Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My History as an Atheist

I have always been an atheist.

In this, I consider myself lucky. I know people – and I have read stories from people I do not know – who had to go through a long and agonizing process of doubt and reflection before they finally realized that there was nothing out there to believe in. I, on the other hand, have never believed in a higher power and remain to this day rather baffled by the idea.

It started, like most people’s views on religion, in childhood. I grew up in a household full of books – my parents are both elementary school teachers, and when she wasn’t teaching in the classroom, my mother ran the library at the small private school that I went to (she has since moved to the library full time). So I would spend a lot of time hanging out and reading in the library waiting for my mom to give me a ride home. In fact, I spent quite a lot of my time everywhere reading – I probably got into more trouble as a kid for reading too much than I did for anything else. And one of my favorite topics was science.

I loved science books. Everything about it was fascinating – biology was fascinating, geology was fascinating, and physics was especially fascinating. I loved reading about the universe and how it worked. In fact, in sixth grade I gave a report – to my classmates, most of whom had not the slightest idea what I was talking about – about quantum physics and general relativity, which I based off of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Science was cool. It still is, even though I’ve veered off into computer programming – I still seek out articles on the latest and greatest scientific advancements and theories.

But I digress. The point I am trying to make is that my first exposure to the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything came through the prism of science. Oh, I read mythology as well – I read everything I could get my hands on, really – but I never took any of it seriously. Christian mythology to me was on the same level as Greek mythology and Norse mythology, although (in my opinion) not as interesting. It was with no small degree of astonishment that I learned that people actually took it seriously. The universe seemed to me far too vast and complex to have come into existence just for us.

The only exposure I had to organized religion, and I use this term very loosely, was the Unitarian church in Northampton that my parents took my sister and me to for a number of years. They went because they liked Victoria, the minister, and so my sister and I, too young to be able to sit through an hour worth of talking and singing, were shuffled off to the youth groups.

Being a Unitarian church, this did precisely nothing to influence my young mind toward any sort of belief. Apparently – I don’t remember this myself, but I heard the story from a former youth group leader years later – I once brought in a book, eloquently titled The Universe, and made it very clear to the rest of my group that the universe had started with the Big Bang and this God fellow had nothing to do with it. Again, being a Unitarian church, I wasn’t even told I was wrong about this (good joke – What do you get if you cross a Unitarian and a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason). Eventually, Victoria left the church, and my parents stopped making us go. Being a kid who had things I would much rather spend my Sunday mornings doing than sitting in a church, I happily jumped at the opportunity, and that was the end of that.

Let me take a moment to thank my parents for this. Neither of them are particularly religious themselves – my dad is sort of culturally Jewish, having come from a Jewish family, and my mom rejected her Christian background long before I was born (I don’t even remember what type of Christian she was raised as). They’re both much more sympathetic to spirituality than I am, but they’ve pretty much allowed me to form my own views on the subject without any interference. While I think my nature is such that I would have ended up as an atheist eventually, no matter what my upbringing, the fact that they never pushed any sort of belief on me whatsoever made the whole process a lot easier – I got to start in the same position I ended up in. My parents are wonderful people.

Returning to the narrative, it was in middle school that I actually began to debate religion. A good friend of mine was a devout Mormon, and we would go back and forth for hours on the subject, each of us thoroughly baffled by the other’s point of view. His increasing devotion to his religion, and our inability to maintain a friendship focused on other things, would eventually drive us apart, but at the time it was a very entertaining way to pass the time, and it helped me develop my own position beyond “People actually believe this stuff? Seriously?”

I sum up my early views on religion as a sort of incredulous application of Occam’s Razor. The universe was amazing enough as it was, and the fact that it existed on such a scale – and that we were so tiny and insignificant compared to the rest of it – made it completely incomprehensible to me that the whole thing could have come into being just so we could be here. It seemed far more likely that the universe had just happened through some phenomenon we did not yet understand than that there was some creative force outside space and time that had put the whole thing in motion just so we could show up fifteen billion years down the road. I don’t think that our brains are even equipped to understand just how insignificant we are, or how little time we’ve really been here – I’ll get into this subject, and the thought experiments that help us make a little sense of it in another post. I know that for a lot of people, the astonishing majesty of the natural world and the universe is for them evidence for God – for me, it was and remains the exact opposite.

In high school, I graduated – and I use this term very loosely – to the land of internet argumentation. The Megatokyo forums gave me a venue to get into arguments with theists of varied sophistication, and exposed me to a number of the classic arguments for religion, from Aquinas’ “proofs” to Pascal’s idiotic wager. None of them were particularly convincing, especially since I now had a much broader spectrum of writings to draw from to bolster my points than my younger self’s science books and general bafflement. And, of course, I came to the inevitable conclusion, after banging my head against the same brick wall for the two hundred and forty-second time, that it simply wasn’t worth the effort. I was right, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And so I gave up, and stopped arguing religion (I stopped arguing politics for much the same reason).

