I got an A on a paper on atheism for my English final, and my professor said it was the best paper he'd read in 15 years of teaching English. Granted, I'm a little old to be in English 101 and therefore ahead of the curve, but still. Swelling with pride over here.
At any rate, I thought I'd post it. I have heavily edited two paragraphs because as part of the assignment I had to interview a friend who is a Christian and then incorporate part of the interview into my paper. I thought it unfair to leave it in publicly because it was an interview and essay which I got to dictate the track of, not a debate; I tear his position apart in it without fear that he would have the honest chance to defend himself.
Please keep in mind while reading that it was not the main goal of my paper to disprove the existence of God (nor in fact is that the goal of any atheist) or the veracity of any religious claim, which is why I don't go into any specifics regarding Biblical contradictions. Instead it was my aim to describe how and why atheism is important to me. As a point of interest, the friend I speak of in paragraph 7 is Gary Drechsel, he of the now defunct GoDrex blog.
I began my life as an atheist because as Richard Dawkins puts it, “There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents… children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.” (Dawkins 18 & 25) Despite this fact, at around age five I became sufficiently programmed by my parents’ religion to believe that I understood enough to become a Christian. This is the natural progression of the religiously indoctrinated, because a child understands nothing of the convoluted concepts of the Holy Trinity, Original Sin, or the Immaculate Conception. He must be taught these concurrently over a debilitating fear of Hell, allowing him to don a shroud of anxious belief.
Atheism is a concept that stirs much controversy and before going any further, I must define it in terms of what it means to me: It is a lack of belief in a deity or deities. “Lack of belief” is an important qualification, and not mere semantics. It means that one has no belief regarding the validity of Theistic claims. It doesn’t mean that I will categorically state that “There is no God!” which would qualify as a belief. Rather, what it does mean is that given the complete lack of evidence that the universe was created, there is an extremely low probability that some sort of Supreme Being or Beings exists. Therefore, the question of God’s existence is about as important to an atheist as the supposition of the existence of a purple dog that can survive in space and is even now chasing a polka-dotted space cat around the star Sirius. Without evidence (Holy Books do not count as evidence, as for instance the Bible is proof of God the way a comic book is proof of Spiderman), one is as likely as the other, and anyone who claims to have some sort of special knowledge which is not available to the rest of humanity about the existence of such is either honestly mistaken, lying, insane, or brainwashed. If it turned out that there actually was a God sending private messages to certain select individuals, then this God is both useless and impotent since personal internal experience is unverifiable and does no one else any good, and even in their circumstance “good” is a debatable adjective.
In my case, I was brainwashed. Christian brainwashing is a deceptively simple procedure. All of the sermons about faith and love, all of the Bible stories about Moses and Abraham and Jesus and his followers are pretty much beside the point. The key to turning a healthy 5-year-old boy into a blubbering convert is to let him know about Hell. You don’t even have to be all that scary about it. In a sweet voice just tell him what it’s (supposedly) like, that it’s a real place, and that all he has to do to avoid experiencing such horrific eternal torment is to cast aside his reason in favor of a nebulous concept called faith. He will swallow it as truth wholesale, because children with underdeveloped minds and overactive imaginations will believe any information that any adult they trust imparts. “Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival… But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility… An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.” (Dawkins 205)
My climb out of that pit was long and difficult, and while I haven’t the time here to relate every step of the ascent, I will recount two experiences of particular importance. The first was at a Christian rock concert I attended in my early teens with my church youth group. Carmen was a performer whose music I liked, and towards the end of the show, after a rousing version of his hit song, he asked the audience a question: "I can feel the spirit of Jesus here with us tonight! Can you feel the Holy Spirit in the room? He's speaking to all of us, can you feel His love, right here right now!!?" I was about to raise my fist and join the crowd response ("Yes! I feel him! I feel Jesus!"), when I had an odd thought. “Jesus? Huh. Actually, what I'm feeling is admiration for the rock star who just lip synched that awesome song and got my fist pumping and adrenaline rushing, and has even made me feel good about being a Christian since I'm in a large group of people who feel the same way and we're all cheering for Jesus, but I don’t sense any specific Jesusy presence. It actually feels a lot like that time I got excited when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. That made me SO happy, and that's the kind of elation I'm feeling right now.”
