Friday, February 8, 2008

Finally, my atheism

On my private myspace blog, I discussed my atheism a long time ago. I've thought about retrieving those blogs and posting them all here. In general, I wish I knew how to take my myspace blog and transfer it to blogspot, but in chronological order. I don't want my old post to appear as new posts etc., so any ideas on that would be great.

So here is my first post from August 2006:

Okay, so I'm doing this more for me than for all of you, but I was asked the other day if I just woke up one day and was an atheist. The answer is 'no'. It is something that spanned many years, and I'm sure that many atheists have gone through similar awakenings. So depending on where you fall as far as religion vs. atheism goes, my next few blogs are going to be about my enlightenment, or my descension into hell :)

Part2: How I was raised

I think my upbringing was very average when it comes to religion. My parents were not zealots, they were default christians (that is, 'everyone is a christian so I guess I am too') and they accepted the basic tenets of the christrian religion without any thought at all. In my earliest years, we didn't go to church 'regularly'. We went to an evangelical free church down the street sometimes (I remember going their once) but for some reason my parents didn't like it. Of course, now that I know what evangelicalism is, I know why, but I didn't know at the time :) I had a good friend that I met when I was about 5, and by the time I was seven our families were pretty good friends. At that time, we were invited to the First Baptist Church and we all seemed to like it.

I can only speak for me, but I remember really embracing religion, starting when I was probably around 8 years old. I wanted to be baptized, I wanted my whole family to be baptized, and I remember really arguing for it and being excited about it. I remember getting a bible and taking my first communion after that, and I remember enjoying Sunday school, and bible school in the summers, and especially Wednesday night kids groups. I loved my church, I had lots of friends there and our youth director was a really special person in my life for a number of years starting at that young age.

So, the community part was obviously a large part of it, but it wasn't the only part I was sold on. As far as spirituality, I was also a complete believer. Looking back on it, and knowing what I know now about how I enjoy reading and studying and philosophy, I really think church and the bible filled that void for me at the time. Reading a really old text and trying to understand what it meant was something I liked doing, and this may seem odd to other atheists, but there is a logic behind religion. A logic I now know as faith. I guess what I mean is that there was a system to how you should think about religion and the world, there was a right and wrong, and most importatnly, there was a formula. The formula had nothing to do with evidence or rationality, but it was a formula nonetheless, and I think people deep down really like formulas. Really, thats all church is, its one big classroom, where the priest/preacher/clergyman/pastor use the formula of faith to take scripture and turn it into a message of fear, hope, and salvation. Not very different than the examples I do when teaching my statistics class.

So as I went from being a tween to my early teens, I was very active in my church, I sang in the choir, teen choir, did youth groups, went to bible school, bible camp, and church. I prayed (even around my school flag pole) I sang songs, and I thought I felt the presence of God on many many occassions. Of course, I also believed in astronomy, ghosts, tarot, and ouiji boards. Not coincidentally, I remember being afraid, afraid of the unknown, of death and dying, of heaven and hell. I remember crying and worrying, 'was my Grandpa in heaven even though he wasn't a believer before he died?' 'what if you do something awful and die before asking for forgiveness?' and things along that line. So religion did not bring me the peace many think it should. In fact the peace I have now as an atheist is not like any I've ever experienced, but I will get to that later I suppose.

Thus, I was not born an atheist, I was very much a christian at one point in my life, so much so that I took a discipleship course and was even interested in witnessing and spreading the good word as an adolescent.

Part 2: What the hell happened?

After reading through my last entry, I guess what isn't amazing is that I was a firm believer as a child, and I think children are the most faithful and magical people on earth. I wanted to believe in everything as a child. Invisibility, witches, wizards, magical spells, flying, hypnotism, astrology, ghosts, unicorns, angels, and of course, Santa Claus. And from my perspective now, god fits right in there with the rest of it all. I firmly believe god is Santa Claus for adults, and I believe that I came to my realizations about god and the church much like a child finds out about Santa Claus.

For example, there were just the plain old bald faced inconsistencies, kind of like your presents from your parents and your presents from santa claus being wrapped in the same paper. Finding out that god didn't write the bible, that a bunch of fallible men wrote it, and then others decided what should and shouldn't be included, and that they added things and censored things. And just like presents wrapped in the same paper, or catching your parents eating Santas cookies, these revelations happened periodically.

When I was 13 or 14, in a very laid back conversation, I asked my much revered youth pastor what he would do if somebody who was gay wanted to join our congregation. I didnt know the answer because unlike some religions, I dont ever remember anyone vocally condemning homosexuality in my church. Im sure you can all guess his answer, but at the time I was shocked. Here was one of the most principled, funny, sweet, wise people Id ever known (he was on a pedestal) and his answer was unequivocal. Add that little nugget to the occasional verse subjugating women in the bible, and it was an unsettling journey.

Of course, you have to remember, like the majority of christians, I was part of a mainstream church, so a lot of the more radical (and disturbing) doctrine were swept under the rug. There were no sermons on the role of women or on how homosexuality was a sin. This isnt to say people didnt believe these things, but it wasnt my churches selling point. And just like with Santa Claus, I wanted to believe so bad that I would just take evidence to the contrary and set it aside, or forget about it.

But I think the most important thing for me, and very much related to these small revelations, were the kinks in their formula of morality. I've always been a very righteous person, many times self-righteous, but always quickly assessing the rightness and wrongness and proclaiming injustice from the mountain tops if I saw it. I have my mom to thank for this. And deep down in my gut, many things in the Christian religion weren't adding up. As I mentioned in my last post, I cried and really worried about the fate of my grandfather's soul (a grandfather I never met) because he wasn't saved. And when I expressed this concern to my spiritual elders, the responses I got were different. I think a christians answer to this question is the test of their extremism. I would have some allude to the idea that we couldn't know, but maybe he was saved, and if he was a good person then I shouldn't worry etc. etc., oh yeah, and that I should pray about it.

On the other hand, at one particular Sunday school (I was probably 11 but maybe 12) at my grandparents church (not my regular church) the person leading our group discussed a young girl who in only the last few months before her death in a car accident, had done a lot of bad things (ran away, did drugs), and how her parents were so torn over her spiritual fate. And the teacher actually told us she probably wasn't in heaven. Of course, she did it more suavely than saying the girl was damned to hell, but I'm sure no one in that class questioned the theme of that message: You don't know when you're going to die, one slip up and you're damned to hell. I don't know the veracity of this story (it sounds made up now that I think about it), but if it isn't true, that's almost more fucked up than if it is true. Because if it isn't true, then she just made it up to scare all of us, if you know what I mean, her version of the religious bogeyman for preteens. And I guess, with perspective I have now, I feel like fear is the basis of religion; not hope.

So, I do believe that this scare factor is the biggest part of religion. They tap into that fear, a fear nobody wants to talk about, and they fear-monger very delicately, very subtley, in most sermons I've heard. I now know many extremists aren't so subtle, but I can not point out enough that most of this was very subtle in my very mainstream church.

There is one line in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, that I believe really gets at the moral core of religion, 'you better be good for goodness sake'. So, the whole song is about how SC knows all, and that you will be rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad, but don't think that means the reward is the reason for being good. No, they actually have to state that being good is intrinsically valuable. Now, why would anyone have to state such an obvious thing; that being good is good in its own right? Is it maybe because the entire song is all about earning rewards, and doing what you're told because if you don't you'll be punished? The intrinsic value of doing good is a side note, a small disclaimer. Everything else in the song says be good for authoritys sake, be good for your own sake. Be good because unlike your parents, SC is always watching. So when it says, be good for goodness sake, it is conceding that the entire rest of message has absolutely nothing to do with the virtues of being good.

Religion is exactly the same. Morally, it is hollow. People don't do good for goodness sake. They do good for their own sake, they do good because god is watching, they do good so you can pat yourself on the back, they do good because they are afraid of what they don't understand (death). And Im even making the grand assumption that all Christians do at least some good in the name of their faith, which isnt true. Many dont do good at all, but they use the idea of gods rewards for good and bad as justification for the worlds inequalities. Whether they did good or not, their fortunes are earned rewards (blessings), and misfortunes are punishments. If you're a millionaire, then you MUST have been good, right?

And the hollowness of the moral foundation of religion is seen in just about everything, and its hollowness is evident in the vast array of differences between different religious groups and what they believe to be right and wrong (from eating pork to blood transfusions). I guess it is a lot easier for people to base their life on dogma than it is to really think about ethics and morality. And I guess that is what is so ironic about religious people believing that atheists are amoral or immoral. For even the most religious person must see the hypocrisy of their system of morality. They have to know that when you get down to the foundations of it all, that it doesnt make logical sense. And the more you read the bible literally, the more you believe in biblical inerrancy, the more absurd the logic becomes.

So what happened? A lot of little things. Its not like somebody came up and told me one day, and that was it. It was a process where a small piece of the lie was revealed over a period of time until the entire thing was as absurd as it obviously shouldve been from the beginning. I had a comment on my last section regarding being born an atheist and I have thought about it a lot. I have to disagree, children are born into a world of faith, all of your knowledge is based on faith, faith in your god-like parents. I dont think anyone is born an atheist, I think we are all born innately to be believers and we believe whatever we are told.

From the view of the faithful, the story of what happened to my faith is, as I joked, my descencion into 'sin'. I started doing drugs, hanging out with the wrong crowd, etc., etc.,. This is true, I was questioning all authority at the time, but during my teen years, when I did the stupidest things in my life, I would never have called myself an atheist. I was still a believer, perhaps a wayward believer, but I had been much too frightened as a teenager to say or believe god didnt exist. And let me tell you, being a wayward believer is probably one of the worst feelings in the world, because you still believe some of the dogma, and at that age, I had no idea how to assess anything on real philosophical, moral level. Well, let me take that back, I did, I did a lot of philosophy before I knew what it was, but I hadnt started to really really question the basis of morality in this world. And I was still sad and frightened, but most of all I was confused. I didnt call myself an atheist until right around 2004. Before that I was an non-Christian agnostic (I didnt know what I was, but I knew for sure I wasnt a Christian), and before that, I wouldve been a deist, and before that probably a Christian.

Part 3: Peace through atheism

So, I mentioned that I never felt more at peace with the world and my place in it since becoming an atheist. So, I'm going to describe what that means for me.

Since I've become an atheist, I'm not scared anymore. I'm not scared of trivial things, and I 'm not scared of big things. I'm not scared of ghosts, or walking through my house at night, I'm not scared of anything supernatural. I'm scared of people and pain (okay, I'm also scared of spiders although completely and admittedly irrational). Once more, I don't ponder death, or more to the point, what happens after. I just don't, I can't explain it. I don't dwell on it, I don't wonder or worry at all, unlike before. I'm at peace with the human condition. And I guess, honestly, even if I thought that there was a 1 in a billion chance that there were in 'afterlife', I still wouldn't ponder it, because it would be futile. After saying that, let me ponder . . . LMAO

Let's assume there is an 'afterlife', first of all, if we could know what it was really like, how could we possibly understand it? 'Heaven' is characterized in the bible as this place full of earthly goods and mansions, and streets, and people (virgins for Islam), and this just seems completelely culturally constructed to me. Would heaven really entail these man made things? Would it mean that we would still be communicating in a society? And if so, what makes it so much different than this world? Don't people who believe in heaven or hell grasp that the only conceptions of heaven that have ever been came so clearly from the human brain?

For me, the peace that will come from dying is the kind of peace where I don't have to think, react, or feel. Many people, when they grow older, are just plain tired, it is said 'they are ready to die'. Hell, many people who take their own lives are just as tired, and I guess I can understand that. Being a finite creature is about the only thing we have going for us, because to be part of this human condition, good and bad, takes a lot of work. An afterlife that entailed anything remotely close to what this life entails (socially or mentally) would not be 'heaven' by definition.

I love my family, I love communicating with them, sharing my life with them, but what would there be to communicate in the afterlife? And if there is no communication, no physical body, no language or emotion, then does it matter if we are with our loved ones? Wouldn't every 'entity' be a loved one? And if there is communication, and language, and bodies, what would we do or discuss? Our life back on earth? Wouldn't our thoughts be covetous of that life lost? And if that were true, then would it be 'heaven'. There is no family without life. Social bonds, language, and experiences create friendship, and these are things that cannot be a part of any rational conception of 'heaven'.

And that brings me to the fear. I guess heaven was conceived because people are afraid of not thinking or not being. When I was a kid, I cried once thinking about these things, I remember it distinctly, I was probably 10 or 12, and it was a hard hit. I think to finally fully understand that we will no longer 'be' can be a traumatic realization. I remember thinking, 'I don't ever want to not exist', and the feeling of it was awful. But on top of trying to deny the finite nature of our 'selves', we are also afraid of losing the social bonds we have with our loved ones. I think that people are afraid that when one of their loved ones dies, that things weren't communicated that should've been, or that things didn't happen in a way they imagined or would have wanted, they're upset about the circumstances surrounding their death (if it was violent or unexpected), or just because of an unhappy circumstance that may surround the timing of their death. And the whole idea of heaven is that people will have that chance to communicate or to follow through with their promises, or will be able to show their worth or prove themselves in ways they weren't able to before the death happened. The conception of heaven is just a way to not close the door on those social interactions that were inevitably unfulfilled. And for a 'self' that was created from social communication and social bonds (socialization), this is equally as devastating as losing one's self.

