A few years ago, I came to the rather life-changing conclusion that God doesn’t exist. In the past couple of years, my friends and family have noticed me becoming more vocal about my skepticism of theism and my pointed disdain for religion. Many people in my family are fervently religious, and I have more than a few God-fearing friends. After catching wind of my thoughts on God and religion, some of them have asked me to share how I came to this position. I’ve explained it to a few, and promised to talk about it with others over a beer in the future. If only I had access to some sort of internet-connected publishing platform that I could use to lay out my story for everyone all at once! Oh, right.
Before I begin, I have some words of warning. This will be a long read. Very, very long. For a better reading experience, you can download this post in ePub format, MOBI format (for Kindle), or add it to Instapaper by clicking this button: .
I’m going to tell my entire story; from my religious experiences in early childhood, to my rejection of religion and God in my mid-twenties. The backstory is important, as my skepticism isn’t something new, but something that has been a lifelong struggle.
Next, I should warn you that if you are a person of faith, I’ll probably offend you gravely with this tome. Make no mistake: I have no compunctions about doing so. I’m not one to hide the truth behind deferential embroidery. Still, if you are the type who is likely to take offense and refuse to continue reading, it would be most courteous of me to offend you early on, so as to respect your valuable time.
To that end: God is almost certainly a lie, religion is a scourge upon the world, and you are wasting your life with a cultish devotion to nonsensical superstitions and soul-crushing dogmas. Also, you don’t have a soul.
Now that I’ve dispensed with the discourteous courtesies, and we are rid of the chronically hyper-offendable, let us begin.
Religion and Skepticism — The Early Years
My father, a Roman Catholic, married my mother, a Protestant, in 1980. He a surgeon, she a nurse. Two years and change later, I was born. When I was little, Sundays were double-headers. Catholic mass, and then service at the Brethren of Christ (not to be called mass, both Catholic and Protestant adults advised me sternly). The Catholic church was a cathedral — the seat of power for the diocese. A rather ugly affair, it obnoxiously and persistently advertised the decade of its building. Large stained glass windows, consisting solely of polygonal and intentionally crudely crafted chunks of glass, depicted various scenes from the Bible. There were only a few people at the parish who knew what all these scenes were. Some of them were obvious: Jesus being baptized with a dove descending from the heavens. But many of them were so cryptic that no person could reasonably be expected to decipher them without external aid. I could have sworn that one of them memorialized Luke Skywalker shooting a proton torpedo into an unguarded exhaust port on the Death Star. It was an odd church, populated almost entirely by retirees wearing Sansabelt slacks in various shades from the pastel family of colors.
The Brethren of Christ church, contra the gaudy cathedral, occupied a small slot in a sketchy-looking strip mall. It lacked the authority and importance implied by the spectacle of the cathedral. It was run by a regular guy, whose religious credentials seemed to lack the pedigree of Catholic priests. I was skeptical about this church, and asked a lot of questions.
“What does brethren mean?”
“It means brothers.”
“So why don’t they say ‘Brothers of Christ’?”
“It’s just sort of a fancy way of saying it.”
We continued attending both churches for a few years. At some point, we stopped attending Brethren of Christ. My mother went through the RCIA process (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and became a Catholic. I was informed that I was Catholic too. That suited me just fine. The contradictions between the doctrines of the two churches bothered me. Both seemed to think that the other was irrevocably wrong on some outwardly trivial but ultimately critically important matter of Christian dogma. So I was glad that we’d “picked one”. Two churches were, at the very least, one too many.
I was enrolled in CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), the Roman Catholic equivalent of “Sunday school”. I excelled at this. I was being taught all the ins and outs of Catholicism at home, and the CCD classes seemed rudimentary by comparison. When a student asked a question the teacher couldn’t answer, she’d often turn to me, a second grader, and ask if I could help out. Usually, I could. It was all very fascinating to me. It was like a secret society, with complex rules, numerous rites, and a magical dualistic view of the universe. Everything that happened here on earth was actually part of a grand cosmic struggle between good (God) and evil (the devil). I noticed that “God” was just “good” with one less “O” and that “devil” was just “evil” with a “D” tacked on the front. It seemed too convenient to be coincidental. I learned that the Manichean battle between these otherworldly powers was even raging in our brains! Our innermost thoughts were being pulled one way by the forces of good, and another way by the conniving forces of evil. What’s more, this physical existence that seemed so real and interesting and multifaceted was really just a test. It was the crossword puzzle you did in God’s waiting room before you got to go be with him for all eternity. Or, alternatively, if you failed the test, you would be tortured in exquisite agony forever and ever and ever. And ever.
As much as I enjoyed learning about the quirky system of rules and rites, the threat of hell weighed heavily on me. I’d been burned. I knew that fire, even for the briefest of exposures, was an agent of unspeakable pain. As children, we’d dare each other to hold our hand above a candle for longer and longer periods of time, and at closer and closer proximity. Most people couldn’t last more than a few seconds when the flame was an inch or two away. The thought of having my entire body enveloped by flames, not for a moment… not for a minute… not for an hour, a day, a year, a decade, a century, or a millennium… but forever — that was (and to this day still is) the most terrifying prospect I could possibly imagine. If you don’t feel the same, then I doubt that you’ve spent any time really contemplating what it would be like. And this most hideous of punishments would be delivered if even the most saintly person were to, say, curse their father or mother, and then get hit by a car while crossing the street. Oops, sorry. You lose. Your prize is fire. Forever. There were other children in my class who didn’t pay much attention and didn’t do the homework assignments. I couldn’t imagine how someone could afford to be so apathetic when this knowledge could mean for them the difference between eternal bliss and eternal torment.
What Is Wrong with Me?
As versed as I was on the minutia of Catholicism and Christianity, I had a serious problem: I wasn’t feeling it. I believed it — which is to say I held it to be true in my mind — but on no level did I ever feel anything that might indicate it was true. Other people would talk about how they felt the Lord speaking to them. How God gave them signs. How God answered their prayers and how they could feel his presence. I got nothing. I tried to feel it. Oh, how hard I tried. I would set it up so perfectly for God. I’d pray “Look, I don’t need all of this constant communication like other people get. All I need is one sign. Just give me this one sign, and we’re cool.” I’d designate a sign. Not even something that would be a miracle. Just something that would seem non-coincidental. And I’d wait. Nothing would happen. I’d waffle, and settle on some lesser sign. It wouldn’t happen. I’d keep lowering the bar, until I would be saying something like “okay, if I look at my watch and the second hand is pointing at a number divisible by five, that’s the sign.” I suppose I don’t have to tell you that I didn’t find those downgraded “signs” convincing. Eventually I gave up trying. I kept on believing in God. I just gave up hope that it would ever be anything more than a one-way relationship. Which, of course, is no kind of relationship at all. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Was it me? Or were other people just reading signs where there were none? Didn’t everyone know that the voice inside your head is just you? Did they think their conscience was God’s voice, or was I just not worthy of such a divine encounter? To this day, I’ve not had anything that could be described as a “religious experience”.
