The following is a guest post by Steve. The values and opinions expressed by its author DO reflect my own. Please feel free to share your comments below….
No Choice At All
While atheism is so often cast as an alternative to acceptance of a religious orthodoxy, perhaps it might help some people to know that, for some of us at least, we didn’t switch to atheism like we were changing rate plans on a mobile phone. We never felt compelled to be religious to begin with.
I was raised without any religion. I was never told either that there was a god or that there wasn’t one. No opinion was given to me on that matter. Now, it doesn’t take that long before a reasonably intelligent kid starts to ask some of the “big” questions about life, death, and the reason for being. My parents just never felt it necessary to offer settled conclusions to questions some of the greatest minds in human history struggled to answer.
And so, when I first came upon religion (in Lutheran pre-school, as it happens), I was rather confused by it. Here were these huge questions – seemingly unanswerable questions – and yet most of the kids and parents I met acted as though they already had the answers. Their story, best I could make it out having never gone to church or received any religious instruction, was much akin to a fairy tale. Not a pleasant typically children’s fairy tale with a clear moral and some nice fuzzy animals. No, not this one. Not at all. My introduction to this fairy tale was the image of a man hanging bleeding and in obvious agony on a cross. Somehow, I thought, this doesn’t seem like material appropriate for my age group. Oh and would someone help the lead singer from Deep Purple down from that cross? That really looks painful.
I came to learn that this age-inappropriate and deeply unsatisfying fairy tale with no fuzzy animals and much agony was actually part of a deeply held series of beliefs. These beliefs, no matter how irretrievably ridiculous and unnecessarily gory and unpleasant, were unchallengeable. This was just how most of the people around me lived. That man on the cross was actually our Lord and Savior. Wait – you mean that’s God? I don’t know, I think if I were the all-powerful ruler of the universe, my first use of my infinite powers would be stop people nailing me to wooden stakes and leaving me to die.
So, no, I was not overwhelmed by the grace and beauty of the Christ. I’d been told many pleasant tales by my elders. The one about the fat guy in the red suit was at the top of the list. A very distant second was the bunny that inexplicably delivered chocolates. Then there was a mixed bag of lions with thorns, houses made of candy, cross-dressing wolves, and pigs operating on a painfully slow residential construction learning curve. Plausibility was never a selling point in any of these tales. But the bleeding guy on the cross? No candy? I mean most of these tales at least had the demographic sense to read up on their target audience. Candy and presents – these are the subjects that pack ‘em in at Kindergarten. Children suspend disbelief as well as any audience, but only when you work the fuzzy animals/candy dialectic. Centering your tale around a bleeding guy on wooden stakes usually prompts the question: OK, wait, where are you guys going with this?
As my classmates and I grew older, the myth grew more pungent. Skeptics rapidly arose on the Santa Claus matter, but belief seemed unwavering regarding Jesus. That always seemed odd. The same time every year we’d buy a pine tree, visit relatives, acquire material goods, and worship Santa Claus. Somehow, this Jesus character kept horning in on the Christmas action. No offense Jesus, but I know plenty of kids unfortunate enough to be born around Christmas. Apart from getting screwed out of your fair share of presents, your birthday really takes a back seat to guy in the red suit.
Ah, but those skeptics.
They’d say: “That’s your parents buying the gifts, stupid!”
Hey, the myth pays off – I got a bike. What’s your Christian torture porn done for you?
“I’m going to heaven when I die.”
I’ll be honest, I pondered that one for awhile. And when they threw hell into the picture, I began to really wonder what these people were on about. No, of course I don’t believe Santa can deliver all the presents in one night. Even assuming he travels at near the speed of light – hello, anyone hear of time dilation? So, at base, I knew we were telling cute stories to pass the time. I was well aware that most carried some mawkish hidden message: a little bit of parental instruction they assumed would go down easier if shod in fuzzy animals and candy. But this Jesus myth appeared to tick none of those boxes. The story had no clear moral, it was implausible if not impossible, and it was being asserted as true despite a distinct lack of evidence.
We grew older still and religion was easily eclipsed in the lives of most of my friends by sex, drugs, music, clothes, popularity, dances, and cars. Now, years later and much older, so many of those friends have returned to the myth with a vengeance; usually just in time to pass that myth on to their children. The ultimate viral story.
So did I choose against this religion? Did I decide consciously to reject taking the hand of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? OK, technically yes I did. It was a choice in the philosophic sense of the word, but not a significant one. Not even worth mentioning. I don’t define who I am by listing all of those things in my life I’ve seen or heard which never meant anything to me. Modern dance never spoke to me, yet I don’t view my artistic interests as being defined by my rejection of Twyla Tharp. Accounting never seemed a desirable profession to me, yet my resume doesn’t list in its first entry: “not an accountant.” And yet, I must be labeled an atheist, because, technically, that’s what I am. I reject theism, so I must be “a-theistic.”
Normally, if you want to know who a person is, you ask them. If they know you and trust you, they may well tell you. Only in the area of religion must I define who I am by telling you what I am not. Such a demand bears three hallmarks of religious behavior: it’s manifestly inefficient and unreasonable, it shows a distinct lack of human empathy, and it’s breathtakingly arrogant. I am an atheist because nothing about theistic religion ever compelled me to adopt its beliefs. And that’s still more of a choice than almost of the religious people I’ve met ever made.
Next time, maybe throw in some candy and fuzzy animals.