Secular Sunday: Losing My Religion, Part 4: Coming Out as an Atheist
I have been asked several times to share my story of how I went from growing up as an Evangelical Christian, to a Qur’an-only Muslim and finally as an Atheist. The only “beliefs” that give me no cognitive dissonance. In the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.
My religious journey was always about getting closer to god, and trying to salvage my faith. It was why I left Christianity for Islam. It was why I studied Islam more and continued asking questions. Because I believed that my god, the god of the universe, would of course be able to stand up to scrutiny. But the harder I looked, the more everything began to fell apart. So I left Islam, and in the end, I couldn’t see any convincing evidence as to why I should believe in god at all. All I see is fairy tales, make-believe and wishful thinking. And I’m sorry, I’d rather be hurt by the truth than comforted by a lie.
Long-time readers might recall I did a three-part series on Losing My Religion on the old blog, and I have decided to rewrite these posts and share them.
Coming Out as an Atheist
As mentioned in my previous post it took me about 4-5 months to go from calling myself agnostic to calling myself an atheist. At the time I felt unable to say for sure that there was nothing out there, I couldn’t really explain how religion arose in the first place and there were a couple of things in evolution that didn’t make sense to me.
One book changed all of that: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (full review here). Let me first be clear that there are many things about Dawkins that are highly problematic. I am not by any means trying to discount any of those very problematic and angry-making things. I also believe it is possible to like something even if the author is problematic.So here I am talking about how The God Delusion helped me solve some of my issues and feel comfortable calling myself an atheist.
Are you 100% certain there’s nothing out there?
No, I am not 100% certain that there’s nothing out there. Probably 99% certain. However, The God Delusion rightly points out that we regularly assume and live our lives as if something is true – even if we aren’t 100% certain. I wouldn’t say that I am 100% certain that unicorns don’t exist – but I have seen no evidence that they do, and until someone brings my independently verifiable evidence of unicorns I shall go on assuming and living my life as if they don’t.
Dawkins put together a 7-point scale from strong theist (100% certain god(s) exist) to strong atheist (100% certain no god(s) exist).
Once I saw this scale I realized instantly that I am definitely a 6, de-facto atheist, probably even halfway to a 7. I also realized that most of the people I know who call themselves agnostic are at the very least 5’s, weak atheists. Dawkins consider himself a 6 as well, although in interviews he has named himself a 6.9.
The day that someone can bring me scientific, independently verifiable evidence of the existence of any god(s), I will carefully consider it and if convincing change my position. Until that day I continue to live my life as if there is no god(s), the same way I live my life as if there are no unicorns, tiny flying tea pots or faeries.
The origins of religion
I needed to understand how religion arose in the first place, if there was a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for their origin. I am not going to go into the nitty-gritty details, for that I suggest you read chapter 5 of The God Delusion; The Roots of Religion.
In the chapter Dawkins discuss how religion can be a side effect of other traits that can give the species survival benefits, and how certain of these traits can at a later stage become harmful.
For example, moths evolved to fly towards the moon as a way to navigate at night time. This made perfect sense before there was artificial lighting, but can become harmful today when “the moon” is everywhere – and sometimes fatal.
Similarly, it makes evolutionary sense for children to trust and believe what their parents tell them – most of the time. It makes sense for children to trust their parents and elders when they say don’t swim in the river with the crocodiles. It makes less sense when the advice is “you must sacrifice an animal every month otherwise the harvest will fail”.
I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the vast vast majority of religious people have the same religion as their parents. Slightly crash, but also spot on:
I think the human mind is very clever at trying to make sense of the world. In historic times there were many things we didn’t have natural explanations for – so supernatural ones were invented. But I also don’t think it is logically to believe in a “god of the gaps”. We don’t know, therefore god, does not make any sense – and as science finds explanations for more and more things the god of the gaps continue to shrink. Even if there are things today that we cannot explain, or that I personally don’t understand, I will assume that there is a logical, natural explanation, unless provided with independently verifiable evidence of a supernatural explanation.
In addition, I think it is very clear that the god of the Bible for example, is clearly made in man’s image – and not the other way around. In Dawkin’s own words:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Thankfully this is not the god that many religious people today believe in – which in my opinion just again shows that the image of god changes to fit the current societal values.
Evolution – or what good is half an eye?
There’s something I have to admit, and I am really not proud of it… I used to be a creationist. I was the annoying (and in Denmark very unusual kid) who actively argued against evolution in biology class. In my defense though, my biology teachers couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions, and furthermore did not say “go read these books that answers these questions”.
I happily argued about how microevolution made perfect sense and macroevolution didn’t make sense at all. After all, what good is half an eye? Turns out, the answer is really simple… it is just about half as good as a whole eye. As I was reading The God Delusion I felt rather surprised at how simple the answer is – and even more surprised that no one had given me that answer previously. (For more, read Chapter 4: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God).
The power of simple answers and logical explanations can also be seen in this Douglas Adam’s quote (quoted by Dawkins in The God Delusion):
And I thought and thought and thought. But I just didn’t have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.
This turned into a much longer post than the previous ones – probably could have gotten away with splitting it into three parts. It has been more than a year and a half since I “came out” as an atheist. Since then I have gone through phases where I have been more or less anti-religion, but my basic “belief” that there is no god(s) hasn’t changed. Being an atheist gives me no cognitive dissonance – the way religion did. Being an atheist has given me back the responsibility for my own life, and the ability to make my own choices that are right for me – and not dictated by a religion made up by people long ago. Maybe I’ll write about the happy-making things of atheism in a future Secular Sunday post.
Sidenote, for the people who think this is “a phase”, it is the longest stable phase of “belief” that I have had since I began questioning religion at 15. So, I doubt it is a phase.