Miracles were a hurdle for me. I doubted them strongly. To the best of my knowledge and experience, the laws of nature were fixed, and couldn’t just be bent. If they could be, someone would have noticed by now. Someone would have caught God with his hand in the cookie jar. No, there had to be a better explanation. I read an issue of Popular Mechanics, in which they proposed natural explanations for biblical miracles. The burning bush could have been a methane vent, struck by lightning, with parallax accounting for the burning bush illusion. This was a marginally satisfying idea to me. But some of the other miracles in the Bible couldn’t be explained away even a little bit. Raising from the dead someone who has been buried and rotting for multiple days just isn’t possible. I filed these objections away. I wouldn’t seriously bring them out again for consideration until I was much older.
Modern miracles seemed even more unlikely. There was nothing in my day-to-day experience which was unexplainable using natural laws. When I was young, I accompanied my mother to a “faith healing” event. I was shocked by what I saw. People would come up to the healer and describe their various ailments. He’d have them close their eyes, and cross their arms across their chest (both things which makes it harder to keep your balance). Placing his hands on their forehead, he would call upon the Holy Spirit to “come upon” them. Then he’d push them. Not hard. But considering that he was pushing them on their forehead, and their eyes were closed and their arms were folded across their chest, it was enough to push them past their center of balance. They’d fall backwards, and people would catch them, and then lower them to the floor. They were proclaimed to be healed, and the subject didn’t ever give any indication that the proclamation might be false.
I had two thoughts. First, if this is real, why don’t people go to these things all the time when they are sick or injured? Second, if this is fake, how is it possible that people are so gullible as to think that they’ve been healed when they haven’t been? Near the end of the evening, the healer asked if there was anyone in the audience whose vehicle’s air conditioning was broken (in Florida’s heat, this is not far off from a medical emergency). Several people raised their hands. He proclaimed that their air conditioning had been fixed. They thanked him profusely. For whatever reason, the idea of healing someone’s arthritis by prayer was worth consideration, but the idea of someone’s air conditioning unit being repaired by divine intervention was risibly absurd to me. The human body is complex. I didn’t really understand how it worked. But air conditioning was relatively simple. I visualized their air conditioning unit. I imagined coolant being refilled, air filters being cleaned, fuses being replaced. “No”, my brain declared. “That’s just not possible.”
Santa and the Tooth Fairy
I was an early skeptic of Santa Claus, though my inventiveness ironically delayed the outright rejection of that belief. One day, we were told that “Santa” would be coming to visit us in our house. How exciting! He showed up, we did the whole sit-on-his-knee gag. But as he headed out the door to leave, I went into full-on detective mode. I rushed out the back door, unseen, ran around the house, and dove headfirst into the grass. I wanted to see Santa’s magical conveyance. After I’d concluded my surveillance, I came rushing back into the house, nearly out of breath, and blurted out “Mom! Dad! Mom! Dad! … Santa drives a BUICK!”
I soon devised a scheme to explain the fact that Santa looked different year-to-year, and from shopping mall to shopping mall. It wasn’t really him. He had doubles. North Pole agents. Like Saddam Hussein. It was the only possible explanation. I confronted my parents with this theory, and they confirmed it, and confessed that I was very clever to have figured it out. But I had other objections brewing. After several days of thought, I told my mother that I had some serious concerns about the whole Santa arrangement. “You don’t think he can get to all those houses in one night?” she asked, with a bemused twinkle in her voice. “No, not that,” I dismissed her. “He obviously has his local Santa doubles do that. I just don’t understand how it works financially.”
Yes, of all the things, I’d decided that it was Santa’s balance sheet that was least believable. I even had devil’s advocate arguments drawn up. I of course didn’t believe that elves at the North Pole made toys. I had received too many LEGO sets (with their Danish origin impossible to deny) to buy that. So without free elf labor to rely on, how was Santa paying for these LEGO sets? I considered that it might be a promotional gimmick. The LEGO company (and other companies, of course) would give products away for Santa to disperse, as goodwill marketing, so that I’d ask for LEGO sets for my birthday, or buy them with every spare dollar I had (which I did). But I had to discard that idea, because I knew that toy makers, like most retailers, made most of their profit around the Christmas season. They needed that money to make up for losses earlier in the year. It just didn’t add up.
“That’s an interesting theory,” my mom replied, completely missing her opportunity to claim that all parents paid into a global “Santa fund”. It didn’t matter. That Christmas, she got sloppy, and wrote the label for one of her “From: MOM” gifts in her blocky “Santa” handwriting instead of her normal “Mom” cursive. The jig was up.
The Tooth Fairy fell sooner than Santa. I was obsessed with catching her. My brother David lost a tooth and put it under his pillow. There must have been some sort of parental miscommunication, because they forgot to deposit the dollar. When David was crestfallen, they spun up some story about there being a storm that had kept her away. She made it right on the following night. I decided to attack the problem head on: I set a trap for her. It was genius. A sash went under my pillow, such that if you lifted my pillow at all, the sash would be pulled out by a weight, which would ring a bell. I proudly showcased it to my parents, and announced that I was going to catch her red-handed. The next morning, there was a dollar under my pillow, and my trap had been neatly deactivated, without triggering the alarm. Either the Tooth Fairy was extremely observant and cunning, or it was an inside job. On the night of my next tooth loss, I devised an even better test: not telling my parents that I’d lost a tooth. Sure enough, no dollar. I came downstairs, tooth in hand. I confidently walked into my mother’s office and slammed the tooth down on her desk. I stood there, looking at her with an impatient, expecting expression. She looked at the tooth. Then at me. “That’s not how this works,” she said, deadpan. “It is now,” I said, with the smallest hint of a threat in my voice. She fetched a dollar, and slid it over to me. “Don’t worry, Mom. I won’t tell.”
“It’s that big brain of yours getting in the way”
At a very young age I developed an aptitude for reading. When I was seven, I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series. When I was nine, I finished Moby Dick. I was insatiable. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. My parents bought the 1989 World Book encyclopedia set (for some reason my brothers and I got it into our heads that World Book vs Britannica was an epic rivalry, and that we World Book owners were most assuredly the good guys). One day, my father saw me curled up on the couch with a book.
“What are you reading Markie guy?”
“G. From the encyclopedia.”
“Why are you reading that?”
“Because I finished F.”
This is how much of my education went. When my mom told me what sex was, she finished by asking if I had any questions. “No”, I said. I promptly looked it up in the encyclopedia (I never made it to “S” on my cover-to-cover reading). As supplemental information, I sneaked off with a giant volume of Gray’s Anatomy. In the course of an afternoon I went from being mostly ignorant about sex to understanding subtle details about arousal, Kegels, and refractory periods.
My siblings and I were home schooled, primarily for religious reasons. My parents thought that public schools were terrible and corrupting. We’d be much better off at home. You might think that my education would have suffered substantially, but I have to say, religious indoctrination and evolution skepticism notwithstanding, my parents did a good job. We were required by the state of Florida to take a yearly aptitude test. The tests were graded by percentile, and grade-equivalence (so if you got an 8th grade result, you did as well on the test as the average 8th grader). By the fifth grade, I started getting all results in the 99th percentile, and my grade-equivalence was marked as “PHS”, which meant “post high school”. You certainly couldn’t say I wasn’t learning anything.
