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

14 June 2012

Atheist Stories

My discussions of Prometheus with friends spurned me to begin to ask more people about their own personal beliefs in atheism. I was going to do a post on how I became an atheist - my Saint Paul conversion story, if you will. But I thought I might also ask some of my friends (I have a fairly large number of atheist friends) how and why they converted to atheism. It turned out to be quite a delightful project, and I will share as many responses as I get. Some of their stories are downright wonderful.

Just as a caveat, I don't intend to convert anyone else to atheism with these posts. An atheism which fashions itself to be about proselytizing or about enforcing (dis)belief on other people is untenable. Instead, you might think about these stories as tales of transformation: changes from one way of life to another that people have found to be beneficial, healthy, and educative.

I got so many responses to my query, that I will have to split my original idea into several posts, but to start, I asked each person why he or she became an atheist and if they had a good "conversion" story. Here are some of the responses...

I grew up in a good, faithful, and devout Baptist household, and so I of course believed in god, prayed every night and before every meal, and went to church three to four times a week. The thing I remember the most about being devout is that I wanted to believe in god. I was always a very empathetic young person, and so I always chafed when judgments were made about people and their behaviors – in my church this usually had to do with young people who had become sexually active: our church would publicly shame these people by forcing them to apologize in front of the entire congregation. It was a ludicrous method of policing behavior that also managed to be arbitrary – why was sex policed (one might ask) rather than the much more widespread sins of gluttony or smoking cigarettes? Why didn't those sinners have to apologize, but the kids who had unprotected sex had to submit to public shaming? (One suspects it was because grown folk wouldn't submit to such indignities, but eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds hadn't grown into adulthood enough to object to such absurd demands.)

I digress. Anyway, I prayed all the time in my private life, trying to be a good god-fearing person and a devout Christian. By the time I got to University, I had decided that I would be extra-devout. I was a youth leader in our local Awana program and even though my church was a good 45 minutes away from my house and school, I would drive in to town even on Wednesday nights to attend our college Bible-study group. I asked a lot of questions. I thought critically about the scriptures. I devoted myself to studying it. I wanted to make it work, if you know what I mean, because I had become skeptical. The Bible rejects same-sex desire, and because I found myself sexually attracted to men, I had to figure out how to make it work. Eventually, though, this became too much and I just had to stop. I left Christianity, deciding that it made my life unhappy and would, if I let it, eventually push me to suicide. I was nineteen or twenty.

I was twenty-three when I became an atheist. I remember my conversion distinctly. I have loved J.R.R. Tolkien since I was a kid, and one day I was sitting around by myself thinking about middle earth (like you do when you are a big fucking nerd like I am). All of a sudden I was struck with a rush of feeling. I really, really wish that Gandalf the Grey were real,. Or if the god of Tolkien's books were real. Seriously. And I thought this because of what a kind and forgiving, what a loving, beautiful god I believed Tolkien to have created. Then, all of a sudden: another rush of feeling. That's how I feel about god in general. It is the same with Gandalf as it is with god. I want him to be real, but no matter how much I wish that there were a god looking over me and taking care of me, there is not one. Believing that god is real is like believing that Gandalf is real: it's a fun fantasy, but it's totally unconnected to reality. I want dragons and unicorns and quidditch and daemons and alethiometers to be real, too. And anyway, knowing that there is no god has left my life much more full than before, when I believed in god. I have come, instead, to believe that my life is my own responsibility. I will not be magically forgiven in the afterlife for the choices I make in my life, and this demands a certain care and ethic in my interactions with others and with the planet. And this care has made my life immeasurably happy.

I'm afraid that my how I became an atheist story isn't really a story, but a series of gradual shifts in how I viewed the universe and religious institutions. These shifts left me in a position where I almost felt forced to conclude, as a matter of logic and/or evidence, to doubt the existence of a deity. Although simply doubting the existence of a deity might have technically made me an agnostic, I have, over time, considered myself an atheist because I think it's more reasonable for a proponent of a deity (be it God, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) to have the burden of proof. To be an agnostic on the matter, in other words, would unreasonably equalize the folklore of a monotheistic patriarch of a god (e.g., Christianity), with the demonstrated geological/cosmological record which is benignly godless.

A few of these shifts that come to mind are: studying pre-Christian history, studying the Bible enough to doubt its alleged infallibility, doubting the divinity or wisdom of my pastors, actually considering whether I thought the moral lessons in the Bible were fair, seriously studying anthropology (my major in college) as well as astronomy, philosophy, and biology, and allowing myself to consider my beliefs without the fear of being a non-believer.

All of these events, scattered throughout high school and my first year of college, left me with the conclusion (based on the evidence) that the existence of a god was not likely.

Dinosaurs were my absolute favorite thing from ages three through ten. It was during those years that I was sure I would grow up to be a paleontologist. I could name every period and which dinosaurs lived in each one. From a very young age I had a deep understanding (for a kid in the single digits) of how long our earth has been around. I even went to summer camps at the natural history museum. That place was my church. So it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly when I officially declared myself an atheist. I’m pretty sure I started wearing the badge proudly in high school. Though in retrospect it’s always been that way. Kind of like after realizing I was gay and put some distance between me and my adolescence I can look back and say Oh, now that I’ve had this realization roughly 64% of my life makes a ton more sense. Or something to that effect.

