Semantically speaking, I just want to point out that nobody directly decides to just stop believing. You can decide to remain in blissful ignorance or you can decide to question the validity of what you've been told. Your belief or lack thereof is a result of how you assess what you've learned.
I went to church and Sunday school as a young kid with my grandmother, though I wouldn't say she was super-religious. In fact, she was barely religious at all. I think she just did it because she perceived it to be part of a normal, emotionally healthy lifestyle. It also likely had something to do with the death of my youngest uncle when he was just 2 (we would be the same age today if he didn't drown). Technically she isn’t my biological grandmother either, but my mother’s stepmother. Otherwise, she’s every bit of a grandparent as the rest of my grandparents and then some. She was, and still is, the grandparent that I feel is closest to me and my brother.
Looking back, I think her parents were actually Buddhists -- at least they collected Buddhas and rubbed their bellies for wishes. I never saw them pray to the Abrahamic god in any fashion. As far as I could tell, even my Memaw wasn’t raised in a religious home.
I remember, even at 4 years old, asking the Sunday school teacher questions that she would get annoyed with and I don't know why. I would ask my grandmother the same ones, and she would say "I don't know, sweetie." when she didn't know. Sometimes I wonder if the questions that I asked caused her to question her faith.
I've mentioned it here before, but one example question I remember asking was "Memaw, which is higher? Clouds, space, heaven, or Carebears?" I was 4, so I wasn't being a smart-ass. I just wanted to know where the Carebears fit in with the rest of the layers of magical things above us. I saw on TV, that they live in the clouds and I just wanted to know how high up they actually were. She explained that Carebears are pretend, because they are a cartoon, and do magic.
"Jesus does magic too, though, and he's real, right?"
I really don't remember the conversation beyond that. She might have said nothing, or she might have said "I don't know", but I know if I was in her shoes, I could see how it could also plant a seed of doubt. After all, there is that saying about wisdom from the mouth of babes.
My mother never indicated she was ever really religious, and the subject of god simply never came up as far as I recall. My mother is extremely care free and has always seemed to be more concerned with living in the moment, enjoying the company of others, and having fun. She and my father divorced when I was 3, and when I was 8, I lost my father to skin cancer. I remember crying, and seeing my mother cry. I don’t remember her bringing up heaven or God at all. Knowing my mother all my life (as many people do), if I were to ask her if my father was in heaven, she would probably say “he probably is, if that’s what happens when you die.” My mother’s attitude toward religion and spirituality has always seemed to be apathetic or largely unconcerned, though she’s not exactly skeptical either. She still sometimes watches ghost-hunting shows on TV and tends to not necessarily believe it, but not disbelieve it either. She still puzzles me at times, and even argued with me once that “there’s no way the guy on the show moved the chair with his foot off camera.”
My brother and I lived with our mother and her boyfriend Gary (not his real name, but we’ll just call him that). Gary, as I remember, was Christian. He was also racist. I’ve met Gary’s father a number of times, and I could clearly tell that’s where he got it from. Gary’s father was apparently a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan. I also think if my mother had known both Gary and his dad were racists before they started living together they never would have never moved in together in the first place. Gary was with us from the time I was 3 until about 17. We didn’t like him. My mother stayed with him while she went to college so she could afford to go on her own, but she didn’t love him. As big of an asshole Gary was, he still supported all of us through most of our lives, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he used that as some sort of leverage. I saw my mother finally going to school as an act of defiance, even if it took her 10 years to enroll. I don’t know the whole story, but that’s just how things unfolded.
Gary started out being physically abusive, though not sexually as far as I can remember. I can recall specific incidents of violence while not being able to remember if my mother wasn’t there or if the just let it happen, or was too scared to do anything about it, or if she didn’t see it as abuse at all. I don’t mean for this to sound like my mother was neglectful, as she was raised in a moderately abusive home as well, and probably thought it was normal. Whatever the case, for over a decade, there was a usual pattern of Gary getting angry, getting violent, then coming in the room to sob and apologize some hours later. “I never mean to hurt you and I won’t do it again.” He would say. What he really meant was he wouldn’t do it again for a couple weeks or a month.
