Why I am an atheist – Ellen Rees

Unlike most atheists I have come across, I am an atheist because I am a profoundly irrational person; my life is dominated by narrative, by fictions and lies, performance and artifice. In other words, I am a literary scholar. Two factors shaped my early life: I was raised without early first hand exposure to religion by an artist and a psychology professor who self-identified as atheists, and my extended family concealed a dark secret about my grandmother. Because I was not exposed to religion until the fourth grade, when little friends started trying to “save” me, the Bible stories I encountered struck me as no more believable than any of the many, many other narratives I had been reading. Middle Earth, Wonderland, Oz, Avonlea, Villa Villekulla, the court of King Arthur, and even Narnia had primed me to look upon the Biblical Judea as just another historical fiction.

The fact that no one in my family would tell me why my grandmother had only one leg sparked any number of possible explanations in my overactive imagination, each one embellished until it became a pathos-filled romance of suffering and redemption. This early lesson in my own brain’s ability to speculate wildly illustrates perfectly the psychology of religion and the drive to find unambiguous answers to things that, for various reasons, are beyond our ken. And even when, as a young adult, I was given the “real” answer in the form of newspaper articles describing the incident, it quickly became clear that this “answer” contained yet more unanswerable questions (no one will ever know why my grandmother’s step-father attempted to murder her in a drunken rage, or why he missed and ended up shooting her in the knee). I am a relativist through and through, largely at ease with ambiguity. Science per se has almost nothing to do with my atheism.

Ellen Rees


  1. Stevarious says

    Hmmmmmm… It worked in the preview window, but not as an actual comment. How frustrating. Ah well.

  2. gragra says

    “You’d think god would be a better writer…”

    Genesis in particular reads like it was written to an imminent deadline.

  3. redwood says

    I was an English major in college and now teach English as a Second Language at a university in Japan, but I have to confess to a love of science. Still, it’s nice to hear from non-science-oriented atheists! Thanks for your story, Ellen.

    By the way, I have a feeling the “drunken” part of your grandmother’s story might have something to do with her getting shot in the knee rather than killed, but you’re right, no one will ever know what really happened and that’s kind of nice as well. We don’t always have to have all the answers.

  4. lizdamnit says

    @Ellen Rees, redwood – we’re everywhere! Nearly done with my English MA here, and I teach writing to college firstyears.

    But, to the topic, thanks for your story, Ellen! That’s a pretty unique way of arriving at the result, being accustomed to not “knowing the full story” early on in your life seems to have given you a flexibility of mind many of us had to wait for. The literary bent helps with that, too, or maybe I’m just biased ;)

  5. Aaron says

    Good to hear from an irrational atheist once in a while to remind us that atheism is not the same thing as a scientific outlook. Way too many people conflate atheism with skepticism, science, materialism, rationalism, metaphysical or methodological naturalism, etc. Atheism is a position on the question of whether or not one believes in a god, not a worldview. My atheism is dependent on my skepticism and rational outlook, not the other way around.

  6. Pilum says

    This bears a lot of resemblance to my own background.

    I am also Norwegian, and I’ve always been interested in stories and fairy tales.

    As a kid I would devour everything I could get my hands off. I especially favoured the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories, and especially the ones written by Carl Barks and, later on, Don Rosa.

    When I attended Sunday School, I always viewed the Bible as just another fairy tale set in a semi-historical context, and the first time I read it, that’s exactly how I percieved it. Revalations was especially revealing to me as a crazy fairy tale.

    Reading it again as an adult, it seems to me as confusing as Tolkien’s Silmarilion did when I first read it.