What I Believe (or, What I Don’t Believe)
I stopped believing in God when I was either 17 or 18 years old. I don’t remember which age it was because I didn’t transform from belief to non-belief; there was no linear path, no epiphany, no book I read that made everything click for me, no person I met who convinced me one way or the other. My belief just gradually eroded. I believed in God, then I sort of believed in God, then I maybe believed in God but not really, then I pretty much didn’t believe in God but also thought, “Eh, who cares?” and continued to identify myself as a Christian. Because, for the most part, I didn’t much care either way.
I suspect that many—if not most—people treat their religious beliefs and non-beliefs that way, where they may have ideas, but they don’t really care that much about them. I know it seems like that can’t be true, but then we only hear from the people who are firm and confident in their beliefs and want to share them. I suspect there’s a very large, silent population of people who don’t care about religion one way or another. These are people who may or may not go to church, who may or may not contribute to the collection plate, who may or may not pray, but who mostly don’t think about it either way. Or they’re atheists who don’t call themselves atheists because atheism is a thing, and they are nothing. That’s how I was for a long time; I was a non-believer in God, but because there weren’t any people in my life who felt strongly about religion either way, it wasn’t much of an issue for me. I still identified as a Christian.
Most “deconversion” stories hinge on a single catalyst for the storyteller losing his or her belief. That didn’t happen to me. Rather, I simply turned my questions about the universe inward, and reached a conclusion. Here’s how it happened.
My family was and is Christian, and I mostly went to church every Sunday. I sometimes participated in youth groups at church, occasionally went to lock-in events to play Laser Tag all night with the other Christian youths, met for weekly Devotional sessions at McDonald’s before school, and mostly didn’t think about any of it. That changed when I joined a Bible Study group and spent a year reading the Bible, cover to cover. I was 16, and I became thirsty for knowledge of the Bible, desperate to know as much about Jesus and the Church as I could. This class was, for a while, an interesting and rewarding experience. But my good feelings toward it kept getting chipped away with how little the instructor seemed to know, how much his explanations were just empty cliches, and how he didn’t seem to think this was a problem.
But let me be clear: I didn’t have a bad experience with this teacher or with some of the other kids in the class that turned me off of Christians, or an existential crisis of faith—nothing like that happened.
What did happen is I realized that nobody could agree on what it is we actually believe. I had been taught (by my mom, by Sunday Schools past, and by teachers at the Catholic High School I briefly attended), for example, that we didn’t actually believe in Adam and Eve, in Noah, in Jonah and the Whale, and all of that stuff. I was told that all of those things were just metaphors to put the immense complexity of God’s creation into words we humans can easily understand. I thought this idea made a lot of sense, but when I brought it up during a Bible Study class, the teacher said, basically, “Uh, no, yeah, we do believe that stuff. It’s in the Bible. The Bible is the perfect word of God.” Oh. Obviously, this was a problem, because either one set of believers had been completely wrong and this Bible Study teacher was right, or vice versa. I also thought it was a little suspicious that when I told my Bible Study teacher I was independently reading the Bible front to back, from Genesis to Revelation, that he said, “Oh no, don’t do that. It won’t make any sense that way. Just read it the way we tell you to.” I didn’t heed the advice, but I did think he was onto something. Because nobody finds the Bible compelling by actually reading it, particularly teenagers, who easily tune out during the endless passages about family trees and tribal lineages. (Of course, I now realize that my teacher also said that because he didn’t want me to see all the stuff in the Bible that never gets talked about in sermons and in schools, the stuff about slavery and genocide and the subjugation of women that nobody reading the Bible with a critical eye would be able to just accept without saying, “Wait… what??”)
I didn’t lose respect for this teacher, I didn’t run away from the church and my beliefs, but after a while I largely stopped caring. I slogged my way through the rest of the Bible, only half-paying attention, not providing much of my own analysis but noting that the only things we seemed to talk about in Bible Study were the nice stories, like Jesus and the Good Samaritan, or Daniel in the lion’s den, or the story of Esther. I also noticed that lots of famous Christian ideas—hell, Satan, the Rapture—barely appear in the Bible at all; this troubled me, because these ideas are roughly 98% of what Christians talk about with each other. The ideas we all seemed to have about hell and Satan and the Rapture all came from pop culture, from Dante’s Inferno, from medieval art, and from the Left Behind series. Having spent some time as a kid at St. Joseph Abbey, where there is a very prominent and beautiful display of the Seven Deadly Sins, it was a little weird to find, entirely missing from the Bible: the Seven Deadly Sins. But those seemed like such a big deal!
I was doubtful about the whole affair, but I still identified as Christian, mostly because I didn’t care that much one way or the other. At the same time, I had other things occupying my mind—I was an obsessive reader, a classic movie buff, and, above all, a music fan. Especially back then, I retreated into music for meaning and relief; when believers have described to me the peace, bliss, and comfort they get from their faith, I say, “The first two Weezer albums do that for me.” The hole in my life that some people fill with religion, I filled with music.
