"[There's] a song that they sing of their home in the sky.|
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep,
But singing works just fine for me."
--James Taylor, "Sweet Baby James"
"We sit outside and argue all night long|
About a god we've never seen, but never fails to side with me."
--Primitive Radio Gods, "Standing Outside A Broken
Phone Booth With Money In My Hand"
"There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line.|
The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine."
--Indigo Girls, "Closer To Fine"
Some people have asked me what made me decide to become an atheist. In fact, I didn't "decide" to become an atheist so much as realize that I just didn't believe God existed anymore. The main reason for writing this essay was to help me document to myself the process through which I came to this realization. However, if it also helps others to understand me and my beliefs, so much the better.
Both my parents were devout Southern Baptists, and I was brought up in the church. I was an inquisitive child, perhaps even more so than usual, and was also an early reader, a dangerous combination. Once, after reading Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, I asked my father if the flash of light that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (as related in Genesis 19:24) could have been a nuclear missile fired from a flying saucer. His response taught me that some people didn't like having their beliefs questioned. So, when I later read:
and wondered what happened to the souls of those who had died before Jesus was born, I wasn't entirely comfortable asking others about the subject. However, my questions weren't enough to make me doubt the "faith of my fathers," and during my early adolescence I made a profession of faith and was baptized into the church. For the next several years, my religion consisted of attending church every Sunday with my parents and not thinking much about it the rest of the week.
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." John 14:6 (RSV)
Then I went to college. Almost immediately, I stopped attending church, preferring to sleep in on Sunday mornings. At this point I wasn't rejecting my faith so much as cheerfully neglecting it. However, some of my classes introduced me to events in the history of Christianity that weren't mentioned in Sunday School. I learned about the Crusades and the atrocities committed by the Crusaders, who justified them by calling it God's wrath upon the heathens. I learned about Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, and how the Jews were tortured in horrible ways until they "confessed their sins" and accepted Christ, at which time they were immediately put to death so that their souls would go to heaven. I wondered how so much hatred and violence could be committed by those serving a loving, forgiving God. While I consoled myself with the thought that a religion isn't responsible for those who profess to follow it, and that for every Torquemada there was a Mother Teresa, my faith was growing steadily more uncertain.
At college I was also exposed to Maranatha Campus Ministries, a now-disbanded charismatic Christian group that was then active at my university. My exposure consisted of listening to members of the group harangue their fellow students as they walked between classes, calling the female students "whores" and other similar names if their clothes were not deemed appropriately modest. Frankly, it made me ashamed to be called a Christian.
After I graduated, I found my first job at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. For the first time, I was exposed to significant numbers of non-Americans among the medical students, many of whom were also non-Christians. They seemed like perfectly nice individuals, and I began to have real problems with the idea that they were all going to hell just because they hadn't accepted Jesus as their personal savior. The more I thought about it, the more I had difficulty accepting that millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on were all condemned to eternal damnation when they were just as sincere in their faiths as I was in mine. It was around this time that I decided I could no longer in good conscience be a Christian.
I didn't give up on all religion, however. To be honest, I didn't place a high priority on finding a new religion, but I did from time to time look into other belief systems. I was discouraged to learn that, with very few exceptions such as the Baha'i Faith and Unitarian Universalism, all religions claimed to have an exclusive claim to the "true" nature of God and his message for humanity. And all claimed that those who didn't accept their version of revealed Truth were doomed for all eternity, or would suffer in their next incarnation, or so on.
Further, although all religions claim to want peace, Christianity certainly wasn't the only religion to have a blood on its hands. The word jihad, for "holy war", was coined by Islam, and let's not forget that the terrorists who hijacked and crashed the airliners on 9/11 were convinced that killing themselves in this manner would guarantee their immediate passage to paradise. The regular slaughter of Hindus by Muslims and vice versa in India, of Jews by Muslims and vice versa in the Holy Land, and of Catholics by Protestants and vice versa in Ireland, are admittedly due to conflicts as much historical and political as religious; however, you can't discount the fact that all of the above combatants feel that their causes are blessed by God.
I also began to realize just how many dead religions there were. Everyone knows that the Greeks worshipped Zeus & company, and many know that the Norse had Odin, Thor, and their cohorts. Fewer remember that every civilization in history has had their own gods, from the Babylonians' Marduk to the Egyptians' Osiris to the Celts' Cernunnos to...well, you get the idea. And all of these dead gods were once believed in as devoutly by their followers as today's Christians, Muslims, and others believe in Jehovah, Allah, and so forth. I couldn't help but ask what made current-day religions any more likely to be true than all the dead ones.
At this point I began to consider myself an agnostic. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means, in general, a person who believes that the existence of God can be neither proved nor disproved. I decided that, if God wanted me to believe in Him, then He had better do a bit more to demonstrate His existence to me that He had so far, and let it go at that. However, I soon had to admit to myself that, while I couldn't prove that God didn't exist, I just did not believe in God anymore. In other words, I admitted to myself that I had become an atheist.
More specifically, I had become a soft atheist. I would like to spend a bit of time describing exactly what I believe, since I've spent a fair amount of time and thought working it out for myself. A soft atheist is a person without a belief in God; an equivalent term is "agnostic atheist". In comparison, a hard atheist is a person who categorically denies the existence of God.
I don't consider myself a hard atheist, since I can't prove that God doesn't exist (other than, perhaps, by invoking Occam's Razor). Since I can't, I don't feel I can categorically deny His existence; that comes uncomfortably close to claiming to know absolute Truth, the very arrogance I reject in organized religion. I can't tell Christians that their faith is wrong, any more than they can tell me that my disbelief is wrong. Each person has to resolve the issue for him- or herself.
However, I definitely do not personally believe in a supreme being. Santa Claus could in theory exist, but I don't believe he does, either. I consider the possibility of God's existence to be at least as unlikely as that of Santa Claus' existence. I also do not believe in the existence of the Devil, Heaven and Hell, or an immortal soul that survives the death of the body.
Over time, I have also come to have more problems with Christianity specifically. As I said in the previous paragraph, I do not believe in the Christian Hell as described in the Bible:
There are a lot of interpretations of Hell, as can be easily seen by glancing through the Wikipedia article "Christian views on Hell"). I choose to take Jesus at his word, when he commands sinners to be cast into the "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41). This Hell is a place of unending torment, where sinners suffer the agony of being burned alive without end through all eternity. I don't see how anyone can regard this as not being evil beyond all human comprehension. Sinners are not roasted alive one day for each day they lived in sin on Earth; they are not burned alive one thousand years for each second they existed on Earth; no, their unimaginable agony never ends. Yet, this is what Jesus and the Bible plainly states waits for anyone who does not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I can not believe in such a God.
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. Mark 9:43 (RSV)
A couple of good resources for more information about atheism are: