My upbringing was a little atypical – my parents never mentioned religion at all that I can remember. To this day, I’m only 50% sure they are also atheists, the other 50% is that they straddle the line between atheist and just-don’t-care. Though every year my dad says the Singularity is only 10 years away (he’s been saying this for the last 20 years), so they do have their little oddities. As a child, religion for me was no different from other bits of make-believe or the fantasy books I was constantly reading.
That started to change in high school – I was talking to people my age that were religious, and generally trying to figure the universe out. I went to church once or twice with my grandmother, but found the sermons pretty offensive. I stumbled into paganism after a blow up in a star trek email discussion group (long story), and thought that it sounded nice.
Actually, lets talk about the email group thing for a minute, because it really encapsulated for me for the first time how religion makes people crazy. This was an email group for discussing Star Trek Voyager (no, liking Voyager was not the crazy part). It was maybe 20 people, and our policy was that anyone could join if they were spoken for by another member. A new girl was getting introduced, so we sent her a “get to know you” form with things like birthday, interests, favorite books, etc. Under “interests” she talked a little bit about Wicca – it wasn’t a long thing, just sort of mentioned in passing.
A few of the existing members of the group Lost Their Shit. We couldn’t have a Wiccan in our group! They’re Evil! We ended up having a huge argument about it. In an email group for discussing Star Trek. Where religion had pretty much never come up before. It was so WEIRD. Several members, myself included, ended up quitting the group in protest.
Anyway, I floated that way through the rest of high school and most of college, but I always felt a little uncomfortable about it. It took a while, but I finally forced myself to confront why the whole pagan thing wasn’t working for me – it was just as silly as my other fantasy books. I realized that I wanted to believe, but that isn’t the same as actually believing. I found the thought of dying – of just not existing – to be terrifying. But that didn’t make me a believer. I couldn’t pretend to believe just to make myself feel better.
That’s one of the reasons I became a scientist, actually. If there’s nothing after death, then I should leave something behind me after I’m gone – some little bit of research that pushes our knowledge outward. It’s much more satisfying than fairies.