My early education was fun. My mom got really into it. We had an abacus, and used dried-out pinto beans and empty egg cartons to learn adding, subtracting, and multiplication. In later years, we joined a Catholic home school correspondence course. I complained that all of the subjects had religion awkwardly inserted into them, where it didn’t belong. “What subjects did you do today?” my mother asked me. “Spelling religion, English religion, history religion, and religion religion”, I replied, smirking.
My math and English education was excellent, and has served me very well. My science education was somewhat less rigorous. One downside of home schooling is lack of access to a proper laboratory, so that was certainly an issue. But the bigger issue was that my parents (my mother especially) seemed distrustful of science. It was odd, because my father is a highly skilled and respected orthopedic surgeon, and my mother was at the time a highly sought-after nurse anesthetist. Within the domain of their occupations, they were rigorously scientific. They had to be, to be so good at their jobs. But outside of the realm of their jobs, they held a deep-seated distrust of science. It was like a switch flipped inside of them as soon as they weren’t working and had to consider anything that might possibly have a religious component. And it all had to do with the book of Genesis.
“In the beginning…”
My parents were young earth creationists. That is, they believed the earth to be fewer than 10,000 years old, and that everything on it was created by God more or less the same as it exists today. This is a rare position for Catholics to take, and I wonder if it wasn’t my mother’s Protestant background that helped solidify this view. In our household, evolution was seen as a hoax, spread by godless scientists in order to minimize or eliminate God’s role in nature. My mother showed me literature that feigned authentic skepticism. It called into question established science such as radio dating to establish geological age. It claimed that dinosaurs weren’t extinct — there were still some left, deep in the jungles. The Grand Canyon was said to have been formed in a matter of hours by the Great Flood (Noah, the ark, etc). It was all so silly in hindsight, but we bought it all. It felt sort of cool, thinking that all these smarty pants scientists had spent their lives studying this stuff and had gotten it wrong. How silly of them to think that something as complex as a human could just randomly assemble itself from “goo”. We were told that Charles Darwin actually didn’t believe in evolution. Nope. He recanted at the end of his book! He had a deathbed conversion back to Christianity! How ignorant of scientists to believe something when even the person who came up with it had turned against it. We were given analogies like “Evolution would be like a tornado going through a junkyard and randomly assembling a 747 jet plane!” Why yes, that does sound silly. It wasn’t until my late teens that I began to poke holes in this nonsense.
Maintaining a belief in young earth creationism is not easy. You have to question the fundamental basis of biology. You have to regard chemistry and radiation as severely mistaken. Geology is a bunch of bull. All of these sciences which would have otherwise been perfectly fine were forced to be ostracized lest they contradict the Bible. When I started to realize that evolution isn’t “just a theory” and that it is a firmly established scientific fact with mountains of evidence in favor of it and no serious objections that dispute it, I became very bothered by how easy it had been to convince me that it wasn’t true. If I could be misled on this, what else had I been misled about?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t completely bored out of my mind during regular church services. Weddings and funerals — those I could relate to. Those services referenced real life people who I knew (or had known). But regular Sunday mass was just an energy-sapping blur of repetitive banality. I never got anything out of the sermons (sorry — homilies). People would say afterwards “It was like he was talking directly to me!” Yeah, because he was talking about how people want nice things, and everyone wants nice things. The homilies were simplistic assertions of God’s love, punctuated by the rare pulpit-pounding self-righteous screed. I actually preferred the latter, even if I didn’t agree with them. At least it provided something to think about, instead of the same pathetic and uninspiring affirmations of divine parentage.
Certainly I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way. I saw other people fidgeting, or dozing off. People left before mass was even over. The post-mass parking lot was a sea of anger and impatience. Few people legitimately seemed to want to be there. Everyone was going through the motions, but not really feeling it. Just like me.
Apparitions and Triangles of Safety
As I grew up, my parents became more and more devout in their beliefs. We started going to mass not once a week, but six times a week. Only on Saturdays did we get a break. I was told we did this because it granted us “tremendous graces” from God, which were sort of like flu shots against sin. I didn’t care for this very much. Mostly because it meant that I had to get up very early in the morning. We started praying the rosary, a formulaic sequence of prayers counted out on special beads. My mother started hosting special prayer meetings at our house, which were attended by the sweetest, most earnest crazy people I’d ever met. One of them, in even, dulcet tones, explained how he was carving a crucifix that would be “more realistic” than any of the wimpy “sanitized” ones in church. He described the process by which he would use a knife to scar it up, and then drip red paint on it, allowing gravity to paint Jesus’ body red. On the one hand, I admired the purity of his artistic vision. On the other hand, I couldn’t understand what sort of spiritual benefit he hoped to attain by creating this graphically violent depiction of an execution.
In the early-to-mid 1990s, my parents were fully in the grips of hardcore Catholic ephemera. Everything that was optional for Catholics to do, we did. We were urged to wear the Brown Scapular, two pieces of cloth joined by strings, worn under your shirt, which was said to act as a talisman against ending up in hell. I pondered why, if it were true, every Catholic didn’t wear it. Turns out that alleged benefit was apocryphal. Even beliefs that were well outside of official Catholic dogma or official recognition were given serious consideration. Our family made several trips to Conyers, Georgia, where a woman had been claiming for years to be receiving visions of the virgin Mary. Thousands upon thousands of people converged around a tiny house atop a muddy hill in rural Georgia. They sat outside in lawn chairs, praying for hours over makeshift loudspeakers. Many people claimed to have witnessed minor miracles at these events. One of the popular miracles was that metal objects would allegedly change color. Medals or the metal chains of rosary beads would “turn to gold”. I was skeptical. Many rosary beads already have chains that are tinted gold. Several of the “miracle” rosaries I was shown just looked like they were made of steel, and were rusting. Another common thing was “photo miracles”. People would take pictures of the house, or a tree, or the sun, and they would look for apparitions in the developed prints. These “miracles” were of two kinds: lens flare, and intentional double exposures. The lens flare ones would happen when people pointed their cameras towards the sun. The results weren’t very impressive. They required a lot of interpretation. “This circle is Jesus. This other circle is Mary.” Right.
The double exposures were more obviously fallacious. I came across a black-lace-shawled woman showing off a a photo of the house on the hill, over which could be seen the image of a young woman with dark hair. “It’s the Blessed Virgin!” she proclaimed to the people who crowded around to see. “We have that same painting hanging in our house,” I remarked, immediately the recipient of glowering eyes. Even my parents were skeptical of these “photo miracles”. This gave me an important experience of how people could delude themselves and others into believing something that was obviously not true.
Around the same time, my parents became involved in a “Marian” doomsday cult. I don’t know the genesis of this belief — there seems to be no record of it on the internet. The idea was that the virgin Mary had told someone that the world was going to end soon, and there would be a period of suffering here on earth. Standard Revelation fare. But people who lived within a “triangle of safety” located in the deep south of the United States would be spared this tribulation. We spent weeks driving around Georgia and possibly a few other states looking at properties. Some of them were properties my parents were considering buying. Other properties had been bought by other people taken in by this cult. On one of them, they were talking about building an underground bunker church. Apparently God still demands weekly worship even when most of the world has been rendered uninhabitable. My parents looked at real estate listings and then compared them to a map which had giant triangle drawn on it. They made sure the properties fell on the right side of the triangle’s boundaries. My brothers and I thought it great fun, though we weren’t convinced about the triangle stuff (in fact, I wasn’t entirely convinced my parents truly believed it… it felt like they were just considering it). We liked the idea of having a giant property. I rated the properties on their Capture the Flag field merits. One property had an epic gulch, with probably twenty acres on either side. It would have made a great “no-man’s land”. I pushed for them to buy this property. In the end, they didn’t buy any property, and the whole thing just sort of fell by the wayside. We didn’t talk about it after that.
