I had been wondering for a while whether I should join the masses and add my own answer (and story) to the question “why are you an atheist?”. The new year brought with it a sense of “why the hell not?”.
Reading the answers of others, i’ve seen it often helps to give some basic background first. Don’t worry, most of it is relevent to the actual answer. I’m a person of the male persuasion in my early 20s, living in the pleasant (if you like mud) countryside of the east of England. I’m pretty much the stereotype of a geek/gamer (without the “fat, no sense of personal hygiene and glasses” parts). I grew up a basic countryside-dwelling family (as an only child), complete with the usual passive conservatism and Christianity – passive in the sense that it’s just “there”, everyone expects everyone else thinks the same as they do, so the subjects rarely come up. This is hardly perfect, but a lot better than being bombarded with it every day. But in other ways, it’s a lot more insidious.
The few friends I have in my immediate area (geek stereotypes ahoy) all buy into the aforementioned passive conservatism/Christianity purely through unquestioning acceptance. True, they may somehow still believe these things if they actually thought about it, but I think it’s more likely that they’re just a product of their environment. They also all suffer from the things that come with this; the pervasive and disgusting, but not overt homophobia, misogyny, and racism. I’ve never really been comfortable with this outlook, even though there was a time when I suffered from the trappings of homophobia and misogyny like many young people of the “straight, white and/or male” persuasions. Around the start of my trip into atheism and humanism, I began to see this wasn’t a viable worldview in any way, shape or form.
Now for the actual answer.
My own path to atheism brings to mind someone wandering backwards and blindfolded through a cloud of fog. For me, becoming an atheist wasn’t a straight line through questioning faith, to skepticism (yes, i’m a Brit who prefers a ‘k’ in the spelling), to unbelief. Sometimes I wonder how I even ended up questioning everything coming from the background I did, where things were rarely discussed and are just simply accepted (the “blindfolded” part of the above analogy). In the back of my mind, I think i’ve always questioned whether the weak Christianity I was presented with (and as it was never discussed this was presented, effectively, as the only option) was correct. I don’t even know if I ever really believed in anything other than some form of deism rather than Christianity; to me, there was a god, but Jesus and all the rest never entered into it. I believed in a powerful being, and I prayed when I was upset or depressed for things to be magically be made better, but always to a random “god” being and never to “Jesus”.
I do remember back when I was a kid (possibly a little while before my teenage years), saying to my parents on the eve of an upcoming wedding or funeral of some distant relation that “I don’t want to go, it means nothing to me” (which, as a side note, was accepted as an answer and I wasn’t forced to go). Hating dressing up, the hard seats, the hymns, the boring vicar and all the sad people (which in turn made me sad) probably also had something to do with it. Rebellion may also have played its part. Of course, like a lot of kids that age, the concept of “atheism” wasn’t in my sphere of existence. This was the earliest actual expression of my atheism (or the beginning of it) that I can remember, but then again I have a terrible memory.
I think the thing that finally got me to kick my faith in the end was a combination of the good ol’ internet, and an event that happened around my first year of high/upper school (which would have made me around 13 or 14, about 10 years ago now). This was the death of my grandfather (on my mother’s side), who I was especially close to. This death hit me hard, causing me to act out, but internally question life and the meaning of it. That event contrasts very well with the death of my father from cancer at the end of 2010. I had a completely different reaction, which I put down to being a humanist. Rather than acting out, my attitude was one of sadness and acceptance, and an attitude that can be summed up in the following quotation (that I just pulled out of my arse): “Life isn’t fair, but it’s only one we have, so we have to make the most of it while we’re here. The dead might be gone, but they’re not forgotten. The way I see it, as long as we remember them, the lessons they taught us and the knowledge they passed on, that’s as close to immortality as you can get and means far more than any concept of an everlasting soul.” As a side note, i’ve often wondered why the religious react so badly towards the death of someone they love when they believe in concepts like “heaven”, and seeing that person again when they get there. My mother also impressed me during this time, suggesting of her own volition that we have a more “humanist” funeral rather than wrapping it up in faith (the word “humanist” itself wasn’t used, but that’s basically what it was), despite being Christian. In her own words she summed up what i’ve seen a lot of people comment on before: “I want someone who knew him to talk about him, not someone that didn’t”. That was the best kind of funeral I could have hoped for.
As for the “backwards” part of the analogy, this is my (what I see as) backwards path to skepticism. From reading accounts from other people, I see the common theme is belief, to learning about skepticism and critical thinking, then applying that skepticism to their own faith. I sort of came at it the other way; I was an atheist and a liberal, secular humanist before I was a skeptic, however weird that might sound. The internet taught me the word for what I was slowly coming to realise I was, an “atheist” (as well as a “secular humanist”), and that there were others like me. However, I did still believe in some unskeptical things (such as not accepting climate change for the most part). I had also believed in ghosts for a long time, but that had slowly become ridiculous as atheism began to seep in. I generally didn’t think very critically about anything other than the completely ridiculous and religion (perhaps the “and religion” is redundant there).
A few years later, I found Pharyngula (and began lurking). I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I seem to remember the main event at the time was PZ being expelled from a showing of Expelled, but Dawkins being allowed in. This led me to browsing the site of Dawkins himself, wondering who the hell this “PZ Myers” guy was and I suppose, as they say, the rest is history. I suppose you could say Pharyngula, and the regulars/commenters who dwelt within from way back when (and many still do), are the reason I came eventually to skepticism. I still find i’m learning every day, from the early days of not accepting the evidence for climate change, to changing my mind on that, even to this day where my eyes have been opened within the last year or two to feminism (and lately all the issues, like privilege and not sitting by and letting bigoted attitudes go unchallenged, contained within). The move to Freethought Blogs has also helped a lot with this, opening up a whole new and easily accessable world of fantastic blogs to read.
In the event this was to ever be randomly selected as a blog post before the universe ends, i’d just like to splodge a gigantic thankyou to PZ, the horde of Pharyngula commenters, as well as the vast multitude of other blogs and their authors for my journey into skepticism and the world of feminism, but especially Greta Christina and Jen McCreight for their fantastic writing that lead directly to the latest revelation in my thinking. Never stop being awesome.
I feel I must also add an apology for any typos, hideous grammar and/or overuse of commas. I self-edit (perhaps more than is healthy) and check dictionaries rather than using spell checkers, so things may get missed (spell checkers just make me rage).