On Being an Atheist

Image I have a lot of thoughts on atheism and religion which I’d like to present in future essays but I think that I first have to establish my credentials as an atheist. I think I can claim to have come by my atheism honestly and without rancor. That is, it stemmed from no quarrel with God nor did it stem from any life hardship which led to a quarrel and parting with God. Nor did it stem from any quarrel with the Church or its members. It didn’t stem from any disagreement with anyone or any Being. I see atheists like this, these people who are constantly fighting with and against people of religion, and I have to say that I wonder – are they true atheists or are they for some personal reason just having a falling out and quarrel with God? People who don’t question the existence of God will have no quarrel or need to squabble with Believers. I can say that I was not born an atheist – that is born into a home without religion. Some atheists are like that; for them it was never an issue. For some they began in a house of God and their road to atheism was paved with great inner conflict. I can’t say I was either. I was born into the home of a religious, church going man but in my departure from Belief there was no great inner battle. My memory is not such that I can claim to remember the exact date or anything precise like that when I became an atheist. I can tell you the circumstances though.

I actually twice became an atheist and neither was a great battle. For this I have to give credit to a great man – my father. Dad was not great in terms of possessions, fame, fortune, influence, accomplishment or any of those things we associate with greatness. His greatness was much more than any of those things for he was one who could be both a great believer yet also give freedom to his own family from those beliefs. If you understand both the power religious belief holds on those of faith and how part of that power is a need, a drive, to spread the power of their belief to others and the patriarchal tendencies to exercise that power over one’s sons and daughters then you’ll understand that to be one of great faith and to not exercise that patriarchal power is no small feat.

It is only now, all these years later and in learning how in most families of religion and faith the father rules with great power and that adherence to the family religion is strictly enforced and indoctrinated, that I realize both how lucky I was (and my siblings were) and how great he was for relinquishing this power over his sons and daughter. Let there be no mistake that his belief and faith were strong. I always knew he was a man of God but it wasn’t until his later years, when the fear of death and the meeting his Maker were full upon him, that I fully understood just how much he was a man of God. The power of God very much ruled his mind and the word of the Bible was his only word. I also understood then just how much it meant to him to know that all his children would go to Heaven. This was a deeply powerful desire in him and in one exchange with him in one of our (now regrettable to me) arguments on religion he made this passionately clear.

I would also learn, not near the end of his life but earlier, how finding God had saved his life. He himself was born into a house of God (not in the church sense but in a house of Believers) but he had strayed, gotten into trouble and then gotten out of that trouble and made himself whole and who he became through faith in God. If I came by my atheism honestly, I think I could say my father came by his faith honestly. He’d strayed from God and then found the power of God within himself not by mere inheritance (as so many mindlessly do) but through his own trials and tribulations. He honestly saw God and Jesus as his saviours and put all his faith in the word of the Bible. But all the while we were growing up he kept this powerful hold on his own mind to himself.

I can recall, when we (my twin and I) were still very young and would ride along with him in his pickup while he ran errands, that he’d sometimes talk about the wonders of God when pointing out bits of nature. It was never preaching, it was just his way of sharing what he understood about the world. He also, when talking about people and races that we’d see, say how all people “were God’s children”. It was his way of not being prejudice against others or a racist. I don’t think he would have done either of those things anyway but this is how the mind of a Believer reconciles one’s own inclinations; it all becomes part of one’s faith. Part of my good fortune in not having either the power of God or patriarchal power lorded over me was dad’s own distaste for religious organizations. He rejected his own Mennonite roots (which is probably why and when he strayed in the first place) and to him faith and belief in God was between him, the Bible and God (and his only begotten Son) and no one else. He attended church but it was a very small non-denominational chapel. All of us kids attended Sunday school there. I can’t recall when this started but some of my earliest memories are from that chapel (all of which are very warm and fond memories). I can recall having a crush on my Sunday school teacher (a very pretty young woman whose typically conservative style of the day could not fully disguise a slim and attractive figure).

There were other kids our age with whom we got along well. The church elders were all warm and friendly. Sundays felt like big family gatherings. There were wonderful church picnics that I can remember, also with great fondness. I can recall not a single negative experience at all. Nope, nothing there led to a big disagreement with the Church and God. But it also formed a very gentle relationship with Belief. There were no fiery fear mongering sermons from the pulpit, I can only recall an atmosphere of joy among people happy to gather in a house of God and in sharing that joy with others. And in such a small non-denominational chapel there was not the hierarchical structure common in most churches. It was an atmosphere of freedom of Faith not of “faith” enforced by fear and hierarchical power.

So it was from this atmosphere that I and my twin were given our freedom. I don’t recall there being anything said, it just seemed that one day there came an understanding that we no longer had to go to Sunday school or attend service if we didn’t want to. We were perhaps twelve at the time (or maybe younger … my memory has never been one to retain such details). Knowing what I know now about how strong of Faith dad was I can be fairly certain that he would have preferred us to keep attending, that would have been his most fervent wish, but he gave us the choice of attending or not. This is what I mean by greatness.

