“I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it, I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something that in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men whom I read of in Herodotus should have done so. History had made a variety of opinions among mankind a fact familiar to me, and this was but a prolongation of the fact. This point in my early education had however incidentally one bad consequence deserving notice. In giving me an opinion contrary to that of the world, my father thought it necessary to give it as one which could not prudently be avowed to the world. This lesson of keeping my thoughts to myself, at that early age, was attended with some moral disadvantages; though my limited intercourse with strangers, especially such as were likely to speak to me on religion, prevented me from being placed in the alternative of avowal or hypocrisy. I remember two occasions in my boyhood, on which I felt myself in this alternative, and in both cases I avowed my disbelief and defended it.”
-John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
“Atheism in its negations of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”
-Emma Goldman, The Philosophy of Atheism
As part of this blog experiment, I want to do a few posts about why I am who I am and disclose some of my intimate beliefs. This particular post is about why I am an atheist. Religion is a sensitive topic to cover, and in the text that follows, I do not intentionally mean to offend or write inflammatory statements without a purpose. The experiences below are mine, and should not be taken as personal attacks on the reader’s beliefs, religious or otherwise, but rather as an exploration of my own journey with spirituality, the God hypothesis, and my aversion to religion. As I prefaced in an earlier post, we are breaching a taboo subject, and so I will likely have some opinions on the subject that are divisive.
Spiritual Freedom and Prayer
This level of spiritual freedom is, in my opinion, among one of the most valuable gifts bestowed to me by my parents. I appreciate that they were able to let me make my own decisions about what I believe, make my own mistakes, and let me learn from those mistakes. I can only hope I will be able to allow my own children the same kind of freedom of choice, should I have any.
Even with this freedom, for a long time I had a vague belief in some kind of higher power. He (I certainly imagined God as a He) was not the Christian God, but rather a flawed observer of the universe akin to the pantheon of Greek gods. He was powerless to do anything, but could listen. Why did I believe there was someone listening to me? I do not have a rational answer to that question, other than I likely picked it up from the general culture. Up through elementary school and into middle school, I would occasionally pray, usually to confide my own depressed thoughts in someone, anyone, or anything. From about 3rd to 7th grade, I was not typically a joyful, happy child, and so I sought solace through confiding in non-parental figures. I eventually discovered that I could achieve the same effect by journaling, and gave up any kind of prayer.
These non-denominational prayers continued for some time, though despite their therapeutic benefit, never felt honest. These prayers were never delivered to the ground with folded hands or by the bedside. Instead, I addressed my thoughts and hopes directly to the stars, usually while laying down or biking or walking late at night. I’ve always been awe-inspired by a beautiful night sky, and the stars were the only suitable conduits through which my imagined version of God could be transmitted. I talked directly to the stars, as if they could hear me, up through high school. Even now, if I am alone during a late night with a clear and beautiful sky, I will soliloquize to the stars. I stopped believing there was anything that could hear me by around 11th grade, though. During the early years of my life, I needed to verbalize my internal states in order to escape the feeling of being an isolated, lonely kid.
When I attended a church camp in the summer after 7th grade, though, I began to question my own conception of God and to what extent any such entity actually existed. I often romanticize—and possibly over exaggerate—this moment as the one which put me on the path away from possibly becoming religious.
Lies from the Devil himself
As was usual at the camp, after an hour of Bible free-read, we went into a room above the horse barn for discussion. I found most of the discussions we had banal and uninteresting, but one moment colored me red with fury. During the discussion, the camp youth leader confronted me directly and asked “Do you think you can overcome the Devil and be righteous without accepting Jesus into your heart?”
I had never been asked anything so direct in my entire life; even my worst fears of being picked to answer a question in math class never evoked the nervousness that I felt at that moment. Under timely pressure, I answered as honestly as I could, “Yes, I think I can.” For a few seconds, the youth leader stared at me, making me very uncomfortable, then turned and gestured his pen toward the other members of our circle with exaggerated gravitas.
“That is a lie from the devil himself,’ he responded. He went on to condemn the vices of the devil and extoll the virtues of Jesus, but my thoughts immediately turned inward as I stopped listening. I realized at that moment that I believed, as I always had, that anyone could be a good person and live a good life without believing in Jesus or God. This moment of honest reflection and lucidity led me to feel outraged at the condemnation the preacher threw at my opinion.
How would a God or Devil influence my life? The assumption that my actions or beliefs were heretical, or that a devil could trick me was outlandish and farcical. I have never been one to argue, especially not in my younger years, but at that moment, I imagined standing up and telling him he was completely wrong. I wanted to explain that not being Christian doesn’t determine what you can do in life. Yet I was salient of the fact that I was a dissenter and a minority in a group of people who held very strong spiritual beliefs counter to my own (as unformulated as mine were). It may seem cowardly, but picking a fight in this environment would be like starting a bar fight with Hell’s Angels and expecting to win.
This single interaction seemed to spoil the day for me, and regrettably led to me being very sour for several hours after this discussion. Those who know me well know that I do not get angry easily or often, and in fact, I could count on one hand the people who have seen me really angry. My friend Kai, the other camper on this trip, is one of those people. As I tried to clear my head and release all of the tension I felt, I am ashamed to admit I snapped at him, and felt only irritation and contempt toward all the other campers. Once the fire was dampened, I was able to enjoy and salvage the rest of the trip.
This encounter would stick with me for years and lead me to immediately judge and mistrust anyone who strongly identified as Christian. Luckily, this disagreeable disposition left me. However, I’ve always found this idea repulsive and despicable. The knowledge that there are innocent kids who are told weekly that they are sinners and will burn in hell if they don’t follow the arbitrary biblical rules (or parental rules) is abhorrent. It seems even more paradoxical that these eternal threats are made not by strangers, but by those who love the child most, including parents. In one way, this idea makes sense. The parents believe that hell exists, and they don’t want their children to experience hell. After all, who would want their loved one to be in such a place? It doesn’t change the fact that parents unnecessarily instill terror and fear in children as a result in the belief of an imaginary place.
Becoming Agnostic in a Christian Environment
During this time, I felt most impelled to identify as a Christian if asked, though, and did not shake this shell until late in high school. My beliefs were not drastically different from what they are now, but it seemed that being Christian was the default choice, and hence provided the most acceptable, most tenable, position in my social interactions. This was amplified by deeply religious convictions of my extended family and close friends. Only through self-introduction to philosophy and literary classics did I come to eventually feel comfortable expressing newly found ideas about religion, God, and the acceptability of not being a Christian.
I included the quote from Emma Goldman because I firmly believe that the Judeo-Christian idea of God underwrites the value and accomplishments of humanity. The overruling father figure of God undermines the autonomy and greatness that people create through themselves and through their social groups. The classical vision of God in the bible creates a kind of learned helplessness in the individual in which they perceive their position in the universe as powerless and fixed. On that summer day when I was told I needed Jesus, I was also being implicitly told that I was worthless and not strong enough to endure life without God. I was being told that my life struggle was hopeless, and that I should concede defeat and obedience in this life in order to save my soul in the next. I could never accept this helplessness, despite some of my most desperate and hard times. To my religious friends, it may seem that I am unfairly filling the youth pastor’s mouth with unfavorable words, but this is not unique to that pastor.
Lest I get comments telling me to try a different church or find God in a different manner, I should inform the reader that while this was my first bad experience with religion, it was far from my last.
Years after this incident, in high school, I begrudgingly gave religion another chance. Mostly at the urging of my girlfriend at the time, and partly out of my own interest, I began attending church and youth group gatherings, though by no means religiously (pun intended). I listened to the sermons and the preaching and the jokes, and I saw people genuinely inspired, comforted, and loved during these services. I saw normal people, people I’d seen outside of church, break down and cry and worship. I saw people collapse and speak in tongues, surrendering themselves to a moment.
I heard life stories during these services that brought tears to my eyes. These heart-wrenching stories never inspired me to believe in God, but they did show how people can turn their life around with the support and help of a great community. I revered these astounding testaments to the will of humans; the recovered heroin addict, the formerly abusive husband, the repentant high school bully. These stories, when told through the religious individual, are usually interpreted as part of the greatness of God or the forgiveness of Jesus. I’ve always found that these false attributions undermine the achievements of the individual and fail to deliver credit where credit is due. I acknowledge that for these individuals religion, community, and a belief in God are directly connected to their reformed behavior, and in these cases, I think religion does do good. In fact, there are indeed some people who excel only when they zealously become believers. I have met several such people. However, I simply prefer to look at these achievements in terms of the power of the individual when it has a great social, cohesive group to help support them, and not attribute this success to what I consider a non-existent entity. People can do great things, with or without religion. This is the part of religion that I think is beneficial. The part that helps people fix their lives and create lasting happiness from these changes. It would be even better if we could create a world in which we didn’t need religion to fulfill this role, but I must accept that for several followers, this is the very role religion plays.
These wonderful stories failed to generate belief in a God any more than my everyday experience. These success stories were often undermined immediately by the leaders of the church during their sermons. In one breathe, the pastors would speak about the glory, greatness, and forgiveness of God, and in the next, condemn the religion of their neighbors. “I came in this morning, and I found myself thankful that we worship a great God, a holy God, the true God.” These sermons would in a single thought usurp undeserved moral and spiritual superiority over all other religions by claiming that their God is the one and only true God. Only six or seven years into the post-9/11 world, I heard hypocrisy from the pulpit, condemning Islam as a ridiculous religion while simultaneously affirming the complete, undeniable sanity and clarity of their own religion. These sermons did more to decimate the religious position for me than any philosophy or science. I have always simply assumed that all religions are false, and so the dogmatic assertions of religious delivered quite a shock. Logically, though, in order to believe in a religion, you have to necessarily reject the claims of other religions.
Needless to say, it was not long until I refused to go to any church. Slowly, outside of church or religious organizations, I continued questioning the validity and possibility of God. In 11th grade, I had an epiphany, which came from my girlfriend at the time. When reciting the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of the day, my girlfriend did not say the words ‘under God.’ This bothered me for some time. We even got into fights about it at one point. She was an open atheist, which meant that she wanted to omit ‘under God’ during the pledge. Once I knew that, the subject was dropped. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had no reason or investment in her (or myself) saying ‘under God’ during the pledge. The only impetus for my protestation came from my refusal to break from my own ultra-conformity. I thought about the pledge for a long while after those fights, and finally came to realize just how scary and freaky the idea of a pledge is, with or without the phrase ‘under God.’
During this same period, I also picked up a life-changing book, Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. The reason I say it was life-changing is because it introduced me to several important strains of thought in philosophy, which piqued my interest and led me to become a philosophy and psychology major rather than a business finance major in college [insert student debt joke here]. It opened up an entire world of ideas and avenues that I may not have otherwise thought to consider. I enjoyed the book so much that it led to The Matrix and Philosophy and Star Wars and Philosophy accompanying my bookshelves soon thereafter. On this stream of philosophy, I got my first taste of Plato in 12th grade, from my English teacher Mr. Gregory. I started learning how to critically examine dubious claims about the world through an exploration of the Socratic Method. I began to critically examine not just my notion of God or my acceptance of religion, but all of my beliefs and all ideas generally. With this practice and these tools, I became better equipped for the intellectual life ahead in college.
From Agnosticism to Atheism
At the time, I saw the label as atheist in the same negative light in which many Americans still view it today. ‘Atheists are assholes’ could quickly sum up this stereotype, and I am ashamed to say I shared the belief in this cultural stereotype. Contact with open atheists certainly helped me adjust this stereotype, and eventually eliminate it altogether. My mind shifted over a long time to the position of atheism, but I still hold onto some agnostic piece of my former self.
Even though I find the plausibility of God extremely unlikely, I don’t wish to rule it out entirely, because that viewpoint asserts just as many unwarranted metaphysical claims. What I can rule out are the logical impossibilities that can be attributed to God, such as his omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. I have moved from agnostic to atheist to describe myself primarily because my explorations on the subject lead me to be extremely skeptical of the possibility of God in any form. While I cannot rule it out entirely, I can say that the existence (or non-existence) of a god makes absolutely no difference to my life.
