From Altar boy to Atheist

(Via Vince, Part I)

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer. No, my religious world views were not shaped by Father Friendly Fingers touching me in my naughty spot, nor was I the victim of insufferable corporal punishment in Catholic school. The title of this post reflects that I was indeed an actual altar boy. Believe it or not, I actually had quite a positive experience in parochial school and I credit them with planting the seeds of my skeptical nature and logical reasoning abilities.

Now onto the story of my fall from grace.

I suppose to some extent I have always had serious misgivings about god. I was born into a catholic family and attended catholic school, but whenever I thought about god, it didn't make sense from the beginning. I was taught that god is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving entity. He created the heavens and earth and all its life just for us and gave us dominion over it all. Wow, so far so good right? Here is where it gets a little weird. This wonderful god has only one caveat for us to heed and then we will enjoy all the wonderful benefits of heaven for all eternity. We have to praise him .

I always thought it awfully silly that this omnipotent, omniscient god would: A) give a flying shit what we do, B) punish us for eternity for not giving him praise, and C) have some sort of insecure need to receive our undying praise in the first place. In my freshman year of college I wrote an essay about my views on god and characterized him as reminding me of Stuart Smalley, a character with serious self-esteem issues from Saturday Night Live. I wrote that I could picture him in heaven looking at himself in an ethereal mirror and giving himself daily affirmations, "I'm benevolent enough, I'm omniscient enough, and doggone it those sheep-like bipeds down there really like me!"

I vividly remember being in 7th grade religion class when one of my classmates raised the question about other religions that believe in god but not in being catholic. I would be lying if I told you I could remember her exact response, but to paraphrase : "We believe that our doctrine is correct and not believing in this in its entirety is to deny god and the truth". My teacher's answer started a chain reaction of thoughts in my head. Denying god seems like a pretty big one up there on the list of sins. Would all non-catholics go to hell? Dosen't seem right that you could be a devout Jew, Muslim, or Protestant, live a pure and chaste life, and not make into heaven on a 'technicality'.Shouldn't somebody tell those other religions they are wrong and save their souls? These thoughts rattled around but were soon overpowered by other thoughts that frequently pervade the mind of 13 year old boys. The groundwork for my atheism however, was laid.

During 8th grade, religion was taught by Sister Geraldine. She was a particularly gregarious and thought provoking teacher. The latter trait she exhibited too well it seems in my case. Suddenly I found myself, almost on a daily basis, asking the "hard" questions during religion class. Looking back it seems I was destined to be a White House staff reporter. Many of my questions had to do with biblical stories and the seemingly inconsistencies a big one was reconciling the whole thou shalt not kill thing with say,... anything in the old testament. Try as she might to satisfy my inquisitiveness (read: pain in the ass-edness) She never quite answered my questions. She tried the old "Many of the stories are symbolic and should not be scrutinized literally" defense. I wasn't buying it. This raised more questions than it answered. If not all the stories in the bible are true then who is to say any of it is an actual account of anything? Who gets to decide which bits are what we should believe in and which are just allegorical? On what authority? If we are picking and choosing then how could this be the word of god?

My Doubting Thomas routine continued throughout the year and culminated (not surprisingly- looking back) on my being sent to meet with the monsignor of our parish-one rather physically imposing Father Craven. I supposed I deserved it, I mean I was rather disruptive in her class with my litany of questions she really couldn't answer. In addition to this I had a particularly bad habit of being "talkative" during class and the combination landed me in the most undesirable position of having to "go see the monsignor". I was rather intimidated by his large presence. As I recall he was about 6'6 280lbs (I'm sure in reality he was much smaller but I was in trouble and as everyone knows, disciplinarians always grow in proportion to the trouble you are in) His size, combined with his booming baritone voice, had me fearing for not only my eternal soul, but my hide as well.

Thankfully, after reprimanding me for constantly interrupting Sister Gerri's class, he relaxed his stern demeanor and became rather friendly and easygoing in an avuncular sort of way. I started to tell him of some of my difficulties understanding things in religion class and he listened patiently. He initially offered some of the same explanations that my teacher had but I wasn't going to be assuaged that easily; since I no longer feared for my life, I was free to be the inquisitive pain in the ass again. He tried to answer some of my questions about the veracity of some of the bibles stories I wondered about. He did most of the talking (occupational hazard I guess) but each point he made just led to more questions on my part. As I recall I was only in his office in the rectory for about an hour, but the good father taught me a lot. Not so much about religion, but the wonderful rhetorical tool of the Circular Argument. Or in logical reasoning it is known as the fallacy of petitio principii, or more commonly, begging the question. Here is how it basically went:

Me: "How do we know anything in the bible is true?"

Msgr: "You have to have faith my son."

Me: "Why should we have faith, Father?"

Msgr: "Because the bible tells us so."

Oh, well, since you put it that way, it is as clear as mud! We went around and around in this Abbot and Costello manner for a bit until finally he advised me to go home and pray and things would become clearer as I got a little older. To this day I am not exactly sure what I was supposed to be praying for- Faith? seems like the old circular bit again!

I left there feeling confused and uneasy. Had I just beaten a professional member of the clergy in a religious debate? Surely that couldn't have happened. I must have missed something; maybe I am just not smart enough. I mean so many, many people for thousands of years have believed in god I can't be smarter than all of them.* God has to exist. I am definitely going to hell! Just great.

