Friday, April 26, 2024

Why are you an atheist?

Some time ago a reader asked me to take a look at Michael Brown’s 7 honest questions for atheists. I agreed to do so when I had time and said that if it interested me, I might post some thoughts in response to it. In this entry, I will address the Brown’s first question. Readers are invited to use the comments section to offer their own responses to the question.

Brown's first question is as follows:
1. Would you say that you are (or, were) an atheist based primarily on intellectual study or based on experience? Or did you never believe in God at all? 
Put another way, was it the lack of answers to prayer, failures within organized religion, or some other anti-faith experience that first caused you to question the existence of God? Or was it something you learned in school or your studies that caused you to doubt? Or were you raised without belief in God and you’ve never found a good reason to question it?
First of all, I think it’s important to point out that all human beings are born atheist. That is because we are born without any beliefs whatsoever to begin with. Theism is a category of belief, and as such it is not something that human beings come pre-packaged with out of the womb. Given that atheism is essentially absence of god-belief, I think this is completely true. Theism is acquired, a learned habit, a consequence of leaving the distinction between the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness entirely implicit and not explicitly grasped and applied to one’s knowledge of reality. On this basis, I think it’s more appropriate to hold theists to account: instead of asking the non-theist “Why don’t you believe?” (as though belief in the supernatural were as natural as having eyesight), the real question is, for anyone who claims to believe: Why do you believe?

Second, I don’t think my case is at all unusual in that I was raised, like so many other human beings throughout history, to accept the notion that there are supernatural conscious beings beyond the reality we perceive and observe, beyond the natural limits of the concretes available to us in our immediate experience. Behind everything I perceive, I was positively encouraged on a repeated basis to imagine that these alleged supernatural beings were controlling the levers of everything that moved and had its being before me. A critical factor in all this was that I had failed to realize that I was just imagining these things – I was more or less taught to believe that what I imagined was real; I was not taught to recognize when I was imagining. Instead of factual evidence supporting these beliefs, I was fed a nearly constant diet of unargued assertions and promises of threats and rewards: if I didn’t believe, damnation awaits; if I did believe, eternal paradise was waiting for me in the grave. Of course, kept safely out of view was the fact that these promises of threats and rewards were themselves based on things that I could only imagine. I could not perceive a hell with everlasting torment, but I could imagine it; similarly, I could not perceive a heaven populated by glorifying angels, but I could imagine it. Throughout it all, my failure to recognize that I was merely imagining all of these things was key to securing my psychological capture and keeping me hooked.

At a point in my life when I was most vulnerable, I re-affirmed the beliefs that were impressed on me as a child, committing myself to Christian worship and joining a fire-and-brimstone type of church. There I was engulfed by a community of devoted worshipers, many of whom took great interest in ensuring the success of my indoctrination. In a very short span of time, it was as though I had lost all my identity – my entire psychology was now off limits to my own judgments and choices. I no longer belonged to myself – indeed, there really was no longer supposed to be any I left. Immersion into the biblical program of the church stripped my spirit of everything I could call my own as it compelled me to take on a completely managed persona – a persona that I not only needed to maintain before the outside world, but most of all in my most private seclusions. It was systematic self-betrayal on the most visceral level possible. If I wanted something, my wanting it made it wrong simply because I wanted it. Wanting is of the self, it was explained to me, and the self is antithetical to the Christian god’s desires for the believer. Complete detachment from everything I had ever valued was non-negotiable. This was not a new life – it was a waking death.

No longer could I be focused on worldly achievements, like getting good grades in school, advancing at the workplace, or honing skills that would make me a better person. These were “worldly ambitions” that I was to eschew entirely. Success in “the world” could only mean that I was giving in to self, and that was not just wrong, but the very essence of wrong as such. While no teachings explicitly taught this, I was quickly learning that enjoyment of life was anti-Christian – someone who enjoys his life does not need to prostrate himself before god capable of casting him into hellfire, and I eventually learned that sanctity was essentially the measure of my willingness to deny any and all enjoyment of life. If I were still capable of any passions at all, it was clear that I could only focus them on keeping my god-belief fully inflated, a task that required constant huffing and puffing, beyond the point of psychological hyperventilation. And it was as exhausting as this sounds.