When I was a teenager, and doing pretty well in Tae Kwon Do, we all went to family counseling. Gary then resorted to what I can only describe as mental abuse. Whether it was because of the counseling, or because I was now physically capable of burying my heel deep into his cranium, I can’t say. Maybe it was a combination of both. Unfortunately, one of the things they teach you in martial arts is discipline, so while I would regularly fantasize about whether or not I could crack his skull with my foot, I was well behaved enough not to test the hypothesis.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it?” – Douglas Adams
My grandmother stopped taking me to church and Sunday school at a very young age. I only recall Sunday school as being a very short period of time in my life. I have a few half-second memories of Sunday school. I remember making a Santa Claus out of a paper plate, some felt, and cotton balls for the beard. I also remember the teacher explaining our solar system – the geocentric version. It sounded reasonable to me at the time (again, I was 5), though it never occurred to me to compare it to the heliocentric version my kindergarten teacher went over with us in some playful children’s song in class. The two versions just never occupied my mind at the same time to confuse me… Until I was visiting my father one weekend and the subject of outer space came up.
My dad was raised in a religious home. His parents were (and still are) fairly successful, Republican Christians. I never knew if they’ve ever attended a church, but they definitely do believe the whole Jesus story and say grace before each meal. They’ve never told me anything that suggested I had to do the same thing. When I remember my father, I think he might have been an atheist, but I also don’t think my grandparents on that side realized it. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it much in front of me, but knowing them all my life (again, as many people tend to do), I know it would bother them.
I didn’t know it until I grew up to be a lot like him, but he was apparently a really huge nerd. He was a fan of Doctor Who (4th doctor), loved to program cool-looking graphics and games on the Commodore 64, and even gave me his (and then, later mine) most favorite astronomy book. I don’t know if I’m interested in all the same kind of things he was into because he exposed me to a lot of it, or if it’s just coincidence, but if he was still around today, you bet your ass we’d be having beers together doing Trek movie-marathons on a regular basis. I didn’t realize how much I really looked up to and loved my father until after he was gone and I grew up. I didn’t even realize he was a nerd like my until after I grew up earlier, and remembered him doing things like teaching me how to play the Close Encounters theme on the piano with one hand and doing the Curwen hand signs with the other. My father was one cool, nerdy, motherfucker.
I remember mentioning that my teacher told me that we have night and day because the sun and moon go around the earth. My father chuckled and quickly corrected me. I even remember my religious grandparents being shocked that I had learned such nonsense. My father said something to the effect of “I hope that he’s just remembering this wrong. I don’t think a school teacher should be teaching these things to children in kindergarten.”
I then explained that my kindergarten teacher taught me the earth goes around the sun and that it was my Sunday school teacher who told me the wrong version. That was the moment both storied had occupied my train of thought and allowed me to compare them.
This may have been why I ended up no longer going to Sunday school. Perhaps my father let my Memaw and mother know the kind of stuff I was learning. I don’t imagine my Memaw would have been offended in the slightest. In fact, if this is the reason why she stopped taking me, she probably did it in the attitude of “Oh, my, I had no idea. I’m sorry. I guess I won’t take him there anymore. If I would have known…” That’s just her personality.
So, for nearly a decade afterward, when people would ask me if I believed in God, I would still say “yes”, and if they would ask me if I was Christian, I would still say “yes”. I saw the word “Christian” as simply being synonymous with “good person”. From the time I was questioning my Sunday school teacher onward, I never really believed the whole story about Christ born of a virgin, on the cross, and the resurrection. It was just pretend, like Santa Claus or the Carebears. I figured everyone knew that it was every bit of inspiring moral-story metaphor as the story of Noah’s Ark was supposed to be.