The good father was right about one thing; it all became much clearer as I got older.

*For the record, I don't think that people who believe in god are all morons. I do think however, that religion incubates, in some people, a particular kind of stupidity of the most dangerous type.

(Via Vince, Part II)
So there I was, 14 years old and rapidly arriving at the conclusion that religion was pure bunk. How did I come to this conclusion? At the very core of my reasoning there were a few facts:

  1. Just about every group of people that ever lived had their own version of religion. Each had its own god, gods, or goddesses. There were hundreds of religions out there and they all had different beliefs.
  2. Each one of these religions believed that it was the correct and true view to have- most preached dire consequences for not believing. This never sat well with me. What about all those people who live isolated in deserts or jungles that, through no fault of their own, never were exposed to the "right religion". It didn't seem fair.
  3. I was raised in, and indoctrinated into, the catholic faith; I was told that this is the one true path to salvation. Furthermore not adhering to the prescribed rules would end me up in a place called hell.
I suppose I should have felt pretty fortunate that, through sheer dumb luck, I was going to be among the few chosen for salvation. (provided I lived by the rules, that is) But I didn't feel so lucky. I had a pretty good grasp of math, even then, and understood basic probability fairly well. Chances were, that the religion I was taught, and followed up to this point, would be turn out to be WRONG! Statistically speaking, most people were going to go to hell for believing the "wrong religion"; and god- at any one point, only had a small fraction of the people following his 'true' laid out path. This was a big red flag for me.

The fact that each religion can point to another and dismiss it so quickly as wrong but still hold onto their particular beliefs is a bit of a non sequitur to me. Each religion explains the divergence between its beliefs and the beliefs of other religions as either: the other guy was primitive, got it wrong, made it up, or is just plain crazy. Ask any Christian, for instance about the existence of Ra, the Egyptian sun god, and they will quickly dismiss it as the superstitious invention of an ignorant populous.(I would wholeheartedly agree) What I found hypocritical was I was taught that Hercules, Apollo, Mars, and Zeus et al. were just mythological "false gods" and rather silly, primitive ones at that. It is nonsense to believe that a god sat in the heavens and hurled lightning bolts to mortals he was displeased with, or that his son was a mutated winged horse. But isn't it also nonsense to believe any of the following:

  • We are all born with the burden of original sin because a talking snake talked a woman into eating a piece of fruit from a magical tree.
  • A man invoked god and an entire sea parted and allowed him and his people to simply walk across the ocean floor and then allowed the waters to destroy their pursuers.
  • The son of god was born to a virgin, was executed, rose from the dead, talked to some people while dead, ascended into heaven, and because of this we can now all enjoy an eternity of bliss in an invisible paradise.
  • An angel appeared to an Arab merchant and through a series of conversations dictated the Koran upon which Islam is based.
  • An angel appeared to a convicted criminal and instructed him to dig up a set of magical artifacts in New York including golden plates that had Egyptian inscribed on it. He then used these magical artifacts to translate the plates and produced the Book of Mormon.
Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black! If each religion is considered false by most every other, then it seems to follow that all of them are false; to say nothing of the incredible claims that lay at the heart of their faiths. Why are there are so many religions then if none are true? The answer is pretty obvious.

(Via Vince, Part III)
So why are there so many religions if they are all wrong?

Every culture known to man, at one point or another, invents (or steals from another culture and modifies) its own mythology/religion for several reasons. Not least among these is to 'explain' the things that they did not know. When those needs went away, as in the case of gaining scientific knowledge that explain natural phenomena, or a more fashionable belief came along, that religion died out. Everyone has heard of Zeus, Odin, Jupiter etc., but I'm sure there are hundreds that you haven't heard of precisely because they became obsolete. It is not hard to see that these gods and religions were invented by man. It isn't such a huge leap in logic to see that ALL religions were thusly invented.

This was the beginning of my "descent into atheism". Did I go on a killing spree or start robbing banks? No. I still have the same basic values I did before. Am I unhappy, hopeless, or afraid now since I can't rely on my invisible god to watch over me, grant me wishes, or reunite me with all my lost loved ones in heaven? No, I am a pretty happy guy. What then do I think will happen when I die? I have no proof about what happens when we die (neither does anyone else) but I have no good reason to think anything will happen. I suppose I will just cease to be. This is not a bad thing. It kinda makes you try to 'get it right the first time' and focuses your energy into living life. Plus, I have the added bonus of not wasting any of my time constantly praising or worshiping anything. It is actually quite liberating when you look at it that way.

There are tons of other interesting topics to discuss such as morality, whether religion is a positive or negative thing today, politics and religion, science and religion, etc. etc. but I just wanted to write this as an introduction of how I began to arrive at my views. Hopefully some of you will have comments and opinions to share or debate...stay tuned.

1 comment:

DM said...

I like your story, and the points you make. I have found that there is indeed a lot of circular reasoning in Christianity (and probably religions in general). It bugs me now as circular, but I remember how Christians encourage those who doubt to "pray for faith".

My doubting and loss of faith happened a decade or so later in life than yours. If you want you can read it here: