... so gather 'round, brothers, sisters, and others, and Hallelujah!
I'm posting this by request, for any who haven't seen it before:
<cue gospel music; pass out complimentary poisonous snakes; alert the guys with the donation baskets...>
As recently as 5-6 years ago I would have said the story of my atheist awakening was pretty typical. It may still be, but I have reassessed it recently, and I'm still examining it from the new perspective, so I'm less certain at this point how common my experience is.
Dad was Roman Catholic, mom was Russian Orthodox, but she had to agree to raise the kids in the RCC in order to marry my dad. So, although the progeny were sent through the public school system, we were duly indoctrinated in the arcanae and rituals of the Catholic church in Friday afternoon "religious instruction" sessions at the Catholic school. (These were a mixed blessing -- we Catholic kids got to leave public school a half hour early on Fridays and goof around on the streets on our way to the Catholic school. OTOH, we sat in Religious Instruction class for an hour after all our friends in the public school had gone home for the weekend.)
We then got to practice these rituals Sundays and holidays at church. (When I was very young, dad was also the choir director and organist; eventually he wised up and moved into public school teaching...) I was also exposed to Russian Orthodox churches and rituals whenever we visited mom's relatives (the RO church was much like the RCC, except they really went in for gold icons in a big
We were taught a lot of things that didn't strike me as much different in nature from the Aesop's' fables, Greek myths, and various kid's stories with talking animals, etc. that we got in the public school. We were also taught a lot of stuff that even as early as 7 or 8 years old didn't make sense to me. Unlike public school, asking probing questions during religious instruction was -not- encouraged by the nuns, many of which were first generation immigrants from eastern Europe and didn't speak English all that well, anyway.
Some of the stuff they taught us was downright weird, and when I brought some of it home to my parents they thought it was weird, too. Interestingly, when this happened with public school issues, it usually resulted in parental inquiries to the school, and sometimes parent/teacher conferences. When it happened with religious instruction, no such inquiries or conferences occurred. My parents' attitudes seemed to be that we weren't really supposed to understand the finer points of theology and biblology, but simply learn our lessons so that we could spit them back at rote to the nuns, as we were led through the various milestone "sacraments" like confession, communion, confirmation, etc.
In those days Catholics weren't encouraged to read the Bible (as far as I can tell, they still aren't, mostly). It wasn't forbidden, just not encouraged. Few Catholic families of my acquaintance even owned a complete Bible. What we had were "catechisms" for the kids, and "missals" for the adults. These contained various Biblical excerpts and other information (ritual responses, prayers, etc.) that were officially tied to each particular Mass of the year. If you had questions beyond that you were expected to talk to your priest, who would answer them for you -- maybe.
I had an early interest in science and math which was, fortunately, encouraged. As I grew older, and learned more and more about how the physical world worked, I found myself wondering more and more why so much emphasis was being placed on my learning the particular set of unlikely stories being presented by the nuns and priests. And I found the "answers" I was getting from those functionaries to be less and less compelling. God didn't really seem to be necessary, and no one had a good explanation as to why He was.
Unbelief, however, was not an option. At the time, I didn't really even know that such a state existed. It was never talked about in any meaningful way. The word "atheist" was rarely heard, and when it was it was in the same sort of hushed and mildly disgusted tone as someone might say "child molester".
Beyond the bare definition that an "atheist" was someone who didn't believe in God, I had no idea what such a creature might be like. It was inconceivable that someone didn't believe in God, even if they didn't bother to go to church regularly. Everyone was expected to believe, or so all of the adults around me kept telling me. For most of my childhood the conception of "atheist" I developed was of some sort of vaguely evil antisocial pervert who, kind of like a "communist" was out to undermine all that was good and wholesome about America, and replace it with totalitarian slavery, at best. And they probably lurked in the bushes around school yards hoping to entice unwary kids into their ranks.
Then I hit my teens. At 13 I was suddenly allowed certain freedoms that I hadn't previously had, among which, I was now allowed to visit the library without adult supervision. Well, at that age any excuse to get away from the parents for a bit was a good one, even if it meant going to the library, so I did, and I started exploring, and I discovered -- shockingly -- that the library had whole stacks full of books about religion. I guess I had thought up to that point that only priests had books like this. And I found a shelf full of Bibles, and I checked one out and read it from cover to cover. That was the beginning of the end for any pretense to religious belief that I still had.
If I had thought some of the stuff they taught in religious instruction was strange, reading the verses in context made me realize how much of the really bizarre had been filtered out. (To this day I think the priests knew exactly what they were doing by not encouraging Bible-reading, and emphasizing the highly-selective missals instead.) The more I read, the less I could understand how any adult could take this stuff seriously, much less base an entire life-plan on it. It all seemed even more fantastic than the most outrageous adventures of the ancient Greek heroes, or the stuff I was reading in comic books. Needless to say, this created some cognitive dissonance, so I did what every good Catholic boy was taught to do in such cases -- I went to the priest with my Bible, and a whole list of questions.
The priest readily agreed to grant me an audience, but he didn't answer any of my questions. Instead, he took one look at the Bible I brought -- a King James Version -- and went off on a lecture about how this was not the real Bible, and that if I were going to study the Bible I needed to get a proper Bible, duly approved by the Church. He showed me what to look for, so I went back to the library and got an official Catholic Bible. Read it from cover to cover. Found a few extra short books in the middle, and a few passages (mostly in the OT) in which the language had been slightly modernized (brought from the 17th century up to the early 19th century, at least). Otherwise, same stuff.
This not only failed to answer my original questions, it raised a whole raft of new ones. Why the whole big deal about which particular church one went to? Why, especially, the big deal about whether one was a Catholic or a Protestant? They all used the same book, essentially -- 95% identical, as far as I could tell, and the differences seemed inconsequential. Yet I was being taught in history class that people had been killing each other in religiously motivated wars for 500 years over just those differences.
I didn't go back to the priest right away. Instead, I started visiting 'other' churches (keeping this a secret from my parents). First the other Catholic churches down the street. Then, one momentous day, I went to a Protestant church.
This was a very Big Deal: One of the "interesting" things the nuns taught us in religious instruction was that we were NEVER to set foot inside a non-Catholic church; these were not "real" churches, and if we ever did such a thing God would strike us DEAD on the spot. (OTOH, we were supposed to try to entice our non-Catholic friends to come with us to the "true" (Catholic) church. This was seen as a gesture of concern for their spiritual welfare.) I was still young enough to think there might be something to that warning, but my intellectual curiosity and, I suppose, teenage contrariness were such that I HAD to find out for myself.
So, I went with a friend to an Episcopal church. Blessed myself before entering (just in case), and stepped over the threshold, waiting for the lightning bolt from heaven. Nothing happened. It looked a lot like some Catholic churches I had been in. The service was a lot like some Catholic services I had seen in smaller churches. The people were friends and families from the neighborhood, and none of them had horns or tails. No babies were sacrificed or eaten. Even the music was similar. I was both greatly relieved, and vaguely disappointed.
So I started experimenting with other churches. I went to Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist services. I watched the older brother of a friend get married in an Assembly of God hall. I went to a synagogue with a couple of Jewish friends (loved the little hats). The more I saw, the more I was struck not by the differences, but by the similarities. Yet all of the adults in authority over and around me kept insisting that it was the differences which were vitally important; wars were still being fought over them in places like Northern Ireland.
Finally I was forced to conclude that either the adults around me had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER about what God wanted them to do or how He wanted them to live, or else... there was no God there to tell them anything, and they were all fooling themselves. I reached this conclusion before I turned 15. At that time (in a young American male's life, anyway) it's pretty easy to believe that most, if not all of the adults around you are overbearing fools anyway, so I inclined towards the latter explanation.
Still, although I realized that I didn't believe in God any longer, I didn't really think of myself as an "atheist." That term still had unsavory connotations, and tying myself to it could only cause trouble. So from that point I became a 'closet unbeliever.' I still went through all the expected motions around church on Sundays and holidays, but it wasn't the same for me. The mystical elements were gone, and the only remaining mystery was whether most of the adults around me really believed in the mysticism themselves, or were just putting on the act they thought society expected of them.
