Friday, July 12, 2013

How Did I Become an Atheist?

I grew up on Cape Cod and attended a Baptist church with my parents before they switched to the Catholic faith when I was maybe 8 years old. And I attended a religious school for one year, for first grade, whose curriculum was slightly ahead of the public school I attended afterward. Although I appreciated the kindness exhibited by Jesus (the Golden Rule) and agreed that it was good advice to be forgiving, I never really thought about how it compared to other religions, or whether it was all true, because there just wasn't any exposure to other religions.

From the age of 8 to 16 I went to church with my parents and occasionally went with them on retreats to a former Shaker village in New Hampshire, where Catholics got together to affirm their religious identity and bolster their marriages. During those years I was most interested in making art, studying entomology and herpetology, and eventually, computer programming. We had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and I read a lot of it.

At the time when I was preparing to be confirmed, a rite of Catholicism for teenagers, I was attending "CCD" in my friend's basement with some other boys, and as we listened to the story of Noah's ark I realized that of course it wasn't literally true. But I thought about it no further than that. There was literally no one around with any different kind of background, with other kinds of ideas, with experience in the world at large, just all these working class Catholics.

Even after I stopped paying any attention to my religious upbringing, for a long time I thought there must be something to it. I tried LSD and read about Hinduism and Buddhism, and I found that, yes, indeed, there is something there, and so I wanted to understand how all these religions were connected, and whether there was some core to them all that made them necessary or useful or natural.

To make a long, long story short, due to my semi-literalistic Catholic upbringing, I actually had a very difficult time thinking outside of that box and understanding what, for example, Zen was pointing to. It took me until very recently (I'm now 46) to fully embrace Atheism and accept that the absence of any gods is just a fundamental fact of the Universe. For the longest time I really wanted there to be something to it.

Today I absolutely reject any claims that can't be demonstrated, and of course I reject all the manipulative claims of religion that are used to keep us in a box. In a sense, I have finally reclaimed my mind from that construct that had me so bamboozled for so long. It's nice to finally be here in the real world, and to be out of that unhelpful storybook.

So I have rejected as false all prophets, messiahs, saints, angels, gods, demons, and unicorns. When I engage with religious types today the subject invariably ends up at a point where I have to explain how reason works, how scientific theories are formed, and how knowledge is arrived at, because in the United States, unless you're brought up by conscientious freethinkers, we simply aren't given any direct instruction on how to reason. And in-general, it seems that knowing how to reason is simply not a given among humans. We have to learn it anew with every new generation.

As for meditation, and as for yoga, from my experience and growing understanding of neurobiology, I happen to think these are both demonstrably useful practices, and supremely valuable for getting over the even more subtle kinds of delusion that we carry around in our heads, such as our false notions of selfhood and ego. It is unfortunate that both meditation and yoga are so often accompanied by superstitious readings of the traditions in which they originated. Fortunately, more and more modern people seem to prefer a more austere and plainspoken approach to these practices.

So before I get too far afield, that's where I am at today. I have wholly rejected religious dogma and the horrible habits of thinking that it engenders in people, but in the process I have tried not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and to understand what goes on in the brain when people pray or do other things to move forward when they're mentally stuck.

I put it this way now: Religion pulls on our levers to manipulate us. I'm taking control of those levers now, which I didn't even know were there!

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