On that night I took an important breath of rationality above the noxious gases of what I now recognize were crowd control and mob psychology. Afterwards I began to notice other conflicts. The second experience I want to describe was another such moment of clarity which at 19 years old finally broke the camel’s back. It happened during a church sermon, ironically. The pastor happened to address an issue which had been on my mind lately. He said that "…some people say that the Bible contradicts itself. They say that the Bible was written by men, and is not the true word of God.” (And here I was thinking, well that’s true, people do say that and I’ve worried about the implications! I perked right up, interested in how he would handle this troubling conundrum.) “Well folks, I'm here today to tell you that those people have been misled by Satan, and that they are liars! The Bible does not contradict itself! It is God's word, handed down to us by his prophets, and it is the truth!"
I waited for him to make his case, but that was the end of his rebuttal; a bald statement containing bold word stresses. His point began and ended with an exhortation to believe that the Bible is the literal truth and word of God, because pastor says so, AND so does the Bible itself. It was the first time I understood clearly that this Christian “argument from authority” was in fact a Mobius strip leading nowhere other than back to its own say-so, and that there was no basis in reality for any of its claims. That was the end of organized religion for me, if not yet the end of the road of some sort of belief in some sort of God possibility.
My final deconversion occurred only relatively recently; it followed a conversation with an atheist friend who pointed out to me that atheism wasn’t a claim of definite knowledge about God’s non-existence, as is widely misconceived. It is more the claim that any evidence which any religion claims as proof of their respective version of God is in fact so far nonexistent, and that “the burden of proof rests with the believers, not the non-believers.” (Dawkins 76) It is not up to atheists to prove the non-existence of God any more than we have to go around disproving purple dogs in space or any other ridiculous fantasy that the human imagination can come up with. I realized then that I was effectively already an atheist.
My childhood was a relatively happy one. My parents were kind people who believed they were saving my soul by raising me to accept their religion as truth. On the surface, you couldn’t say that I was in any way abused. Yet government guidelines regarding child abuse include emotional maltreatment as part of their definitions of abuse or neglect, and define emotional abuse as “injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of the child as evidenced by an observable or substantial change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition.” (Child Welfare Information Gateway 3) In this sense, I will make the case for religion as child abuse. I can make a strong illustration regarding the change in cognition that I experienced thanks to childhood religious indoctrination.
Religion used my own natural capacity for reason against me and therefore undermined my ability to think critically throughout my adolescence, until I was later able to shed my religious upbringing. Ever since then, I have been rediscovering that I am a rational person with a naturally curious and logical mind. Perhaps for people with less rational needs, being indoctrinated with religion and then carrying on with their otherwise normal lives isn’t a problem. But as a young child with an underdeveloped mind, religion had a disastrous effect when it did battle with my native logic circuits. In order to make sense of what I had been told was the nature of reality — that Heaven and Hell were real places where you would spend an eternity depending upon your spiritual behavior on Earth— I decided early on that nothing in this life actually mattered other than believing in Jesus, being a good person, and trying to convert other people (thankfully, I was never very good at that part of it). If that was the situation, what was the point of working hard on my education, or at anything else if it was all only prelude to hopeful, eternal happiness? The concerns of this world didn’t matter. This was the only logical conclusion I could come to. In this way I became an indifferent student, smug in the belief that I was “saved” and that God had a plan for my life.
The mental gymnastics required in order to hold on to a belief for which there is no evidence, indeed for which evidence suggests is irrational, creates an unfortunate mental condition called cognitive dissonance. According to Simply Psychology: “Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to ‘put it down to experience’, committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).” (McLeod)
This behavior was also observed on the national stage only last year as Harold Camping predicted the Rapture would happen on May 21st, 2011, and some of his followers spent their life savings to help spread the word. When the day came and went, Camping quickly changed his story to say that it had been only a spiritual judgment day and that the real end would come later, on October 21, 2011. Please take note of today’s date, and then also notice that we’re all still here.
Most Christians choose to ignore the voluminous and weighty evidence found by Biblical scholars that “the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. All were then copied and recopied, through many different [games of telephone] by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.” (Dawkins 118)
Additionally, Christians ascribe a particular weightiness to the red words of the Bible, when in fact Jesus says very little throughout the Gospels that has not been said in various ways by many other so-called wise or spiritual men throughout history. If this is their case for God, they use thin reeds and ignore any contradictory evidence indeed, not least of which can be found in the wild contradictions between the accounts of the four Gospels themselves.