There was one occasion in high school, however, that got me thinking about religion again: A very smart person in my class was talking about the Bible, and he said, “If you needed to make up a story to control people, to get them to obey your rules, isn’t this exactly what you’d make up?” That struck me and stuck with me for a long time.
I had always been a bookworm and a bit of a know-it-all, but in college, my appetite for learning and reading exploded. I think the thing that did it to me was my discovery of Wikipedia, which back then was a new and novel invention. Suddenly, I could learn a lot about anything in the world, just by typing in a question. And I had lots of questions. I began to feel that my mission in life, if I had one, was to learn everything about everything.
At LSU, I majored in English and minored in Philosophy. My concentration in Philosophy was Religious Studies. I read Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Peter Abelard, John Duns Scotus, and many of the other great Christian scholars of medieval philosophy. Reading these all-time great minds was invigorating. They truly dug in to the most fascinating questions about God and the nature of reality: What is the soul? What is free will? What is goodness? Mostly, I was fascinated by the way they tackled what I realized is the central contradiction of God: Do we have free will, or are we controlled by God? It’s an obvious question—if God is omnipotent and omniscient, if God controls everything, then we don’t have free will; but the Bible clearly holds that we do have free will, so then God is not omnipotent and omniscient, not in absolute control. The ways religious apologists danced around this question bothered me even at the height of my belief: God does have a plan, someone once said to me, But, you see, it’s written in pencil. He hopes you’ll do what He has planned for you. This absurd rationalization doesn’t compute with what I was told God is; it describes something more in line with a demigod, a semi-divine entity that has a little bit of power, but not enough to control the cosmos.
Religion was on my mind, and when I was done reading the Christian philosophers, I moved on to the world’s other religions, studying Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. However, what truly opened up my mind was learning about the cultural, political, and religious history of India.
My senior year of college, I took a class called Post-Colonial Literature. We read novels from around the world that chronicled the various atrocities that happened in post-colonial Africa and Asia. On the first day of class, the professor asked everyone who knew what the Partition of India was to raise their hand; only one student did. This one student was British, and he seemed dumbstruck that the rest of us had no idea what Partition was. “It’s such an important event,” he said, “that in Britain you can just say the year, 1947, and people know what you’re referring to.” This was like not knowing about Pearl Harbor or 9/11, he thought. And he was right.
In 1947, the United Kingdom granted independence to India after ruling over it for centuries. The British then left India entirely, and the former British Indian Empire split into two independent countries, India and Pakistan. The motivation for splitting the territory was religion; India’s population was made up mostly of Hindus and Muslims, with the Hindus in a large majority. Muslim concern about Hindu domination of the country led to the movement for their own state, and so the idea was to give Pakistan to the Muslims and India to the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. The process of splitting the territory—with India surrounded by West Pakistan on one side and East Pakistan (which would later become Bangladesh) on the other—led to one of the great catastrophes of modern times, when inter-faith violence resulted in the rape, mutilation, and murder of more than one million people, and many millions more displaced.
I’d never heard of Partition, but then, modern history is littered with major atrocities that I hadn’t paid attention to—the Killing Fields massacres in Cambodia, the Bosnian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, etc. I realized that it’s a problem—a failing, really—that I hadn’t learned about these events, that Americans pretty much ignore the rest of the world. The simple act of reading novels about these and other events was unlike anything I’d ever done before; novels can do what even the best history books cannot: Put you into the situation, let you experience the emotion and fear of people who actually lived through history. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India puts you into the middle of the violence in India in 1947, seeing angry mobs hack off women’s breasts with knives and carry the mutilated flesh in bags through the streets, raising them in triumph. “And on their heels a mob of Sikhs, their wild long hair and beards rampant, large fevered eyes glowing in fanatic faces, pours into the narrow lane roaring slogans, holding curved swords, shoving up a manic wave of violence that sets Ayah to trembling as she holds me tight. A naked child, twitching on a spear stuck between her shoulders, is waved like a flag: her screamless mouth agape, she is staring straight up at me.”
It wasn’s not just that ordinary people were driven to insane violence because they believed different things about the universe—I knew that people do terrible things in the name of religion, and that’s not a reason not to believe in a religion. It was something else: the arbitrariness of what these people believed. Had I been born in one neighborhood of Calcutta, I’d have been a Hindu; in another neighborhood in Calcutta, I’d have been a Muslim; in another, a Sikh. And that belief would have been strong enough to either make me kill or have me killed if I’d been there, in India, in 1947. The murderers of Partition believed as strongly as my parents believe, and are convinced that the rest of the world is wrong. Muslims are as convinced they have the truth as Christians are they have the truth, and this should trouble us all. It is a nearly universal fact that what religion you are almost comes from where you live, and what your parents believe. That is not a good reason to believe something.
But again, this wasn’t an A-to-B-to-C deconversion for me; I didn’t learn about religious atrocities and then stop believing. What actually happened to me is that I simply learned. I learned that I didn’t know anything about the world. I knew nothing about India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or South Africa and Nigeria and Uganda. Until that semester I’d never even heard of a Sikh, and Sikhism is the sixth-largest religion in the world (For comparison, there are twice as many Sikhs in the world as there are Jews.). I’d built a wall around myself, keeping myself comfortable and protected in a tiny swatch of southeast Louisiana. I was no one, I knew nothing about the world, and the scope of my ignorance was overwhelming. It led me to the only reasonable conclusion: “Even if I do believe in the Christian god, I don’t have good reasons to, and I’m probably wrong.”
