Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why I am not not an atheist.

I never had the experience religious people call a "loss of faith" - did I once believe in God? Yes. Would I consider that belief as having FAITH? No, not at all. As a child I had absorbed this kind of common ontology from my culture, from friends and family. There was the soul stuff that belonged to God forever, and it would always be happy. And there was the body-stuff that belonged to the Devil, and if you let him, he would grab onto your soul stuff by convincing you to do bad things (back then it was things like smoke, drink, talk back to your parents and what have you - later it would be sex and further unthinkable soul staining activities). If the Devil managed to get hold of your soul stuff he would take a perverse and, critically, inexplicable pleasure in torturing you for eternity. A strange pastime to be sure, but surely justified by the fact that the Devil is evil through and through? And what's more, God - the intelligence that created EVERYTHING in 6 days (remember, he rested on the 7th) - is, psychologically, as one dimensional as the Devil; being as good as the Enemy is bad.

But the story of God and the Devil wasn't a particularly important part of my background beliefs, it was quite like my belief that if I dropped something it would fall to the ground, or that my father would be able to protect me from any variety of hulking threats.

Nothing particularly special.

If anything, God was a drag because, occasionally, my mother would decide that her children needed some of that old time religion - so we would all dress up and spend a few hours kneeling and intoning prayers that we didn't know at all - reading out of prayer books and trying to follow along with the well practised cadence of the parishioners. If we were lucky they would serve biscuits and weak tea after the service.

When I was a little older and my friends started taking religion seriously, I would occasionally decide to take my religion "seriously" - so I would kneel at the foot of my bed and say my evening prayers. Bless me father ... no, don't know that one ... Hail Mary ... don't know that one either ... Please God could you make everyone in the world happy. Amen. And that would be it, I would be in bed dreaming of building a time machine or of one day kissing a girl. But these spurts of religious interest never lasted more than a day or two.

I was never really invested in God, and - despite protests from the pews - I never really got the sense that God was very much invested in me, and WHY that was so would become clear soon enough. I must have been about 20 when I finally realised the centrepiece of our common-onotology was nothing but a trick of the light.

God, it turned out, was made up.

This wasn't at all a violent realization. There was no anger in me, no feeling of betrayal, no regret at having grown up with a lie. For me it was like waking up. I couldn't remember just when it happened, but there I was awake, stretching, and happy to be alive.

Perhaps I was a little giddy, a little uncertain, as we are when we first swing ourselves out of bed, but I was fully conscious and ready to live - even if I was a little disappointed that "living" now meant something quite different to the endless, actually infinite, stretch of time I thought I had in front of me.

My realization that, perhaps, there was no god was not accompanied by anything other than a shrug and a shudder.

I think that this is where my experience may differ a little from some of my friends'. Having never been weighed down by religion, I never felt that "escaping" from it was any more significant than giving up any other false belief - crucially, I felt no accompanying sense of "freedom" from a morality that had been imposed from above. For my moral self, the day I gave up believing in god was like any other day - it was my epistemological self that had lost a little weight.

But why am I angry?

I don't want to be angry - I don't possess the kind of personality that's driven by conflict - conflict, I confess, makes me feel slightly nauseous. I honestly want to live my life as well as I can, as virtuously as I can. I love my wife, I love my family, I feel compassion for the Congolese (to mention a slightly less immediate and more abstract emotional and moral engagement with the world - this kind of example is easily multiplied though).

I don't want to be angry - I say it again because I truly mean it - but I have to be. I have to be because there are people who tell me that my non-belief in god means, almost necessarily, that I am morally deficient. There are people who tell me that my belief in evolution is merely a thinly veiled excuse for an ethical free-for-all, no accountability, no morality, no consequences. Atheism and the belief in evolution are, apparently, nothing but a soul in rebellion.

This is what I can't understand though - my experience (and I'm hardly the only one) manifestly attests to the fact that one can give up on religion without giving a moment's consideration to the morality of it all, for my religion fell from me with the merest shrugging of the shoulders. I felt no more or less moral after giving up my belief in god.

It's not even that I'm concerned with the ultimate-truth-of-the-matter - whether or not there is some kind of ultimate answer that is there to fill in the void left by god is irrelevant to me - like Borges I am interested in and distrustful of almost everything, if that makes me an ol' time sceptic, so be it (although I don't think I am).

What makes me angry is people telling lies. Anybody who has ever opened their mouth to foul up the air with the nonsense that without god there is no meaning, no value, is lying about me and about all my fellow atheists. Our lives, projects, concerns, and loves are no less meaningful than those whose lives are informed by religion. Our lives are no less moral than those whose set of beliefs include the dubious - and generally comfortably vague - belief in an all knowing, all powerful, shockingly one dimensional being that, somehow, created them and the world around them and then magically invested it with meaning, with value.

Without these lies I would not be an atheist, I would just be a guy who happens not to believe in one of the many gods who have met their demise at the hands of time - and so I am forced to either accept these falsehoods, or argue back with all my might. Showing that my life is meaningful, ethical, valuable in spite of my non-belief.


  1. Nice piece! I also sometimes wonder how and when exactly it was that I realised there was no God because I think it might be useful if someone ever asks me or starts questioning my morality (which as you point out above does occur quite often with the religious) but I can't, and I think my reason is probably very similar to yours. Although, I do remember feeling really dissapointed in 'grown ups' at that point, I remember thinking how could so many older people that I trusted still believe in this. For me it was a pretty normal realisation. Like when you realise Santa isn't real: you know there is something fishy going on what with all the talk of sleighbells, reindeer and chimneys (in JHB?) so when you finally click, it's not such a huge deal. So moving on and discovering that the Christian god doesn't quite add up felt like a pretty standard realistion that I imagined everyone would start catching up with eventually, but obviously others have more religion forced upon them from a younger age and this makes it pretty hard to cast off.

  2. very well explained Blaize :)

    I just remembered all the chat's you me and Bryan had about this very subject...

    Iain, i believe we had very similar thoughts and questions - about the fact that our "older people" still believed that it is all true :)

    I still struggle with that very thought till today.. I mean when will people wake up and smell the coffee..


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