What I think people are forgetting when they have these regrets is that what is happening in our world, from the worst attrocity to the most glorious acts are all quite beside the point. What I mean is that, each of our lives, in the grand scheme, does not matter that much. Our hopes and fears and the love and laughter we experience are important to us, they're all we have; but in the universe, they are inconsequential. Subjectively, they are EVERYTHING, they are our world. Objectively, they are as meaningless as a summer breeze. No matter the life, no matter how grand or humble, short or long, it is magnificent, and it is miniscule at the same time. To focus only on the social obligations that went unfulfilled in anyone's lifespan is to lose that perspective.

And the hope of heaven is also part of the yearning to know and understand this life in a way that is impossible for us, and it is a way to fulfill our curiosity so we can find peace in knowing the past and the future and so we can know that our unfinished dreams will be realized in the next generations. My question is, what is the difference between being all knowing and knowing absolutely NOTHING? The answer is, when you die, there is no difference. And that isn't a tragic thing, or something to regret. And I guess that is what will be wonderful about death, no more hoping or worrying, no more wondering or regretting, simply no more. And its that simple, and it is neither a good or bad thing for the person who died, it just is. Because even if they didn't want to die, or they were angry that their time here was done, that anger and want and regret will end in peace just like the love and laughter will end in peace.

Death is only bad for those of us still alive because we miss people, and there is nothing wrong with that. When I cry at funerals, I cry for the living. I cry for myself, I cry for the people who won't get to know who I knew, I cry for those who were closest to the person who died, I cry for the hole I know they will have in their lives. But I don't cry for the person who died, because they are at peace, and you don't have to believe in heaven or god to believe that.

So, I hope that there is not an afterlife, I really do, because it could never be better or worse than life itself. Peace is nothing, and nothing will not be good or bad or happy or sad, it will just be, and I find comfort in that. And that comfort is not reliant upon supernatural forces.

4 comments:

charmedgirl said...

i didn't finish reading the whole post, but JESUS CHRIST! i can't believe i read that you related faith to statistics.

when i was doing my MPH, i had a required biostats class. i don't particularly enjoy math, mostly because the teachers are usually antisocial arses.

one night, the prof said something that turned that class into one of my favorite in grad school.

he had a formula written out that spanned the entire whiteboard. then he circled like, five different sections of it and said, "those parts we just take on faith. they're just fill-ins." WTF??

people all over the country...the WORLD...are taking biostatistical research and talking about scientific evidence...people compare religion to science relentlessly, saying they can't believe anything not based on evidence.......and the evidence is bullshit. maybe. the fact is, no one knows.

so, even assuming that the researcher her/himself is an honorable person, and also assuming THEY made the correct assumptions, (assuming the impossible), even the formulas themselves are only theories.

EVERYTHING is faith-based. and i definitely agree that religion makes sense.

(and i hope i don't hog your whole comment section by the time i finish this post, but i fear there's more to come...)

charmedgirl said...

BRAVO, anarchist mom!!!

i grew up mormon and like you, as a teenager, was a wayward believer. i later went back to full believership, right around entering college, out of fear. during college, i converted to the church of cultural anthropology.

like you, i also have known no greater peace. even in the wake of a dead baby, it brings me more peace than anything else could have. life is beautiful, period.

anarchist mom said...

Oh, that has been the biggest shake up for me. Because my faith is statistics. I just count on the odds. I did it all through my pregnancy. "Chances are, things are all right." Or with my mom (who terrified of random child molesters getting her grandkids) I ask her what she thinks the probability of that is? VERY REMOTE. Most sexual assault has nothing to do with strangers. IT's family members.

So anyway, as someone in the social science, where our alpha level is .05, I'm just like, "shit". Because the chances of what happened to me (a full term still birth) is like 1/300. But when it's you, its' 100%. So I've lost all faith in 'chances'. And that was really the only faith I had. So in that sense, I'm losing faith now just like religious people might be losing faith when dealt the blow we've been dealt. Blah. Which is why I'm moving very slightly back towards and agnosticism, but that's another post.

annorarose said...

Hi, anarchist mom,

I followed you here from MotherTalkers, where I lurk. I hope you don't mind me commenting, but I wanted to let you know how sorry I am to read of Myles's death and your family's loss. It's completely unfair and I wish there was something I could do or say that would help ease your pain.

There's an atheist and agnostic parenting board over on babycenter.com. It's a good group of people, and several of them have also experienced the loss of a child. It says on your blog page that you felt somewhat alone as an atheist grieving for a child, so I wanted to let you know that there's a community out there, if you want it. Here's the link.

Again, my deepest condolences on the loss of your son.

-Annora