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Jul 02 2012

Why I am an atheist – SmartLX

I am an atheist because I was only ever a theist due to an emotional bond which had time to fade, and reason did not save it.

My mother is Catholic, and I was raised and confirmed in that tradition. Regardless of my present unbelief, the Church will count me among its ranks until the day I die. (Even if I convinced some priest or bishop to unhappily record my renouncement, I suspect he would not pass on the minus-one to the higher-ups.) As a child, I often quietly spoke to God as if He were a foot away and could hear my every thought. Every time I did this I would wonder if He was really listening, but it was nice to always have someone to talk to.

My father is an atheist, and he told me so a grand total of twice. He kept right out of the religious activities and discussions, but it was always clear that he didn’t buy into any of it. When I considered this at the time, I was worried for him. Thinking back, the mere presence of someone I loved and respected who did not accept religion probably helped a lot when I began to question it.

When I was 11 or 12 I made a rare public show of faith and tried to proselytise a friend of mine, and he immediately hit me with what I later found out is known as the Problem of Evil: why do bad things happen if God is loving and all-powerful? I didn’t know, and after some reading I realised that no one else did either. Sure, there were plenty of answers to the question (God is testing us, Satan is at work, free will is responsible, Original Sin taints us all, everything is ultimately for the good, etc.) but these redundant and sometimes contradictory answers were all coming from authority figures in the same Church. The Church itself obviously didn’t have a clue, or it would have made sure its representatives had a single talking point as a response.

I don’t remember my exact thought processes leading up to it, but I reached another conclusion in the same period. Even if those who start a religion do so completely cynically, in the full knowledge that their central claims were lies, after one generation they would be replaced by the first batch of sincere, devout recruits. In one generation a total fraud would become an honest faith, so what did that say about today’s honest faiths?

Within a week of the initial confrontation, I had gone from trying to defend Church theology to suspecting all organised religion. I still believed in the existence of a God-like figure, though, because I took notice of coincidences large and small which seemed to convey vague messages to me. I used to say that the universe literally had a sense of humour, and therefore there had to be an intelligence behind it. (I later dropped this idea when I realised how commonplace coincidence really is.)

Not much which is relevant happened in the 15-odd years after I settled into this position of agnostic spiritualism. I went from Catholic primary school to a secular private secondary school, then to university and a job. Without a specific emotional drive to worship and seek a relationship with God, I simply did not, and the topic of religion all but left my consciousness for over a decade.

In 2006, I read a short article about Richard Dawkins and the advent of New Atheism. It was the first I’d heard of either, and in fact it was the first time I remembered seeing the word “atheist” in years. The point I took away from the article was that if you do not believe in a god, you are an atheist. I’d always assumed there was a bit more to it, so I asked myself: do I still believe any of the doctrine I learned as a child? Do I still keep an invisible God inside my personal space? The answer was no. I was an atheist, it was that simple.

I still wondered, of course. I’d taken a huge step based on very little material, so I wanted to see if I was missing something obvious. I scoured the Web for arguments and evidence that might show me I was wrong and put me back on the righteous path, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. Would-be apologists (mostly Christian) would bring their best arguments to atheist sites to stump and then convert the denizens, but they had nothing of any power to persuade anyone who wasn’t already convinced. (I’ve since come to suspect that the main purpose of most apologetics is not to convert unbelievers, but to reassure the faithful.)

After a few comments on Ask the Atheist dealing with the cosmological argument and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I was invited by Brian Sapient to write for the site. When his Rational Response Squad went dark a year later, I was left as the sole active contributor, and five years later I’m one of two. I might still receive that one argument or piece of evidence that will show me I’ve been wrong all this time and that there’s a god worthy of belief, but I’m still waiting for it. Meanwhile, I get to dispel all kinds of misconceptions about atheists (foremost being either the idea that they’ve never really considered any apologetic argument, or the claim they’re just believers in denial) and advise young or confused atheists in a Dear Abby kind of way. I do love being able to help people understand, and move forward.

SmartLX

8 comments

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  1. 1
    saguhh00

    “I’ve since come to suspect that the main purpose of most apologetics is not to convert unbelievers, but to reassure the faithful.”

    Exactly. This is why William “two quotations” Craig can use such stupid arguments and be world-wide famous.

  2. 2
    sockeyesalman

    SmartLX: Thanks for a good posting.

    re: your “Problem of Evil” paragraph.

