PZ- you asked us why we’re atheists. Well, I’ve never been anything but an atheist, so that one’s no great mystery and no great story, but I thought I’d let you know why I’m the kind of atheist I am today; an active, informed, out-spoken one rather than an apathetic “live and let live” one.
I have the great fortune to be one of the “never indoctrinated” among the atheists of today. I was born an atheist, and my parents simply never mentioned religion to me. I grew up in Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, and I barely knew that religion existed. I recall once my mom explaining that “bless you” was a polite thing to say after people sneezed, and that saying “Oh my god,” could be offensive to some people, but never did she explain why.
With no preconceived notions about religion at all, I got to meander wherever my growth and development took me. I quite naturally prayed once when my hamster was lost- not to any god in particular, but just to the general universe. When I was five I was convinced that I could fly (probably from a dream) and when I was seven I thought if I found the right muscle to flex and focused on it very hard I might develop magical powers. My mind and imagination were given room to battle as I was allowed to explore within the confines of my own intellect, and I very naturally (and through much observation, trial, and error) developed a sharp sense of logic and a tendency to think critically about everything that was said to me. Regardless of where my mind went, I was never led there or pushed there; rather I got to evolve there as my brain and body grew.
A defining moment for my atheism happened when I was 18. I don’t think I’d even heard the term atheist by that point, but I unabashedly was one, and was happy to discuss it, but I wasn’t bothered by the existence of religion and hadn’t given any particular thought to it. My best friend was a Mormon at the time (she later became an atheist), and that meant nothing to me, and neither did any other religion. It was about this time that my dad, who had drifted more toward new-agey, yuppee crystals, affirmations, and Deepak Chopra kind of hoo-doo, enrolled me and my brother in a program called Rising Stars. It was NOT a religious program, if that’s what you’re thinking, but it was every bit as illogical, irrational, and cult-like in its design, and I will never until the day I die stop seething about the fact that this program ever existed. I’d always been happy to argue and debate when people were willing, but Rising Stars is what convinced me that it’s important to openly challenge bad thought processes where you find them.
Rising Stars had several different programs you could enroll yourself in. We were enrolled in the teen program, which is designed to “de-program” teens and free them from their “social contracts” so that they can be free and live to their full potential, etc etc. Insert buzz words here. It was supposed to help teens open their minds and know themselves better, I guess. My dad had already taken an adult class and was very impressed, so, despite my skepticism (I was already happy, knew myself well, had no problem being myself around others, didn’t feel peer pressure, etc), he pushed us to do it, and I decided that it was just for a few weeks and I could do it since it made him happy.
Our first day we all sat in chairs before a small stage and were compelled to walk up on the stage to tell the group why we wanted to be there. Not why we WERE there, but why we WANTED to be there, a subtle distinction that was obviously important to the directory, Dorothy. There were a couple stock answers, a few “I just want to know myself better” answers which Dorothy praised, and then a girl came up and gave the answer Dorothy was clearly waiting for.
“Why do want to be here?”
“I don’t. I’m here because my parents made me.”
Dorothy leapt upon this answer; she’d clearly heard it before. Are your parents here? No. Then they can’t be stopping you from walking out that door, can they? No. Well then, the only thing keeping you here is you, so you must be here because you WANT to be here! The girl didn’t know what to say…I’m sure it didn’t ring true- she could tell that she really didn’t want to be there- but this woman had talked her into a box! If she didn’t want to be here, then why hadn’t she left? Could it be that she really did want to be there? She didn’t know where to go next, and Dorothy, radiating satisfaction, invited the next teen up there with a little admonishment that none of us would be there if we didn’t want to be.
What a load of crap! When it was my turn I walked up and gave the already “debunked” answer…I didn’t want to be there. This lady actually smiled condescendingly at me and said “haven’t we already demonstrated that that isn’t true?” No actually, we hadn’t! She’d taken a confused, inarticulate girl and wrapped her in a thread of poor logic that she didn’t know how to work her way out of. I addressed myself to the other teens in the group rather than to her. They were the ones who needed help.
“I love my dad. This program really means a lot to him and he wanted me and my brother to go through it, enough so that he was willing to pay for it. I’m here because he asked me to be here, but that’s not the same as wanting to be here.” I explained that when we love people we will often do things that we don’t want to do if it will ensure their happiness. “What’s stopping me from walking out that door? Not a desire to go through your program, but a desire to make my dad happy.”
