Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How I Became an Atheist

The header from my (1978) newspaper article' Science and God' in which I first defined empirical limits for testing beliefs.

Many times, people - including family - have wondered how or why I ever came to be an atheist. My dad, two years ago, said: "We've never ever had an atheist in our family, in our whole history!" I replied, "Well, there's always a first time!

Anyway - let's address this kind of bewilderment over how I became an atheist, and I emphasize here the word "becoming", because I didn't just wake up one fine morning and decide to become one. To be sure, my path to atheism was partly fueled by a reluctance to accept received words, or "authority" as is, without further explanation.

Even at an early age, at St. Leo's School in Milwaukee I gave the nuns fits. On one occasion, I evidently aroused the ire of a nun in my second grade class after she directed attention to a full color picture in our religion books. The graphic depicted a male and female trapped under a grating full of flames. A mammoth scaled demon plunged a pitchfork into their bare hides (they wore only loin cloths and their backs were presented in the text).

The lesson had been intended to focus on Hell and how little boys and girls can avoid it, and I had raised my hand to ask a question.

“Yes, Philip?” the good Sister Vivina excitedly asked.

In a deadpan, I replied: “Uh, Sister….if Hell is so hot, how come these two still have some clothing on? Shouldn’t it have been burned off along with their skin?”

The nun grew red-faced and sputtered several minutes before replying along the lines that a special place in Hell was reserved for little boys that asked such impudent questions. But to me, it was common sense, not impudence at work.

I didn’t wish to make Sr. Vivina’s work load more difficult, only to ascertain how it was that these flames didn’t do what normal flames did- burn skin and clothing. But rather than give the budding young atheist a sensible answer, she totally cut off any inquiry – bringing up the eternal fear factor to short curcuit further inquiry:

“God makes Hell much hotter for little boys that ask such questions!”

In reality, she made me question the church’s teachings even more. If the most common sense question couldn’t be answered, how or why could any others? Thus, The Baltimore Catechism and its trite parroting became more a joke to me than anything else (though I played along in order to get promoted!)

Did Sr. Vivina or any other nun, or teaching Brothers (at the later Catholic HS I attended) ever move one millimeter toward molding me into a devout Catholic? Not at all. My upstart behavior was merely repressed and held in check. I mused silently while Mass was being celebrated, and continued to pay little or no attention.

To me it was gobbledygook. I mean, ancient rituals that involved cannibalism of a man who’d been dead 2,000 years? Please! Ditto for most religion classes, unless they dropped the dogma and addressed thought provoking questions or issues. (Which they sometimes did. For example, in one high school religion class, a question posed was whether the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima was a violation of the moral precept that 'the end never justifies the means'). At one point, while still an altar boy in my junior year (and taking chemistry)

I had occasion to actually test the claim that the consecrated wafer was a real body (of Christ). On performing starch and protein tests on the wafer, I found the test tube contents turned bluish in color (positive for starch) but nothing occurred for the protein test. I later asked a teaching Brother about this, and he also grew red in the face, asserting I had committed a "sacrilege" and in any case I'd never be able to test the holy wafer because all one could do is access the "accidents" not the "substance" of transubstantiation.

On digesting this bit of humbug, I simply concluded the guy had no real answer, and that in fact, what we were being fed in Religion class was a load of ripe hogwash.

Later, on entering Loyola and taking Biblical exegesis (from a foremost Jesuit) it finally dawned on me that most of the Bible was a whole cloth tissue of tales. It was only decades later my perception would be vindicated when serious scholars scrutinized the accuracy of the New Testament and whittled the Gospels down to just a few verses that could be factually plausible, as opposed to bull pockey. (E.g. they agreed some of the rabbi Yeshua's healings were legit, but not the resurrection. It was likely copied from ancient accounts of Mithras).

Thus, my questioning and suspicious mind and approach was only confirmed and augmented with each step I took, including a series of theology courses at Loyola. I'd also gone to hear one of the foremost Existentialist philosophers in the world, Jean-Paul Sartre, who came to the Loyola University Fieldhouse in 1964. And, of course, we learned at that lecture one of the cornerstone avoidances of the Existentialist, is "bad faith".

