In part 2 of this series, I look at the influences and experiences that brought me to atheism.
I went to church when I was a kid. Not with my family, mind – just me, on my own. I liked it. I liked knowing that there was a big guy up there somewhere, looking over me. It felt comforting. My Dad was in the army so we travelled around a lot. Having god up there also meant I didn’t feel so lonely, always being the new kid at school, and never sticking around long enough to develop real friendships. God was my imaginary friend. Given that I didn’t come from any religious tradition, I guess that choosing to go to church was my first attempt at rebellion :-).
I retained that odd, solitary, comforting friend in the corner of my mind for many years after I finished school. I’d stopped attending formal church services by then because, quite frankly, I found the sermons utterly ridiculous. Silly stories – parables – we had to find meaning in, like the one about some guy who finds a burning bush in the middle of the desert. Hey, I’m Australian – if we find a burning bush anywhere, we get a wet blanket and put it out!
The parables seemed so unrelated to anything in my life, and the priests totally out of touch with the things that were really bothering people. I would often consider finding a friendly priest and plying him with all the questions I had, but to be honest, it never mattered enough to me to try.
I spent a lot of years drifting between a vague belief in ‘something’, and an almost equally vague disbelief in anything. I know I’m not the only person who thought George Lucas might have had it right when he invented ‘The Force’. The more I travelled through the world and the more I thought about it, the harder I found it to believe that there was a conscious, living god who would allow so many millions of people to suffer for no real reason, who would keep certain people as his special little tribe, and condemn the rest, and who would be so ham-fisted at communication, that any old snake-oil salesman could set himself up as the new voice-of-god messiah.
Yet, I could still feel the presence of this ‘friend’ whenever I called. (This presence never spoke to me unless I asked a question, and the answers were always things that I already knew. I’ve since learned that this effect is very common and merely a reflection of the conscious mind – I’m literally talking to myself.) The conflict bothered me a lot. I mean, how could I be certain that there couldn’t be a god, while suspecting that I had my own private ‘phone line’ to him?
I was setting myself up for a tragic epiphany – and one day, after too many conflicted years, it finally happened. I was diagnosed with a progressive, degenerative disease, that would effectively make me a heavily dependent cripple within five years. All my freedom, my independence, my love of life, my enormous desire and passion to achieve and simply live life – all went up in smoke. My life changed in every possible way on that day.
I remember so clearly driving home, shaking in disbelief that the god I’d always sneakily believed was there looking out for me, wasn’t. Oh, I didn’t go through that whole thing ‘why me’, with its resultant religious consequence: ‘because god has a plan for me’. No, instead, I just felt betrayed – not by the god that I’d thought was there – but by my own judgement. I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book. I’d lulled myself into a false sense of security, convincing myself that nothing really bad would ever happen to me because I was special in some way.
In the end, I was also betrayed by the judgement of my doctor – who turned out to be completely wrong about my diagnosis. No degenerative disease, no ending of life as I knew it in five years. It took me almost a year to find that out, but by then, the damage for me had already been done.
From that day, I no longer considered the whole idea of a god looking out for me, but I also didn’t consider myself an atheist as such. I can’t say I really thought about it that much.
Until I read an article in a newspaper, about a local church hosting a talk by an atheist. The article was very interesting, and talked about how the church members were very interested in what the atheist had to say, that the discussion had been very civil, and that at the end, they had all agreed to disagree. The content of the story was surprisingly pleasant. But that wasn’t what got me.
It was the fact that this atheist belonged to a group of atheists, and that he went around doing this sort of thing, and writing about it, being on panels, discussing it. I can’t now even remember who it was (perhaps somebody who read the same story could enlighten me?) I just remember what he said: that religion gets all the good press and that people who don’t believe, often feel like they’re completely alone.
By the time I got to the end of the story, I was ready to come out – as an atheist. In the space of just a few moments, my entire life changed again – but this time, it felt like it was righting itself, as though this is what I’d actually been all along but just hadn’t known it. It was like this great weight had been lifted from me – I didn’t have to keep juggling thoughts and ideas any more just to make the world work properly. I felt more right in myself than at any other time in my life.
And yes, I did go out and buy The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins – but that was months later. Reading it opened my eyes to so much of what I hadn’t allowed myself to articulate before. And God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens was just as liberating. I adored Robin Williams‘ Unintelligent Design, with its sharp comments and gentle humour. Discovering atheist literature was like soaking up water after a long drought. It was exactly what my brain needed.
For too long, I’d found ways to ignore my rational mind telling me that the inconsistencies in the story of religion weren’t that important. And I’m not just talking about Christianity – but all religion, all theistic principles. Once I opened the gates, a flood burst forth. Now, I want to help communicate the reality of what being an atheist is to people who still consider us to be worse than baby killers (yep, I actually know somebody who thinks this). In this modern world of mass media, and the individual access it hands us, it would be a crime not to find a way to talk about it.
And perhaps, somewhere in there, I can help another like me find a path out of confusion and conflict. To me, finding my own way out has been a little like having my own minor Renaissance – and I’ve emerged, wet behind the ears and passionate as all getup, wanting to learn all I can.
Because being rational matters. Separation of church and state matters. Making national and global decisions on a firm foundation of good science matters. All of these things govern all our lives. Their success or failure can make the difference between an ecological disaster in the Gulf, and the saving of millions of lives in Africa through AIDS prevention. And yes, it matters to me. It always has.
In Part 3, I look more closely at morals and ethics, and a moral code that doesn’t require a god to enforce it.