Thursday, April 7, 2011

How I Became an Atheist

Oddly enough, the title of this post is a misnomer. EVERYONE is born an atheist. You have to be taught to believe in things; so actually, the title should be "How I went back to being an atheist." Semantics.

I was raised Catholic. My mother is half-Italian, so we were REALLY Catholic. We did not attend Catholic school, due to Mom's mistreatment by the nuns when she went. If you are Catholic and don't attend parochial school, you have to attend CCD, which is Sunday school, after church. I did so all the way through my Senior year in high school. For the most part, I enjoyed church and CCD, enjoyed doing well on the tests and reciting the Beatitudes, and was in fact an altar boy for several years during my youth. One time I rang the bells at the wrong moment during Mass. I'm sure you Catholics out there are cringing for me. Thank you for sharing my pain. I would give up stuff for lent, not eat meat on Fridays, and would put up a little altar to Mary during May. All in all, a good Catholic boy.

I'd say I was around 12 when the first kernel of doubt started creeping in. Only slightly, mind you, and only on the surface. It was at that time that it occurred to me that we were basing all our beliefs on a book, and that we could as easily based them on, say, the rules to Monopoly. Just a little oddity about belief that crept across my psyche during one particularly boring homily. Nothing serious; just a thought.

Flash forward to my Senior year. I started thinking seriously about becoming a priest. I had the good fortune of having a couple cool, young priests in my parish. This, combined with the fun and spiritual retreats we would go on in CCD, led me to believe that perhaps I should consider the priesthood. I wanted to make Catholicism more accessible to teenagers. I had other loves as well, though, and theatre won out as a life goal. And even though I was still a virgin, the thought of never having sex was kind of a deal-breaker.

Off I went to Indiana University. Ballentine Hall was, at the time, one of, if not the, largest classroom buildings on any campus. In front of this monstrosity one day, a crowd had gathered. They were listening to an evangelist named Mad Max.

Now, there were several different speakers that would come and talk to the students on the lawn. One couple talked about how she was a born-again virgin, and how Jesus had spoken to them at a Burger King. But Max Lynch was the most frequent visitor to campus. He was in his 50's or 60's, and had previously been a math professor at Indiana State who had been fired for teaching the bible in class. He wore tinted glasses, a baseball cap, and a buzz cut. Google him; there are pictures available.

Mad Max would stand there and scream at people that they were fornicators, ending his rants with the admonition that you would "BURN IN THE ETERNAL FIE-ERRRRRRRRR!" People would argue with him, and he would yell back. He said, after he got fired, that his wife asked him when he was going to get another job. He hit her with the bible, knocking her out, and yelling that he had a job spreading the word of God.

I had at this point stepped up my doubts and curiosity about my own faith. Why, for instance, was Catholicism correct over other Christian sects? What did Jesus really want from us? I would argue with him right along with the others. Once he was reduced to "speaking in tongues" at me, which showed me that I had gotten to him. A proud day, that.

Sure Max was ridiculous, and not necessarily representative of all Christians. But he got me thinking about my own beliefs. Ironically, thinking is the enemy of religion, so I'm guessing this was not his intent.

The next step from wondering about Catholics vs. Protestants was wondering about Christians vs. other religions. Why were we right, as opposed to the Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists? Why, in fact, did there have to be anything up there at all?

It seems glib, but this was a pretty big step for the boy who would be priest. I began to examine my beliefs, and religion in general, and found there to be no evidence that any of it was true. In fact, there seemed to be lots of anecdotal evidence that it was all made up. The similarities between different religions all seemed to point to one thing: people are so afraid of death that they will make up stories to lessen that fear. Simple, really. Don't want to die? Make up stories about a guy who beat death.

Over the years, my thinking and reading on this subject became more frequent and intense, until at last there was nothing at all left of the faith I'd felt as a child. That's to be expected, really. Personally, I don't see how ANYONE can still believe in this stuff after being presented with the arguments against belief. Plus, religion tends to lead people to do all sorts of bad things in the name of their god, like fly planes into buildings or allow 6 million Jews to be exterminated. Religion isn't just ridiculous -- it's the enemy.

This is not meant to convince anyone or start a dialogue. I've wasted enough time arguing with Christians in my life to know that it never leads anywhere. This was only to put down how my journey went. I leave you with my favorite atheist quote:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
– Stephen Roberts