by RICHARD PACKHAM
I have often been asked to tell the story of how I became an atheist.
The short - and perhaps somewhat flippant - answer would be: I was born that way. And that's the truth.
I am using the word "atheist" to mean someone who does not have a belief in God. And that's exactly the way I was born, as were all of us, I suspect.
But that is not the story that I have been asked to tell, and it would not be the complete story, either, since within days after my birth, my very devout Mormon parents started to make a believer of me, by taking me to church to have me "blessed" by the elders and given a Christian name. From then on, until well into my adulthood, I was trained to be a theist, that is, a believer in God. It was a very thorough and time-consuming process, and very effective. Until I was about 27 years old, I was a devout believer in God, as the Mormons understand God. And then I began to return to the "religion" of my birth.
The story of how I came to leave Mormonism I have told elsewhere, so I won't repeat that story here. But it will be helpful here to say that I only came to realize that Mormonism was not true when I undertook to demonstrate that it WAS true. The more I searched for explanations to the contradictions and problems of Mormon theology and history, the more problems I found, until I realized that Mormonism was a structure of beliefs and a web of false history that could not possibly be of divine origin, but rather had all the earmarks of something terribly human, trying to pass itself off as from God. I certainly was not biased against Mormonism: I wanted very much for it to be true. But it turned out to be glaringly false. As I later stood back from Mormonism and viewed it more from a distance, that falseness became more and more obvious, and I was almost embarrassed at why it took me so long to see it.
My experience with Christianity and with belief in God has been similar.
I might add that in the forty years since I left Mormonism nothing I have learned - and I have studied and learned a great deal more - has made me think that I was wrong in leaving it.
In the years since then, I have continued my studies of religion, both in the narrow sense of studies of specific religions and their beliefs and practices, as well as in the broadest sense, that is, including the study of philosophy, logic, psychology, history (especially the history of ideas), mythology, linguistics, literature, sociology, physics, anthropology, geology, astronomy, and even the occult. In none of these fields did I become expert (except perhaps in literature and linguistics, which were my major fields in graduate studies), but I learned enough to be able to understand what writers on religious matters were saying, and to be able to decide whether they made sense to me. After all, it was a study of many of these fields while I was a Mormon that led me to realize the abject poverty of Mormon teachings in these subjects.
And in all these years, as religious friends (usually Christians) became aware of my subsequent loss of belief in God, as my rejection of Mormonism came to include a rejection of Christianity, they would urge me to reconsider: just because Mormonism was false, that didn't mean that Christianity was false, too. They inevitably would use the phrase, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!" (Somehow it never seemed an apt metaphor: God as the baby? Maybe they meant the Baby Jesus.)
One of the reasons I am writing this is to explain to those friends how I got this way, and why I am still without a belief in God.
Let me also say that I don't intend this to be a full-fledged argument for atheism. Others have done that already, and much better than I could (see, for example, George H. Smith's book Atheism: The Case Against God). I am just telling my own story, for what it's worth.
After I left Mormonism I still felt the need occasionally to "go to church." At the time I felt that it was a real need. I think now that it was just a long-standing habit. A friend was attending the local Unitarian church, which was an old, well-established church in that city, with a prominent minister. I began attending services there quite regularly, and even "joined." Joining the church merely involved giving them my name and address. I got a nice certificate and my name was on their mailing list. That was it. No baptizing, no catechism, no promises.
The minister had written several books with titles like "Liberal Religion" and "Religion Without Revelation." I bought them, and read them. It was basically a humanistic, non-theological message, and it appealed to me because it made sense, especially compared to the nonsense I had rejected in Mormonism. I was puzzled, though, that although the Unitarian church had no "creed" or "doctrine," it retained (at least this congregation did) all the trappings of Protestant Christianity, the hymns (with texts edited to remove any references to the "Savior" or other doctrine), the altar, the prayers, the form of much of the service. I couldn't see why one would reject all the doctrines of traditional Christianity, but keep the outer shell.
When I moved out of that city, after a few months, I simply did not go to any church any more, except to an occasional high mass, simply to experience the pageantry, the music, and the incense.
In my graduate studies, and afterwards, I had frequent occasion to study Christian history and thought. Nothing about it attracted me. It seemed to me to suffer from all the same problems that I had found in Mormonism. The theology made no sense. Its development seemed to be obviously similar to the origins and growth of other religions. Its morality, when studied as an ethical system, seemed very childish and immature when compared to the ethical views of the great philosophers. And, ultimately, the evidence for the historicity of its key events (the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection) seemed very flimsy. I rejected Christianity for the same reason I rejected Mormonism. It seemed to be just another man-made religion. Much older than Mormonism, of course, but fundamentally flawed with similar contradictions, dubious history, and a theology built up helter-skelter out of bits and pieces of superstitious folk-wisdom and ideas from other religions.
I examined other religions and religious philosophies. Islam was not attractive to me because, like Mormonism, it had a self-proclaimed prophet as its founder, and the Islamic way of life seemed to be terribly restrictive. It seemed to be an essentially Arabian religion, not universal.
Buddhism had great attraction for me. The life of the Buddha, and most of his precepts, seemed admirable and sensible in many ways. I began to study reincarnation, not just as presented by Buddhism, but in general. The fact that Buddhism stresses the ideal of becoming an integral part of the universe seemed to make sense. However, the asceticism of Buddhism, its complete rejection of the physical world (the only world we have) and the extent to which later Buddhism became formalized and corrupted bothered me. It surprised me somewhat to learn that Buddhists are essentially atheists - at least the idea of "God" does not play much of a role in Buddhist thought.
Hinduism in some of its manifestations holds much wisdom and beauty, especially in some of its scriptures. Many of its ideas, as translated by Western mystics into what often appears as "New Age" or Theosophy, or called disparagingly by Christians "Eastern Mystery Religions," I found fascinating and mind-opening. I could not accept any of it wholeheartedly, however, because so much seemed to be simply folk-beliefs and superstition.
As I studied psychology, including areas on the edge of science such as "parapsychology," and the history of science, I came to realize that all religions that I had studied were attempts to explain events and phenomena for which we have no natural explanation. Throughout mankind's history, when we could not explain why something happened, it was because some deity or devil made it happen. God, angels and Satan were simply the ancient substitute for the present-day function of scientific knowledge.
Why did the baby get sick? Why did the grass not grow? Why did the volcano erupt? Why did our enemies defeat us in battle? All these things occurred because we had displeased the gods. When good things happened - a miraculous recovery from illness, a victory, a good harvest - it was because for some reason the gods were pleased with us. Dreams, visions, hallucinations were interpreted as divine messages. All religions can be traced back ultimately to this need to explain the unknown and to control the vagaries of life. And religions survived because sometimes they appeared to work, and because we didn't know any better.
We have since learned the natural explanations for many things that used to be attributed to the whimsy of a deity. We have also exposed the errors of much which used to be accepted as fact on the basis of divine revelation, such as the geocentric universe, and the age of the earth. Even those who still believe in God must admit that the best course in the case of illness is to get the doctor to prescribe the appropriate medicine, not to ask the minister to determine how we have sinned and to perform a ritual sacrifice. Even Christians now put lightning rods on church steeples to prevent them from being struck, rather than simply praying to God not to burn the church down as punishment for sin (many churches still refused to use a rod as late as the 19th century!).
So it seems to me that God is rapidly losing his job as an explanation for things we don't understand.
The miracles testified to by believers in God seemed to me to suffer from too great a similarity to each other - Jehovah's and Jesus' followers produced miracles not materially different from those found in other religions - so how could they prove the authenticity of one version of God over another? Or are ALL the gods true? And their "religious experiences," their dreams, visions, raptures, visitations, voices - whether contemporary or testified to in ancient holy writ - all resemble the kind of thing that modern psychology studies under headings such as schizophrenia, paranoia, hysteria, delusion and brainwashing. Their evidentiary value for God's existence seems nil.
I think there is an additional explanation as to why the idea of God survived as long as it has, but it is somewhat cynical: ancient priests of all religions soon realized that their own livelihoods depended on the piety and devotion of the believers. Why should I pay God - through the priests - for his mercy, protection and favors to me, if I don't believe in God? It is very much in the practical interest of the priests to keep faith in God intact. (I readily admit that there are many selfless and devoted ministers of religion at work in the world, but I also know of some who pushed aside their doubts about the reality of God because they knew that it would make them unemployed if they should allow those doubts to surface.)
Similarly, I suspect that many professed believers have occasional doubts, but that they shove them aside when they consider that to examine those doubts might lead to the realization that they had spent their lives in a vain belief, using their time and means on behalf of a literal castle in the sky. This may be an explanation of why relatively few people become atheists at an older age - they've travelled too far on the theistic road to turn back.
We still, even with our best science and our best thinking, have many unanswered - or insufficiently answered - questions about our universe, about life, about strange phenomena we cannot yet explain. Of one thing I think I can be quite certain, based on humanity's long history of intellectual achievement: the answer to those questions is NOT "God." Even God, as espoused by most Christians, fails as an answer, because ultimately the Christian must admit that "we cannot really know God," "God is ineffable," "God is beyond our understanding," "perhaps in Heaven we will learn the answer," "God's ways are not our ways," and other such non-answers.
So, I suppose you can say that I became an atheist because I have seen no convincing evidence for the existence of God as claimed by the theists.
I am content to admit that many such questions may have no answer, at least no answer that I would be able to understand (hell, I don't even understand trigonometry!), or that will be found in the foreseeable future, that is, during my lifetime. In the meantime, I think the best policy is to be content with no answer at all to those questions, rather than to risk accepting a phony answer as genuine.
