This piece first appeared under the title ‘Why I am an Atheist’ in American Atheist Magazine, and is reproduced with permission.
It’s one of the few childhood memories I have that isn’t about Star Wars or Spider-Man. I’m seven, and my mother is bringing me a large hardback book called Bible Stories for Children. It does not have Doctor Octopus on the cover, and as such I am automatically and immediately uninterested, but then she starts talking.
This is a book filled with one group of people’s ideas about how the world works. Many people believe these stories are true, so you should read it to be able to understand them and their perspective.
That’s it, just a child left with a book and the task of sussing things out. Other books would follow, about Greek and Roman religion, about world history and literature, offered with the same basic preamble:
Here are some things that some other people believe.
Up to that point in life, I had no religious thoughts whatsoever. I took it for granted that when people died, you never saw them again, and that when you were dead you were simply gone. Growing up on a farm, where things died all the time and were treated as crude matter for consumption the instant that death occurred, It didn’t occur to me that other people thought, or could think, otherwise about themselves.
I saw that other families said Grace at dinner, but interpreted that as the adult version of when, in moments of crisis, I would close my eyes and call upon Darth Vader to lend me Force powers. In my heart, I knew that Darth Vader couldn’t do that, because he didn’t really exist, and suspected that the adults knew that their guy wasn’t coming either, for the same reason.
But until my mother gave me those books, I was blissfully unaware of this thing called Religion. Leafing through the pages, even as a child, one glaring thing stood out: all of these stories, all of them, had the same underlying message: our tribe, and our tribe’s way of doing things, is the best, and all other tribes, and their ways of doing things, are at best deluded and at worst worthy of constant punishment.
There are only so many times that a child can read mutually conflicting accounts of people saying, “This is the Truth” before he naturally realises what is really being said is, “This is our truth.”
I remember going on a school trip to our local fair, and in the hall where Ginsu knives were being hawked and fortunes read by a machine featuring Many Flashing Lights, there was a spectrally thin, balding man handing out tiny yellow books. He waved me over and said, “Son, are you worried about what happens to you after death?” while pressing a copy of his pamphlet into my hand.
In the face of his earnest personal sureness that eternal life was Real and eternal damnation Inevitable for those who ignored him, I wavered a moment. Until, that is, I looked at the book and saw a happy bearded man on the front and a bleeding bearded man on the back, as is the way of these specimens.
Then the world fell back into place. This was one of those Jesus things, and fear gave way to pity. I thanked him and kept the pamphlet so that he wouldn’t feel bad, as kids often do when they’ve been handed something they know to be worthless by an adult who is clearly invested in its greatness. It’s still around here somewhere.
The basic principle of religion’s fundamental imbedding within the culture that created it has been the steady thrum of my atheism since. In high school I went through, as I suppose every atheist child does, A Phase, devouring books on logic and argumentation, reading and re-reading Nietzsche, Russell, Ingersoll, Paine, and my favorite, George Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God.
From a cultural approach to atheism, I briefly switched to a linguistic approach to it which was made stronger taking classes from Richard Rorty when I was at Stanford. I took atheism to be not a system of propositions about the ontological status of divine beings, but rather a system that made reasonable assertions about what language could and could not do.
That’s a powerful way to argue and win, if winning is what you’re interested in, because it prevents the religious from framing the terms of debate entirely to their advantage, and forces them to engage with the manifold faults of their belief’s linguistic delivery vehicle, avoiding the historically accidental and mostly subjective content of those beliefs entirely.
Now I consider myself a kind of cultural-linguistic fusion atheist. History is my primary reason for believing that, whatever religion you bring to me, it is not possibly anything more than an interesting cultural artefact, supported by the janky and absurdly inadequate skeleton of language.
Where once I said, “Give me the best logical argument for your God’s existence,” I am now more inclined to say:
Tell me about the history of your God and his values. Who first described this God, and who were they talking to when they were doing it?
If the person is a Christian, it lets us talk about the Roman Empire, the problems of translating a local religion to an Imperial one, and how deities morph in that space. It’s a pleasant conversation, one that I enjoy having, and one that makes people aware of the contingency of their beliefs in a way that often works on them as my mother’s handing me the key texts of the Western tradition worked on me.
We have to use the knowledge acquired in adulthood to return people to the natural scepticism of childhood, when we knew a trick for a trick once we were shown how it worked, and a lie for a lie once we learned who gained by it.
• Dale Debakcy’s The Cartoon History of Humanism – Volume One: From Antiquity to Enlightenment is out later this year. We posted a review of it here.