Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 June 2012

Atheist Stories III

The logic for this series of posts is outlined here. I have received a huge response from these, and I would love to share more of your stories, so if you have an atheist story you'd like to share, please send it my way.

Outside the protection of the church, I still couldn't let go of God. Unless one is raised as a skeptic, I think there may be a final personal obstacle we each need to face. For me, in light of my mom's illness, it was the fear of death and being alone. I hoped from the bottom of my heart that I wasn't alone, and I was scared that death could be what the Christians said it was, or worse: we didn't have any idea. As a depressive, I am notorious for jumping to the worst conclusions. It obviously was an emotionally tied response I had to death. People would ask me How could you believe? and I didn't have a very good answer other than to be defensive.

I was an experimenter in college, however. I slept around, and once I realized that there was no invisible bookkeeper balancing the score, I tried quite a few drugs as well. I did many foolish things, and I am very happy I made it out relatively undamaged.

One night when I was home, I ate some shrooms I had received in exchange for purchasing some textbooks for a friend. I wasn't really tripping by any means. I used to go to the side of the house when everyone was asleep to have a cigarette in the cold. I looked up at the night sky, and under my drug-induced mental relaxation, I finally asked myself, So, what if there isn't a god? Would it really be that bad? At first my emotions wanted to stamp out the blasphemous questions because I realized they scared me. But because my imagination was allowing me to expand just a teeny bit, I began to understand it wasn't so black and white. It wasn't God or eternal damnation. It wasn't being part of a body of christ or being totally alone. Drugs (the "right" ones anyway) didn't automatically make people monsters, protected sex didn't make me ashamed, and gay people didn't compromise the moral fabric of our nation. These were all social constructs my parents and church and school had told me. So would rejecting God really make me as miserable as they had said? Would the idea of death just being death really render my life insignificant?

It may not be the best reason for me to have rejected religion. I felt a little weird and alone after my comedown, but I was sticking to my decision. I did not feel comfortable in my new heathen skin until I met up with my friends the next evening. I turned to them in a nice quiet living room and said, Guys, I don't think I believe in God anymore. But I feel like a kid who found out Santa isn't real. They looked at me so relieved. We had become more intimate in our shared beliefs. They gave me hugs and sat with me on the couch and we drank and watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof together, and I realized that life wasn't less real or important, it had become more so.

I was a hair's breadth away from dating a girl in undergrad until I told her that I was an atheist. We were very compatible and very attracted to one another. We were having lunch at a local Arby's one day and were discussing the possibility of being a couple. Then the subject of faith came up and I told her that I had none. She then proceeded to completely back away. In her words, she couldn't date someone that wouldn't help her raise Christian children. Over the years, we remained close and would talk about how much we wanted each other, but every conversation ended with her saying that my atheist belief was the only reason we couldn't be together.

Now she is dating her boss at a Mexican restaurant. The end.

When I taught in a classroom, I often wore a shirt that said Growing old is mandatory – growing up is optional. With this and other “message shirts” I tried to raise student awareness that their most important asset was the ability to think about their lives and their future. My own youth lacked this sort of encouragement, so I was already in college before I began to question the religious presumptions that were so adamantly held by everyone I had ever known. Two experiences, both from my sophomore year at college, precipitated the most important thinking I was ever to do.

The first was observing a scene unfold in my sociology class. The instructor, a Presbyterian minister, mentioned that there were “seven distinct theologies” in the New Testament. Upon hearing this a sweet young girl on the front row burst into tears. He hastened to reassure her that there was nothing anti-Christian in his claim, and she was mollified only with considerable difficulty. I was shocked – not at his “liberal” views on Christian doctrine, but at how her world fell apart when it was gently nudged. I’ve had a passion for science, for knowledge, for as long as I can remember, and I was no more shocked by his comment than I was when I read of Einstein overturning Newton’s classical physics. That is the difference between the scientific mindset and the orthodox mind set: one is open minded and eager to grow, the other refractory and defensive.

The second experience was from a professor of anthropology who was fond of making comments that put down religious belief. He was the first person in my life whom I knew well enough to respect, but who was openly hostile to the whole notion of religion. There are people, and I was one of them, whose most incisive question about religion is: Which one is true? After this professor, I was able to ask a little deeper: Are any of them true? One of the conceits of theism is that you cannot do ethics, that is lead a good life, without recourse to religion. This intelligent, civilized, honorable man made it possible for me to reconsider this notion. The last barrier to allowing myself to question my fundamental beliefs fell away.

I’d like to say that my life fell into good order at this point, but in fact what followed was tumult. Religion survives, in evolutionary terms, probably because it homogenizes man’s expectations of other men and complements his tendency to organize into hierarchical groups. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is a stable thing – it resists change. Before the end of that sophomore year, I had abandoned religion, but had no philosophy to replace it. I was navigating difficult waters with no chart, and majoring in philosophy broadened my options rather than helping me toward an adequate replacement for the guidance religion had once provided. At this point I considered myself – no doubt due to much reading of Bertrand Russell – an agnostic.

The best thing about tumult is that it invites you to learn patience, and a workable edifice eventually took shape. This happened about five years later, when I was majoring in physics and reading Ayn Rand. (Philosophy? Physics? Who does this guy think he is? John Galt?) This brilliant thinker, who offends most people and has too many overly zealous advocates, nevertheless created a philosophical structure that was based purely on reason and offers a profound defense of the principles of equal rights and individual freedom. And she was an atheist. Now I have long had and still have a great respect for the agnostics of the world. They have trod an uphill path and have persevered even when most of the world thinks harshly of them. To reach this high peak earns my unqualified esteem. Rand pointed out that all the major conceptions of god were either nonsensical or had zero evidence. Hence she had no more respect for those who claim that god is possible than for those who claim the tooth fairy is possible. I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, or in Santa Claus, or in god; those ideas are, to use simple parlance, silly. So I am an atheist.

The journey that I have capsulized here is not over; I learn new stuff every day. I am always doing what Rand advised: “Check your premises.” I am constantly, joyously, changing and creating. And I will sum up my youth by saying – with apologies to Saint Paul – that like all children, when I was young I was religious; “but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”