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My Journey to Atheism

March 6, 2011 4 comments

I’m often asked how I came to be in the position I’m in now, that of an atheist. Most often it’s a question posed with a tinge of pity or sympathy, as though it is an inquiry about how my mother died, or why I think we just lost the big game. On the contrary, I cannot express just how much better my life is now that I’ve stopped believing in fairy tales. Sadly my “journey” isn’t an action-packed saga, packed with moments of clarity or grand revelation; rather, it’s a slow, unintentional progression from the formidable years of a young boy who was indoctrinated into Christianity through fear, guilt and false promises, to the man typing this blog post free of the need for eternal life, “salvation” or daddy’s approval.

To be honest, it’s really just a happy accident, a process as subject to chance and luck as rolling a dice. A better analogy is that I had the good fortune of sneezing out a giant loogie that had been lodged in my nose for most of my life; I didn’t even know it was there, nor that it was the cause of discomfort, but once it was gone – oh boy! – life was good after that.

Jesus Christ, that was a big one.

I was raised Catholic; that is, I was sent to Catholic school from 3rd grade all the way through high school. (My mother claimed she was Protestant, though I can’t recall ever seeing her pray, read a bible or any of that.) I suspect that she just sent me to Catholic school because it was nearby and we didn’t have a car, and because she equated a religious school with safety and love. I suppose this is the part where most people begin to recount incidents of religious extremism, or nuns beating youngsters with rulers, or of boys being molested by a priest. None of that ever happened. It was a pretty normal school, one I imagine wasn’t very different from the average public school (save for the abundance of crucifixes in classrooms and hallways).

I grew up believing in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, simply because that was the only option presented to me. I knew there were other religions, but if you tell someone that their god is the right god and the only god enough times, they’ll believe it. And so I did. Outside of being required to attend mass with the whole school once a month (and hitting up Christmas mass every few years) I never attended a mass by choice. I guess you could say I was a moderate, in that I believed in God but didn’t do much about it.

Years passed, and I continued believing and not doing anything about it. Ironically the real change in me began when I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic institution (read the bit on their front page about “integrating faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and right living” for a good chuckle), which I attended because I didn’t have to pay tuition. I learned a lot about doctrines, dogma, and about what the bible teaches us. The more I learned, the more I questioned. Can this really be the truth? Can this angry, cruel, jealous god really be the creator and orchestrator of the universe? I would have friendly debates with my buddies (always under the guise of playing “devil’s advocate” for fear of being ostracized) about contradictions of the bible, about the gaps between events and their eventually being written on paper, about the incredible logical leaps and flips necessary to believe in a god who so poorly conveys his messages – and they would all come down to the same thing:

Faith. They had it, I didn’t.

Nope, not feelin' it.

At the time, that didn’t really bother me. It seemed like a temporary condition, like “I don’t have faith right now, but I’ll come around eventually”. But I never did come around. Thank goodness. Because the kind of faith I didn’t have was blind faith. The kind that even reason and logic cannot break. The kind that makes people believe the most ridiculous claims without a shred of evidence, when all signs point to another truth. It became clear to me no amount of fooling myself would make me a believer.

So, I finally took the leap of admitting to myself that there was no god, no son of god, no heaven or hell, none of that bullshit. It was so liberating! But it was also a little scary. Suddenly, I felt alone. All those years of feeling like a god was watching over me, that Jesus was by my side through the good and the bad – all gone. I think that’s the most underplayed element of this kind of conversion, the thing you don’t read about very often, but it’s the one that is most vivid in my memories. That feeling of being honest with myself that once I die, that’s the end for me. It felt good to be free of the mental shackles, but it wasn’t very comforting.

Over time of course I realized that this made me more appreciative of the time I have on this planet, the time I have with my friends and family, and I was oddly infused with hope. A hope that if I can make the leap towards reason and a more humanistic view of life, others can too.

They do. And I am not alone.

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