At some point, my parents became convinced that the modern mass in English was a step backwards — if not a mistake, at least a “stumble” for the church. They worked with other people of a similar persuasion to get a Latin mass started. Not the modern mass in Latin, but the “Latin mass of 1967″. With the approval of the bishop, a weekly Latin mass was instituted. We’d been learning Latin at home for years (which I assure you was not a useless exercise — I absolutely slaughtered the vocabulary section of the SAT), so I actually knew what was going on. It was strange, but interesting, with its increased complexity and more involved rituals. The people who attended seemed to be uncomfortable having to live contemporarily. They romanticized the past, and longed for at least a partial reversion. The women wore veils, and you were required to receive communion “on the tongue” instead of the post-1967 “in the hand”. The mass proved so popular that a few years ago they were granted their own church, where all the services are in Latin.
The Teenage Years
I think my teenage years were difficult for my parents. They certainly were for me. I was overwhelmed by raging testosterone, which made me think that everyone was out to get me, especially my parents. Being home schooled, I felt I was under socialized. Rather more specifically, I felt that I was missing out on interactions with the opposite sex. I begged to be let go to a public school. I was unreasonably tall for my age, and had recently discovered that girls found me at least somewhat physically attractive. Hormones threatened to tear me asunder, and I felt that if I didn’t get a girlfriend soon, I might literally die. My parents made me fight for every inch of freedom.
I went away to a Catholic summer camp. Boys only. Sigh. It was the good old days when no one worried about a bunch of priests and a bunch of early-teen boys sharing a secluded campground together. Some of the priests were cool, but others seemed a bit kooky. One of them made us listen to an audio cassette about hidden satanic messages in rock songs. But only if you played them backwards. They were placed there to corrupt us. On a hiking field trip, we passed a group of attractive teenage girls. Heads turned. “Stop looking. I see what you’re doing”, a priest admonished us.
The camp leader decided to hear our confessions one night. Now, of any Catholic rite, there is none more terrifying than confession. First, you are advised to do an examination of conscience. You think about all the bad things you’ve done. Then you try to find a way of wording each sin so that you can allude to it without explicitly saying it. You didn’t say that you imagined rubbing massage oil over Claudia Schiffer’s naked body… you would say that you “had some impure thoughts”. I became the master of confessional euphemisms. My confession at the campground was doubly frightening, because it was face-to-face, whereas most of the ones in church happened behind a screen, which gave you some measure of privacy. But no, this one was face-to-face, on a giant rock, in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Me, and a man in his early thirties wearing a black dress. I was glad when it was over. A group of us boys was huddling around the fire, discussing the ordeal. One of the kids, a short energetic comedian with a rat-like snout, came back from his confession with a strange look on his face.
“Dude. When I was done listing my sins, he asked me if I masturbate.”
“He said it’s a mortal sin, and that if I’ve done it, I have to confess it.”
“What did you say?”
His distraught face faded, and his inner comedian took over. “I told him I jerk it five times a day”, he replied, to uproarious laughter. But the laughter subsided, and then our faces turned down. If masturbation was truly a mortal sin, we feared the whole lot of us were damned. Someone broke the silence. “Fuck him. He’s a creep, and it’s none of his business.” Yeah, right on, we all said. But it didn’t change the fact that we were all going straight to hell.
Sexual repression is probably the hardest part of growing up with religion. One part of you is saying that it’s normal, and right, and fun, and good. But there was always a voice saying “get your hand off her boob, or you’re gonna burn forever!” It’s a showdown that religion couldn’t possibly hope to win, but along the way it sure does make you feel like a terrible human being with no self-control. I tried to console myself by reading the more lenient parts of the Bible. The Jesus-y, “love one another” parts. I tried to convince myself that a loving god couldn’t possibly expect us to follow all these crazy and unrealistic Catholic rules. I figured it must just be a case of setting a high bar, but that the actual moral standard was much closer to “don’t be a dick”. Little by little, I chipped away at the granite dogmas, trying to find the true standards that had to lay below these unattainable bureaucratic edifices of morality.
I found a book in my parents’ library that claimed to outline the rules of Catholic sex. I’ll try not to be too crude in summarizing it. Essentially, married people can do whatever they want, so long as the man “finishes” with vaginal intercourse. I conjured up visions of Catholic men enjoying an “alternate” sexual experience and then suddenly, frantically, trying to maneuver and position things for the one allowable finishing move. “Quick, get it in!” “I’m trying!” It seemed silly, overly complicated, and legalistic in a way that a merciful and compassionate god shouldn’t be.
At one point, when I was 16 or so, I saw some papers on my mother’s desk with my name on them. I looked more closely. They were admissions forms for an all-boys Catholic boarding school just outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. They even had a character recommendation letter from the pastor of our church. They’d done all of this behind my back. I was furious — absolutely blinded by feelings of rage and betrayal. I gathered the papers, a can of WD-40, and a lighter, and went to the driveway. Using the WD-40 can as a blowtorch (kids: please don’t do this — it’s super dangerous), I incinerated the entire collection of papers in the most rebelliously destructive way I could think of. My parents eventually noticed the papers were missing, and asked me if I’d done anything with them. I played dumb, for a bit.
“They were admission papers.”
“For a school in Pennsylvania.”
“Oh, those papers. I burned them.”
I had not one ounce of remorse. That’s one of my quirks. Remorse for me is tied to how I view the righteousness of an act, not how others view it. After their initial shock abated, they conceded the point that preparing everything behind my back wasn’t fair to me. As part of our truce, I agreed to a tour of the school, and to consider the possibility of attending.
The school was my worst nightmare. Shirt and tie. No listening to music (not even “Christian rock”). Strict curfews. You even had to shower wearing a bathing suit, “for modesty” (I was incredulous, and asked the tour guide to explain the exact reasoning behind the bathing suit in the shower rule). The students who went there mostly seemed like servile automatons. Polite to a disturbing degree. Deferential the the point of self-abasement. Cookie cutter über-Catholics. I inquired as to what sorts of schools their students went on to attend. They mostly went on to small Catholic liberal arts colleges no one outside of the circles of hardcore conservative Catholicism has even heard of. “Have you had anyone to go on to Notre Dame?” I asked. They hadn’t.
I told my parents unequivocally that I wasn’t going to attend this school. They didn’t push the matter. Dodged a bullet there.