This was the cardinal sin, if you will. The most serious transgression an authentic being or person can make. By "bad faith", Sartre meant going against your own interior barometer, to "go along to get along". It made life relatively easy (few conflicts) but ultimately led to despair since an artificial life was substituted for an authentic one.

Anyway, with Sartre's lecture under my belt, I began a full tilt twenty- year further search for truth, and "God". This again, was imbued with hundreds of questions. For example, after my Peace Corps service in Barbados, I remained to teach for the Ministry of Education there, and also wrote the occasional newspaper article.

In preparation for one ('Science and God', The Barbados Nation, Sept. 28, 1978- see header image) I decided to take a random sample of 100 people from the phone book, and ask each to define God in his or her words, what would result? Amazingly, no two descriptions matched in every respect. The most startling aspect was that fully 56 were Christians (as opposed to 6 Hindus, 8 Muslims, 10 Jewish, 18 no religion identified, 2 agnostics). Some of the responses I received:

"Jesus is God"

"Jehovah is God"

"God is love"

"God is our Father and the creator of the universe"

"God is an impersonal, physical energy."

"Yahweh is God: the I-AM-THAT-WHICH-I-AM"

"God is the principle of creativity and action"

The great diversity of conceptions of God led me to conclude that what people really meant when they professed "belief in God" was a personal allegiance to a particular concept. Invariably, the concept was flawed and limited because it was abstracted from a personal background of awareness and conditioning - as opposed to a total comprehension of actual being.

This was my first intimation that all people had were god-concepts, which were each relative - never absolute. There was simply insufficient information to distinguish one person's deity as the "one true God" to the exclusion of all others. This means that the Jewish concept of Yahweh, the Muslim concept of Allah, the Hindu concept of Brahmin and the Christian concept of the Trinity all stood in the same ontological relation.

From an informational point of view, none could be selected as "true" to the exclusion of the others. This was completely analogous to there being inadequate information to distinguish one religion's claims as true - to the exclusion of all others. In the case of individual religions, or religious traditions, the embodiment of the respective truth claim is found in a "sacred revelation", or holy book.

For example, the Holy Bible for Christianity, the Talmud for Jews, the Koran for Muslims and the Upanishads for Hindus. The problem was that the early writers, for each scripture, suffered from the same limitation of comprehension that their modern counterparts do. Their neural capacity was just as finite as that of present-day humans, and just as conditioned toward a particular conceptual allegiance.

I came to believe - and still do - that the acknowledged use of the term God-concept reinforces the attitude of cautious forbearance mentioned earlier. The implicit relativism acts as a restraint, backing the believer away from a militant stance of absolutism. Ideally, this should dispose him or her to be more tolerant: tolerant toward unbelievers, and tolerant toward those of different religions.

Far from being "wishy-washy", this affords humanity a hope that religious conflicts. Alas, as Michael Persinger's research shows (The Neurological Bases of God Belief) , some brains are too malignantly infected with the mind virus of absolutism to accept the limits of the god-concept. They believe their god is the real McCoy, never mind it's a confection from an ancient book, probably not worth donkey lickspittle. And so this led with some more twists and turns, including considering more carefully the issue of theodicy, as I wrote my first book, defining the relationship between Atheism and scientific Materialism (The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism")

The rest, as they say, is history. The point of this is to show that a direction toward atheism is generally not an easy or simplistic choice, based on the vapid assumption we simply don't like "authority". That simplistic portrayal may sit well with people who disdain thinking, especially critical thinking, but it's false.

Indeed, WHY would one willingly choose a label and philosophical mindset so detested in this country? One that would make the person a pariah on a par with illegal immigrants, Islamic terrorists, abortion doctors and homosexuals? It would be plain stupid to make such a choice purely out of personal pique or disdain for "authority"! Yet this is the level at which many interpet another's atheism.

Hopefully, as the atheist point of view and philosophy (and especially personal stories behind it) become more known, people will not be so dismissive.

Well, at least one can hope!

No comments: