On What I (Don’t) Believe

I read today on Talking Points Memo that a Louisiana Congressman, John Fleming, said:

We have two competing world views here and there is no way that we can reach across the aisle — one is going to have to win. We are either going to go down the socialist road and become like western Europe and create, I guess really a godless society, an atheist society. Or we're going to continue down the other pathway where we believe in freedom of speech, individual liberties and that we remain a Christian nation. So we're going to have to win that battle, we're going to have to solve that argument before we can once again reach across and work together on things.

Surveys have consistently shown over the past few decades that Americans have a distrust of atheists. Parents don't consider atheists to be worthy of dating their children. The Boy Scouts don't consider atheists to be worthy of membership. Voters don't consider atheists to be worthy of receiving their votes. (The latter may have changed, however; the recent anti-Muslim hysteria may have dropped Muslims below atheists on the "Would you be willing to vote for…?" question. Give it a few months, though, let the Republicans stop flogging the dead horse, and I suspect that atheists will drop back once more.) Not to put too fine a point on it, atheists are different, in a rather frightening way — the very existence of the godless challenges a fundamental belief about the nature of the universe and the individual's place in the grand scheme of things.

I am an atheist. It's not a big deal. I'm not militant about it. I won't discuss it unless I'm asked. I don't proselytize.

The Flying Spaghetti MonsterI was raised Methodist. When I was six I read the Chronicles of Narnia and pointed out to my parents the religious symbolism in them. When I was seven I asked my parents for a Bible for Christmas — it was the only thing I wanted. I won't say that I didn't give Christianity a shot — I did. I won't say that it didn't take. What I will say is that I had some serious doubts — I'm reminded of a scene from Father Ted (an utterly fantastic British sitcom about three Irish priests on Craggy Isle) in which Father Dougal talks a visiting Cardinal into giving up the cloth and joining a hippie commune.

For me the journey toward admitting my doubts about Christianity began when I was thirteen, on Easter Sunday of all days. In Sunday school that day the minister came to sit in on the class, and the teacher was discussing the various prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in his Crucifixion, and somehow the topic got onto how the Jewish authorities couldn't see Jesus as the Messiah. It occurred to me, and I asked the question then, "If Jesus fulfills the prophecies of Isaiah and the Old Testament, then why couldn't the Pharisees and the Saducees, scholars who knew the prophecies better than we do because they're closer in time and thought to those prophecies than we are, see that Jesus was the Messiah, if the prophecies are as evidently fulfilled in Jesus as we know them to be?"

It's a reasonable question, and the teacher said that Jesus didn't really fulfill the prophecies in the way the Pharisees wanted — he wasn't the obvious king that the Old Testament prophecies spoke of — so they were blinded by their own innate biases. That's a fair answer, I'll admit, and after the class the minister stopped me and wanted to talk about the question I'd asked because, he said, it went to the heart of Christian belief — a question of faith. It seemed to me, however, that if Jesus were evidently the Messiah that there shouldn't have been a need for faith or even prophecy — Jesus would have been self-evidently the Messiah, just as God was self-evidently God.

All this conversation did was crystallize the doubts I had. I had doubts about religion because it didn't make me feel anything. I wasn't willing to call it nonsense, but I didn't see how going to church every week had any relevance to my life. Prayer never made any sense to me, so I didn't do it. Going through confirmation class was interesting from a knowledge standpoint, but it wasn't exactly a lasting experience. And the universe itself? It didn't need a god, as far as I could tell. How did I know this? Carl Sagan.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos was a big influence on me when I was young. I watched this with my father, growing up in Chicago. My parents gave me the book based on the series for Christmas in 1980, and when I read the book I saw that, as wondrous as the universe was, none of it required a god. Sagan explained it all so that I could understand it at the age of seven. So I'm not sure that I ever believed. Instead, knowing the various Israelite kings was the sort of random knowledge that I naturally gravitated towards, even at a young age. Cosmos was so much more interesting than dry history about a bunch of people who lived in the stupid desert.

I blame Doctor Who for the final break. Seriously. The local PBS station in West Virginia, where I grew up, moved Doctor Who to Saturday nights at midnight, so every Saturday I'd stay up until two, sometimes three, in the morning, watching Doctor Who. And who wants to get up early and go to church when they're staying up way late? Doctor Who gave me an excuse to use with my parents for not going to church, though it didn't always work.

I came to a realization. I didn't miss church. I didn't think about God or Jesus. I didn't pray anyway. As I didn't feel any different by not doing any of these things, I had to ask myself — did I ever believe or did I simply go through the motions of belief? The answer I came to was that all my life I'd gone through the motions. Once I admitted my doubts making the admission that I was an atheist wasn't far behind. It was a liberating thought. An epiphany, once had, cannot be unhad. I was fifteen.

We're taught in schools about the Greek and the Norse gods, how they're legends and literature, and we reject them as gods because they're clearly legends and literature. I moved Christianity in my mind over from the fact side of the chart to the legends and literature side of the chart. I never went looking for something else to replace it, because what could? If these things over here are legends, then there other similar things that I don't know anything about are probably, more-than-likely going to be legends, too.