In my late teens, I found an interesting book in my father’s library. It was titled A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church. Well now this sounds interesting. It was published in 1967, and I suspect that my father had carted it from house to house through the years without giving it any thought. Eventually, the book found its way into my hands. I was immediately captivated. James Kavanaugh, a Catholic priest, outlined exactly what was wrong with the church. How inflexible and outdated moral traditions were causing a crisis of faith. How the church’s cold and callous positions on contraception and sexuality especially were causing people to reject God, because they felt that they had no other option. It was invigorating to hear an intelligent person (and a priest, at that) lay out a case for why the church was terribly wrong on a bunch of the issues I’d been struggling with. I felt that this provided a way for me to challenge, and then be comfortable with my faith. And for a while, it did. But it was also, I think, the beginning of the end for my faith. Once you grant yourself the freedom to examine matters of faith and dogma critically, it’s hard to stop.
Free Will in God’s Playhouse
While taking a “Philosophy of Religion” class in college, I tackled the idea of free will. If God is omniscient, then he knows everything that will ever happen. He knows what you’ll do tomorrow. He knows whether you’ll go to heaven or to hell. Denying this is denying God’s omniscience. In a class discussion, I proposed a scenario. “If God says that you’re going to mow the lawn tomorrow, there are two possibilities: you have to mow the lawn, or you can make God a liar.” Well there goes free will. If God knows what we’re going to do, we don’t have free will, because we can’t choose something other than what he has foreseen. In order to have true free will, you have to have options, and you have to be able to choose from those options without compulsion. That simply isn’t possible in a universe controlled by an omniscient deity.
That was a depressing thought. If our actions are predestined, and thus our eternal fate is predestined (heaven or hell), why even bother with creating this physical universe at all? It all seemed so pointless. And what kind of god would create beings fully knowing that they would unavoidably be subjected to eternal torture? That certainly wasn’t love. It was sadism. Christianity depended on the concept of free will, but at the same time made it philosophically impossible.
9/11 and Islam
I was 18 and a freshman in college on September 11th, 2001. That day stirred up a lot of things in my mind. Until then, I’d been fairly laissez-faire about religious pluralism. I was of the opinion that people could believe what they wanted, and that no religion was inherently bad. I tried to hold on to that belief after 9/11. “These are just extremists…” I said. “There’s nothing inherently evil about Islam.” Everyone was talking about Islam all the time. “Religion of peace!” “No, a religion of death!” I bought a Qur’an, and started reading it. I was shocked by how blatant its message of subjugating and slaughtering infidels was. And by how brutal its treatment of women was. The terrorists weren’t extremists as far as the Qur’an was concerned. I got into arguments online. At first I was on the side of the “terrorists are perverting their scriptures” argument. Then, once I actually studied the scriptures, I was on the side of the “no, this stuff is vile” argument. An uncomfortable thing happened: people started combating me with Bible verses. And they weren’t substantially less vile. I was presented with Bible verses condoning slavery, genocide, rape and plunder. Pretty much all of the most heinous crimes I could imagine were sanctioned in the Bible. I finally began to see religion as a potential force for evil in the world. I saw it as being a justification for all sorts of atrocities. The hijackers of United flight 93 shouted “God is great” as they flew a plane full of people straight into the ground. The Nazis during World War II had belt buckles that proclaimed “Gott Mit Uns” (God with us). The Crusades. The Inquisition. Slavery. Religiously justified immorality. Looking at history, everyone seemed to think God was on their side. And the product of that belief was misery and suffering. I found that I had pivoted from being slightly skeptical of my purported religious beliefs, to being outright opposed to the great majority of them, and even being opposed to the idea of religious doctrine in general.
The Amazing Randi
A conjurer (magician, to laymen) named James Randi came to my attention. Randi is highly skilled as a performer, but is now perhaps more famous for his role as a debunker of mystical phenomena. If someone is claiming any psychic ability, any paranormal skills, or anything else that is outside of natural explanation, Randi will gladly take them on. In fact, he has a $1 million prize available to anyone who can “demonstrate paranormal abilities under laboratory conditions”. It has not been claimed. Few people, save for genuine kooks, have even tried. For the “professionals”, such as psychics, exorcists, diviners, dousers, etc, this should be a piece of cake. If they didn’t want to accept the money personally, they could give the prize money to the charity of their choice. But they don’t take it. And that strongly suggested to me that they were all completely full of shit. My skepticism grew more acute, and I began applying it to more aspects of life.
I am a rational person. I have an insatiable desire to know the truth. The world should make sense, and it should be rationally consistent. There can be open questions, but not conflicting truths. To quote Ayn Rand, “Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” Thus religion posed, for me, a lifelong mental crisis. I had to hold, in my head, two sets of truths. Observed truths, and religious truths. But there was only one truth! Even the church said so. So when religious truths clashed with observed truths, I had a serious problem. I have trouble explaining how I juggled that contradiction for so long. I’m ashamed I didn’t address it sooner. But finally, in my early twenties, I began to take an honest look at truth, science, and religion. I was done with evasive answers and irreconcilable facts. I wanted to discover what was actually, objectively, and coherently true about life, the universe, and everything.
I’ll spare you the suspense. Religion lost.
Science is Real
I’ve always been interested in science. In my late teens and early twenties, that interest deepened significantly. I stopped seeing science as just a collection of facts, but as an approach to discovering the truth.
Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking… a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.
— Carl Sagan
Any conflict between science and religion had to be zero sum. Thousands of years ago, we knew far less about science, and so we embraced religious explanations. It seemed that the more we learned about the universe, the more religion had to retreat. Science explained things in a way that was objectively true, and independently verifiable. Religion couldn’t compete. So it shrunk away. If God occupied the gaps between our knowledge of the universe, we were slowly but surely putting him out of a job. Some people respond to this by denying or vilifying science. I couldn’t do that. Science is real. Whatever I decided about religion and God, it would have to be integrated with the fact that science is real.
Losing My Religion
It took me several years to fully shed my religion. There were a lot of cobwebs I had to clear away before I could start honestly looking for the truth. It started by questioning the dogmas and positions of the church. Contraception, abortion to save the life of the mother, pre-marital sex, transubstantiation, homosexuality… the big ones that many Catholics struggle to accept. I suspended my assumptions and explored the issues honestly. Every time, the official Catholic position lost to a more humanistic, science-informed view. Slowly but surely, I started to get down to the basics of Christianity.
The entire system of sin and salvation seemed capricious and arbitrary. Could your eternal fate really hinge on the timing of your sins, your repentance, and your death? I wondered how many people were burning in hell because they got into a car accident on their way to confession. What about mass murderers? What if Adolf Hitler’s last dying thought was “Well, I haven’t been a good Christian at all — sorry ’bout that, Jesus.”? Does that make it okay? Should he get the same fate as a person who has gone their whole life without committing a genocide?
I had issues resolving the conflict between the Yahweh of the Old Testament who says that if you consider following a different god, he will “wipe you off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:15), and the manifestation of Yahweh as Jesus in the new testament, who quotes the Golden Rule, and speaks against violence. I was told that God is constant, and doesn’t “change his mind” — yet the god of the Old Testament was clearly different from the god of the New Testament. It was impossible to reconcile the Old Testament with Christian morality. Add in the laughable “Adam and Eve” creation myth and I was convinced that the Old Testament was a huge mistake for Christians to bring along into the codification of the Bible.
With the Old Testament jettisoned, I began to look at the New Testament. I had issues there, too.
