Why I am an Atheist
PZ Myers on his wonderful Pharyngula blog has been asking for essays on why people are atheists, so I thought I’d write my own. Below is what I wrote originally, but it went on a fair bit so I’ve submitted a heavily edited version to him. If it gets put up on his blog I shall let you all know! Apologies in advance for the length of this post!
Why I am an Atheist
I realise that I am incredibly lucky. I am a college-educated, very well-travelled Western woman from a nominally middle-class family, born into a society where religion is rarely mentioned in polite (or even impolite) company. My parents didn’t go in for religion in a big way, but did try and thrust some Christian beliefs onto me. I have vague memories of Sunday schools, of being Mary in a Nativity and of attending services as Brownie where they let me ring the church bells (while being carefully watched to make sure I didn’t disappear up into the belfry), but I don’t recall having any strong religious convictions. To me, God was just the nice man in the sky who you sent your wishes to. A bit like Santa Claus, but at least you got presents from him at Christmas; God never seemed to grant my wishes (and if Santa couldn’t get me a pony then what hope did God have?!).
I had a minor ‘crisis of faith’ when I was nine and my beloved hamster Shadow fell sick. I spent a worried night praying that she would be ok, but alas in the morning she was dead and I was heartbroken. I thought it unfair that God had ignored my prayers and had taken something precious from me. I didn’t understand what I’d done to deserve her death, falling in to the (rather arrogant) trap that somehow it was my fault she had died. I clearly hadn’t been religious enough to warrant God saving her. But as children do I bounced back and forgot my little waver of faith.
From a young age I was a voracious reader and one of my most treasured books (which I still have to this day) was an encyclopaedia of Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the world – from the Classical Mediterranean and the Norse, to the exotic; Central American, African, Asian… complete with their myths and legends. Already I was aware that not everyone had always believed in ‘my’ God, and some people in the world still didn’t.
When I was ten my father’s job took us to Cyprus, which is a fascinating country for those that know anything about its history, and a perfect place to visit the nearby Middle East from. My parents were very keen on encouraging us to travel and two trips in particular changed the way I viewed the world.
First was to Israel; yes, I have seen where Jesus was born (wait, the Bible never said anything about a cave!), I’ve been to his ‘tomb’ and I’ve (rather morbidly) stuck my hand in the hole where apparently his cross stood. But I also saw the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and felt the tension between the three religions that marginally “share” the city. It didn’t make sense to my childish mind why they couldn’t all just get along.
While in Jordan I experienced for the first time what it was like to be a woman in a culture so different to my own, especially when I made the mistake of walking down the main street in Amman wearing a pair of (not very short) shorts that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow back home but garnered gawk-eyed stares from every man that passed. I was eleven years old. And it made me very uncomfortable. I felt like I had committed some huge crime, yet I was too young to truly understand why my appearance elicited those responses. Looking back, it’s easy to say I should have, or at least perhaps my parents should have, been more culturally aware, but for me it was an eye-opener. For the first time I realised how much freedom I had in my culture.
Despite this early awareness of world religions, it wasn’t until I was sent to a very Christian school at the age of fourteen that I really began to question what I believed. Thanks to an administration error that saw me taking an extra class compared to the other girls in my year I avoided the compulsory overtly Christian ‘Religious Education’ lessons but I couldn’t avoid morning assemblies, nor Chapel on Sunday mornings. A key turning point came during one such morning assembly when one of the more religious teachers (she was a 60 year old virgin who was saving herself for Cliff Richard, seriously) stood up and gave a talk on missionaries visiting jungle tribes to convert them. The exact words she used to justify this were ‘if you see someone doing something wrong, it’s only right to correct them’. I remember sitting there wanting to jump up and scream, “who are you say what they believe is wrong?!” I didn’t, mores the pity.
Instead, I read the Bible (a cure for theism if ever there was one) and went to an Alpha Course at school where I discovered my questions were not welcomed and I was asked not to return as apparently I was confusing the younger students. My mind was finally made up when I asked my biology teacher (one of those amazingly inspirational teachers who I admired greatly) whether she believed in God and was told that if she wanted to keep her job at the school she couldn’t answer my question. That seemed pretty clear to me.
I got involved in online discussions which sharply shaped my atheism and I also became very quickly aware of the evangelical Christians in America, whose ‘fire and brimstone’ approach to religion was so different to my own Church of England experience, which is more like ‘tea and cake, and tombola at the village fete’. I became a fan of the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens and Sir Terry Prachett (I thoroughly recommend his ‘Nation’ to anyone) among many others and went on to study archaeology at university. My early love of books has turned into a love of knowledge and my current job as a university learning support assistant (while studying for a Masters!) has been fantastic in allowing me to sit in on lectures on a huge variety of subjects, including physics, geology, biology and chemistry. I’ve travelled around the world and made an effort to learn about the beliefs of each culture I visited, from the various forms of Buddhism in South East Asia, to the incredibly (and anthropologically important) Aboriginal and Maori beliefs of Oceania, as well as ensuring I have a working knowledge of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Everything I’ve learned has enforced, rather than made me question, my atheistic stance.
I am lucky that I live in a country where religious belief, or lack of, rarely raises an eyebrow. One of my good friends is an Egyptian Muslim (currently dating an Irish Catholic; now there’s a RomCom waiting to be written!) and he is endlessly curious in my beliefs, but never judgemental or incendiary.
That is not to say I haven’t come across intolerance; I was regularly told I was going to hell by a girl I lived with in university. A very active member of the Christian Union, she ‘discovered’ that another of my flatmate’s atheism was due to the tragic death of her uncle (which my flatmate witnessed and so understandably had issues surrounding it) and decided to try and ‘save’ her. It got so bad that my flatmate would leave her door open so that whenever this girl tried to engage her in a religious debate I would be able to drop in and take up the argument. These often ended with my asking where the dinosaurs were in the Bible and her being frustrated and invoking the ‘hell’ card. Sadly that’s just one example.
Meanwhile my parents still remain convinced this is a ‘phase’ I am going through and seemed initially upset when I told them I didn’t believe in God (though I think my Mother was more upset about there being no possibility of a church wedding rather than being worried about my immortal soul!). We got into a debate at Christmas recently where my Mother said something that I took as a huge compliment: “For a non-believer you do know a lot about the Bible”… My response? Yes, that’s why I don’t believe!
None of this is to say I have a problem with people who believe in a branded (or unbranded) religion – I don’t. And if a God came down and revealed themselves then I would readjust my belief accordingly. I consider my position to be a scientific one, a “null hypothesis” as it were.
I shan’t talk about morality and atheism in this post, as I have gone on far too long now, though I will address it at some point in the future because it’s a subject I feel strongly about. Instead I shall end by addressing those people who say atheists see everything in terms of science and so cannot appreciate the world properly… To you let me just say this:
Knowing how life began doesn’t make a new born baby any less amazing.
Knowing how mountains are formed doesn’t make the scenery any less breathtaking.
Knowing why we have night and day doesn’t make sunsets any less beautiful.
Believing there is no afterlife doesn’t cheapen or negate this life; it makes it more precious, more important, and more fragile. This isn’t a dress rehearsal; this is a one-night show that’s already begun (and some people are already passed the midpoint drinks break!).
I intend to live this life to the fullest, with no regrets. Because if this is all there is, then I’m damn sure I’m going to make it good.