I Was a Teenage Apologist: My Journey from Christianity to Atheism
“Do not demand that your belief [in a personal God] be reasonable. You will be threatened with the loss of your faith. You may well lose your faith. Those who have lost their faith in God are generally those who have felt the need for good reasons, for evidence, for argument. Better that you should take as your slogan ‘credo qui absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ That’s a far surer basis.”
~ Alex Rosenberg
In February 2010, shortly before my 23rd birthday, I realized I was an atheist. This is simply to say that I do not believe any gods exist because I find no evidential or logical reason to believe. I find the very concept of god, as traditionally defined by the three great monotheistic religions of the Western world, to be logically incoherent and a wholly unnecessary postulate in a universe that looks just as we would expect it to look if there were no supernatural beings or forces. In this autobiographical article I set out to tell the story of my deconversion from fundamentalist Christianity and how I started down the path of critical self-reflection and skeptical evaluation that eventually led me to discard my faith and become the liberal, science-loving atheist I am today.
I was raised as a Baptist Christian and grew up attending a small church at least twice every week. I was homeschooled by loving, well-intentioned, and sincere parents, and the education I received was heavily informed by the religious training I was exposed to at church. I was not taught that Christianity was one religious worldview among many, or that I should wait until I was old enough to assess the beliefs of Christianity for myself in order to make an informed decision. Rather, whether the authority figures in my life realized it or not, I was taught that Christianity was simply the correct view of the world, that all the doctrinal tenets of Baptist Protestantism were factually true, and that the enemy of the faith, which my pastor and Sunday school teachers called “the world system,” was wrong (and, of course, evil). This meant that when I declared myself a Christian at the age of seven, I did so thinking about Christianity not so much as a faith, but as something that was simply a factually-true worldview.
In the months and years after I was formally baptized at church at age eight, I repeated the so-called “salvation prayer” several times. I had a very strong and sometimes nearly debilitating fear of eternal, fiery torture in hell after my death or at when the end of the world came, whichever came first. Even as a very young child (from about the age of five) I had extremely vivid dreams that I still recall clearly to this day. As soon as I started thinking about Christianity seriously enough to start calling myself an adherent, the nightmares about hell began in earnest, stoked in no small part by the Chick tracts I consumed. The end of days was also very important to my family and my church’s teachings. When I was about eight years old, I remember seeing a doomsday book by Hal Lindsey my mother had in her personal library bearing the title Planet Earth – 2000 A.D. Will Mankind Survive? I remember thinking seriously about whether I would live past my 13th year on Earth. Frightening visions of the Rapture and Tribulation also made their way into my childhood dreams. One of the most vivid that I can recall to this day involved me discovering that I was the Antichrist supposedly foretold in biblical prophecy, and there was nothing I could do about it because prophecy was prophecy, after all.
Hellfire and the deranged end-of-the-world visions of the Book of Revelation were not the only items from the Christian scriptures that my church taught in the most literal manner possible. The creation and flood myths in the Book of Genesis were also interpreted as literal historical fact and taught as much. To interpret these passages allegorically or symbolically while accepting what science tells us about origins was viewed as heresy. Thus, young-earth creationism featured strongly in my earliest exposure to the science versus religion debates.
I recall having a strong interest in science as a young child. The first time I became aware of this thing called science was, I think, my reading of books on anatomy and physiology that I found at the library when I was as young as five years old, and I remember being utterly fascinated by the thought that the human body could be studied in detail piece by piece. I also discovered books on dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures and fostered a fascination in that subject as well, as do most young children. Also like many small boys, I enjoyed catching insects and spiders, and came to learn of a field of science devoted entirely to the study of insects called entomology, which I decided was something I wanted to be. I read books like The Way Things Work by David Macaulay and even began reading my family’s encyclopedia set from the beginning.
Because of my church community’s preoccupation with biblical literalism, all of this science I was discovering was filtered through a young-earth creationist viewpoint, which I was taught was a matter of fact rather than of faith. Here, then, was the point of entry to my embracing creationism. The church my family attended had a set of seminar lectures on VHS cassettes by the famous young-earth creationist and fundamentalist preacher Ken Ham and played them for the whole congregation. When I was nine years old, my family attended a series of such lectures by Ken Ham when he visited our city, and I remember meeting him in person.
