Sunday, December 7, 2008

Why Did I Choose Atheism

That is a very common question for me. Why did I choose atheism? I didn't. Being religious or not being religious rarely is a choice for us. Most people are born into their religion and never know anything different. We are indoctrinated into the beliefs and values of a particular faith. That is why you are substantially more likely to be Muslim if you are born in Saudi Arabia or substantially more likely to be Christian if born in Latin America. (Quick note here, when I speak of Christianity I speak of all branches of Christianity unless I specify otherwise.) We are the products of the teaching we get from our families. Go into nearly any new church and you will see that huge amounts of the square footage are dedicated to the children's education (indoctrination) into the faith. It is a tacit understanding among believers that far fewer people, when given the choice as an adult, would be as accepting of religion -- especially those littered with childlike legends of taking snakes, arks with all of the animals on board, and stories of virgin births. Religion, unless pounded into our heads from a young age rarely survives the rational adult brain. Few of us actually break away from our parent faith. This is with good reason. We have to untangle ourselves from our faith, from the pressures of our peer groups, and the like. Most notably, many of us have to get over the fear of hell that is drilled into our heads. This is an incredibly insidious feature of many religions. The idea that failure to believe will result in eternal torment is as evil as any idea ever concocted by man.

So, when I am asked why I chose atheism, I can only say that I did not. I did not wake up one day and say, "Wow, today I think I will be an atheist." It does not work that way. It is a long and terrible journey. It is filled with pain, ostracism, and fear. When you finally do make it on the other side, you face discrimination, hate-mail, and other negative reactions from those who once professed to love you. However, I can say that breathing the fresh air of reason is good enough for me. I can say that being liberated from the shackles of faith allows me to be the person I truly am and be good at it. I did not choose atheism. I only chose to release my mind and search for truth. That search led me to atheism and that search set me free.

Before we get into my story about becoming atheist, we first have to define our terms a little bit. It is important to understand the terms before we can begin this discussion. For many people the term atheist is a very "dirty" word. The suggest that it is the athithesis of good, of moral, of happy. This is not the case at all. It is simply a means to describe my belief (or lack of beliefs) system.

Atheism means that I am without belief in a theistically oriented system. Simply stated, if you do not believe -- you are an atheist. It has no bearing or morals, values, or questions of happiness. It does not define political views nor does it define if a person is good or a person is bad. It only describes their belief system and nothing more.

Agnosticism is a word which is also very poorly defined. Often it is used to describe a "wishy-washy" approach to religion. Sort of a maybe - maybe not stance. Loosely speaking, this is true. However, it is more specific that at. Agnostic means specifically "without knowledge." (A = without, gnosis = knowledge.) Thus, it agnosticism can be understood as someone who says that there is no evidence for god and thus they cannot confirm god's existence.

Finally, there is a newer term that has started to develop its own definition. This term is anti-theist. There are a handful of definitions which have been tossed about for anti-theism. For the purposes of this blog, anti-theism will refer to being opposed to religion.

Using these definitions, one can be agnostic and atheistic at the same time. In fact, most atheists are agnostic and most agnostics are atheistic. However, not all atheists/agnostics are anti-theist.

I define myself as an agnostic/atheist who has some anti-theist tendencies. How did I get here? How did I go from being a Christian young man to one who does not believe? It is a long and complicated story that would bore most of my readers to tears. However, it is important for people to understand how the transformation came about. So, I will attempt an abridged version of it.

I grew up in the church, more specifically, the Christian Reformed Church. As I grew up, I never questioned the things that I had been taught and I lived and professed myself as a Christian. I also saw the world through the lenses I had been given. I understood my faith as it was described to me in my church. I knew the God that I had been taught. Equally as important, I had grown to be a relatively important young member of our church. I was respected enough to be asked to be an usher in the church. I was counted on for my leadership in youth activities. I was well liked by the elders and the church leadership. In this very, very small pond, I was important.

When I was 18 my parents changed churches. This change cracked the foundations of my religious identity. I will go on record here that this is not their fault and I would never, ever blame them for their decision. They had their reasons and I understand them and fully support them. My parents had a tough decision to make and they made it. We all left as a family -- but nothing would be the same for me.

