I’ve lived with a secret for many years. Well, it’s not completely a secret – most of my friends know, but several key members of my family do not know. Of those folks who don’t know, several have probably guessed and the remainder probably don’t want to know. So here it is:
I am as close to an atheist as you can get without using that label fully. At a bare minimum, I am a staunch agnostic. How did I get here?
I was raised in a Christian Reformed household that attended church every Sunday. I did Sunday school early where I learned, it seems, about the story of Lazarus over and over again. I’m sure there was other stuff, but I swear they really drilled that story home. I was a part of the youth group, though our excursions seemed to be less vehemently religious than they perhaps should have been. My father was a long-serving deacon at our church, and my mother for a time was the secretary. My oldest brother was also extremely active in the church.
For the first 13 years of my life, going to church meant a time to sit in the pews and draw on the church bulletins. I became quite adept at making paper airplanes at this time because, well, what else was there to do? At 13, when most people made profession of faith, I did not. Something that surprises me now: my father never required me to. My oldest brother and sister had (I believe), but it was always left up to us. At the time, I didn’t do it – not because of some innate belief – but because I simply felt I wasn’t ready, whatever that meant.
At 13, we were no longer allowed to draw during the sermons, but had to listen. It was something I was rarely able to do, a young kid with a hyperactive imagination. I can remember maybe three sermons to this day from my entire life, and one was at a guest-church in NY that explained why it’s okay to hunt animals and not to kill people (“you don’t murder rabbits”). By the middle of high school it became very apparent that my father was going to require I continue to go to church as long as I lived under his roof. It’s not that I hated it, I just didn’t get much out of it, and though I could be doing something better with my Sunday mornings. So I decided to join the choir. I always enjoyed singing, and the songs, although mostly dour, were the bright spots of going to church.
I think this tricked me into thinking I was more religious than I really was. To some degree, I was looking forward to going to church every week, not really realizing it was, at that time, SOLELY because of being in the choir. I even asked a girl I had just started dating, “What is your view of religion?” At that time, I considered myself religious enough that the question even had to be broached. But as I think back on college, I can already recall me pulling away from the idea of religion in general. I was making up excuses and illnesses so I wouldn’t have to go to church (except on weeks where I had a song to sing).
By that time I’d done a couple of years at Rutgers, I feel like I would have classified myself as simply not religious, but really with no further explanation. It just wasn’t a part of my life. By the time I’d leave Rutgers, I would probably have declared myself as not at all spiritual. It was also around that time that I started claiming to be “against organized religion.”
That transition happened pretty gradually. I started to look at how a cult was defined. I always thought of it as a group of people with shared beliefs, usually extremely outlandish, who are funded at the expense of their own followers. Well, how was Christianity any different? Every week we passed around a collection plate specifically for the church itself, to keep it running. It was voluntary, sure, but there was a certain guilt that came with not putting money in.
And here’s where I started to come to the biggest realization in my life. Most of the major religions preach that theirs is the only one – that others are wrong. In Christianity, the first commandment is that nobody has any other gods before him, and the second is that nobody is allowed to worship any other images. Other major religions have something comparable. Well, the realization was that I could not, in all honesty, tell someone else that their belief was wrong. I mean, Christians believe that Jesus’ mother conceived without sex, and that he walked on water, and that 33 years of his life are inexplicably not mentioned. Those are all pretty tough pills to swallow. It makes some of the fringe religions’ claims seem not altogether outlandish (I’m looking at you, Scientology.)
In fact, there’s my point. Most people, religious or not, consider Scientology to be a sham. Its doctrine was written by a science-fiction author, after all. Just written by a dude. Well, the Bible, at least the parts written about Jesus, were written by dudes, none of whom were alive when Jesus was. So it’s not like they had direct interaction; they were getting second-hand, third-hand (who knows, eighth-hand?) information from people about his life. I once started a rumor in college about myself, and I had a good friend later accuse me of lying to her when I denied it. Stories get mangled. It happens.
I also couldn’t look past the rampant hatred, bigotry, and (in many cases) warfare that was initiated in the name of religious differences. I had so much trouble believing that something that true and pure could be so inherently destructive.
That’s where I stayed for years – against organized religion. Fast forward until maybe the last five-ten years, where I actively described myself as “agnostic”. I just didn’t know what the truth was. I was reluctant to buy any of the major religions, but I certainly didn’t deny that there COULD be a higher power out there, possibly even an unrealistically light-skinned Arab man with a beard.
Then, in the last year, a few things happened:
1) I watched the movie “Religulous”. I’m no fan of Bill Maher (in addition to being someone whose convictions get in the way too severely to get his point across, he’s not at all funny), but this movie was an eye-opener. Basically, he did all the research that I’d wanted to do. It was interesting to see the actual religious fanatics not having answers to some of the simpler questions he asked about their religion. But where it really struck me was when he compared the major tenets of Jesus’ story to the religions that preceded Christianity (Horus and/or Osiris if my memory serves me correctly, and even someone from Norse mythology). I mean, these parallels are far too similar to chalk off as coincidence. It really really seems like people lifted “facts” straight from pre-existing religions, kinda like how the Romans just stole Greek gods and renamed them.
