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 atheist cartoon on Christmas! 😉
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. My parents belonged
to the United Church but weren’t active. I have a few
memories of going to services 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
7-8 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 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
maybe 7 or 8 years old. We were both big into Greek and Roman
mythology (Clash of
Titans
had just come out) and I still remember him saying
to me, “The Ancient Greeks worshipped 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 instant 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 that I had a 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 symbol for all religion 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 go 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 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’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 read alternately boring and/or inscrutable and/or frightening
and/or frustrating
). But like many
atheists who tend to have a natural curiosity about all things
including not just Christianity but all religions
, I’ve
studied the Bible and its major stories enough 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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