I have a feeling I was an atheist long before I could ever say why. In fact, I likely emerged from the womb an inchoate atheist. The budding field of neurotheology suggests that the spiritual and religious faculties are in our genes and are expressed, or not expressed, throughout one’s lifetime. Mathew Alper, the author of The God Part of the Brain, likens these distinct yet related faculties to, say, musical ability and offers the analogy of tone-deafness to describe the relatively few folks who, like me, are unable (not just unwilling) to join the heavenly chorus.
But the question before me is Why I became an atheist? It’s the kind of question not ordinarily asked of one’s genes; it’s a question put to brains.
The first time my brain began to have conscious atheistic thoughts (in other words, to formulate ad hoc reasons for how it was made in the first place) was when I was in the fifth grade.
Somewhere in the curriculum of that year, I was first exposed to the mythologies of people in various places at various times. Predictably, Greek mythology figured prominently in the primer.
After a week of comparative mythology, teacher and students moved on to whatever was next in the lesson plan. I did not. How could we just abandon Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite and the rest? For that matter, how had the Ancient Greeks and all who had passed between them and the America of my youth just abandoned them? They were gods, after all, once worshipped, feared and prayed to. It would be like abandoning, well, God. Then it clicked. Zeus, Apollo, and God (the Father, the Son or Holy Spirit, it doesn’t matter which) had one very important thing in common: they were or are all mythological characters belonging to the dominant morality narrative of their age. And one day the Judeo Christian God might be dismissed as easily as Zeus and all the rest. Hundreds of years from now, the very Creator of the universe might be nothing more than a quaint relic of human history, hardly amusing enough to hold the attention of a classroom of ten-year-olds.
And just like that, I graduated from debunking Santa Claus (who had hitherto borne the brunt of my skeptical fervor) to debunking God, who I soon came to regard as a kind of Santa Claus for adults. As you can imagine, I was not a popular child. And the 43 years that have followed have been scarcely less challenging, for few ideological identifiers are so misunderstood and alienating as atheist.
It’s one thing to take a stand as a pre-teen. And it’s quite another to stick with it throughout adulthood and into middle age. Surely my atheism would require more rigorous defenses as interventions to save my young soul came thick and fast and from all quarters. I became a great consumer of science books. From them, I learned what Napoleon had learned when he asked of the brightest scientist in France, Pierre-Simon Laplace, where God was in the prodigy’s works. Laplace, you may remember, answered famously, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” In college, I took philosophy courses, especially any which included the word religion in their course description. I learned how to deconstruct every classical “proof” of God’s existence and to expose every Christian apology as the work of special pleading. I might have cut a fine, albeit nerdy, figure on the debate circuit, but mostly I deigned to take apart well-meaning but poorly prepared proselytizers who accosted me on the bus or on my porch step, amped up, as they were, on missionary zeal. I never went looking for a fight, but I was glad to take on all comers when they came.
It was at this time that I began to style myself a scientific atheist, mostly in order to distance myself from charges that I was just angry with God, or worse yet, in league with Satan, another supernatural being in whom I had no belief at all. In fact, I discovered somewhere in those years that I had zero belief in any supernatural being of any kind. This extended to supernatural phenomena as well. I believed in the three dimensions of space, and the fourth dimension of time. Full stop. Some have suggested that when I relate my way of taking the world, I come across to them as one who is missing a sense, the sense of spiritual discernment or awareness. If I am, I would have no way of knowing it, for I never had it to lose.
It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Strictly speaking, very few atheists are ever able to test the proposition. Figuratively speaking, life is pitted with foxholes in which all of us will spend hours, days, and even years in fear and trembling. For some, the better part of life is, as Buddhism reminds us, suffering. For my own part, many have been the day when I wished I were anything but an atheist. In trying times, how I’ve envied the comfort that Christian friends have found in their belief and generously recommended to me. “Just ask God into your heart,” they implored, sincerely failing to realize that for me there was just nobody there to ask into my heart. Nobody there to love. Nobody there to hate. Just a void blacker and emptier than the vacuum of space. A null set. To the devout, as far as I’m able to gather, the notion of there being nobody there is so alien and so repugnant they shudder to think of it. I have even had some friends go so far as to suggest that one like me ought to employ the fake it till you make it approach to conversion. They might as well have asked me to fake having blue eyes rather than brown. No amount of self-deception can alter the genetic expression of the pigment of my irises or the muted condition of my spiritual and religious faculties.
Over the years I have found a multitude of reasons to believe that it is either perfectly acceptable or even preferable to be an atheist. For instance, I have felt that it is noble to live a genuine life free from the feeling of being cowed (or frightened) into accepting spiritual and religious claims on insufficient evidence and specious arguments. Likewise, I have been under no pains to follow those dictates of the Bible, a book written over a millennium and a half ago, that translate poorly to modern life and give license to xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, etc. I have found bracing the sober realization that the world as we find it makes better sense and contains fewer contradictions when viewed as a life-spawning ball of rock under the disinterested sway of physics, geology, and natural selection, without reference to our conceptions of fairness, goodness, and purpose. One of the best things about atheism is that it eliminates all need of awkwardly squaring the evil circle with such sayings as, “God works in mysterious ways,” “God has a plan,” and, “God’s ways are not our ways.” Where there is no God there is no need to explain away His seeming malfeasances.
As much as I have found good reasons for being an atheist, I can admit to having sometimes lamented missing out on what I consider to be valuable coping tools (spirituality and religion) that have established themselves universally for the survival advantage they necessarily confer to both individuals and to societies in which those individuals aggregate. I may not believe in God. But I have at times been tempted to believe in belief in God as a time-tested psychosocial phenomenon with demonstrable utility. Of course, for me, none of this points to the necessity or goodness of God, but rather to the tremendous power of an idea such as Christianity. But unlike Christian atheists (who follow Christ as a moral teacher but do not subscribe to his divinity), I am not hopeful that a Christian ethical system can thrive in the world when released from its supernatural moorings. For most Christians, having the weight of God behind its moral proscriptions is paramount. And so I remain simply a scientific atheist, recognizing the potential for moral progress in the work of both the hard and the soft sciences toward the relief of suffering in the world.
I can’t speak for every atheist, but for me, atheism is not something I am actively formulating or doing. In other words, I do not practice atheism. Atheism is my default when I am being honest with myself and with the world. I did not become an atheist (if I did, it was when my genotype was formed). Rather, I came to accept the atheism with which I was born because it was the honest thing to do.
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