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Aug 01 2012

Why I am an atheist – Daz

I’ve tried to put this into words a couple or three times before, always talking about why I’m an Atheist, and never with any great deal of success. Partly that’s because the socio-political aspects are so often stated by so many people (most of them much better writers than me, to boot) that it’s hard to really say anything new, but also partly, I think, because I never became an atheist. Apart from a brief period in my early teens of wondering vaguely, and I have to say rather casually, whether there might be some form of deist ‘first-cause’ sort of god, I’ve been an atheist all my life. It’s kinda hard to do a deconversion story without the deconversion! The question for me is, rather, how did I become an Atheist with a capital ‘A’? You know, strident, shrill; a nasty horrible persecutor of Christians and all that jazz. The answer—or this attempt at it—is likely to be a bit rambling, I’m afraid.

Let’s start with Santa.

I can’t actually recall believing in Santa. As far back as I remember, he seemed like a shared joke between my parents and I. Their pretence seemed knowingly transparent, and I went along with it as part of what I assumed was the joke. I’ve no idea if they realised that’s the way I saw it, but it’s how it looked from my perspective.

I also don’t remember ever not being able to read, and as with most kids, ‘reading,’ to me, meant ‘stories.’ Fiction, and lots of it.

Thirdly, to round off what we might call my early scepticism, I also remember being exposed to Bible stories for the first time (in Caen primary school, Braunton, Devon, if you’re interested). It’s not that I ever, to my recollection, thought they were silly or illogical as stories. I just didn’t think they were supposed to be real. I’d already come across the idea of fables, via Æsop (read to me by my mum I should imagine. I doubt I was advanced enough to be reading them for myself), and knew them to be basically fiction. Anyway, the Biblical tales were mostly presented as fables, and though it was explained to us that such tales had morals, the fiction side of things was much more weighted in my mind than moralising. They really didn’t do much for me, though Jonah and the whale was diverting for a while, until the frankly boring whale inexplicably failed to converse with Jonah. Æsop would’ve made it much more interesting!

Anyway—before this turns into misty-eyed nostalgia—I quite simply thought of the Bible stories as just the same kind of in-joke between teachers and kids that Santa was between my parents and I. After all, miracles and magic and all that stuff, was stories! No one would actually believe them, surely. And to be frank, that’s how it still seems to me, to this day. I really don’t understand at a gut level (intellectually, yes: ‘give me the child until he is seven,’ and all that, but not at a gut level) how an even slightly educated adult can possibly see all that talk of invisible all-powerful beings, their angel attendants and so forth as anything but ‘made-up stuff.’ But then, I can’t in all honesty claim to have seen through it myself, given that my earliest memories of it are of not even realising it was meant to be real. You could say I was too simplistically-minded to be gullible.

Sometime between then and the age of about nine, it must have occurred to me that some people actually believed the tales, because I can remember being quite shocked at my grandfather’s hurt expression when I mentioned him surely not believing in ‘God and all that.’ Not that my grandparents were that religious, mind—they weren’t regular churchgoers, even. What shocked me was that I had formed an assumption (I think it was a case of what writers often call ‘the arrogance of youth’) that only, erm… people of lesser intelligence, shall we say, would believe such things. And believer or not, Granddad was most certainly not of lesser intelligence. Ruminations on which fact, I suppose, were what led to my brief half-hearted flirtation with deism, a few years later. Fortunately, I also discovered other, much more interesting kinds of flirtation, and the semi-mystical bullshit really didn’t seem to matter anymore.

Fast-forward past girls, beer, music, beer, books, beer and bikes, (I like beer, okay?) to about three years ago. Well, not quite straight past. I formed a few vague opinions, over those years, about religion in politics, the unfairness of tax-breaks for churches and so forth, but hadn’t really connected them all together. And anyway, religion mostly seemed irrelevant to modern life. It was a dying institution that few people, I thought, really took seriously or paid much attention to. American readers may be looking goggle-eyed at that last sentence, but I can assure you that that’s the way it actually appeared in this country for most of my life. And apart from as regards the middle-eastern theocracies and near-theocracies and the Catholic scandals, it still does, to most people—with the exception of right-wing tabloid scare-stories about brown people Muslims. Even if they notice the religion, it’s seen as secondary to the politics, not—as seems to be becoming more and more common—as a major cause of the policies. That’s changing, though, even if most folks haven’t consciously noticed yet. Even many ostensibly anti-U.N. American right-wing religious lobbying bodies are going global, and the smaller but just as crazy fringe over here is following suit, and also copying the more aggressive style of their American cousins. But I seem to have jumped to reasons for, rather than the growth of, my Atheism…

Which, apart from those few gradually-formed half thought-out opinions, was actually quite sudden. A ‘road to Damascus’ moment I could say. (I’ve always thought casting Dorothy Lamour as Saul/Paul was the bravest decision in cinematic history.)

