Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Friday, December 08, 2006

Reasons for Disbelief

So. This is another of those posts I've been meaning to make for a long time, but haven't had time for. There are a lot of those. Things have been busy lately.

Anyway, one of the things I've been giving a lot of thought to lately is...why now, in particular, I've finally decided I'm an atheist?

I don't mean why have I become an atheist. That's a very different question, and one much more easily answered. There's just no evidence for the existence of God, and it's clear I never really believed in the church doctrines; I was just convincing myself I did. I ran across last week a review by Daniel Dennett of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, in which Dennett makes a distinction between belief in God and belief in belief--and asserts that the latter is displacing the former "as the pivotal force in organized religion". It's very clear to me in retrospect that the latter, belief in belief in God, is all I really ever had. I was sufficiently rational and open-minded to realize that there was no compelling reason to believe in God--but I was, I guess, enough a product of my upbringing to try to make myself believe I believed in God anyway. My recent turn to atheism is nothing more than finally being able to admit to myself of my longstanding self-delusion.

So the question, again, isn't why I have become an atheist. It's why now, in particular. I don't honestly know; it's not always easy to get to the bottom of one's own motivations. But it's something that I've been trying to figure out.

I addressed this question in my first post, and listed some possible reasons. "Maybe because I've been reading a lot of blogs lately, and I've been seeing not only how reasonable many atheists are, but how very unreasonable the religious too often are in their arguments; maybe that perspective is making me want to disassociate myself from the religious," I said--but that explanation didn't really ring true to me. True, I'd been reading a lot of blogs at the time, including blogs by atheists--which I ran across mostly because of my interest in science (there's more I could say on that connection, but it would be off the topic of this post)--but it's not as if the fact that atheists could be reasonable was a revelation to me. I'd never bought into the stereotype that atheists were slavering, God-hating, amoral villains; I knew there were moral and rational atheists, and I knew there were small-minded and vicious theists. So, on further consideration, I decided that reading those blogs hadn't told me anything about atheists that I didn't already know. That wasn't the reason for my rejection of religion.

"Maybe it's the way that religions are increasingly trying to take over public discourse and forge laws of intolerance that's forcing me to choose sides." This one might have a little more to it, and I think this may be a big part of the reason. Until recently, even if there was no real reason, outside of social pressure, to remain religiously active, it didn't seem there was any real harm in it, either. But it's become increasingly obvious that religions in America are doing real harm. They're working to retard or reverse scientific progress due to irrational objections based purely on "faith"; they're spearheading efforts to deny certain rights and protections to people whose lifestyles they don't agree with, even if those "lifestyle" preferences may be due to genetics or other factors beyond the individuals' choice or control; they're trying to impose their own religious policies and practices on everyone else. Maybe there was already some of that before, but in recent years it's become more and more prevalent and obvious. And I think, yes, that probably was a factor in my finally managing to admit to myself the baselessness of my religious beliefs.

But was that all of it? I don't know. I don't think so. Like I said, there was already some of that before; religion wasn't as powerful a force for social and scientific atavism in America previously as it has recently become, but the same goals and drives have long been there, just not as obviously. Maybe it's just that it's finally passed my threshold of comfort, that it's finally built up to the point I can no longer ignore it. Maybe. But while that's part of it, I don't think it's the whole answer. And's an answer I'm still not really comfortable with.

Though, really, I don't think there's any answer I would be comfortable with. The question I've been addressing is why it was now, specifically, that I finally accepted atheism, but the real question is one implied by that question, but maybe better stated explicitly: why not earlier? Why has it taken me so long? I knew there was no rational reason for belief in God. I knew religion was responsible for at least some degree of evil. Why has it taken me so long to reject it? Why has it taken me several decades to finally admit to myself that I didn't really believe? In short, why didn't I become an atheist a lot sooner?

Oh, sure, I can list the things that have been keeping me in the church. The strongest, by far, is the social pressure. I have a lot of friends in the church, and I know they'll react negatively if I leave it. I don't think they'll disassociate themselves from me--not those who are real friends, anyway, and those who aren't are no loss--but they will think less of me. That shouldn't bother me, of course, but it does. And the situation with my family is going to be even more difficult. My parents and siblings are all members of the church, and--well, again, I know they won't want to disown me, or anything like that, but things are still going to be difficult. Those are the reasons I haven't yet gone public with my atheism--and it's clear those are the main reasons why I wasn't willing to face up to the emptiness of my "faith" before, because I knew that if I did, eventually I would have to go public with the matter. There were strong social pressures working to make me suppress my disbelief.

The thing is, it bothers me that for so long I let those social pressures "win". I've always considered myself to have a strong regard for truth. I want to know the truth behind things, and I want to make that truth known to others; I want to help stop the perpetuation of lies. Now...I'm feeling like maybe I didn't have that principle as strongly as I thought I did, if I wasn't willing to face up to what I knew, deep down, was the truth just for fear of the social consequences. I shouldn't have let those social pressures keep me in my self-delusion. But I did. And...I'm not happy about what that says about me. Oh, sure, eventually I did manage to break through my self-deception, and finally accept that my religion had no basis. But it bothers me a great deal that that didn't happen a lot sooner than it did.

