Atheism and me: a brief history.


For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about atheism and me- how I became an atheist, why I am an atheist, what is important to me about atheism, and how I relate as an atheist to those of a more religious mindset. I want to start talking about this today with a history of how I got to where I am today, and will move on to the rest in later posts. I was a kid for whom ‘god’ was as much a part of the world around me as anything else I couldn’t see. As real and unquestioned as distant relatives. While different religions were a thing I took for granted, so was the existence of god. Unlike many ex-religious atheists I don’t think it ever occurred to me to doubt back then. Neither did it occur to me that any of the things I believed were in opposition to evolution, dinosaurs or anything else in the world around me. As a child, I was pretty open about what I would believe. I always wanted to learn more, but the idea of skepticism wasn’t one that came naturally to me. I’m not an atheist because of any bad experiences with religion. I was never badly treated, never abused. I knew some very lovely nuns and priests growing up. Praying with my Nan, and having my forehead coated in liberal quantities of holy water before leaving her house, are memories that still make me smile. As a teenager, things did become a little more fraught. At a particularly persuadable point in my pre-teenage life, I ran out of books at the same time as coming across a massive stack of teen magazines by- and here is where I start getting a little mortified- Focus on the Family. Suddenly I was worrying about sin, about living up to Christian standards and about not ending up in hell. That didn’t last too long, though. We moved countries back to somewhere with many conveniently-located bookshops. I discovered the internet. As teenagerhood really kicked in, I found I had many other things to be worried, enthusiastic, and embarrassed about. I had some slight worries around the time I came out to myself, but reasoned pretty quickly that nothing to patently harmless could possibly be sinful. I did, however, become a lot less Catholic and a lot more vaguely spiritual. I didn’t know what was out there, but I was pretty sure that something. There was ‘something’ out there, it was benevolent, and it was why things would be okay. At least, that’s how I remember how I felt then- I’m aware that memories do change and aren’t always completely accurate. The things that led to my becoming an atheist were, in many ways, the things that led to my becoming an adult. For me these two processes are so entwined as to be interchangeable. I’m not saying, by the way, that only atheists are adults. I’m simply talking about my own experiences and how they have shaped me. I can point to two sets of things which changed my perceptions of the world around me. One was one of the best things that happened in my life, and the others were some of the worst. I went to college, and learned to think critically and to question the world around me. People I cared about died (and lived) in gut-wrenchingly horrible ways, and the world around me gave no fuck. Things just went on. After a while, I noticed that the times when I turned to god were the times when I was deeply unhappy or deeply scared. After a while, I wondered if I did that because we all turn to others when times are hard, or because that was the only time when I could convince myself that any gods existed. For the first time, I began to ask myself why I believed in any gods. Aside from fear and grief, I couldn’t come up with a reason. I still can’t. I spent a few years calling myself an agnostic before admitting, somewhere in my mid-twenties, that I had no belief in anything supernatural. For me, becoming an atheist was part of accepting that I live in the world that is, not the world that I would like to live in. It was part of learning to look at the world sceptically, and to question my own beliefs as much as I question the claims of others. So what do you think? Can you relate? How did you come to your own beliefs or lack of such? Check back here for the next post in this series!

13 thoughts on “Atheism and me: a brief history.

  1. I don’t, just lately, get much chance to talk to other atheists to find out how their views formed so this was a really interesting read. It looks like we had some things in common – similar or same family religion and no real bad experiences. Where we part is that I never believed, despite trying, but always felt guilty for not believing. In my teens and 20’s I tried going to different churches and learning about/speaking to people from non-Christian religions to see if I could get me a belief system that my head would accept. I found I could not force myself to believe any of it. Or even using quiet contemplation and waiting for a message to come – no use. I’m about as spiritual as a packet of jaffa cakes.

    What you said about it being times were hard that you turned to god rings relevant and true. Those have been the times I have wished there was a god; I’ve hoped for belief in a deity because there was absolutely nothing I felt I could do to make life any better and I was in a place of absolute despair. I’m lucky to be in a place right now where I have actual, real people to turn to and am supported and loved so there’s less of a need.

    I’ve heard it said that God created man in HIs image. Well, I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. People invent a version of their collective selves and religion bends to suit the needs of the religious with rules as appropriate accordingly.

