family with rigid beliefs. My father, in fact, would never accompany us on our weekly visits to Sunday School and church. He raised us to appreciate evolution, and science in general. He loved for the religious proselytizers to knock on our door so that he could challenge their dogma with science. I have often wondered after recognizing my own atheism if he had not himself been an atheist, or at the least an agnostic. I can only guess, because he never spoke to me about religion or God. But he did not seem to object to our being raised to pursue religious belief, and he even followed some of the Biblical teachings, such as the warning that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. He must have had his own religious upbringing to shake off, having grown up in a large family of strong Southern Baptists.
One of the early influences to my skeptical development was of all things a program introduced by the Baptist church our family attended. Someone in our Sunday School conceived the idea of taking us, the children, around to various religious establishments in the area, so that we would have a sense of how people of other religions worshiped. After each such visit, we would have a follow-up lesson at our own church to explain how those other beliefs differed from ours, and why ours were the right beliefs while theirs were flawed. I had lead such a sheltered, homogeneous life up to that point; I had never traveled outside of the American South, and although I loved to read, I didn’t have any real-life encounters with people following other religious beliefs and living in other cultures. That program was the beginning of my awakening to the realization that my family’s religion was simply one of many, at least among the Judeo-Christian religions.
Incrementally, I was able to shake off much of the rigidity that Southern Baptists hold dear. How fortunate I was to have parents who didn’t have narrow expectations for how I should live my life. I paid little attention to a visiting aunt who lectured me for not kneeling beside my bed to pray (I had told her I just prayed while lying in bed). I took years of dance lessons although the most rigid of Baptists disapproved of dancing. I developed a loathing for declarations of faith, and abhorred public prayer. The reverent language Christians used to declare their devotion to God and Jesus became cloying and obsequious to my ears. I stopped attending Sunday School and church in my mid teens, and it felt so good to finally have my Sundays free from that tedious burden.
I developed my own brand of buffet Christianity, where I selected what seemed more acceptable to my sensibilities to believe, and rejected what seemed unpalatable. I had still internalized many of the Bible stories as ostensibly real, at most allegorical, although perhaps I conceived that each was based broadly upon some actual event. In truth, I never considered most of them seriously enough to question them. Having accepted evolution from a very young age, I merely fit it in to my religious belief by assuming it was the means that God had used to create the universe. I still believed that a god could read my mind, and I still talked to that deity in my thoughts, but I gradually began to realize that I had never experienced anything that I would call a response—nary a sign nor sensation.
The lesson that began in those childhood visits to other churches came full circle when I studied anthropology in college. At once there was before me a wealth of detail about the mythology of world cultures. I read the countless bizarre creation myths, and it dawned upon me that the Christian creation story of my Baptist upbringing was as odd as any other. It hadn’t seemed peculiar to me before then simply because it was so familiar, but it was as much a nonsensical fable as all the other creation stories. Once I recognized the purely imaginary nature of my own creation myth, the concept of Bible stories as anything more than fairy tales began to evaporate like a dream upon waking.
In the years after college, I thought little about deities or religion. I moved away from the South and married an atheist, so didn’t have to deal with religion invading my home life. I would only lightly ponder what I believed or didn’t believe. It was satisfying just to live my life without such thoughts. I did, however, come to realize that I felt very much more comfortable with the writings of those who identified themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “non religious,” and uncomfortable and impatient with, and often having a downright aversion to, any who were pious. I began to frequent and enjoy atheist forums on-line, and read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. I had become an atheist sometime in the preceding years, yet had not acknowledged it until that point. With this acknowledgment came a great sense of relief and freedom.
My sibling, with whom I share an upbringing and genetic makeup, majored in Biology in college, but then inexplicably moved in the opposite direction from mine, becoming a Young Earth Christian Fundamentalist. I don’t know why he would have chosen a notional pilgrimage to a destination that differs so greatly from my own.
Despite the relief and freedom that atheism allows me, I’m not going to pretend that life is therefore easy. The years have brought unwelcome obstacles and complications, which often happens as we grow older. I face all of these without feeling the slightest desire for some sort of fanciful supernatural intervention. I am an atheist because through all the decades of my life, I’ve never read, heard, or experienced one single fragment of evidence to suggest, much less confirm, that the supernatural exists; neither does the idea of taking something purely on faith bring me the least bit of comfort.