Externally, life didn't change much. My unbelief was a private thing that I didn't really talk about with anyone. Partly, I think, because it was still being codified, but also partly because I didn't think there was anyone I could
talk to who wouldn't be thoroughly shocked at my position, and turn me in to whoever one turned atheists in to for rehabilitation. A few of my high school friends got caught up in various "born again" Christian movements, and I did have some long and intense discussions with them. Caused enough doubt to save a few of them from evangelical clutches, too, which I don't regret. But never by promoting atheism; always by pointing out the inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities of religion.
Studied a lot of science and math, got a bunch of scholarships, and went off to college to study science and engineering. It was in college that I discovered a field called "philosophy," and it opened a whole new world for me. It was also in college I discovered that were actually quite a few people who had no trouble at all calling themselves "atheists," although they didn't make a big deal out of it, and that they were as normal, functional, and diverse group of citizens as any other demographic. At the age of 19 I discovered -- not a community, exactly -- but at least a number of kindred souls to whom "atheist" wasn't a dirty word. So that's the point from which I date my public "coming out" as an atheist (although I didn't tell my parents in so many words for another decade.)
From that point, and for most of my adult life, my atheism was no big deal. It was a part of who I was, but I didn't go out of my way to talk about it. The difference was, if somebody did ask about my religious beliefs, I was no longer shy about discussing my non-belief in detail. Outside of a few philosophy seminars the topic just didn't come up that often, though I did fend off a few well-meaning but (to me) overzealous "atheist evangelists" who tried to recruit me into various humanist organizations to spread the good word. (This always struck me as vaguely silly -- like the Piraro comic with the two atheists going door-to-door handing out blank pamphlets.)
Then, as trite as it may sound, I think the events of 9/11/01 were another turning point for me. Here was an event that underscored just how dangerous and damaging religion could still be in the modern world, and in assessing that event I began reflecting on the various ways in which religion -- mostly Christianity in the US -- had been subtly and not so subtly encroaching on secular society for a long time. The battles to get creationism taught as science. The attempt to institutionalize discrimination against various social groups. The insistence on government recognition of the US as a "Christian nation". Cover-ups of child abuse. Bombed clinics and murdered doctors. Artistic censorship. The notion that God wanted the US to invade Iraq. So, I went out and started participating again in on- and off-line discussions about religion, atheism, and doing a certain amount of social advocacy. I now realize that these are critical issues in determining how our society, and perhaps how our species is going to go in the near and distant future. I don't consider myself a radical atheist like Hitchens or Dawkins, but I do consider myself a strong atheist, an atheist advocate, and an areligionist.
One result of this newfound activism has been a closer and deeper look at what I had always regarded as my own "conversion" to atheism. Previously I believed that, while I had doubts as a child, I was essentially a believer, and that reading the Bible and failing to find convincing explanations for what I found there had tipped me over into unbelief.
I no longer believe that to be true. What I now believe is that I was born an atheist. That I never really did believe, even as a child. But as a child I first of all had to go through the motions of what was expected of me by the adults upon whom I relied, and second, had at the time no clear concept of any viable alternative. What I now think is that the transition of my early teens was not a "conversion" to atheism, but a realization and slow acquisition of understanding about the unbelief which had been a part of my makeup from the beginning.
This raises some (to me) interesting questions. I now find myself wondering whether it is really possible to actually change from belief to unbelief, or vice versa, by intellectual effort alone. I feel like there must be some people for whom this is true, but it no longer seems like such a simple, or cut-and-dried process as I once imagined it to be. What I do know at this point is that I can't "make myself believe" something; I either do, or I don't. Should circumstances warrant, I could certainly behave as if
I believed something, and that might even fool most people. But it wouldn't be the same thing as real belief.
Which is, I suppose, kind of an anticlimactic conclusion for a religious (or an areligious) testimony:
I was never "saved", because I was never "lost".
Maybe just a little confused for a while.