I Was Born an Atheist (psst…so were you).
“Hello! Are you familiar with the greatest story ever told?”
“Yes, I am! Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. It was awesome!”
“No, I’m talking about the story of Jesus. I’m talking about God and the Bible!”
“Oh, that one. Yeah, I’ve heard all of those stories, too. I’m curious, why do you believe in God?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure how else to ask. Why do you believe in God?”
“God is the creator of all things.”
“I know you believe that. Why do you believe that?”
“God is in everything: the trees, the sky, the air we breathe…”
“Let me try asking another question. When did you begin to believe in God?”
“I’ve always believed in God!”
Sound familiar? If not, you’ve either been lucky enough to not have met this door-to-door salesperson…or you are the salesperson. The salesperson is wrong, though. No one has always believed in God; everyone is born an atheist.
Years ago, I struggled with an article I was trying to write but it never quite came together. You see, being a recovering Pentecostal, I still have trouble voicing many of my personal beliefs as they are completely contrary to the conditioning I received my first eighteen years. Like an addiction, there are triggers which often interrupt daily activities, and much like a smoker who needs to pop a piece of gum and remember why the habit was wrong, a born-again atheist needs to reflect on why he/she really saw the light. I use the term “born-again atheist” because that is how we are all born. None of us are born believing in any higher power…ever! This was the premise of the article which caused me grief, and I thought I had it all worked out. There would be a list (readers love lists) detailing exactly why someone comes to believe in, and subsequently serve, God (or insert whichever higher power is appropriate). There was Fear, Bargaining, Depression, Confusion…all feelings which elicit a human response to want a crutch of some kind. The actual choice to believe, though, boiled down to a single word: indoctrination.
Perhaps this would be a good place to insert an apology. To all of you who tried to tell me there is a different way of looking at things, whether you were trying to get me to believe in your religious belief or you were trying to convince me of a scientific principle, I’m sincerely sorry for shooting you down and not giving you the opportunity to teach me. This is another side effect of kicking a bad habit: remorse. In fact, maybe the best list to insert here would be a parallel to the 12-step recovery of alcoholics. Hmmm…maybe next time.
Pray about it.
One of my qualities which gives me the most pride is my personal recall. I recall breaking my lower leg when I was 18-months-old (it’s a fuzzy memory…but I remember doing it); I recall going to Sunday School in the 70’s and being warned of cults “brain washing” their subjects (that irony was very apparent later in life); and, I recall the first time I asked the taboo question: how do I know there’s a God? I asked several edgy questions, over the years, and the answer was always the same: “Pray About It”. In retrospect, all I can think is: WTF? I dutifully did as I was told, though, and spent hours on my knees in contemplation. But the conversation was always one-sided. I do, however, recall having a sense of peace and awakening after the hours of prayer. In later life, I got the same satisfaction from meditating or imbibing in a different kind of spirit.
Almost as if it were the catalyst needed to continue writing, my nine-year-old son has become existential and scared of his newfound mortality. I recall an article I read, before my son was born, about how easy it should be to raise an atheist child. You never have to fill his head with dogma, you don’t have to help him memorize a conflicting user manual, you don’t have to indoctrinate him (there’s that word). Guess what? The article was wrong! It is just as difficult to raise a child to be a freethinker, and — dare I make the claim — harder than raising someone to believe in God. My son’s friends know exactly what happens after death: you either go to Heaven or you go to Hell. Which place you go is determined by how well you followed the stereo instructions. My son, though, reminded me of why any religion probably came about: the need to have an answer to unanswerable questions, and a reason for existing (even if it is a lifetime of servitude). He would probably go to sleep a lot quicker if I just caved-in and told him if he dies in his sleep he’ll wake up in Heaven, play catch with Grandpa, eat Pringles with Aunt Missy, and swim laps with Sunshine (the dead goldfish). I would rather give him some comfort which makes a little more sense and may help him in the long run (you know, like want to do good with no expectation of reward or fear of burning in a lake of fire if he’s bad).
This is the part of the program where I explain a little theory of my own…well, a theory I’ve borrowed from some guys. I love watching my boy’s mind work and I love helping the gears turn. One of our favorite things to observe is how every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Sound familiar? This principle is fairly easy to demonstrate making it USDA Prime-cut for my boy to sink his teeth into. Not only does this translate into something we can physically see, it also goes hand-in-hand with the Law of Conservation of Energy which essentially states energy cannot be created or destroyed. If we look at our bodies, and think of that spark which makes us individual (perhaps you call it your essence, aura, or soul), we are likely only thinking of one thing: energy. If we think of the energy never being created, though, it begs the question: what happens to the energy when we die? Maybe when you die, your energy is seen in a green field of new saplings. Maybe, when you were born, your energy came from acres of destroyed rain forest in South America. Maybe the band Live had it right when they sang Lightning Crashes and your energy came from the old woman down the hall who died at the same moment you were born. Maybe it’s none of the above, but it’s something which makes sense — scientific sense — and it has helped me allay the anxiety of my nine-year-old son with something other than mythology.
Have you accepted (enter name of deity) as your lord and savior?
Back to the title. Yes, you were born an atheist, and I’m not sure you could convince me otherwise (though, I would listen with an open mind to your argument). Once you accept the fact you were born an atheist, ask yourself why you believe in God. Whether you started to believe after a near-death experience, you were taught by your parents, or your lawyer told you it would get you a lighter sentence, it really boils down to one reason: you were told to believe in God. Remember, I’ve been on the other side of this debate, and I’ve read the same things you have read. I thought atheists were devil worshipers and were led by the Antichrist (I’m not going to use this article to discuss how someone who doesn’t believe in God cannot believe in Satan). In fact, I’m sure this article has landed me a place on a few prayer request lists. My end game, though, is to try and get you to accept there may be another option; I want you to truly be open-minded.
I’m not the only one
Does an article like this do any good, or is it just for the author’s edification? I’m inclined to say it will be met with intransigence by believers, and literary criticism by like-minded readers (as in: this isn’t literature, you moron!). To believe it won’t be well-received, though, takes my personal faith out of the equation: faith in humanity. I quoted Live, earlier, but perhaps John Lennon summed it up as no one else has since. Have you ever really listened to the lyrics of Imagine? There is only one race which should concern us: the human race. As we grow, and learn, and become better critical thinkers, we see how it is okay to admit we were wrong. We learn to see the story from different points of view. We understand there are alternatives to traditional thinking. We can admit there’s something wrong with “because that’s the way it’s always been done”. We can stop seeing each other as different.
You may think I’m a dreamer…