In my mind it takes a great man to believe in something so powerful and believe it was the best thing for his children yet give them the freedom to choose. I think he felt that he came by it by choice and that he should give us that same choice (and probably with full confidence that we’d make the choice he made – to return. I’m sure it was later with some horror that he realized we were not making that choice). But the atmosphere I described also made it easier for us both; both for him to give the choice and for us to make it. Under a more traditional, strictly structured church hierarchy, I doubt it would have been so easy.

So I cannot say that I can’t count some luck in my path to atheism. I also need to give mention and thanks to my mom as well. If I have a free thinking mind – a  mind free from the bonds of Faith to God – it was from her and her side of the family that this was inherited. She never attended church, never showed the least interest. I think she may have gone to some functions out of deference to and out of decorum for a need for dad to occasionally present a whole family to the church faithful but that was very occasional at best and most likely only  for the sake of peace between her and dad for the time of that occasion. Otherwise there wasn’t a religious bone in mom’s body.

I can’t recall any reason for making the choice not to continue attending the chapel services on Sundays. I think I just simply lost interest (my twin would have to speak for himself though I suspect it may be similar). None of what they talked about held any particular meaning to me. It wasn’t that I rejected it. I simply had no feelings for it at all. It was no great intellectual revelation, I can tell you that. I think we (twin and I … “we” here always refers to the two of us) may have had atheist friends then and perhaps they had some influence. I really don’t remember. I just remember being given the choice and that choice was to just stop going. I never gave the concept of God another thought after that. In fact I’m not sure I ever had a concept of God or any omnipresent power of Him at all at that point.

Fate would change that in my eleventh year of high school. Fate came in the form of a pretty young girl I fell in love with the summer I was sixteen. A girl can have a lot of power over the mind of a young man (and vice versa of course) and that power comes in the form of “getting some”. As innocent as our sex was it still held powerful sway over me and as she was the “keeper of the gate” so to speak, her ideas of life held sway over me. That I “loved” her (such as teenage love is) was not a question, no, it became more than that. She was a Christian and if we were to continue, I had to become a Christian as well. I protested, she stood firm. As continuing to “get some” was on the line (and I’m not being crass here, just being frank about how teenage minds and hearts, mutual attraction and the power of sex works … well, probably at any age come to think of it) I gradually gave in.

I can clearly remember the night. We’d had a great and passionate “discussion” about it and she gave me an ultimatum. We were near her parents’ home far out in the rural countryside. I said I’d go home and think about it. There had been a dense and dangerous fog that night when I drove her there and when I drove back to my home (about thirty minutes drive away) the fog had disappeared and a full moon illuminated the road. I was, in the state of mind I was in (under the pressure from her), greatly moved by this. I honestly took this as a “sign from God” and I became a Believer. I called ‘K’ on the phone as soon as I got home and there was much joy and rejoicing. This is how the mind works and tricks one into “believing”; a little external pressure, a thing of desire on the line and a “sign”. If nothing else, I’m an earnest fellow and I got into God along with ‘K’ in an earnest way. I started hanging out with her Christian friends and attending Church and Bible study with her, both of which were with the local Mennonite church.

I did not reject my old friends and circles of acquaintances but the relationships with them became more uneasy. It probably wasn’t a bad thing for me then. In grade ten I’d gotten a lot into smoking weed and drinking with what was not exactly a “bad crowd” but who probably weren’t the best for my studies (such as they were. Studying and I had a tenuous relationship back then at the best of times) and giving up toking and drinking  helped improve my grades. This Christian portion of my life lasted through grade eleven into the latter half of grade twelve.

A couple of things then happened. One was that I was exploring my scientific mind. As poorly as I did in science in terms of grades, I think I got the basic concepts of science pretty well. It’s just that the finer details of physics and chemistry were beyond my particular mind’s capacity. I could see the value in it and I greatly wanted to understand it deeper and to do better in it but that’s just not the way my mind rolled. Geography and biology on the other hand meshed well with my mind, particularly geology. I loved rocks. I got rocks. When I looked at a geology textbook about plate tectonics and the creation of mountains and volcanoes, and how earthquakes happened, and how different types of rock were formed, I could grasp it all at a glance. I did really well in geology and loved studying all the different kinds of rock and how they were formed. Biology too. Not quite as well, but well enough. Maybe not the detail down to the molecular level but I deeply got how living things worked.

Then, in the latter half of grade twelve, came English as taught by a teacher named Ian Smith (he was one of those young progressive types who encouraged the use of his first name. Rumour always had it that he was a Vietnam draft dodger though I couldn’t say whether this was true or not). One of his assignments was to read the Bible. Not as Scripture, however, but as literature. I can’t recall how he set this up in our minds, but he did. He brushed aside the grumbling and taught us to see it for what it was – a recording of early Western literature.

So it was with this mindset that I began to read the book of Genesis. This mindset as set up by Mr. Smith was, I can tell you, very different than that with which I attended Bible study. So I started reading and I’m reading not to look for “lessons” but to see what it’s actually saying. And boy, did that put things in a whole new light. I can’t recall the exact moment of epiphany but at some point the cold logic of science that had been growing in my mind met the side of faith that had been constructed in my mind and logic won hands down. My mind just took the words of the Bible, of how the world was “created” in six days, and then the story of the Great Flood and compared these stories to what I’d learned in geology and biology, and just thought, “nope, uh-uh, not a chance. This is not possible”.

And the way my mind works, I draw other conclusions from inference. If the word of Genesis could not possibly be right then I couldn’t see how ANY of it could be right. I saw it as ALL a house of cards so in my mind when Genesis fell, it all fell like dominoes. And boom, that was it. In my mind it was case closed. And I’ve never given it a second thought since.

I told ‘K’ and there were tears and wails of despair but this time I was firm. And that’s how I became an atheist. There was no big battle and fall out with God. I just simply read the word of God and made a common sense judgment. What I was reading did not jive with the world I saw. When I looked around the world and saw the vast variety of plant and animal species and the great number of human races and the many languages spread all around the world and when I thought of what geology taught about the formation of mountains of sedimentary rock and the time frame needed for that to happen, I just simply knew that all of that could not have been created in six days a mere six thousand years ago, let alone have all grown out of what could be carried on a small ship as depicted in the “Great Flood”.

My mind just could not see how that was at all feasible. I never did become a scholastic student of science but science has always been my source of information and understanding since then. There’s much I confess that I don’t grasp but I at least can see the logic of it. Evolution just simply made sense to me. The geological record of the earth just made sense to me. Where geology and biology met – in fossils – just made sense to me. It’s all just plain common sense, a common sense I’ve never had any reason to doubt. Plus, I did do a lot of reading on the mechanics of evolution and the carefully constructed evidence – and the evidence spoke clearly.

I’ve never had any reason since then for any belief in any superior or heavenly Being whatsoever. I have no need for any belief in an afterlife. Basic biology contains all the explanation I need for life. When my cells die, I see no need for anything other than a biological explanation for that. When my heart stops pumping and supplying oxygen to my brain, my brain will quite naturally cease to function and with it “I” will go. End of story. No white light. No soul to go somewhere. Just a biological mass that ceases to be, just like a tree,or a fish or any other living thing. What else need there be?

So there was no fight or quarrel with God in which I blamed Him for my suffering and thus chose to reject Him, his Faith and to forever fight against Him. I just simply saw another explanation for life on earth. End of story. And since I don’t question the existence of God, meaning there’s no doubt in my mind that no God or gods exist, I see no need to fight with anyone about that. People who fight over the existence of a God or gods are struggling with belief themselves and I have no such inner struggle.

But of course the world is not so simple as I see it. Faith runs strong in the human mind, faith and belief over science runs strong in the human mind and it is over this faith and need to believe – and worse, to construct rules over human behaviour based on this faith – that there is much conflict in today’s world. But you’ll see my atheism is an honest one, not one of rancor and anger against anyone or their faith. I’m just a simple man of simple common sense with no ax to grind. I have nothing against anyone’s need for belief – I understand that need, I truly do. My thoughts then are less about arguing about atheism vs belief and more towards spreading what I see as simple reason and common sense. It’s not, nor ever been, about opposing anyone, it’s merely accepting facts as they’re presented. There is a science of faith and belief though, a science that is part of the study of the human mind, and that’s more where my interest lies. God, or gods, and all belief systems exist in the remarkable galaxies of the human mind and furthermore it is evolution that put that capacity for, and power of, belief there. Why? It is in the human mind then that is the battlefield of science vs religion and my essays will take form there. It’s how “facts” and “reality” are formed and presented in the human mind that I would like explore.

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3 thoughts on “On Being an Atheist

  1. Great post. That last bit “There is a science of faith and belief though, a science that is part of the study of the human mind, and that’s more where my interest lies.” hits home with me. I talk to a lot of religious apologists and have gone from an interest in their philosophy to an interest in their psychology.

    • Thanks, Grundy. Yup, it’s the psychology that interests me. I’ve got a few books I have for reference. The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life is one that I’m working my way through.
      The basic human need to construct comfortable “realities” or “beliefs” in our minds is where the most basic stuff is though. Religious or not, almost all humans are subject to that. “Belief” isn’t just about spiritual matters, it can be about one’s profession, about one’s love and family, about many things. Understanding the denial instinct is as important. Denial and belief are two sides of the same coin and both were placed by evolution in our minds as survival tools. They’ve both run amok, obviously.
      Religious faith isn’t going to go away and the more we understand it the better.

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