I was raised Roman Catholic, sent to 12 years of Catholic school. I was an altar boy for 4 years, and the reader of scripture at Sunday mass for 4 more. Usually at this point in the story, people ask if I was molested by a priest, and that’s why I’m an atheist. I was not, but the question stands as a good barometer of the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Religious education is a standing part of the curriculum in Catholic school, and always, I was a child who asked questions. Why can’t we eat meat on Friday? How do we know the Bible is true? Why do we think the Pope is infallible? Do unbaptised children go to hell? Where does the Bible mention limbo?
The answers were always the same. “It’s a matter of faith”, the priest would say. “Either you believe it or you don’t”. As I grew up, the questions continued, and became more pointed. What evidence is there of transubstantiation? The Bible doesn’t mention birth control, why is its use a sin? If people who have not been exposed to the Christian faith don’t go to hell, but people who have been exposed, but don’t believe, do go to Hell, should we evangelize to them? What can a professed lifelong virgin teach us about sexual relationships and marriage? “A matter of faith. Believe it or not”.
At some point around age 17, I realized that if that was all they had, if that was their best argument, then the truth was, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe a word of it. When I accepted that as the truth, it was like a weight lifted from my shoulders. There’s really no reason to worry about eternal damnation–the whole story is bullshit.
Over time, it has become increasingly clear to me that the whole notion of substitutionary atonement is not only unbelievable, but intrinsically immoral. No amount of suffering by an innocent can ever assuage the responsibility of the guilty. The “get out of hell free” card is just too easy, the application too random, and the evidence too lacking to merit respect. A diety that would create such a system is a monster, and not worthy of our worship.
Morality is a code of behaviour that gives you the best chance of living a happy, satisfying life. Science is the tool for understanding the world as it really is. We’re all going to die some day, so make the most of this opportunity and help others who are in the same boat as you. The ways we are all alike are far more important than the trivialities that make us different.
Being an atheist in America today is not a popular position, but it does carry the substantial comfort of being true.