After this, atheism took a back seat in my life for a few years. Oh, my views never wavered – I never once doubted I was right, or saw any evidence that would convince me otherwise. But I stopped arguing it, stopped thinking about it that much, and generally focused on other things for a while. It wasn’t until recently that atheism came to the forefront once more, thanks to a number of excellent books.

I refer, of course, to the Quartet of Reason – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. Although Harris was first, it was Dawkins’ The God Delusion that got me started – I would later discover Harris through Dawkins’ website. While their arguments for atheism were a joy to read, and bolstered my own position yet again, that was not the message that resonated with me the most. No, what I really took from those books was the message that this is an important issue, perhaps the most important issue facing us as human beings today. They did not convert me from a theist to an atheist, but they did convert me from a passive atheist to an active one (I find the term ‘militant’ silly, as much as it gets bandied about these days). I started to keep up on religion and atheism-related happenings around the world. I found Pharyngula and began reading it daily, often refreshing hourly to see if PZ has posted anything new. I read every article that gets posted on Dawkins' website. And I started to actively discuss atheism again, with people both religious and nonreligious, and to argue far more passionately about it than I had in years.

Which leads, inevitably, to this blog, which I have finally created as a place for me to marshal all of my thoughts and arguments. I hope that it will prove as interesting to read as it is to write.


Divine said...

Another View~

Your use of science as an explanation for the world around you is interesting to me. There is a pattern within the human condition in which an individual or society requires an explanation of the world around them. Answers to the questions 'why', 'how', and sometimes 'when'. Science, as you mentioned, appears to be taking over the role of explaining the world around us which supernatural beliefs have for so long accomplished.

From an anthropological perspective this is simply a new explanation of the world around us becoming popular, rather than one explanation being better than the other. After examining the situation, I've noticed that scientific advancement itself seems to be what is putting conventional religious beliefs 'out of business'. I don't nessecarily mean this in the sense that science is beating religion, but that science 'creates' tools, ideas, weapons, and other things which cause a religious methodology to become inadequate as a social structure. I say this because, as it may be apparent to you, religious and other supernatural views did a fine job when peoples' technological capability was bound to the many uses of sticks and rocks.

This would suggest, then, that we could be witnessing/partaking in the massive change of a society's world view. These always seem to be interesting times in history, and I wonder what sort of things will happen with us.

Steph said...

Man has always been facinated with how they came about, and their origins. They've always wanted to understand everything around them, so someone comes up with a theory that makes up for what Man is too incompetent or narrow-minded to comprehend.

Háněc said...

“Religion is the opium of the masses.” said Karl Marx. I think that you shouldnt be bothered that you are atheist. Some people believe and some dont, for me its similar to peoples ability to sing. Apart from the fact that when you are fanatic about singing, you dont manifest it by singing other people to death.

Micah said...

"This would suggest, then, that we could be witnessing/partaking in the massive change of a society's world view. These always seem to be interesting times in history, and I wonder what sort of things will happen with us."

It is my hope that this is what we're witnessing; certainly, religion's ability to explain things like disease has been pushed far back, at least among the educated societies of the world. But just pick up a newspaper, and you can see we've got a long way to go. That's one of the reasons I'm so supportive of the efforts of Hitchens and Dawkins et. al.


There's definitely some arrogance there, in my opinion - thus the title of this blog, and the corresponding quote about the puddle. We have a hard time accepting that we're a bit of an accident.

Megan said...

I was listening to NPR months ago and Dawkins was on, speaking about his book, and I remember thinking, "Finally!" I plan to purchase that in the near future, but in the meantime are there any more science-y titles you'd recommend? I have A Brief History of Time, The Elegant Universe, and The Physics of Consciousness but I'm greedy and I want more. Any particularly good (and not terribly difficult) reads?

Micah said...

A good question - you've already got Greene and Hawking on your list, which shows me you've gotten a good start.

First, let me recommend Richard Dawkins - quite aside from atheism, the man is an excellent science writer. The Selfish Gene is a classic of popular science, and most of his other books (Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow) are also excellent.

Daniel Dennett also does some pretty fascinating stuff - Consciousness Explained is a really phenomenal exploration of how what we know about neuroscience is informing our understanding of how our consciousness works. He had me absolutely riveted.

Something I've been meaning to pick up is Natalie Angier's The Canon, which is supposed to be a really good explanation of the basic and really important parts of science that everyone should know - and that even people who have a good background in science often forget. So I'd recommend that as well.