Why I am an atheist – Nick Harding

Richard Dawkins likes to compare openness about one’s atheism with coming out of the closet, but in my case they were even more closely related.

Like so many kids I repressed my homosexuality out of religious (in my case, Christian) compunction and social phobia. But once I finally begrudged myself some sex in college, I knew intuitively that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I reacted against the idea of the victimless crime, described as sin by the Bible. But while I had shed my denominational identity, I remained stuck in a kind of anachronistic deism. Indeed, having jettisoned the doctrine of original sin, I probably overcompensated with an overly optimistic view of nature and its presumbaly benevolent creator.

So I was in for a shock when some of my friends started coming down with, and dying from, AIDS (this was the early nineties). Of course I knew about it from reading the newspaper and watching television, but I had put off revising my worldview until now. How to explain AIDS? Of course I already knew that it wasn’t divine punishment because there was nothing wrong with sex and, anyway, it had spared many “fornicators” including myself. But it didn’t exactly accord with my new-model deism either. I was experiencing a crisis that was as much intellectual as emotional.

Resolution beckoned in the form of evolution, which I had learned in high school but never related to my daily life in that hiatus between polio and AIDS. With its frequent mutations in response to medication, HIV was (and still is) the poster child for evolution. I began to take a more jaundiced view of nature, which seemed increasingly like a struggle for existence. But I found reassurance in the thought that all this took place without reference to morality or values, instead deriving from the virus’s need to replicate and adapt to its environment.

I suppose plenty of people going back to Asa Gray have been able to reconcile evolution with their religious beliefs. But as I was seeing it in its cruelest guise, I could not. To me, evolution was an irrational and wasteful process that was fundamentally incompatible with any definition of creation. And if you take away creation, what is left for a god to do?

So it was my experience as a gay man, specifically of religious homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, that brought me to atheism. At first glance, those seem to have little in common besides their coincidental effect on the gay community. But in accepting my sexuality and recognizing the true nature of AIDS, I embraced what is rather than what cannot be. To me, atheism is the “reality-based community” of journalists’ dreams.

Nick Harding


  1. says

    If a compilation of these essays is to be printed as a book, and only containing the best-of-the-best, then this qualifies. So uniquely executed and explained. Outstanding. Nice to meet you, Nick.

  2. erikthebassist says

    Phenomenal essay, one of my favorites, and very thought provoking. Seeing the world as it really is, or at least seeing reality as best we can manage, is one of the side benefits of being an atheist.

    When tragedy strikes me or a loved one, I feel it as deeply as anyone else but there’s always a certain comfort in knowing that tragedy can strike anywhere, anytime and there is no sky fairy that I have to hold responsible or forgive for it.

    When someone does something that causes pain or suffering, I don’t have to hate them because it’s likely there’s a biological or psychological explanation. There’s no free agent to blame, it’s simply nature and the randomness of very large numbers playing it’s self out. I can want justice or want the perp properly removed from society for my safety and the safety of others, but there’s no reason to place any blame,nature is to blame, 14 billion years of history led to that moment in time, that situation.

    Being alive means you will experience suffering because evolution is a messy process. I never have to ask, “Why me? Why are you testing me?” I can just deal with the pain, I leave the confusion aside, and sometimes that makes all the difference.

  3. erikthebassist says

    Thanks Thomas, my essay is already submitted and it doesn’t say that, no. I was just expounding on the OP’s theme that belief in sky fairies offers little comfort in the face of tragedy. It’s not one of the reason’s I’m an atheist, but it is a benefit of being one.