Fast forward five years. When I was 14 years old, I once again renewed that old “salvation prayer.” This was in the summer of 2001, when I joined a group of other 13-15 year-olds on a week-long excursion with a small evangelistic organization to learn how to evangelize young children and get them to convert to the faith. That September, when the most devastating terrorist attack in the United States’ history took place, a new preoccupation took hold of me in addition to my interest in studying creationism. I began to read about and study Christian beliefs about the end of the world and the final judgment, the subject that was the source of so many nightmares during my preteen years. In addition to reading commentaries on the Book of Revelation, I read end-times books by self-professed doomsday gurus like Hal Lindsey and dug my teeth into the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. My church taught that we were “clearly” living in the last days and so, being still in the throes of irrational belief, I felt the need to inform myself about what my particular faith community believed about the end of the world. This served to reintroduce the same species of fear that troubled me about hell as a young child. Based on what several adults in the church were saying about the “signs of the times,” I began to believe that I may not live to see adulthood before being suddenly whisked away to the heavenly realm or, if I somehow didn’t make the cut, left on earth to die a horrible death at the hands of an angry deity. Tragically, my early childhood interest in science had been drowned out by this new fear-based preoccupation.
By the time I was 17, my fear-driven and morbid fascination with end-times theology had subsided, most probably due to a period of normal teenage angst and sexual frustration. I can remember clearly sitting in church during an evening sermon and being distracted by the sudden thought that while I knew what I believed, I didn’t know why I believed it. Accepting claims made about ultimate truth on the word of authority figures suddenly did not seem like any kind of reason to hold onto any worldview. I decided I needed to find a way to make this religion my own. The questions I asked were similar to the questions posed in the song “After Forever” by the band Black Sabbath:
Have you ever thought about your soul, can it be saved?
Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead you just stay in your grave
Is God just a thought within your head or is he a part of you?
Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?
It was about this time that I discovered a book that my mother had acquired for a high school-level homeschool course that dealt with Western philosophy (from a Christian perspective, because of course). But the book was a catalyst for the eventual road to unbelief I ended up taking. The book was called The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog by James Sire. I found it utterly fascinating and read the whole book twice and some chapters more times than that. As the subtitle suggests, this book discussed the history and philosophy of the major worldviews that competed in Western culture, including theism, deism, atheism/naturalism, Marxism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern religions, New Age philosophy, and postmodernism. I had never before been exposed to the wide range of beliefs and worldviews that were on display in the marketplace of ideas. Although the author was an orthodox Christian theist and apologist who failed to subject his treatment of theism with the same level of critical scrutiny he applied to the other worldviews, the book nevertheless opened my eyes to the need to defend my faith rationally in the face of all these other beliefs about truth if I was to find a legitimate answer to the question of why I believed in Christianity.
Thus began my interest in Christian apologetics. I fostered this interest both at home in the school curriculum I worked on and at a church class that an aspiring Christian apologist from our church community taught. I knew that I wanted to defend my religious belief rationally, without having to resort to blind faith or the circularity of basing my justification for belief on the word of scripture. At age 18 my parents very kindly made it possible for me to travel to Seattle to attend a week-long Christian apologetics conference called Worldview Academy, where young people around my age went to listen to career apologists discuss how to defend major tenets of orthodox Christianity (creationism, biblical history, the reliability of scripture, the historicity of Jesus, etc.) and engage in workshops in which we practiced talking to each other as if we were talking to nonbelievers. We even went to the campus of the University of Washington to try out our defense of Christian theism on college students and professors. It was at this conference that I met the apologist Bill Jack, whose videos and books I had seen and read at home and who invited me and a few other aspiring apologists to have lunch with him.
This was the beginning of the end of my belief in Christianity and the existence of a god. Ironically enough, my attempt to defend the faith by doing heavy research into the various claims made by Christian theism is what ultimately led me to discard Christianity and theism entirely. I lost my faith precisely because I tried to find a rational and evidence-based justification for it.