The teachings were clear: if the believer lets up for even an instant, “the enemy” could insert itself and establish dominance, robbing me of this relationship with the divine that I was supposed to consider precious and imperiling my soul. It was deathly serious. One could get the impression that the Christian god is so weak that merely entertaining some unrighteous notion would be sufficient to kick it out of its throne, but in fact the reality is that the indoctrination program is highly vulnerable to natural doubts which need to be countered and destabilized on a constant basis. The effort required to pacify the cognitive dissonance resulting from the conflicts between what I knew to be true and what the Christian devotional program required me to accept, was frightfully exhausting. This created essentially a kind of snowball effect, for every belief based on imaginary things required the fortification of another belief based on more imaginary things in order to protect it from doubt, setting in motion a perpetual tape-loop that relentlessly drove deeper and deeper wedges between my mind and reality.

The inner core of the doubts I was experiencing, I later learned, was the nagging recognition that the entire paradigm was built on things that I could only imagine and that sustaining the paradigm required focus on an endless series of distractions which would ensure that I never made that realization explicit. What was happening to me was the same mechanism involved when enjoying a novel being overlayed onto my experience of reality as such. When immersing oneself in a novel, a reader focuss on what he’s imagining – the characters, their developing personalities, their intentions and actions, etc., not on the fact that he’s imagining. Religious devotion habituates this practice to a paradigmatic level, at the level of one’s “worldview.” When believers encourage each other in hardship by saying, “the Lord will make a way,” the fact that they’re engaging in fantasy might as well be a million miles away – they’re so caught up in the delusion that what they have imagined is real that acknowledging that they’re imagining is out of the question.

I recall attending a gathering at the home of one of the church members one evening. The conversation somehow veered onto the topic of one of the member’s ongoing struggles with a non-believing co-worker, and the church member was emoting hysterically – as though she were at an altar call – about how she was so persecuted by the mere presence of this supposedly demonic individual. She was certain that this person was “possessed by The Devil,” and the other believers joined her in condemning this person – someone they had clearly never even met. She heaped all the evils of the world onto this person, who was not there to defend himself. One fellow worshiper started talking about how he could “see” this evil co-worker standing before the Christian god and being condemned to hell, and the others started describing the co-worker’s screams of agony and frantic efforts to confess and apologize while roasting away for eternity, taking turns as it were a kind of contest to see who could come up with the most creative portrayal. I sat back and observed this and was frankly horrified by the utter lack of empathy for another human being whom these people had condemned without any kind of hearing or trial. It was slowly dawning on me, more and more explicitly, that they were all engaging in appallingly cruel fantasies, essentially imagining another human being in unquenchable torment and clearly taking pleasure from the very thought of this. Mind you, these were people who considered themselves, as a result of their devotion to Christ, most pure and pious.

Later, as I reflected on that evening's conversation, I became more and more aware of the fact that they were clearly imagining what they described, for they were not providing eyewitness testimony – their testimony was confessional only in that what they described with delight was a window into their darkened souls. And it was not a great distance from this awareness to the observation that I, too, had been caught up in pious imaginations myself. Whenever I would pray, I would imagine that there was a supernatural humanoid named Jesus kneeling right beside me, hearing my every word and recording my every intention. I could not shake this realization that it was all imaginary – it was not a discovery that I could outrun or escape. I knew that I was far too conscientious to try to hide from this knowledge, but as a Christian I was doing my best to suppress these inconvenient truths in the irrationality prescribed by the faith. I knew, just as I knew that I was alive, that all this time I had been imagining the god I was taught to worship. And I also knew that the imaginary is not real. Which meant: what I imagined did not actually exist. And all the emotions – the fear, the cowering fear induced by such imaginations – were reactions to fantasies, not to reality.

At this point I reflected further back on my journey, and especially on my interactions with fellow worshipers, and noticed how casually everyone treated what they imagined as though it were solemn fact. There was no talk of epistemology beyond the usual allusions to faith and visions, both doorways to treating imagination as a means of knowing. Even when in the thick of Christian delusion, I had to restrain the natural wincing when I heard other brethren say things like, “The Lord wants me to [fill in the blank” or “The Lord has put it on my heart to [fill in the blank].” When I heard conversation of this sort, I would quietly think to myself, “How do they know this? Were they really receiving some kind of cosmic transmission from the supernatural, or were they essentially pretending to know things they really didn’t know?” The whole affair struck me as a total pretense, for the culture of the brethren encouraged members to state things as though they were knowledge when in fact they could not possibly know such things. They of course could not produce evidence supporting their claims, but would readily cite bible verses to substantiate any pronouncements they might make. Whatever the bible said (albeit under the approved interpretation) was treated as unquestionable truth, even though no one today could possibly explain how an itinerant preacher in first-century Judea could transform water into wine simply by wishing it. That doesn’t matter to someone under the spell of the devotional program, for it’s not really about knowing, but about believing what no one could possibly know to begin with. This is a mutilation of the mind: one could not possibly know what’s going on in the home two doors down from his own, but he can know without any epistemological method what happened outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago, and he can know the wants and intentions of an omniscient mind residing in a supernatural realm. Such noetic vanity is beyond absurd, and yet it is commonplace in the religious mindset.

These cues eventually began to add up, and they pointed to only one explanation: this whole thing is an elaborate lie. We’re conning ourselves, and in some cases very effectively. There were members of the church who had been there for upwards of 30 years, “mature in the faith” as they put it. Somehow they managed to remain submerged in the con game of the devotional program, going through the motions, affecting the approved outward persona, showing up to church on time and able to recite all the right bible verses, but in effect they were just living in the shadows – just there, occupying until the appointed time. They were warm, polite and friendly when you’d talk with them, but when not engaged they appeared to be little more than cadavers, staring blankly into a void, their faces overcome with an emptiness that signaled no one was really home. They reminded me of domesticated cattle, and they represented to me what I would eventually become if I stayed on this path. Living a lie will put enmity between you and reality, a struggle that can only end in defeat, and the outcome will be the lifelessness I observed in these apparently wholesome people. The piety was all a mirage.

Thus, it was pretty much like waking from a bad dream that I unfroze my mind from the death grip of the Christian devotional program. The Christian bible says that the truth will set you free. I had discovered a most fundamental truth that I had resisted recognizing all that time, namely that my imagination had been weaponized against my own mind and that all the fears that kept me in line with the devotional program were based on things that were only imaginary. Once I realized this, I faced a choice: go with the truth, or try to submerge myself once again back into the Christian delusion. I realized that if I were going to be honest, I would have to walk away from the delusion once and for all, which is what I did.

Naturally, my pastor was beyond disappointed. He called me one last time to get me to coax me into coming back to church and confess all my sins. I explained that my real sin was treating what I was merely imagining as though it were real. He was speechless and abruptly ended the call. This fish had gotten away.

But that’s really not the end of the story. In fact, that was just a new beginning. I was for a time in a kind of limbo, essentially faced with the task of re-learning how to understand reality and enjoy my life, to get comfortable with the prospect of living once again. I knew that Christianity was false – worse than false, it was a form of death worship. Paul Washer of HeartCry Missionary Society gets it completely right when he states: “It is really what Jesus said: die and give your life to Him. Die." Deep down, I wanted to live, and it was my desire to live that was utterly incompatible with Christianity. But recognizing this was not enough to put me on the right path. I had jettisoned a completely negative worldview – now I needed a positive philosophy. It was not long after this that I was browsing in one of the aisles in a used bookstore that I caught a glimpse of a title - For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand. Best $2.95 I have ever spent.

by Dawson Bethrick


Robert Kidd said...

Good evening, Dawson.

you said: "Theism is acquired, a learned habit, a consequence of leaving the distinction between the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness entirely implicit and not explicitly grasped and applied to one’s knowledge of reality."

The Sceptics may not believe in a god but they leave the same distinction entirely implicit. They say that we can't be certain of anything because we can't solve the problem of hard Solipsism. They think that because they can imagine that they are a brain in a vat hooked up to wires feeding them false images that it is a real possibility that needs to be taken seriously.

I had a similar experience in Church to yours, though I didn't make the connection that I was imagining everything the minister was teaching. I was too young.

I was seven years old and sitting in the pew bored out of my skull. The preacher was Talking about Adam, Eve, and their sons and then he spoke of Cain and Abel's wives. I awoke from my stupor and looked around and everyone was just listening and accepting it. So as soon as the minister finished, I was up and at the podium asking where the wives came from. I don't remember what he said exactly but it was something to the effect of well it's just a story, you shouldn't be thinking too much about it and just have faith and go get some cookies with the other kids. I was expecting a real answer. I realized right then that I couldn't rely on others to tell me what was true, I had to know for myself. I guess I owe a debt to that minister because it was his flippant response and the willing acceptance of all those around me, that put me on the path to becoming an atheist and led me eventually to rational philosophy. I thought about it for years and years and had pretty much come to the conclusion that I was an atheist. It was your article How Theism Violates the Primacy of Existence that finally did it for me. After I understood what it really meant that was the end of any chance that theism was true. up until that point, the primacy of existence was just words in a book but I had not applied it to my thinking about other things.

