Ok, let me first say that this topic may be NSFW (not safe for work) because I’m going to mention things teenage boys do in their bathroom and also talk about religion which some people might find uncomfortable having on screen in a work context.
I guess the title should be self explanatory. I’m a atheist. I don’t believe in a divine all powerful deity. I don’t believe in heaven or hell (except in this world). I don’t believe in life after death. I don’t believe in anything which requires me to withhold questions and the search for evidence and just accept things I’m told on faith.
But it wasn’t always so… It may surprise you to know that I actually seriously considered a life in the (catholic) priesthood.
As a teen growing up in an Ireland still in the throes of moving towards secularism and a separation of state from the claws of the catholic church, it was still true that there was a very strong religious influence and indeed involvement in education and some of the strongest personalities in my life were priests, nuns and christian brothers, the latter two groups who were heavily involved in the teaching profession.
I was (and still am) a dreamer and that aspect of my personality conjoined with the heavy religious influences formed a certain fervour in my pre-pubescence and early puberty even to the point where I began to imagine that I was going to be “chosen by God” in some way.
At this time in Ireland there were a raft of “statues moving/crying/bleeding/speaking” events – which, of course, poured into my immature imagination like water into parched ground. I still distinctly remember being in Church for Sunday Mass, or other events and spending the whole time almost in a trance, staring at the statues around me willing them to move. I would be chosen!
Needless to say, I didn’t see any moving statues. No burning bushes or visitations from angels, no secrets from God passed on by a spectral Virgin Mary or the Metatron. Nothing.
What I did discover, however, were two things: Science and Girls!
I adored (and still adore) science. I’d always been a “brainy” kid and science geek but while most of your childhood scientific understanding is based on simplifications to explain things you’re not yet capable of comprehending, once you get into your teens and secondary level science education, the gloves come off (somewhat).
I took to it like a duck to water. I read voraciously on physics, biology, cosmology, evolution etc. and was far ahead of the curriculum.
More than anything I loved the fact that I was encouraged to ask questions and I did. I asked so many questions of my teachers that they would eventually have to ask me to stop or wait till after class when they’d enlighten me. I loved that there was a discipline and that ambiguity was something which was welcomed as an opportunity to “dig into it” and increase our knowledge.
This was the case in most classes, science, the classics, geography, history and civics. Of course there was one class where this was not the case. You were discouraged, in fact, from asking questions particularly where they exposed ambiguity. You were told to accept things on faith without evidence or even in the face of compelling counter-evidence. Religious Education quickly became the class I loathed the most because far from enlightening me, it presented a narrow dogmatic view of the world which I could not come to terms with.
For a finish the only questions it did raise in me was: “How can this be right? How can God give me these questions and not give me any answers?”
And then, as I say, there were girls…
As most (hetrosexual) men will know (but rarely admit), the mind of a teenage boy is divided into two sections by raging hormones. There’s a section for Football, Cars, Playstation, TV, (loud&angry)Music etc. which is about the size of a pea. The rest of the brain has one focus: Girls. Girls. Girls. Culminating, of course in thinking about sex with Girls.
I don’t know if that sex urge is quite as compulsive and all encompassing for girls but I get the strong sense it’s not as overwhelmingly absorbing for the teenage girl as it is for the teenage boy.
Ultimately that urge sees it’s release in masturbation, at least until one is lucky enough to persuade a girl to actually let your sweaty hormonal hands near her. Let’s not be coy. We all do it and Teenage boys do it compulsively.
And so there I was. I found my self wanting, no, needing to (as was the wording from my religious educators) “abuse myself” in response to normal hormonal urges from my growing body. Of course I was being taught by the religious caste that this is wrong. I will be dirty in the eyes of God, the saints, my dead relatives and the world. I will be as a leper: Unclean!
But nothing stops that physical urge so instead of pushing me to abstinence (that fairytale concept that only someone totally deluded can believe will be possible for teens) the effect of this was to wrack me with guilt about how I was sinning. Every time I did it I was convinced that God,the saints, dead relatives and pretty much my entire ancestry were looking down on me from heaven frowning and tutting.
What I couldn’t understand and what I wasn’t allowed to question was why would a loving entity (as God was portrayed, despite his genocidal megalomaniacal tendencies from the old testament bible) who “made me” put me under such a rack of physical compulsion versus emotional guilt? Surely that can’t be right? What being, worthy of my worship, faith and devotion, with omnipotence and omniscience to boot could possibly see that as a proper way to raise “his children”?
So on that rack I found myself. Wracked by guilt as a consequence of a normal human growth process and it’s effect on my psyche and physical being. Science was telling me about the world in a systematic way, layering evidence on top of evidence, theory on top of theory in a logical manner which encouraged question and challenge. My questions about religion, God and the world of the divine were met with dogma and a dictate against asking questions. Accept and shut up.
This heady combination of hormones, guilt, sex and science created a crucible from which a new me (painfully) emerged.
When I thought about the world around me and all it’s complexity, and tried to marry that with the concept of a Deity which spontaneously emerged (nay, always existed – outside of space-time) I couldn’t. What process, akin to the processes I could observe in the world and which science gave me a framework to understand, had led to the creation of this being? Ultimately what I realised was something which Richard Dawkins later gave me some names for: “The ultimate 747 gambit” and “The Skyhook versus the Crane argument”.
I concluded that the God I’d been taught about was a mythical crutch and that I, as an enlightened (by science) human being could cast it off and limp on in the world as myself with only myself to account for my actions.
What a liberation this realisation was. I became enlightened in a way which I never could have imagined. I no longer had to blinker myself into thinking about the world in a particular way. I could think about the world and live in it in any way I chose and any way I could concieve.
Surprisingly, however, I was also struck by what an enormous responsibility it is to be an atheist. You and you alone are responsible for everything you do. There is no higher moral-authority to which you can delegate responsibilty. You must bear the weight of every action and decision you take and make. If you think about it, that’s a pretty heavy burden.
However, the benefits outweigh the cost. I’m continuously, even to this day, struck by an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder at the incredible universe which we have evolved in and with. I would willingly live a thousand lifetimes just to see every wonder which our planet alone has to offer, let alone the immensity of the universe of which we’re a microscopic speck. My most fervent wish is that as a parent, I encourage my daughter to investigate in wonder, and question, in awe, the world as much as she desires.
In closing, I should point out that I in no way wish to push my trip on you. This is merely a piece of autobiography. I believe every person is a unique individual and therefore entitled to their own beliefs and faiths (and dogmas). Much of my own family are still deeply religious and even my wife, though not “religious” is a believer. It’s a wonderful world and however it was made, by God’s hand or other forces, what’s important (to me) is that we share in it and with each other in peace and harmony.