At the age of 19, I renewed my commitment to Christ for what would be the final time. I was at this point an aspiring Christian apologist; I wanted to make it my mission to defend the faith, and so I decided a final plea for salvation was in order. But although I did not admit to myself, I felt absolutely no supernatural presence of any kind. I now know this was because I was not talking to anybody. I was in reality talking to myself and trying desperately to convince myself that the Christian god was listening.
That same year, 2006, I took a states standard test, received my high school diploma, and graduated at a ceremony with other graduating homeschooled students at a local religious college. One of the first things I did as an aspiring apologist was to write an op-ed for my local newspaper, which was published, in which I argued that religious teachings, including creationism, could be reconciled and made compatible with modern science. I cringe a little when I think about writing that op-ed. I don’t recall all the details of what I set down on paper, but I have no doubt if I read it again today, I would not recognize myself in those words. Being as equipped with all the knowledge and education I have accumulated since then, I would now be able to refute and debunk my own arguments.
I moved away from home, attended a community college where I took a course in the History of Western Civilization, and started reading philosophical and scientific works by thinkers and scholars who did not believe in Christianity, as a means of getting to “know the enemy” so as to better defend my own beliefs. First, I went to libraries and bookstores and read everything I could get my hands on about evolution, because creationism had again become a central concern to me when I rediscovered my old love of science. I read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, as well as books by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, and others.
The result was a powerfully eye-opening experience. I was completely taken aback by what I was not told about evolution and geology by my creationist teachers growing up. I came to understand that the amount of scientific evidence in favor of evolution and the 4.5 billion-year age of the Earth were overwhelming and simply undeniable by any honest seeker. The sheer elegance of evolutionary explanations for the diversity of life revealed to me the weakness and intellectual dishonesty of the creationists’ attacks on the science. I soon came to understand that the claims of creationism are unsupportable and felt I had been lied to by the religious figures like Ken Ham, Bill Jack, and Henry Morris who I looked up to in my teenage years and whose arguments I repeated. This was more than a feeling; I really was lied to by these people and the anti-science community they represented. They lied when they taught me that there were no transitional fossils. They lied to me when they said the noxious spray of the bombardier beetle proved intelligent design. They lied when they said evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. And they lied when they told me I should consider an ancient book to be a superior guide to truth than the findings of modern science.
So I discarded creationism and accepted that evolution is a verifiable fact. But I still held onto my god belief. I acquainted myself with the community of theists who accepted the reality of evolution but maintained that a supernatural being directed and guided the eons-long process. But the more I read and studied the issue, the more I realized that this idea of god-directed evolution was unnecessary at best and incoherent at worst. Evolution is by definition an unguided and natural process. There is no need and no warrant for positing intervention by a micromanaging deity in order to account for changes in allele frequencies over time. Saying a god is needed to direct the course of evolution is akin to saying that a god is needed to direct the force of gravity. No, Intelligent Gravity is not a thing, because gravitation is a natural consequence of the mindless laws of physics. But it is very telling that if the writers of antiquity who wrote what would eventually be collected in the canon of Jewish and Christian scripture had felt inclined to claim that god personally pulled objects to the earth, there would today be an Intelligent Gravity movement attacking the natural physics understanding. After all, the reason there are people today in the 21st century who actually believe that the Earth is flat is because there are several passages in the Bible that clearly describe Earth as a flat disk encased by a dome.
Theistic evolution is a compromise; it is a symptom of the failure of creationist accounts of life and the universe in the face of the scientific discoveries and advancements that started with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the nineteenth century. Theistic evolutionists are attempting to hold on to their belief in an intervening god while at the same time admitting that the evidence for evolution makes any denial of it dishonest. But naturalistic evolution already explains the diversity and development of life. Adding a god on top of that explanation is burdensome and redundant, especially in light of the fact that theists have not been able to provide any mechanism by which a god could either jumpstart the evolutionary process or guide it.