Regarding the crucifixion: why should God have to sacrifice himself to himself to save mankind from a penalty he himself imposed? That sort of plot wouldn’t pass muster on a daytime soap opera, and yet it was supposed to be the event of ultimate cosmic importance. It didn’t make sense. I was narrowing in on the one fundamental part of Christianity. Enter Jesus, stage left.
Exit Jesus, Stage Right
In a quest to find the truth of Jesus of Nazareth, I decided to look at historical (that is, non-biblical) accounts of Jesus. I wanted to separate Jesus the philosopher from Jesus the traveling magician. When I talked with atheist friends, we could agree that even if Jesus wasn’t God, he was certainly a pivotal philosopher, and an important historical figure. Right?
I was astounded by what I found. There was nothing to be learned from contemporary non-biblical accounts of Jesus because there are no contemporary non-biblical accounts of Jesus. I’d like you to take a moment and let that sink in. There is not only just one source for the divinity of Jesus… there is just one source for his existence as a person. And it’s the same source that claims that he could turn water into wine, cure leprosy, walk on water, and raise the dead. There is only one other purported source — an offhand, strangely worded, and out-of-character reference to Jesus by a Jewish historian named Josephus. He briefly mentions Jesus in an odd section of the manuscript, and calls him the Messiah (which Josephus, as a Jew, would of course not do). It is regarded as a forgery, added hundreds of years later by a Christian supporter. Once that forgery is discarded, we literally have nothing. And it’s not exactly an undocumented period. There are numerous historians who covered the events of that part of the world in great detail. They all neglect to mention Jesus. That’s a problem.
I looked deeper.
Nazareth, the town where the Bible alleges that Jesus grew up, didn’t even exist until about 200 AD… or a good 167 years after Jesus would have died. That’s a problem.
The Bible claims that Jesus was born during a census conducted “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (I practically have that passage memorized, due to many recitations during the Christmas season). We are also told that Herod the Great was the king, and that when Jesus was an infant, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under the age of two in the Bethlehem area, in an attempt to kill Jesus (seen as a rival king) in the massacre. This massacre never happened. The “Slaughter of the Innocents” is a fiction. Moreover, there was no period of time when Herod the Great was king and Quirinius was governor. Herod the Great died in 4 BC. Quirinius wasn’t made governor of Syria until 6 AD, and his great census didn’t occur until 6 AD or 7 AD. Jesus couldn’t have been born in the overlaps of their reigns, because there was no overlap of their reigns. There was a ten-year gap. That’s a problem.
After that, the Bible, and the accounts of Jesus especially, began to rapidly unravel. The account of Mary as a virgin seems to be an attempt to fulfill a sloppy translation of Isaiah. The geography in the gospel account of Mark (which the other three canonical gospels used as their primary source) is completely wrong, suggesting that the author was not a local. It contains the American equivalent of saying that someone traveled from Manhattan to Baltimore by way of Albany. That’s a problem.
None of the accounts of Jesus in the Bible are by eye witnesses. They are all written in the third person, by unknown authors, long after the events allegedly transpired. So the only accounts of Jesus are hearsay, written by people who had never met him. That’s a problem.
It became clear with even a cursory examination (and certainly remained clear on a closer examination) that the accounts of Jesus are fictional. The Jesus of the Bible never existed. He is, at best, an amalgam of the many “savior-prophets” who wandered the area at the time, trying to attract followers. At worst, he is a legend that someone made up completely. What was crystal clear to me was that this was in no way a valid basis for a religion or a moral framework. With that, I had abandoned the idea of Christianity… but not yet God.
The Futility of Prayer
“Why do people pray?” I wondered. Specifically, why did they pray and ask for certain, specific outcomes? If that outcome wasn’t in God’s plan, it wouldn’t happen. And if it was, it would have happened without the prayer. Prayers of petition seemed wholly unnecessary, and frankly, a bit of an insult to God and the plan he crafted in his omniscience. But people keep doing it, and they swear by it. Some people would even get cute about the futility of prayer. “Sometimes God answers your prayer and the answer is ‘no’”, they’d say, thinking that to be quite a clever thing to say.
I read a study that had been done on the efficacy of prayer. One part was double-blind, where patients didn’t know they were being prayed for. They did as well as the control group. In another group, where the patients receiving prayers were told that they were being prayed for, that group did worse than the control group. The proposed theory was that knowing that someone was praying for their recovery created a sort of performance anxiety, with that stress causing subtly negative effects on their health. That seemed fairly conclusive, and lined up with my experiences throughout my life: prayer doesn’t work. So either God doesn’t care, God is not benevolent, or God doesn’t exist.
God & Amputees
I’d long been skeptical of miracles. They didn’t seem to fit into a universe of fixed natural laws. And yet we are bombarded daily with miraculous claims. “God sped up my wire transfer!” “God found me a job!” “God cured my eczema!” I was struck by how unimpressive God’s supposed miracles were. He seemed to be limited to things that have a chance of working themselves out naturally. In cases of “healing”, God would just be given credit for things for which doctors should be receiving the praise.
I stumbled upon a website. It asked a simple question, but one that delivered a death blow to the idea of a hands-on god who can heal us and answer our prayers.
“Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”
Certainly an all-powerful god could heal amputees. And in terms of benefit to the person, it falls between alleviating eczema and curing cancer. So it’s not outside of those bounds. The only things notable about limb regeneration are that (a) it doesn’t happen to humans naturally, and (b) the results, if it were to happen, would be undeniable. But it doesn’t happen. Nor does anything else that satisfies those two conditions. I was left with no alternative but to conclude that miracles do not occur. If God existed, he had to be a hands-off god. I had effectively become a deist.
A Universe from Nothing
It was physics that got me from deism to atheism. I was still taunted by the Cosmological Argument for God (the so-called “first cause” argument). A universe couldn’t just happen, could it? Surely the big bang needed a spark… some outside source of energy. I read up on physics and cosmology. As it turns out, the universe is energetically neutral. No outside source of energy is needed, because net-net, there is none in the universe. We, and everything we can observe in the universe, are nothing more than specks of energetic pollution. We are one side of the equation. But the equation balances. Moreover, quantum fluctuations create “something” from “nothing” all the time. The most nothing nothingness we can observe is actually a boiling caldron of particles spontaneously popping in and out of existence. No god needed. That was the last straw for me. I ceased believing in any sort of hands-off creator god. The universe, for the first time in my life, made sense to me. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
It is almost indescribable how happy I was when I finally came to terms with the fact that I didn’t in any way believe in a god, and that I had a solid basis for coming to that conclusion. I finally had the coherent, integrated view of the universe that I’d been struggling to find for my entire life. The full beauty of biological evolution became apparent to me. I stopped viewing science as merely a tool for making our lives better and started seeing it as an approach to life and the best way to uncover objective truths. Everything was illuminated. My eyes were finally fully open, and I experienced a profound intellectual and emotional euphoria. It was transcendental in a way that religion never was, and never could be. I had rid myself of the last vestiges of irrational and incoherent ideas. And everything that replaced them was not just objectively true, but more amazing and more wonderfully resplendent than anything I’d ever encountered before.
I fell in love with the universe. I wasn’t just “in” the universe. I was part of it. It hit me that because of evolution, I was physically related not just to every other human, but to every other animal on earth. And not just to every other animal, but to every plant. The atoms that composed me were the products of stars that had gone supernova and spilled their rich guts across time and space. I realized that I was, quite literally, “made of stars”. How remarkable! And how true.