    Love and warm thoughts to you and I look forward to reading more of your blog

    x

    • “about as spiritual as a packet of jaffa cakes” – I love it! Jaffa cakes may not be spiritual, but they are brilliant. And now I want one. Or two.

      I also really like what you said about reaching out to a god when times were incredibly hard, and how having people you can turn to makes such a difference to that. I know that one of the things I was amazed when I was coming to terms with some of the less delightful consequences of atheism (the whole death-being-final thing and whatnot), by how much a cuppa and a hug could make these huge, terrible things perfectly bearable. It was a lovely revelation that us fragile, imperfect people can really make things okay for each other.

  2. “Atheist” was not a label I wished to associate myself with for a long, long time. For me, it seemed too definite, too final. I was content to wear the “agnostic” badge for many years after I came to the conclusion that life after death made absolutely no sense. You don’t turn off a computer and expect its soul to go to heaven, after all.

    I was comfortable calling myself an agnostic because I felt that the whole God exists thing was ultimately unknowable. Fair enough, until you understand that god belief and atheism are essentially mutually exclusive.

    I finally decided I was an atheist when it became clear that my outlook was exactly the same as other atheists I read about and met. Probably not the best reason, I agree, but it was the end of a long journey where it had become clearer and clearer that the existence of God made no sense and worse again, had no evidence to support it. Atheism is not so much about absolute certainty as it is about heightened probability – orbiting teapots and all that.

    • We’ve a lot to thank for that Kinsey-esque scale of atheism! The idea that you have to be 100% certain that there’s no god to call yourself an atheist kinda smacks of unreasonable faith to me 😉

  3. I’ve seen so much bad behaviour on the part of self-described atheists in the name of atheism that I shy from the term – it’s associated with such an awful stereotype of arrogant white male intellectualism which is never so critical of itself as of everyone else. But I went through a “spiritual crisis” as a teen which resulted in me realizing that I didn’t believe in deities or destiny, whether I wanted to or not.

    I grew up in a fairly unspiritual home – we were a thrice-a-year kind of Anglican Christian family (Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), mainly because my mother’s parents were still quite involved in their church and my father’s uncle, who we always visited at Easter and Thanksgiving, was a United minister. My father is one of those arrogant white male intellectual types, and when my mother started to wake up from the long terrible sleep that was her marriage to him, it happened in relation to her rediscovery of her Christian faith (I’m not sure which drove which – I think it was reinforcing). She started Bible studies, began going to an Anglican church weekly, and also started exploring more demonstrative denominations – she now likes to describe herself as an “Anglocostal” because she’s a bit more peppy and pentacostal than most of the aging Anglican parishes around where she lives. So she’s born-again, technically, but mercifully not a fanatic and perfectly supportive of her gay, non-believing daughter. I keep encouraging her to take a theological degree because she loves the study of her religion’s history and philosophy.

    Anyway, I was a young teen at the time my mother started going to church again, and actually helped kick-start that process because I loved to sing and got involved in the choir. I had first communion, but was never confirmed. After a few years of going to church weekly, I started to realize that I was at odds with much of what I was hearing. The people were lovely, the rituals were relaxing and comfortable (especially the ones with singing! Let there never be a church without music), but it was all quite surreal and nothing made sense to me. I started to feel like a horrible imposter, especially at baptisms when we were required to affirm the baptismal vows as well as watch an infant who was incapable of making a statement on their own behalf be sworn into something sacred. I was also incredibly upset about the idea of heaven as a paradise that sounded positively awful to me (external conscious existence? No thanks!), not to mention incompatible with contemporary understandings of physics and matter. The dissonance became quite extreme and upsetting to me until I explained to my mother that I had to cut all ties with the church because I realized that I didn’t actually believe in the Christian faith in any way. I left the choir and didn’t enter a church again for about three years.