I did believe in a God, but I never really thought a lot about how I defined God until I was a teenager. I had a friend who called himself a Druid, who had another friend that was a Unitarian Universalist (UU). He was a lot smarter than I was (and still is) and I trusted his knowledge on what those things meant. He explained Druidism, using some example like having the ability to squeeze water out of a rock if it was ever a desperate necessity, but that he couldn’t do it to show me because he wasn’t dying and it could also cause a drought somewhere else in the world. This sounded like bullshit to me, so I asked him to explain what a UU was. UU made absolute sense, and I realized, that by incident, right there, that that’s exactly what I was. I was a Unitarian Universalist.
For those not familiar with Unitarian Universalism, the simplest explanation I can give for it is a congregation of all walks of people and all types of religion, gathered together for the sole purpose of seeking enlightenment. It represents a complete tolerance of all religions, and even includes atheists as well. We’re talking about a church that, if you happen to go to their church (you don’t have to go to be one), has Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and atheists sitting in the same place, talking about why they believe what they believe (or don’t) without any arguing or debating. Basically it’s an open forum where a Muslim can get up in front of the diverse congregation and tell the story of why he or she believes what they do and the people in the pews can decide for themselves if it sounds reasonable.
I’ve still never been to a UU church in my life, but the idea sounded perfect. I’ve always strived to be tolerant, and admittedly often felt pretty damn self-righteous about it as well. I believed in a god, and I was now all about learning why and how other people do. I wanted to tell other people why and how I do as well, only the problem was, I didn’t know why and how I believed in a god.
It wasn’t until I was about 17, that for the next 7 or 8 years I would be constantly looking for ways to define what a god was or what it would be. As a UU, I felt that it was my responsibility to understand religion and seek out enlightenment in any place I could find it. This involved reading the Christian bible (both NIV and KJV) and the Koran. I made some effort to understand Hinduism, but found it to be a bit complicated, probably due to the cultural difference, but I got the general gist of it. I learned the difference between Judaism and Christianity, the differences between Catholic and Protestant, and the reasons why Muslims and Jews seemed to dislike each other. Buddhism also seemed inconsistent, in that it seemed like some times it was a religion, and other times it was just a set of secular values to live your life by.
I also really enjoyed science. I held on to that astronomy book my father gave me as a kid for as long as I kid until it was utterly destroyed by a family pet one day. I got lousy grades in high school, even in science, and even though I absolutely love everything about science and its blunt and honest truth. I loved when the Discovery Channel used to actually have stuff about science on it, and it would air things Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I loved how the scientific method seemed to be this fool-proof way of getting the truth about anything, whether you liked that truth or not. In short, you make an educated guess, find a way to test it in a manner that anyone else could, and if it fails the test, you try something else. If it passes the test then you’ve found the truth.
The best thing about the scientific method is that if you started with a hypothesis with a preconceived notion on anything that isn’t proven, then it would likely fail the test. I saw this in contrast to religion where, if you have a preconceived notion of nearly any sort, you can almost certainly back it up with any holy text. If you wanted to show that killing large numbers of people to spread your beliefs to the rest of the world, the bible and the Koran can pretty much back you up on that if you wanted them to.
When I was about 20 years old, I had the pleasure of meeting a very hot, geeky, and sexy, “punk rock” chick (we’ll call her Jillian), who would later become the mother of my beautiful, geeky, and adorable, daughter. She was the first person I was in a relationship with to ever express interest in what I believed with regards to god and an afterlife. I had already began learning about various religions and pursued science knowledge in community college before she asked me one night, while teaching her how to drive a standard transmission vehicle, if I believe in God.
Out of habit, I said “yes”, and we parked the car and talked for hours. The moment she asked me about my beliefs, a script was running in my brain, attempting to make sense of everything I had learned up to that point. Moments later, my mushy cranial computer spit the results out my mouth.
I was a pantheist.
I didn’t know that was the word for it at the time, but that’s very plainly what I was.
I explained that according to most religious people, God is everything. God is everywhere and controls everything. I didn’t believe there was a separate antagonist like Satan or Beelzebub, but that there was one spiritual entity that was responsible for it all because it was all. Anything that was part of the universe was also a part of God, from the stars, trees, animals, and rocks, to the cigarette butts in my ashtrays and un-flushed turds in the toilet. I explained that mankind will never know everything through science, because the possibilities of things there are to know in the universe is infinite. I had right then and there, assessed that God was the conscious form of the universe.