I found that my demeanor was massively improved. My wife Sarah later remarked that after I came to terms with my atheism, I became “a better husband… a thousand times better”. I’d prefer a multiplier that didn’t make me sound like I was a terrible husband before… but it is absolutely true that my relationship with Sarah improved drastically. I think that much of it was related to the immense cognitive burden caused by holding contradictory ideas. I didn’t feel comfortable in the universe, because the universe didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t reconcile everything. It was like the universe was an M. C. Escher staircase. Losing that feeling of disconcertment was a great relief.
I found myself looking forward to the prospect of having children much more. Back when I was still struggling with the idea of faith, I was haunted by visions of trying to explain it to a child. How could I explain something which I didn’t fully understand… something that didn’t make any sense to me? That apprehension went away, and was replaced with tremendous excitement about having the opportunity to teach and learn with my future children. Some of my friends have expressed hesitation about wanting to become parents. I’ve put it to them this way: I will get to take everything I’ve learned about the universe, and teach it to them in the way that I wish I’d been taught. I can convey to them the true beauty of the universe. I can teach them all the moral lessons I’ve learned. And I will get to experience childhood in a way that no one can experience when they’re going through it themselves. I will get to hear them ask the most difficult, unprecedented, innocent questions — the questions that only a child would have the nerve to ask — and I get to discover the answers with them. That will be a profound experience. And if religion were still in my life, that experience would have been cheapened and degraded by me providing “answers” to my children’s questions about the universe which weren’t the truth… but merely some irrational tradition I was blindly passing on.
This bears repeating, as it seems to be a common misconception among believers: I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m not “mad at God”. I don’t resent my parents one tiny bit. I don’t feel abandoned, alone, or like nothing means anything. Those clichés about atheists are nothing but a discouragement by theists against questioning one’s beliefs. They are simply not true. There is nothing empty or unsatisfying about a godless view of the universe. It’s the only view that can be justified with evidence, and there is great comfort in knowing that the things you hold to be true are not “true for you”, but are true for everyone. Which is to say: they’re actually true.
I spent a good couple of months with my atheism being completely private. Not even my wife Sarah knew. I had to be certain that it wasn’t just a phase. I read a lot more. But once outside the veil of feigned religiosity, I found it impossible to give that position any respect. It was, in a word, silly, and now that I had come to terms with my position, I couldn’t ever imagine re-embracing a bunch of superstitions. It honestly didn’t take me that long to get acclimated. I realized that a naturalistic view has always been my default view. All there was to do was just recognize that and stop pretending it was otherwise.
I knew I had to tell Sarah. I value honesty, even when it’s painful. Sarah had joined the church right after we got married, and I felt exceedingly guilty to be telling her “hey, now that you’re Catholic, I don’t even believe in God.” I agonized about when and how to tell her. One day in the car, she remarked to me that it seemed weird that I believed in God. She said it didn’t fit my hyper-skeptical personality. That encouraged me. A few weeks later, I sat her down. It was difficult to say. She cried a little. She said she understood. We hugged. Sarah spent a few days being moderately sad about it, but it quickly became apparent to her that this was not the end of the world. She noticed that my attitude had changed. I was happier. We fought less, and spent more time talking about things that mattered, instead of being consumed with the minutia of our lives. Since then, she’s understood more and more of my position and my reasoning. I don’t want to say more, because this is my story, not hers. Just know that we’re all good.
I decided not to tell my parents directly. I hadn’t lived in their house for a long time. A “we need to talk” sit-down seemed inappropriate for me to initiate. Instead, last year, I gave my adult-aged brothers a heads up (two reactions: “that makes me sad” and “that’s not really news to me”), and decided to stop pretending, and stop guarding what I said, and to let it come out naturally. It took about six months. My mother brought me aside to talk about it. It was a good talk. She knew she was unlikely to convince me of anything, and I didn’t try to convince her. I just explained to her where I was coming from. We ended on good terms, and I think our relationship has actually improved. My father still hasn’t come to terms with it. I hope to eventually have a talk with him to help clear the air. They both value the bonds of family, and I’m certain that will win out over our differing perspectives on religion.
A New Basis of Morality
The first thing that was apparent to me upon this realization was that I needed something else upon which to build an idea of morality. Not that I’d previously built it on Christianity… more like I knocked away the large and obviously immoral bits of Christianity and then built my own ideas upon what remained. But that was a tangled mess of multiple cycles of deconstruction and construction. I wanted to start fresh.
I have had two main influences. It’s funny to mention them together, because had their productive years overlapped, they would have found themselves seriously at odds: Ayn Rand and Sam Harris. First, I quote Ms. Rand:
My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.
Next, Mr. Harris:
As I argue in my new book, The Moral Landscape, questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Throughout the book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”—a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving—different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.—will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question, or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.
I could write about objectivism, objective reality, and moral landscapes at length — but that’s not the purpose of this post-turned-novel. I just wanted to give you a taste of the sorts of thinkers who inspire me. Compare their ideas to this one from the holy books of Christianity and Judaism:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.
— Deuteronomy 20:10-14
Enslavement, mass slaughter of prisoners of war, rape (strongly implied), and looting — God-approved activities! Can any thinking person hold this book up as a good source of morality? Surely we can do better. In fact, I know we can do better, because no Christian in the world actually adheres to every word of the Bible. The ones who take the injunction against homosexuality seriously don’t think twice about wearing a garment made of a cotton–polyester blend (something which is as forbidden as homosexuality in the Bible). Many Christians rail against “cafeteria Christianity”, and I’m certain that I’ll receive flak for “picking and choosing” Bible verses to criticize. Nonsense. Picking and choosing is the only thing one can do with the Bible. No one takes it completely at face value, and if you doubt that, then consider that the Bible claims that the value of pi is exactly equal to 3, and also claims that at some point in the past, human beings were capable of living for hundreds upon hundreds of years. So if we know enough to discard the obvious bits of bronze age nonsense and nomadic mythology, why do we need a “divinely-inspired” book at all in order to be moral people? We should use our best tool — our minds — to craft an objective morality that makes sense and doesn’t require us to ignore two thousand years of progress in philosophy and human rights.
So I’m an Atheist
Atheists are not a monolithic group, so I should explain exactly what my position is. I do not believe in any gods, in any “higher power”, or in anything mystical or outside of nature. If you pressed me really hard, I’d admit that I do not rule out the idea of a god completely. You might be able to craft some definition of a god which is entirely unfalsifiable. I’d have to ultimately be agnostic about the existence of such a god. But only as much as I’m agnostic about the possibility of there being a miniature, invisible, pink unicorn perched on my shoulder at this very moment. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
I most certainly do not have “faith in atheism”. I lack faith in all gods. Atheism isn’t a religion or a creed. It just means I don’t believe in any gods. Religious people sometimes use the “faith in atheism” phrasing when talking about atheists. Maybe that’s because they can’t imagine having a position that isn’t faith-based. Part of me thinks that they recognize that faith is a poor justification for an idea, and by characterizing atheism as faith-based, they’re attempting to put the two positions on even footing.
I characterize myself, additionally, as an “antitheist”. That is, I not only do not believe in any gods, I think the idea of believing in a divine power is harmful, and I oppose it. Being wholly without evidence, the idea of God is not bounded in any way by facts or logic. The belief becomes its own justification. Thus, faith in God is carte blanche for every imaginable evil. There can be no rebuttal, because the justification claimed has no basis in reason.
Religion is, I think, ultimately a way of dealing with our own mortality. Different religions handle death differently, but almost without exception, they provide for some continued existence after death. This is a powerfully alluring idea. We have an inborn desire for life. No one wants to permanently cease existing. Religion offers an alternative: we can all live forever! There is, of course, no reason to think that this is true. But still, it is one of the issues that is most in need of addressing when rejecting faith. So, what happens when we die?
There’s a good quote about death that is attributed to Mark Twain, but is almost certainly apocryphal. Nevertheless:
I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
That is spot on. Where do we go when we die? Well, where were you before you existed? Another way to think of it is to recall nights when you slept without dreaming a single dream. Or when you went under general anesthesia. If you went to sleep one night, and never dreamt, and never woke up — that would be the same as death. It may be something to avoid, but you certainly shouldn’t fear what comes after it. You won’t care, because you won’t exist.
Faith Is Not a Virtue
Ultimately, it’s not just that I don’t have faith… I don’t even see faith as a virtue. And I suspect that upon further inspection, you won’t either. The 9/11 attackers had tremendous faith. Do you respect it? Do you consider them virtuous? Of course not. So let us please dispense with the nauseating, Disney-plastic plea for people to “just believe in something”. What that something is and what basis you have for believing in it make all the difference. Faith is belief absent evidence, or in the presence of contradictory evidence. You wouldn’t say that you have faith that 2 + 2 = 4. It’s objectively true. You don’t need faith. You only need faith when the thing you want to assert has no evidence in favor of it (or worse: has evidence against it). Why would it be considered a virtue to believe in something without evidence? It’s a blank slate. You can fill it in with anything you like. You can fill it with “God loves me” or “God commands me to slay infidels where we find them” … neither has any more or less evidence than the other. I find it much more virtuous to admit when I don’t know something, than to righteously cling to an irrational faith-based answer.
Religion’s Role in the World
Long before I lost my faith, I supported strict separation of Church and State. This is not only in the best interests of the State, but in the best interests of religions too. A society where no religion can claim a special privilege is a society where people can be free to believe what they want to believe. Though I don’t think those mystical beliefs are well-founded, I support people’s right to independence of thought and speech. That didn’t change when I acknowledged my atheism. But what did change was the intensity of my commitment to keep religion out of government. Religious people in America, in recent history, have injected the words “under God” into our pledge (which I object to for other reasons, but all the more so now that it is a theistic pledge), and have changed our national motto from the laudable “E Pluribus Unum” to a servile pledge of faith: “In God We Trust”, which is now emblazoned on our money. Many places in America have laws on the books forbidding non-believers to take office. Public school teachers across the country are telling their students that evolution is not true, and are teaching them instead that God created the universe, only a few thousand years ago. Public schools have officially sanctioned prayers in graduation ceremonies. City councils and even the U.S. Congress begin their sessions with prayer.
Religion does not belong in government. Its continued presence is a blemish on America, and a slight against the religious freedoms established by its founding fathers (many of whom were non-religious). Religious institutions and secular governments can and should coëxist, and the barriers between them should be guarded ferociously. If you doubt this, please visit a country where religion and government are intertwined, like Saudi Arabia. Do you feel more comfortable, as a non-Muslim, practicing your faith there? Heck, do you, if you’re a Muslim, feel more comfortable practicing Islam there as compared to America? Integration of religion and government is dangerous to society and is in opposition to religious freedom. Most people who support it just haven’t considered that it might not be their religion which is integrated.
Why Does Faith Persist?
Since I’ve been “out”, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why religion and superstition have such a hold on the world. Why, in this age of unprecedented scientific knowledge, do people continue to accept vague, irrational, and unsatisfactory explanations for how the universe works? I have a few theories. One is that tradition is hard to shake. Indoctrination into a specific religious tradition is a powerful agent of thought suppression. There are also cultural disincentives to skepticism. For many, religion is the primary source of community. They go to church to socialize and connect with people. Abandoning their religion would cut them off from that community. I also think that people are scared for our species to be alone in the universe. It might be comforting to some to imagine that there is an all-loving, all-knowing god looking out for us. It makes our problems here on Earth seem transient. It’s an easy escape from having full responsibility for knowledge and morality in this existence. Finally, people fear their mortality. Religion pretends to offer an antidote to death. The allure of that proposition blinds people to truths they might otherwise acknowledge.
Raising My Children
My approach to raising my children is simple: I won’t lie to them, and I won’t pretend to know something that I don’t. That applies to God and to religion, and it applies to the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. I’ll make sure they are religiously literate — it’s an essential part of cultural literacy, but I’m not going to teach them anything for which there isn’t darn good objective evidence. Raising children isn’t about teaching them what to think, but how to think. If I can teach them how to distinguish between the truth and a load of bollocks, I will have done my job. And if they eventually decide they want to be religious, so be it.
My Wishes for the Faithful
I’m not trying to deny anyone their faith. That’s not my job. That’s their job. If you are a person of faith, I’d like you to stop being afraid of asking difficult questions, and stop accepting weak answers. If your faith is in something that is true, then scrutiny can only improve it as you discover more. And if your faith is in something that is not true, don’t you want to know? The truth has nothing to fear from inquisition. You should demand answers that are intellectually satisfying. And you should withhold your belief if the answers don’t satisfy you.
Everyone of faith should contemplate the improbability of their birth in a specific place and at a specific time. What are the odds that you were born in the exact right time, to parents of the exact right religion? Isn’t it odd that the children of Muslims grow up to be Muslims and the children of Catholics grow up to to be Catholics? If there really is a one true religion, and you just happen to be alive at a time when it exists, shouldn’t the evidence for it be so overwhelming that people of other religions readily convert? Rather, isn’t it the case that your religion is as nutty to people of other religions as their religions are to you? What basis do you have for saying your religion is more likely to be true than any other?
Congratulations on getting through that. Seriously. Just a bit more, and I’ll release you.
My experience with religion is part of me. I might wish that I’d figured out it was all nonsense earlier, but that’s wishing for me to be a different person. I’m happy with who I am, including my religious past. I came to this realization later in life than most people do. But it’s never too late to question your fundamental assumptions about the universe. Whatever you’re struggling with, you don’t ever have to just accept your current position. Stay hungry, and keep searching for the truth. You won’t ever find all of it, but what you do find will blow your fucking mind. It’s a wonderful universe, and we are all incredibly lucky to be here.
A great debt of thanks goes out to those authors and speakers who helped me come to terms with my atheism and naturalism and have provided me with a much more numinous and coherent view of the universe and my place within it: James Randi, Ayn Rand, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Two are dead. I hope someday to meet the rest.
Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who encouraged me to write this… primarily my wife, Sarah, who was incredibly supportive of me when I “came out” to her as an unbeliever, and who continues to be a loving and intellectually stimulating partner to me.
If you’d like to respond to this, don’t hesitate to e-mail me: firstname at lastname dot me.