An atheistic enlightenment
|June 19, 2011||Posted by Liam Morgan under culture, lifestyle|
For me, becoming an atheist was a curiously religious experience. A ‘rebirth’ of sorts; a revelatory experience, an epiphany delivered not from some omnipotent deistic figure but instead from some previously uncovered, fiercely rational being that I never realised was within me.
Of course, being newly reformed I am no expert on atheistic life – indeed, I have often experienced relapses where I find myself ‘thanking God’ for something, or using the phrase ‘dear God’ to apply to something I desperately want. But those anachronistic terms hold no weight anymore – just the skeletal shells of a previous belief, echoes of which still remain very much in my vocabulary. It’s only a matter of time before they leave my inward lexicon for good, and I become a decidedly secular individual.
But why? Why after 17 years of belief (admittedly not the strongest) in a Christian God did I decide to alter my religious opinion? The instigator of said change was undoubtedly Dawkins’ The God Delusion which led to a fundamental rethink of all my previous, dogmatic beliefs. It is an incredibly important book and I urge anyone who has not read it to do so immediately. Even if you disagree with the points Dawkins makes, and I certainly do on some occasions, it is a book which forces you, really forces you, to question your beliefs in a way which I, at least, have never had the opportunity to before. It is by no means a perfect book, but the very manner in which Dawkins constructs his arguments against religion is inspiring enough: a confirmation that religion is not exempt from ruthless scepticism. Indeed it is a field that warrants such a mindset more than most. The God Delusion is most effective as a consciousness raiser for atheism, which I believe it fully succeeds at. The book’s shortcomings are expertly highlighted in Marianne Talbot and Stephen Law’s excellent series of podcasts from their God Delusion Weekend, available for free from the Oxford section of iTunes U. These are well worth a listen and highlight which parts of Dawkins’ arguments are sound and which are more contentious. These two sources helped me confront an issue which I never have done in quite such depth before, perhaps because I knew that I would end up refuting the idea of a God if I thought about it hard enough. (It is worth noting here that my aim is not to provide evidence against God’s existence, but instead focus on the process of becoming an atheist after deciding one believes in said arguments.)
It takes a strange amount of courage to label oneself as ‘an atheist’. Firstly, for the risk of going against a God (if one exists), which surely spells out an unavoidable journey to hell in the afterlife. Secondly, as Dawkins points out in his introductory chapters, for the stigma attached to those who label themselves ‘atheists’; especially those in highly religious societies such as the United States. There is some strange public association which exists between atheism and a sort of overly-depressive outlook . An amoral individual full of doom and gloom seems to be inferred for some reason, probably because of a belief that without God, morals become disposable and without foundation. This is simply untrue, as proved by the recent atheist awareness movement that The God Delusion seemed to spearhead, but the original prejudice or remnants of it still remain. For many, including my previous self, it is easier and somewhat safer to subscribe to agnosticism. It was this indecision, a religious ‘hedging of bets’ that I decided I didn’t want to be a part of anymore, and after engaging myself with critical resources on God’s existence I discovered that ‘believing’ and ‘faith’ were simply not for me. I suppose I have known this for a long time. Both my primary and secondary schools were Christian (Church of England), and I always felt some reluctance in joining in morning prayers, or being encouraged to attend Church on Sunday mornings.
Church was an interminable experience. I remember being intensely annoyed by the priests’ vague way of speaking – filled with truisms and stock phrases like ‘there are things science can’t explain’ or ‘the lord moves in mysterious ways’ – that allowed him to say absolutely nothing at all while talking for an hour non-stop. Services never meant much to me, and I drifted away from them gradually, usually with excuses along the lines of “I can worship God in my own way”. But that is all they were, meaningless excuses, and it has taken me a long time to realise why I had to fabricate them. I think I have always been a closet atheist.
The eventual process that led me to finally confront my belief (or lack of it) and be reborn as an out-and-out atheist was strangely like the stages of the Kübler-Ross model of coping with dying. First came denial. There must be a God. I have lived my whole life with the assumption that He is there. Then anger. How dare those religious schools teach theism with no alternative, indoctrinating impressionable children! I must have skipped the bargaining stage, which seems fitting as it usually involves offering a deal to a higher power to escape fate, and moved straight onto depression. If there is no God, then life has no purpose. When I die there is no afterlife. We are alone in the universe. This was undoubtedly my longest stage, but only because the power of the final one is so redemptive and cathartic in many ways. Acceptance.
I think that there must be many people like me, who are too used to assuming a Godly presence that they go against their rational nature to preserve their faith in his existence. It has taken me a long time to reverse that mindset. But it is a journey worth taking, and one that leads to a more fulfilling life that provides more answers, I feel, than faith in religion ever could.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” - Douglas Adams