One commenter on my last post said, “. . . those of us who are not Christians may actually be non-Christian by choice.” For me personally, it hasn’t been a matter of choice. I hold firmly that we do not choose what we believe. Belief is like an emotion – it’s something deep inside you that you can’t control – just like you can’t choose who to love (or not to love), you can’t choose not to feel grief in the face of loss, you can’t choose not to feel glad when good things happen – I strongly believe that you also cannot choose to believe or not believe – in anything. Knowing that there is no Santa Claus, knowing that Earth is actually spherical and not flat, you can’t choose to believe otherwise. Yes, you can choose what information you will look at to come to your conclusions. You can choose to repress or fake emotions. You can choose to adhere to certain prescribed tenets. You can certainly choose how your behavior and actions manifest your beliefs and emotions. But you cannot choose what you believe, way down deep inside, in your heart and gut.
I did not choose to become atheist. I spent my whole life being taught the Christian messages, periodically attending church (well into adulthood), praying, and believing. Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God, that the events and people that populate the Bible were real, literal, actual events and people. Believing that God was real, that he listened to my prayers and cared about me personally, and that if I did all the right things, God would walk beside me in life and reward me in the afterlife.
I always had questions and doubts, though. It all seemed so far-fetched. Adam and Eve but no dinosaurs (despite hard evidence of dinosaurs)? People living for hundreds of years? Rising from the dead? Parting of seas? Virgin birth? Eternal paradise or eternal damnation and hellfire? But I always squelched the questions and doubts. Because if you have an analytical, intellectual mind, that’s what you have to do to be a Christian – you have to repress the doubts and questions that are inevitably raised. Because when you get right down to it, there are no good answers. You cannot use the Bible as evidence of itself (“The Bible is true because it says it’s true!”) You have to chalk everything up to faith, which is very murky and not fact-based (“I feel God’s presence, I see evidence of God in the beauty of the world, and that’s enough for me.”), or, if all else fails, the old stand-by: “God works in mysterious ways. It’s not for us humans to understand.” You feel guilty for entertaining the doubts and questions. So you do your best to squelch the doubts, and you pray harder.
That’s how it was for me, anyway. There came a time, however, when I decided to go out on a limb and allow myself to really entertain those doubts and questions I had. After all, I figured, my faith would be so much more meaningful if it could stand up to rigorous analysis and doubt. Plus, if there was a god, he gave me a mind to think and analyze and doubt with, right? So I allowed myself to really give some weight to all those questions I had had for so long. If God was good and merciful, then why is there so much suffering in the world – suffering that has nothing at all to do with man’s free-will? Why does religion tear people apart instead of bringing people together? Why is it that God’s powers seem to be limited to what humans can achieve (God can heal an ear infection or provide someone with a new job or intervene so that someone longing for a baby can get pregnant, but no amount of prayer will make a legless man’s limbs come back)? Did all that stuff in the Bible really happen? So someone who is good all their life still can’t get into Heaven unless they’re baptized? What about little children who die and never had a say in whether they got baptized or not? And even if someone is baptized and lives a good, honest life, they still can’t get into Heaven if they don’t voluntarily accept Jesus Christ as their savior? So my dad was probably burning in Hell, then, because he was agnostic. I lost a lot of sleep over that one.
I looked high and low, I searched my soul (which I believe in, by the way; of course everyone has an essence that makes them their own unique person. I just don’t believe in a soul that survives the body), I agonized. And there were no good answers anywhere. And there was plenty of evidence everywhere that supported very non-divine explanations for things. I just no longer had the ability to chalk it all up to God’s mystique. If it were all true, it wouldn’t be so hard to understand! If it were all true, it would be easily understandable by all, it would be hardwired into us (one friend recently said that she believes it is hardwired into us, but some of us choose to ignore it. Well, Muslims believe everyone is born a Muslim, too. And what about untouched civilizations living in the rainforest who have never had exposure to the notion of Jesus Christ? Is it hardwired into them, too?) If the Bible were the actual word of God, there wouldn’t be so many ways to interpret it!
My belief started breaking down. The Bible part of it was kind of the kicker for me. As a Christian, I was taught that the Bible is the actual word of God and that everything in it is the literal truth. But there are so many interpretations – every major religion seems to interpret it a little differently. Could that stuff really have happened? If it did, why doesn’t stuff like that happen now? The big dramatic miracles? And once you start doubting the authenticity of the Bible, the literal truth of it, well, the whole foundation for your faith begins to crumble.
I resisted for a while. It really was not an easy process. I tried to talk myself back into my old beliefs. And it just didn’t work. Because, I found, I could not choose what to feel, what to believe. What I could choose was the label I applied to myself. I started with Agnostic, because that felt a little safer and less radical than Atheist. But it really wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t being honest with myself. I wasn’t Agnostic – it’s not that I was unsure. In my heart, I was sure. I just no longer believed any of that stuff. And finally, I let go of it. And chose to call myself Atheist, because that most accurately describes my state of belief. I do not believe there is a god, I do not believe in Heaven or Hell, I do not believe in the divine or supernatural. And once I was honest with myself, I felt a weight lifted. All the agonizing and rationalizing and searching for answers and never being satisfied with the answers/non-answers – it was gone. All the guilt and feeling like I could never measure up to what God wanted of me was gone. And I felt at peace with it, and I still do.
That is not to say my life is any easier or better than it was before. My faith or lack of faith has made absolutely no difference in the quality of my life – except to the extent that in some ways I am a social pariah because Atheism is just not socially acceptable. (And I have a suspicion that there are many more non-believers out there than we realize – even sitting in church congregations – who remain quiet about their feelings because they don’t want to suffer the backlash of “coming out.”) In some ways, I guess it has made things a little easier: there’s nobody to be angry at anymore for all the injustice in the world. There’s nobody to appeal to – and potentially have my pleas rejected by – to make things right. It is comforting to me, in a strange way, to know that the universe is random, life is random; I am not a pawn in anyone’s chess game. And this is all I’ve got – this life, this brief life. When I’m gone, I’m gone, so I better make the most of what I’ve got. Love with everything I’ve got, be kind and honest and compassionate because that’s how I want to be treated.
So the only choice I’ve made is to apply the label Atheist to myself. For me, becoming atheist has not been the adoption of new beliefs, it’s been the falling away of beliefs. I have not joined some fringe organization that requires a conversion process. I don’t belong to a group that has special rituals to demonstrate our beliefs. There are no Atheist holidays to my knowledge. I’m not an official member of some group that has plans to convert everyone and take over the world. That would be weird! Oh wait . . . never mind.
I can never be a Believer again. The questions and doubts have already been cracked wide open for me, and there’s no undoing it. And I’m fine with it.