It was the first time in my life I’d had to defend myself on anything, and under the pressure of being on the spot, in front of a crowd and before an increasingly hostile adult no less! I was pretty pleased to find out that I could articulate a thought in those circumstances. It seemed that not many people could. What I’d said made sense to the teens, and Dorothy couldn’t say anything against it. What was she going to say? No you don’t love your parents? No we don’t do things we don’t want to do out of love? She had nothing. After me, there were a number of kids who simply said, “yeah, what she said.” This woman did NOT like me after that.
So there was incident number one. There were several others over the next few weeks, and though I didn’t always win every battle, it gave me the opportunity to cut my teeth under fire. I never knew when I’d have to defend my position or argue against some terrible line of reasoning. Ironically, she used peer pressure against us, she locked us into OTHER social contracts (hilarious since we were supposed to be breaking free of those), she used logical fallacies to trap us, and even used music to manipulate our emotions. The constant sense of manipulation was the most irritating and let me to be critical and outspoken whenever I had the opportunity.
They gave us a partner and compelled us to make solemn vows to our partners that we would never miss a class or be late. Of course we got stuck in traffic one day, we were late, and we were confronted by our partners. They had been taken aside, asked how they felt that their partner had BROKEN A SOLEMN VOW, and generally coerced into feeling awful, and then they were sent to tell us how we’d made them feel. After talking to my partner for seconds it was apparent that he didn’t feel bad at all. We both recognized that it was a bogus vow in the first place, but he did beg me not to be late again so that he wouldn’t have to have “the talk” with Dorothy or her minions.
Once we were supposed to be talking with a partner about a time when we felt like a “victim” and one of her minions- a Rising Stars Teen Graduate just a year older than me- came over, interrupted me, and asked me why I couldn’t let myself be loved…that one allowed me my first chance to look someone in the face and tell them that they needed to leave, a thing I was just too polite to do in the past.
There were maaaany other stories, but my favorite came toward the end of the program: We were told that graduation was being held two weeks after the program ended, and of course we had been made to VOW that we would attend. Well, they had admitted a 12 year old boy from Arizona…the kid tried to explain that he was going back home next week and wouldn’t be there for the graduation. Dorothy fixed him with her condescending smile and asked him one of her “coup de grace” questions-
“If I kidnapped your mother, was holding her hostage, and told you that I would kill her if you didn’t get back here for graduation, wouldn’t you find some way to get here?”
Yup. That’s what she said. She went on.
“Wouldn’t you hitchhike or sneak on a plane, or find SOME way of getting here? Well then, it must be possible for you to get here. Therefore, you CAN be here for graduation.”
She told this freaking’ 12 year old to run away from home, hitchhike if need be, to get to this stupid graduation, get piece of paper, and then find a way to get back home, all to fulfill the piece of crap “promise” he had been forced to make.
I had no chance to confront this one, and I had no chance to confront Dorothy the way I wished I could have, but I was given a crash course like I’d never experienced in watching someone use terrible logic to manipulate people who didn’t know how to follow a line of reasoning, let alone articulate it. The seed of anger that was planted in that program has steeled me. Critical reasoning and communication are THE most tools the human race has, and if you don’t know how to scrutinize information, come to a conclusion and communicate your thoughts effectively, you’re making yourself vulnerable to logical fallacies and manipulation by others who will take advantage of that fact.
Now I’m 27, a music teacher, married, and about to become a mother (just 4 weeks!). My opinions about communication have helped make me an effective educator, and my beliefs about critical thinking help me always try to improve in all aspects of my life. Over the past several years I’ve started paying attention to politics, religion, and the world around me; I listen to podcasts, read articles, educate myself, listen to others, and constantly practice my skills at coming to a position on a subject and then articulating that position effectively.
The teacher in me makes me want to help others improve their communication and critical thinking skills too- I like to help the person I’m talking with articulate their thoughts so that we can both see step by step where their logic is strong and where it is weak. I use every tool at my disposal in communicating my thoughts and helping others to see my line of thinking. I use humor, logic, evidence, anecdotes, thought experiments, Socratic questioning, gentle nudging, biting sarcasm, innocent unobtrusive inquiry, etc etc, but I do not ever stop a conversation so long as I feel like effective communication is going on.
Speaking of which, I believe I’ve talked enough about myself now.