Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Atheist Upbringing

So here I am, a born and raised atheist. I find it kind of unfair that we have to base the word "atheist" on the word "theist" to begin with, especially since everyone is born an atheist - we're just often inculcated with a belief in some god or other along the way (that's paraphrasing someone, I can't remember who though).

I don't know if my parents ever outright told me "God does not exist", but I don't think they ever had to. My dad was all about science in various realms - cosmology, astronomy, molecular atomic stuff, etc. Over the years as I grew up, we had many conversations in which he explained the scientific improbability of a Christian god in this universe, and numerous arguments showing the various inconsistencies in the very definition of god (ex: Can god create a rock so heavy that "he" can't lift it? If he can, he's not all powerful because he couldn't lift it; if he can't, he's not all powerful because that's something he wouldn't be able to create). Whenever I'd ask the big kid questions of where did we come from, where'd our universe come from, what happens when you die, etc., I always got the scientific explanations - and they fascinated me! The Big Bang, galaxies, billions of years, evolution... fun stuff. And death was always neat to talk about. I'd ask what it was like to die, and Dad always said I wouldn't feel or think anything after I died; I just wouldn't be. Now I understand it to be something like regressing back in my mind and memories to when I was born, when I didn't know or feel or think anything. And I usually only fear the pain before hand, and the inability to do do stuff afterward. Anyway, I digress...

In the realm of ethics, I was never given any dogmatic "that's just the way things are" or "she/he/I said so"
explanation. They always gave me a reason to do or not do something. It was usually a Golden-Rule type explanation (ought to be called the "Social Rule"), but they never gave it a name. If I stole something, they'd just be like, "Well how would you like it someone stole from you? You wouldn't would you? So why would you do that?" I'd never have a good response, and usually felt guilty afterward, which often did the trick to keep me from doing it again. Same story if I was outside and squashed a bug for no reason - "How would you like to get squashed when you're just walking around minding your own business?"

My parents never kept me from going to church with friends when I was invited to (and I was invited a lot). I just thought it was a thing for friends to do, and most of the time the stuff that was said in the churches never made sense to me. They kept using words in various contexts I didn't understand "our lord, Jesus Christ, Heaven and Earth, Kingdom come." I just kind of sat through it confused until I could get out and talk with my friends again. I'd usually talk about it with my parents afterward, and we'd sometimes have discussions about it. Both parents would explain to me that my friends were probably trying to convert me, which is what they think they ought to do, according to their religion. It took a few years before I understood that completely. And when I was old enough to start trying to defend my atheism, some of my friendships were queered. I'd often talk about these situations with my parents, and they would offer consolation and tell me that it's possible to have friends with different beliefs than my own, but sometimes it doesn't work out.

My parents were never able to keep me from being exposed to religious hoowah completely, especially with our location (western Kentucky for the first 7 years, and back and forth between there and western Virginia for 11 after that). But they always talked with me about the various things I'd hear in school and elsewhere about religion, asking me what I thought about it. I think I did tell them once that it would be nice consolation to think that there was someone out there who always loved you and would never turn you away. I think they agreed with me - that it would be nice. But then they asked how I would be able to feel that love and acceptance. How would I know I was always loved and never turned away if god could never hug me or console me? If I could never feel him or see him or talk with him? Would it be worth believing in something that seems so untrue just to comfort myself, instead of facing the world as it is with all its imperfections, and learning to find comfort within it; comfort that I can feel?

I can see an argument coming from the other side about people who are starving, people who have lost their entire family in some tragic accident, people who would have much more difficulty finding comfort in the real world than in a fictitious world in their minds. And I would say that those people in need have all the right in the world to find comfort wherever they can damn well find it. But that seems to be proof that such comfort says nothing about the world, and everything about our psychology. I digress again...

Well that's all I can think to talk about for the moment. I welcome questions or criticisms from all who read this; I've never had an opportunity to talk about this stuff with strangers before, and I don't know exactly what you all might want to know. I am certainly eager for feedback though.


Philo said...

You write: "Would it be worth believing in something that seems so untrue just to comfort myself?" On your previous post, you talk about the conflict between truth and happiness. This looks like the same sort of conflict, and it seems you've resolved it in favor of truth. I'm curious why.

Here are my thoughts on the matter - thanks for asking :) Robert Nozick came up with the idea of an Experience Machine (EM). When you're hooked up to the EM, it will feel as you're having all sorts of wonderful experiences, when in fact you're lying in bed, collecting bedsores. Like belief in god, you'd be deceiving yourself in order to feel better.

Most people would not want to be hooked up to the EM (or so they've told me). I wouldn't. The EM would give you warm, fuzzy feelings, but they'd be completely disconnected from the facts. And this makes them seem a bit too pathetic to be genuine happiness. The same point applies to deluding yourself into believing in god in order to be comforted. In short, I agree with you.

Johnny Cache said...

I was raised in a catholic family, but I think I first became an atheist the first time I asked "where did god come from" in catechism class (maybe about 7 - 8 years old). I got the bullshit answer of "god always was and always will be". That pretty much did it for me. I just didn't believe all the nonsense they were trying to brainwash me with. I wasn't the most popular kid in class, asking all those hard questions and all.

After a while, I stopped going to catechism altogether. I just hung out for a while and then walked home at the appropriate time. After a few weeks, the nun came to my parents house to ask why I wasn't there. Of course, my parents were shocked to find this out, but after getting my side of the story, my mom decided that she wouldn't force me to go. I still had to attend mass with the family, but that's as far as she took it. I think she realized I had to find my own path. She's long since deceased, but I credit her almost every day for her wisdom in that situation. She saw me grow up into a fine young man (at least I think so) and I'm sure she was proud. No doubt she prayed and prayed and prayed for me over the years.

Philosophychick, I'm fascinated by hearing the stories of how someone became an atheist. Thanks for sharing, I found your story to be very insightful. Everyone should have parents as wise as yours.

I guess I have to say this. Being atheists in Kentucky and Virgina must have been brutal. Not a lot of religious tolerance in those parts of the country as near as I've been able to tell.

Microbiologychick said...

Great post!

How is it that I've know you for like 3 years now and I didn't know this stuff?

I generally agree with the way your parents raised you (after all, you turned out all right). :)

However, you do have a big gap in knowledge because of not knowing about the Bible. Bible stories are a large part of our cultural narrative, and sometimes you don't understand my allusions. That's something that can be easily corrected however. What do you think, beer and bible study next weekend? :)

Mark Plus said...

But, but, if you don't believe in hell, how can your life have any meaning?

aaron said...

you dont. as an atheist nothing means anything, you can kill steal and act like a a-hole because your just dust anyway, you have no responsobility towards your maker.

i think we found the REASON just there. lets hope they find the path to god soon so we dont get another colombine.


LeeLaa000 said...

mark and aaron: you poor pathetic brainwashed sheep!

like she said before, we are all born atheists. it's what your parents push on you and their parents and/or society that makes you a brainwashed person.

these people don't want to think for themselves. they will eat up what is shoved down their throat no questions asked.

as an individual, not only am i an atheist, but i also believe in the other side and reincarnation.

Philo said...

Aaron, you said "as an atheist nothing means anything, you can kill steal and act like a a-hole because your just dust anyway, you have no responsobility towards your maker."

Even if you don't have a responsibility to your maker, you can still have responsibility to other people. When theists say things like this, they imply that we have NO responsibility to other human beings, ONLY responsibility to our 'maker'. Sounds like they're the ones who need an ethics lesson, not atheists.

Microbiologychick said...


At first I thought you were just a well-meaning but deluded and ignorant Christian, but you're just a fucking troll.

Columbine? Not only does that have nothing whatsoever to do with atheism, but it's not even a correct analogy. We're in college, the closer analogy would be Virginia Tech. Is this the first atheist blog you've ever come across? Is this the first time you've ever been exposed to ideas other than your own? "
OH Noes! Some people think differently than me, they must be dangerous!"

Mark Plus said...

leelaa00 didn't catch my irony. Christians make such a huge deal about having an afterlife in their conjecture about life's meaning. But when I ask them whether hell give meaning to the lives of the people who wind up there, they often look very uncomfortable.

As for aaron's "as an atheist nothing means anything, you can kill steal and act like a a-hole because your just dust anyway, you have no responsobility towards your maker," what if it turns out that a god created human life without any meaning, hope or purpose in the first place?

the chaplain said...

Great blog. I've added you to my blogroll and will be coming back frequently.

It sucks that you attracted a theist troll so early on, but you're handling the guy pretty well. You've got a lot more patience than I do.

PhillyChief said...

Religion is a drug that makes you happy, and it's a very successful and effective drug. Of course though, like any drug, there are side effects. You risk serious compartmentalizing of your mind, reduced critical thinking skills and possibly an increase in gullibility which could manifest itself in various ways to make you susceptible to pyramid schemes, get rich quick plans, and other cons. Furthermore, the pushing, even imposing that drug on others is simply reprehensible.

Anyone can do the drug if they want, and if it doesn't seriously interfere with their lives or unduly hurts or burdens another, then so be it.

Microbiologychick said...


If religion is a drug, it's more on the heroin type, than the weed type.

PhillyChief said...

True, but it might also give you the munchies. There are some big christians in this country, especially out in the Heartland and BibleBelt. ;)

Microbiologychick said...

Southen Baptists are the fattet denomination. It's all those church potlucks.

Steven said...

Hello MicrobiologyChick and PhilosophyChick,

I just heard about your blog via the podcast The Non-Prophets. I am a microbiology student and an atheist and have a interest in philosophy so your blog on basic subject matter is of interest to me on 3 fronts.

I just watched bloggers and scientists Abbie Smith(ERV) and PZ Myers(Pharngula) on and it appears that more and more women are becoming biology student and scientists. As an unashamed guy I will admit this is great news not just because of equality issues but because well I am an unashamed guy.

I look forward to future posts

Keep up the good work



Philo said...

philly chief: I like the drug analogy. Of course, if you have religious beliefs simply in order to feel happy (and not because there's evidence for them), then in effect you're lying to yourself. So the loss of critical thinking isn't just an unhappy side effect.

mircobiologychick: Yep, more like heroin. From what I gather, you don't just let jesus into your heart every now and again at parties...

JaaJoe said...

I must suggest to all Christians and Atheist to read this book "The End of Reason" by Dr. Ravi Zacharias. This book forces the reader's mind to do the critical thinking that is so lacking in Christianity today. It should also be considered required reading for the atheist who has never really looked at a logical argument for the existence of God, or the Christian who has never really critically analyzed his own faith. Check out more information on The End of Reason here

Microbiologychick said...


Welcome! What aspect of micro do you study? I wasn't planning on having much micro in this blog, but that might change.

Thanks for your kind words.

Microbiologychick said...


From now on, "letting Jesus into my heart" is my new potsmoking euphemism.

PhillyChief said...

Yes JaaJoe, Zacharias chose a great title since in order for that book to have merit, reason must end at the cover. You can't try and carry it onto page 1 or beyond or else the book will no longer have any merit.

I often equate religion with drugs on the podcast. It's an apt analogy for many reasons. Certainly there's the issue of escape from reality, indulging to feel good, and addiction but also there's the way it should be looked at for just like with drugs, I don't see the need for criminalization IF your self indulgence doesn't hurt others AND you can otherwise still function and be productive. Now of course, just like drugs and alcohol, certain things you simply can't do while on it for it'll impair your abilities, like for instance voting. I'd also include driving, because I certainly get nervous when I see a Jesus fish on the back of someone's car or worse, a "Jesus is my co-pilot" or "I break for angels" sticker. Yikes! You just shouldn't be permitted to operate a motor vehicle while not just believing in fantasy creatures but admitting that you anticipate interacting with them while doing so. Yikes!

But to be fair, hey, if you can manage to do religion or drugs, hold down a job and not hurt anyone else, well knock yourself out. Live and let live, you know?

Going Churching said...

I heard about your blog on The Non-Prophets! Really enjoyable stuff so far. If you ever want to write for just swing by, give it a look and contact me.

Microbiologychick said...

going churching,

Your blog is hilarious!

Jay said...

You say that all of us are born atheist, and the the thought of God is brainswashing? For that to be true, the first humans would have had to been brainswashed by something else. Did the prehumanoids indoctrinate the humans, or was it the apes? If so, how did they communicate that logic in such a way as to sway the human mind?

PhillyChief said...

What's meant by the "born atheist" comment is more akin to the tabula rasa idea. In other words, we're born as a blank slate, with no inherent ideas or beliefs; therefore, one is born an atheist since one is born with no inherent idea of a god.

The idea is one that's learned, and also one that has been invented, reinvented, and modified like the wheel. So your first humans, prehumans and so forth formed and passed on their ideas of gods.

Jay said...

That's just hard to believe seeing that almost all cultures have held a belief in some form of God. You would think if the origin of brainwashing (be it human, prehumaniod, etc.) was unbelief then that would be the dominate wordly view. Especially, since they can all be logically attacked. More like something was there and it has been twisted by people throughout time.

Jay said...

I also see the same recurring themes throughout my researching of the atheistic view that directly parallel themes causing belief in others. Honestly, Atheism in itself could be construed as a "religion" just as much as any other, albeit with a capricious doctrine.

PhillyChief said...

Your difficulty in believing something really has no bearing on it's truth value, Jay. Humans are intensely curious and have great difficulties dealing with unresolved questions, which is part of the reason why we have a history of imaginative explanations for things such as the apparent movement of the sun being Apollo riding his chariot across the sky. In lieu of a better answer, people latch on to these beliefs because it's comforting, and such things are passed on and passed down. Surely that's not too difficult for you to follow is it? Of course if you don't want to accept anything that differs from what you like to believe, well, that's something else entirely, and that exposes the inherent problem with 'god of the gaps' thinking.

"Honestly, Atheism in itself could be construed as a "religion"

HONESTLY, no it can't. There is no set of beliefs one subscribes to dogmatically as an atheist. By the standard definition of religion, it's not a religion. Now if you mean colloquially, like saying someone jogs religiously, meaning they take the exercise seriously, then sure, but considering the subject matter, you can understand how such a comment would lead to confusion, no?