One night I was sat at the computer, googling trivia for a quiz I was writing. Faced with a lack of ideas and an empty Google search-box, I glanced around the room for inspiration, and my eyes fell upon an X-Files DVD. That’ll do, I thought, and I searched for some info on David Duchovny. (I wonder what I’d be doing now if I’d googled Gillian Anderson…) Well it turns out a friend of his is an apostate from the church of Scientology, which led me to a video of an interview with the man in question (I don’t remember his name) talking about his experiences with the church. I got interested (I’ve always felt a little irrationally ashamed that an author of ‘my’ genre should have started that abomination), and dug into Google a little deeper, which led to me reading blogs, news stories and comments boards that inevitably also dealt with other aspects of woo and the crazier edges of religion in general. Whereupon it dawned on me, over a few hours, just how much fundamentalist Christianity is taking hold of the U.S. political arena in particular, but also making inroads, as I said earlier, into many other supposedly post-Christian countries.

I find it hard to describe how all that felt. Talk about a paradigm shift! It was almost as if I’d stepped into some badly-written alternative-universe novel, where the Enlightenment never happened but they somehow still managed to build modern technology. Fourteenth century opinions spewed, often semi-literately, onto a twenty-first century internet message board. I have a hard enough time, as I said, truly understanding the beliefs of a mild religionist, in virgin births, gods, and so on. The thought that any more than a few uneducated inhabitants of the extreme fringes of society, let alone politicians on the national stage, could actually believe in a literal 6,000-year-old earth, or a talking snake (I’ve grown out of Æsop) or Noah’s flood, or… well, you get the idea—it still knocks me for six. I know they do; for I’ve talked to people who eventually managed to escape into realism. Deep down, though, there’s a part of me that whispers, when I read or hear the speech of Young Earth Creationists and the like, “They’re lying. No one could be that crazy. I don’t know why they are, but they have to be lying.” It’s 2012, for Pete’s sake! We’re supposed to be flying round in bloody air-cars and wearing awful tin-foil coveralls whilst listening to synthesised music with a naff 70s disco-rhythm, not constantly rehashing the trial of Giordano Bruno. But back to my Damascene revelation…

I spent the entirety of the following weekend glued to the computer, bookmarking more blogposts, videos and news-stories than I could possibly read in a lifetime, skimming this, reading that in full; and all in a kind of horrified fascination, along with thoughts of ‘how could I have not known this?’ And I’m still there. Still staring in shock and incredulity at what still appear to be medieval peasants trying to force medieval religious views into the modern political arena. The scary thing is that they’re managing; and in a world of nuclear weapons, anthropogenic global warming, overpopulation and depleting resources, when I say ‘scary,’ I really do mean it’s the stuff of nightmares.

I just wish I could wake up.

Daz

13 comments

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  1. 1
    bortedwards

    Apologies for hijacking the comments, but i thought I’d get in early. I’m sure this has been covered, but: are the highly amusingly inappropriate ads on Pharyngula deliberate tongue in cheek, or an unfortunate symptom of googles keyword algorithm being unable to detect irony and context in the content of the site?

  2. 2
    douglaslm

    I live deep in the heart of the “Bible Belt” here in the states. Here the religious take over seems nearly complete. People routinely say “God Bless” instead of “Goodby”. News people (I refuse to call them reporters) on the television, nearly always, ask the accident victim the leading question “Do you think it is a MIRACLE that you survived”? At a personal level it is difficult for me to be the outspoken Atheist as my family (including my spouse) are all hard core believers. So in the name of domestic tranquility I don’t often talk religion with them, but I do continue to state my view on the religious attacks on politics, history and education that I see here in the United States.
    That’s the end of my little rant. Thanks for your essay, I found it well written and it really struck a cord with me at a personal level. Perhaps my own essay will appear here one day for you to read.

  3. 3
    bortedwards

    Good luck Douglaslm!
    Also, there is some blind irony in the painfully self-aware replacement of “goodbye” with “god bless” considering that the derivation of “goodbye” is a contraction of “god be with you” (godbwye – god be with ye)

  4. 4
    stoferb

    I can really relate to this story. Although I was raised in a quite more fundamentalist enviroment (the mormon church) it didn’t dawn on me until my teens that the Book of Mormon and the Bible were anything more than stories. I had just assumed they were stories because they were, just like ordinary bed-time stories, too fantastic to be real. It was quite a surprise to me when I found out I was actually supposed to believe in them as literal history.

    Btw in my family there were no pretentions that Santa was real. (In my country Santa actually comes to visit us on christmas eve). It was a joke and we were all in on it, there was no attempt to dress up Santa enough to conceal who it truly was. I think I was about 9 when I had the priveliege to be Santa myself for the first time.

    Finally I can totally relate to the last part. I live in a very liberal part of the world were the creationist crowd have zero influence. It’s been scary to discover how the christian right is trying to turn the US into a theocracy. And even scarier is what’s going on in the middle east. Check that out if you want nightmares.

  5. 5
    Nick Gotts

    And even scarier is what’s going on in the middle east. Check that out if you want nightmares. – stoferb

    You mean like dictators being toppled by popular uprisings, and free elections taking place?

