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Oct 11 2012

Why I am an atheist – Jeff Duval

I’ve been an atheist since before I knew the word “atheist” existed.  It still seems silly to me that we need a word to describe people who aren’t convinced by a claim that has zero evidence behind it.  After all, we don’t waste time talking about a-ghostism or a-sasquatchism as if these were worldviews that had content and needed followers gathering weekly to reinforce.

I was raised in a mildly Roman Catholic, French-Canadian family in rural Maine.  When I was a child, we went to mass occasionally and my siblings and I attended catechism classes after school.  We had a big, creepy painting of Jesus with his crown of thorns in the foyer, crucifixes over many doorways, and a little ceramic nativity set my mother made under the Christmas tree.  I always thought the nativity was cute, but the bloody, suffering dude disturbed me to no end.  Why do we have such macabre taste in home decor?  My journey from skeptical Catholic to atheist happened early, between the ages of about 7 and 12.

The first thing that struck me as odd was the fact that we went to two different places to learn about what sounded like history, and the learning process was so different.  Why don’t I hear about Jesus stuff in history class at school?  If this stuff really happened, shouldn’t we be learning about it there, too?  Why do we have to go to a completely different place, with a weird, cultish atmosphere, dress up fancy and do a bunch of chanting?  Why is it all Jesus all the time and nothing else at church?  Why is there only one book to be obsessed over, when at school we have many books?

I remember when the Santa Claus myth was busted open thinking it sounded very similar to the core concept of our religion – an omniscient, bearded father figure simultaneously scrutinizing the behavior of millions of children and defying physics one night a year to deliver them all gifts, never to be seen, conveniently residing in a place I can never get to.  Is God just Santa Claus for grown ups?  Sounds like precisely the kind of story people would make up to keep other people in line.

The second thing that struck me as odd was the antiquated, barbaric flavor of the content we were subject to at church.  Talk of holy ghosts, crucifixion, resurrection, original sin and some wizard scapegoat didn’t make a lick of sense to me.  If this stuff is even possible, why doesn’t any of it happen today?  Why are all these alleged miracles conveniently tucked millennia in the past when no one knew anything about anything?  Why is there no mention of any of this at “real” school?  Why does the bible sound like it was written by repressed patriarchs from ancient history?  Why does God care about how we sacrifice a ram?  Why does he even want that?  Does anyone even do that?  How does any of this have any bearing on modern life?  Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary or philosophical foundation to articulate those questions specifically, but those were the kinds of thoughts coalescing in my mind as I sat, bored to tears in the pews.

I watched a lot of PBS growing up.  I was enamored by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Nova, 3-2-1 Contact, and later Bill Nye.  I loved science programming and have always had an insatiable curiosity about how things actually work.  I began to understand what the difference was between how I was learning in school and from science programs and how I was being indoctrinated at church.  The difference was evidence and explanation.  With science, I was being shown the evidence by way of experiments.  I could see claims being vindicated by test results in real time.  I was being given explanations that really explained things by describing working mechanisms. At church I never saw any experiments and no mechanisms were ever described.  The reasoning always seemed to come down to “it says in the bible” or “God did it,” which, of course, is circular logic, does no explanatory work and simply pushes the causal chain back one step.  The “it’s magic” kind of answers just weren’t satisfying me at all.  How did God/Jesus do it?  How can you possibly know what heaven is like?  It began to strike me that Christians cared more about preserving the idea of God than explaining how he went about his work.  

I remember learning about Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology as well as other religions like Islam and Hinduism at school and thinking these “myths” sounded very familiar.  I saw a lot of parallels between these myths and the stories I was hearing at church and reading in the bible.  The same kind of barbarism, miracles and musty language were at play.  Why do they have several gods and we only have one?  Why, when it comes to things like heliocentrism or gravity, everyone is on the same page now, but when it comes to origins of life and what happens after death, everyone believes different things?  They can’t all be right, right?  Could it be that Christianity is just another ancient set of myths that landed in my lap because I happened to be born in a Christian part of the world?  Could it be that every culture started with its own set of anthropomorphic allegories to describe the universe, then science comes along and renders them obsolete with real explanatory work?  That would certainly explain all my earlier questions.

