Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Atheist

I almost expect adamantium claws to come out.  
One of our (four?) readers thought it would be interesting to have posts about how we “became” atheists.  Not sure about the others desire to do this, but I’ll bite.  This is the short version.

I was raised in a Christian (Lutheran) household and went to church every single Sunday for the first…I don’t know…11 years of my life.  After that it was every other week due to custody/visitation alternating weekends between my parents.  Both of my parents were Christians, but my mom was the church-goer.  She was always very involved in most of the activities and whatnot.  I know she believes, but I think being so involved in it was just as much of an escape from the house and some interaction with other people.  My dad was more of the believer that didn’t attend church and didn’t understand fuck-all about what he believed.  Later on when I was adult and we discussed belief vs. non-belief  he would “argue” with me using really tired and flawed logic.  Basically the same religious talking points you hear from any believer who desperately wants you to be Saved, or as I see it: validating their belief system.  I let it go.  He was my old man and he just couldn’t grasp anything I was saying.  He passed away almost three years ago. More on that later. 

My parents separated when I was seven years old and divorced when I was eight. My mother got remarried a year later to the new minister at our church.  This is where most people's heads explode since I should the perfect little Christian boy or go “Oh, so that’s why you are against religion,” but no, that is not why I am “against religion.” My step-father is a good man.  We have always gotten along for the most part.  And by “for the most part” I can honestly say when we didn’t get along I was more than likely being an asshole teenager.  I can't complain and say that I was raised in some crazy Jesus Freak household that suffocated me and pushed me away from religion (it was not like this at all). It was all pretty easy going and loving.

I can't really pinpoint the exact moment I became an atheist. I don't think happens that way.  Its a process.  When I was a kid I think I believed. I think. Who the hell knows because you really are programmed to believe growing up. Would you have
any inclination to believe the stories about Noah, Moses, Jesus and God if your parents didn’t tell you all about it?  Would you be able to make any sense out of the Bible without adult authority figures telling you that its all true?  No.  No you would not.  I sang the songs and knew all of the stories.  I "understood" most of it. I also asked questions that annoyed the Sunday school teacher, but it didn't annoy my parents.  They were cool with science so it’s not like I was taught a bunch of crap or denied a real education like so many other kids.  

I started to hate going to church between 10 and 12 years old. I mean really hate it.  I would piss and moan about going. Every Sunday morning was a battle. I was never confirmed. I went to one confirmation class and never went back. I think I remember being a sarcastic asshole during that one class. It couldn’t have been easy for my step-father and my mom. "The 'preacher’s kid' wouldn't attend confirmation and has a bad attitude." They never really said anything to their credit.  My rejection of it was a combination of not believing a word of it when looking at things objectively and having a healthy bad attitude about “church people.” I was, after all, there ALL the time with these people. So many of them are like Ned Flanders and those people make me uncomfortable.

I remember when I was about 13 years old my mom told me “when you're 16 you can make your own decision about whether to attend, but for the time being you are going.”  I’m sure she regretted that because I replayed that sentence in my head every Sunday morning for three years. When the time came she even tried to pretend like she hadn't said it, but I knew she said it.  Oh, I knew.  I was 16 years old and I stopped going except for holidays and that was mainly to see family and because I felt guilty (…and we weren’t even Catholic.  ZING!).  Since my mom and step-father were “the face” of the church I always felt a twinge of guilt because I knew how judgmental many in the congregation were.  I am pretty sure I was an atheist at this point but I went back and forth between calling myself an atheist or agnostic for the next 10 years.

During this time I studied history, biology and other cultures as an anthropology student and eventual archaeologist.  At various times I would try out or test certain religions usually by reading their texts and reflecting on the meanings.  Dipping my toes in various spiritualities, if you will.  Obviously nothing took.  I found good in all of them, but as Dr. Richard Dawkins is fond of saying “you have to cherry pick for the good stuff.”  That just didn’t sit well with me and the more I learned the more I just did not see the need for a prime mover or deity in the universe.  The only time I ever  had any semblance of a spiritual experience was some experimenting with hallucinogens.  The problem with this method to achieve a “higher spiritual plane” was: a) I was always acutely aware that it was due to chemical reactions in my brain and b) it wears off. 

I called myself an agnostic for a long time simply because I held a disdain for anyone claiming certainty of anything.  The certainty that believers had and felt as well as the same level of certainty in a denial (atheism) would be just as arrogant.  Now I strongly feel that the burden of proof is on the believer so my certainty is justified (hooray for me).  The anthropologist in me will sometimes try to override my personal feelings, but one thing I have a real problem with logically and rationally is cultural and religious relativism because some things are just not acceptable.  Once you open that door you realize many things are just not acceptable.  In any event I was an "agnostic atheist" anyway.  I just ended up dropping the agnostic bit. 

