The following is a cut and paste from this article on atheismandme.com. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will likely recognize some of the content from earlier posts on thinkthatthrough. The reason isn’t simple laziness, but rather just wanting to share some things that I’ve already produced with a wider audience. However, there are some big changes between the posts already on here and this one. If you have the urge to comment, you are very much encouraged to! If you want, please feel free to comment on both websites, preferably the one following the link above if you can only choose one. This was more people will see it.
Now to the post itself:
My name is Steven Zuber and I’m elated to have been brought on as a guest writer here at Atheism and Me. I’ll save more about me for the end.
Most atheists that I’ve met were religious at some point in their lives. They either stopped because it didn’t make sense or an incident caused them to be skeptical and God couldn’t withstand skeptical scrutiny. I’m not sure if I count myself among those that were once religious, but my back story in this part of my life seemed like an appropriate place to start.
I was raised in a religiously moderate household. I don’t know if I ever believed in God in any meaningful way. I accepted His (I usually use sex-neutral language, but the dominant religions is pretty adamant that God has a penis) existence in the same way I accepted the existence of Santa Clause and Mount Fuji. My level of belief in God fell somewhere between the two in my spectrum of confidence to my young, not-quite-bayesian mind. I believed in Him more than Santa, less than Mount Fuji. As an eleven year old, all of these things were unprovable to me and I accepted them more or less on faith. I tested the Santa hypothesis when I was 7, yet the scientific method isn’t quite intuitive to human children.
For the record, I still haven’t been to Mount Fuji. I accept it’s existence on a sort of trust in my senses from what I’ve seen on TV and maps and the testimony of people who have seen it. It could be part of some huge conspiracy to trick me, but it would be impossible to operate in life if I took concerns like that seriously. To a mind that tries to roughly calculate probabilities of it’s beliefs, the possibility of Mount Fuji not existing are tantamount to zero.
In any case, God’s existence was accepted by my child mind in the same way that it accepts basically every piece of information it takes in before I developed reasoning faculties. Humans are programmed this way. We are told that vegetables are good for you and falling from a sufficient height will kill you, and we accept that as children. Skeptical children did not survive long enough to pass on their skeptic genes. If toddlers were programmed to experiment and check to see if that lake was really full of crocodiles or if fire really does burn you, they’d get killed off. This is part of the reason that it took so long for our species to start doing science properly – we aren’t pre-programmed to be good scientists.
Skipping ahead. When I was about 11 or 12, (right around when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened here in the States) I was in some sort of geography or history class and it we were being taught about when the Europeans were first visiting North America (remember, this was the 11-year-old version, so it was the nice version that didn’t include the trading of STDs and slaves) and were “bringing Christianity” to the natives. This confused me, because I was vaguely taught that you had to be a Christian to go to Heaven. I asked my parents if the American Indians went to hell before they learned about Christianity. I don’t remember the answers I got vividly, but I know that I knew that they were less than satisfactory. When I pressed the point, I was told that “that’s where faith comes in.” Maybe by that time I’d already realized how counter intuitive it was that Hitler, as a proper-ish Christian/Catholic, got to go to Heaven while all of the Indians went to hell.
I can’t exactly remember the order in which these thoughts occurred, but the answer was always the same; “That’s where Faith comes in”. Even as a child, this didn’t make sense to me. So what, faith is just believing something that you admit doesn’t make sense? Why does that work on some questions but not others? I was pretty sure that if I put “Faith” as an answer on a test in school, it’d get marked wrong. Why did society hold itself to a lower standard than 6thgrade classrooms?
I have heard from religious and non-religious people alike that, especially on this issue, the belief (or non belief) comes first and then people just reason backwards/rationalize. I find that this is true in one direction and not the other as this was not the case for me, nor that of any atheist I’ve met. Most (perhaps all, as I’ve never met or heard of anyone who honestly began without religion and, after an honest and rigorous investigation of the evidence, concluded that a certain religion is true) religious people are religious first and rational second. At this stage in my life, I wanted to believe in God because I was convinced that it was the only way for me to not succumb to nihilism. I wasn’t looking for existence of Christianity’s God. Evil really does falsify that idea. I should add that I was never “close to Jesus” or anything at any stage in my life. I understood the idea of the sin redemption thing, but it never made sense to me. If God wanted to forgive us (for acting the way he knew we would because he’s omniscient?) why not just do it instead of incarnating himself in human form and then arranging for his own execution and then proceeding to blame the Jews for doing it even though he intended for it to happen? Richard Dawkins has made this point as well in his book The God Delusion and his TV documentary The Root of All Evil.
