Your Stories of Atheism: Resolving Cognitive Dissonance

Your Stories of Atheism: Resolving Cognitive Dissonance December 12, 2018

Your Stories of Atheism are heartbreaking, triumphant, angering and inspiring. They are written by you, for you in this ongoing series about how you came to identify as an atheist. If you want to send me your story, you can email me here. Please note that by doing so, you give me permission to publish it here as part of the series. If you wish to remain anonymous, please say so in your email otherwise, I will use just your first name. To read other stories, click here.

Today, we have just one story for you, because it’s a longer read than most other stories I share. It is absolutely worth the read, however, the author, James, is eloquent and clear. I really loved this story and I hope you will, too:

For most of my life, I was Jewish. I was raised Jewish by my Jewish parents and didn’t, in fact, never, saw any reason not to follow in their footsteps. We weren’t a very religious family. The topic of God, tradition, or faith didn’t come up very often. In fact, even the very concept of religion didn’t come up except for our occasional trips to the local Synagogue for the Jewish high-holidays or on random Friday nights where me and my family would practice a simple Shabbat consisting of the lighting of candles, the eating of challah, the drinking of grape juice, and the saying of a few short prayers in Hebrew. I did believe in God and some of the stories of the Torah (Old Testament), but not in a very meaningful way; it almost never seemed to have any impact on my daily life, thoughts, or other beliefs. I did hold a literalist interpretation of several biblical stories, but I didn’t think about them very often, if at all. My parents, nor no Rabbi, ever told me that that was the way I should read passages in that way, but I’ve always been a very literal person. I understood what metaphor was, of course, but I often had a hard time discerning when, if at all, a non-literal meaning was appropriate.

If someone said something, then they meant it. For my young, literal mind, it was simple: what someone says is what they mean. This same thought process applied to religion: If the Torah recounted a story, then it is recounting a real story. Simple direct and easy. Unless it was directly stated, a metaphorical reading never even occurred to me, and the option, even the concept of non-belief in God was never presented.

It also never once occurred to me on an otherwise ordinary day that “yes, thank you God for helping me in some way or influencing my life to make it better.” I believed in God in the same way that someone believes the Earth is round. Sure, I held the belief, but it’s not a belief that you actively think about having simply because it’s not a belief that directly affects you on a daily basis. Until then, you may even forget that hold the belief until someone around you affirms it, or attempts to deny it. It simply isn’t relevant enough to warrant active thought unless under specific circumstances such as my infrequent Synagogue trips or the occasional Friday night family Shabbat services, neither of which sparked a deep emotional or spiritual feeling in me anyway. Something that did rouse at sort of feeling, that sense of awe and wonder, was science.

Ever since I was very little, I’ve been absolutely enthralled by science, particularly by astronomy. Even to this day, I still own many of the astronomy-themed toys and books, ceiling mobiles, and telescopes that I once played with as a child. I don’t know exactly when or exactly why I became so infatuated with astronomy, but I think it had something to do with the combination of the deterministic and precise movement and interaction of the stars, planets, and even space itself with each other and extreme possibly and beauty of the entire system and the knowledge that practically anything could be out there, just waiting to be discovered. A marvellous harmony of the elegant known, and the mysterious as-of-yet unknown. It had provable answers, and better yet, seekable questions too. Unlike religion, the unknown wasn’t a place to fear or avoid, but a thing to pursue.

All of this came to a head in 2015. I was going about a completely otherwise normal day: It was a weekend, I didn’t have any homework to do, and I was enjoying a rainy afternoon in bed surfing through the internet on my ageing Macbook when I happened across the recorded debate on YouTube between Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and Christian Evangelist and Biblical Literalist Ken Ham, whom I had only sparingly heard of before. The debate was entitled: “Is Creation A Viable Model of Origins?” While I never got to watch much of Bill Nye’s show as a child, I was well aware of his reputation as a fun, good-spirited science communicator, a job I once considered for myself. I was intrigued, gladly looking forward to how he would definitely and definitively win this debate. “Oh boy.” I thought to myself. “I can’t wait to watch Bill Nye totally rip through this person who believes that science supports the idea that the entire Universe is only 6,000 years old. This will be fun.”

As I watched though, I realized that many of the things that Ken Ham was promoting, and many of the things that Bill Nye was debunking, were things that I realized that I had some sense of accepting too; quickly finding myself saying: “Wait, I don’t actually believe that, do I?” One such example of this is the literal interpretation of the flood of Noah that Ken Ham believes. As Nye began to delve into the story, politely and diligently speaking about the size and scope of the Ark, it’s proposed tools and manpower for its construction, the livestock requirements for such a voyage, and all the forces that would have assailed it during the flood itself, I began to think: “Well yes, but….” I had nothing. No Bible passage, apologetic, or ignored scientific principle came to my head. I was at a loss for words as the contradiction for my acceptance of the current science of the world and my until-then dormant believes that I had nearly forgotten that I held battled in my brain. I had hit a dilemma; my first and the closest I’ve come to having a “crisis of faith,” and, as it turned out, my last. I paused the video and looked over to the back of my room, towards the small bin in my closet where I still keep some of my old astronomy-based toys. On top was a large electronic toy-keyboard of sorts designed to look like an open book with images of all the planets (and Pluto) displayed on it’s open pages which, if certain buttons on it were pressed, it would tell you different space-based facts, such as how many moons Jupiter has or how far away Venus is from the Sun. Just next to it was the light switch to the closet; on it’s cover a childish cartoon of Noah’s Ark packed full of smiling animals eager for the voyage ahead.

I realized then that all this time I hadn’t been honest to myself. On one hand, I loved science, what it answered and even more what it didn’t. But, on the other hand, I subconsciously rejected that science when it didn’t suit me and my unremembered literalist religious beliefs. I had a decision to make to resolve this dissonance: which side of me should I keep, and which should I abandon.

Did I want to keep science and its few unanswerable questions, or did I want to keep my beliefs and their unquestionable answers?

Today, I define myself as a weak atheist. I don’t believe in any god, but I don’t always affirm that none can exist either. Some would classify me as an agnostic, but exactly what school of thought I belong to on the God Question doesn’t cross my mind too often. The resolution of my cognitive dissonance and subsequent fall away from literalism catalyzed a chain of reasoning in my head that led to my quick fall from religion entirely; the question of “why I believe something” meeting no satisfactory answer had no other conclusion then to not believe it anymore. This event was pivotal in my life, not just because of my turn away from faith, but at the moment I decided to become more conscientious of my beliefs and why I hold them.

Currently, I don’t care for religion. In fact, not just an atheist. I’m an antitheist. I don’t just abstain from religion, but I oppose it as well. From what I’ve seen, religion is particularly adept at subconsciously separating contradictory ideas and beliefs in people’s heads. It’s very good at partitioning the mind; separating mutually exclusive beliefs and keeping them isolated from each other, tolerating inconsistent thoughts. This can manifest as someone holding simultaneously contradicting beliefs about the natural world and Universe in which we live, such as younger self, or in a Frankenstein of philosophies such as an acceptance of science but at the same time a rejection abstinence or of reason and evidence elsewhere in life: faith, the one of the strongest mental barriers which exists. Faith, to me, is simply a simple, yet effective excuse to believe something without reason or in spite of reason. To me, to be told, “you just need faith” is to be told that I must abandon my better judgement and believe out of sheer willpower alone. To believe something insoluble. It is a mindset I am yet to understand why anyone would deem logical.

In times of crisis, people will tend towards what comforts them. In a hurricane, people head for shelter and might ask God to safeguard them (but perhaps never ask why God would allow the disaster to hit them in the first place). During a crisis of the mind, when the brain realizes (if it realizes) that it is processing conflicting information, it will side with the one that gives it, and its user, the most comfort intellectually and emotionally. We can’t pick and choose our beliefs on a whim, but when an internal conflict arises, our minds will side with the one that satisfies our own internal comforts, whether that is a search for truth, emotionally significant, or an intellectual connection. For me, I didn’t have a very strong emotional attachment and no intellectual attachment to God or religion. It wasn’t a large enough part of my identity. It didn’t give me any comfort, so, during my crisis, I decided I didn’t need it. This will, of course, differ for different people, as people can become emotionally attached to almost anything. Religion, however, can do it like no other. Religion is very good at making people emotionally or even intellectually attached and comforted to things, ideas, and even gods. Had I been such a person, my dissonance may have been resolved in a very different way with a very different result if, perhaps, my faith had been strong enough.

Thank you, James, for sending allowing me to share this story with the audience. I’m glad to have someone as well-spoken as yourself amongst our ranks.

If you want to send me your story, you can email me here. Please note that by doing so, you give me permission to publish it here as part of the series. If you wish to remain anonymous, please say so in your email otherwise, I will use just your first name. To read other stories, click here.

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  • Jim Jones

    It’s silly, the way they sell the Noah myth which is full of the silliest holes imaginable.

  • It’s awful how adults tell these myths to children as if they were facts, setting people up to grow into adults who believe the most ridiculous unsupportable stories. People aren’t unintelligent, they are just conditioned to believe nonsense without questioning it just because it is presented in authoritarian manner.

  • Jim Jones

    BTW, “Collision: Christopher Hitchens Vs. Douglas Wilson (Full Documentary)”

    Also on DVD.

  • Elizabeth A. Root

    I’m a lot like you, James — I am very literal minded, too. In fact I rather embarrassed myself on Patheos recently by not realizing that something was satiric. This is something my Christian friends, most of whom are pretty liberal, cannot understand. It’s not that I don’t understand that there are metaphors, and parables, etc. I just don’t usually read things that way. One tells me that the story of Adam and Eve (and I presume Cain and Abel) is telling us that our problem is that we are estranged from god and each other. O.K., but, don’t expect me to think of something like that on a regular basis. (Of course, if I believed in God, it would help.) He also used to try to intimidate me by quoting some Bible verse. I first quoted back an opposing one, but finally I just told him that the Bible (including the Christian testament) has been so cherry-picked over by Christians of all stripes that I fail to see how it has any authority.

    People often say that stories reveal truths that cannot be told in plain language. Not necessarily to me — I’d generally prefer that people say what they mean. There are stories that are very meaningful to me, like “The Man Who Questioned Fate,” or Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, and I grant they are better as stories, but that’s unusual. No-one else seems to interpret them the way I do. The Bible has too much extra baggage, like the story of Job, or God smiting entire families because he doesn’t like what one of them did. I can’t think of a way to make those uplifting.

    So what’s left, oh liberal ones? Maybe gods’ expectations do change over time, but how do we know what they change to? People pick out their favorite parts of the Bible and say that’s the true meaning. Assuming we actually know what Jesus said, are we to follow Jesus when he preaches care for the poor or when he preaches hellfire and curses the fig tree in a moment of petulance? The Christian I mentioned before tells me that Jesus wants us to automatically forgive everyone instantly. Of course, there are different definitions of forgiveness, but Jesus also told us that if our brother offended us, we should rebuke him. Yes, he hung around with outcasts, but he also said that he went as a physician to the sick.

    It’s so much more peaceful being an atheist and not trying to make up excuses for gods.

  • Elizabeth A. Root

    I’m a lot like you James — rather literal minded. I embarrassed myself last week by taking a comment on Patheos literally. When someone explained it to me, I realized it should have been obvious. My liberal Christian friends keep telling me that one shouldn’t take the Bible literally, but then how does one take it? One explained that he interprets the story of Adam and Eve as telling us that our problem is that we are estranged from God and man. I would never have thought of that, even if I still believed in gods. I find it very difficult, on the other hand, to find an uplifting interpretation for Job, or God smiting whole families because he was angry at one of them, or killing people for accidental breaches of his commandments. The friend I mentioned used to try and intimidate me by thundering Bible verses — I usually just replied with a contradictory one — “The Devil can cite scripture to his purpose.” Finally I just told him that Christians of all stripes have so cherry-picked over the Bible that I fail to see how it has any authority.

    I do understand metaphors, symbolism, and parables, but I’m not inclined to such readings, especially if not forewarned. There are things like the folktale “The Man Who Questioned Fate” or Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d that mean a great deal to me, and I’ll admit they are probably better as stories, but generally I just wish people would say what they mean. Given your last paragraph, James, I think you might enjoy Ambrose Bierce’s sarcastic poem, “A Matter for Thanksgiving.”

    So, what is left, oh liberal ones? A great many of you don’t believe that Jesus is divine, or even that we go to heaven after we die, and some don’t even believe in God. So why are you paying for a building? If this is your idea of fun and meaning, it’s your time and your money. Many argue that religious requirements change as society does, but how do we know what they change to? It seems to me that people pick their favorite Jesus; even assuming that we know what he said and did, are people to follow the Jesus of forgiveness or the Jesus of hellfire? Are people to follow the Jesus who told us to sell our possessions and help the poor, or the one who rebuked his disciples when they said that the the woman anointing Jesus with expensive oil should have given the money to the poor? Jesus did associate sometimes with outcasts, but he also said that he went to them as a physician to the sick. I recommend reading Mark Allen Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History, or Hector Avalos’ The Bad Jesus on these dilemmas.

    Its so much more peaceful being an atheist and not trying to make excuses for gods.