    As a guilt-ridden Missouri (Misery?)Synod Lutheran I’ve heard all those explanations, too. All of them are unsatisfying. Another I’ve heard is that God set the universe in motion and is waiting to see what will happen and how it will all turn out. That “answer”, however, seems to imply that one his attributes is faulty or that he choses not to use it; he’s said to be omniscient (all-knowing). So, that’s another unsatifactory “guessplanation.” The Pastafarians may have it right, eh? The FSM occasionally reaches out his noodly appendage and guides earthly events, and comets, asteroids, and galaxies to achieve his ends that surpasseth all human understanding; yah… riiiight.

    Re: …”these redundant and sometimes contradictory answers were all coming from authority figures in the same Church. The Church itself obviously didn’t have a clue, or it would have made sure its representatives had a single talking point as a response.”

    I don’t know if any Xian denominations have a cogent answer.

    Re: “I don’t remember my exact thought processes leading up to it, but I reached another conclusion in the same period. Even if those who start a religion do so completely cynically, in the full knowledge that their central claims were lies, after one generation they would be replaced by the first batch of sincere, devout recruits.”

    I know there must be plenty of sincere, devout Xians that do a lot of good for other people. I however, wonder how many church-goers simply don’t wonder or don’t want to think about the doctrines and dogmas they were born into. They ust go along, busy with just making a living. The many Protestant denominations with their “significantly” different doctrinal and dogmatic tenets may appeal to differing types of minds enabling their adherents to feel special in their “correctness.” Also, the multiplicity of denominations allows for more hierarchies (frequently self-serving) by providing jobs for layers of authority figures that do not fit or do not want “real-world” jobs. They, to some extent, control human behavior and obtain a portion of the economic resources of fearful, guilt-ridden and, no doubt, some truly well-meaning parishsioners.

    Enuf for now… thanks for your insights and ex-Catholic testimony.

  3. 3
    generallerong

    A) Even if those who start a religion do so completely cynically, in the full knowledge that their central claims were lies, after one generation they would be replaced by the first batch of sincere, devout recruits. In one generation a total fraud would become an honest faith, so what did that say about today’s honest faiths?

    B) I’ve since come to suspect that the main purpose of most apologetics is not to convert unbelievers, but to reassure the faithful.”

    C {sockeye @2) The many Protestant denominations with their “significantly” different doctrinal and dogmatic tenets may appeal to differing types of minds enabling their adherents to feel special in their “correctness.” Also, the multiplicity of denominations allows for more hierarchies (frequently self-serving) by providing jobs for layers of authority figures that do not fit or do not want “real-world” jobs. They, to some extent, control human behavior and obtain a portion of the economic resources of fearful, guilt-ridden and, no doubt, some truly well-meaning parishioners.

    Power and money. Religions are the original corporations?

  4. 4
    SmartLX

    I’m glad my own story made it to the site, of course, but we should all appreciate the effort PZ puts into collecting and storing these pieces. I sent this one in within a week of the initial request months ago, and then sent a second email with an erratum because I’d left one paragraph unfinished by mistake, but here it is perfectly intact.

    Thanks PZ.

  5. 5
    crys

    I have a friend whose father had himself unbaptized, thereby striking his name from that infamous record the Vatican keeps on people, in case you’re interested it can be done :)

  6. 6
    SmartLX

    Thanks crys, but…
    1. as I tried to explain I don’t trust the Vatican to bother doing that, as opposed to just saying they’ve done it.
    2. if I were one name in a thousand or even one in a million I might think it was worth trying anyway, but one name in a billion? This is not a war we’ll win with statistical corrections of that magnitude, if that’s the way to go at all.

  7. 7
    John Scanlon FCD

    Re. not trusting the Church to pass the renunciation message up the hierarchy: no, of course you can’t, any more than they could be trusted to report child rape (but it would be good practice to cc the diocese when you mail the parish).

    Either the famous bureaucracy works or it doesn’t, but if everybody that thought about it actually did it, that would be a shitload of paperwork. Think of it as a DDOS attack! They might end up weighing the forms instead of crossing off names.

    But it’s something you can do for yourself, and then casually drop into a conversation with your mum. When I did, I speculated that the parish priests kept the papers for stuffing pillows with, or pulped them to make into communion wafers.

  8. 8
    sockeyesalman

    @4 re: “Power and money. Religions are the original corporations?”

    Hmmm? I’m thinking the “original corporations” were individuals or groups of tribal leaders (cliques?)who realized that power helped them survive and live a bit better than those who tended to be intimidated more readily and fit their social structures as followers. These leaders realized their positions of power could be maintained and enhanced with institutions of “royalty”, priesthood, religion and fear of punishment or banishment from a tribe or social group. (Nope, I have never taken a sociology or psychology course….so, maybe I have it wrong?). Enuf fer now.

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