I do remember my very first confrontation with religion. My parents, thankfully, raised me without it. They were both raised Catholic-lite and both stopped going to church pretty quickly. Probably around the time they were able to start driving.  But I had this friend, Adam. He wasn’t a nut or anything. Far from it. I don’t even know how much he believed back then. He tells me now that the only reason he went to church was because his grandma made them all go. But I digress. Adam was my best friend from second grade on. During those years if I wanted to stay over at his house on a Saturday it meant that I would have to go to church with them on Sunday morning. Being that they were Catholic, my parents saw no harm in me learning a little shame and guilt.

I went a few times without incident. Mass was boring as shit, and communion wafers tasted like paper. There did come a day where I could no longer stay silent. Adam and I were in catechism and that day we were discussing Genesis. We had these over simplified picture bibles and the nun (I guess, that detail is fuzzy) was talking about Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. I flipped a page and my eyes bugged out of my head. My hand shot up. The nun looked at me, puzzled. What is a dinosaur doing in the Garden of Eden? They existed millions of years before humans. The whole room went silent. Her expression soured. The earth was created in seven days, and all of God’s creatures roamed the garden. I looked to Adam for support. Nothing. And, mind you, Adam went to all the same summer camps as I did. I looked back up at the nun. Well none of this makes sense to me. She turned her withering glare to my silent compatriot. Adam, you and your guest should go wait in the lobby. Defiantly I walked out with Adam tagging behind me, red faced. When we arrived in the lobby we saw the post-service refreshment stand was brimming with donuts and cookies. We gorged ourselves. Needless to say I didn’t stay there on many more Saturdays. But we did learn our lesson. Defy God, get sweets.

Many Christians do not understand how someone cannot believe in God, any god. I know this because I was one of those Christians. (When I capitalize God I am referring to the Christian God. Old habits die hard.)  The first atheist I met, I met my sophomore year of college. Of course, I ran into people who didn't go to church, or people who weren't religious, but I'd never run into anyone (at least anyone who admitted it) who was raised to believe (or to know) that there was no God. Anywhere. Ever. It blew my mind! It was like she was raised by people who were inadvertently controlled by The Devil. Not that she was evil or worshiped the devil, but in the absence of God there is only The Devil, right?

After talking with her about it, she explained to me that she was a good person, with morals and ethics. And that morals the ethics have nothing to do with believing in a god. For the first time in my life I thought about that. I thought about all the mean things people do (mostly Christians) and how the belief in God hadn't stopped them from being immoral or unethical. This whole time I thought it was the devil that was whispering in their ears and them not having the wherewithal to not listen to the whispering. From then, I began to look at the hypocrisies in the Bible. The "answers" that weren't really answers but ideas and notions that I was doing something wrong to prevent myself from receiving the blessings that as a Christian I felt I was owed. I looked at all the bad things that happen around the world and I thought How can my god let this happen?, How can this merciful being who gave his only begotten son to the world not break out some miracles in this era?, Why had he not done something the heal the problems I was having with my mother, who was literally driving me crazy? How could he not answer my prayers? Did he not see how good of a Christian I was trying to be? Why wouldn't he help me? Why did he wake me up every day, when every night I prayed to not wake up... When I asked my  church mentors these questions (save the last question), they would tell it's a sin to worry, Let Go and Let God. They would tell me He never gives you more than you can bear. Maybe I wasn't asking hard or loud enough. He may not come when you want him, but he is always there right on time. But He never came.

Then one Sunday I was sitting, listening to the sermon, and the new pastor of my church made some comments referring to Prop 22, saying that marriage was "between a man and a woman". That was it, the last straw that broke this camel's back. I got up and left the church and never looked back. This was the real beginning of the end of my one-sided "relationship" with god. I was tired of being in unrequited relationships with men. If my prayers weren't going to be answered then I wasn't going to believe. It was hard. I was used to having a safety net, the idea that somewhere something cared about be and wasn't going to let me fall was fading. It was totally scary. Then I realized that I wasn't afraid of dying. Then I gave up the idea of an afterlife. Then life got easier. I took my destiny into my own hands. I've taken the time to get to know myself, to love myself, to accept myself. As a Christian, that was something that I wasn't allowed to do. Everyone (by everyone I mean my mother) was always telling my how mean, evil, and spiteful I was. I was drowning in self-doubt and self-loathing. The Bible teaches Honor thy parents, but it doesn't teach you what to do if your parent is poison. There are so many gaps, lies and BS in the bible. I was tired of hating myself because of this entity – who has yet to show itself to be real or caring – told these men (1000 years ago) to write a book about it.

I am a good person. I try to be the best I can be for the people around me every day. Saying that I am good person bring tears to my eyes as I write this because for sooo long I thought I was a horrible person. The girl I met in college and I have been friends for more than 10 years; she helped me see the light. She and her family are some of the nicest people that I have ever met, and if being an atheist looks like that, then I am proud to be one. I feel better now that I'm not waiting on an entity to solve or help me with my problems. I feel in control of my life and my destiny. That is a huge help, because before I felt out of control.