Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Atheism Redux

I wrote a post about my self-identification with an atheist/agnostic worldview, but I realize now that I didn't really get into any specifics about why I identify with that particular philosophy. What I'll attempt to do now is to fill in at least a few of the blanks.

The Early Years

My extended family, on both sides, is quite religious. When young, living with both of my parents in California, I didn't attend church very often. Pretty much only when we were with the grandparents in Pennsylvania, as I remember. I was baptized at 12 days old into the Lutheran Church, and I went to a Lutheran school for my first year of first grade (held back because I was too young, they said). When I was 8 my parents divorced, and my mother and I moved to Connecticut. We didn't start attending church regularly until mid-1994, though, shortly before my mother got remarried.

When I was in 8th grade, I didn't have many friends. I got to know one kid a couple of years younger than me from the bus, and I stayed over at his house one Saturday night. His mother was a churchgoer, so on Sunday morning I saddled up and went to the Methodist church with them. I noticed, among the congregation, the girl on whom I had the biggest crush of my young life. Upon returning home, I began pleading with my family to start attending that church, if only so I could have more cause to be near the object of my affection. It didn't occur to me then, but it's struck me as odd on several occasions since, that we didn't start attending that church because of the strength of Methodist doctrine. Rather, we started attending that church (where my stepbrothers were baptized, my mother became financial secretary, and my stepfather became president of the trustees) because of the awakening of my adolescent hormones.

I attended that church through the entire course of high school. I was confirmed there, I attended church retreats, I sang faithfully (pun intended) in the choir, I even wrote a half of a sermon for Children's Sunday one year. It was the whole shebang, as they say.

And then, I went to college.

But college wasn't a big turning point for me, at least in terms of my views on religion. All that happened when I went to college was that I stopped going to church. Sure, I went when I was home, but I never went to church once while under my own recognizance at college, and I never once missed it. This wasn't because of some deep-seated resentment toward religion or anything. It was more because of a not-quite-realized complete ambivalence toward religion. I didn't realize it in those terms at that point, but everything that I could do at college on a Sunday morning was more alluring than going to church. Sleeping until 2 pm, eating a bowl full of crushed Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (Freshman 15? Try the freshman 30!), playing video games, watching TV, anything. Church didn't even occur to me when there were suddenly an infinity of other options.


After I graduated from college, I taught high school for a year, and then I went back to graduate school for mathematics. While at graduate school, I decided, with the 2004 Democratic Presidential Primaries coming up, that I should make an active effort to be politically engaged. Up until that point, I didn't even know where I really stood on almost any issues. So I dove into research on issues of the day, quickly discovering that I identified quite powerfully with the liberal/Democratic Party side of most issues. At the same time, I began examining my religious beliefs. Religion and politics sort of went hand-in-hand for me at the time, as they were both things that I'd never really bothered researching in depth before.

By early 2004, I was still calling myself a Christian. I still had a presumption of belief in Jesus, and in at least some of the Bible. I'd go into internet forums and get in pointless fights with atheists who I thought were being too harsh in their rhetoric. They could believe what they wanted to believe, I'd assert, but did they have to be such dicks about it? But as often as the maxim that internet debate never changes any minds is true, I found my position subtly but inexorably shifting. I was never a biblical literalist or anything, but I was trying to come, at least at first, from a presumption of the existence of the God. Of the Christian God. A lot of the questions posed by those ornery atheists, though, were like brick walls to that presumption. I couldn't get around them.


The first concept to go was faith. In watching conversations between atheists and the faithful, I began to see that common thread appearing. When asked why they believed in the face of evidence that pointed otherwise, believers inevitably cited faith. But what is faith? The more I thought about it, the more it started to seem like nonsense to me. There soon seemed to be no difference between "faith" and "wishing really, really hard that it were so." My perspective, I realized, was starting to become explicitly based in science and logic. If an extraordinary claim is made with no evidence, it's not unreasonable to ignore that claim as unlikely until some evidence is presented. Leprechauns? Mermaids? Fairies? The existence of these mythical creatures is an extraordinary claim, yet nobody is ostracized for choosing, as a default, to believe that they're nothing more than stories. So it began to seem to me with religion, and claims of the knowledge of God.

Other questions started popping up, and I didn't see any satisfactory answers. These, in large part, were the standard questions posed by atheists to believers. Why does God get credit for prayers answered, but doesn't get blamed for prayers unanswered? I had a cousin in Iraq, and when he came home safe, the family was abuzz with talk that God had heeded his family's prayers and brought him home safe. But I'd be willing to bet dollars to donuts that every single soldier in his unit who died in the desert had people praying for him back home. God didn't answer those prayers. Were those people not praying hard enough? Could God only save a certain number of people? All of a sudden, "God has a plan that we can't understand" seemed like more and more of a cop-out. I wanted to scream at people, and ask them why this twisted version of logic only applied to religion, but to nothing else in their lives.

After some time, I began to self-apply the label of atheist. It just felt more comfortable. And I realized that I had come to it fairly easily because in the back of my mind, I'd probably been somewhere near there all along. But all it took to push me over that edge was a conscious and rational look at the various claims out there.

I became (and remain) convinced that of the vast percentage of those who claim to be religious people in our country, and those who claim to believe that the Bible is a literal historical account, there is a sizable percentage that is at the place where I was before I sat down and took a good, hard look at my own beliefs. I think that there a lot of people in the United States who look at their religion as they look at their race or nationality. They view it as something that they were born with. They were told that the Bible is true, and even though they don't go to church or think about religion any more than twice a year, they feel fine filling in the bubbles on polls that coincide with a full-blown belief in that religion.

This is supposition, of course. But it feels right. If I'm wrong, I'll freely admit it. But I really, really think that there are a lot of people who are but a lengthy bout of self-reflection away from atheism.