Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Read This Shit, Motherfuckers: The Path To Atheism (Part 1)

It's a working title, but it got you here, didn't it?

I am an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not 'spiritual but not religious' or whatever the hippie girls are calling it these days.

This isn’t going to be an angry debunking of religious beliefs or a history of Christian violence. I don’t hate religion or religious people. I do think they’re a bit silly and at some point I think I’m going to make a comparison between hard-core religion and drug addiction, so you might want to stick around for that.

No, this isn’t a hate piece even though I thought it was going to be when I started. It is too easy to just point at a thing and call it silly and archaic or to point out the hypocrisies within the world’s religions. Even the strictest adherents of religion know that certain parts if not most of their belief systems are silly, archaic and hypocritical. This hasn’t changed their outlook even a little, so why waste the time? I think it’s more interesting to revisit the process of questioning that led me to two simple, logical conclusions:

There is no God. That is OK.

When I was fourteen and attending a Catholic school I asked my religion teacher, "What if a person doesn't believe in everything the Church teaches us?"

She answered, "Those people go to hell."

I am, above all else, myself, so after that I started telling everyone I was a Buddhist and spent the rest of the year trying to convince the very attractive brunette who sat next to me in the back corner of the classroom to give me a hand-job in class. If I'm going to hell, so is everyone else.

The next year I went back to public school, but my time in the parochial education system had piqued my interest so I spent a lot of that summer reading books about religion. I love books, even the terrible ones.

If you ever want to meet the Creator of a universe, talk to an author of fiction.

I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and some of the Koran. I read the I Ching, as much of the New Testament as I could stomach and all of the Old Testament. (Angry God was always a much more interesting character.)

The book that changed my life that summer wasn’t a religious text, but it was about religion. It was called Sacred Origins of Profound Things. The book’s author, Charles Panati, managed to get about a quarter of his references wrong in one way or another, but the conclusions were, for the most part, undeniably correct.

What were those conclusions? Well, religious observances are almost always the result of socioeconomic drivers or current cultural phenomena. In other words, (mine, not Panati’s, he was very careful not to make a judgment) religion is fiction.

Religion, for better or worse, is made up.

My fourteen year old mind paused right there. You have to remember that I’d been brought up with a belief in God and though we didn’t go to church very often, religion was a part of my life. So, there I was on a summer evening sitting in my bedroom and finding out that it was all made up. I had suspected that some or even most of it was bullshit, but every time I peeled back another layer of ritual and belief I’d discover that it was fictional too. What did that say about the foundation of my religion? What would happen when I got to the center? Was God made up too?

I didn’t want to answer that question so I chose to ignore the subject altogether. I could have become a happy agnostic at that point, but something happened that caused a religious relapse in me.

In late spring the next year my Uncle Gary died. He was a high functioning alcoholic who worked at nuclear power plants. I didn't meet him until I was almost a teenager because he and my mother hadn't spoken to each other for years. I loved that man instantly. Everything about him made immediate sense to me and when he died in his forties of liver failure my mother wouldn't let me or his own children attend his funeral. She is a strange and horrible person but that's another story.

I wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to my uncle and I wanted his kids to have the same opportunity, so I called the priest who used to teach me Latin at that Catholic school I was talking about earlier. He agreed to conduct a funeral for no money because he was the sort of priest who understood and adhered to his own religion...that's a rare thing. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and grief that I took my first communion at the funeral mass. I'll never forget the way that felt, I was full of non-belief and doubt and grief, old enough at sixteen to understand all of those things, but too young to properly deal with them. I sought what comfort was offered and it was freely given to me.

That memory is the thing I return to when I really start to hate religion and belief in a fictitious God. For a few moments back then, when I was being forced into becoming a man sooner than a boy ought to, I understood what comfort was and what belief could mean to a person who had nothing else. I wanted to have faith so badly back then and for a while I did. I remember sitting in class a few days before the funeral and daydreaming about Gary sitting on a cloud looking down at me, protecting me, being happy in Heaven and loving his nephew here on Earth. I know, it is the worst kind of clich├ęd and conceptualized idea of the afterlife, but it made me feel good.

Comfort for the sad and desperate is the most wonderful thing about God and religion.

Comfort isn't the end of reality, though. The Earth isn't flat.

I remember seeing a billboard around that time. It was just text, a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin or George Washington: 'How can one look up at all the stars in the sky and not believe in God?' I thought that was nice and real and right. This was a thing that was perfect and unarguable, the way things must be. Then I went to chemistry class and everything changed again.

In chemistry class there were electrons for every proton, perfect little atomic solar systems. There were electromagnets dragging metal filings across a piece of paper and there was a day when the teacher told us that if you mixed certain acids with certain bases they would create a poison gas that would kill us all before we could leave the room.

I started to think about poison gas and religion.

There are layers to science in the same way that there are layers to religion, but the layers of science aren’t the machinations of powerful men and superstitious peasants, they are the result of facts stacked on top of one another. These facts lead to discovery, which in turn leads to more facts and more discoveries ad infinitum. When you peel back the layers of biology and sift through cell walls and mitochondria, you find chemistry. When you shake out the structure of an atom, you learn about the forces that hold it together and arrive at physics. When you attempt to understand those forces and finally reach the center you have math.

There is comfort in math and science. It isn’t the comfort of choirs of angels singing your name or a warm and loving God welcoming you into His Kingdom when you die, but for the prepared mind, it is even better. It is the knowledge that one plus one equals two, every time. It is knowing that when two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom combine they will make a single molecule of water, every time. It is knowing that all events are predictable as long as we have the tools to measure them. It is the acceptance of knowledge, and faith in the fact that when your chemistry teacher tells you mixing a certain acid and a certain base will create a deadly poison gas, he is absolutely correct. It has been proven and those two chemicals will react the same way, every time.

Religion is the denial of knowledge. No, that’s wrong. Religion is the denial of the search for knowledge.

This is a thing that is unfixable within the confines of modern, monotheistic religions because, according to them, the order to turn away from understanding came from God himself.

There are two perfect, biblical examples that explain the origins of the religious culture’s denial of knowledge. The first is the origin story and the other is the post-flood tale of Babel.

The tale of Adam and Eve lies at the base of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Practitioners of modern monotheism view the origin story in many different ways; some see it as a morality play, a fable, and others accept it as fact. No matter how it is viewed the moral is the same: Knowledge belongs to God and you can’t have any. Do not eat the fruit. Do not be curious.

Later in Genesis comes the story of Babel and its tower that reached the heavens. Once again the religious will view the story as either allegory or fact, but the conclusion is the same. The post-flood residents of Earth and their tyrant king, Nimrod built a great city. These people, the entire population of the world all spoke the same language and worked to improve themselves and their city. They began to view their ability as something that belonged to them and not to God and so they built a tower in their city that was supposed to stretch high enough to challenge God directly. The Islamic version of the story has two angels, Haroot and Maroot residing with the people and teaching them ‘magic’ while at the same time telling humans that this magic was an evil thing that, if practiced, would anger God.

No matter which version of the story you read, God was angry enough to punish his people for seeking knowledge. Every version has God spreading the people throughout the world and confusing their language so they could no longer communicate with each other. Some versions have God smashing the tower and others end with God turning one third of Babel’s citizens into demons and banishing them to another realm.

Every iteration of both the creation story and the story of Babel has the same moral: Seek knowledge and you will be punished.

Those two stories lie at the crux of the belief vs. non-belief argument and I return to them often in my mind

As a sixteen-year-old boy, this is what I knew about God: If there is a God he doesn’t want us to seek knowledge. Seeking knowledge is a central part of being human; therefore, if God created us then he set us up to fail. This is an immoral act; therefore, if God exists, God is not moral.

As a sixteen-year-old boy, this is what I knew about the universe without God: There is an ordered system of physical law. Human beings are capable of understanding much of that physical law. Seeking knowledge is a central part of being human; therefore, we will continue to seek knowledge. Knowledge is neither moral or immoral, it just is.

That's the end of Part 1 folks. I promise Part 2 will have less bible references and more sex references.


Drew said...
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Daniel Jones said...
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Brian Castner said...
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Chris Charvella said...
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Brian Castner said...
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Drew said...
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