April 18 has been designated “Ask an Atheist” day by the Secular Student Alliance. In honor of this fact I posted my willingness to answer questions via my Facebook page. And so the question came: when and why did I become an atheist? A good (and relevant) question, one that I have intended to write about for years but never got around to. So I’m taking the opportunity to finally put it down in text.
I was raised in an Italian Roman Catholic household in Connecticut, which meant baptism as an infant, church (almost) every Sunday, and catechism class (taught by a friend’s mom). I didn’t have a negative experience associated with my involvement in the local church; on the contrary, the priests – all middle aged or older men – were really very nice, easy to talk to, and seemed to take their job of being spiritual teachers and counselors pretty seriously. As an elementary school-age kid, I was pretty heavy into faith, as far as a kid might be. I dutifully said my prayers every night, I felt the required level of guilt for thoughts or behaviors that contravened church teaching, and if anyone asked me who my hero was I immediately replied “Jesus!” I even entertained the idea of one day becoming a priest myself.
I date the earliest stirring of free thinking to a report I wrote in the fourth grade. We had to choose as our subject a “real life” hero, and I chose Abraham Lincoln. I remember that the more I read about Lincoln the less impressed I was with the exploits of Jesus. Even then, as a child, I thought: Lincoln was a real guy who did real things in the real world, great and difficult things, for which in the end he lost his life. Jesus, too, (reputedly) did great and difficult things, for which in the end he lost his life, but those things were… what? Miracles? That’s like magic, right? And even a ten year old knows there’s no such thing as magic, I mean, not real magic. After all, I’d never seen a miracle. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever seen a miracle.
And so I started reading. And of course I continued to learn, through school, about science and the scientific method and the philosophy of science, and history and biology and geology and anatomy and astronomy; and very soon I didn’t want to be a priest at all, but rather a scientist, someone who discovered things about the natural world and who advanced human understanding. Church made less and less sense to me, and the more I read and learned, the less it seemed relevant to my life. Sure, the message was usually positive (as I recall my church was among the more liberal of Catholic churches), but it was based in a flawed – actually, false – premise. If humans aren’t inherently evil, and goodness does not come from god, then we don’t need saving, which makes the Jesus story nonsensical.
Cosmology taught me that god didn’t need to create the universe. History taught me that the Bible is more wrong than right as a chronicle of events. Evolutionary biology taught me that man was not specially created. Geology taught me that there was no world-wide flood, and that the Earth is older than Bishop Ussher’s 6,000+ year chronology. The great skeptics taught me to value evidence above faith. I started by discarding my belief in the supernatural – ghosts, ESP, witchcraft – and then just continued on until I realized that the modern gods were as real – rather, as unreal – as the ancient gods I read about in books of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. I didn’t come to my atheism all at once, through some sort of skeptical revelation. Rather I evolved – albeit quickly – to losing my faith in the unseen. The process was pretty much complete by the time I reached high school, although I didn’t truly embrace the word “atheist” to identify myself until many years later.
And I haven’t looked back since.