With even the title of this blog I wonder how many people will bother to read it. It’s still not popular today and can even leave a bad taste in the mouth of some people that I know to be quite intellectual given the pomposity of many atheists today. However, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about atheists and I also wanted to sort of describe my personal journey, and then in two additional posts talk about what annoys me about what people think about atheists and also even make some complaints about atheists that are often seen on public forums and social media. So for anyone who chooses to read this, I thank you.
I tend to start with the bare bones, but I think this time I would like to start more personally. Nevertheless I think it is worth starting out by simply defining the term atheist as I see it and will refer back to this definition later. Theism is belief in the existence of a deity or deities. The dictionary definition also adds in things like someone who believes in a god or gods as being responsible for the universe and also having a personal relationship with his/her creation. The last part is arguable, as many might say that someone who believes in a god who sort of just passively watches is also a theist. The word atheism thus simply put is the lack of a belief in a god or gods. The best analogy that I think can be used to describe theism vs. atheism is to say it is the same as between symmetry and asymmetry. Something is symmetrical or it isn’t. Someone believes in a god, or they don’t. Now on with the story.
As I have told many friends in the past, my questioning of religion happened well before my questioning about God. So I’ll start with religion since this tends to be tied with the concept of a God, but certainly doesn’t have to be. As a biracial child I am fortunate to have both sides of my family love and respect me. And it is this love and respect that first raised doubts in me that religion had some problems. Not that I could think intellectually about it as a child, but I remember thinking:
“Here are two sides of my family from completely different cultures and they were born into two very different stories about spirituality and God (Christianity and Sikhism), and they both seem to love me very much. I saw them all as good people.”
When from the very outset of your life you know good people of two different faiths it tells you that goodness is not something contingent upon a particular faith. And as I grew older and learned more about the faiths in particular, it seemed clear to me that since both stories can’t be right, then both stories must be wrong.
Certainly also having an impact on me is when I gave my heart to Jesus Christ, because I was told that if you prayed hard enough it will happen. Not sure why they tell kids that, but in retrospect I think it is quite cruel. So what did I want? I wanted my alcoholic dad to not drink. I think we can all agree that this is something pretty normal and somewhat virtuous for a kid to pray for. On top of that it’s something that I kid will pray for pretty hard; really hard actually. I was in lock, stock, and barrel. I was 12 at the time so I can remember pretty vividly what I was like. Still being a kid, when the heart of a child decides to do something there is no hesitation, no doubt. He believes. Kids believe with so much more certainty and of course that is how a kid’s brain is designed; to take in information regardless of its truth and believe it. So for a good year, I prayed and I prayed. Well I am sure you can guess the outcome. When the religious people you know tell you that something is true and it is not, it feels like a betrayal and it is hard to believe them again. And when you ask them why it doesn’t work, either they have no answer or they tell you “just to keep having faith” or in the worst case they tell you “it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough” or “God only listens to boys who are being good Christians”. This is a terrific message isn’t it? Now it’s somehow your fault that your dad is still drinking. Children of alcoholics already internalize their parent’s drinking and this reinforces it at the spiritual level.
At this point I am going to skip over a lot, because it would require going over all that I have learned in school and in life, and it’s a long story. I simply wanted to explain the things that I thought were important in sending me on my path towards atheism. It was a long journey and for most of my 20’s I still believed in God but sort of formed my own definition that I was comfortable with. It was peaceful in some ways to believe in a God because it was helpful when things were out of my control I could simply say to myself “It is in God’s hands”. At some point though you realize you are using God as a tool for your own peace of mind and so I had to say to myself, “Well Swarn, what does all that you’ve learned about the world and its history really tell you? There is no god.”
With that being said I knew that I was in a very unpopular spiritual position in this world. It’s not something that I cared to share because I didn’t even feel intellectually equipped for the possible confrontations with people who were worried about my soul. I felt I needed to get even better educated. Since then I have delved into more books about anthropology, evolution, history, psychology in trying to understand the nature of belief, and also trying to understand how the brain works in general. When I add this to my formal education that is steeped in physics I can say for certainty that no particular religion had all the answers even if there was a god. I came out as an atheist around the time that I read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion as he inspired me to brave. We fortunately live in a society now where one can be an atheist and not get burned at the stake so I feel quite grateful for that. Moreover there is a lot of discrimination against atheists and while atheists feel no need to preach and thus keep to themselves, there is value in organizing and being vocal. I’ll let you look that up if you like, but suffice to say there are 6 states still in this nation who explicitly state in their constitution that an atheist cannot hold government office. I even came out to my mother who is a devout Christian. She has always given me freedom to by my own person and I thought it was better she know who I truly am than to think of me as illusion. I also do not want to try to imply that as atheist I face the type of discrimination that homosexuals face for who they are, so when I say “came out” I make an analogy only in terminology not in circumstance.
Stay tuned for Part II