I thought of the time I heard Carl Sagan say, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Many atheists in the activist community today might chastise me for saying this, but I think when Carl Sagan said this on camera, he too, was a pantheist, at least at the time. Whether or not he may still have been later on and up until he passed away, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is, as I understand that quote, it suggests a pantheistic Carl Sagan.
This quote to me suggests that we are a part of the universe, just like our brains are a part of us. If our brain knows something, that means we know it. Our personality, after all, resides completely in the brain. Likewise, what we know, so does the universe. The personality of the universe, therefore resides completely in the collective minds of all the living, thinking, things therein. I concluded that the universe therefore has a consciousness and a personality, albeit very vast and complex when compared to a single human.
I have no idea what Jillian’s beliefs were before that night, as she responded a lot with “I don’t know” when I asked her if she believed. I suppose she was just a flat out agnostic. Again, at risk of being corrected by a swarm of huffy atheists, I consider a plain agnostic anyone who still says “I don’t know” when you ask them if they actually believe. She wouldn’t even say she didn’t believe as a result of her not knowing. Just “I don’t know”. Maybe she was trying to figure it out then and there as I was talking to her. So, just let me call her an agnostic at that time and deal with it.
After we were done talking, she seemed to be wowed. She may have even been impressed. It made me a little smug when it seemed like after that night, I had somehow enlightened someone with the knowledge of god, and who and what it was. Thirteen years later, I have her friended on Facebook, and her religion says “Pantheist”. Mine doesn’t. Mine says “atheist”. Maybe it’s my ego getting away from me, but I think I might actually be the reason she’s a pantheist. Because of this, I feel like if we ever found ourselves having another talk about god in the future, it would be my responsibility to tell her I’m no longer a pantheist. What I’ll probably do is just show her this story instead.
So there I was: a pantheist. I would pray during hard times, sort of. It was more like talking to God through telepathy, but I just called that praying. I mean, if I was a part of God’s thoughts, that’s how you’d most effectively communicate, right? You think it, and it’s automatically what God is thinking. It made sense to me at the time. Only, as time went on, I’d go through good times and hard times, praying and not praying, until I began to realize the complete uselessness of prayer.
After some time living my life as a pantheist, it allowed me to experience the success rate of prayer, which seemed to be about 50%. The success rate of things just so happening to go the way I like without prayer was 50%. “Well,” I thought to myself, “this doesn’t mean there’s no God, right?”
I reasoned that the almighty is going to do what it’s going to do. God’s not even going to ever give evidence of his existence. So if the world and the universe just happen and carry on the same way with or without a god, then how can I even know one exists? It’s not like I lived my life any differently than if there wasn’t a god at all. If this universe was just completely natural and existential on its own, then what would it matter anyway? Why would a conscious, vast, universe even care if the entire tiny spec called earth believed in it’s own consciousness, let alone whether or not little ol’ me believed in it.
I found myself about 29 years old, and an agnostic pantheist.
I wasn’t scared of being an atheist. I just simply didn’t consider myself one. I thought that there might be a collective consciousness to the universe, but there was no way science would ever be able to figure that one out for sure. I imagine that with all the knowledge mankind has amassed over his existence, it’s a laughably small amount of knowledge regarding what there actually is to know. We know about the big bang, but we’re still fuzzy or don’t know the nature of its origin. I’m sure when we find out (if we manage to do so before going extinct) there will simply be another hurdle that will take years or centuries to overcome. I imagine it will continue to be this way for billions of years. I don’t think we’ll even be able to stop at the idea of 10 (or 11) dimensions.