Even still, I didn’t think much about what I personally believed. It didn’t seem important. What was far more important was learning as many true things about the world as possible.
Later, when I started dating the woman who is now my wife, she told me I wasn’t a Christian. I meekly replied, “No, I am a Christian.” I didn’t have much conviction about it, but then, this wasn’t the kind of thing my family and friends talked about, so I was very uncomfortable. Talking about personal religious beliefs in public seemed rude to me. But Laci (said woman) came from the opposite background—God was and is an open reality in her family, and it was perfectly reasonable not to date somebody who believed differently from you. “Do you believe in evolution?” she asked me. I thought it was a weird question; I didn’t know people didn’t believe in evolution, how does one even “disbelieve” in evolution? To not believe in evolution seemed as strange to me as not believing in germs or the moon or 4 equaling 2 + 2. But then, this was just another area of my ignorance—I was fortunate to go to good, quality schools my entire life, so I sort of assumed that all schools are good schools. In Louisiana especially, that is wildly untrue.
Over the next year, my future wife and I discussed many things about the universe, but we almost never talked about God, because that conversation was always an uncomfortable one. One time, she accidentally typed “6:66” into the microwave and seemed horrified. I said, “What do you care?” and she said, “I don’t need that number in my life.”
“Are you really that superstitious?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Having always been weirdly interested in the Number of the Beast, I was able to quickly explain it. I told her about how 666 is a code that referred to the Roman emperor Nero, who was famous for killing Christians. The guy who wrote the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, was using it as a way to covertly recruit Christians to his cause. I quickly Googled the relevant Bible passage and read it out loud. “‘Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
“If you translate the word ‘Nero’ into Hebrew,” I said, “it has a numerical value of 666. It’s not even controversial, even the Catholic Church admits this.”
“I had no idea,” she said.
Another time we were talking about astrology, which Laci liked and referenced a lot. “You say that because you’re a Libra,” and such. One day I called her out on it, and then had her watch an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, which elegantly and succinctly debunks and destroys astrology in 28 minutes.
These and other insights led Laci to one day ask if she could borrow a book about religion, because she had some questions and was looking for answers. She started to read, and read, and read, and so I did too. I wanted to keep up with her, wanted to talk to her about what she was going through. I read all of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, I watched YouTube videos of lectures and debates, read blog posts, listened to podcasts, participated in discussion forums, and watched documentaries.
And, I concluded, “Of course I’m an atheist.” I’d suspected as much all along.
What I Believe
So here we are. I am an atheist, which means that I don’t believe in any gods.
I am an agnostic, which means that I don’t have knowledge that any gods exist.
I am a secular humanist, which means I believe in the power of ethics, reason, and inherent human goodness.
I believe you don’t need to have a belief in God to be a moral person and that, in fact, most people don’t derive their morals from God and the Bible at all (Most Christians seem to be under the impression that Jesus invented the Golden Rule… he didn’t.). They think they do, but they don’t know the Bible all that well.
I believe that people use religion to ostracize and marginalize people in their own lives, and as an excuse for not doing what is difficult.
I believe that religion stunts scientific and economic growth. I believe this because the evidence shows pretty clear that it does.
I believe that when we die, we’re dead, and that’s that. As Louis CK says, “People say, ‘What happens after you die?’ Lots of things happen after you die, they just don’t involve you: There’s a Super Bowl every year, a dog catching a frisbee…” That some people just won’t accept that the world will go on without them says a lot about them, and not much about the world.
I believe that the number-one reason we have religion is we’re afraid of death.
I believe that the number-two reason we have religion is that we’re afraid of the dark.
And I believe the number-three reason we have religion is that we don’t want to be sad. Life is full of sadness and suffering. We’d like to believe that when we’re done, we’re going to be paid back for all the heartache, that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones, and that everything will feel good again.
We seek explanations and meaning in things that aren’t there. It’s how our brains have evolved, and it’s mostly a good thing (It’s how we avoided predators back when we were wandering the savannah.. “A rustling in the bushes? There must be a predator there, so I’ll run away!”). But wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. People say that the fulfillment and meaning and weight that religion gives their lives is reason enough to believe; but this is a poor reason to believe something, and it’s sort of like saying, “I can quit my job because I believe I’m gonna win the lottery.”
Mostly, I believe that a universe without a creator is more satisfying and more gratifying than a universe with a creator and an afterlife, because it gives urgency to life. This is the only life we’re ever going to get, so let’s make the most of it. As the thinker who’s probably had the most profound impact on my life, Albus Dumbledore, once said, “It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.” Friends and family, music, art, literature, architecture, the natural laws of the world and the cosmos, food, movies, laughter, learning, growing, progressing, getting better… why do we need there to be more?