To be honest, I really don’t like writing about myself. I don’t mind giving my opinion on something, and I certainly don’t mind telling someone that I am right and that he or she is not, but I often find an author who writes only about himself or herself irritating. Nonetheless, I find the stories of people who started out as believers – some even particularly devoted to their faith – but ended up turning away in favor of investigation and skepticism. As skepticism is one of the focuses of my blog, and considering the fact that a small fraction of my already fairly small number of readers are believers themselves, I’d like to take a break from the usual course here at HOZ to talk about the path I took from a believer to an atheist.
I think one of the common misconceptions believers have about atheists is that they always were that way. Really, I find it to be quite the opposite. Growing up, I remember religion being pretty big in my life. While I didn’t go to a Catholic school or even Sunday school, I did attend church every Sunday and I remember the sets of prayers the whole family said every day, from giving thanks at the dinner table to the people we’d pray for before going to bed. From church and my grandparents I learned about things like heaven and hell and the grave importance of it all. I took it pretty seriously, too: though I was loud and energetic, I was always an obedient kid. I mean, I had to be: I had to make sure I wasn’t sinning against God and that I always said my prayers, because I certainly didn’t want to go to hell. I always imagined that God was watching over me or that God would whisper to me in my mind: the things I should be doing, the answer to the question a paper asked me in class, and even the morally correct choice in my everyday life.
Second grade was important to me in my journey as a God-fearing Catholic. It was the year I had my first Communion, and I remember that and, among other things, sitting in the confessional. I had been trained endlessly in what to say in what order, and while I took it very seriously – how could I not? My afterlife hung in the balance! – I remember how nerve-wracking it was. I remember feeling like I only had one chance to get it right, and if I didn’t, well: I knew where I was going. I remember how great I felt after I “passed” my test: it felt like a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders. I knew I was going in the right direction, and my importantly, I knew how to continue along on that direction. Even church became more exciting: I could receive Communion with everyone else, and every time I left church, I always felt a little bit better: like somehow, the positive energy of all those people praying healed me.
However, second grade was also the first time that armor of faith I wore received a blow. Though I don’t remember a whole lot about her, I remember my dad’s mother’s steady decline in health before she ultimately succumbed to cancer. I remember the transition from spending time with her where she lived, to spending time with her in the hospital, to spending time with her at the nursing home, to listening to everyone talk about her life at her wake. Her death was the first time where my faith just couldn’t provide an adequate enough answer. We often say things like, “God called her home” when people pass on. At my young age, I probably could have believed that in most cases. But cancer just didn’t seem like the right way to call someone home. I mean, cancer isn’t exactly the most rapid way to die. The suffering is great: much greater than plenty of other ways people die. I remember thinking that she was a good woman – of course, most little kids would say the same about their family – and that obviously, good people didn’t deserve to die like that. But, she did. Worse, no one could give me a satisfactory answer as to why God had to “call her home” like that, just that God worked in mysterious ways. This alone didn’t cause me to lose my faith, but it was the first time I questioned it.
Nonetheless, I continued on, and soon after, I asked for a Bible for Christmas. Sure enough, I got it, and I remember how exciting that was. I was always an avid reader, and now I didn’t have to listen to other people tell me about what the Bible said or what it meant: now, I could read it for myself! I eagerly started reading it, but it just didn’t quite compute. I was still a little too young to comprehend it, and I put it away, devoting my time to paying attention to what I learned in church or from the rest of my family.
By fourth grade, I was reading at a high school level. I found most of the books we read to be overly simple, even though some were still entertaining (I remember enjoying The Indian in the Cupboard in particular). My teacher noticed this, and she told me about a particular book that she wanted me to read because she thought I would both enjoy the book and the challenge it presented: Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Though the book would become a staple of middle schools everywhere – including mine – the book was still fairly new at the time, having been released the year before. I remember struggling with it at first, but after taking a little longer, I started noticing that the book was talking about things much more advanced than I was used to: even things I wasn’t altogether familiar with myself. I asked my teacher if my conclusions about things like sexual desire and euthanasia were correct, and she told me that they were.
It was like my world suddenly opened up.