I am also quite willing to admit that our human knowledge of the universe is still limited, and that we may not be (in fact, almost surely are not) the most intelligent and advanced beings in the universe. There are obviously powerful forces at work in the universe, and perhaps intelligences, of which we may be unaware. But those forces and intelligences do not have to be different in basic nature from those forces and intelligences we know. That is, there is no reason to call them "gods" or "God," any more than the fish in my trout pond should consider me to be essentially different from it, simply because I have control over its world and am (hopefully) more intelligent than it is.
So I do not see any reason to have a belief in the kind of omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God that most Christians claim exists, because the evidence for such a being is insufficient and contradictory. That there are forces out there, and power, and perhaps intelligence, however, it would be arrogant to doubt. I just have no way of knowing them, or of identifying them. Nor does anyone else that I know of.
I have studied all the so-called proofs of God's existence, mostly as offered by Christians, since they seem to be the self-declared authorities on God. I have worked patiently and carefully through them all. All their proofs have serious logical fallacies. And I have as yet to see a convincing refutation of the numerous arguments by atheists that God (at least as described by Christians) cannot possibly exist. For excellent arguments on both sides, see The Secular Web: Arguments For God and, at the same site, Arguments for Atheism.
In all the offers of proof about God I find a terrible ignorance among believers - even on an elementary level - of the rules of evidence and logic, even on the part of people with impressive degrees. I was able to study the rules of logic and evidence as part of my training at law school. Those rules are not arbitrary rules, but sensible, down-to-earth, pragmatic methods of evaluating claims to the truth such as appear dozens of times a day in every courtroom in the world. They have been tested and refined over centuries, and by and large serve us well in determining the truth in the courts. If we are people with generally good practical sense, we probably intuitively use similar rules in our own lives every day, in shopping, in making business decisions, in solving problems large and small.
Why should we abandon those rules of evidence when evaluating religious claims? Why should we accept less evidence, rather than demanding more, when someone wants us to accept as fact the existence of an invisible being of an illogical nature and beyond our comprehension? Why should we fudge on the strict rules of logic in a religious discussion? Why should we allow ourselves, if we insist on such evidence and logic, to be branded as stubborn, evil, rebellious, proud, materialistic (all of these said with a condescending, pitying, pious sneer)? What virtue is there in being gullible? Which absurdity (of the many absurd descriptions of God) is it more virtuous to believe?
I would believe in God if God could arrange for some credible evidence of his existence to come my way. So far, that has not happened. I have to wonder why. The believer, of course, will say that I am stubborn, proud, too "learned." But God - if he exists - knows that is not true of me. Still, God remains silent. I have dialed, but there's no answer and no message on the answering machine. Should I try to have some hallucinatory experience? How would I know that it was not simply a hallucination? Therefore, I see no reason whatsoever to pretend that God exists.
I should also say something about death, I suppose, since many people assume that an atheist must believe that life ends abruptly and finally at death, and they are surprised when I say that I don't necessarily believe that. After all, the two ideas (God and life after death) are not necessarily connected. The early Jews, for instance, believed firmly in Jehovah, but had only the vaguest notions of any life after death. It was only in the century or two before Jesus, under the influence of other (pagan) religions, that the idea of immortality for human beings became at all popular among the Jews, and even then it was not a universally accepted belief (e.g., among the Sadducees). The Buddhists, on the other hand, believe firmly in life after death (reincarnation), but have no clear notion about God.
There seems to be considerable believable evidence that something of the human personality does, indeed survive the moment of death. That evidence is so varied, and from so many sources, that I am willing to accept it tentatively. I'm not 100% convinced, but I lean toward accepting it. It will not change my manner of living, either for better or for worse, because I think we should live our lives as best we know how with the evidence that we have, and whether we survive death or not would not change the way I live.
Theists are often surprised at how calmly atheists approach death, either actually or in talking about it. Death seems to me as natural a thing as birth, and nothing to fear (although the actually process of dying might in some cases be unpleasantly painful).
I called myself an agnostic for years, but I really think there is no difference between the atheist saying "I have no belief in any god" and the agnostic saying "I don't know whether any god really exists." They seem to me to be intellectually equivalent.
Some atheists (sometimes called "positive atheists") say "I believe that god does NOT exist." This seems to me to suffer from the same intellectual arrogance and faith-based thinking as the statement "I believe that God exists." I think very few atheists who have really thought about it take this position - it turns atheism into a religion.
I would not want everyone to be an atheist. The believers are probably correct when they say that it is only a belief in God and man's accountability to God that prevents them from robbing convenience stores, romancing the neighbor's wife, and kicking the dog. I believe them. I am glad that they have a belief in God to keep them in line.
Atheism is not inherently evil, any more than religion is. Both belief and non-belief can be used for either good or evil, and have been. So I tend to get annoyed when believers try to "take the moral high ground" and ignore the bloody history of religion as it has tried to promote belief in the "true" god. Atheism is a view held by some of the kindest and most loving people in the world, whose greatest fault in the eyes of many is their skepticism, their stubborn refusal to be flummoxed, and whose wholehearted open-mindedness is too often overlooked and not often enough imitated.
- Richard Packham
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© 1998 Richard Packham Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)