I won't say that my initial reasons for atheism were good reasons or even strong reasons, and in college I explored the literature on the subject and found several excellent arguments for atheism that bolstered my own. Indeed, the very reason for my doubt, was one of the better justifications for atheism — the argument from reasonable nonbelief.

I went through a militant atheist phase, until I realized that atheists can't convert anyone, because you can't make someone disbelieve something they believe. As I grew older, though, my militancy tempered somewhat, and eventually I reached a point where I decided that as long as people left me alone spiritually I'd leave them alone. Truth to tell, post-9/11 was an uncomfortable time, because I felt like atheists were being insulted as being less than Americans, less than civilized. I felt like society was kicking me because I was different. The past few years have merely reinforced that impression.

I have my own issues with history. Hearing it said that the United States is a Christian country rankles because it isn't true. Yes, it's an accident of history that our independence was won and our Constitution written by a generation that believed in the supremacy and independence of the human spirit. Any other generation would have insisted upon a reference to god in the Declaration or the Constitution. But Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Washington. Deists all. And yet they've become the American pantheon of saints and gods, the Constitution their holy writ, our government our secular religion. I don't know if that's true or if it's a tinge of bitterness creeping in.

I went through an phase where I explored eastern spirituality, too. Taoism, Buddhism, the I Ching. I wasn't so much looking for meaning, as I'd come to see the world in a nihilistic framework (that there is no meaning, and existence is nothing), but I wanted to find a different philosophical framework. I will say this — I found some… interesting things in the eastern philosophies I can't explain. It's not so much a god or a fate or a higher power as it a synchonicity. Intellectually, I know that the human mind tries to force patterns onto things so that we can understand them. We want things to fit in our minds, and we'll draw connections between the unconnected because it's the only way to make sense. Intellectually, I know that synchronicity is bunk.

I said up top that I think of the Judeo-Christian god as a myth, not unlike the Greek or Roman myths. I don't think Jesus existed. There's no contemporary evidence that he did. The gospels were written between 60 CE and 100 CE, decades after the Crucifixion. Outside of first century Christian literature, the only reference that attests to Jesus's existence comes in Flavius Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, but that reference appears to be a forgery — Josephus, a devout Jew, would never have referred to Jesus as being the Messiah.

So, what exactly do I think about Jesus? That he's a myth, like the Greek or Roman myths, and the Bible is a literary and mythological text rather than an historical one. There's a sheen of history on the gospels, but that's more likely than not the work of writers with access to the historical records of the era — first century writers needing to affix Jesus into a particular era, perhaps to give the growing Christian movement some historical legitimacy, perhaps to silence pagan critics.

None of that, though, is a reason why I disbelieve in God. My interest in the historicity of the Bible has more to do with an interest in archeology and history, not out of a need to prove (or disprove) the Bible's claims. The lack of historical and archeological confirmation for the Bible occasionally causes some cognitive dissonance on my part, especially when confronted with people who believe in Biblical Literalism or Inerrancy — the problem for me is that I know the worldview the person holds is incorrect, yet it's nearly impossible to convince a person of that. (My experience with this goes back to college — my roommate my first year believed that the Earth really was only six thousand years old, and discussions on the subject caused no end of head-bashing moments.)

And yet, I think The Last Temptation of Christ is an excellent film. Willem Dafoe is magnificent, and David Bowie makes for a better Pilate than Michael Palin did in Monty Python's The Life of Brian. And yes, isn't that a conversation to boggle the mind — who is the better Pilate, Bowie or Palin?

As an atheist I've always found comfort in the world of Star Trek, because it's a world that, as best I can tell, religion did precisely as John Lennon said it would, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink." I see in Star Trek a world where we atheists won the historical argument and the historical prejudices evaporated. That said, to say that Star Trek is an atheistic future is to take a very small, very narrow view of matters. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There will be religion in the 23rd and 24th centuries. It's human nature. I wonder at times why we've never seen the human followers of Kahless or the Catholic Archbishop of Shi'Kahr.

Will my beliefs (or rather, the lack thereof) change over time? Possibly, but I doubt it.

Our universe is big. It's vast and complicated and ridiculous. By comparison, we are very very small. The Earth is just a mote of dust in the cosmic night. Our lives are not just short, they are insignificant in comparison to how long the universe has existed — and how long the universe will continue to exist.

The universe wasn't created for us. We just happen to be here, in this particular moment, on this particular dust mote. The vastness of the universe — or if you're religiously inclined, god's creation — is completely inaccessible and unknowable to us, to our ancestors, and to many of our descendants. This suggests to me that god does not exist because why would a god have made his creation so small and so insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe?

Humanity isn't special.

I can go outside, on a dark clear night, and see clear to infinity. I can feel, in that moment, the turn of the Earth. I can feel the enormity of the cosmos and time itself. Isn't that enough?

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