I didn’t feel like my life and the universe around me would just cease to lose meaning if I considered myself an atheist. I just recognized that I still yelled “Goddamnit!” when I painfully jammed my hand hard against the cylinder head while working on my car. I still recognized that I said “Bless you” when people sneezed, and still said “I hope to God” when I hoped for desired results. I simply assumed that because I did all this, I apparently still inherently believed in a god, even though I didn’t do so actively. I didn’t know and neither can anyone else. It’s not even within mankind’s capability, so I was agnostic. If god existed, then I would define it as the pantheistic one.
I still pursued learning about religions, as was the habit I had maintained since my days as a UU. I still find a tiny thrill in it to this day. I realized that I had never bothered to learn more about atheism. I knew exactly what an atheist was, so what more could there possibly be to learn about atheism. They just don’t believe there’s a god – period. What I wasn’t sure of was whether or not they hung out in any kind of groups, or had meetings. What the hell would atheists do? They surely wouldn’t go to a anti-church or bizzaro-mosque to revel and chant things like “there is no god, there is no god.” That would just be stupid. I got the whole Flying Spaghetti Monster thing was to poke fun at the creationist claims of religion, but surely they didn’t see that as some sort of idol to fill a missing gap that the brain might require to stay sane. That would also be stupid.
So I began looking for forums and videos all over the internet. Atheistforums.com was where I started. Then I found myself subscribing to Youtube channels. Thunderf00t was the first, then others: AronRa, dprjones, Coughlan616, Brett Palmer, DarkMatter2525, Lacy Green, HappyCabbie, and many, many more.
I became addicted to a public access show that aired in Austin, Texas, and also uploaded to Youtube, called The Atheist Experience.
What I did find, is that the many atheists today do actually meet in groups, but there’s no chanting. They meet in groups for the same reasons gay people might get together. Even though I’ve personally never had the impression that an atheist is the worst possible thing a person could be, I discovered that an embarrassing number of people in the world do see atheists this way. These gatherings were conventions and rallies that would promote reason. I hadn’t previously considered that we would need rallies to promote people to just fucking think, but yes, there is a staggering amount of ignorant people in the world, and all these people wanted was for these people to just fucking think. I’m all for that!
I was shocked to learn that, in some states, you can’t even hold a public office if you don’t believe in some kind of deity. It is in the Texas constitution, that an atheist can not become governor. I was totally unaware of this!
Still, I didn’t drop my pantheist title simply because I had passion for these people. I mean, I go to gay bars with my gay best friend when I fly out to visit him, and I get pissed off when religious nuts piss on his rights just because his gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be gay, despite my having a strong compassion for gay rights.
Nope, I started to realize I was an atheist when I saw that most of these atheists held logic, reason, and truth, as virtues. This wasn’t even any part of the definition of what an atheist is, as far as I know. The activist portion of the atheist community simply held these values and virtue by pure incident.
It started when I would occasionally drop the fact that I was an agnostic pantheist, and an atheist would respond with “Why?” Whether I said “I don’t know” or tried to explain why, they typically did a very good job at pointing out that, despite my beloved affinity for logic and reasoning, I just wasn’t being logical and reasonable enough. I was able to concede in online debates and arguments, and I was shown to be wrong about a lot of what I thought, and I loved everything about that.
What I discovered about myself, was that the whole time, I was clinging on to an imaginary security blanket. I’ve always had an appreciation for the vast wonders of the universe, but I never realized that I was trying to add something to it that wasn’t there. The fact that the universe is every bit as grand and wonderful as I’ve always thought it was, and still a heck of a lot simpler.
Our universe can only be what we can possibly know about it. There is nothing supernatural or not understandable about the universe at all. It’s here and it’s all available to us, we just haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.
There’s never been any evidence of any god or anything supernatural anywhere. In fact, do you know what we call something that was supernatural that actually has evidence for it? Natural.
There is no god, and there is no afterlife. Birth and death are simply the book ends to your finite life, so do what you can with it and make it as important and fulfilling as possible, not just for yourself, but for others as well. We’re all but a blink in time in the universe, and that adds far more value to us than if we actually went on for eternity.
How could I possibly imagine adding something to it all? How could I add anything to this universe and appreciate its worth and the worth of life?
I am an atheist.