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Why I am an atheist – Sophia Dodds

Throughout my childhood, I remember having many issues with the concept of belief in the supernatural. I was fascinated by it, as are most children with a good imagination, but I could never quite bring myself to actually believe any of it at face value.

I had a friend who lived near me, we were friends since we were babies and pretty much grew up together. We’d play all sorts of things, dress-ups and playing shops were some of our favourites. One day, my friend told me that she’d ‘adopted’ a fairy. I think another friend of hers had told her about fairies, and she really seemed to believe (or certainly acted like she did) that she had a little invisible being living in her doll house. She had a name and a personality, and we talked about what she looked like and even went so far as to put water in the miniature bathtub and put little seed pods from flowers in the little kitchen as ‘food’. After a little while, my friend ‘gave’ me a fairy of my very own to take care of. I had my own doll house, so I was entirely qualified to take care of her and we continued to play this game for a number of months.

All through these games, I had severe doubts. I remember distinct confusion as to whether or not my friend actually believed she had a fairy living in her doll house. I remember the little songs and ‘spells’ and… ‘prayers’ we made up to supposedly communicate with these creatures and thinking, deep down, that it was all a little silly. Fun, I supposed, but I never got the sense that any of it was real. I don’t remember if I ever asked my friend whether or not she really believed it.

This same feeling hit me at school. I attended a private Anglican girls’ school. As entrenched in the school as religion was, it was relegated to a few relatively innocuous areas and didn’t seem to interfere with education in any meaningful way. In fact, I heard that one of my biology teachers was actually a creationist who didn’t believe in evolution at all. He still managed to give us a comprehensive understanding of the subject without any references to religion at all. Even our religious classes were focused on comparitive religion and spirituality, at least in high school.

We did, however have to attend chapel once a week, which was universally disliked even by the religious students. We had a few chaplains, all women, and most were quite nice and approachable. In the latest years of my schooling, we were faced with a horrible woman who had a rather nasty superiority complex and sniffy, condescending attitude. She also wasn’t terribly shy about telling students they were going to hell whenever her conscience was rattled even the slightest bit. We did, regretfully, turn this into a bit of a game and chapel became a time for coming up with the most creative and ironic ways that the chaplain would be… removed. Some favourites were being crushed by the giant crucifix on the back wall, impaled on one of the gigantic brass candlesticks or torn apart by the ivy growing into the windows. Thinking back on it now is distasteful to say the least, but we were kids and those were our thoughts.

A less horrible thing we did to make chapel less irritating was to scratch out letters on the paper hymn books that were given out. The best one was the book that read ‘St Michael and all angels and Perth College breaking bread together’ or something similar. We managed to make as many as we could read ‘St Michael and all Perth College in bed together’. Much more amusing.

I had numerous moments during my school days when I remember having a small revelation of thought in regard to religion. One was connected to the earlier fairy anecdote – that I really couldn’t fathom that people actually believed any of the claims that religions made, that they must be play-acting like I did when I was little. That was when I was 12. Ever since then, I kept making little baby-leaps of logic and formed the idea that religion was a sort of guide-rail to nowhere that people kept hanging on to for various reasons. We were all told to hang on to this rail and keep sliding along it until we reached some unknown destination, whilst ignoring the gorgeous countryside with multitudes of paths leading in all directions to all sorts of cool places. I thought of myself as having let go of that rail, and that I was free to look at the world as it was form many different perspectives. I always liked that little metaphor, as simplistic as it is to me now.

As I grew older, I grew to detest the religious and spiritual focus at school and at home – my parents were never hugely religious (to start with) but they did force my brother and I to attend church once a year at christmas until I flat-out refused after spending the entire service seething and almost in tears with anger at being forced to endure it against my will. They tried, but I don’t think either of us ever had to go again! Thus, I was an atheist from childhood due in part to a good solid science education, but more predominantly to knowing that ‘playing pretend’ was just that.

Sophia Dodds

Comments

  1. stonyground says

    Good story. I really like the guide rail analogy, it made me think of the first time that you go ice skating and you have to pluck up the courage to let go of the side.

    Hating church services I can indentify with but I always considered the Christmas ones to be a bit more bearable.

  2. Lofty says

    This, the ability of people to pretend their invisible friend/s is/are real, right into adulthood. Lucky for you that you had the intelligence to see through the pretense. How many of your peers have managed that?

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    I really couldn’t fathom that people actually believed any of the claims that religions made, that they must be play-acting like I did when I was little.

    Some people don’t want to grow up. Having an invisible friend is cute when they’re a child, not so cute when they’re an adult.

  4. cybercmdr says

    Excellent logical progression. Unfortunately many never make those connections, because the training goes too deep or they just avoid the cognitive dissonance.

    God is Santa Claus on steroids. Too many never outgrow the myth. I’m glad you did.

  5. Agent Silversmith, Feathered Patella Association says

    Humor, even the juvenile kind, is religion’s worst enemy.

  6. Dick the Damned says

    cybercmdr, if you’re talking about the Christers’ god, which i suspect is the case, i’d disagree with that assessment. Santa didn’t commit genocide, for one thing.

  7. DLC says

    Your story about Faeries reminded me of Richard Dawkins, quoting Douglas Adams “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

  8. cybercmdr says

    Dick,
    Fair enough. Santa did keep a bunch of elves effectively as slaves, though, And that breaking and entering thing on a global scale isn’t good, either. ;-)

  9. nonny says

    Interesting story, Sophia.

    It seems like when religious people think they are having a conversation with God, often they are talking with a voice inside themselves. Most people have these mental voices. Some people’s voices nag them all the time, others say how great they are doing. It seems like hearing God is an extension of the human ability to imagine and to model other people inside your own head. Sometimes I have imaginary conversations with people, to prepare for the real thing. I imagine talking to God is a bit like that, except somehow people don’t realise the source of the voice is their own brain.

  10. Sophia Dodds says

    Thanks, everyone. My story isn’t anywhere near as harrowing or complex as many peoples’, and often I hesitate in sharing as my life up until now has been rife with privilege. Well, up until the being female, often suicidally depressed and anxious sometimes to the point of catatonia parts.
    Sometimes I wish that I could simply be ignorant and happy instead of knowing things and having that knowledge point out exactly how wrong things are. The worst part; Nobody listens. You can point out logical fallacies and inequities and abuse until you’re blue in the mouth (and politely and mildly as you can when you’re feeling fear every second of every day) but because I’m female and my brain doesn’t quite work the way it should my opinions and objections are all treated as though I’m just overreacting and are ignored.

    Apparently caring about what’s true and equitable just isn’t fashionable these days.

    Apologies. I’m having an exceedingly bad day.

  11. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Sophia, you’re welcome, and it’s not good that you’re having a shitty day.

    (FWIW, I reckon you may well inspire someone sometime by this your entry, if you haven’t already done so by adding your voice to the chorus.

    That’s more than I’ve done, you know)

  12. cybercmdr says

    Seconded. I also haven’t taken the time to write my essay. On my to do list, someday. Thank you for giving us your story.

    BTW, I understand bad days. I don’t know how mine compare to yours, but you have my sympathies.

  13. patrick jlandis says

    “It seems like when religious people think they are having a conversation with God, often they are talking with a voice inside themselves. Most people have these mental voices…I imagine talking to God is a bit like that, except somehow people don’t realise the source of the voice is their own brain”

    I highly recommend Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain” because he gets into this idea of people sensing or communicating with something else that feels as real as their self but is clearly not themselves. He goes into how it might involve a problem with how we define self/non-self, where we get this sense of consciousness or being alive that’s mentally located outside of what we know as ourselves. So you get the conviction that this thing, some sensed presence, is alive and conscious and that conviction is almost as strong as the sense we have of ourselves being alive and conscious.

    I’ve always wondered if my imagination was deficient or something, maybe religious people are delusional in some way I’m not but everything else they do kind of contradicts that because most true believers seem to otherwise be grounded in the same reality as me.

    That’s the second time I flogged that book on here, but I just finished it and I thought it had a lot more concrete explanations, or theories at least, for stuff that is usually just ascribed to an overactive imagination or self-delusion. Religious experiences may have something to them, nothing supernatural, but something strange happening in their brains.

  14. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    cybercmdr @ 8:

    Fair enough. Santa did keep a bunch of elves effectively as slaves, though, And that breaking and entering thing on a global scale isn’t good, either. ;-)

    For some totally unknown reason, I always try to steer my girlfriend to watch Snow in her annual Stupid Christmas Movie™ festival, and therin, in answer to the question: “Where are all the elves?” Tom Kavanaugh replies: “Oh, they were a 19th-century fabrication. And more than a little creepy, if you ask me.”

    And he was Santa Claus, so he should know!

  15. John Morales says

    [meta]

    patrick jlandis, Shermer is fodder for the grist, here* — you provide your opinion, but no novelty.

    All I’ve learnt is that you’re impressed by that, but know that many here have been skeptics even preceding the early Usenet, and those often keep in touch.

    In short, your opinions are more valuable than your references, except insofar as your references reinforce your opinons.

    * And not above critique.