It first happened in a Sunday school classroom at Central Baptist Church, some time around 1980ish. We were talking about the Noah’s Ark story, and some of the other kids were asking questions about how all the animals fit on the ark, and things like that. I was thinking it was pretty obvious that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally. They were clearly myths that were intended to express some sort of ideal or moral. But then the teacher started to try and answer their questions, talking about different ways the animals may have all fit, really trying to figure out the details, like it was a real thing. They believed it was literally true too! That was when it first occurred to me that I was different than the other people in that room. There was something significantly different about the way we approached what we were reading in the bible.
My family wasn’t all that religious back in those days. Sure, we went to church most Sundays, we had a “Christmas program” when we met as an extended family in December, things like that, but that was about it. During our normal day-to-day, the subject of religion and gods didn’t come up very often. That would change, somewhat, in more recent years, but that was the environment I grew up in.
I didn’t really spend much more energy on the subject until we get into the 90s. I was a young adult now, in my 20s. The selfish child was transitioning into a more outward-looking adult. I started reading more philosophy. The Christian Right was tightening its grip on American politics. I joined the Peace Corps and spent some time living in a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa. In general, my perspective was growing to include more and more of the world, and more and more people.
Around the turn of the century, I met my first wife (She’s still my wife. She never gets tired of that joke! Right, sweetie? Sweetie?). Our relationship was getting more serious, and we spent time talking about important things. Religion was one of those things. By this time, I had been wrestling with the cognitive dissonance battling in my head between the stories and beliefs that I had been raised with and the real world that was coming into clearer and clearer focus around me. I guess I had become a bit of a Spinozist, viewing God as some sort of divine embodiment of the natural universe. My wife-to-be was fresh out of a fairly sheltered life with her Lutheran family in South Dakota. It was during a discussion on religion with her parents when her father asked “You’re not atheists, are you?”, almost spitting the word out of his mouth, like poison. We both said no, which at the time we thought was the truth.
I would say that discussion was a second big moment in my journey (probably for my wife as well, but I’ll only speak for myself here), because that conversation, and that question … well, let’s call it what it is … that accusation triggered a chain of thought that eventually led me to make two huge realizations. First, I was an atheist. I didn’t believe in any gods. And second, that the human emotion machine is a ridiculously strong motivator and manipulator of human perception and will. All of that mental and emotional effort I had spent over the decades was little more than my way of trying to take what I had been taught, by people that I loved and trusted and respected, and make it fit with what I was seeing and thinking. And I can tell you this, when I came to those realizations, I could feel the existential weight and pressure I had felt for years just fall away, just like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds. I felt like I was finally being honest with myself. (Even as I write these words, I am struck by the irony of describing this realization using strong emotional terms!)
So now, armed with my new-found freedom of conscience, I set out to answer some questions. Am I right about this? And if so, how can I be sure of that? I didn’t want to step out of one emotional mindtrap right into another. So I started reading more on the subject, talking to people, my friends and people online, listening to podcasts, and so on. I gained a healthier respect for the importance of reason, evidence, critical thinking, and of recognizing one’s own human shortcomings (I had always been a pretty logical person, science-oriented. But like most humans, I had compartmentalized the struggles I had with my beliefs far away from that way of thinking, at least somewhat.).
At this point, I just want to interject a bit and recognize that I am a human being. I know full well that everything I think, feel, and believe is happening in a human brain, and so all of it is subject to the foibles and shortfalls of using a human brain. Could this whole thing just be a “phase” for me? Is it just my way of asserting myself and rebelling against my parents, or society? Am I caught in an emotional mindtrap? Well, I suppose that’s possible. It doesn’t seem very likely to me, but I have to see that even that self-assessment might be just another emotional manipulation of my own perceptions. Does that self-admission help me to protect myself against those traps? Maybe. I think so. But I may be wrong.
A third big milestone in my journey was The Atheist Experience. TAE is a TV show and podcast produced by the Atheist Community of Austin (Texas), and hosted by a dozen or so volunteers from that group. The stated purpose of the call-in show is to simply have discussions with people of all stripes, share thoughts and opinions, seek the truth, and share the atheist experience with others. I can’t say that the show had anything to do with me realizing I was an atheist (I don’t think I “became” an atheist, as I can’t remember a time when I really believed.), but they did help come to the realization that THIS IS IMPORTANT. Citizens, voters, legislators, people make decisions based on their beliefs. Does it make sense that some of the most fundamental and over-arching beliefs are taboo and out-of-bounds for discussion? No, of course it doesn’t make any sense at all. Beliefs are only valuable to the extent that they are true, and the truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny. It is IMPORTANT that we are able to openly discuss our beliefs, their strengths and weaknesses, their role in our lives. And it is IMPORTANT for non-believers to feel comfortable in their own skin, their own homes, and their own communities. We have the freedom of religion in this country, for the time being at least, and that goes for the freedom from religion as well. The lessons I learned from TAE convinced me that I shouldn’t back away from reasonable discussion, and that I shouldn’t be nervous or hesitant in admitting that I was an atheist. So many atheists out there think they are all alone. Because of that, they feel they need to keep their beliefs hidden away. Well, they are not alone. So many theists out there think they don’t know any atheists. That makes it easy to view them as “the other”. Well, most of them do know atheists, and they had never even considered that they can be nice, thoughtful, caring, generous, productive members of society. It’s important, for those of us that feel comfortable to do so, to be open about our beliefs, to help support those that feel emotionally, socially, or even physically threatened, and to let them know they are not alone. It’s important to speak against unfair stereotypes that are spread through ignorance or malice. The biggest roadblock to really understanding someone is often simple awareness, and the best way to promote awareness is to just stand up and say “hey, here I am!”
(Here is an example of a recent conversation I had with a Christian that had a skewed view of what it meant to be an atheist.)
So I guess that’s the takeaway I’ve gotten from this journey (a journey that continues, by the way). I need to be myself. I need to stand for what I think is right. I find value in intellectual honesty, in being honest with myself, and in being honest with my family, friends, and others. Don’t I owe myself at least that much?
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
(I had intended to write more about what it means to be an atheist, but I have decided this is long enough, and will continue in a second post.)