A lot of the time I think it might even be more accurate to say I'm an anti-theist. Not that I am against God; that would be just ridiculous. However, I am against belief in and the worship of god(s).  I find it limiting and detrimental to personal growth and knowledge. That’s an understatement actually.  In all honesty I find that it has no real value in the world and is not a force for good as they all claim.  Religions create backwards ideas about how people should view the universe and their adherents work tirelessly to ensure that anything that challenges or could challenge that worldview is derided, destroyed or made “evil.”  I find faith to be abhorrent and its own brand of madness.  Additionally, I find secular non-believers to be morally honest.  Not perfect, but honest.  Believers have skeletons in their closets while being quicker to judge other's actions. They are dishonest to the world, themselves, and their imaginary deity.   

When my father passed away a few years ago it was obviously painful.  We didn’t always get along and there was a lot of tension for a lot of past and (at the time) present transgressions.  However, we were still close.  One of the main things that struck me in the days, weeks. and months after his death was the differences in people’s reactions based on their faith and what level of faith they had (as perceived by me).  To most of the family and friends (all believers of various levels to my knowledge) it was a devastating event that shattered them for a long period of time.  Many people just couldn’t cope with the loss and how to proceed with their lives.  I was rocked, sure, but I feel like I had a better handle on it.  It was almost as if I could step outside of it and deal with it rationally. My father drank everyday, smoked two packs of cigarettes per day and ate things that barely classified as nutritional intake.  He had a heart attack in his sleep. That was it.  Not really all that shocking. 

I always find it odd, and I am not the first non-believer to comment on this; that believers in god(s) and the paradise afterlife are petrified of it.  There is the usual talk of “a better place,” but only extremists who are willing to kill others and themselves seem like the type to be in a hurry to get there.  It is the same with people that are grieving.  The believers have a harder time letting go.  If there really is a better place where your loved one is and you will see them again why be so devastated?  Personally, I think it’s because most adults with a modicum of sense have sub-conscious doubts about all that.  They kind of don’t really believe it, but they aren't even aware that they don’t believe it.  I would love to read a psych study on that. 

I bring this up simply to point out that it was about this time I was “fully” an atheist.  It wasn't some traumatic event that turned me away from God (I had gradually chewed my way off that leash for 15 years). My faith was long gone with the toys and stories from my childhood.  I see no need for belief.  I get along just fine with out it.  Better actually. I don't see the world through the cloudy lens of theism that distorts the world.  I won’t see my father again.  Ever.  And someday that will happen to me.  I’m OK with that.  Actually, to tell you the truth I find it more comforting.  Everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live has to deal with the same exact problems of life and death.  There is no changing that fact so why lament the condition.  I live for my wife, soon-to-be-born child, family, friends and the greater good of the human race if I can help it.  I try to be the best, moral person I can and I don’t need the “Celestial Dictator” looking over my shoulder to make sure I do it.  I would anyway. And so would most people.  

2 comments:

Achiever said...

Steve,

First off, thank you for sharing. It is very interesting to see a completely different path to becoming an atheist.

“I find it limiting and detrimental to personal growth and knowledge.”

That quote about sums it up for me. I can’t imagine actually being able to truly understand the world that surrounds us if you attribute its existence to a god or gods. I was raised in a completely non religious household. We never once went to any church unless it was for a wedding or a funeral. To this day I have never sat through a church service not linked to death or marriage. My father was raised Catholic and my mother came from a Christian home, but at best they were the church for holiday type. My parents were even married in a Catholic service, although I suspect it was to keep the parents and grandparents happy, and not necessarily because of their beliefs. After that there must have been a complete disconnect, because I know for a fact that my father would self-describe himself as an atheist, and my mother … perhaps. Maybe I should actually ask at some point?

Anyways, with that type of upbringing, religion was just never part of my life. It was never an answer, and it was never the reason for doing something or not doing something. Simply, it just didn’t matter. I looked to science for answers, and am comfortable with the fact that we are here for no reason, it just happened. How could I grow up to be anything but an atheist?

Has it ever created problems for me? Yes and no. I know my mother-in-law would have liked to see a wedding with a dash of Christianity. My father-in-law and step mother-in-law … I don’t actually know if they are aware that my husband and I are atheists. He was raised as a Christian and even believed for a while, so perhaps they just assume there is some faith left? I certainly would not shy away from correcting that assumption if ever given the opportunity. Mainly because it would make my father-in-law think less of us, and even though that is not acceptable in general society in my book, I do take pleasure in pissing him off.

As you said, Steve, I live for what is in this life. My husband, my parents, my pets (yes I am a sad crazy cat lady), and my friends. If I ever have a child I very much plan on raising him or her in a secular home. I will not shy away from saying “no, unlike some of your friends, I do not believe in God.” But of course I would add “and this is why.”

Steve said...

Thanks for the kind words.

It definitely causes problems for me. I have no idea exactly what reaction I would get from the in-laws if they "found out," but I know it would be negative. Especially the extended family. I don't exactly hide it, but for diplomatic purposes I don't broadcast it. I do think its ironic my family, while not exactly thrilled, are more accepting. Then again, we're blood. They are less likely to disown me.