  6. 6
    stoferb

    KG – No, I mean the rise of popularity of Islamism and lot’s of ignorant muslims thinking that “freedom” means the right of the majority to persecute the minority. It looks promising on the surface, but dig deeper and you’ll see that it’s not. It’s the revival of a religion that explicitly tells it’s adherents to kill apostates and critics, and that people of other faiths (including minority forms of islam) don’t have rights.

  7. 7
    hotshoe, now with more boltcutters

    The scary thing is that they’re managing; and in a world of nuclear weapons, anthropogenic global warming, overpopulation and depleting resources, when I say ‘scary,’ I really do mean it’s the stuff of nightmares.

    I just wish I could wake up.

    Me, too, Daz.

    I’m one of the political people who have been fighting global warming for decades now. I can understand how the early warnings were disregarded – most people don’t want to get less comfortable in exchange for a nebulous future good. But I have been miserable recently to find out that the christians have started to fight any political solution to global warming because “god wouldn’t let us ruin our planet, therefore, no matter whether it’s global warming or not, we can’t possibly be ruining our planet”.

    Jesus says Business As Usual.

    God damn them. Religion really does poison everything

  8. 8
    unclefrogy

    I guess when I was a kid I thought that what ever people heard in church when you went out in “the world” you had to deal with how the world was and other people thought. It does not look like many think that any more.
    the problems listed at the very last are the real world and it looks like the religionists from all over the world want the religious solution for them god, ignorance, war, death and the resulting societies cultural collapse.

    I am struck dumb with amazement at the willful irrationality of belief in all of the woo including the major established religions.
    It is not like we are heading for a cliff but more either a dessert or an impenetrable swamp. no sudden end just a slow and miserable one.
    maybe I should find something else to read in the morning my mind seems to gravitate to the dismal.

    uncle frogy

  9. 9
    Nick Gotts

    No, I mean the rise of popularity of Islamism and lot’s of ignorant muslims thinking that “freedom” means the right of the majority to persecute the minority. It looks promising on the surface, but dig deeper and you’ll see that it’s not. It’s the revival of a religion that explicitly tells it’s adherents to kill apostates and critics, and that people of other faiths (including minority forms of islam) don’t have rights. – stoferb

    If you’re going to accuse others of ignorance, I’d advise you to avoid spurious apostrophes (“lot’s”), and ignorant over-generalisations. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamist parties elected are relatively moderate, were long the only organised opposition, and are by no means in full control; in Libya Islamists have been defeated at the polls. Mohammed Morsi, the recently elected Egyptian President, pledged to select a woman and a Coptic Christian as vice-Presidents; we’ll see if he keeps that promise.

  10. 10
    stonyground

    Daz, your conversion toward taking opposition to religion more seriously mirrors my own. Once I started reading atheist blogs on the internet I realised just how much harm religion does, at home and around the world. I quickly joined the National Secular Society and subscribed to the Freethinker. As far as further activism goes, I stick to commenting on the internet and occasionally emailing the local paper, though I did send a Bible bookmarked with examples of hate speech to the Government when religious hate speech laws were being discussed.

  11. 11
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    PZ, if you could: the term ‘brown people’ was supposed to be struck through for snarkishness effect.

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Regarding the climate change thing, the really horrible thing is that by the time ‘they’ find out they’re wrong, it’ll be too damn late. They’ll have held back any meaningful countermeasures until nothing we do can make any real difference.

    And no doubt they’ll find a way to blame ‘us’ for that, too.

  12. 12
    darwinharmless

    Great and entertaining piece. I resonate strongly with the feeling that all those people CAN’T be serious. But apparently they are. And yes, that alone is scary enough.

  13. 13
    barbyau

    The beautiful thing about religion is that you can think of it as nothing too harmless at all for quite some time. Until they decide they have strong feelings about how you live your life.

    I too thought nothing of religion. I realized most people around me were Christians and believed in God. I didn’t. Never really discussed it much.

    Then for whatever power-grubbing reason, they went ape-shit and decided that gay people were the worst thing that had ever happened to America. They started a hot war that has been running for ten years and Americans have been swayed by basically two arguments:

    1)God made man and woman
    2)Homosexuality is unnatural

    In response to #1, they have never been asked to explain intersex humans. Their base assumption is demonstrably false. Likewise their solutions to this situation can’t address what they don’t acknowledge. Who CAN the intersexed marry? Never gets discussed.

    In response to #2, they have decided what is “natural” is what they read in a book. Not what is observed in nature. Then they jump from arguing that it is unnatural to arguing that it is wrong. (Often, on the Internet I notice…)

    These arguments should not be able to convince one single person. But to the religiously minded, it all makes perfect sense.

    And these people I have been content to coexist with all my life suddenly decide to make my life a living hell. Fuck that noise.

    It’s not harmless. If you think it’s harmless, it’s just not your turn to pay. That’s all.

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