2) I had a visit from my father and stepmother, very devout Christians. It was an enjoyable time, although I did have to roll my eyes when they denied global warming, and had to actually speak up when they condemned homosexuality (“The real problem I have is when they want to adopt a child. I mean, what chance does that child have?” I brought up the divorce rates among straight folk and how in my opinion that would be harder for a child to grow up with.) But my stepmother asked Ashley if in the four years I’d been here we’d found a church yet. I don’t know whether that means that they honestly thought I was still religious enough to attend a church, or that she was putting out a feeler to see what our reaction would be. Ashley gave a non-committal answer and it wasn’t brought up again.
But this interchange was part of the reason for this blog post. I don’t want this to be a secret anymore. I’m not religious. I won’t be raising my kids as religious. That does NOT mean that I will raise them necessarily to forsake religion. If they get older and ask about it, I have no problems if they want to go out in the world and amass information about whatever they want. And I will instill them with several of the moral compasses that most religions institute (not killing people is pretty universal). I will, however, actively dissuade them from making hateful social choices for any reason – whether religiously-based or not. I will not tolerate homophobia, racism, disdain of the poor… etc. Tolerance is preached in so many religious sects but practiced in so few. It will be a hallmark of my boys’ upbringing.
3) I’ve been to recent ceremonies where religion trumped the actual event. Weddings, funerals, even reunions. I’ve been to them all where I heard more ‘praise Jesus’ and ‘he is good’ than I heard mention of the people getting married, the ones who passed, the people who were meeting… It’s conceited and, frankly, bullshit. To have a ceremony in the tradition of a religion I have no problem with. Where I have a problem is when it becomes a billboard for religion rather than a template from which to work. One ceremony saw the pastor use the time to basically try to convert any non-believers to Christianity. That has NO part in the ceremony! Talk about the people who were the cause of this ceremony, you self-involved douche!
So where does that leave me, and why am I not an atheist? What am I, exactly? First, here is why I’m not an agnostic in the sense that most people perceive (but I think, by definition, I am a perfect agnostic):
I don’t actively believe that there is a god. I think most people’s definition of agnosticism ends there – they feel like agnostics could be swayed into some of the facets and stories of Christianity (or Buddhism or Judaism) even if they do not necessarily think there may be a bearded guy who created everything. Me? I have a very active disbelief in all religious teachings. Christianity is the whipping-boy because it’s the one I know the most about, but it holds true for all. I do not believe that a mythical bored man created everything in six days, I do not believe someone turned water into wine, I do not believe in an immaculate conception, I do not believe there is a Heaven where winged people play harps, I do not believe there is a burning place of damnation for all non-believers. These are absolutes in my mind: just as I believe that Earth is round, I believe that Christianity is in all ways fake. I believe in some of the ETHICS of Christianity (you shouldn’t murder, cheat on your wife, etc) but none of the rest of it. I also fully believe that there isn’t a Mohammad that judges everyone, just as there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, just as there is no spaceship behind the comet. I think all the religions that are widely practiced today have it wrong, and it’s egotistical of people to say they have it all figured out.
However, on to why I will not say I’m atheist: just as it is wrong for humans to say they figured out the mysteries of life through religion, it’s equally pompous to say that about science as well. I mean, as few as 1000 years ago, scientists SWORE the Earth was flat. As recent as 50 years ago, scientists thought there could be aliens on Mars. The fact is humans are wrong – even our experts – with spectacular frequency. So when all life – the incomprehensive complexity of, say, the human body – is said to be traced to a bunch of matter banging all over the place (a term I used in one of my stories), that’s an equally tough pill to swallow. The sheer amount of coincidences needed to brew the perfect storm of matter that caused us to exist borders on ludicrous. Of course, there are facts POINTING this direction (we can calculate that things are expanding, so it can be extrapolated what would happen if you rewound the tape), but it is NOT a fact. It is a very very sound theory. See, science is based on repeatable results, and it has a definite leg-up on religion in terms of explaining things, but it is not absolute and I don’t feel it can be considered “fact”.
Science, to me, is full of really really great explanations that I will repeat as my innate beliefs, but I will not say that The Big Bang Theory is an absolute fact. It’s just 99.9996% more likely than some dude with time to kill creating the heavens and the earth. I will also not rule out that there is something else out there, something otherworldly that perhaps caused some or all of existence to be, or even some otherworld being that doesn’t do anything, (s)he just hangs around and checks out what people are doing. I will say that this hypothetical being isn’t Jesus, and it’s not Buddha, and it’s not Zeus, but I will not say that there is a 0% chance that it exists. And that is what is needed to be an atheist. Douglas Adams put what atheism is best: “I really do not believe that there is a god; in fact, I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one … etc., etc. It’s easier to say that I am a radical atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.” I’m not quite there yet. I don’t believe that god as Christians know it exists, nor any of the majors, but I’m not ready to say that there is no possible unearthly being.
I feel compelled to add something of a post-script. I believe religions are wrong, but I don’t begrudge or belittle anyone who disagrees with my stance. Just as I was never able to tell anyone of a different religion that they were wrong, I still can’t seem to do the same thing with religious people. I don’t try to convert religious people, just as I *hope* (in vain) that they won’t try to convert me, and I’m certain that they wouldn’t be able to if they tried. We coexist. I understand historically the importance of religion, and in quite a number of people, they lead very virtuous, giving lives because of it. I can respect that. Just as I’d hope religious people would respect my beliefs, which are as steadfast as theirs.