The Evolution of an Atheist

With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, I’m thinking of doing a full week-long series of posts about Atheism, culminating with my annual snarky tongue-in-cheek humourous atheism-themed post on Christmas Day! 😉

It’s pretty obvious if you read this blog (or just look at some of the categories and keywords I use) that I’m an atheist. But I don’t think I’ve ever, in my nearly five years of daily blog posts, explained how I came to hold this position.

Like the vast majority of people in Canada, religion was something that was just there as an accepted part of my life growing up in the 1970’s.

My parents belonged to the United Church but weren’t active. I have a few memories of going to services occasionally when I was young and mostly looking forward to the Sunday School cause we got to colour pictures of Jesus and stuff like that. (We didn’t go very much – my parents aren’t particularly religious and I think mostly went because there was probably some peer pressure to do so in a small town when you have a young family. I’ve never really discussed this with them so that’s speculation on my part.)

At the time, the stories we heard and activities we did in Sunday School seemed a bit like the comic books I enjoyed reading – pretty cool but definitely not real. Even at that young age, I don’t think you have to consider very deeply to start having some questions.

I remember thinking things like “Well, if Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth and they had two boys – how did society go on from there?” But I was 5-6 years old – my parents, my relatives, many people I knew from around town including teachers and so on seemed to not worry about it so why should I? And why risk God knows what punishment (literally!) by raising this type of question?

The next big leap happened probably when I was maybe around 10 years old. My best friend, Shaun, was a bit more open in his questioning of authority (okay, a lot more!) and being required by his parents to go to Catholic Church for catechism every Thursday after school only made him worse.

Personally, I loved catechism because the Catholic Church was a block from my house which meant I got to walk home with a bunch of my friends once a week – often discussing many of these questions we had about the Bible and what we were hearing in our respective churches or from our families or whatever.

Shaun took it a step further. He used to throw those same types of questions at the poor volunteer church  members leading the catechism who would try to answer him, get caught up in mis-statements, kick him out of the class, forgive him and let him back in on a regular basis. (He’s a pretty unique guy – a mutual friend (who happens to be a very well-read and thoughtful member of the Anglican church and I only mention that because I’ve had numerous “God v. No God” talks with her as well) got to know Shaun when we were in our 20’s and once said “Knowing Shaun must be like knowing some super-smart renaissance figure like Da Vinci or something.”

A bit of hyperbole but perhaps as much as anyone I’ve ever known, Shaun was somebody who just loved to dissect ideas, argue and question – a trait that obviously started very young with him.)

Anyhow, the big turning point in my belief (or lack thereof) came during a conversation with Shaun when were were around 10 or so. We were both big into Greek and Roman mythology, movies like Clash of Titans were popular, and I still remember him saying to me, “The Ancient Greeks worshiped Zeus, right? Well, eventually somebody climbed Mount  Olympus and realised there was nothing there. So the Christians just moved the mountain higher and said it’s in the sky. But the astronauts proved that’s not true either. So they just keep moving it further and further or saying it’s invisible or whatever.”

Feels like pretty heady stuff or a young kid. But hearing that argument, expressed like that, something just clicked for me. (It would be most clearly captured in a quote I have on my Facebook profile to this day: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”)

I wasn’t an insta-atheist and actually, probably didn’t even realise there was a “does not believe” check box at that point in my life. I wasn’t going to church regularly but I do remember the prayer I used to say every night before I went to bed (admittedly in large part because I was scared of the dark as anything – which is sort of a fitting explanation for why religion exists in the first place when you think about it).

I’m not sure what triggered it (hopefully not mom and dad overhearing my nightly prayer) but sometime, probably around grade 8 or 9, my parents decided to start going back to church. I was pretty excited because my colouring skills had greatly improved since I was a kid!

But it turns out Sunday School had basically become a Bible Study group for older kids and after a couple weeks of flipping around a copy of the Bible trying to find the sections they were studying and then being frustrated with what I read when I found it, I told my parents I wasn’t going back.

As I got older, I came to think of myself as an agnostic. I was pretty sure there wasn’t a “God” or “Heaven”, at least in the traditional way that they are usually portrayed – white man with a beard living some place in the clouds with a bunch of angels blowing horns. Although it didn’t consume my life, I continued to read books, study and discuss the topic of religion.

Many science fiction works looked at the nature of God and religion and Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man”  was particularly impactful in explaining (in a fictional tale) how some of the mythologies around Christ may have come about and ultimately, how impossible it is to know the truth of something that happened 2000 years ago – at least without some huge leaps of faith.

I guess the final turning point that changed me from thinking of myself as an agnostic to admitting to myself that I was an atheist and being willing to tell people this without hedging was just a few years ago when I was reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Somewhere in the book, he made the argument that people who are 99% sure of something shouldn’t call themselves agnostics – for all intents and purposes, they’re atheists. He points out that he’s never actually seen gravity and never will. But he’s seen enough evidence that he knows it’s a fact. The same thing applies with all of the evidence that there isn’t a God as creator of the universe. He points out that, yes, you may still have doubts and not know the answers to every single question there is. But science will have given you a solid foundation for understanding what we do know PLUS the added benefit that part of the scientific method is admitting you don’t know something is to be celebrated, not feared. (I may be paraphrasing liberally but that was the gist of his argument.)

