Truth will sometimes make you cry »« That’s how we deal with it around here

Why I am an atheist – Anonymous

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.

Anonymous

Comments

  1. sharon says

    …based solely upon some youthful intellectual shrewdness and critical thinking abilities…

    It’s so refreshing to have you say that. I get cranky when people say things like “I knew it was bullshit by the time I was five.” Just arrogant self-aggrandizing…something I find a lot of atheists do and it’s a put off. No young child has the critical thinking skills to figure out something like that on his own when all the adults in his world have a different reality. The five year old may have questions like, “How did Noah fit all those animals in one boat? How did Jonah stay alive inside the stomach of a whale?” But it takes a lot of thought and time to come to a question as profound and foundational as “Does God exist?”

    I really appreciate the honesty and humility of your piece. Thanks.

  2. AlisonJ says

    Thanks for sharing your lovely story!

    It would be fanciful self-flattery to say that my own atheism was the result of any intellectual shrewdness and critical thinking on my part. My sister and I were raised atheists, a tradition passed down from our father’s side of the family.

    My dad is the kindest man I have ever met. He’s getting on in years, and has reached the point where he tells the same stories over and over again. We go walking my dogs, share a joint, and the odds are good he’ll tell me when he finally owned his atheism, at the bright age of five, when his father died.

    My dad’s mom still made him go to church, even though she was an avowed atheist. It was a social function, nothing more. So he learned about the Christian philosophy, and was astounded that no one in the church actually practiced it, so many vain people.

    At the time he was thirteen, on account of his troubled childhood, he had a poor reputation among his peers. He resolved to change it by pretending he was Jesus Christ: he would be relentlessly kind, interacting with people as if everything they had to say was important and interesting. That’s how he became the most popular boy in high school. (He was also comparatively rich, on account of having several newspaper routes.)

    I never believed in deities. About the closest I came was as a teenager — I believed in Doctor Who, or at least I wanted to, and one terrible night (high school was hell, I could never do what my father did) I prayed for the TARDIS to come. It was borne out of a desire to escape, a rejection of the world and the people in it, and I was bitter to find no release.

    Today, I’m glad there was never a supernatural intervention. Moreso, I’m glad I live in a world that’s flawed, as a person who’s flawed, so that my choices and actions actually matter, that there’s work to do. To affirm the world as it is, to affirm myself as I am, I now realise this is the greatest release of all.

    Thanks, Dad.

  3. eclectabotanics says

    Wait, why can’t a five-year-old have a bullshit detector? I used to tell my little kids obvious untruths so that they could call me on my bullshit. It’s good training for them to trust their instincts and have the courage to call BS on people. My son recently did just that in a discussion with a student teacher about Monsanto. He had the facts and wasn’t going to let the adult in authority spread Monsanto untruths.

    I think it’s a matter of personality and upbringing and intelligence – people reach the age of independant thinking at different rates. Some of them very young and some not until they’ve swallowed so much BS they’re literally gagging on it.