August 24, 2007
The journey to atheism
(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from August 8, 2005, edited and updated.)
In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:
It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.
"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts
The Roberts quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.
But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no real grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.
But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship of god to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. People can be urged to accept things on the basis of faith as if it were virtuous to do so.
But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?
I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is very likely that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one's personal philosophy since childhood. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize that my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.
Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.
Another benefit of not believing is that one could be more consistent in how one interpreted events. For example, religious survivors of some calamity are often quick to claim that god must have saved them from harm while refusing to acknowledge that, by that logic, god must have wanted all the others to perish. The media reinforces this kind of silly thinking. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewered how the media quickly jumped on the "It's a miracle!" bandwagon to "explain" the lack of any fatalities when an Air France plane crashed in Toronto in 2005. There was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation for this, which was the calmness and competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the "miracle" theme.
As Stewart said: "The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew's satanic competence."
There was a time when I too would have credited god for saving the people in the plane crash while not laying the blame on him for people who died in other plane crashes. Now those kinds of contradictions are glaringly obvious.
A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.
It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? What seems clear to me is that the standard answers provided by religion that satisfied me once will not satisfy me anymore. I have a much higher standard of evidence. But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence.