This document shows how my becoming an atheist is an ongoing project. I try to make sure my mind overrules my emotions any time I examine a religion. Although I occasionally listen to or attend a religious service, I do so in the same spirit with which I listen to an opera or read a novel. Because I know the characters in the opera or novel are not real, I need not ‘believe in’ those characters. In my opinion, if humans abandon the arts, civilization will become increasingly brutal. Therefore, I feel anyone can benefit from from listening to the poetry and music of any religious service.
Only a few people choose their religions. Most are ‘born into’ the faiths of their parents. If all hospital maternity wards on Earth were to mix up all human infants every day, parents with various religions would necessarily adopt them. For example, a birth child of a Christian couple might be raised in a Muslim household. Likewise, a Hindu child might be raised as a Buddhist. Reality is similar; although maternity wards shuffle few of us to incorrect households, no one can choose their childhood religion, or lack of same. You have no choice; you must join the religion of your parents. If your parents have differing religions, they usually force either religion upon you. Sadly, my parents were not atheists.
Atheism is not a religion. Atheism rejects mysticism in all forms, including gods and demons. For a good definition and overview of atheism, please see Atheists, Agnostics, & Freethinkers at NYU.
Becoming an Atheist in Sunday School
I began becoming an atheist in Sunday school, where I seriously started doubting religion. My parents were kind, but strict. Almost every Sunday, they required me to attend services at the local Episcopal church and its Sunday school. I remember upsetting two Sunday-school teachers:
* – When I was approximately five, I asked my then current Sunday-school teacher, “Does Santa Claus work for God?” Hey! Why not? It was a fair question because I imagined both entities as very mysterious sky creatures. Some of my fellow brats laughed at me. This poor teacher was angry, and didn’t know what to say. She finally tried to escape my curiosity by saying, “God is more real than Santa Claus,” or something equally goofy. Still confused, I chose to stay silent.
* – A few years later I asked another Sunday-school teacher, “Why has God not performed any miracles on Earth for nearly two thousand years?” Again, why not? Religious ‘authorities’ should allow even little children to ask for proof. This teacher became extremely upset, She took me aside to warn me to be faithful and silent. She said, “Little boys who ask such dangerous questions can suffer eternal burning pain in hell,” or something equally terrifying. Some God! I was really beginning to doubt whether such a mean, sadistic cosmic monster actually ruled the cosmos. I certainly hoped it did not.
Becoming an Atheist in the Fourth Grade
Approximately once each week, we fourth graders were allowed to go the school library, select a book, bring it back to class, and then read it just for fun for approximately an hour. While scanning through a science book, I stumbled upon a human-evolution chapter. I can still see the drawing showing our ape-like human ancestors. After reading that chapter, I knew I had an important question:
* – I took the book to my teacher, showed her the appropriate chapter, and then asked, “Which is true, evolution or Adam and Eve?” Her answer was not enlightening, “You will need to discuss that with your minister.”
* – My mother arranged a formal meeting between me and my priest. It occurred immediately after school a few days later. He was very kind. After we enjoyed polite conversation for a few minutes, I asked him the same question, “Which is true, evolution or Adam and Eve?” His answer was equally enlightening, “You will need to discuss that with your teacher.”
While thus becoming an atheist fourth grader, I had realized three things:
* – Adults, even those in authority, are deceptive or fallible, or both.
* – The Christian Bible is deceptive or inaccurate, or both.
* – If adults and the Bible are unable to define, prove, or support God, he is either the adults’ version of Santa Claus or an imaginary cosmic monster.
Becoming an Atheist in High School
In a clumsy attempt to ‘be cool’ in early high school, I began calling myself an agnostic. However, a friend mocked me by explaining, “An agnostic is only a chicken atheist.” I laughed and agreed. After all, he was the unofficial atheism expert in our crowd because his parents were both atheists. If I remember correctly, his grandmother was also an atheist.
Becoming an Atheist in the Navy
I served on submarines. The last sub had technical problems that scared me into attending Sunday services. Despite not believing in God, I found the ceremonies comforting. When I tried explaining this to an atheist shipmate, he ridiculed me. Although he angered me then, I can now see he had been correct. I was so fearful I might have been tempted to believe in God. I finally consoled myself by realizing that death on a submarine was usually very quick.
I began to realize I could use religion without surrendering to it. As explained on the Zeitgeist Movement: Spirituality web page, true spirituality has nothing to do with religious mysticism.
Becoming an Atheist in Middle Age
As I continued becoming an atheist during middle age, I experienced many of the typical upheavals that can make human life scary and/or difficult. There were times I actually envied those who believed in a God who could help humans fix their lives. However, I still could not believe in magic. I knew I could benefit from the ceremonies of any religion, without needing to pray to any cosmic monster or Santa Claus.
During my early middle age, I went through a divorce and then several failed relationships. My atheism almost faltered because I tried returning to religion for moral support. Fortunately, I soon realized I could participate in the Episcopal ceremonies without accepting the mysticism and magic. Therefore, I was able to remain a non-believer. However, my atheism could be inconvenient socially. Mentioning it could upset a lady friend. Eventually, I remembered what my early Sunday-school teachers had taught me about silence.
During my later middle age, I experienced my share of job crises because work was becoming scarce. For inspirational support, I began investigating various religions for their ceremonies. I again discovered it is okay to benefit from the ceremonies while not believing the dogmas. Zen Buddhism, Reform Judaism, and Episcopalianism produce my favorite ceremonies.
Becoming an Atheist on 9/11
If I had any doubts about my atheism, they disappeared 9/11/2001, a day that demonstrated the uncertainty and fragility of life in a random universe. I was working only three miles north of the World Trade Center when Al-Qaeda used two Boeing 767s to destroy the twin towers. Later, while I was walking to Grand Central Station, I saw many people flocking into their churches. While some were praying to their God for protection, others were asking their cosmic monster to assist with vengeance. Religion has an extremely dark side that can both fly planes into buildings and launch crusades.
While most religious ceremonies are uplifting, some can help us through pain, such as when we grieve. Even atheists need to grieve when evil kills those in our extended human family. For example, on 9/11, dying people made goodbye phone calls to their loved ones. Rabbi Irwin Kula has set some of those calls to music he borrowed from an ancient Hebrew chant. To listen to this chant, please click here. (First brace yourself; it could make a Klingon warrior cry.) For more information, see Rabbi Irwin Kula: Sacred Memories.
Becoming an Atheist in Old Age
Becoming an atheist is a lifelong adventure. Although I still enjoy life in my old age, I am comfortable knowing I will soon return to the elements, my natural state. I know I have already been dead. I have been alive for only 69 years. The universe has been expanding for approximately 13.75 billion years. Therefore, I have been dead during almost all time.
Experience has taught me there is no magic. For me, the natural universe is quite sufficient. Although I doubt whether I have an immortal soul, I know I have a living spirit, which is my imagination and creativity. I am seldom tempted to believe in the mysticism of any religion. However, when the cosmic monster does try tempting me, I simply say, “Get thee behind me, Santa!”