My faith was further eroded by my study of the historical claims of Christianity. I read the works of Bart Ehrman, Richard Elliott Friedman, Elaine Pagels, and other skeptical Bible scholars and historians of religion and the early church. For the first time, I learned about the historical unreliability of sacred scriptures. We do not have access to the original manuscripts and what we do have is riddled with both scribal errors and blatant alterations and distortions that favored particular religious persuasions and censored others. By following the primary sources and references of these scholars, as well as by reading the Bible itself with a new objectivity, I also saw that the Bible is clearly full of contradictions. I came to see that the defenses put forth by the Christian apologists whom I had read and heard from as a teenager and at the faith-based Worldview Academy conference amounted to little more than ad-hoc rationalizations of what the historical and textual evidence clearly demonstrated. Apologists are in the business of defending the indefensible, which is the very definition of “apologetics.” They are not offering any new insights or discoveries of their own, but rather going on the defensive and attacking the work of reputable scientists and historians whose findings are considered dangerous by the faithful.
The same is of course true of “Intelligent Design” (ID) advocates, those creationists who seek to disassociate themselves from the term “creationism” in order to make themselves appear more intellectually respectable. But only the name has changed; they are still creationists whether they admit so or not. ID advocates have not contributed any original scientific research, discovery, or insight of their own. Instead, they leech off the work already done by reputable biologists, chemists, and geneticists and pass it off as evidence of supernatural tinkering in nature. They do so by intimidating their audiences with lots of complicated scientific-sounding jargon, pretending to have expertise and pretending to know what they’re talking about, and then attacking the foundational, unifying principle, namely evolution, that allowed the knowledge they are parasitizing to be developed in the first place.
It became clear to me that the Book of Genesis could not be trusted as a literal historical account of how the universe and life came into existence, that the Gospel accounts in the New Testament were not reliable eyewitness accounts, and that there was much reason to doubt the historicity of a person called Jesus.
And so, at the age of 20, I knew I could no longer accept Christianity as a valid belief system.
But I was not out of the woods yet. While coming to the conclusion that Christianity was not true, I still believed that there was a god of some kind out there, even if I didn’t know what kind of god it was. I even held onto the idea that maybe there was some value to be found in Christianity as a symbolical or allegorical story, even if it was not a literal accounting of life, the universe, and everything. As we will see, I have discarded that notion as well.
So I no longer knew what I believed in, if anything. In addition to researching evolution and biblical criticism, I started researching other religions. For example, I read the Bhagavad-Gita, the holy book of Hinduism, and attended a service at a Hindu temple. I researched Islam and Buddhism. I even read The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals by Anton Szandor LaVey, who in the 1960s founded the modern Church of Satan. I did not find these religious traditions to be very compelling. At that point in my educational journey, I could easily discern that all religions are man-made constructs designed to make people less afraid of a natural world that frightened them and to help assuage the fear of death.
Philosophy became my abiding interest, and I decided that was what I wanted to study when I went to whatever university I ended up attending. I read the works of several of the great philosophers, including such an eclectic mix as Plato, René Descartes, David Hume, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. I started thinking deeply about the “Big Questions” in a new light that was no longer filtered through the lens of religion, and philosophy as a method of evaluating these questions held out great promise to me for figuring out who I was and what I should believe in. Philosophy remains an abiding interest to me today.
In 2008, at age 21, I explored a new belief system that I had not devoted much time to before. This was the year I left my home state of Idaho and moved to Oregon, not far from the west coast. In May of that year, before enrolling in Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, I joined an environmentally-conscious work program called Northwest Service Academy, an AmeriCorps program in which participants engage in service projects throughout the Pacific Northwest geared toward environmental restoration and conservation. There were about 45 other people in this program, all of us in our early- to mid-20s. We were split up into different groups that traveled all over the Pacific Northwest doing our various service projects, while we lived for six months at a ranger station campus in Trout Lake, Washington that served as home base.
It was in this program that I was introduced in a big way to New Age mysticism by one of the members in my working team (interestingly enough, this individual turned out to be the nephew of the famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig). He was the very picture of the “tree-loving, acid-dropping hippie” archetype and had brought along a whole box of New Age books with him. Learning of my interest in philosophy, he told me that “isms are dead.” He loaned me his books to read and showed me his various spiritual exercises, including the Hare Krishna chant, meditation, and praying to Gaia, the primordial earth goddess. On his dorm room wall, he displayed a drawing he had made of a bright point of light in the center of an otherwise darkly-colored vista, and claimed this was his reconstruction of what he saw that one time he had a vision of the afterlife.
