People are curious about this word. It carries so much baggage and preconception that if identified as such people will often avoid you, think you have no morals, intensely dislike, or even hate you.
And it’s such a funny word. It’s the only word in our self-descriptive language where you’re telling someone what you are not. Think about it. I don’t have to run around telling people that I am an A-leprechaunist . An A-bigfootist. That I practice the doctrine of A-chupacabra-ism. It’s silly. And it’s why people like Sam Harris have argued that we stop using the word as an identifier.
As I’ve said before, Atheism is one answer to one question. Do you believe in god(s)? I do not. In my estimation, the burden of proof for god claims has not been met. Therefore, I do not believe in any god(s).
But how did I get here? Some people were simply raised without religion. The rest of us were, shall we say, “deconverted.” Well, briefly, this is my story…
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In my very early years, my parents were Catholic. So I was too. I was baptized into the Catholic church (still counted on the books…it’s impossible to get them to erase your name from the registry). My parents divorced when I was about five years old. My Dad had some problems with Catholicism at the time, and made a jump to the Presbyterian denomination of Christianity. So I followed…
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and spent my time with very good friends in the church youth group program. I accepted Christ into my life (many times growing up actually), and genuinely believed in god and the church doctrine. I actually was one of the youngest Deacons in my church as well. Myself and another friend in junior high approached the Deacons to say that the youth should be represented in the church leadership. They went for it. So I was a Presbyterian Deacon.
These were good times. We had fun. We went to church retreats, mission trips, and did volunteer work. We sang. We kumbayaed. We made up skits and plays. I played in the bell choir and sang in the vocal choir. We went to church every Sunday and often times many days in between Sundays. We made fun of “Creasters” (people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter). We worshiped. We prayed.
I can’t remember when they started, but for me there began to be questions. Nagging questions. I don’t care which faith you practice or if you practice none at all. You know the questions. I won’t even take time to list them here. And there were never good answers for any of them. The most common ones were… “God works in mysterious ways.” “You just have to have faith.” “There are some things we’re not meant to know.”
For the most part, I kept the questions to myself. I prayed about them. I prayed for peace, clarity, and stronger faith. With respect to the questions, it never came. But I still kept the faith, so to speak. I kept going to church and hanging out in youth group with my friends. And I still believed in god. Despite the questions. There was no way that there wasn’t a god out there, right?
But I began to doubt…
After graduating high school I attended college at the University of Pittsburgh. During the first couple of months I went to church, but then my attendance trailed off. My coursework, the loss of my youth group, and the fact that I wasn’t sure what exactly I believed in, kind of kept my faith at bay. Until I stopped going almost altogether. Except for Christmas and Easter of course. I became one of those “Creasters.”
During this time I met many people from many different faiths. Religions that I had never had any experience with, some (comically enough) that I hadn’t heard of. (Parenthetically, I should briefly mention that I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood, in a community that was white and black. There were a couple of token Asians in my high school class of 750+ people. But really it was religiously homogenous. Everyone was a Christian).
I began to have more questions. And more doubts…
Beyond college, I still considered myself to be a Christian. I still prayed, probably daily in some way, shape, or form. And I knew that there was a god. There just had to be. But I had stopped going to church. And religion just kind of became, dormant. For a long time.
I got married in a church. Mostly because I thought that’s what everyone expected. Despite the fact that I probably would have done it differently. But that’s what you do right? We met with a Reverend prior to getting married, and at some point during the conversation my doubts became the topic of discussion.
“What kinds of questions are troubling you?
“Well, lots I guess.”
“Well. For example, what happens to someone who is a good person? They do good things their entire life. But they just don’t believe. Or they believe in some other god. What happens to them when they die? Where do they go?
“Unfortunately, if they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ into their heart…they go to hell.”
I was dumbfounded. It was that easy for him. That cut and dry. This is the kind of teaching he subscribed to. And I couldn’t handle that. What kind of a god would do that? Create someone. Someone who is good. Then make these ridiculous conditions and restraints that need to be adhered to, and when they are not (and the god apparently knows who will do this) the person is condemned to eternal torture.
(Now before I get tons of comments on this last point, please save yourself the keystrokes. In my estimation, there are as many denominations of Christianity as there are Christians…Everyone has different answers to the aforementioned example. Some with the backing of scripture. Others with the backing of conflicting scripture. Still others believe what makes them feel good. I know what I believe about this example now).
And so life went on. Through Medical School and Residency. Ups and downs. Ins and outs. Life, so to speak. And I believed in god. But I didn’t have a clue what else I believed in.
Then I had a son.
And I literally said, “Fuck. I’ve got to get a religion. Now.” Because I believed, truly, that I couldn’t be a good person, or raise a son, or go on through life from then on without a church. In some ways it was that engrained in me. Indoctrinated in me.
So I began the journey. There is a main road in our community that I have dubbed “Church Row” as I believe just about every denomination is represented. Over the course of months, I made my way up and down Church Row. Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Church of Christ the Scientist, Universalist Unitarian. Rediscovering. Relearning. Then I left Church Row and went to Hebrew Temple. The Buddhist Temple. The Hindu Temple. I started to read about other religions in more detail. I thought, “Maybe I’m just spiritual but not religious.” Whatever that meant.
Nothing seemed to fit. Nothing felt comfortable. Nothing felt right. It felt thin. And fake. And I still had all of the same questions and doubts.
Then one night I was watching the Colbert Report and the guest was this guy Richard Dawkins. He was promoting his new book “The God Delusion.” And After watching that short interview I had an epiphany… Wow. I really agree with what this guy is saying. That’s actually what I think too. Then a little voice in the back of my head says, “You don’t believe in god. And that’s ok.” What the hell was that? Of course there has to be a god. Then a little louder. “You don’t believe in god. And that’s ok.” Wait, but I’ve been brought up this way. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Louder still, until my brain shook.
“You don’t believe in god. And that’s ok!”
And, the thing is, that I didn’t believe in god. On some level through all of the questioning, I really felt that there wasn’t anything out there. No supernatural. No “higher than me.” No gods. No demons. No devils. But I allowed myself to say it. I allowed myself to know that it was ok to not believe.
Things changed for me on that day. I discovered a lot about myself in one small window of time. That I could be strong. That I could be honest with myself. That doubt is good. That I used critical thinking in every other aspect of my life but this one. I began to study the bible with a critical eye. I read about how the Canon was actually constructed. I began to really critically look at all religions. To allow myself to ask the questions and try to find the answers. And if there were no acceptable answers after using reason, logic, science, and critical thinking, then I had to allow myself to recognize that for what it was. Untruth.
To be clear. I never got mad at the church. I never was upset with anyone about the way I was raised with respect to religion or indoctrination. I don’t feel wronged in any way. I never got angry with god. I’m not angry with god, because it’s impossible to be angry at something that you don’t believe.
And that’s how I came to not believe.