And ultimately, I think I've come to realize, maybe, what it really was that made me finally able to accept atheism now. All those blogs that I dismissed earlier in the post as having not really told me anything I didn't already know? More recently, I've come to realize that they may have had something to do with it after all. The thing is, I may have known perfectly well that atheists could be decent people, but...I didn't really know any communities of atheists. Now, I've seen some glimpse online of atheist social networks, and maybe that's helped me to finally start to become ready to come out as an atheist myself. So, Matt, Bronze Dog, PZ Myers, and possibly a few others whose blogs I'd read early this year that I'm not remembering right now, thanks. Even if I didn't realize it at the time, reading your blogs, and knowing there were people like you out there, helped me finally face up to the truth about my religious beliefs. I don't think that was the only reason that I at last managed to break through my self-delusion--as I said, I do think the increasingly prominent role religion is taking as a force for oppression and censorship is also a factor--but I think it may have been the most proximate cause. I guess it helped to know that something resembling an atheist social network did exist out there. (And, of course, having since done more reading on such matters, I've found out about organizations like the Center for Inquiry, which as it turns out (I say at risk of jeopardizing my anonymity by giving some big hints as to my location) has a branch very near where I live, so I may be dropping by there some time in the near future...)

It still bothers me, though, that I needed to know that before facing the truth--that I was willing to fool myself for so long, and avoid coming to terms with reality, and that it wasn't until I knew that such social networks existed (among other things) that I finally broke free of those shackles. I feel a lot better now that I've finally discarded that self-deception; it was a wearying mental weight I wasn't consciously aware of until it was lifted. Still, the fact I was apparently willing to live with that self-deception for so long tells me I didn't know myself as well as I thought I did, and says things about me that I don't particularly like.


At 12/10/2006 5:27 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Don't be too hard on yourself. First, you did break free, and second, we are a social animal. Few of us are willing to alienate everyone we know and love over something that seems ephemeral to us, if not to them. One of the great blessings of the Internet, I think, is the way it does show the few that they aren't alone: there are more of us than you might think and you can find us now. (I hope those pronouns aren't too confusing...)

At 12/11/2006 12:35 PM, Blogger IAMB said...

So, should I be saying thanks, or you're welcome? Screw it... happy to help works just fine for me.

It's always nice to know that some pseudonymous online writer can actually inspire a total stranger... even if I do still think there's something very familiar about you though there's no chance in hell we've ever met. Perhaps it's because there are far more people like you in the LDS faith than anyone will ever admit.

At 12/11/2006 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read every entry on your blog ever since I first came across it (or more properly, ever since Matt first linked to it), and even the handful of entries you'd written before then, even if I don't comment every time. I find it so interesting because I'm right around the same point as you in my "deconversion," and I find it interesting just how many parallels I see between what we're both going through.

More to the point of your post, it's taken me a while to admit my atheism to myself, too, so you're not alone. It's only in the past few months that I've actually even begun calling myself an "atheist," and not just referred to it as "abandoning Christianity." I don't write about it on my own website, yet (I'll discuss how "creationism" is wrong, but not Christianity in general), and it's only been very recently that I've discussed it openly on other sites while giving a link back to my website (if you click on my name in the signature). I'm still concerned about how relatives will react, and possibly more importantly now that I've moved to the Bible Belt, how community members will react, and especially how they'll treat my daughter.

The three biggest obstacles for my becoming an atheist were fear of hell, societal pressure, and fear of disappointing my parents, so I know how hard it can be. But I think my own answers to the question of, "why now," are very similar to yours. I've noticed more and more the types of attitudes that Christians have, especially the religious right and the influence they were having over politics, to the point that when I heard on radio or TV, or read somewhere, that they were about to quote or interview a Christian, my gut reaction was, "Oh boy, what's this nut going to have to say?" I knew not to judge the religion on what individuals were saying, but with so many individuals saying nutty things, and very few Christians saying sensible things, it prompted me to take a closer look at my religion, and see which of us was interpretting it the wrong way. The whole Intelligent Design brouhaha was another issue that got me to look more critically at my religion. I'd always kind of glossed over Genesis before, saying that maybe it was figurative or allegorical, but when it became such a big issue and the more I thought about it, the tougher it was to accept it. And finally, like you, I found it to be much easier after reading sites like Pharyngula and Pooflingers Anonymous, and between them and their myriad commenters, getting an idea of just how many atheists there were, and how they were pretty decent people, and most importantly, how much sense they made in debunking religion.

And one more thing - just to show you how long it can take for people to shake off the hold that religion has on them - I know one person in their 60's, and another in their 50's, who have only in the past year or so rejected Christianity (one's actually still in the process, but certainly having many doubts, and no longer accepting dogma at face value). So it's never too late.

At 12/11/2006 7:26 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

So, should I be saying thanks, or you're welcome?

Whoops...there was actually supposed to be a "thanks" at the end of the sentence where I mentioned you and the other bloggers, but apparently it got lost somehow. I'll do a quick edit and add that back in.

At 12/19/2006 1:32 PM, Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Well, glad to be of help. Been meaning to add you to my blogroll, so see if you can think of a symbol for yourself.

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