“New Age” is an umbrella term having reference to a body of spiritualistic belief which asserts that a separate holistic reality, fundamentally pervaded by a single cosmic consciousness of which all human minds are a part, lies beyond the material world. While reading the New Age books my team member gave me and considering what he said, I found this belief system very unconvincing and unappealing for several reasons, first and foremost being that New Age philosophy was not friendly to objective knowledge. This individual told me that I should “read less books” and ignore philosophy, and also that intellectual pursuits were a waste of time. I even took acid with him because he said I was in desperate need of a spiritual experience. I ended up not experiencing anything more interesting than seeing the patterns in the kitchen floor swirling around, and he suggested that this was because I was too skeptical. This anti-intellectual attitude was extremely distasteful to me, having just a year or so previously having left a religion precisely because of what I learned through my intellectual pursuits. For all the talk of “mind expanding” that New Agers talk about, it is very telling that they find the pursuit of objective knowledge about the world to be threatening or dangerous.
I was also introduced to UFOlogy during my time in AmeriCorps. Trout Lake is considered to be a UFO hotspot by local residents as well as by UFO buffs from all over the country. There is a ranch in Trout Lake where UFO seekers and spiritualistic thrill-seekers visit to watch for UFOs. This so-called ECETI Ranch (standing for Enlightened Contact with ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is owned by James Gilliland, a self-professed New Age guru who claims to be in contact with a race of extraterrestrial beings and purports to be the medium through which these beings convey their messages of peace and love. Gilliland has written several books which he claims were dictated to him by an interdimensional alien being called Cazekiel. He claimed that Mount Adams was hollow and served as an alien base.
I met this eccentric Gilliland fellow in person at his ranch one afternoon and talked to him about his beliefs. I went to his ranch again on the evening of July 4, 2008 for his annual Independence Day UFO-watching event. A few hundred people were gathered there that night from all over the country. But while many of them were excitedly pointing to the night sky and exclaiming that the UFOs were out in good numbers, I saw absolutely nothing but a few stars. And this was the same night I took acid! Here was a large group of people who had primed themselves to see what they so desperately wanted to see. It struck me that this same self-deception very likely also occurred during the religious experiences of adherents from other more mainstream faith traditions. If it could happen with people who wanted to believe there were intelligent alien beings living inside a nearby mountain that could easily be investigated to see if there were any entrances leading to an alien base, how much easier is it to delude oneself into believing that a religious figure like Jesus, the details of whose existence is obfuscated by two millennia of scrambled and distorted oral accounts, is personally communicating with you in a special and intimate way?
I returned to Ashland, Oregon that October more skeptical and disillusioned than I had ever been about all things supernatural. I enrolled in Southern Oregon University, where I majored in journalism with a minor in philosophy. During my freshman year, I read a book called Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions by James Randi. This book influenced me in a huge way. Here was a world-famous magician debunking all manner of pseudoscientific beliefs and claims, not only by subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny under laboratory conditions, but also be replicating the tricks employed by psychics, mediums, spoon-benders, water diviners, and other charlatans. This book had a whole chapter devoted to UFOlogy, in which Randi concludes,
The Flying Saucer Delusion belongs in this book as another example of wishful thinking, poor research, and outright fraud. It joins the other species of nonsense and deserves the same kind of exposure given to other irrationalities. There is no proof whatsoever that UFOs are any more exciting than the TWA flight from New York to San Francisco. And the latter phenomenon is miracle enough for me.
Randi did not address religious claims in his book, but I could see that the methods of scientific testing and rational evaluation that he employed against the various woo beliefs he did address could also be applied to religion. This realization was eye-opening; throughout my childhood and teen years I had been repeatedly told by my teachers, both in church and in my homeschool “science” textbooks (which of course were written from a creationist point of view) that God could not be put into a box, could not be studied inside a test tube. But this, I now realized, was all wrong. Science really is in a position to weigh in on the supernatural, and it violates no jurisdiction by doing so. On one level, establishing the truth of this argument is very simple: If a claim concerning God or other supernatural entities contains any testable elements, then the validity of that claim can be scientifically tested. For example, if the claim is made that any two Christians who pray to their God can physically move a mountain from its place and cast it into the sea, then we have before us an obvious empirical test that can be performed. Moreover, if a personal god exists, one who takes actions and tinkers with the universe and who is claimed to have an effect on our lives, then he/she/it should be detectable by the physical effects his actions makes on the natural world. A supernatural being that participates in and interferes constantly with the physical universe should at least leave a straightforward statistical trace. But no such trace is to be found.
