Friday, October 5, 2007

The Agony and the Ecstathy

Let's get it out right up front.

I'm an atheist.

I've been an atheist for several decades now. When I was three I believed in fairies. (Heck, I was for a good while convinced I had spoken with some once, though I couldn’t really understand most of what they were saying.) I believed in Santa Claus. I believed in ghosts (and for many years I was certain I saw one). As a kid growing up in rural Australia, I had regular exposure to mostly fairly mild forms of Christianity and not much else. We didn’t go to church, but it was just part of the culture. I had some religious instruction in school, but it was generally pretty low-key. I sort of picked up some of the beliefs of the society I was in, but even as a kid I was questioning the bits that didn't make sense. I came to stop believing in fairies (though I couldn’t immediately explain the conversation I’d had as a three year old).. I eventually stopped believing in Santa Claus, though I kept it to myself – I didn’t want to interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment. I eventually stopped believing in ghosts.


I did read the bible (we had one at home), but I didn't take most of it at face value, and what little religious instruction I had encouraged me to consider at least parts of it as allegorical.

To be honest, the moment I had started to come to terms with my own mortality (by the time I hit my teens, I guess), I no longer had more that a mild susceptibility to belief in the more common notions of God. I guess you might have described me as a form of deist, though I didn’t know the term. By the time I was about 15 or 16 I described myself as an agnostic. But I still read the bible.

Reading the bible, actually reading it, studying it, comparing part with part, trying to understand what it's actually describing and suggesting, was a fantastic cure for any lingering belief. It had some cool parts, sure enough, and some of the language was poetic, even beautiful (KJV), but it had parts that were pretty horrible.


I knew there were other religions. They couldn’t all be true. Suppose that one religion was in fact true. People almost without exception seemed to follow the religion of their parents. Why would the religion a person was just born into necessarily be that “right” one? That suggested that a certain degree of skepticism of the religion one grew up with was perhaps wise, unless there was evidence to the contrary.

I happened to read of Pacal’s Wager at about this time. There was an immediately obvious flaw, even to my teenage self. The same argument could be applied to any potential religion that offered the same deal – what made the one you just happened to grow up around privileged? I was astonished that Pascal had not seen it himself, since he was apparently a smart guy. (I am less astonished now, since I understand the context he operated in a little better. Oh, and I also see a number of other problems in the reasoning.)

Once I got to university, I looked around at other religions (I read a good chunk of the Koran, I discussed Buddhism with Buddhists, I found out about Hinduism and Wicca), but I never took any of it terribly seriously - it was more a matter of finding out about beliefs than pursuing one of my own. There was stuff in each of them that was pretty good. There was also stuff that was plainly silly.

I guess I would have continued to describe myself as an agnostic until at least my early twenties, but I had long before ceased to have any doubt of significance; I was maintaining a facade of doubt.

Why?

Well, unless you've ever expressed significant religious doubt, maybe you've never encountered it, but believers, even seemingly "mild" ones, seem by and large to be incredibly threatened by the mere presence of disbelief. Normally calm people can become quite agitated and upset. It concerns me that someone’s belief can be so fragile that the mere presence of disbelief can be so threatening. I don’t like upsetting people. I never have. So I avoided even admitting to it.

I maintained my less threatening agnostic facade well past its use-by-date simply to avoid offending people. Eventually I came to terms with that, and just said - "well, at least say it out loud to yourself". So I did. I said, quietly, "I am an atheist. To be honest, I really have been for a long time now."

What an incredible relief that was. It was like breathing after holding my breath for years. To stand up and look around at the here and now, and to at last be completely free of the small, petty, closed-in view of things that had turned my face away from the world.

It was a quiet moment of bliss, of ecstasy.

But it was not the end of my journey. I have continued to think, and read, and, listen. I will tell some of my stories here, and discuss some of my thoughts, and point to interesting things others say and write.

I still don't like to upset people, but I have become convinced that it's necessary to speak, and simply accept that people will be upset.

I'm an atheist. I'm mostly very happy. Sometimes I'm ecstatic

No comments: