Why am I an atheist? A year or two ago I had to find a concise answer to this question when my wife mentioned my atheism in passing at a family gathering. I haven’t hidden my non-belief, but I haven’t invited trouble by going out of my way to bring it up, either. My mother was in the room, though, and apparently she had never even suspected. (Apparently my refusal to send the kids to church with her and the “Blessed are the Lesbians” speech she’s heard me launch into in the presence of a homophobe were not sufficient clues.)
“You’re an atheist?” she asked, startled.
I struggled for a moment to come up with a succinct way to answer. I fought the temptation to simply blurt, “Because religion is stupid!” I toyed with how to phrase something about the lack of evidence for the supernatural, or a statement about the negative effects religion has on our culture; but I think the reply I settled on was the best one for that moment.
I can’t really say how long I’ve been an atheist; there was no “Aha!” moment where a light bulb lit up, the clouds parted, and an angelic choir sang in the background as sudden realization struck. What I can say is that some of my earliest memories involve sitting in a church thinking, “something just doesn’t seem right here.”
My parents were sort of generic Christians – devout enough in their own way, but not regular churchgoers, and generally not too concerned about denominational differences so long as people got the “love Jesus and ask forgiveness” bits right. Members of my extended family were not so moderate, though – there were Mary Baker Eddie Christian Scientist grandparents on one side, and a cousin on the other side whose family attended a local fire-and-brimstone Baptist church. Ironically, it was probably the exposure to these extremes that sparked the doubts that would eventually lead to my later rejection of even the weakest of religious beliefs.
At a very young age – five or six, I’m guessing – I experienced my first internal conflict where the stories the adults told didn’t match up to what I thought I understood about reality. I was in a classroom at the aforementioned Baptist institution for a children’s bible study program, and someone asked the group to raise our hands if we weren’t sure we were going to live forever through Jesus. Now, at the time I did in fact believe in Stick Boy and Sky Daddy – because I had been told to – but I was a little fuzzy on the technicalities of eternal life, so I put my hand up just in case there was some detail I had missed out on. I was ushered into a side room where a man seated behind a desk urged me to just pray for it, and it would happen. I clasped my hands and said out loud something simple and childlike, along the lines of, “Dear Jesus: Please don’t let me die. Amen.” The adult found this acceptable, and I was sent out of the room to let the next person in.
Now, at the time my only experience with death had been the loss of a pet I barely remembered from an even younger age, but I did know on some level that mortality was kind of a big deal. So it seemed to me that the reward – which didn’t come with any magical glowing special effects, I hasten to add – was way out of proportion for the small effort put into it. I mean, I had to help my parents with the dinner dishes just to get one of the cookies in the cupboard for dessert; could a mumbled prayer really be all it took to gain eternal life?
A few years later, at the same church, I attended a week-long, all-day “Bible School” event that consisted mostly of some traveling evangelical preacher interspersing “you’re all vile hell-bound sinners” rants with sleight-of-hand magic tricks that, he said, God had given him the power to perform. But I had seen stage magicians on TV; I knew that separating those metal rings and finding the missing ace from that deck of cards were tricks, and those guys didn’t need divine help as far as I could tell. I could buy a plastic false-bottom box – complete with instructions for dozens of card tricks – at a little proto-Dollar-Store at the local farmers’ market. Why did this man ascribe such “powers” to God?
One of this preacher’s most vociferous sermons was the one against the evils of rock music. At this point in my life, I hadn’t been exposed to much beyond the soft-rockish AM radio station my parents listened to and a bit of generic top-40 stuff; most of it seemed to be about relationships, and I couldn’t figure out what was so devilish about it. On the last day of that gathering, a kid in a cub scout uniform was called up in front of the group to proclaim that he had gone home the night before and smashed all his rock records.
I’m not sure if I was familiar with the word “gullible” at that age, but I distinctly remember that on that day I understood the meaning behind it. While the preacher praised him and the other children cheered for him, I looked on in sadness and something I would later identify as disgust at their reactions.
My zealous grandparents lived near a resort community downstate and I didn’t get to see them often, so most summers I would spend a week with them visiting the local beaches, museums, and the boardwalk. Every time I came back from a stay with them, my parents would inquire with some concern if they had asked me to join in on their several-hours-a-day bible study or taken me to church with them. These grandparents believed, you see, that when you got sick it was part of God’s plan, and if you sought medical attention you were defying His will; my parents didn’t buy into that particular belief, and were concerned that it would influence me. It didn’t, really, but every time the subject came up I kept wondering – what’s wrong with it? Why do we need doctors and nurses and hospitals and needles-in-the-buttocks when there’s a loving God who’s supposed to take care of us? My questions went unasked because I didn’t think they were the kinds of questions it was acceptable to ask, so they remained unanswered.
On Christmas eve, 1980, we received a phone call to inform us that my grandmother had collapsed and couldn’t get up off the floor. The extended family dragged her to a hospital. A stroke had paralyzed the left side of her body, a condition that would stay with her until her death some 20 years later. What we didn’t realize at the time was that as my grandfather sank into a miasma of constant prayer and bible-reading over his wife’s condition (and the fact that those horrible doctors were trying to make her feel better!), he was very likely also ignoring the first signs of the cancer he would continue to ignore for years until his health deteriorated to the point where he, too, gave in and sought medical attention. He spent the next few years wasting away slowly and painfully, all the while railing against the very people who were trying to bring him what small comfort they could.
All this and more went through my head as I contemplated my answer to, “why?” If I went into detail about these memories, I knew she would ascribe it to something purely emotional – “You’re angry at God” because of things people had done in his name, or the deaths of my grandparents or of my father in the 90s; but there was more to it than that, and anyway by the time of my father’s death I was at least strongly agnostic already.
“Because somewhere along the line,” I finally replied after a long pause for thought, “I realized I didn’t have to be anything else.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I’m only ashamed that it took so long.”
That was the end of the conversation, and the matter hasn’t come up since.
Don from Delaware