I owe you a debt of gratitude too.

Thanks for all you do.

Robert Kidd

Jason mc said...

Good post! Planning to put together a reply to Michael Brown's question myself. No religion ever embedded its claws into me particularly deeply, but I'll have a few things to note.

I actually met Michael Brown once. He did a debate here in London with a Muslim, over bible prophecy. He repeated a refrain I've heard from several Christians: the assertion that I'll eventually convert, after studying enough. Perhaps I look the studious type, and I'm older than I look. The conversion stories with which I am familiar feature, usually, at the time of conversion, younger men.

Short answer for why I'm an atheist: I grew up. (I might also be borrowing that line from you, Dawson!)

Watch this space!


James P. Caputo said...


My life journey dovetails with yours, but took several turns before I could liberate myself from the imaginary world that is Christianity.

I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. As a child I implicitly knew something was amiss with this community and their beliefs, but lacked the philosophical sophistication to identify what it was. I was ostracized by the community as a teenager because i was pursuing a career in the performing arts. Since I inextricably linked morality to the Bible, I spent the next years largely as a solitaire Christian. Then at the age of 25, while singing with San Francisco Opera, I met a Jehovah’s Witness elder who befriended me and introduced me to some of the then members of the Watchtower governing body. He sensed my earnestness and love of the good and promised me that if I got baptized he could secure my acceptance in the community by dint of these well-placed men whom he knew on a first name basis. I got baptized that winter and was questioning the internal logic and claims of the cult before the water could dry from my body. Three months later I ceased attending services - and 3 years later I was publicly excommunicated as an “apostate” for having had a private conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness elder in a hotel lobby in Japan in which I expressed my misgivings with The Watchtower and its teachings. I have been summarily shunned by my Jehovah’s Witness family and all my lifetime friends ever since. I was 33 at the time. I’ll be 57 this June.

I still largely functioned within the Christian template over the next three years as I hopped from one Protestant Church to another. Convinced that “sola scriptura” led to epistemological mayhem, I took up studying Christianity historically and became enamored with The Catholic Church for whom I was working at the time as a professional cantor making a pretty decent living. The beauty of Catholicism is that it can give the imaginary a very philosophical gloss. After all, this is the institution whose clergy are responsible for baptizing Aristotle, spearheading scientific discoveries and founding the modern-day university. I kept some pretty heady academic company during this period. I was baptized Catholic in my late 30s.

Catholics overtly celebrate “The Catholic imagination.” I didn’t know at the time, but this would be the Achilles Heel of my faith. I spent the next year imagining the saints gathered around the altar at the mass, the whole church worshipping before God as bread and wine literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus by the act of the priestly consecration, imagining my sins being pardoned as I whispered the act of contrition in the dark confessional.

But in less than a year I was psychologically collapsing in on myself. Toggling between reality and the imaginary was making me mentally unwell for the first time in my life. I literally felt like I was losing my mind. So I distanced myself from the Church and a coterie of Catholic converts - all of whom were really fine people in terms of character and intellectually impressive.

In debates with Catholics I started to resent philosophy given its use by Catholics as the handmaiden of theology. This attitude toward philosophy persisted for about two years until I stumbled into a used bookstore near Yale University and picked up a book titled “Philosophy: Who Needs It. I read the first five paragraphs and was convinced I had to do an about-face on my view of philosophy. Thus started a journey that has resulted in ever growing certainty and mental wellbeing. For the first time ever my mind was not at war with the reality it perceived.

Anyway, that is my story in broad strokes.

Alexander Sterling said...

Wow that's profound. I never believed, and immediately got the strong impression the pastor was lying or trying to emotionally manipulate me. Lately, on a self-imposed hiatus from anything contentious for my blood pressure, I'll see believers doing their 'bootstrapping belief in the face of zero evidence shtick' and it genuinely bugs me. The imaginary aspect mentioned here really sheds light for me on a dynamic that really gets under my skin. People certain of nothing more than that this entity exists without the faintest notion of what role their imagination could be playing in it all. I recently read about the sightings of the Virgin Mary in Egypt and as my unconscious was working on what that might look like I daydreamed an image of her as I stared at my computer monitor. Really annoys me how the majority of the population doesn't seriously entertain the hypothesis that their unconscious has anything to do with the 'evidence' for God. 'Paradigmatic imaginative content' really describes well the kind of self-propelling effort believers engage in.