I went back to the Bible, and sure enough, it started making more sense to me. But the more I read, the more things came into conflict with what I had been learning in school: especially science class. Science was my favorite subject when I was little, and I enjoyed rocks in particular. I even had a book on rocks and minerals, and my own kit for identifying the type and classification of rocks and minerals I found where I lived. However, the dating of the rocks, among other things, came into conflict with what the Bible was telling me. Once again, nobody could explain why. It seemed that the more I learned about science, the more it seemed to contradict my faith at every turn. Why, God was even wrong about rainbows! Rainbows! I had so many questions, but religion wasn’t giving me the answers…
…religion wasn’t giving me any answers.
Questions started coming from everywhere. I learned that even some of the kids I grew up with didn’t have the same kind of faith I did. I learned about even the most basic of contradictory questions:
If we have free will, how does God already know what we’re going to do? And if God already knows what we’re going to do, what’s the point?
Sure, maybe God created everything…but what created God? Where was the starting point?
Why was it that there was so much evidence about things that happened 65 million years ago, but almost none dating back a mere two thousand?
All the technicalities and formalities of my religion also started to weary me. Why was it so disrespectful to turn away after receiving Communion instead of facing the cross? Why the exact procedure with each service? Why a dedicated place of worship?
None of it made sense, and although it didn’t cause me to lose my faith in God entirely, it did cause my faith to shift drastically. I became a lot more liberal with my faith, and I concluded that God wouldn’t care about pomp so much as circumstance: if you were a good person, you did your best, and you at least took the time to pray, you’d go to heaven. My mom couldn’t drag me to church anymore: it just didn’t make any sense anymore, and I wanted no part of it.
Finally, over the next few years, the remaining layers of my faith eroded away. The afterlife, which was such a heavy focus of my early childhood, seemed so much less important. I stopped wondering about it altogether: it just didn’t matter anymore. I started worrying about what could be tested, evaluated, and most importantly, verified. I concluded that the afterlife just didn’t matter. After all, we all get to be dead for the same amount of time: forever.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to disbelieving: my morals went nowhere. My reason for doing them changed: no longer was I concerned with doing good deeds now so I could be rewarded later. I did them just for the sake of doing them. I did them because they made me feel good. I did them because they made others feel good. I did them because I felt that even a small difference counted in the long run. Not only can atheists be moral people, but you could easily argue that unlike believers, their motives for doing so are far less selfish. Atheists who are of good moral character and do good deeds don’t do them to be rewarded, and that alone is a big difference.
I realize that this sort of sounds like it could be summed up as, “I was ignorant as a child but finally came to my senses”, but really, it was a great combination of things that allowed me to break free of the faith that blinded me. Honestly, finally reading the Bible was probably the biggest. As Isaac Asimov – not widely regarded as being a fool – so simply put it, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” Honestly, I think that’s the biggest difference between believers and non-believers. If you really read the Bible – I mean, really dig deep into it – it just doesn’t make sense. For those of you who have been reading HOZ for a while, you already know what I’m talking about: it’s why I can use the Bible itself to debunk the claims of the people who tout it as such an important book. Are gays or Barack Obama the Antichrist? Bam. How should people of faith really deal with homosexuals? Bam. I’m sure there will be plenty more to come.
Once you finally use critical thinking everywhere – not just outside your faith – the holes become painfully obvious, and you start to realize just how flawed the “faces” of modern faith really are. They aren’t flawless people: in fact, most of them aren’t what you’d even call good people. Instead of moral people, we get bigots like Pat Robertson or Rick Warren, Archbishops who claim that they didn’t know rape was a crime, and epic fails like Carrie Prejean.
It saddens me to see my peers and even some of my friends continue to be shackled by their blind faith. Not having faith has even cost me friendships, some of which were fairly significant, involving people I love very much. But really, I don’t hate any of these people: really, I just pity them. Of course, I’m sure they pity me too, but the difference between the two is profound. Until you use critical thinking to check the validity of your own beliefs, how can you really know if what you’re believing is true?
Really, though, it is not my intention to demand that you, one of the few who read my blog, convert. I would never force anyone to do something like that. Rather, I encourage you to question, doubt, read, and most importantly, think! We know enough about things like black holes to know that light can be deflected by gravity. We know that our planet is not, in fact, the center of the universe. Yet no one has been able to provide even a testable example of how life can be intelligently designed, that humans have made other humans see where they couldn’t before, that humans could part water, or that humans can rise from the dead. There’s an old Latin proverb that goes as follows:
“Ubi dubium ibi libertas“:
Where there is doubt, there is freedom.