Five moments in the evolution of an atheist

One (ca. 1988): As a teenager, I believed in ghosts. I was a big fan of the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown series. Ouija, witchcraft, psychic phenomena – these were themes of my adolescence. One morning following a sleepover, a friend’s father ridiculed us pretty harshly for believing such nonsense. Then later that day he attended mass and professed belief in virgin birth, miraculous resurrection, and divine retribution. Even then, I recognized this as deep hypocrisy.

It’s not that belief in one impossible thing necessitates belief in six more (before breakfast). But when you’ve abandoned objective tests for truth, the distinction between cherished belief and childish myth is arbitrary and personal. So there’s not much point in ridiculing someone whose classifications differ from yours.

Two (ca. 1991): As I went off to college, I read more widely and experienced a wider world. I quickly grew to dislike fantasy novels and started reading popular science, by the likes of Weinberg, Hawking, Sagan, and Dawkins. I gained an appreciation of “god as nature,” a concept that I learned went back to Spinoza (ca. 1670), and was endorsed by Einstein. This is not in any sense a ‘personal’ god; it does not intervene in the world, and does not even receive prayers. In other words, it’s a god even a budding rationalist can believe in.

So for many years, I was happy with Spinoza’s god but agnostic about a personal god. I didn’t really accept the label ‘atheist’ because I thought it implied a certain arrogance: we don’t know everything about the universe, so how can we rule out god?

Three (ca. 1996–7): Gradually I realized that if you define ‘god’ however you want, then claiming belief in it is meaningless. When most people speak of God, they refer to a supernatural creature of some sort that hears prayers and intervenes in the world. If you think this is a falsehood, you’re an atheist. Spinoza’s god is just a philosophical construct; conceiving of god as a set of physical laws and constants does not constitute theism.

Four (ca. 2003) A health issue landed me in the hospital for 3 nights. While not exactly a brush with death, being the youngest patient in the cardiac ward did provide an opportunity to ponder my own mortality. I seriously considered whether I was on the right track, or whether I should maybe loosen up on the rationalism. But I got through it with the help of amazing (but non-miraculous) science and technology. Later I found some thinkers who provide ‘spiritual’ healing and inspiration without the hocus-pocus. Carl Sagan wrote the following as he was dying from cancer. It brings a tear every time:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Five (ca. 2006–7) A greater awareness of atheism as a political stance has arisen. Partly inspired by excesses of the Bush administration, I joined the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Inspired too by recent books of Dawkins and Dennett, I joined the Council for Secular Humanism and subscribed to Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer. I regularly listen to the podcasts Point of Inquiry and Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. If moment #3 was about self-acceptance, then this one is my coming out.

©20022015 Christopher League