Why I’m an Atheist – Part One: How It Happened
There are dozens of atheist ‘testimonials’ out there, but I thought I’d try my hand at adding something meaningful to the mix. In the course of this series, I’ll explain why I’m an atheist rather than a theist and try to give my take on the more common arguments in favour of theism. Hopefully readers will be able to learn something from it, and it could begin some meaningful debate with visitors from both sides of the theism issue.
How It Happened
My family has never been particularly religious, but what little faith they had was rooted in the Catholic tradition. I went to a Catholic primary school and was taught the more common Bible stories, although I can’t remember them ever being presented in the context of a wider canon of religious writings. I went through my first confession, first communion and confirmation without the slightest idea of the central tenets of my supposed faith, which should tell you something about how devout I was. I believed in God, and if pushed I might have said that I believed in Christianity, but I can’t say I ever gave a great deal of thought to any of it.
I first started to question the truth of what I was being told at mass every Sunday after realizing that there are other religions in existence now and there have been countless other religions in existence in the past. The fact that Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists (among many others) all fervently believed in contradictory religions troubled me greatly, and I came to the conclusion that they couldn’t possibility all be right. From there it was a short hop to realizing that I had no way of knowing if I was right, at which point my faith in Christianity more or less collapsed. If the Roman and Greek gods of mythology are ‘obviously’ mere fantasy, I thought, why should I take seriously the equally fanciful tales of the Christian religion? (And keep in mind that this was long before I discovered that some people accept the Genesis myths as being factually correct.) My Christian belief was weak enough that it didn’t survive first contact with my own brand of childish skepticism, and nothing I’ve encountered since then has convinced me that I was wrong to abandon it.
So I was no longer a Christian, but still believed in a sort of vaguely deistic God and a vaguely pleasant afterlife. I believed in these things because I wanted to, basically, and once again it didn’t take very much to destroy that belief. I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion at the same time that everybody else did (I was about seventeen at the time), and it was enough to make me realize that I had absolutely no good reason to still believe in God. I became an atheist on the day I finished it, although I knew even at the time that Dawkins’ treatment of the subject was sophomoric at best. Since then I’ve debated with and against dozens of atheists and Christians, both online and in the context of a university-level philosophy course, and have only become more of a committed atheist in the process. I continue to seek out arguments in favour of theism, but at this point I’m not holding out much hope of ever ‘hitting the jackpot’, so to speak.
What Kind of Atheist Am I?
I’m probably best described as someone who’s typical of the ‘New’ Atheists, although that’s a label I’m not particularly fond of for a whole host of reasons. Like most atheists, I have a keen interest in science, although this is something I developed long before I ever thought to question God’s existence. Debating Creationists has honed my interest in evolution and physical cosmology, but I remain fascinated by most new scientific advances regardless of which field they fall under.
I tend to see the question of God’s existence as a philosophical/scientific one. Unlike most atheists, I have little interest in debating the tenets of any particular religious belief. Yes, modern science has completely disproven the creation accounts of virtually every religion you care to name, but so what? Even if you were able to categorically disprove every single religion in existence, you still haven’t disproven God. The God hypothesis should stand or fall firstly on its own merits, and does not need to be conflated with a specific religion. This stance has made studying the philosophy of religion rather frustrating, since many pro-theist philosophers are also theologians. The Divine Attributes, for example, are largely drawn from the Judeo-Christian monotheistic religions, and so many philosophers (theist and atheist alike) are only interested in discussing a God who is all-loving, omnipotent, omniscient, the creator of the universe, eternal and immanent. (Among some others, but you get the idea.)
It’s not difficult to see why philosophers do this. The theists have a preconceived notion of God which is the only one they’re interested in defending, while the atheists feel that they’re intellectually off the hook if they only answer the arguments that theists throw at them. Not good enough, I say – it’s entirely possible that there exists a God (or God-like being, if you prefer) which doesn’t conform to any extant religion. If that’s the case, we’re not going to get very far just by battling each other’s preconceived notions. This is the major problem I have with almost all kinds of apologetics – rather than being an earnest search for the truth, the field of apologetics is, as the name suggests, a method of attempting to defend a very specific version of religious belief. This is entirely the wrong way to go about it.
Anyway, that’s a brief overview of my own atheism. In future posts I’ll go into a bit more detail about why I reject the various philosophical arguments in favour of God’s existence. I might also air my views about religion in general, which is sure to be fun. (For me, anyway.)