I suppose my writing this may be akin to a homosexual person coming out of the closet to a room full of people who had known they were gay the whole time. Maybe I, like that person, am the last to acknowledge an important truth about myself.
I am an atheist.
I’ve been hedging on that issue for years now. Once, I was a devout Christian who took God more seriously than anyone I knew. I was that Christian who was always pestering his Christian friends to stay true to the teachings of the bible, and to remember to constantly have Christ on their mind. Yes, I was that pain in the ass. I never understood why my fellow Christians didn’t seem that interested in talking about, reading, and living the bible. God wrote a book for us! You’re not impressed by that?
The word of God was profoundly important to me, and I wrestled with it. I wrestled with things in it that I found deeply immoral. I knew that I had to be wrong about the things that I found to be immoral (because God can’t be wrong), so I went to work creating elaborate explanations for all of God’s many sins. I, like many intelligent Christians today do, tied myself in knots concocting word games and throwing up obfuscatory clouds of dust in the faces of my many challengers.
Eventually, I came to realize that I was putting way too much effort into defending the divinity of the bible, and I slid into a popular kind of cafeteria Christianity (actually, is there any other kind?) where I began to claim that only the New Testament was reliable. Eventually that claim slid to ‘only the words of Jesus are reliable’, and then, inevitably, I yielded to reason and evidence. The bible was written by men. Some of the things written in the bible are deeply immoral, and Christ was most probably not God in the flesh.
To one extent, I felt freed by my admission that Christianity was not a divine religion. I drifted into a kind of deism, where God was beyond knowledge, and even to talk about God was to reduce him somehow. I was a big one for writing ‘God’ as ‘G-d’ for awhile. I felt freed because I knew that there was no boogie man up in the sky making a mark in his notebook with a big coal pencil every time I masturbated. On the other hand, I was prevented from ennobling myself with the thought that I was somehow connected to the divine truth, and that I was part of a bigger plan. I couldn’t vouch for the mind of the God that I had come to believe in, or his intentions. I had to come up with a new way of understanding and behaving. At one point, if I knew someone had a bad opinion of me, I would say to myself ‘God knows the truth’, and let it go at that. I had to rethink my sense of self. I would look for signs in my environment, and would act on whims that I had decided were sent from above. It could be exciting from time to time, but not necessarily the most practical way to make decisions.
At the end of high school, I found a new way of looking at Jesus Christ through the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. I still value his interpretation of Jesus above all others. I always knew that it didn’t make sense to judge Jesus by the actions of his followers, or the silliness of the religion that was erected in his name. Vonnegut gave Jesus a voice that resonated with me, that I was able to keep after I had thrown away nearly everything else that had ever been written about him.
I took Vonnegut’s Jesus with me as I began taking my family to a local Episcopal church. I saw a lot of that Jesus in the sermons the reverend gave, and I liked it. I had begun to ease back into a compassionate Christianity that urged social action and love over ‘thou shalt nots’ and concern over what you believed about the divinity of Christ or the bible.
I thought I had found a spiritual place to settle. That is, until one night, when I was laying in bed with my then 5 year old son. I was getting ready to kiss him goodnight and go to my own bed when he said, ‘Daddy, I found a way to trick the devil so he can’t get me.’ And all of the bad stuff came rushing back to me. However benign the kind of religion I was practicing seemed, it was all based on unreason: Commandments handed down through revelation and by authority. However nice and progressive the religion I was practicing may have been, there were no tools in place to lead a person to follow its dictates. However benign it all seemed, it was inherently irrational, and grew out of the same soil as its scarier iterations. Religion—any religion—is a house built on sand. I wasn’t going to subject my kids to that. I wasn’t going to ask them to believe things that I myself didn’t know. I certainly didn’t want them to live in fear of demons, or make their way in this world with a dowsing rod; especially not while the tools of skepticism and reason were available.
That was the beginning. I had read all of the books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens before this point, because I have always run towards, rather than away from, things that frighten me. I read them antagonistically, but many of their arguments had gotten through. I began to think critically about the whole business, and I realized that it took a much cleverer person to defend religion than it did the non-theistic position. You have to be much cleverer to defend religion, because it is bunk. All a non-theist has to do is to ask for evidence, and be on the lookout for sophistry (which will be everywhere when you are debating a religious person). Eventually, my vague deism or ‘ethical monotheism’ slipped into atheism, although I haven’t called it that until now. I am an atheist, and the reason I am one is because, as I stated at the beginning of this piece, I have taken God as seriously as God deserves to be taken.
I am a college educated person, and that was not enough to ward of the demons of religion. A person who is committed to believing something can believe it no matter how intelligent they are. It took personal exploration, and intellectual integrity for me to challenge my faith, and eventually I shed it. For a few years now, I’ve been teaching my kids about the arts, religions, science, and history, and have been trying to instill in them the necessity of reason and skepticism. It seems to be working, and we are close. Now that I have abandoned religion, I am able to teach my kids how to think, not what to think, and am not personally offended when they come to a different conclusion that I have.
So, all of this is the case, and I’ve written about it a lot. But still, I haven’t used the ‘a’ word on myself. Alcoholics will know what I am talking about when I talk about the power a word or label can have. Since I have been on facebook, my ‘religious views’ section has always said cute things like ‘I enjoy wild speculation as much as the next guy’, or ‘apples were made for eating’. When asked, I would say, ‘I would never say there wasn’t a God’ as a kind of hedge. But how lame! Even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t say ‘there is no God’.
We are all agnostics, Christians and Atheists alike. When I was a Christian, I would tell you that yes, there is a God, and this is what God thinks, and this is what God wants us to do, and this is the book that he commissioned.
As an atheist I will tell you that I do not know that there is a God. That being the case, I won’t be telling you what God thinks or wants us to do. I will tell you that the probability that God commissioned a book—especially the bible, Koran, or Torah—is highly improbable, although I am always open to new evidence.
I feel much better, and much humbler, having adopted this position.
cross posted at The Daily Kos