I remember playing in the woods, observing closely the natural world around me brought even more questions.  If this is the handiwork of a god, I’m not impressed.  Why do people go blind and deaf?  Why are some people deformed or diseased or psychotic?  Why is there so much wanton waste and destruction?  Why are there gross things like maggots?  If the universe really were perfect for life, wouldn’t it just be verdant arborea to infinity in all directions?  What’s with stranding us on a rock with shifting climates and tectonics in the middle of a vast vacuum?  Why this convoluted process of reproduction and gestation?  Why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and blink each individual into existence the same way he did with Adam?  I remember looking at the structure of leaves and the way plants and trees bend toward light.  I remember looking at snowflakes melt on my mittens and images of capillaries and nerves and thinking, “I just don’t see design here.  I don’t see intention or purpose.  I see fractal noise.  I see chemistry competing for space, finding niches, branching out and growing wherever and however it can.  If this vibrant complexity is, however, the result of purely natural forces, I’m deeply impressed.”  Again, these thoughts were not that clearly articulated at that age, but those were the kinds of thoughts I was having.  I just didn’t know how to put them into words, so I didn’t voice them to anyone.

I remember watching an episode of Cosmos where Carl Sagan described evolution by natural selection and it blew my mind.  So many things came into focus.  I suspected it had to be something like that.  I remember hearing my grandmother say, “I didn’t come from no monkey,” and I thought, “but look at how similar we are.  If all the species of dogs we have today descended from wolves, it’s no stretch at all for humans to descend from ape-like creatures.  Isn’t it so much more amazing to understand this process than lazily chalk it up to magic?”

This lead me to ponder further about why people might believe these myths.  It seemed obvious that no one wants to die and the idea of heaven was very much wishful thinking.  I had no reason to think being dead would be any different than not yet being born.  It was certainly comforting to think that in times of loneliness, depression and doubt I could pretend the supreme, infallible boss of the universe was on my side and listening.  That also seemed insanely conceited, though.  People claiming they had a personal relationship with the inventor of the universe sounded a lot like, “Oh yeah, well my daddy is the President, so you better listen to what I say!”

I had a rosary I received as a First Communion gift.  I was supposed to pray with it every night.  I didn’t do it very often, though.   What’s the use, it’s just wood and twine?  I never hear the slightest peep from this god.  What kind of petty game is he playing where he expects belief but never reveals himself?  If he really cared wouldn’t he just hang out with us in an obvious manner?  Wouldn’t he hold press conferences on the news every week?  I just don’t see God anywhere at all.  It seemed like all everyone was doing was pretending.  Praying seemed like pretending.  Worshiping seemed like pretending.  Having faith seemed like pretending. As a child I did a lot of pretending I was a robot shooting lasers or a superhero soaring through the sky and moving boulders with my mind.  Communicating with God seemed to yield the exact same results.  

As I learned more and more about the real universe at school, in Time-Life books, encyclopedias, PBS shows, etc., and saw how many times throughout history the answer “God did it” was replaced by natural processes discovered by scientists, I saw God’s hand recede further and further until I became comfortable with the idea that there was probably a natural explanation for everything.

I remember the news constantly filled with stories of unrest in the Middle-East.  Here’s a group of people who believe one thing clashing with people who believe something else.  They all think God is on their side and are willing to die for their beliefs.  I remember hearing about the Salem witch trials and the Crusades in history class.  I began to see the pernicious effects of believing in things that are not true.  I began to see how much good science had brought to our quality of life and how it can be undone by ignorance and mob mentality.  I began to get the sense that if I were born a thousand years ago, I might have been burned at the stake for having all these doubts.  I began to get the sense religion was something that needed to go.

I found myself regarding religion the same way I regarded Santa Claus – a childish superstition.  This then begged the question, “Am I crazy or is everyone else crazy?”  It all seemed so absurd, so obvious.  I still had no idea what an atheist was or that there were even other non-believers out there.  I remember one Easter after mass, my cousins were speculating about God and I said, “meh, I don’t believe in God anymore.”  I didn’t plan to say it.  I didn’t have any premeditated desire to inform my family.  I had never even formed that precise thought in my head before that moment.  I arrived at it just then and it just slipped out as casually as if I were talking about Santa.  It was an involuntary reaction, like when the doctor taps your knee.  I had assumed that notion and all the others that had occurred to me over the years must also have occurred to others.  It’s so hard to believe in the first place, everyone must have considered it, right?  The gasps of horror said otherwise.  One of them ran out of the room shouting, “Jeff said he doesn’t believe in God!”  I don’t remember anything being made out of it after that.  I got the sense no one took it seriously and either thought I was joking, being a troll, or just weren’t surprised given my enthusiasm for science.

As we got older and it became apparent my siblings and I had no enthusiasm for church, we just stopped going.  No one seemed to miss it much.  

One night, there was a Penn & Teller special on network TV.  I loved it because they explained how their tricks worked after performing them.  They didn’t insult my intelligence by pretending they had special powers.  At the end of the show, as the camera dollied out, Penn waved and said, “..and remember, there is no Go..” and cut to commercial.  I was stunned.  Wait, what?  Did that guy say, “There is no God,” then get cut off?  There’s someone else on Earth who feels the same way I do and has the brass testicles to declare it on national television?  My conviction was boosted another notch.  I had my first atheist role model.  Technically, it was Carl Sagan, but from watching Cosmos, I hadn’t yet realized he and many scientists were actually non-believers.  No one talked about those things openly.  Of course it was never one single influential person or idea that converted me, but many over the years, slowly and meticulously collapsing indoctrinated claims of faith under the weight of rigorous, rational inquiry until I had swayed to a position of pure incredulity.  

To this day I happily engage in debate even at inappropriate times.  I’m always open to new evidence, but have yet to hear an argument for theism that isn’t a tangled bird’s nest of fallacy.

Thanks to all communicators of science.  You are my champions and you are the best people.

Jeff Duval

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Lofty

    Whoo-hoo! Critical thinking, the power of “WHY???”

  2. 2
    machintelligence

    Excellent essay!
    I am impressed with how many of us with a skeptical bent rejected the concept of a theistic God even as pre-teens. I am going to borrow the line about “God just Santa Claus for grown ups” if you don’t mind. It fits rather well with “Bible stories are fairy tales adults tell each other.”

  3. 3
    dustinarand

    Felt like you were describing my childhood. Thanks.

  4. 4
    Pyra

    Thank you for your story. As always, I don’t feel so alone when I see how realization dawned on others in their lives.

  5. 5
    allencdexter

    Well thought out. Well presented.

    I went through the process much later in life, and it was similar. You summarized it so well and that shows a very well organized thought process.

  6. 6
    generallerong

    Thanks. Best thing I read over this morning’s coffee.

  7. 7
    johnlee

    I’m impressed that someone so young managed to see through the bullshit so quickly. It took me until I was well into my thirties to completely reject theism, but I do remember from a very early age realising the prayer was fraudulent rubbish. I just wish I had known that atheism was an option when I was a kid – it would have mede things much easier.

  8. 8
    Die Anyway

    Well written. Much did seem similar to my own journey. If it happens to some of us, why not all? Or at least more of us?

  9. 9
    irisvanderpluym

    I really like this story. So much of it rings true to me, although I was not nearly so bold in my questioning at such a young age — even (especially?) to myself. After all, I was a “good girl.”

    *sigh*

    Why don’t I hear about Jesus stuff in history class at school?

    If/when the religious right gets its way this is exactly what kids will be hearing in public school history classes. May we never, ever forget that.

    I became comfortable with the idea that there was probably a natural explanation for everything.

    That is one of the later insights for me. An earlier insight that I just couldn’t shake was “Wait — why does this god get the kudos for everything good, yet none of the blame for anything evil?” It went around and around in my mind, and whenever I focused on it… I got dizzy.

    There’s someone else on Earth who feels the same way I do and has the brass testicles to declare it on national television?

    My titanium clit and I would prefer that you use the term “brass tentacles.”

    @johnlee:

    I just wish I had known that atheism was an option when I was a kid – it would have mede things much easier.

    Same here. Instead, I was indoctrinated with Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s mysterious disappearance as “evidence” of her getting exactly what she deserved for being an atheist.

  10. 10
    cconti

    I could have written a good part of it myself. In fact, until very recently I still assumed that most “normal” people, people I thought intelligent and equals to me had gone through the same process and got rid of the same fantasies in a similar way and at a similar time in their lives. I just could not see how anyone with a functioning intellect could avoid reaching the same conclusions I had in regard to religion.

    it was all so obvious to me…

    But a decade or so ago, I realized I was very much mistaken. That realization made me an activist atheist as opposed to an “apatheist”

  11. 11
    lesherb

    Jeff, that was so well written! Do you write for a living? Reading through your post was as easy as a hot knife going through butter. You are very talented.

    It disappointed me quite a bit to learn that the people in my life did not come to the same realization as you and I did. Luckily for me, my family didn’t make a fuss out of my atheism.

  12. 12
    pedantik

    Why are you dissing maggots?

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