I was looking for any sort of “higher meaning” because, at the time, I believed that it was the only thing that could provide meaning in the universe. I was briefly swayed by the argument that God is the basis of all morality, but as soon as I heard of the Euthyphro Dilemma that didn’t work anymore. The Fine-Tuning Argument worked for a bit, but then I realized that the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit (I didn’t know it by that name at the time, but I understood the point) refuted that one as well.
I teetered for a while on the edge of nihilism. I couldn’t force myself to try and believe something that I didn’t think was true in order to make myself feel better. But this story has a happy ending. I am not exactly sure if it was a specific moment or a gradual realization, but I came to understand that the universe is meaningful because WE, and any other sentient beings out there, make it meaningful. Consciousness and intelligence are what make the universe interesting and important. A universe that contained only rocks wouldn’t be any better than no universe at all. The universe matters because it contains life and we make it matter.
Bottom line: I really did give religion a heartfelt try for years, but I couldn’t bullshit myself into it. In retrospect, God was really just the first of many irrational ideas that were planted into my young mind that I eventually weeded out. I’m probably still weeding waste out, but God went first because it is the most glaring and obviously absurd thought that it stood out, even to my childish mind. Ghosts and the afterlife soon followed. And now I don’t believe in alien visitation or magic crystals or bigfoot either. Letting go of religion was my first step on the path down scientific discovery and skepticism that I am on now and if I could somehow go back in time and change the path I took, the present me would not benefit from it. It has been months since I’ve been unhappy for more than a few minute stretch and I am occasionally moved to tears by the overwhelming meaning my perspective of the universe gives me (some would try to label this a “religious experience” but I prefer the term spiritual, even though that has a lot of baggage too). I have meaning and love and happiness and (at least some) knowledge. What more could I want?
And for the record, I think I’m right too. If compelling evidence ever does come up, I’ll reevaluate my position. But I’m not holding my breath.
And You’re and Atheist Too
That’s right, even any of you who say you’re religious. Let me explain with a story.
I was having lunch with my grandmother a few months ago. She knew I was looking for a new job and asked what I said to the interviewer when I was asked about my religion. (Needless to say, she hasn’t been interviewed for a job in a long time.) She’s what I would call an abstract religious person. That is to say, she believes in a god of some sort, probably close to the Judeo-Christian one, but not any organized religion. She has since then expanded on this thought and explained to me that she sees god in her garden and its a quiet and personal part of her.
Anyway – for reasons that escape to me since I’ve never been in-your-face with anyone in my family with about views on religion – she inexplicably says to me that she simply can’t understand atheism; agnosticism sure, but not atheism.
I thought for a moment before answering. The first thing I said was, “Grandma, I don’t think you want to have this conversation with me.” I knew that she was as benign of a believer as is possible and I didn’t want to devastate the Nicest Old Lady in the World’s comforting beliefs.
But I couldn’t leave it there, because I at least wanted to explain that she could indeed understand atheism, since she was an atheist too. I explained to her, very politely, the usual rebuttal to this line of thought. “Everyone is an atheist about most gods, some of us just go one god further.” This is another argument from Richard Dawkins and it’s a shorter way of phrasing an argument made by Stephen F. Roberts who said, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
As it turns out, my grandma didn’t know about Thor or Ba’al or Zeus (she was educated in a small town in Nebraska several decades ago. I doubt they covered these dead gods, but even this they did, it’s easy enough to see why she forgot about them.) So if someone hits you with the claim that atheism requires faith or they can’t understand it, try pointing out some of the dead gods that everyone is an atheist about. If that doesn’t work, point out the many parallels that today’s popular god has with Santa Claus; rewards good behavior, omniscient, punishes bad people, super powers, et cetera. The only thing that separates God from Santa is that almost everyone outgrows Santa before puberty. If the religious don’t stay up at night wondering if they should change religions or try to appease Santa, then they implicitly understand what it feels like to be an atheist.
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