Monday 10 January 2011

An Atheist's Journey

Like many atheists, I used to be a Christian. At least, I called myself a Christian — it was how I was brought up. Not that I understood what being a Christian actually was. As a child I was told that there were things I wasn't meant to understand, and there were other things that would become clear to me as I grew older.

Prayer, for instance, was one of many things I had to take on faith. Prayer seemed to me like attempted telepathy — attempted, because it was always one way only, despite contrary depictions in the Bible, with its profusion of "And the Lord said unto..."

Although as a child I had no concrete evidence of the existence of God, I assumed this was because I was a child, and in the fullness of time God would make his presence known to me. As a teenager I expected God's presence to become apparent, either gradually or as a Damascene revelation.

It never happened. My puzzlement at the absence of revelation eventually gave way to relief as I realised that most of the hard problems of faith would disappear if I took on the proposition suggested by the lack of evidence: that the God of the Bible didn't exist. This was a revelation of sorts. Without a belief in God, the absurdities of religion no longer had to be resolved, and just faded into nothing. Suddenly the Universe made a whole lot more sense — and so I found I was an atheist.
At the time, the fact that the majority of the world's population was more or less religious didn't bother me. Clearly belief in supernatural agents is a hangover from ancient animism, and has helped the human race survive. (Tribes are much better at conquering other tribes, inventing things and creating cultural heritage if they're not preoccupied with the eternal verities — let the priests and theologians deal with all that stuff.)

There remained, however, one intractable problem, which meant that though by age 15 or so I self-identified as an atheist, I was not a vocal atheist. People could believe in a god if they wanted. I didn't, but I was nonetheless troubled by the notion that without God there is no moral authority.

Like many, for me it was the attack on the World Trade Center that transformed me from a godless but passive observer to an atheist prepared to defend my position. I had witnessed the destruction caused by the folly of delusion, and felt the need to stand up and be counted. I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and discovered whose side I was on — when previously I'd hardly been aware there was a side.

As for moral authority, I came to understand that morality does not originate in scripture as I had once thought — which had caused me to subdue any atheistic declarations I might have been inclined to make — but from our innate human intuition. Our moral conscience has evolved with us as a human race, but only been distorted by scripture (indeed scripture contains much that is morally repugnant).

These days I'm happy to be counted as an "out" atheist, though I'm not evangelical. In my day-job I mix with religious people and see no reason to challenge them about their faith. It's only when wrong-headed beliefs have an adverse impact on the well-being of innocents that I'm likely to become vocal. In my own time, however, I'm willing to engage in discussions about faith, especially online. I may have little chance of persuading a hardcore fundamentalist out of his or her irrational beliefs, but you never know who's listening.