So, that’s a very Cliff’s Note version of how I became an atheist. I’m skipping over lots. For example, I freely admit that I’ve never read the Bible from cover-to-cover finding what I did try to read alternately boring and/or inscrutable and/or frightening
and/or frustrating

But like many atheists who tend to have a natural curiosity about many things including not just Christianity but all religions, I’ve studied the Bible and its major stories enough (probably more than most Christians have) to know that much of it sounds like exactly what it is – mythology – just like my good friend Shaun pointed out to me over thirty years ago!

Comments 8

  1. John wrote:

    “my annual snarky atheist cartoon on Christmas!” I’m not a theist or an “ist” of any sort, but the snarkiness of new converts to Dawkins and Hitchens I find irritating.

    “sounds like exactly what it is – mythology” Of course mythology is at the heart of all story-telling, an indispensable part of our lives. Maybe you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell or James Frey.

    “I’ve never read the Bible from cover-to-cover”. I have, a couple times, as a result of my upbringing. Not everyone needs to do that. But I haven’t read either of Dawkins or Hitchens from cover-to-cover yet. I’m resolved to read one or the other sometime in 2011. If I were to pick one, which would you recommend?

    Posted 20 Dec 2010 at 8:21 am
  2. Robert Hagedorn wrote:

    Do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

    Posted 20 Dec 2010 at 4:36 pm
  3. HeadTale wrote:

    John: “snarky” was probably a bad choice of words and I actually thought about going back to change it to “humourous atheist-themed cartoon/photo” or something similar (my original post title was “The ‘Creation’ of an Atheist” and I did change it so as not to be *too* snarky – at least right off the bat! ;-))

    In the past few years, this is what I’ve posted on Christmas Day:

    2009 – a photo from a bookstore of “The God Delusion” displayed as the “Perfect Christmas Gift”

    2008 – Cartoon with a Santa vs. God Comparison Checklist

    2007 – A Photo of Santa captioned with “Kids, Someday You Will Learn About Santa. When You Do, Remember Everything Adults Also Told You About Jesus”

    2006 – a music video of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” since I wasn’t doing the Xmas Atheist thing yet

    Whether those are “snarky” or not isn’t for me to decide – some will see it that way and some won’t but yes, I don’t help my case when I use that word – even in jest – to describe my annual atheist-themed Christmas post.

    And I understand your frustration with the “snarkiness” of the New Atheists. But many times, I think they’re just returning fire in the same way they’re treated. If you’re someone who believes in science/evidence/proof, you can imagine how hard it is to debate someone who gets to play “faith” as a trump card.

    Another part of this is that, by simply expressing their doubts, atheists are seen as “offending” religious people who are often quite well acquainted with martyrdom. (And yes, that was probably true snark!)

    On the storytelling = mythology point, I agree completely. The Bible has some wonderful stories that have much to teach us, just as Aesop and Shakespeare do. But only as long as they’re viewed as fiction and not taken as, well, as gospel.

    As to your final question, I’d definitely start with Dawkins. I find him a very engaging writer (not just on atheism but he makes hard science really understandable to the lay-person as well.) Hitchens is a bit more polemical for me. If you want the atheist stuff, “God Delusion” is great. I’d also recommend “The Selfish Gene” which has influenced a lot of how I view the world as well. (Trivia: it’s also the book that gave us the term “meme”.)

    I know you said you’re not a Theist or an “ist” of any kind but do you mind if I ask how you classify your religious/spiritual views? Atheist? Agnostic? Humanist? Lapsed? Undetermined? Exploring?

    Posted 21 Dec 2010 at 11:49 pm
  4. HeadTale wrote:

    Robert: I didn’t read through your whole site but your basic contention is that the original sin was anal sex? Still doesn’t explain how they were able to begin the human race but definitely a provocative theory!

    Posted 21 Dec 2010 at 11:55 pm
  5. John wrote:

    “I know you said you’re not a Theist or an “ist” of any kind but do you mind if I ask how you classify your religious/spiritual views? Atheist? Agnostic? Humanist? Lapsed? Undetermined? Exploring?”

    If I had to pick a label today, I would say buddhist, for now, because I’m exploring that fairly deeply at present, with a major qualifier. I reject the theology of buddhism (karma and reincarnation) but so do many buddhists. I reviewed a nice little book, Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Tibetan Buddhism in North America seems to be dropping a lot of the old theology in favour of advancing a secular/humanistic ethics. It works for me for now.

    Posted 22 Dec 2010 at 8:08 am
  6. HeadTale wrote:

    Whenever I do one of those “What religion are you?” quizzes online, I usually get Buddhist as well.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted 24 Dec 2010 at 1:21 am
  7. John wrote:

    I also really like the Quakers because they practice silent worship. They prefer the illumination on an inner light, sort of like the Gnostics. It’s consistent with Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, “thereof which we cannot speak let us be silent”. Or Meister Echhart: “Why does that prate of God; to speak of it is to lie”.

    If you think they are self-absorbed, their major mission is to advance peace and non-violence in the world.

    Posted 22 Dec 2010 at 8:16 am
  8. HeadTale wrote:

    As much as I don’t like religion in general, there are a few religions/sects where parts of their philosophy appeal to me – Buddhists, the United Church I experienced as a child and the Quakers with their belief in non-violence and peace.

    As religion loses its relevance for each subsequent generation, it’ll be interesting to see if the existing organizations transition to something new. (I freely admit this won’t happen in my lifetime though I do think it’s inevitable.)

    Posted 24 Dec 2010 at 1:28 am

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