Being someone who is deeply interested in history and who is trying very hard to find a job as a history teacher, my tale o’ atheism is essentially historical, with the subject being myself. When I was little my mother tried very, very hard to convince my younger sister and myself that her liberal Methodist faith was an integral part of being a good and wholesome person. We all went to church, we went to Sunday School, mom ran the Children’s Church program, we sang the songs, we missed NFL games on Sundays so we could help clean up the kitchen on communion days, and so on and so forth. I can’t say any of it was ever super-intense, in your face, be-saved-or-be-damned like many churches seem to be, and all in all it wasn’t too bad. I heard over and over again that it was a good thing to do good things, and I figured that wasn’t a bad idea at all. It wasn’t until I got older and started to think seriously about making the religion plunge that I began to see that “doing good things” included doing a lot of things that didn’t seem particularly good at all. I learned it was a good thing to go vote for the anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, borderline racist candidates with R’s next to their name. I learned it was a good thing to help buy the church a new jumbo-screen and a fancy new building (with a gift shop!) with a giant sign, even though there wasn’t a thing wrong with our building.
After some considerable thought I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that there was no god, it was that the religions were the problem. So, I began seeing myself as a faithful follower of Christ who was not a Christian. I guess you could say that I was still in a phase where I believed in belief. That didn’t last for long, and collapsed when I got to college, had an atheist roommate. I realized that I was basically deluding myself. I knew that evolutionary biology explained the diversity of life on this planet, that Big Bang cosmology explained the origin of our current state of the universe, that the Earth and life on it was far older than fundies will let on. I also knew that many of the preachments I had heard over the years seemed patently ludicrous, and that parts of the Bible seemed frighteningly harsh for a faith whose bedrock was supposedly love and compassion. It just took the right circumstances for me to put it all together, that Christianity was certainly a load of nonsense, that the other religions were not any better, and that there remained no good reason to call myself a believer.
I can never and will never go back. I have learned enough now about the world around me and have experienced enough since those days that going back makes utterly no sense. Many realize this through the study of science, but I crossed this mental Rubicon through studying history. I was in taking a class that year on the Historiography of the Holocaust in Europe. We were reading and discussing an otherwise forgettable book by Ron Rosenbaum entitled Explaining Hitler when I came across an argument formulated by Yehuda Bauer. Bauer is a, if not the, leading historian of antisemitism and the Holocaust, and an atheist himself. Bauer put it this way: If God was capable of stopping the Holocaust, but chose not to, or caused it himself, he is functionally no different than Satan, and if God wished to stop it but couldn’t, he’s weak and powerless. It wasn’t that I switched from belief to non-belief; that had already happened. What happened was that I had finally read something that clearly articulated exactly what I had been meaning to say all along. While the history of our species is full of inspiration and romance, it is also clouded by dark events that show exactly how barbaric we can be given the right circumstances. And gods, who are supposed to be powerful, mighty, and just, are suspiciously absent from these events, except of course when their names are uttered by the murderers, rapists, and thieves as justification for all manner of horror. Some would say this is part of a plan, I say it all sounds like an excuse and a load of total bullshit.
I’ve also realized in the past few months this formulation doesn’t apply only to historical events but also to the world in which we inhabit right now at this very instant. In my current job I work in a public school district as a paraprofessional, where I am responsible for helping children with diverse exceptional needs navigate their day and have success both academically and socially. It can really rip my heart out sometimes, knowing what these kids deal with on a day-to-day basis. One student I work with is completely non-verbal and uses echolalic speech, shrieks, and wrist grabs to communicate. Another suffered a car accident at the age of five, suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury, has only limited use of his left arm, and seems to only have about 50 words he can use per day, which he combines and recombines to say what he’s trying to say. Either God made these poor kids like this (or didn’t prevent their misfortunes from occurring), which makes him a raging tyrannical asshole, or was unable to prevent their misfortune. If it is the second, then this God fellow is utterly useless and is not worth thinking about. If it is the first, then we have a moral obligation to fight off this awful celestial dictator. Fortunately, scientific research has provided ample evidence to suggest that the first individual does not exist, at least not in any way, shape, or form that has thus far been articulated in many millennia of attempts to do just that. So in short, religions are ludicrous institutions built up around beings that don’t exist, and would be by definition evil or weak if they did. That is why I am an atheist.