Randi’s book was my introduction to the skeptical movement, of which I knew I wanted to be a part and to which I wanted to contribute by applying the techniques of investigative journalism that I was learning in college. I went on to read all of the other books written by James Randi, as well as books by other movers and shakers in the skeptical community, such as Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, Paul Kurtz, and Ray Hyman.
So I was at this point a skeptic of religion and the supernatural. I was very close to identifying as an atheist, but in the year before that happened, I called myself a deist. This is to say that I while I completely rejected all religions as false, misguided human inventions and rejected the notion that any personal god who interacts with its creation exists, I still maintained that perhaps an impersonal, non-interventionist higher being existed whose only role was to initiate the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, then leave the universe to run on its own without his involvement. Maybe, I thought, this being wasn’t necessarily supernatural at all, but rather just a natural being that was nevertheless far more advanced in intelligence and creative power than we humans could ever be.
But of course, not being content to settle on a conclusion without researching the question to the depth the subject warranted, I read up on what physicists and cosmologists had to say on the subject. I read the work of particle physicist Victor Stenger and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, both of whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk to in person, and both of whom showed that the best models of universal origins, developed by some of the greatest scientific minds in the field, did not require the insertion of a god or creative force of any kind in any part of the equations. In his 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos, Stenger himself worked out with mathematical rigor his own version of a scenario originally developed by theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin by which our universe “tunneled” from a previous universe through a process called quantum tunneling. And in his lecture titled “A Universe from Nothing,” presented at the 2009 Atheist Alliance International conference – and which I watched several times over – Krauss showed that our universe could have come into existence completely by accident without violating any known laws of physics, due to the symmetries of the preexisting void being highly unstable and thereby collapsing spontaneously into something – a universe. In that lecture, Krauss makes the following wonderful statement:
Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than [the atoms in] your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics. You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if the stars were kind enough to explode. So forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.
This scientific poetry is not based on mere conjecture or speculation, and it is not based on faith of any kind. This is poetry that is based on hard knowledge that can be and has been tested and verified by rigorous, peer-reviewed methods of investigation performed by thousands of scientists. The creation fables of religion look primitive and tawdry in comparison to the truths that science reveals to us about our origins and place in the universe.
The weight of the evidence from the best cosmological models to date indicates that the universe began in a state of maximum chaos, or what physicists call “maximum entropy.” This would mean that the universe had no structure at the point of its inception. This means that if the deist’s god did set off the spark that created the universe, no memory or trace of that god would be preserved in the current universe. So while not completely ruled out, due to its non-falsifiable (and therefore unscientific) nature, deism has been ruled irrelevant by the mere fact that maximum chaos dominated at the moment the universe was born. It would seem that even god is subservient to the laws of thermodynamics. At any rate, I then asked myself, in what possible way is a god who does not interact in any way, shape, or form with its creation indistinguishable from a completely nonexistent god? If everyone were a deist, wouldn’t we all be living as if we were atheists anyway?
The more I studied and learned about history, philosophy, and science, the more the god I had once believed in vanished from sight. Another great influence that helped me further along the road of erasing god belief from my life was a show that one of my philosophy professors was a fan of called The Atheist Experience, a weekly public-access television show that broadcasts from Austin, Texas and streams over the Internet. Hosted by members of the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA), The Atheist Experience is a program that has discussed just about everything related to the theism/atheism debate. The show’s hosts take calls from people all over the country to hash these issues out on the air, and they prioritize calls from theists who either want to challenge atheism or who have honest questions about atheism. Matt Dillahunty, who was president of the ACA when I first started following the show and who continues to be a prominent spokesperson for the organization, started out as a fundamentalist Christian like me before discarding his faith. His story connected and resonated with me and the discussions he and others on the show engaged in with believers served as a great resource for me. Matt Dillahunty has often said, “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.” I have taken that to be my own personal life philosophy.
Then, in the beginning of my sophomore year, god disappeared completely from my worldview and I began publicly identifying as an atheist.