    At the time, I had assumed that there might be another faith out there which was more in keeping with what I was starting to realize I believed about the way the world works. (Note: I don’t believe any of these beliefs were innate, per se, but I didn’t feel like I had much control over what I felt resonated and made sense and what didn’t.) In grade 12, I was exposed to existentialist philosophies and that began to make a lot of sense to me. I never had any angst about a lack of God or divine purpose to life at all – I very much preferred the idea. I also became more informed about scientific theories – evolution, physics, the scientific method in general. Rather than finding a way of making sense of the world in a religious doctrine, I found it in theory and science, as I assume is the case for many of us. Progressing through university, I have also encountered critical theory and the social justice movement, which has also helped me come around to a way of understanding and analyzing religion and faith in conjunction with science and skepticism within a much broader framework. My mother’s simultaneous journey into faith with my journey out of it has been invaluable to me as a means of keeping perspective – just like she didn’t become a fanatic or an asshole about her beliefs, I tried not to become a fanatic or an asshole about mine.

    More than anything, I try to find ways to let my beliefs be challenged. I don’t want to latch on to anything too tightly. I have leanings and preferences, to be sure, and some challenges hurt more than others, but life is more fun when I allow for the maximum of possibilities, and the growth of knowledge can come in unexpected leaps and bounds. So when my friends tell me they have seen ghosts or my mother talks about communicating with God, I practice genuinely setting aside my own expectations and trying on something new, even if I don’t adopt it as a real belief of my own.

    • Wow, thanks so much for this reply! I feel like there’s so much here that I don’t know where to start. I found myself nodding along to so many different elements within your story.
      I completely understand being put off the ‘atheist’ label by, as you say, ‘arrogant white male intellectualism which is never so critical of itself as of everyone else’. It’s something I’m very aware of myself – I’m particularly disturbed by the prevalence of people using atheism and scepticism to excuse sweeping statements about Muslims and non-Western cultures, to defend ideas of Western superiority (ugh!), and to be scornful of people who have different perspectives. Not to mention the gender thing. Owch. There are very ugly undercurrents going on, it’s true. The way that I handle that is by keeping my focus away from those spaces, by engaging with the awesome atheist queers, women, POCs, non-Westerners, non-hard-sciencey types and whatnot. Trying to model a more self-critical, self-aware kind of atheism.
      I also love the way you talk about putting aside your own expectations to try on other perspectives and let your own beliefs be chalenged. I think that having a genuine sense of where other people are coming from is so valuable, even if your own beliefs are different. Aside from anything else, a good-faith effort to understand other perspectives is really a prerequisite if I’m going to ask other people to make a good-faith effort to understand mine. I think it’s also a huge part of sceptical thinking- we need to be aware that we have biases we don’t even know about. Coming from a social justice/social science/critical theory perspective myself, I’m oh-so-aware of the lack of that in a lot of atheist circles!

      • Yes, it’s definitely not something I picked up from fellow atheists, unfortunately. (Although I have not until recently *met* many atheists, which may have more to do with it than atheists uniformly being jerks.) Rather, it’s my mother again – and her mother, my grandmother, as well – who, despite identifying quite clearly as a particular denomination of Christian, also maintain many friendships across denominational and religious lines and both agree that there is every possibility that they will reach an afterlife and find out they are wrong. They truly have *faith*, which is belief without evidence, and are not troubled by the possibility of being wrong because that presumes the need to find out one way or the other beforehand. But they do not take their faith as a licence to be “right” either, and refuse to condemn others for having different faiths. They believe in God, but don’t think it’s appropriate to seek definitive evidence of his existence or rely on him solely to provide for anyone’s needs in a direct fashion – rather their faith brings them comfort and a sense of joy and human connection, and helps remind them to do good and help others. Quite the idyllic, humanist interpretation of faith. Obviously that does not come close to describing all religious people, but I think it goes a long way to showing how different belief systems can interact harmoniously so long as we are all prioritizing the well-being of our fellow humans. (And letting them define what their well-being needs, as so much ill is done in the name of “helping”.)

  4. I figured out at age six or seven that there was no great sky-fairy (or whatever your ethnic group’s particular superstition poison is). This was a year or two after I copped to their being no Santa Claus, either – what can I say? I was an early learner. I was reading the newspapers by that age, too.

    I have to say that the realisation of the finality of death was fairly depressing. The only solution I’ve come up with is to live my life as I want to, not as other people want.

    • I don’t think there’s many people who are too happy about the finality of death thing! I know that it used to scare the hell out of me when I first started coming to terms with it. Not so much anymore. But like you said, it just gives me a stronger sense of urgency about living as awesome a life as I can while I’m here.

  5. Pingback: Atheism and me: Talking about religion | Consider the Tea Cosy

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