The facile answer to the question of why I am an atheist is that I was born this way, and it’s true that every human being ever on earth begins life without the concept of religion. That must be externally imprinted on us, something human civilization has proven depressingly efficient at doing. In my case, despite my parents’ best efforts, including six years of Catholic middle school and high school, religion failed to find a firm purchase on my mind.
The real question is why, at somewhere between my sixteenth and eighteenth birthdays, did I look back on six years of parochial education and think, “Well, they gave it their best shot, but no, I don’t think so?”
Sometime on the cusp of adulthood, I had enough awareness of my own beliefs to affirmatively label myself as an atheist, but I cannot remember a time in my life, as far back as I can reliably recall, that I took the concept of religion seriously. As a child going to Saturday catechism or release-time religious classes (where they let you out of public school for a period to try to continue their brainwashing efforts off campus somewhere), I remember hearing the Bible stories and thinking of them as just that: stories. Part of me thought that, since my religious classmates believed them, maybe I was missing something, but as I moved on and studied things like Aesop’s fables or Greek mythology, I recognized them as belonging to the same category as the Bible stories. After all, what are fables but parables without a religious Deux Ex Machina? What is mythology but the “bible stories” of a dead religion?
Now, I am most likely giving myself too much credit for introspection at that stage of my life, but I do honestly believe that accurately represents my instinctive reaction at the time. Also, my exposure to those stories followed hard on the crushing revelation that my parents had lied to me about the fat man and his eight magic reindeer. After that bitter disillusionment, stories about a Jewish zombie carpenter probably seemed a bit suspect.
While, again, I’m probably giving myself too much credit for connecting the dots, this world would be a much better place, or least the country would, if more children responded to the revelations about Santa Claus’ fictitiousness by asking their parents, “So, are there any other things you told me that are complete bullshit?”
One bit of critical thinking I can reliably take credit for happened as I read the four Gospels and began to take note of discrepancies between them. “Wait,” I thought, “they need four different biographies of their main character, and they can’t even line up facts like the number of people fed by the loaves and fishes, the original numbers of loaves and fishes, or even the names of Jesus’ disciples?”
I mean, come on, these stories are supposed to be divinely inspired and the allegedly almighty can’t get the fucking facts straight? God is like the neglectful father for forgets his son’s birthday, even when the son has the same birthday as him.
Of course, as I learned that these accounts were written down decades later by people who never know the persons involved, if they ever existed, and the authors were almost certainly not named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, their inconsistencies made sense. And when I learned that their inclusion in the so-called infallible holy book of the Christian religion was a political decision made centuries after the stories were written, it made even more sense. Rather than being infallible, they were the random result of a centuries-long game of telephone.
Of course, these only attempt to explain why, at sixteen or so, I could label myself an atheist and be completely comfortable with that label. Why didn’t I turned back to religion for comfort, as smug evangelicals suggest I inevitably would, following the deaths of four immediate family members, including three within a span of eighteen months a few years ago? I’m not necessary talking about returning to the Catholic faith of my childhood or any other form of traditional Christianity. It could be Buddhism, some form of pagan belief, or even that vast, nebulous expanse known as “spiritual but not religious.”
There is no one simple reason, to be sure, but certainly my lack of belief has evolved from simply finding my early religious education to be unconvincing at best to a higher degree of confidence born of repeated failures of theists counterarguments to have any rational weight or explanatory power.
And it hasn’t even been like the theistic arguments came close but just fell short. Faith-based arguments are, almost by definition, intellectually unsatisfying, primarily because they are intended to be filler, a substitute for reason or knowledge that was lacking in previous centuries. Unfortunately for theism, the questions they attempt to answer have long had more satisfactory answers due to the relentlessly unbeatable combination of science and reason.
How Did We Get Here?
At least empirical science has the humility to admit it can’t, and maybe never will be able to, answer this question fully. The partial answer is that the universe formed, hydrogen coalesced into stars, some of which went supernova, creating heavier elements, when formed into planets around new stars. On at least one of these planets, primitive biological processes eventually evolved into life, and then into vertebrates, land vertebrates, mammals, primates, and then us.
A book full of Bronze Age folk tales is not an authoritative counterargument to the thousands of years of science behind the above paragraph. The gaps in our knowledge only form a god-shaped hole in your mind, but not in the real world.
What is the Meaning of Life Without God?
Some people want meaning in their life to be like a participation trophy, something that’s just handed to them. Believing in an invisible struggle between the forces of Good™ and Evil™ seems to give their life a false sense of meaning, even if they sit on their fat asses all day, eating pork rinds and watching NRA TV. Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and you are helping to win the war against Satan and his demonic minions. Or something like that, I guess. Give me a break.
You want your life to have meaning? That’s entirely up to you to decide what meaning you want it to have and then to make that happen. A meaningful life is not a right, bestowed by an imaginary friend in the sky, but a privilege earned by how you live that life.
How Can You Have Morality Without God?
Do you really need a deity to tell you that murder is wrong? You can’t figure that out for yourself? It doesn’t take divine insight to understand why stealing or lying might cause harm to others.
At the very minimum, I know why I don’t want to be murdered, raped, assaulted, stolen from, or lied to, and I assume that all the people around generally feel the same way about it. I don’t even have to know, exactly, how it would feel to have a loved one violently taken from me. I’ve seen other people who have suffered some kind of tragedy, and their pain is hard enough to observe, even from a distance. To know that I was the author of that kind of suffering would be unbearable.
So, even if it would benefit me materially to take a life or commit some other offence against another human being, I have two very good reasons not to, and they are not only the same reasons that stay the hand of every moral person who is an atheist, but let’s be honest, they’re also the reasons that stay the hand of moral believers as well. Divine retribution and eternal damnation are too remote as concepts to actually guide an individual’s morality, especially when we can simply tell our imaginary friend in the sky that we’re very sorry and receive a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.
How can we have morality without gods?
Two words: Reason and Empathy.
Religion Comforts Me
Good. Comfort is good, but there is a real world full of things that can bring comfort to you. In fact, there are at least 7,000,000,000 sources of comfort in the world right now, otherwise known as your fellow humans. Their company is one of the great comforts in this world, as is the simple pleasure of doing right by them, even in the smallest ways.
Sure, some of them are toxic and emotionally useless. Avoid those people and don’t be one of them. Be there for those who maybe don’t have the same freedom you do to avoid the toxic personalities in their own orbits. Sartre said that hell is other people. I disagree. Life is other people, for better or worse.
The reality is that religious people derive exactly the same sort of comfort from their church, synagogue, or mosque community that an atheist would enjoy from any other sort of secular community, the comfort of other people, the comfort of the community itself. The concept of “everlasting life” in some imaginary place is far too remote to be that compelling a reason to invest so much of one’s life in the pursuits related to religion.
The other “comfort” of religion in our society is conformity, the path of least resistance, of going along to get along. To be an atheist or even a religion different from the dominant one in your community is to buck the trend, rock the boat, be seen as perhaps a weirdo or worse. It takes guts and commitment to break with your religion, especially when you were raised in a specific tradition, and it will be uncomfortable at first. Eventually, however, you will find a new community of people who either believe as you do or accept whatever you believe without question, and you will have the additional comfort that your belief system isn’t based on a system of lies meant to maintain the illusion of relevance for a bunch of Bronze Age fairy stories.