It is my contention that this cognitive dissonance is a major side effect of religious upbringing and that every person on Earth who is a religious believer has learned to employ certain mental tricks in order to remain true to their faith. It has an extraordinarily corrosive effect on critical thinking abilities, this facility for denying facts and holding beliefs that are provably false. It is also my contention that this is a disastrous state of affairs which has a similar effect on the mind as driving into a wall has on your car; you may or may not ever be able to get it working again, but even if you do, it will never again run as well as before the accident. People accustomed to living in this inferior mental state have had their ability to think rationally severely compromised and are easily manipulated into positions that are contrary to their own well-being. For example when they accept the rhetoric that a public health care option is going to result in death panels yet at the same time demand the government keep their hands off of their Medicare, a government run public health care program, and are meanwhile tricked into voting against it; or when they are convinced that by flying a plane into a building, murdering thousands, they have earned rewards in the afterlife.
The fact that religious beliefs are instilled in children before they are capable of reasoning out the implications of reality on their own damages their ability later in life to evaluate evidence in a reasonable manner, and therefore constitutes cognitive damage as stipulated by government guidelines set in place by experts in child psychology. Most people have no problem with the fact that children raised in dangerous cults (i.e., religions with which they disagree) are considered victims of emotional abuse, but as of yet society at large has not made the next logical step forward that there is no evidence that Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other extant religion, no matter how many followers line up behind them, are any different from dangerous cults.
We are a world of walking wounded, with the majority of humanity mentally disarmed by the emotional damage inflicted upon us in our youth. You might not think that someone who has written this startlingly eloquent argument against religion is exhibiting any signs of permanent psychological damage, but you’d be wrong. The fact that I feel so strongly about it at all is one sign of the damage: We first generation atheists tend to be an angry, surly lot when it comes to religion which is hardly the mark of a completely healthy mind. After all, if I were constantly belligerent towards writers of science fiction, you’d think I was in need of anger management. Second generation atheists however, of whom I’ve met a few, tend to become bemused when confronted with a first generationer’s anti-religious tirade; since they were raised by atheists and were therefore taught how to think rather than what to think, they lack the religious damage and therefore the anger which can sometimes seem crippling to others.
Another, more important sign of damage is that I am 39 years old, and in my first successful year of college. I was so ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of learning that I failed my first semester of college miserably after barely scraping through high school. I had always assumed that there was something wrong with me such as a learning disability or low intelligence, but the fact that at my age I can become an Honor Student gives the lie to that fear. As I stated before, not everyone is affected in this way by religion, but that is how it affected me.
I in no way wish to imply that I was a victim of intentional abuse by my family. The sad truth is that they are every bit the victim of brainwashing that I was, as were their parents and grandparents and so on. Religion has been described as the worst virus to ever assail mankind, and if religion is a virus then it is a hereditary one and more trenchant than AIDS. In truth I feel extremely fortunate to have been naturally gifted with the necessary tools to eventually fight off the disease. However, I believe that the tools are now becoming available to everyone. Every day the internet is opening up pockets of isolation around the world to instantaneous participation in the battlefield of ideas. With these millions of voices participating in the discussion, it is getting more difficult for individuals to ignore extremely important scientific concepts which push the religious need for the existence of God further and further into irrelevance, namely Evolution and possibly String Theory or a future equivalent. One day perhaps, history will look back on us as being in the final death throes of the dark age of superstition.
It is for these reasons that being an atheist is important to me, and not only simply to be one, but to be outspoken about it. When patients praise God for healing them rather than the doctor who studied medicine and actually prescribed the drugs or performed the surgery, or when the theologian wonders at the amazing complexity and beauty of the universe as illuminated by Einstein’s theories or Hubble’s telescope and sanctimoniously takes the credit for his pet supernatural being while undervaluing the hard work of the scientists who made the discoveries, they are displaying a shocking inability to deal with the world as it is and a willingness to behave in irrational ways which in every other case we would label as delusional. Religion damages the mind, and damaged minds in turn damage society. It is time to put an end to this wretched state of affairs.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. "www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/define.cfm." 11 July 2011. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect. Document. 6 August 2012.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Drawing of Bibleheads. Source Unknown.
McLeod, Saul. Cognitive Dissonance. 2008. Web Article. 10 August 2012. <http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html>.