Friday, April 06, 2007

On My Disbelief

I don't remember ever believing in God. Ever.

I have been an atheist
since early childhood, which circumstance I attribute to one simple fact. My mother was an obedient Catholic and my father a fairly unenthusiastic member of the United Church. When my oldest brother was born they had a row over which church would get to baptize him, and out of that argument came an agreement that the children would each get to decide where to worship, or not to worship at all. That simple fact meant that neither parent forced me into a belief in God, and to this day I think that the vast majority of people who do believe do so because belief was forced on them before their intellects were fully developed.
The old doctrine (Jesuit, I think) of 'give me the child and I will give you the man' never applied to me. By the way, I have five siblings and the score for the whole family is:
Atheist 3, Agnostic 1
Roman Catholic 1, and Evangelical 1.
As a child I remember getting all dressed up every Christmas Eve to accompany my mother to midnight Mass, but the pomp and ceremony of Catholic liturgy (it was still in Latin then) never really had much of an effect on me. I have dim memories too of attending Sunday school at my dad's more humble church in grade school, and in early high school I attended an austere Lutheran church for about a year on the invitation of my best friend's parents. It can't be said that I was never exposed to the idea of God or Christian doctrines. In fact I may have known a wider variety of Christian ideas than most believers, and I think I've always kept a relatively open mind about it, so it's fair to ask, 'why didn't it stick?' And the short answer to my disbelief in God is almost too simple. It's just not believable.

Dredging up early memories, the first skeptical argument I can remember mustering had to do with comic books. To me the biblical myths were on a par with Superman or Green Lantern - and I knew the latter to be fiction, so why not the former. Moses parting the Red Sea or getting water from a rock? Sounds like some kind of super power to me, or you could alternately call it magic. And I don't believe in magic, even the good 'white' kind. Jesus raising Lazarus or His resurrection? That goes beyond the pale of anything in Spiderman or the Fantastic Four. For me the matter was settled as a matter of literary classification more than anything else. History or Fable, Legend or Myth, Fact or Fiction? The bible and religion in general always came down on the fiction side.

Getting a decent education only served to reinforce my disbelief. One principle you learn in high school science states that you should always be careful of the 'honey trap' - an experimental outcome that you desperately WANT to be true, so much so that you fudge the results. Religion is one huge hive of honey traps - The Afterlife, Heaven, even the idea that Good always triumphs over Evil. Combined with the reverse honey trap of Hell and Eternal Damnation, this constitutes a very powerful bias causing many people to adhere to the religion they learned in childhood long after they have developed the intellectual capacity to truly question its assumptions. Western religion seems to have pretty much perfected the carrot and stick motivational technique.
You might be surprised to learn which honey trap still draws me. I don't yearn for there to be a God. I don't even care about whether Heaven exists, but there are times when I wish I could believe in Hell. Mostly when I contemplate the careers of individuals like Hitler, Stalin, Cheney, and yes, G. W. Bush. When you inflict as much misery on others as some of the great purveyors of evil have done, I don't think one lifetime suffices for an adequate punishment.
I recognize that this would be an unworthy line of thought for a Christian, especially for the variety of Christian that I respect, but there you go. While I do believe in forgiveness, I also believe in vengeance (and I'm truly sorry for that), but I would be happier just to see justice. If they could just STOP doing the immense harm they do, and somehow repair the damage already done, that would make me the happiest. Sadly I know that it cannot be. The bodies and spirits broken, the lives destroyed can never be restored.

Learning about science pretty much took away any chance that I would ever become a believer, and I came to recognize that I was a hardcore empiricist. Growing up with Sputnik, then in quick succession Mercury, Gemini and Apollo (the programs, not the Greek myths) it was easy to relate to the spectacular success of science in developing a knowledge of the universe unavailable to the prophets.

The fact that twentieth century cosmology was so different from biblical cosmology had a couple of consequences. One was the fact that Heaven and Hell just had nowhere in the known universe to be. The simplistic impression I was left with from Sunday school, that the former was in the sky and the latter underground, just couldn't cut it. The facts didn't allow it. The only way out was some kind of parallel universe that had never even been advanced as a theory as far as I knew. And once again, we would be entering the realm of comic books and science fiction again.

The other consequence was that it totally devastated the idea that this mythical God created the universe, as described in Genesis. (actually two descriptions that are at odds with oneanother - the Elohist creation story from the first chapter of Genesis, and the Jahwist version that starts halfway into Gen. 2, 4) This bearded Yahweh (aka Jehova - counterpart to Jove, aka Jupiter, Zeus) certainly didn't create the vast universe of modern cosmology - nearly 40 BILLION light-years in diameter and around 16-18 BILLION years old. No, the authors of the bible were not aware of galaxies, quasars, neutron stars, black holes, or any of the wonders you can see in photographs from the Hubble telescope. (Like the 'star nursery' you see here. Click to see a larger, even more spectacular version. UPDATE: Clicking the picture now brings up a totally awesome interactive version.)

In fact, the ancient and mostly anonymous biblical prophets, chroniclers, priests and editors were blissfully unaware of even quite mundane things like the electron, and the existence of North and South America. When the Blog Against Theocracy (blurb) blogswarm was announced, I knew I would have to go for the Academic Integrity/Sound Science theme. As an atheist I naturally feel that religion by its nature undermines intellectual freedom. Consider Peter Abelard. Consider Galileo. Consider the centuries of blasphemy laws, heresy trials, the persecutions, the blatant distortions of history. Maybe a stronger commitment to the truth would make it all just go away.

I'm not done with this. Tomorrow I'll put up a post on how learning about history further eroded any chance of my ever reciting the Nicene Creed with a straight face, and how studying the history of Christianity in particular closed the door for good. There's some juicy material in there. More On My Disbelief

On Sunday I plan to repent, and finally get around to talking about religious precepts I DO agree with. By then it might come as a surprise to everyone just how many of those there are. What I DO Believe

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