It has been nearly seven years now since I came to terms with the realization that there is no god or any other supernatural force in the universe. I now have an insatiable appetite for knowledge from a wide and eclectic range of subjects, from history, philosophy, and especially science. Discarding my belief in gods and magic has been of immense and indeed immeasurable benefit in this pursuit of knowledge. I no longer have to try to force square pegs into round holes, also known as “apologetics.” I no longer need to fit all that I learn into the small box of religious belief. In my past, when I subscribed to creationism, I was exhorted by my teachers to be defeatist in my pursuit of knowledge, to throw up my hands and give up trying to seek out a scientific explanation for life and the universe. “It’s all so complicated, let’s just say ‘goddidit’ and be done with it.” This attitude discourages avid curiosity and the striving toward new knowledge. To assume an unproven answer such as “God did it” not only bypasses and dismisses principles of observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable evidence, it seeks to halt science in its tracks. If scientists accepted wholesale such “God of the Gaps” assumptions, the drive to continue investigating and seeking answers would die, for the unproved Supernatural Being that is assumed to exist is simply inserted into every unknown ever encountered and matters are left at that.
Now, I am free to critically evaluate all claims and worldviews using the tools of philosophy and science, and I am free to change my mind in light of the objective, observable evidence and/or modify my existing beliefs to satisfy what reality tells me is true based on testable, repeatable, falsifiable, and predictable knowledge. There is nothing too “sacred” to be investigated. To the best of my ability, I strive to live an evidence-based life, something that is not possible under the religious theism that dominated my thought processes as a child and as a teenager and young adult.
My life as an atheist is orders of magnitude more meaningful to me now than it was while I was religious. For one thing, the fact that there is no soul and no afterlife to look forward to makes the one life I have here, which really is just a blip of consciousness wavering between two eternal oblivions, that much more meaningful and worth living to the fullest. For another, think about what the theist’s overriding purpose in life is. By their own account, their purpose is to be in total and complete servitude to their god. The Christian religion I was a part of demands enslavement to god as a prerequisite to salvation. The idea of total servitude and surrender of one’s will, emotions, and intellect to an outside source, and the casting-off of personal responsibility for one’s own actions, is one that I find morally repugnant. Under fundamentalist Christianity, people are told to “lean not on your own understanding,” or in other words to embrace the ignorance that faith demands and eschew knowledge. Under fundamentalist Christianity, great humanitarian efforts are dismissed as “filthy rags” while murderers, rapists, and child molesters are welcomed into the fold at the first hint of a vocal declaration that they’re “saved.” This is how Christianity, and religion in general, robs people of their humanity. It reduces them to a puppet controlled by the fiat will of a deity that they believe communicates with them directly and gives them direction for their life. The most devout theists are wasting the only life they will ever have in service to an imaginary being.
When theists tell me that without god, my life has no ultimate or transcendent meaning or purpose, my response is, “Yes; so what?” We all live in an unimaginably vast, unforgiving, and indifferent cosmos. There is no ultimate reason for anything that happens, but this is the reality that we all must deal with. Trying to find objective meaning in the universe is little different than spilling the innards of chicken and sheep and “reading” the entrails to see what cosmic truth they reveal, or reading tea leaves or palms. These things do not mean anything, and neither does the universe. The nineteenth-century Scottish poet James Thomson expressed this in a surprisingly beautiful way in his poem The City of Dreadful Night:
This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.
We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:
If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,
If tigers burn with beauty and with might,
Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlighted ever by the faintest spark
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.
The indifference and impersonal nature of the universe is all the more reason to jettison magical and supernatural thinking of all kinds from our minds. As Carl Sagan famously said near the end of his life, “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
My life as an atheist has whatever meaning and purpose I assign to it. As a social primate, I want to serve my species, to spend the only life I will ever have learning as much as I possibly can about reality and using that knowledge to make the lives of others better in whatever way I can. My atheism makes me value my fellow humans far more than religion ever did, because without a higher being watching over us and micromanaging every detail of our lives, all we have is each other to make life in this cold, indifferent, and inhospitable universe just a little more bearable. This is the “meaning” I find in my godless life, and it is a meaning that is subjective and self-created, which is the only kind of meaning anyone can find. And that’s okay.