The Day I Stopped Believing In God
For most people atheism comes after years of increasing doubt. The ugliness of fundamentalism is so much more visible than the charity and kindness that faith moves some to; the flourishing of cruelty while God remains silent; all the war and bigotry and torture committed in God’s name; a child struck down by disease, an infant’s coffin lowered into the ground … and “mysterious ways” doesn’t really cut it anymore. But if they react at all, most people take refuge in agnosticism, and most go no further.
I was eleven years old. And I didn’t go through any philosophical ponderings, not until years later, but the chain of thought that led me to stop believing began with something very ordinary.
I didn’t want to go to Sunday School. I wanted to go back to sleep. And while I didn’t have the vocabulary I have now my thoughts went something like this
- Other people seem to derive deep meaning from church, from religion, even from the boredom of Sunday School.
- I don’t get anything out of it; it’s all I can do to stay awake. I am not moved.
- Why doesn’t it mean anything to me, as it does to so many others?
And then came the realization that would change my life forever:
4. Because I don’t believe in any of it.
It was one of those intense moments when my head spun but there was no going back and I have never tried.
When my father came in already in his Sunday suit and told me to get ready I told him I didn’t want to go. Of course you’re going, now get dressed. And then I said the words, as nearly as I can remember:
“You can make me go because I’m a kid and you’re my father, but you can’t make me believe, and I don’t.”
I was expecting to get hit; religion is of course the one thing most above argument, criticism, or logic (especially logic). But nobody hit me. He looked more disappointed than anything else but even at eleven, I was a long way to being an independent thinker, and being an avid reader of mythology I knew that Christianity (we were Episcopalian) was one of many supernatural belief systems. I don’t think either of my parents were very religious, “God” and “Jesus” were expletives and we never sat around reading the Bible.
In the end I had to go, of course, and I wasn’t stupid enough to announce my renunciation before the class. I don’t remember how much longer they made me go but I started asking uncomfortable questions as my disbelief solidified and at some point, I stopped attending Sunday School. By this time we were living on a naval base in Spain.
I was preordained to be a disbeliever. I was a precocious science-reading kid and I had discovered mythology early, Greek, Roman, and Norse. A year or two earlier attending Sunday School at Fort Monroe (and almost every Sunday visiting the cell where Jefferson Davis awaited execution) I had asked one of the Sunday School teachers why we all believed in the Christian God instead of one of the other systems I was reading about.
His reply was of course the perfunctory answer to a kid’s impudent question, “because it’s the right one,” but I realized he actually didn’t know, that he was just making a pretense of authority, winging it, and that likely most adults were too. The seed of doubt had been sown and all it took to make it a mighty oak of conviction was, some time later, wanting to go back to sleep.
I started doing defiant things. A few times I snuck out of the house at midnight and walked a half-mile to a cemetery and walked among the headstones, facing other supernatural notions like ghosts.
Another time I went out in a thunderstorm, lightning hitting nearby, and, drenched, held up my arms and yelled at the sky, “HEY GOD! YOU DON’T EXIST!”
And I lived to tell the tale.
These of course didn’t prove anything, and looking back they were kind of childish (hey, I was a child), but they helped.
Why Does Anyone Believe This Nonsense?
The world is divided into the educated and the uneducated, and for the latter any convenient belief is possible.
Uneducated Americans probably mostly believe in religion, lacking the ability not to; they are raised with it. For the educated, and particularly for the educated and intelligent, belief requires a careful partitioning, compartmentalization, not allowing the logic they apply to most things anywhere near their faith.
Honestly, I find this exemption to be contemptible. There is no educated and intelligent believer who could not tunnel his way to atheism with only a few seconds of unrestrained thought.
But they don’t.
How It Starts
Easy one. Take children to church and scare the shit out of them. Impress them with the absolute immunity of religion to analysis or examination. They see those they regard as figures of authority, their parents, and other adults, acting freakishly weird. Stand up, sit down, sing a song, kneel, turn around. The same mirth that gets a child a smile at home draws stern reproach in this creepy place and maybe a spanking later. Be Serious! This is God!
Small wonder more of them don’t end up in therapy.
“Churches give me the creeps” — Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) Angel Heart (1987)
How It’s Maintained
At some point an educated person has everything he needs to put supernatural beliefs like God behind him; as I said, it would take only seconds. I already knew enough about science at 11 to know that God was a completely preposterous idea and I hadn’t even heard of General Relativity yet.
But people keep their faith in the Sky Daddy carefully walled off, compartmentalized away from everything else they know, probably for the same reasons everywhere.
- Nobody can contemplate death without terrible fear. They need to believe that dying is just a kind of relocation or they will be terrified all their lives.
- Thinking about religious matters invokes emotions that people enjoy experiencing. So does cocaine. So does an orgasm. Nobody wants to give those up. A sense of being connected to God, or feeling the love of Christ, this is a high, a rush, and like all those others it is ultimately meaningless.
I am going to die. It may be soon, it may not be for decades. And when I do I will leave no undying part behind; a few peoples’ memories of me are not any kind of preservation and in any case, they will die too, and at some not very distant future time the world will bear no imprint of me.
I am not happy to think about this. But it’s the truth. I will not be in heaven, neither in hell; what remains of my body will be in the ground or in an urn of ashes or in the radioactive ruins of a destroyed city. And I won’t be there to care.
But I refuse to let this fear persuade me to believe nonsense, and God is nonsense, a toy from humanity’s childhood best put on the shelf of history and forgotten.