First of all, I was no longer the big fish. I was just one of many fishes. In fact, I was largely an outsider in this new church. This was very difficult. For all of my religious life, I belonged to the inner circle of our old church. To be on the outside looking in at this new church, I found it to be very difficult. However, that was only one of many changes which really impacted my faith. This new church was also far more liberal in its approach to Christianity that was my old church. For example, this new church allowed women to be part of the leadership. My old church did not at the time. This new church was less focused on the catechisms and more focused on a day to day approach to Christianity. The new church sang all sorts of new song -- I liked the old Psalter Hymnal.

Why was this such a big deal? Suddenly I was exposed to a different version of Christianity than I was exposed to. They read the Bible differently and held different interpretations of it. How could they be reading the same book and get totally different answers? Why were my beliefs being challenged when I could clearly find their "proofs" in my own Bible? This really caused me great consternation. I was already feeling like an outsider -- but now I had to change some of the most fundamental ways I understood God? Really?

After graduating high school, I spent a semester at Dordt College -- a conservative, Christian Reformed college in Sioux Center, IA. Here again, my beliefs were challenged. I had just gotten used to the more liberal interpretations of Christianity at my new church and I was thrust into a far more conservative setting. Both sides could easily defend their views using the Bible -- but these views were often at odds. How could that be? I decided that I needed to dig into my Bible and find out what it said to me. Over the next couple of years, I read my Bible, commentaries, and other literature voraciously. Additionally, I left Dordt College and went to complete my degree at the University of Northern Colorado. I decided that I had to open my mind to what God wanted from me and I had to chart my own path.

By giving myself permission to learn, I also opened myself up to many, many different world views and religious convictions. Through this process, I learned some very important things. First, I learned that the Bible is fraught with errors and contradictions. It is easy to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say as long as you carefully select your verses. If this book was supposed to be God's infallible Word to the world, you would think he would have gotten a better editorial staff to make sure it was not so full of obvious mistakes. (I will discuss this more in later posts.) Secondly, I learned about many of the other religions in the world. I began to wonder why, if God was so powerful and his message to full of joy and hope, that so few people around the world really accepted the Christian version of God. In fact, Christians are a minority in the world -- a full 2000 years after its birth and this despite missionaries having been dispatched to all corners of the world. Christianity was only one of many, many ways that people expressed belief in the divine.

This process was not easy and it really tore me up. Everything I knew from my upbringing has been challenged by outside ideas. Ultimately, I could not continue to believe. For a while, however, I could not bear to bring myself fully to this conclusion. I spent years wandering the spiritual "wilderness" suggesting that I believed in the message but not the Church. This was only a ruse. I did not believe. My faith was gone long before I left college. In fact, after leaving Dordt College, where church attendance was mandatory, I never went back to church voluntarily. Sure, I went from time to time with my family for various events. I even went to the synagogue with my wife and her family from time to time. Ultimately, however, I had functionally left my faith behind very shortly after I was willing to open my mind up to other ideas.

One of the greatest difficulties of this process was to leave most of my friends and some family behind. I knew that such changes within me would cause great harm to our relationships and I felt that I just had to sever ties. Up until recently, I had not spoken to any of my old schoolmates or to most of the community I had left. This was difficult, but I was allowed to create and carve out new relationships with a broad range of people and beliefs. I am very happy to have the family and friends that I have now. Surely, I lost many things when I left the church. Those that I gained, however, were far greater.

In recent years, I have become more and more open and militant about my views. For a long time, I believed in the idea of live and let live. It is not that simple anymore. I will not discuss this in this particular post, but I will discuss this more later. However, this has caused some backlash toward me from people I know and even from people I do not know. It is simply time to come out of the closet and be who I am. I have to take a stand for my lack of beliefs and be a voice for reason and for free thinking. It is time that I reach out and express myself. The issues of our times are too great for me stay quiet.

That is the short version of my de-conversion. I would like to thank Dan Barker and his book, Godless for helping be to develop the courage to make this next step. His journey was similar to mine and his courage to step out, stand up, and go to work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a model for those who want to take this step. I strongly encourage you to read this book.

That is it for now . . . be well, be happy, and be who you are and be good at it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was born muslim on another part of the world and I myself am Agnostic/Atheist at this stage aswell. For exactly the same reason that scriptures are contradictory and clearly little holy about them. They contain as much nice things as man made disciplines like Confucianism or works of greek philosphers. I think that with the advent of technology, internet, and other means of enlightenment, religions will fade out, but not anytime soon and not honestly without a big bang sadly