The Crowd is Untruth
The crowd, according to Kierkegaard, is not this or that crowd, but something which “renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” Crowds react wildly in ways which the individual would never do. To quote Tommy Lee Jones in the 1997 film Men in Black; “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky animals and you know it.” That is essentially what Kierkegaard is saying in this piece. He goes on to quote I Corinthians 9:24, that “‘only one receives the prize’ and that ‘everyone should cautiously have dealings with “the others,” and essentially only talk with God and with himself.’” The individual who seeks to simply live her life to the best of her ability while in some kind of communion with God are the religious individuals I would like to see. If religion must be pursued, I would promote this kind of religiosity, as long as it is helpful to the individual.
My primary stance against religion only starts at the level of the crowd, but this opposition is not unique to religion. Do not get me wrong, I have tertiary complaints about religion, such as the ethics, metaphysics, and the concept of God, as well as the positions which actually do cause harm to society and people. At the heart of the matter, I am a pragmatist. The individual should seek to live as an individual, and to the extent that people can do this, I applaud them. If this means attending church in order to help foster a successful, happy life, then do it. I am against accepting all church teachings at face value, but I understand that is not possible in most church circles.
On an unrelated note, some of my most securely spiritual friends and acquaintances are those who have left the church and sought to create their own meaning from life and their own interpretation of God and their relationship to Him. Their faith in God, as well as their self-acceptance, are usually strengthened, not weakened, by this independent contemplation of their deep-seated religion. So believe or do not, but do it because it sits well with you, not because it aligns with the beliefs of the crowd or the church.
Epistemic Issues, Dogma, and Spirituality
Whom, among all of the Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Wicccans, etc., are correct? You can choose any religion you wish. Assume we find that the Buddhists hold more truth than all other religions. Which sect of Buddhism is correct? Should we follow the path of Ch’an Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism? Should we follow Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China, and hope to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime? Perhaps we should pray to Avalokiteshvara to ask to be reborn in the Western Paradise, where it will be easier to achieve enlightenment in the life. If we choose the Ch’an path, do we then fall into the gradual or sudden enlightenment camps? If Pure Land Buddhism meets our taste, which of the four sects works best to get you to the Pure Land? You can see how the disagreement and inconsistencies multiply as you get further down in the level of specificity. This applies just as much to the Catholic-Protestant distinction and Sunni-Shia conflict as well. In regards to race, it is well known that there is more genetic variation within each race than between races. We can analogize this to religion. There seems to be more variation of belief within each religion than there is between religions.
In response, spiritualists might grant that all of the religions are wrong in the specifics, but the fact that so many people believe in something divine indicates that there must be something, even if we don’t know. The argument for religion through appeal to numbers is not taken up as frequently, now that non-religion is on the rise. All this can validate is that people feel as if there is something else in the world. I would argue that throughout history, humans have been subject to spiritual experiences, which has put people in a disposition to identify with one religion or other. To this day, even the most secular among us have spiritual epiphanies. This is, in short, a fact of biology and, more specifically, brain chemistry. This is why MDMA, the ‘God’ drug, can induce such profound and memorable experiences. Sam Harris, a vocal critic of religion, has a great video describing what it was like for him to take MDMA, which I highly encourage you watch.
It is much more likely that every account of revelation, enlightenment, divination, and transcendence were likely different manifestations of this fact of brain chemistry. These experiences can and often are the most meaningful experiences one has in life. What happens is that these amazing, emotional moments get tied up to religious and metaphysical claims that are wholly unjustified. It is possible to have these experiences outside of the religious environment, though one will admit, likely harder. I have never been lucky enough to experience a moment like Sam Harris describes, but I will admit that I when walking underneath the stars late at night, alone, in the middle of nowhere (i.e. Platteville), I have felt waves of euphoria and joy and helplessness all at the same time. These certainly define who I am and who I’ve become, but these experiences never became compatible with any religion (though I certainly tried to make the connection).
This assumption sounded fatalistic to me. I firmly oppose this viewpoint, and would condemn it as a kind of ethical apathy. We can never stop all tragedy, harm, or cruelty in the world, but as a naïve optimist, I hope that things can be made better. Saying that bad men will do bad things is an oversimplification, and is analogous to the proverb that boys will be boys. Boys will be boys is a proverb that encourages apathy and inaction in parenting (though I find it odd that no one ever said that girls will be girls, as they are just as likely to get into trouble in my experience).
If it were possible to eliminate certain ideologies and superstitions that are fostered by religion that provide easy justification for horrible acts, then it would be much harder for some groups to cause such harm in the world. If the 969 Movement, a Burmese Buddhist cult with Anti-Muslim prejudices, didn’t have religion to twist to its purposes, I think it would be harder for them to terrorize minorities within the country. It would at the very least not have the undeserved legitimacy that we grant religions. This cult, whose beliefs are based on numerology, found a way to take a teaching whose core is peaceful and turn it violent.
Perhaps I am wrong, and in the absence of any religion, this group would find some other ideology through which to justify their mistreatment of innocent Burmese Muslims. There are certainly other factors involved that lead to plenty of secular persecution throughout the world. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda would not have risen as it did if Joseph Kony wasn’t viewed as some kind of self-declared Christian prophet. The list of religious extremist groups goes on and on, so I won’t labor the point; people act according to what they believe. If someone believes that by ramming a plane into a building, they will bring justice to infidels and achieve a spot in Paradise, they are much more likely to do it. If someone believes they can bring justice to abortion clinics by blowing them up in a suicide explosion, they are much more likely to do it. Delegitimizing these beliefs, or removing them from the sphere of religions entirely would certainly help reduce the amount of bloodshed in the world. This is why so many cry out for reformation within Islam specifically; people want to dispel these harmful ideas about jihad in an effort to reduce extremism, make Islam more peaceful, and make the Middle East a safer place.
We don’t have to get rid of the wonderful spiritual feelings and love and gratitude that comes through an identification of spiritual feelings, but it is important to recognize that the spiritual state doesn’t justify dogmatic theology.
Beyond Philosophy: Political Viewpoints on Religion
In practice, I primarily take issue with religion once it enters the public sphere, and members of the religion attempt to force it on non-religious people or entities, such as myself, doctors, science classrooms, or the law. To make an analogy to a quote made most famous by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.’ In a libertarian sense, the right to your religion ends where government, science, public policy, and individual liberty begin. If you can live and preach in your religion without disturbing the lives of others or causing undue stress or harm, then by all means, pursue your religion to your heart’s content. With this acceptance comes the open criticism from opponents, though. All ideas should be open for argument, religious or not. Until the late 20th century, there seemed to be a social taboo against criticizing Christianity in America. The discussion should remain open between religion and science so that the best comes from both sides.
Religion within politics and the government is where I encounter the most frustration on a daily, personal level. We live in a society in which politicians espouse principles which take advantage of, but are inconsistent with, the first amendment right of freedom of religion. The presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee comes to mind immediately. These kinds of campaign promises often coalesce upon the central focal point to make America a Christian nation, but you can take several nations and look at promises to make Country X better by making it better for followers of Religion Y.
By the judicial power of a single amendment, the expression of this view is allowed, but its legal implementation is not. Many of these politicians only stop short of explicitly stating they would like a theocracy, which unfortunately appeals to the religious mentality and bias among large swaths of American voters. This is not to say that the political process shouldn’t be open to hear the religious voice as much as any other interest group, as they deserve, individually, an equal say in how they would like the government to be run. This input from religious institutions should not undermine the fact that the ideal government and society should be run as a secular institution, outside of the direct influence/control of dogmatic ideology, religious or otherwise. Biblical law should have no higher esteem in our judicial or legislative system than Sharia law, but should be open to receive or reject the input put forth from all ideologies.
Lastly, some might ask why I felt the need to write a post on such a controversial topic. My answer is selfish and simple. Religion and spirituality have been on my mind recently, and so I felt compelled to write at length on my own convictions and history. Some of the moments in this post have been critical to my own development and growth, and writing these experiences and sharing them have a cathartic effect.
I hope that people who are unable to wear their atheism on their sleeve find some relief through this post.